ON August 1, we celebrated Emancipation Day which is among the three oldest public holidays Guyana. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was celebrated for an entire week with much emotion and verve and there were many customs which were part of the celebrations. For instance, early in the morning on Emancipation Day, in the villages, young people would go from house to house waking up all sleepers and calling them out to celebrate. African drums reverberated from the earliest dawn to next day since in all the villages there were groups which maintained the rich traditions of African drumming. And all families prepared cook-ups, cassava and pumpkin pones and conkie as well as various delightful drinks such as mauby, pine drink, sorrel, jamoon wine and rice wine. Everyone kept open house and visited each other’s homes and enjoyed the hospitality and good fellowship which was everywhere offered. During Emancipation week, all grudges and quarrels were forgotten and everyone became a celebrant. Towards the end of the 19th century, the custom of having fairs grew up. where string bands from various villages performed accompanied by drummers and there was much public dancing. There were attendances at the various churches, particularly at the Congregational Churches since Congregationalism, even before Emancipation, was engaged in African education and nurturing freedom.
Many of these old customs of Emancipation Week are worthy of revival since they were enjoyable in themselves and reminded Guyanese of their historical past and their cultural roots. African drumming, dress, musical traditions, and cuisine, some of which was brought from Africa, some of which evolved during the time of slavery could all go towards enrichening Guyanese Culture. Church attendance and belief in God were long associated with familial strengthening, social discipline and above all, Education. This commitment to Education which the freedmen and their immediate descendants stoutly maintained produced scholars of the highest order and the teachers for the National Educational System which was established by Law in the 1870s.
One or two organisations, the main one being ACDA led by Dr Eric Philipps, have been working very hard to maintain African traditions but the main responsibility for this should be assumed by the village leaders, as used to be the case with the strengthening of Education being a priority. Today, parents are focusing on the large urban schools like Queen’s College but greater stress needs to be given to the village or large country schools which have been rivalling the urban schools in their CXC results. The Internet and ICT, in general, have levelled the playing field between urban and country schools and the village schools should take advantage of it.
Emancipation Week has rightly been a time of celebration and rejoicing but as importantly, it should be a time of stock-taking and reflection for all Guyanese and particularly the descendants of the freedmen This stock-taking should engender a number of positive commitments which should lead the community forward into greater prosperity to the benefit of the entire country.
In the first place, since Independence in the 1960’s all Guyanese had been overtaken by an unhealthy obsession with politics. Politics and the personalities of political leaders had distracted all Guyanese, in varying degrees, from a full focus on the realities of their social and economic development and this affected also the descendants of the freedmen. Though citizens should have some concern with politics, their priority should be on achieving their own social and economic development which they could do only by their own efforts.
Then there is Education. The villages which were founded by the freedmen and their immediate descendants were once dynamos of learning and despite limited facilities, they produced scholars of the first order as well as professionals like doctors, lawyers, accountants and of course teachers. The best Guyanese tradesmen – carpenters, joiners, electricians, mechanics, tailors, coopers and so on came from these villages. The leaders of these villages must once again stress the importance of Education and parents must insist that their children attend school with full regularity and they should always encourage them to strive for excellence. In particular, they must master ICT as the modern world now revolves around Information Technology. Education will bring about a better life, open the doors to numerous opportunities and upward social mobility.
In the early villages, most villagers were agriculturists and had farms which produced most of the ground provisions, plantains, vegetables, fruits and livestock such chickens which were sold in the markets. Even professionals had farms. Their produce helped to provide the country’s food security, provided their own food and earned them an income. Agriculture must be revived in these villages and they should venture more in rice farming. Agriculture is today more attractive than in the 19th and early 20th centuries since there is the availability of agricultural machines and scientific methods. The economic and social benefits of such return to the land would be immeasurable.
The entrepreneurial spirit and culture had always been present – witness the emergence of vendors and importers of scarce goods during the 1970s and 1980s – but they need to be carefully re-nurtured. Saving, that is capital accumulation for investment, is the key to successful business ventures. The freedmen carefully saved the meagre wages they earned during the Apprenticeship System and sales from the Sunday markets as they knew that saving was the postponement of today’s gratification for tomorrow’s betterment. They were able to accumulate capital and when the opportunity came, they bought the abandoned sugar estates and became landed proprietors and founded villages. The descendants of the freedmen must once again recapture the culture of saving and investment.
The entrepreneurial culture is the key to the generation of wealth and will eclipse the culture of wholesale consumption which results in always being on the margins of poverty.
Though we have almost exceeded the space allotted to this article, there is one final commitment we must mention. Our freedmen forefathers were godfearing and went to church regularly which cultivated a strong moral discipline, improved their knowledge of writing and speaking English by their continuous reading of the Bible and was the basis of their entrepreneurial culture since “God did not wish the failures of the Earth in Heaven”. The descendants of the freedmen need to again involve themselves in religion and regularly going to church.