Fashioning a national identity

Stabroek News
August 9, 2001

Dear Editor,

I refer to Ravi Dev's letter [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] regarding David de Caires assertions on nation building. It is clear that Guyana, now newly democratic, is going through the throes and pains of fashioning a national identity. Mr. de Caires, in his response, refers to the USA and to sections of West Africa. Mr. Dev references the Ottoman Empire as a possible model of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural co-existence.

But I assert that many of these foreign models cannot be applied to the realities of Guyana. Guyanese leaders must have the foresight to create an identity, that is locally fashioned to suit our realities. I harken to a letter published by Ms Ryhaan Shah which referred to a professor at the University of the West Indies saying that Indians in the Caribbean must become West Indian. The image that one gets when the term "West Indian" is used, is a black descendant of slaves with a culture that is heavily Anglicized with some remnants of their African culture. It does not incorporate the about 25% minority Indian component of the English speaking Caribbean.

Creating a West Indian identity like the one suggested by the professor would annihilate this Indian minority, would result in an Africanization-Anglicization of Indo-West Indians. We have resisited this coercion, this attempt to "assimilate and disappeared" throughout the Caribbean. In places like Jamaica, for instance, the Indian component has all but disappeared. In Trinidad and Guyana and Suriname, we have been able to retain much of our identity.

The professor is suggesting that the minority adopt the culture of the majority. Were we to apply this to Guyana, the black and Chinese and Portuguese and Amerindian components of the population, would then have to adopt a new Indian identity in order to "integrate". I'm sure that is not what we intend.

Whatever model is finally arrived at, let us have a society where different ethnic groups can maintain their individual identities and still feel "Guyanese". We must still have dhal puri and cook-up rice and mandirs and mosques and churches and our children can still have names like Indira and Radica, Lumumba and Odinga, names like Kwan and DeSouza, and still feel Guyanese. We must all feel that any one can go to a wedding house and have the seven curries or attend a Nikka, or sit in a church pew and hear Christian gospels. In the same way that calypso blares all over the country, Indian music must also be allowed to blare from everywhere, irrespective of ethnicity. A society based on this kind of respect and understanding of cultures different from ours, can only help in the long run. It will help to reduce distrust and give us a more object view of politicians and where they're coming from.

It is clear that in Guyana the Indian component is constantly being bombarded with an overriding Anglicized dominant culture. Many use this Anglicization as their point of reference with the result that Indian culture takes a back seat and there is minimal understanding of Guyana's Indianness in the larger society. Indian culture here is still seen as an "other". When we can incorporate every section of the society into a dominant culture, then and only then will we begin to feel an "identity" that we can call our own.

Yours faithfully,
Rohan Sooklall

Editor's note
We must start with an understanding of our own culture and who we are. We have all been here for over l50 years, some much longer. We are no longer Africans or Indians but Guyanese, despite some cultural relics, in many cases syncretic. Persons of African and Indian descent in Guyana no longer fit in in Africa or India. The West Indian is a new, different person. We must start by debating, honestly, what the West Indian is.