Life in the bauxite days …as told by Walter Melville

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SLOUCHING on a Lazy Boy chair, clad in a T-shirt and a pair of khaki three-quarter pants even as he sported dark shades, the octogenarian Walter Melville reflected on his 34-year stint at the Demerara Bauxite Company in Linden, and this publication was fortunate to be speaking with him.His casual and relaxed disposition echoed the life of a retiree who was satisfied with his accomplishments and who had made provision for his wife and self to live out their lives in the peace and comfort they had steadfastly created.

Protected from the ravages of the midday sun and lulled by a calm east wind, Melville expressed how delighted he was to be part of the 100-year celebrations of bauxite mining in Region 10.

As one of the first workers to witness the manufacturing of alumina in the plant, he recollected the curiosity and enthusiasm that filled him on the very first day he had observed the process. Melville remembers that day like yesterday. He revealed that the Alumina plant commenced operations in 1960, and he was privileged to be among the first batch of workers taken to the plant.

“I was in one of the first batches of people they took on the train with Guyanese engineer Mr. Evan Wong, and we were selected to be trained in the whole bauxite-making process,” he said. “The memory I have is with this white stuff coming out from the end of the kiln, almost covering us. We had a bath of alumina dust, but that was not a bother since history was being created right then before our eyes. It was indeed the first time anything like that had happened in Guyana,” he proudly reminisced.

Melville shared anecdotes of his life before being employed by the bauxite company, which at that time was known as DEMBA (Demerara Bauxite Company), and how he evolved from being an insignificant lad to an executive of the company, and even town clerk of Linden.

Born on March 16, 1933, Walter Melville spent the beginning of his life in a little riverine village along the Demerara River. His father, whose goal was to provide a better life for his family of 11, migrated to Linden with the aim of seeking employment at the Bauxite Company. He was contracted as a supplier of wood from down river before being permanently employed.

“My father joined the exploring party (which) would search for bauxite reserves, and even though he did not have sound formal education, he always had a drive, and this pushed him to work his way up to (become) leader of that search party,” Melville said. His father died at the good old age of 104, while his mother died at 94 years old.

Being a former student of St. Aiden’s Anglican School, located on the Wismar shore, Melville said the bauxite company was only concerned with Mackenzie, and everything on that shore was company-owned.

“Wismar-Christianburg was outside the pale because they only catered for Mackenzie, as they had company houses for employees,” he revealed. Speaking of his own community, Watooka, the retiree said that during this time, Watooka along with surrounding communities — especially Richmond Hill — was reserved for the expatriates, and to get into the community one had to be in possession of a special pass.

As his father advanced in rank as a company worker, the family moved over to Mackenzie and secured a company house in Bulletwood Street. “We first went to Bulletwood Street, then we moved to Mora Street, then we finally settled at Retrieve,” he recollected.

Now a resident of Mackenzie, he was transferred to the Mackenzie All-Age School, where he later served as a pupil teacher.

The Bauxite Industry
Melville said that even though he enjoyed teaching, the need for progress lured him to the bauxite company. “People who were getting work in the bauxite company were handling a lot of money, and at that time teaching was $25.00 a month and persons whom I taught were “sporting me”, so I left teaching and joined the company in 1958,” he revealed.

His first position was that of an analyst of bauxite samples in the laboratory. As mentioned earlier, he was taken to the alumina plant, where he was trained and was later promoted foreman of the Precipitation and Calcination section of the plant. With his potential in the field noticeable, he was then promoted to General Forman in 1965. “I had opportunities to get other better-paying jobs, but somehow experimentation intrigued me and I wanted to be a part of it, so I stayed,” he said.

He confessed he didn’t have any regrets in so doing.

Melville was then transferred to the Personnel Office, where he progressed from Employee Relations Officer to Administrative Coordinator of the entire company. In 1971, the Bauxite Company was nationalized and became GUYBO (Guyana Bauxite Company); and in 1980 it became GUYMINE.

He abruptly resigned the position of Administrative Coordinator in 1992, after 32 years of working in various sections of the bauxite company. This resignation came after experiencing several clashes with the previous administration, one of which was occasioned because of the property he had bought from the company before it was nationalized. He subsequently served as Public Relations Officer and Town Clerk of the Mayor and Town Council of Linden.

The affable Melville said that with the significant decrease in bauxite production, the town could no longer be sustained by the company, and therefore diversification was needed for a stable economy. “I don’t have much knowledge about what is going on in the company now, but physically, the place has changed,” he posited.

After nationalization, the decline in production began, and even though he does not share the same view as others on the disadvantages of nationalizing the plant, it was the heavy politicizing of the company that resulted in this reduction.

“If we, as a people, could have developed a better focus of who we are and who we were, things would have been better, because exploitation of the area should not have been encouraged. I don’t think we understood sufficiently what nationalization would have meant for us,” he said.

Melville said he was using his retirement to get closer to God and his wife of 41 years. He enjoys playing games on the computer and keeping himself updated on current affairs.