An uncomfortable conversation on unity

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ONE People, One Nation, One Destiny. That’s Guyana’s national motto; the chief slogan which binds (or, at least, should bind) us together as a people striving to continuously forge a better society. But do we really practise “Unity”?

This past week, there was something called Guild Fest that was held at my university’s campus. Basically, it was a week filled with a plethora of activities aiming to give ‘freshers’ (new students, like myself) insight into UWI life. And with UWI being a regional university, it also sought to emphasise the regional and cultural integration as an indelible part of UWI life.

As part of Guild Fest, various country associations came out to represent. These associations are clubs where students from the countries could join and find a home away from home. Naturally, I found myself with GuySATT, or the Guyana Student Association in Trinidad and Tobago, as it’s officially called.

At Guild Fest, there was a night of Cultural Presentations, and as part of Guyana’s Cultural Night presentation, the association opted to craft a dramatic performance that integrated a bit of spoken word poetry. The overarching theme was “Ubuntu”, which pleads the case of “I am because we all are.” Basically, the performance sought to underscore the importance of erasing those divisions within Guyana’s plural society that exist primarily through racial lines.

To present the case for Ubuntu, it was believed that an “uncomfortable” conversation needed to be had. That uncomfortable conversation is, perhaps, one which many Guyanese shy away from or may seemingly approach it too aggressively. It is one that requires us to re-examine our history, however, and move away from parochial thinking.

I couldn’t help but feel, personally, that this uncomfortable conversation is one which we really need in Guyana. We are a blissfully diverse space, replete with a melting pot of distinct and unique cultures that shapes the total ‘Guyanese-ness’ of our society.

Our six peoples came at six different periods, under different circumstances. And naturally, it is understandable that these circumstances would have shaped our experiences and these experiences would have shaped our varying realities. Cognizant of this, it is also understandable why there would have been tensions among the ethnic groups in our society; we each had our struggles and we could not possibly fathom those of each other unless we experienced those for ourselves.

One might have thought that these tensions could have been put behind us in the 50s and 60s, as we strived for greater workers’ rights and, well, the freedom to make our own decisions. Moving away for the colonial system and starting to push for our independence required us to come together, to struggle for a common cause.

That common struggle did not erase those divisions, however. In fact, some might say that the two well-known proponents of this struggle, Former Presidents Forbes Burnham and Dr. Cheddi Jagan functioned to widen those divisions. Subliminally, these tensions still exist within our society and from then to now, I believe that the country, to a very large extent, has been split into the African and East Indian sections. This divide is one which causes many within the section to be micro-aggressive (or in some cases, just aggressive) towards each other.

Now, back to the Ubuntu presentation. The performance began by introducing the six ethnic groups and speaking a little on their contributions to Guyana. This was, however, rudely interrupted by the bickering of an East Indian woman and African man. These two, who were representations of the two largest ethnic groups in Guyana, were arguing with each other about which race made a greater contribution to Guyana’s development. This was done to set the scene to make the case for Ubuntu.

“Don’t y’all think it’s high time we stop this you versus me? It’s high time we stop this backward mentality,” GuySATT’s orator, Omari Joseph said. “We continue to forget the contribution each person made, no matter how small, that made this country great… We can’t hope for better without working for it as well.”

As a nation, we have a lot of healing to do, and GuySATT posited that this healing must include an acceptance or acknowledge of the individual contributions made by all ethnic groups, not just the East Indians and the Africans.

I felt that these were truly salient points that call for us to re-examine our history, not to forget about our struggles or contributions, but to understand that each experience was another building block in the story of Guyana.

Whether it is the Indigenous People, the Europeans, the Africans, the Portuguese, the East Indians or the Chinese- like Ubuntu says, I am Guyanese because we all are.