The past we are creating now'
May 14, 2000
The words - "the past we are creating now" come from a modern historian, whose name, I think, is Michael Harris. When I read them in a journal recently they made me think. What was the past created for me and others of my generation and how did that past shape us? And what, in turn, is the past my generation created for those after? When I look at children standing on my bridge and curse them to myself because they litter my bridge and the street just outside even while I am looking straight at them, I should remember instead that the past I inherited was (in part) a garden city and the past they inherited a rubbish heap.
I become two people. "Oh, stop being so holier-than-thou," the other one says. "You know they want two good..." The second self has to remind the first that she doesn't believe in violence.
Other days, when I stumble over the outstretched feet of vendors one half of me has to remind the other half that I'm on their side; after all, as someone once said to me, "they coulda did tief." And often, they have a drive to survive that could be turned into something better for them, and for the rest of us. But the side that has to stumble over the outstretched feet they so casually don't move till you quarrel and then "sorry muds," they say, "yuh shoppin?" - that side grits its teeth and curses them silently. There are far bigger villains than they abroad in the country but their feet are not visibly in my way.
I know the past the vendors inherited. If they are twenty years old they were born in 1980 and the past they inherited were the years in which the economy began to fall apart, and the education system, and health, and left them little to inherit except - miraculously - that drive to survive. A past which guaranteed that one day they would have to come in their thousands to buy and sell on the street, and to litter it too. (To digress a bit since the vendors made me think of the City Council, how does the Council decide which citizen is errant and which errant citizen it will make obey the law? More of this another day).
What is the past that children born this year will inherit? How much of it will be good? Imagine a boy or girl 10 years old, 10 years from now. His or her past which we are creating now is what? The racial/political tug-of-war that some are still claiming isn't there. The disrespect ethnic groups express for each other in the most daily conversations. The rage in that traffic. The violence just below the surface. The violence above the surface. And then two more things whose destructiveness is more insidious - the rate of functional illiteracy and the rate of HIV/AIDS in the country.
We have all seen the figures for both but they bear looking at again and they bear looking at next to each other. The lack of functional literacy in low and high places reaches as high as 89 per cent among out-of-school youth, who are many. The level of HIV infection is so high that it makes Guyana "one of the few countries in the Americas where HIV has spread beyond vulnerable groups into the general population, which makes us a place which has "probably one of the most advanced AIDS epidemics in the Western Hemisphere."
To dwell on AIDS for a minute more - according to a survey in 1997, 45 per cent of female commercial sex workers in Georgetown tested positive for HIV - an increase of 25 per cent over the rate found in a similar survey in 1993. According to figures from the GUM clinic:
* Between 1987-1999, there was a total of 1601 cases, that is, 100 cases per 100,000 people (This is how reports are worded, with that telling juxtaposition of "cases" and "people" or "population".) Since there is much under-reporting, the figure is probably two to three times higher. Thirty-six per cent of all those infected are women, 64 per cent men.
* Rates range from 3 per cent to 7 per cent among antenatal attendees and blood donors, and from 21 per cent to 45 per cent in vulnerable groups.
* The majority of those infected are women and men at their most productive years and at their peak reproductive years. Look at their ages. The age group with the most infection is the 19-35 age group, with the highest concentration of cases being in the 20-24 age group, accounting for 24 per cent of all those infected. Many persons aged 18-25 are being diagnosed with AIDS. Since AIDS takes long to develop, they probably became infected in their early teens, their mid teens or their late teens.
* There are about 50 HIV-infected babies born each year.
It is not that there is nothing at all good happening in Guyana; it's that the good is overwhelmed by the bad. There are two planes of reality - a surface one in which we go about our business, acting as though if we ignore the other one it will go away. Individuals speak out, yes, but each one speaks on her or his own and is greeted by silence. The journalist who recently inveighed against what was happening in the health sector. The columnist who regularly rails against the state of our education system. Whatever protest is raised by one person or a few people, the rest of us respond with silence and we do so out of the habit of believing that things are out of our hands.
But imagine ourselves ten years from now! What will the rate of functional illiteracy be? The rate of HIV infection? The number of persons vending because that is all there is for them? The number of minibuses? The volume at which everyone from churches to itinerant music vendors will play their music? How much more rage in the traffic? Violence below the surface, violence above - personal, political, racial? Imagine the 10 year old boy or girl, 10 years from now, with all this past that we are creating for them now.