We need to recognise and appreciate our plurality

Stabroek News
December 25, 2001

Dear Editor,

I appreciate Shaun Michael Samaroo's intentions in his letter captioned "We must mature as a people and stop looking back" (l.l2.200l). He desires that Guyanese inculcate a mindset of oneness because we are "one race of human beings with red blood", and therefore should not harp on the cultures of our forefathers and articulate ethnic concerns.

It is disappointing that he equates the expressions of ethnic and cultural concerns with the unprofessional TV programmes that have sunk to the depths of casting racial aspersions; raising ethnic and cultural concerns is not necessarily tantamount to racism.

He is alarmed by a letter writer's concerns about lack of appreciation of the East Indian presence in the West Indian literature (and history books). What shall we do in such a case; shall we hope the problem will eventually correct itself with time? Shall not ethnic groups speak out against injustice? A quick look at the ethnic dilemma in Europe, Africa, India and our own Guyana attests that ethnic problems do not correct itself when ignored; rather they persist and could go undetected with devastating consequences. Rev. Martin Luther King (Jr.) was not a racist when he addressed issues that underlined racism against blacks in the USA. And Alex Haley was not a racist because he had a fascination about his African roots which he took patience and pain to delve into.

American as well as Guyanese blacks are getting back with their roots as seen in their splendid African dress and celebration of their culture. Who would tell the blacks in America that they should not express their Africanness but blend in with what is mainstream "Ameri-can"?

Shaun emphasized that we are a product of the British Empire and as such we should not celebrate our African and Indian traditions because the "alien" culture and language is either too far removed or totally incomprehensible. This reminds me of the time when those of a similar mindset convinced me that it was okay to see the "The Sound of Music" movie but it was sinful to see the Indian movie "Dosti" (which means "friendship"). As an adolescent, I was conditioned to think that everything British was good and proper and everything Indian (and African) was sinister. The imperialists convinced many of us that what the massa had dictated was virtuous for us. However, I love to listen to African music even though I do not understand a word of it; I find the harmony and enthusiasm effervescent and pulsating. Similarly, many Indo Guyanese would choose to watch an Indian movie over an English one even if there are no English subtitles! Many Guyanese are in awe with the sweet sounds of Indian tunes even in the absence of a literal cognizance of it all. Affinity to a culture does not necessarily require cognizance of every countenance of that culture. And so even though I love to listen to Mozart, Bach and Handel give me any day a good sitar, tabla and Indian flute music!

Mwulimu Mwanna's desire to be in touch with his ancestral traditions and views are understandable, though as a Christian, from a spiritual point of view, I cannot appreciate his Obeah rituals. Like Mr. Mwanna, many Guyanese long to be in touch with their past. Many friends and family are in awe with my travels in India and dream about touching and seeing that land for themselves. And I remember a famous reggae musician about 6 years ago who blurted out to his audience in Africa something along the lines, "I am African; I longed to come to Africa, for this is where I belong!" - followed by a thunderous applause of his listeners. To that musician, the Africans were his kith and kin. And like that musician, I relished being in India, dwelling, interacting and intermingling with the Indians. Indeed, it is a delectable feeling to be juxtaposed to one's roots.

We are intricately tied to our past whether we wish to face it or not. The music (and dance) in Guyana, for example, is often directly that of India or derived from there. The calypso, reggae and rap (and "wining") are derived from Africa. How can we say then that we should sever ancestral ties?

Samaroo admonishes us against sectarianism because we are "one people" as a result of our "unique accent, an acquired taste for Guyanese food, and a definite Guyanese style". But there is no mono-distinct Guyanese accent; the accent in George-town is markedly different from that in East Berbice. Similarly, Indians in general loathe beef and pork but love a good dal and rice with coconut choka, whereas Afro Guyanese love a good pig-tail and souse, and the Amerin-dians are more fond of cassava bread. In any case, these commonalities are very superficial and are inadequate for us to bind us as "one people". Our oneness should consummate because of our singularity in purpose for harmony, achieving our societal and national goals and appreciating our inter-relation and togetherness.

Emphasising exclusively our oneness is woefully inadequate to solidify nationalism and cooperation among Guyanese. While this is important, I feel that it is even more important to recognize and appreciate the plurality that is in Guyana to foster harmony. We are a nation of different races, different religions, and different musical tastes, etc. As I mentioned in a previous letter, we are not a "cook-up" rice; rather we are a delicious assortment of salad dish in which each ingredient constitutes a vital part for the nutrition of the country. We need to recognise and appreciate our plurality. In my opinion, that is a firmer recipe for harmony and progress.

Though the world is becoming a global village because of the internet and other technological advances, groups across the world are becoming more cognizant of their culture and speak out against domination. Peoples' mores are different and concerns could be easily overlooked. Thanks be to God for a free press in Guyana so that there may be an opportunity to voice one's concerns. And we should take time to listen to one's concerns before condemning one as intolerant with pernicious intentions.

Yours faithfully,

Devanand Bhagwan