The Mae’s Schools Incident

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…Rooted in callous prejudice or pure ignorance?

I WAS reminded by my younger children who both attended school within the recent past about the timeline of this celebration of cultural dress in schools. This is a good idea to familiarise school children of different human variations with each other’s cultural construct.

The driving force that motivated that was ACDA’S push to place Emancipation Day on the national calendar some 25 years ago. As a founding member of that organisation, at its inception, the naysayers were all Afro-Guyanese who were certain that our kinfolk would never wear African attire, nor would they be concerned about their history.

We proved them wrong, and again wrong. Our efforts were complemented by the publication of the ‘Emancipation Magazine’ published by Free Press owned by then retired Brig. David Granger. And now, the following generation of 2018 Guyanese of all ethnicities, adorn their African-influenced attire in their day to day journeys.

Other organisations followed ACDA, Indigenous and Indo-Guyanese.The problem that developed at Mae’s is how we do things in Guyana. It goes like this: if it gets into the media–it’s done. Whatever else is necessary will fix itself. An opposition political figure has commented on the Mae’s incident, as clueless as usual to the topic, but not to his political PR, as is, the Mae’s non-recognition of the missing aspect of the issue.

So let’s flashback with the colonial background of Guyana. There are subtle but vicious biases about the origins of Guyanese against the promoted high culture of the coloniser that are still active in the subconscious perception. Thus, a project like ethnic-cultural costumes does require the comprehensive knowledge base-background of the development of costumes in the Guyanese must know the context of influences and adjustments based on geographic necessity.

None of this work was done towards informing the children of an entire generation, of the background of the costumes worn by the people who came to Guyana at different periods through a special public education programme. One reason is that by 1994 there was no effective Department of Culture with personnel that could have constructed such a presentation. And there isn’t one now that can effectively do it either, though there are people there who are willing to learn.

The study of costume and material is a very special area mostly developed for museums, the film industry, the high drama stage and the current areas of historical re-enactments featuring time period costumes, encouraged for the education of citizens in the first world and in some old world nations. Initiatives like the cultural day in schools are a great idea, but could always pose an unforeseen problem as occurred at Mae’s, because of the information void, the result of the absence of any hands-on initial management.

Popular costumes whether Indigenous, African, East Indian, or Bronze Age European where topless is authentic can be substituted by skin colour close fitting tops. The old-Guyana way where some other esoteric authority will fix it so don’t fret about it, has to go, as the old children’s game used to say “We have come to mend de waterworks”.

My personal experience with costume can be a necessary case study on the subject. When I decided to develop a career with the twin ancestral gifts of writing and art, doing illustrated storytelling, I naively began the tremendous journey into costume and clothing materials over millennia, which was financially demanding, because there’s no single book that covers the entire subject, and the study has to come before the payday, academic books are not cheap, old or new.

But it was a journey that has surprised and tutored me in numerous areas, with things we take for granted were not that way at all. In designing the character costume for ‘The Shadow of the Jaguar’ I learnt about ‘Bark Cloth’. I also learnt that for many cultures the female breast is not a sensual item, but sacred to the task of mothering the next generation of the tribe, so walking bare-breasted was not indecent nor unusual, not only in the tropics but in Europe also, before the emergence of Christianity, where, eventually by the 18th century the human body even slightly exposed became indecent and a symbol of heathens, pagans and primitive peoples needing to be civilised, but contradictory none of that was biblical. It, however, coincided with the age when clothing was manufactured for sale.

The art of weaving in Africa produced the exotic and popular Kente cloth among the Akan-speaking peoples. There are female designs and male and togas are handed down as part of an inheritance. The stuff we get is mainly rip-offs, cloth and clothing development occurred across the continents. In a recent publication I did, I had to visually capture the indigenous peoples coming to South America, specifically to our area in ‘THE MIGHTY ITANAMI’. They travelled from places like freezing Siberia and Mongolia.

So I had to research two costumes, that which was departed in and that which was the necessary settling attire suitable to the tropical rainforest that we are now accustomed to.
The development of cultural costume moved on different continents from animal skins to bark cloth, to silk, linen, wool, flax, cotton, etc. with various methods extracted from plants and herbs to provide colour and design and with painstaking distinctions for royalty as against commoner.

Our task is to either enlighten ourselves at all levels-politician, official, teacher and student-or in ignorance indulge in the blame game as the Mae’s incident has revealed. The immediate future must not be riddled with chasms that will impede on the construct of a more informed society and the economic opportunities possible.

Then let’s compile the data and have a website that all interested can explore in the context of all who came to these shores. Without a doubt, Culture, the Arts and Humanities are inseparable in the trajectory of national development and the green economy.