Building a nation
February 15, 2001
In his television programme `Plain Talk' last Sunday Mr Christopher Ram asked his guest Dr Rupert Roopnaraine why academics like himself and Dr Clive Thomas had stuck it out in Guyana rather than pursuing much more lucrative careers in universities abroad. Dr Roopnaraine answered that he had never really considered settling overseas as a viable option.
It was a thought provoking response. Educated Guyanese, like educated people in other countries, have a natural tendency to see the world as their oyster. Given their skills they believe that they can readily earn a living elsewhere, including in the developed countries. This can easily create a kind of ambivalence, particularly if their own country is undergoing political instability, social unrest and economic stagnation.
A statement of that kind is therefore a heartening beginning. For surely it is clear that we will never have the kind of long term cultural and economic development that we need if the society continues to suffer from continued emigration, if leaving is always a live option, if there remains a fundamental indecision about whether we could or should be doing better or living more comfortably elsewhere.
To start building a nation, there has to be a sufficiently large class of people who want to live here, for whom settling elsewhere is not a viable option, who can handle all the pain and the problems of the society, who see it non-negotiably as their homeland and who are determined to dedicate such skills or ability as they may possess to the building of the nation. Part of this commitment involves a clear understanding of the problems that exist and the strength of purpose and maturity to accept that reality unblinkingly, constructively and without whingeing, while trying to transcend and transform it.
We have to grow up as a people and a nation, but on the basis of trying to grapple with the truth about ourselves and our society. This is not Greece, it is not Rome, it is not India, it is not Africa, it is not England, it is not America. It has inherited and learnt things from all of those societies. But the end result is somewhat different. We must speak plainly about ourselves in an effort to discover who we are.
The nation will be built by achieving some degree of cultural confidence, by overcoming the debilitating self-doubt that was the most negative legacy of colonialism, by trying to stand upright as free men. Dr Roopnaraine is pointing us in the right direction but a whole lot of work remains to be done to develop the vision more clearly. We have to convince ourselves, without equivocation or dishonesty, that though we may see ourselves in some ways as citizens of the world and abhor any kind of petty chauvinism, this is where we want to be, our home base.
There is a final point. Though there are some French intellectuals who would consider Napoleon a disastrous rather than a great ruler of France they would nevertheless acknowledge him as a national icon. Just so we must be able to accept Cheddi and Janet Jagan and Forbes Burnham as among the founding figures of our modern nation, however deeply flawed we may think them to have been and whatever ideological disagreements we may have. We have to have our own sense of our own history, to create our own myths, as the English did with their Drakes and their Raleighs. More broadly, no novelist has written with a more lacerating insight of the foibles of his people, the Scrooges and the Gradgrinds, the hypocrites and the buffoons, than Charles Dickens. Yet he had a redeeming vision of them all and would go around the country acting out his beloved characters to adoring audiences, many of whom were deeply familiar with his work. Unlike a Naipaul, who had the insight but not the depth of humanity or the love. We have to develop some more respect for each other, in all our profound ordinariness and banality.
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