By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
Happy New Year 2013! We are in a New Year and many of us are working on keeping up with the New Year’s resolutions that we made just a few days ago.
I have not made any New Year’s resolutions for 2013 because I am still working on my New Year’s resolution for 2012, which was to learn more about the Village Movement in Guyana.
The Village Movement is where Africans moved away from the plantations where they had been enslaved and bought abandoned plantations after the abolition of slavery by pooling the money they had earned (grudgingly paid by their former enslavers). The first of those villages was Victoria Village on the East Coast of Demerara, although Buxton is the most famous.
By the time the British colonial government had managed to pass prohibitive laws to slow down and eventually stop the Village Movement, Africans had bought and established more than 100 of these villages. This is a part of Guyana’s history that sadly is not taught to students in Guyana today.
I spent the first few days of 2013 visiting relatives I had not seen for more than 30 years and some I had never met before. It had been at least 14 years since I made a flying visit to the town of McKenzie, Linden, up the Demerara River. My first working experience happened in McKenzie when I was a student teacher many decades ago learning from some of the best: Jean Sampson, Ms. Ogle, Ms. Jordan, etc.
My best friend and colleague was Maylene Willis (later Campbell). We gravitated towards each other because we were from out of town, Maylene from Buxton and I from Stanleytown, Berbice. In December, 1998 I spent two days in McKenzie attending the wedding of my cousin, Joanne McLeod. Joanne and her family now live in the United Kingdom.
On this occasion (2013), I was visiting Linden with more on my mind than family connections and fun. I was a woman on a serious mission. I was determined to speak with at least one elected official for the area and some of the citizens of a town that was once the economic driving force of the entire country.
McKenzie used to be the place for any ambitious young (and not so young) Guyanese. They came from every part of Guyana: Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo. There were even people from several Caribbean countries reaping the benefits of mining bauxite in Linden. People from Antigua, Barbados, Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, etc., could be found living in McKenzie and working for the Canadian-owned mining company, Demerara Bauxite Company (DEMBA), which was owned by a subsidiary of the Aluminum Company of Canada (ALCAN), which was itself a subsidiary of the American bauxite giant, Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA).
Some of the elders in the community claim that many of the workers from Caribbean countries had been stowaways on banana boats and made their way to a life much more lucrative than they could ever have experienced in their countries of birth.
During my recent visit to McKenzie I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with one of the elected officials of Region 10 in Guyana. The McKenzie area is known as Region 10 and the Regional Chairman, Sharma Solomon, and Members of Parliament, Vanessa Kissoon and Pastor Rennis Morian, are the elected officials. I had the distinct pleasure of chatting with Kissoon. And talk about six degrees of separation – it turns out that her mother and I were young teachers at St. John’s Primary School in Sparendaam, East Coast Demerara many decades ago.
That was a surprise because I had no idea my former colleague had any children. It turns out she has four, of whom the MP for Region 10 is her eldest daughter. Apart from the family connection with my former colleague, I found that Kissoon was very gracious in the midst of her hectic schedule as she and the women of a historic Guyanese organization prepared Christmas hampers for some residents of the area who are in need.
Each Christmas hamper included household items as well as our famous Guyanese “black cake”, beautifully decorated by PNC stalwart and elder, Shirley Williams. This energetic elder baked 25 cakes, which helped several people celebrate a traditional Guyanese Christmas. The recipients included the mothers of the three men who were killed by police (as they participated in a peaceful protest) on July 18, 2012.
The National Council of Women (NCW) was founded on October 5, 1957 and is the women’s section of the former PNC (now PNCR). Kissoon, as chairperson of the Region 10 NCW, is also one of the youngest MPs serving in the Guyana legislature and is in her second term as a member of the opposition. The opposition “A Partnership for National Unity” (APNU) is an amalgamation of political parties that together holds a majority of seats. The People’s Progressive Party (PPP) Guyana government is a minority government.
Kissoon, who graduated from the Cyril Potter College of Education (a teacher training college in Guyana established in 1928) is a qualified teacher who taught secondary school before becoming involved in politics. She is the driving force (ably assisted by several women including Ann Archibald, Sandra Vantull, Fern McKoy and the indomitable elder, Shirley Williams) behind much of the activism evident in the women’s movement in Region 10.
The NCW of Region 10, which has been active since January, 2012, organized a march against police brutality in September, 2012. This march came in the wake of the murder of three African-Guyanese men in Linden (Shemroy Bouyea, 18; Allan Lewis, 46 and Ron Somerset, 18) and the killing of Shaquille Grant in Agricola and Dameon Belgrave in Georgetown.
Like the women of South Africa during the apartheid era who sang “Now you have touched the women you have struck a rock”, the women of the NCW were instrumental in organizing the protest in July of 2012 against the more than 100 per cent rise in the cost of electricity in Linden. There was widespread support for the protest which saw police open fire on peaceful unarmed protestors on July 18, 2012.
The murder of the three men in the Linden Massacre garnered worldwide attention and protests in support of the people of Linden as far away as the U.S., UK and Canada. Another group, the Mothers of Linden, came out of the protests (where citizens blocked several bridges) to bring attention to their plight. One of the blocked bridges prevented concession owners (which include many government ministers) from accessing their business interests. This hit the concession owners where it hurts – their pockets – and it is the main reason why the police were “sicced” unto the peaceful protestors. Any action which prevented the ministers from making additional money (on top of the very generous salary and perks they receive) would draw the ire of the police.
The University-educated working person in Guyana earns the equivalent of 38 Canadian dollars a month, while even junior government ministers receive the equivalent of 420 Canadian dollars a month. One Canadian dollar is worth 200 Guyana dollars. It has been reported that the former Guyanese president receives the equivalent of 1,473 Canadian dollars a month as pension.
The job of President of Guyana, with such a generous pension, must be a very sought-after position. I am tempted to move back to Guyana and apply for it.
Maybe that should be my New Year’s resolution for 2013. Happy New Year 2013!