The only thing a lot of us know about Haiti is that in many instances, were it not for Haiti, Guyana would be the worst place in the Caribbean. And that Haiti is supposed to be a pretty depressing place with voudou.
A minority of us might know about the Haitian revolution and so on, but it does not mean much to those of us who are not really interested in revolting.
Mark Jacobs was born and raised in Guyana and went to live and work in Haiti and this book of 17 pieces of writing show insights into Haiti which might still leave us not having any different views of Haiti.
This is probably the first book ever written by a Guyanese about their own travels in the Caribbean (and the diaspora) – and it is refreshing that Mark Jacobs seeks to put this Guyanese visitor gaze on Haitian life. So often people have come to Guyana and written about their time here, that it is a relief to see this reversed gaze (One day we might get best sellers who return to India and to United Kingdom and USA and write those nice kind of patronising travelogues).
The first story is ‘black woman and child’.. Mark writes about black woman in Haiti and in Guyana beating/threatening to beat a child. In ‘madame’ about love Guyana style with Haitian overtones. The other vignettes (I cannot find a better word) are short incisive reflections, moments in time about the experiences in Haiti.. about police who beat people and police who give people a lift on the road ; about magic and about reality. Some of the stories are funny, but the laughter is a kind of alternative reaction to anger . Creole and Kweyol are used to tell the stories and there is no insistence on correct English or French or Creole.
The last story, with its irony though.. is a bit of history.. about God, the loving and suffering Christ who died on the cross (as many of the slaves were probably thought they had to suffer too and accept their lot since heaven was waiting). The litany “the god of the slaver is not to the god of the slave” is repeated in the end of this book and I remember the Easter Sunday 7am service with the Pastor talking about how the youth rebelling (and remembering the middle finger protests ) and then in the same sermon Pastor trying to remind the congregation that the people laid down their robes and so on in protest at the Romans for Jesus to come in riding on his donkey. But in Haiti and in Guyana, saviours come in air conditioned SUVs with dark tinted windows.
Growing Haiti is a South-South collaboration which focuses on strengthening Haitian women and families via sustainable micro gardening initiatives. With the support of friends and family, Mark Jacobs- a Guyanese farmer, writer, and educator has been working with Haitian people growing vegetables and other sustainable agriculture related initiatives. One of the main focus is income generation from selling excess produce. The second is training in sustainable urban [micro] gardening including working with children in schools and neighborhoods.
In Guyanese Creolese or Haitian Kreyol, the message is the same: Love and liberation- yesterday, today, and forever. Wan wan dutty build dam. Piti, piti, wazo fe nich li. Little by little, the bird builds its nest.
“The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. Your silence will not protect you. Because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak. We can sit in corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid. I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”- Audre Lorde
“Eh eh, is who that anti-man shaking off?” She rolls her eyes and sucks her teeth.
This was an issue from night one. We’d successfully launched our action and from the initial handful of determined women, our numbers had more than quadrupled. We were ecstatic; Revolution was in the air and we were the righteous warriors, on the side of justice, freedom, equality, and all that was good and right. Though a migraine was forcing me to lie down in the tent with a rag over my eyes, my heart and soul were soaring among the stars. I could not rest; the excitement from the gathering was too palpable. I was also thinking ahead. I knew that many of those now with us would have to leave in the morning, and that the police were sure to appear.
Before police tho, the cross dressers showed up. Many live around the corner from our encampment and they had to pass us to get to their work. I had forgotten about this; we had other things on our mind when we were scouting out the location for our action- proximity to public thoroughfares, transportation, bathrooms, other facilities, security, etc. I’d forgotten all about Leopold St.
“Hello! What is that? Look! Is a man or a woman? These people, boy! Anti-man. Batty bwoy. Fyah!” Suck teeth. Laughter. Damn. The pounding in my head increased. I was pained. This is my community, see, and I felt the taunting personally, as if it were directed towards me. Forget the police harassment and confiscation of our tent, the rain and hot hot sun. Forget the name calling by passers by, the ignoring- all that I can deal with. Harder, is the homo/transphobia of the ‘comrades’.
Revolution brings together strange bedfellows. We who initiated this action knew that we’d have to reach out, grow our numbers in order to succeed. There were just four of us women, several with dependent children, ailing parents, and a multitude of other responsibilities. We knew we couldn’t do it alone. Still, compelled to act, we did, and allies appeared. Strangers at first, who we now spend more time with than our blood relatives and loved ones.
I said nothing that first night, hesitant and unsure how to talk about it. The movement is young still, fragile, and we are just now building community, trust, and understanding. Also, this is Guyana; homophobia/transphobia is just a part of life, right? Don’t tek them on, a friend advised. They don’t have to accept, just tolerate, said another.
There is no discrimination against gay people in Guyana, said the Minister. There is tolerance. Yes, hatemongering goes unchecked. In fact, there is overwhelming silence in the face of widespread injustice and abuse. Gay people simply walking down the street, minding their own business, are subject to daily/nightly harassment. “But is not as bad as Jamaica, they are not getting killed in the streets,” they say. Also- “Is just words; nothing to get so worked up over.” This from comrades in the struggle. “He’s really homophobic, you know. I just pretended not to hear.”
I have a hard time with police and politicians. I try to remember that they are somebody’s son/daughter, mother/father.. It’s not easy. But when we talk about human rights and demand justice and equality, that is for *all* Guyanese- not just the ones that look like us, act like us, think like us, and believe all the same things we do. We cannot have equal rights yet still perpetuate discrimination and intolerance against gay people. Everybody means everybody. Societal transformation begins with the individual- how we relate and deal with each other is at the core of it all. There is nothing more revolutionary than that.
I went home and brought my rainbow flag and pinned it onto the Guyana flag; no more quiet, safe living- it must be all out in the open now. We cannot continue to stay silent any longer, to simply endure. We must stand up and speak out. We exist. We are here, we are an integral part of this movement and this society, like it or not. It will be hard and uncomfortable, but we are going to have to deal with this- you with me, and me with you. Because we’re in this together and we need each other.
The cross dressers still pass all the time. Sometimes comments are thrown, some still taunting, although less than before. We are working though, on taking it from mere lip service to respect and more than tolerance. When a gay man is stabbed the block over, it’s the one among us with the big bible (who seems unable to stop himself from saying ‘fyah’ every time a cross dresser passes) who ends up taking the victim to the hospital. After the pageant, the queen stops by to show us photos and pose by our sign. Others from the community, gay but not necessarily cross dressers, also show their support, in ways both tangible and intangible. And one Friday night- revolution. Three young gay men come and sit down among us.
“My family is real Christian.”
“I got kicked out of the house when my father found out I was gay.”
“I feel really sad about that boy who got killed in Agricola.”
“Next time we come back we’ll bring some food and drink for y’all.”
“After Georgie seh officer, officer I get shot, de officer didn’t tek he on. So Georgie now go fah raise up holding he ribs and I hear another shot. When I look at Georgie, I see a bullet to Georgie forehead, which in, he head had a big hole and blood running down.”
Black skin against a yellow satin background. The marks of violence were still evident on his young face. Left eye bruised and bullet hole still clearly visible on his forehead, even though the undertaker had tried. Murdered by the police, a day before his 18th birthday. Shaquille Grant. Two months ago, it was Ron Somerset, also a teenager, Shemroy Bouyea, and Allan Lewis- all black men, all unarmed, all murdered by police.
There is a regular police roadblock in my neighborhood. Almost every night, right at the corner where I get off the bus, they are there, stopping vehicles and frisking people. Tonight was no exception. As I passed, I saw three men hunched in a circle on the ground, with several plastic bags of stuff in the center. Police- or men in dark blue uniforms with AK-47s- towered over them, menacing. Two of the men were hauled up and taken to the back of another vehicle while the last was ordered to drop his pants. He protested. They shouted, guns at the ready. Grudgingly, he complied, bare buttocks flashing in the streetlight. Jump, they ordered, and jump he did. They pawed through the bags on the ground but finding nothing, moved on to the interior of the car.
At the most, all those men had on them was a lil bit of ganja. And the only ones with the weapons were the boys in blue. In all the time that the police have been carrying out their nightly roadblocks on that street corner, there has been no news of the apprehension of any major criminal mastermind or any astounding drug bust. No, they’re just terrorizing the population, as normal. Wait, clarification- they’re terrorizing ‘ordinary’ Guyanese, of a specific racial group mostly.
I spent last evening visiting my relatives in Lusignan, gaffing into the night. It was dark when I left. The road was clear; there was no roadblock. No menacing men with guns to stop the music-blasting Hummer from speeding down the road. No naked young Indo-Guyanese men jumping on command in public. Lusignan has plenty drug and gun men though. I was astounded the first time I heard that. Lusignan? The lovely, peaceful village of my childhood? Say it aint so! But that is the truth now, sadly.
“Dem boys tell me how to make lots of money quick,” my NY-based uncle reports, two days into his visit. But he is a bad enough Muslim already, he says, and doesn’t need that on his conscience. There are two car dealerships in a village with two main cross streets. The ports where container ships dock to offload their cargo of Lamborginis and Hummers are the same ones where drugs are sent out, even though a million dollar container scanner was commissioned just last year (Skeldon sugar factory anyone?), and a new ‘container control programme’ MOU signed just last month. Packages at the Post Office are cut open and every item inside fingered before it can be uplifted, but millions of dollars worth of cocaine regularly leave Georgetown (in one notorious case last year, the MV Vega Azurit was busted ferrying cocaine from Guyana three times in as many months.)
They’re murdering black youth!”
The day after Shaquille Grant was murdered, a young Indo-Guyanese policeman was executed in Berbice. He had been working undercover, they said, on counter-narcotics operations. The newspapers today showed the President and First Lady paying their condolences to his grieving father. Meanwhile, in Linden, the families of Shemroy, Ron, and Allan wait in vain for justice, over two months after their murder.
Most of the members of the Guyana Police Farce are black men.
We must talk about race, yes, but we must also talk about class and $$.
They said the boys were planning a robbery and shot first (nevermind that eyewitnesses contradict that). And so they shot to kill. The protesters in Linden were blocking the road, preventing vehicles from reaching the gold mining camps and markets. And so they shot to kill. Lives taken to protect property. Money over justice. The 14yr old tortured by police several years ago, his genitals set ablaze, is nowhere to be found in Guyana anymore. There are rumors that he and his relatives are overseas, ‘compensation’ in pocket.
Overseas, to enjoy the land of milk and honey perks, or overseas to work like a dawg, struggling to make ends meet when the money runs out, just like here, but without home comforts. Dreaming of home always, working to build up the vacation days, not wanting to leave when the two weeks are up. But not willing to stay here, to stand up, to speak out, to look out for each other. Paralyzed by fear. Of being victimized, penalized, fired. Or made callous by easy money. This is what Guyana has become. A dog-eat-dog society where each man scrabbles to accumulate as much ‘stuff’ (wealth) as he possibly can, whether by legal or illegal means, just hoping, praying, and bribing his way out of any ‘sticky’ situation. Where every meal may be the young black man’s last, no matter how hard mothers work.
This is not my Guyana though. It may be the reality now, but it doesn’t have to remain that way.
I’ve been having foot troubles for a lil while now. Stumped my right big toe last year and it’s been bum ever since. And now recently, the left one has started tingling, a slight numbness. No pain and I can still walk fine though, so I’ve been mostly ignoring it. Musing about what’s going on and what it might mean, wondering what I can do about it, but mostly just leaving it alone, hoping that it will get better soon, without any major intervention on my part. Walking wounded. This may be how it is now, how we all are, but it doesn’t have to remain that way.
My nose is pointy and my hair is straight. Her nose was flat and her hair was curly. She looked curiously at me and I gazed back, grinning at her two-teeth mouth. She smiled wider, all gums.
“We also need the fires of love to thaw the frozen streams within. We need to look at one another afresh, with new eyes. We need to keep doing that. Every day. We need to tear down the barriers wisely, or else we won’t be able to get out and nothing will be able to come in.” (Ben Okri)
They’ve begun to put in the fence. They want to have more ‘control’ of the space, they say. There are too many ‘junkies’ passing by. They’re afraid that their nice nice park is going to get messed up.
Oh, the irony!
The PEOPLE’S Parliament. High St and Brickdam. Fence or not, we’ll be there. 24/7. Join us. Straight hairs and curly hairs all together as one. What is your vision for the future of Guyana? What are you doing to bring it to fruition?
“WOW, girl i cant tell u the transformation i have had through those continuous dialogues. The thing is though, if more people never come join us then it would be sad but i aint doing this for them. I doing it for me.”
Occupy Georgetown is now entering its third week. Whilst the first week was free of police harassment this changed last week. First the police came to the camp dismantling a day tent and demanding the occupiers leave. They brought prisoners to help them dismantle the tents but the people remained steadfast despite having to spend the night on cardboard sheets under the Guyanese stars. Then the police attempted to erect a fence around the camp presumably to prevent people from entering and or leaving. Nonetheless the occupy spirit is gaining ground. The People’s Parliament has been set up stating”
The People’s Parliament aims to engage Guyanese of all backgrounds in a collective public interrogation of the Guyanese condition and dialogue in order to identify real, substantive, long term solutions to the numerous problems plaguing our land. The Linden crisis highlights multiple failures in Guyanese society- from police brutality, repression of freedom of speech, poverty and unemployment, to lack of State accountability, racism, corruption, and repression of dissent- Guyanese people have no holiday from problems……………
The People’s Parliament is a 24hrs occupation of time, space, and consciousness. It is a re-imagining of what Guyanese society could be like. It is a gathering of people from various backgrounds, ethnicities, talents, and opinions. For over a week, the participants have been staking a space in public where all individuals and voices are equally welcomed- university professors, writers, lawyers, the unemployed, mothers, and youth.
We are inspired by the action of the people of Linden and committed to spreading the Linden example of transformative, collaborative social action across Guyana. We have started a public discourse and stimulated dialogue on a number of issues. We are an example of peaceful, positive action even in the face of fear and intimidation. As we move forward, we are committed to continuing to occupy a space in which we can further engage our Guyanese brothers and sisters in this envisioning and creation of our new Guyanese future. We invite you to join us- High Street, between Brickdam and Hadfield Streets.
Now there is a solid core of supporters beyond the initial few women. The camp operates through collective decision making with the main focus being
to change hearts, minds and consciousness, to empower people so that they can transform their lives, society and country.
This week the occupiers will be “exploring a variety of creative strategies- public speakers, movie night, drama, know your rights training, ‘translating’ constitution”
A week ago I interviewed three of the women who began the OccupyGT movement [Sherlina Nageer, Charlene Wilkinson and Joyce Marcus of Red Thread] They discuss how they came together, the challenges they face as a movement and their short and long term priorities.
SE: What is the present situation with the Occupy GT and in Linden?
SN: We just celebrated one week occupation [last wed] and we have been reflecting and planning for the coming week. It is an interesting space that we are in. Last week the people of Linden signed an agreement with the government asking for land reform, a committee to control physical resources, a formal investigation into unemployment and poverty situation and an investigation into the killings. The larger issues of police brutality and poverty still remain and this will be the occupation’s focus.
Immediately the agreement was signed everything in Linden returned to ‘normal’ but the feeling is, there isn’t a consensus on the signing of the agreement. What will happen now depends on how much the government lives up to its promises and people will be watching.
SE: I understand the Occupy GT is predominately a women’s occupation?
SN: The core group who initiated the action were all women though there was input from men activists and both are participating in the occupation. The response from the public has been mixed. Those that have interacted with the group appreciative and support the Occupy objectives.
Getting folks to join us has been a little bit more of a challenge. We have to remember that nothing like this has been done before in Guyana. People are used to picketing for a couple of hours but this kind of sustained public action is very new and takes getting used too. Another challenge is that many people think the issue is strictly about Linden so they think we are from Linden and that we are the families of the men who were killed and injured. So if they are not from Linden they do not feel invested in the action.
SE: What is strategy for the coming weeks?
SN: Its been a week. We have been trying to reeducate a lot of misinformation and engage in active outreach and more active media engagement going forward. So the focus is on what we want and so we will see how that plays out.
SE: How much did the existence of a strong women’s organizational base [Red Thread] influence the decision to create the occupyGT and the Peoples Parliament?
SN: Without Red Thread’s involvement we would not have been able to do this. We are dealing with grassroots women who have to work, take care of children and family members. Life is hard as it is but they have been there. Our capacity has been stretched to the limit but they understand the issues so that is a great help. So without Red Thread there would be no Occupy movement. Red Thread has been around for years and they are known for being progressive and having a radical politics.
SE: Can you give us some background on how the Occupy GT movement began?
CW: The idea started in my living room but I knew I could not do it alone, I did not have the courage for that. There was no other organization for Sherlina and I to approach except Red Thread. So we approached them and without hesitation they agreed. They had experience of one of their members going on hunger strike during an escalation of violence and they have a history with the Walter Rodney movement.
SE: How long did it take to get started?
CW: It took some time for us to get out there – well 4/5 weeks . It is unfortunate that we have come to this crisis but it is due to a lack of dialogue by the government . All of us have to learn but if you are in power and control all the resources and institutions in the country and you don’t have what it takes to dialogue with the people that is one of the most dangerous situations.
SE: What would you say are the key issue of concern to the Occupy movement.
CW: Building our numbers – can we build this into a mass movement given the current fear by the Guyanese people after years of state sponsored violence, after decades of state violence.
I am thinking that since the police and joint services are still occupying Linden like a police state, we will hold our occupation until that occupation ends. There are some harder issues. We have to consider seriously, the removal or dismissal of the Home Affairs minister responsible for the killings. Also charging the officers who carried out the murders. These are the issues we think are dire. The country can never become a normal state with the Home Affairs minister in place and the police who have murdered. There is a long history of state sponsored violence in Guyana but the violence which took place in Linden is on a different level. This has not happened in a way before, so blatant
SE: So the Difference with Linden is that they didn’t even bother to cover it up but just acted with open disregard for the people of the town.?
CW: Absolutely but we suspect it was planned.
SE: People are afraid but at the same time it is inspiring that there are people like yourselves who are willing to stand up and speak out despite the ramifications to you personally. Surely this will encourage more people to speak out?
CW: Yes this is so but this is part of our crisis. The people who matter in terms of having influence have not been coming out in numbers. So the few have been punished.
Joyce Marcus [Red Thread]
SE: Charlene has spoken of the importance of Red Thread’s support of the OccupyGT movement. What were the reasons behind your immediate and unequivocal support?
JM: Red Thread [RT] is a grassroots women’s organisation and we have been working with women ever since we began in 1986. Our aim is to transform the lives of poor people especially women. The issues behind the occupation are the same issues which RT have been working against for many years. We have three priorities around which we work, which are critical to the rights of poor people. One, campaign for affordable access to living and affordable access to services. Two, work against all forms of violence and three, work with grassroots people to gain a political voice.
And so the issue of what happened in Linden we could see the priorities are similar to those we at Red Thread have been working on. Besides what happened in Linden on July 18th, we know there are other problems. That is not the core problem for example leading up to the protest and killings, poor people do not have access to a living income, access to services and so when the government decided that it would increase the price of electricity and Linden responded by protesting, we understood this completely. You cannot ask a town like Linden which has a 70% unemployment to pay this sum of money. Also some of us from RD belong to Linden with family still living there. Since we have been campaigning around the poor economic situation of people in Guyana and also against all forms of violence, the Occupation fit right into that.
Right after people were shot in Linden we organised daily pickets and night vigils. The actual decision to support the Occupy movement was then easy because we had thought about organsing an occupy movement before. So when Sherlina and Charlene came to us we say yes.
SE: Can I just take you back as I want to try to understand and I think readers might wish to know, why is there such a high unemployment rate in a region as resource rich as Linden – the economic backbone of Guyana?
JM: Part of the problem is management but what the government has been doing is privatizing everything we own. When they privatize they end up getting a lesser percentage of the income. Then the private companies will always call the shots – how much the minerals are worth and they decide how many they will employ. That is they have the advantage and are always gaining more. Our government just seems to go along with it without being concerned as to how this affects the communities. They don’t stand up to the companies and say, this belongs to us and so bargain in a way that is beneficial to the country and not just a few people.
SE: So where do you go from here?
JM: The whole Linden issue is just part of a bigger problem – you know the protests and killings. Often times people feel they have no rights and don’t know the power they have, they just tend to take what comes to them and only a few stand up. We hope with this we will be able to create a people’s parliament to open the way for people to come and be able to talk about the issues affecting them. To share their ideas of what they think. If we can get more people to become aware even if its not their direct concern, but still be aware that what happens affects us all. We want to see whether we can create a situation where everyone would want to say, listen this cannot continue and we have to stop it and know that we are the ones that have the power and not the politicians. That they are there to serve us and cannot do what they feel like without first consulting us.
We dont expect to be here forever but we need to build that momentum to create that kind of situation.
SE: Then really a great deal of your work over the next few weeks will be around education and outreach?
SE: Sherlina mentioned the lack of capacity is a huge challenge, how do you think you can overcome this?
JM: I would say that we are really trying because when we started there were just four of us. What we have built in a week is that those who are committed to staying at the Occupy camp at night are not people we have met before but have understood what we are doing and have made a commitment to that. So I would say that we have grown not very large , but a step forward. We hope in two weeks we will grow some more but we need to do more work at community level.
SE: What about students from the university – have they been supportive?
JM: You see what we were hoping at the beginning was that people would see the need to come with us freely but we would approach the university and other individuals. But to be truthful we do not have enough organizations that would come out in support. We have a whole lot of NGOs but it is not their thing. But we are confident in moving forward.
These are the dark days, my love***. Business is at a standstill. Gold miners are not able to carry out their usual mad digging up and extraction of the precious metal (while protecting the rainforest btw. why don’t those white people understand that and give us the $$, damnit?!) Trucks of goods are blocked from going into the interior, and the Brazilians have hiked their prices. In some places, okra is selling for $400/lb.
Oh, and three innocent people were shot and killed by police for peacefully protesting with their community members. Shemroy Bouyea, Ron Somerset, and Allan Lewis. Shot in the heart, one from the back. Unarmed; only weapon their voice. Almost footnotes now, as the already dirty game of politricks gets even nastier.
Black man and Indian- niggers, coolies, and bucks- at each other’s throats again, by design, as usual. Of human rights and justice, nary a mention. Instead, trade fairs, emancipation song and dances, and the Olympics!
Gold, silver, and bronze; men and women celebrate. Even if you don’t win, just making it there is an achievement they say. It doesn’t work that way with everything though. The majority of the students who wrote the CSEC exams failed- 70% in mathematics and 63% in English. Still, “Guyana has a reason to celebrate,” Minister Manickchand
declared. A pilot study to improve scores apparently paid off. Or so they say. O lovely Guyana. The land of many waters and pilot projects. Stamp it Out, Pick it Up, Don’t Beat Up when you Heat Up. Gold medal strategies all. Uh huh.
We’re getting hydro next year, says Sam Blinds. And there is no trafficking of Amerindians, says the former chair of the National Tashaos Council (and a good friend of ex-President, he of the $3million/month pension, Bharrat Jagdeo). Sure, there may have been some cases of Amerindian girls being abused and prostituted in mining camps, in restaurants and clubs in Georgetown, in private homes of businessmen, and of Amerindian boys being kept captive in foreign embassies, etc, but “we have not had the complaints,” says Ms Pearson. Right, because the voices of the victims are always heard.
Where do you reach when for every step forward, there is one back? One laptop per family, but when families can’t afford electricity, what good is a computer? Decades ago, I did my homework by lamplight. Today, this is still the case in many many places. Guyanese pay more for less electricity than almost everybody else in the Caribbean (Jamaica takes the gold in this). We also pay more than Americans and Canadians. More for less.
Hypocrisy is king these days. Georgetown Public Hospital’s neo natal unit has been newly refurbished, they say. Triplets are born. Thankfully mother and all babies survive. Just the day before, 22yr old first time mother Omadara Anthony, healthy up to the day she went into Public, died of ‘cardiac arrest’ while giving birth. But “we refute the notion that unless you pay you do not receive quality health care,” says Minister Manickchand. Who did not go to Public Hospital to deliver her baby. But who likes to fat talk.
Long gone is the time when intelligence was a virtue. “The Private Sector Commission don’t run my office,” says the President. Forget critical thinking and fact checking as well. Now, big checks are paid for flimsy advice, the more rabid the better. Meanwhile the issues of poor people get glossed over.
Communities where unemployment is 70%. It’s not that we don’t want to pay- we aren’t able to. Where’s the money going to come from? We’re already struggling to put food in our children’s mouths. Life pon de dam- medicine or food? Food or light bill? School book or light bill?
Teenage girls sell their bodies for some phone credit. Mothers struggling to find money leave their babies home alone to starve and choke to death. To be raped and murdered. But “those lazy people need to pay their fair share,” the PPPites scream. But the ultimate payment has already been made- the blood of innocents.
Police and thieves in the streets. Paid instigators and rogues in in blue and khaki uniforms.
The children finally get a mention when a school is torched. But when the hospital compound was teargassed, there was no comment. We are teaching them well indeed.
These are the dark days, my love.
***From the poem “This is the dark time, my love” by Guyanese poet, Martin Carter
Over the weekend I spoke with Guyanese activist Mark Jacobs * in order to contextualise the uprisings and occupy movement taking place in Guyana this past five weeks.
SE: We are well into the 5th week of the Linden uprising. Could you start by giving readers some background on the importance of Linden to the Guyanese economy? Where is it located, the population and racial dynamics of the town.
MJ: Linden is central to the economy of Guyana because of it’s central location. It’s approximately 60 miles south of the capital. Readers would do well to look at a map to better understand as Guyana sits on the coast of South America. The only road connecting Guyana to the rest of South America passes through Linden. This road eventually ends at the Takatu bridge in south west Guyana on the border with Roraima state Brazil. This is about a 208 mile journey. To get to all the major gold mining regions of Guyana you also have to pass through Linden. Recently gold has surpassed sugar and sea food to become the number one export.
Most of the information in Guyana are state secrets but in 2008 the government reported that gold production was 286,812, 288,646 in 2009, 363,883 in 2011. These numbers are for small and medium scale mines but even the government admits that they do believe mining companies fail to report 25% of their total production. As for the larger producers Omai pulled out one million ounces of gold out of a concession which they then closed after a massive cyanide spill that polluted rivers used by river communities. No one was ever punished for this. You can find information on gold companies in Guyana at publications like Buillionstreet.com. ETK Inc estimated annual production of 250,000 to 300,000 at a new mine it is developing and a company called Guyana Goldfield just invested $1 billion in a mine named Aurora [none of these companies are owned by Guyanese].
It’s been a while since the government conducted a census in Guyana and they’ve refused to release the last results but the best estimates say there are about 20-30,000 people living in Linden. It is predominantly Afro Guyanese but there are also east Indians, Amerindians, Chinese and mixed people. Timber is another major foreign exchange earner for Guyana and most timber producers have to access their concessions by passing through Linden. Because of the large sums of money the Guyana government receives in the name of
indigenoous development [carbon trading, eco tourism etc] blockage of the road has been a major headache. Travel warnings have been issued by the USA, Canada and the European Union. For more information on Guyana’s mining industry – gold, diamonds, and bauxite see here. Suffice it to say in addition to gold production as stated above, diamond output in 2010 was 49,920 carats which is down 6% over 2009. This was due to a transfer in mining focus from diamonds to the more profitable gold market. Bauxite output in 2010 was 2010 was 1,099,880 metric tonnes. Again a decline due to mining conditions.
SE: When and why did the people of Linden decide to hold protests and what happened? Give us an overview of the timeline
MJ: The government has been threatening electricity increases for a while now and they finally set the date to implement it on July 1st. There were a few protests by Lindeners and their supporters in the capital against the increase because of the 70% unemployment in the town. These were all ignored and ridiculed by the government. Lindeners set July 18 as the date to begin a one week protest and shut
down the town to all vehicular traffic. Later that day as the place got dark someone shut off the lights of the town and the police, soldiers and unknown men began shooting at unnarmed citizens who had blocked the Wismar/Mckenzie bridge. Background: To get to Linden you are basically travelling on the eastern side of the Demerara river. To get to the other side and continue on the road to the Amazon and Brazil you cross the Demerara river into Wismar. The bridge the people were blocking is called the Wismar/Mckenzie bridge. Mckenzie is the old name for Linden and is sometimes used alternatively by older Guyanese.
The next day more people came out into the streets and Lindeners vowed to continue the protest indefinitely. The Guyana government over the past 20 years has used the police and soldiers to shoot people and intimidate them into silence. From the beginning, their stance was they will not talk or visit Linden until the protesters cleared the roads. Many attemnpts were made by the army and soldiers over the past weeks to clear the blockade but as fast as they removed them the people replaced them. A few late night raids were made into the town hoping to catch citizens off guard. Negotiations of a sort have been ongoing between the office of the President, the regional chairman of region 10, Sharma Solomon and representatives from Linden and the region. [Guyana has 10 regions and three counties.] For admin purposes there are elected regional chairmans. Linden is the ‘capital’ of region 10 – Upper Demerara- Berbice]
In the early morning of August 15 men dressed in police and army uniforms invaded Linden again. This is hours after a concluded negotiation between the government and region 10 representatives. On this occasion a few more citizens were shot. Randy Tello a former boxer was shot through the jaw and in the back. The government say they are unclear as to who did this shooting. The one mile primary school was also set on fire. Citizens caught two men who admitted that they were being paid $1000 for each building they burnt by known government agents. Within 24 hours the police released those men claiming to have no evidence to charge them. The Guyana government is no stranger to arson. Four government ministries have gone up in flames over the years with billions disappearing up in smoke. On August 16 the president [Donald Ramotar] popped into Linden for a photo pop and about 30 people went to go see him. The rest stayed on the streets and protested his presence.
SE: The government have killed protestors, what has been the response to these acts of violence by Guyanese people,
MJ: The reaction of most Guyanese to the shootings are hard to guage. One would like to assume that most are horrified, but outside of Linden, rallies and protests rarely have more than 50 people. Beginning a few years ago the govermment employed the services of a cocaine dealer to eliminate hundreds of ‘criminals’. This and many other outrageous crimes against the people have left most people wary of putting their necks on the line and joining in protests.
SE: Shirlina wrote a moving article about the failure of elite women’s organisations to support Linden. She and Red Thread (an organisation of grassroots women) are involved in the occupy camp and we have updated reports from occupiers. Could you tell us the importance of the occupy movement and the role of women and what you all hope to gain.
MJ: Linden has thousands of single mothers as does Guyana. Women are under constant attack in all forms in Guyana. Domestic violence is at epidemic proportions with hardly a week going by without murders,stabbings, beatings etc. and these are the ones that make the newspaper. Women have also seen their sons, husbands, brothers etc murdered and brutalised over the years by the Guyana government. Remember men are still the primary breadwinners for most families in Guyana so either way you cut it, women loose and they understand that Occupy Guyana is important because government repression has beaten most people into submission. Most people are of the opinion that there is nothing you can do to stop the government atrocities. The appearance of this movement hopefully is a spark that brings more people out in protest against govt crimes and atrocities. Because it would take up too much time we wont get into rampant corruption and nepotism by the Guyana government and this is a country the size of the UK with a population of 700,000 people.
SE: What are the implications of the Guyanese uprising to other parts of the Caribbean/ South America?
MJ: I cannot say what implications these protests will have in the Caribbean or South America because Guyana for the most part is
isolated from both regions. We’re not an island but part of the Caribbean because of our colonial past and we’re not quite part of
South or Latin America because the majority of Guyanese speak English. We have maintained the attachment to the ‘home ‘country European colonialism established. So you would find Guyanese lean more towards England, Canada and the USA.
More updates from the Occupy Georgetown movement which is predominately led by women and the Red Thread organization.
Complaint title: You published a lie put out by Guyana gov
In a recent article on the current socio-economic crisis in Guyana you repeated a few lies that were peddled by the minority govt of Guyana.
The article am referring to is “Guyana probes fatal clash after electricity protest”
Paragraph 1 - there was no clash between protesters and police and three men did not die, they were shot in the region of the heart by police guns, two from behind. I think you call that murder in the UK. the govt’s own autopsy confirms this.
Paragraph 2 - the video and photographic evidence supports the peoples story
Paragraph 3 - “The protesters burnt down a local electricity plant and the offices of the governing PPPC party.”
This is the most egregious paragraph in the report. This lie was peddled by the Guyana govt. can the BBC confirm the location of said office that burnt?
Also, there is no evidence showing that any protester burnt anything in Linden. No one has been arrested.
[i really wanted to tell the BBC that the only people caught for burning anything were caught by the people of Linden and that they were working for govt agents. but there's a word limit on complaints ]
Paragraph 9 - “Linden is no more depressed, no less depressed, no more prosperous, no less prosperous, than many other places in Guyana.”
Sir if the BBC insist on quoting the Prime Minister, the least we can expect are facts and figures related to the economic depression of the various regions of Guyana. Sir having said all this, I think it is only fair and reasonable for the BBC to retract the story and issue an apology to the people of Linden. Unless of course the BBC has new evidence and information.
I would encourage others to file a complaint with the BBC about said article. It will take about ten to fifteen minutes depending on how fast you can read and type
There is an uprising of massive proportions taking place in Linden Guyana. In early July protestors from the Linden communities began daily protests over the lack of jobs [there is 70% 80%unemployment] and their abominable living conditions in a country rich in mineral resources such as bauxite and gold. On the 18th July three men were murdered and many more injured when the Guyanese police attacked the protestors with teargas, pellets and live ammunition.
Twenty three days after the killing of three unarmed protesters in Linden many Guyanese are still in shock. The only other time in our country’s history when peaceful protesters were shot occurred 64 years ago under British colonial rule.
The police massacre on July 18th, 2012 was unprecedented in its barbarity. They fired live ammunition into a crowd peacefully protesting against a 300% hike in their electricity rate. Sure this is the same police force that for many years was led by a rapist; lit an innocent 14 year old boy’s genitals on fire and regularly robs and terrorize the populace. But on July 18th, 2012 they crossed a line that triggered something altogether different in the people of Linden. Now, everything had changed but not everyone felt that way though as I was soon finding out.
Less than 48 hours after the massacre I attended a forum recognizing women’s unwaged work put on by the Women and Gender Equality Commission on. The welcoming remarks, the first, second, and then third speakers all delivered their messages on cue, with nary a word about Linden. I sat there transfixed unable to believe my ears. I had expected as a show of decency, at the very least, a moment of silence for the people killed and injured in Linden. I was immediately scolded when I raised the point.
This is not a women’s issue!
Mothers had lost their sons, but I was being told that this was not a women’s issue. Women had been shot for exercising their right to protest, to express themselves, to assemble in their community, but this was not a women’s issue.
In Linden unemployment is estimated to be about 70%. Most mothers do not know where their child’s next meal is going to come from. However, the Minister of Labor was there talking about husbands helping their wives make the bed and respecting them more.
For an hour and a half the program continued as if all were normal. Finally bursting with the insanity of it all, I approached one of the committee members.
Aren’t we at least going to have a moment of silence for the Linden martyrs?
She looked at me with mild surprise and asked me to wait until she spoke to the chairperson.
“Well it’s not really a women’s issue,” she said when she same back. “But we’ll see. She said she’ll think about it.”
Finally after the minister was finished and just before tea break there was a brief, grudging moment of silence. “There you got your moment” was immediately followed with a condescending pat on the back.
This is not a women’s issue?
I wanted to scream.
Days later standing outside the governing People’s Progressive Party headquarters scream was exactly what I did.
I must admit screaming in public isn’t something I usually do, unlike one of my friends who does this on a fairly regular basis. My rage is a nurturing belly heat held close. I rant and rave, sure, and have been told by a young friend that I can be ‘scary’ when riled up. I am also no stranger to rowing living as I do in a country with numerous opportunities for provocation.
When I was little and in one of my fiery moods, my mother would look at me in bewilderment and ask “Girl, is where you get that passion from, huh?”
She would also try to convince me that ‘you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar’ but I wasn’t interested in catching flies.
Still, even though I have all this passion, I usually don’t scream in public. I don’t count chanting on picket lines.
But that morning, nothing felt better than standing on the street corner and screaming “Murderers!” up at the faces peering out of the windows at us.
The shock and numbness that descended on me after news of the killing w
as lifting, and rage was fast replacing it.
The first set of people on the picket line the day after the shooting were the women from Red Thread.
When I stood alone outside of Police Headquarters with my placard a Staff Sergeant shouted at me to “MOVE OR BE MOVED!”
I was supremely relieved when a vehicle pulled up and Andaiye appeared.
Nevermind that she is a 69 year old woman, just barely recovered from cancer and a heart attack. The fact that she had come to join the picket filled me with fearless righteousness. More courage came from N, another Red Thread woman.
“Mommy, you going and picket?” N’s young son had asked her.
“Yes,” she’d replied.
“But what if they shoot you like they shot those men?” the child had asked anxiously.
N came anyway.
With Indian and Amerindian heritage, her and me, ‘straight hairs’ as Andaiye likes to say, were in the minority on the picket line.
Unfortunately like most things in Guyana the shooting had already been racialized. A protest grounded in economics had degenerated into the usual race politricks. Linden was a Black people town after all and an Indian-led government had imposed the rate hike and ordered police to the scene. Similar protests by Indian people in their villages were not met with a violent response. So it was absolutely correct to read a racial element into the events.
Race is never far from the scene anyway here in lovely Guyana. The picketers with signs that read “We are all Lindeners” were mostly Afro-Guyanese. Columnist Freddie Kissoon, a few opposition party members and a couple other straight hair women from Red Thread were the sum total of Indo-Guyanese on the picket line and at the candlelight vigils.
Picketing is something we are familiar with. We’ve been doing it for years. Mostly we protest issues related to woman and children rights. From pushing for passage of the Sexual Offences Act, to calling for justice for the tortured teen, an increase in the old-age pension, punishment for the unlicensed doctor killing and maiming women in bottom house abortions, and most recently justice for the rape victim of former Police Commissioner Henry Greene.
Some other protests like the middle finger one aimed at our former president, I instigated outside State House, had to do with freedom of speech.
Our pickets are always peaceful and while we may have been looked at as ‘fringe loonies’ by many, for us, taking a public stance in the streets is vital.
Dissent is discouraged here in Guyana, with fear and the threat of retribution causing many to bite their tongues and look the other way in the face of all kinds of outrages. So we are committed to taking back the streets, to making public statements and speaking out. Even if/when we are afraid.
The people of Linden were peacefully protesting as well when twenty three of them were shot, three in the heart. One a teenager, one mentally challenged and the other father of two and chief supporter of his 79 year old mother.
Ron Somerset the 17 year old lost his mother years ago, but his aunts stepped into the void and took care of him as their own.
Shemroy Boyea was mentally challenged and known to be kindhearted and helpful. His mother was on her way home from her job as a security guard when she heard the news of his death.
Daphne Lewis a pensioner isn’t just mourning her son, she is also worrying about how she is going to get by now without his help. There is no safety net for people like her in Guyana.
It is always women who bear the biggest brunt of poverty. As caregivers, women are responsible for finding food to put into hungry children’s mouths, money for school uniforms, medicine, shoes, small treats etc.
It is women who have to cook, clean, wash, as well as nurture, and too often, father as well as mother the children.
So even though the official unemployment in Linden is about 70%, the women of Linden are fully employed. They may not be earning any money, but they are laboring.
Even though no woman was killed in Linden on July 18th, this is absolutely a women’s issue!
Women were shot. Women are taking care of relatives and friends who were shot. Women are camping out in the streets. Women are lying down in front of bulldozers sent to clear the roads. Women are helping to move logs to re-block the road. Women are cooking and feeding their community members and fellow protesters. Women are reporting on the goings on. Women are part of the community’s leadership, negotiating and strategizing the next steps forward.
Women have been and continue to be at the forefront of the Linden uprising as well as beyond in the larger Guyana freedom movement.
Sherlina Nageer is a Guyanese human rights activist, feminist, teacher, and environmentalist.