Viola Victorine Burnham

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“There is no such thing as death.
In nature nothing dies.
From each sad remnant of decay
Some forms of life arise.”
Friday morning October10, 2003.

Viola Burnham, wife of the late Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, the first Executive President of the Cooperative of Guyana, died after her struggle with cancer.

She was a teacher of Latin up to 1967; patron of the John Howard League; member of the Guyana Mental Health Association, Maternity and Child Welfare Committee, Hospital Management Committee, Institution for the Blind; and Chairman of the Health Careers committee.

Viola Victorine Burnham – educator, humanitarian, a great support to her husband and the picture of a lady.

Aubrey Bonnett, in his tribute titled ‘Death, Dignity, Resilience and the Passing of the Old Guard’, noted that in many ways the passing of Viola Burnham, “an accomplished champion of Guyanese excellence, and a fierce nationalist, regionalist and leader of the PNC,” represents the passing of the old political elite (guard).

Viola Burnham, nee Harper, was in many ways a renaissance scholar, trained in Greek and Latin in England, and at the graduate university level in the United States.

She could manifest the common touch in her dealing with the little folk, be forceful and inspiring in her tenure as a leader of the Women’s Revolutionary Socialist Movement (WRSM), while conversing and interacting with perfect ease and aplomb with formidable heads of state on the world scene, and leading and educating Guyana’s future elite at the prestigious Bishops’ High School, where she was an alumna.

She believed firmly, and was rooted, in the concept and practice of ethnic integration, cultural understanding and education, inasmuch as she herself was the product of both Chinese and African heritages.

One of her last public speeches and appearances in Guyana was at a conference on the Chinese Diaspora in Guyana, designed to deal with their historical and social interaction with other ethnic groups in that society.

She was a woman of many colours.

For example, Bonnet in his tribute said, “Viola Burnham’s interest in the arts continued to the day of her death, and her and her husband’s support, for Carifesta, Mashramani…”

A Woman’s Role
In the Caribbean, as in many developing regions, political power was traditionally believed to be the province of men.

Women were seen as exercising power at home or, at best, as “the power behind the throne.” Viola Burnham exercised both.

She served in many positions: as deputy Prime Minister and Ministers of Education, Social Development and Infrastructure in the Government of Guyana, under both her husband and, later, President Hugh Desmond Hoyte.

She was also a leader of the women’s socialist arm of the PNC, and not only espoused and supported the doctrine of the paramountcy of the party, but used her influence, academic training and sagacity to mentor many women in the guiles and nuances of party politics and real political power.

Bonnet said, “Many of Guyana’s later female leaders benefited from her example and guidance, not only at the formal and early level at Bishops, but also from more direct political levels at the institution of government and nation-building.”

Viola Burnham was a founding member and first Vice President of The Caribbean Women’s Association (CARIWA), an organization dedicated to the development of women in the Caribbean region, crafted and later modified and executed to include women in the Dutch and French-speaking regions as well as the Anglophone ones.

“Viola Burnham was very proud of these ventures, which she shared with luminaries such as then Justice Desiree Bernard, for example,” Bonnet opined.

“Often she and I would debate the dilemma of higher education in developing nations, the competing imperatives and multiple constituencies impacting on them, and the tremendous brain drain and ways in which I, then a University administrator, could play a helping role in effecting more alliances between the “Diasporic others” – the scholars/academicians abroad – and the Universities in the Caribbean, especially Guyana,” he said.

He made clear in his reflections that Viola Burnham could easily have been another superbly trained Guyanese academic – qua intellectual – living in the Diaspora, vicariously and esoterically debating this topic.

“Instead, she chose to live at home and build bridges of cooperation there, while grounding with her sisters.  In December 2001, for example, she initiated such a contact between me and some appropriate University of Guyana officials which, unfortunately, never materialized into programmatic initiatives, despite her best efforts,” Bonnet remembered.

In the final analysis, Bonnet posits, “Viola Burnham was more than all that has been adumbrated. As a human being, those who met and knew her were impressed with her ability to transcend social distance among groups, and the inhibitions of the color/class hierarchy, so indicative of the old Caribbean. She was also able, in my opinion, indeed because of her biracialism, to move beyond the inter-class and ethnic isolation, to which some political elites in Guyana were so transfixed. Many others were equally impressed with her equanimity, enamored with her dignity and steadfastness under pressure and formidable challenges, and the acute and heightened sense of self-confidence in her ability to be a change agent, by the exemplary life she lived. She was a consensus-builder and one who sought, always, to find the common ground – often on a principled plane. She was, ultimately, a model of gender role transformation and an important lever for change in the patriarchal Caribbean societies which reared us, and which we call home.”

Born on 26 November, 1930, in New Amsterdam, Berbice, the youngest of eight children of schoolmaster James Nathaniel Harper and his wife Mary (née Chin), Viola Victorine Harper attended the All Saints Scots School, from which she won a Government County Scholarship to the Berbice High School. But as her father had died and the family decided to move to Georgetown, she entered Smith’s Church Congregational School. Once again, she won a Government County Scholarship which, this time, was tenable at the Bishops’ High School.

After taking her Advanced Levels, she started to work at the Argosy newspaper alongside the likes of Olga Armstrong, Hector Bunyan, Billy Carto, Henry Josiah and Connie Theobald, all legendary figures in the annals of Guyanese journalism.

Condemned to social assignments and confined to editing the women’s pages, she found journalism stimulating but unsatisfying.

So she quit reporting and switched to teaching, starting out in 1950 at the Broad Street (later renamed Dolphin) Government School. She taught there for four years and applied for a conditional scholarship, which took her to Leicester University College, UK, where she obtained her BA (honours) in Latin. Four years later, she read for her MA in Education at the University of Chicago, USA.

In between her university studies, she taught Latin at Bishops’ High School, the position from which she was swept into a much-anticipated marriage by Guyana’s new Prime Minister, Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham.

She had travelled widely as the wife of the Prime Minister and subsequent Executive President, receiving awards from countries such as the Republic of Guinea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the People’s Republic of Bulgaria.
In 1984, the year before Forbes Burnham’s death, she received the Order of Roraima, Guyana’s second highest honour.

Many au fait with her and her life would agree that Viola Burnham was very much a product of mid-twentieth century Guyana. Her eighteen-year marriage to Forbes Burnham had thrust her into the limelight. With his death and her short stint in office, it was time to retire into the twilight.

She died on 10 October 2003, satisfied that she had been a dutiful wife to her husband, a devoted leader of the women’s movement and a dedicated citizen of Guyana.
(Source: ‘Viola Victorine Burnham: Death, Dignity, Resilience and the Passing of the Old Guard’ by Aubrey W. Bonnett, PhD)