The wellbeing of Guyanese society based on skills, education and culture By Terence Roberts
Guyana Chronicle
November 3, 2002

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Part 1

WHEN the wellbeing or contentment of citizens becomes based only on the immediate possession of money, society is faced with a crisis. Guyanese society is faced with such a crisis today. Both the aggressive robber and the citizen concerned only with acquiring money, rather than a socially responsible approach to making money, are linked by irresponsible behaviour. But rather than condemn such persons outright, we should also look into the social viewpoints and habits which may have created such a social attitude. Of course, there are some people who could be born this way due to a deficient mental inheritance. Such people become apparent when we notice that they never speak or act positively, and never learn.

By the age of seven, which is the age of reason, any child in today’s money-managed societies begins to see the importance of money, and of having it. But if that child never learns, or is never taught that the true meaning and pleasure of living comes from the process of how we make a living, how we earn money, then that child could end up being a dangerous or irresponsible citizen within the society, or what is popularly referred to as an `outlaw’.

The moment money becomes the only goal in life, the end-all-and-be-all of being alive, society has entered a crisis. This occurs because money or currency had survived for thousands of years by cultivating practical creative skills which brought both survival and pleasure to the human race. A society loaded with money, but with little skills, education, and culture on which to use and spend it, is bound to be a listless and discontented society.

The happiness of humans throughout time always depended on this question: `What next?’ After the good meal, the fistful of dollars, the cheque in the bank, the beautiful house built, the fancy car bought, the desirable spouse married, the new government installed etc., etc., this is the crucial question which gives or denies happiness to us. Even when in some circumstances the very pillars upon which society stands are condemned and dismantled as rotten, corrupt, etc., we must still return to their functions, or we will have no society at all. This is the case with necessities such as the Law, national militias, government ministries, etc. The person or social group that thinks its problem and discontentments will be finally solved, over and done with, once their demands are met, are, quite simply, foolish. The social struggles, frustrations, and discontentments of humans begin at birth. That is why it is our parents, our fathers and mothers, who are the first persons responsible for our happiness and wellbeing.

Societies are in crisis today because even with all the various skills possessed by their citizens, these skills must be wanted and paid for with money. This process of money-reward does not work perfectly because it does not eliminate any bias and corruption involved in choosing who to employ, who to pay for their skills, etc. This dilemma involving money-reward exists because it is not based on any inherently natural function. Money is an artificial thing to which value is applied, but skills, education, and culture are naturally valuable processes of learning, which, even by themselves, are useful, and therefore pleasurable.

For this reason, the farmer, fisherman, woodcutter, welder, miner, cartman, bus driver, schoolteacher, doctor, nurse, cook, craftsman, tailor, seamstress, baker, poet, painter, designer, printer, sculptor, journalist, publisher, carpenter, labourer, musician, actor, brewer, market vendor, merchant, trader, shopkeeper, soldier, sailor, hooker, and all other basic functionaries, mostly choose their jobs because of some aspect they enjoy in exercising their skills.

In today’s societies, when professions may be chosen or changed simply for the purpose of `better salary’, such a choice or change does not guarantee better job results or better products. Also today, much more than in the past, access to historical knowledge has fostered a frustrating and impractical value to formal education, especially among young Afro and Indo Guyanese. This is so because knowledge of each race’s historical exploitation in colonial Guiana and the region, does not yield much tangible present day results. Such knowledge yields mostly mental awareness of past cruelties and lessons. Indeed historical cruelties brooded upon can poison the mind’s fresh vitality, and extend historical pains indefinitely into the innocent future. Guyana today needs and seeks more tangible creative skills, rather than a mere mental awareness of having been historically wronged.

Here, we see that Guyana and Guyanese society can become victims of their history over and over again. First, in our already lived and consumed historical past, and once again, in our frustrating and sterile regurgitation and retribution for that history. Our labouring Afro and Indian ancestors may very well end up having more tangible creative skills than their descendants today! Our ancestors were brought here because they had worth, not because they were worthless.

Dutch immigrant planters to Guiana imported specific Africans skilled in rice production in the 18th century; and later, in the 19th century, British colonials imported Oriental indentured servants even more experienced and skilled in rice production. Such labour is not ever useless because the labourers received no pay. In fact, African slaves employed by the Dutch in Essequibo and Demerara were often quite effective in demanding to be well fed, even with imported Dutch products and drinks, or they refused to work.

Useful historical records inform us of practical skills acquired by African slaves and their descendants during Dutch rule in Guiana; skills better developed than those they had brought with them from Africa, such as cooper-smith work, detailed carpentry, sewing, and more fertile methods of agriculture and irrigation. Later, we see the importance of further skills when British colonials forbid Africans to be taught reading and writing in European languages.

A majority of ancient labourers in Guyana were therefore quite equipped to live upon the landscape they inherited. The seeds of education and culture, both non-European and European, were planted here by these basic skills. Such positive qualities, before money, guaranteed our survival in Guyana over centuries, and laid the foundation for the wellbeing of Guyanese society today. Without these qualities in our hands today, we have no hope of ever earning money.

BECAUSE everyone needs money to live, the path to obtaining money through legal employment, business ventures, etc., becomes susceptible to suspicions, accusations of unfairness, as well as actual wrong-doings. At some point, this social reality has to be looked at reasonably and calmly, without resorting to violence, if not, the very chance of a solution, or solutions, will vanish day by day, and the entire society and country will suffer.

Do Guyanese deserve such a crisis? Quite frankly, no. For those who do not as yet know it, Guyana is not actually as poor as it may seem. Despite all the social theories and definitions concerning `Third World' countries we may subscribe to, we still have to see our society and country exactly as it is, with all its distinct geographical, historical and multiracial qualities which demand appropriate attitudes which lead to social contentment.

What works for us as a specific society, is what matters. An inability to look at ourselves, our society, our country, carefully, rather than seeing ourselves `like’ others because of race, language or religious doctrines, can lead to a disastrous importing of unnecessary problems, added to those we already naturally possess.

Looking at ourselves, solving our problems, does not mean suddenly isolating ourselves from other nations, near or far away. But solutions to a money crisis, which also involve the fair distribution of jobs, wages, business opportunities, etc., will mainly come from increased national productivity at a variety of levels. You cannot earn money unless you have something to exchange for it; both on a personal and national level. Even gambling calls for money to bet in order to win more money. Some skill, labour, profession, service, craft, knowledge, etc. Productivity comes first, money second. Even if something awaits its buyers, it exists, you have it.

As an abstract painter, I learnt this lesson well. A number of times in my career as a painter, paintings which I had painted 20 years ago, or two years ago, suddenly sold, and I felt as if I had received a gift of money, because I had forgotten about those paintings and moved on to others. Hope exists because the world of humans is unpredictable and changes from human to human. As Marley once sang philosophically: “Why do you look so said and forsaken? Don’t you know when one door is closed, another is open?”

So Guyanese have to `lively up’ themselves positively towards each other and not just towards their race and social class if they seek to solve their social problems. Proper reasoning has to prevail in order to find solutions that function correctly. Following the crowd without thinking carefully can lead to hasty and chronic social errors.

Residing among people who possess their own self-sufficient and righteous styles of living. Can teach us helpful lessons. In 1966, I became one of five young Guyanese teachers living among the Wapishana and Wai-Wai tribes deep in the South Rupununi. As teachers, we did not depend upon these people for food, but brought in our own foodstuff by plane fortnightly from Georgetown. But when the local airline had a strike for over a month, we ran out of food. We had lots of money between ourselves, but could purchase nothing, no wild meat, or vegetables, or fruits from the Indians in whose village we lived, because they placed no value on currency back then. What they needed and asked for in return for their fresh meat, vegetables and fruits, were matches, salt, flour, sugar, cooking oil. We managed to barter with the little remainder of these items we had, but almost starved until the strike was over.

Similarly, in the 1980s, when Guyana could not afford cash payments for all its oil imports from Venezuela, Guyana’s young Foreign Affairs Minister, Mr. Parris, and Venezuela’s senior versatile Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Gonsalvi, worked out a system of barter where our bauxite was exchanged for their oil. Things, as well as productivity, saved the day.

In Georgetown once, there were egg matinees, one egg was your ticket at the cinema door. And though higher education is a necessity, work is not certain. A small society like Guyana’s cannot find places for all its University graduates, especially in certain subjects, when they are released yearly. Higher education, therefore, can be seen as a process leading to exported skills, which can find employment elsewhere if not immediately at home. In this area, intellectuals also emerge with ideas which are more speculative than tangible. They may think endlessly without arriving at any practical occupation of ignored importance to the nation. Consequently, just as it is important to choose carefully what sort of business one wants to open, it is also important to choose carefully one’s area of study.

Agriculture and industries derived from agriculture can turn Guyana into a unique country in the region, while being a good moneymaker. Most Guyanese should know this by now. But other money-making areas providing necessities exist as well. Those potential business builders who simply imitate what others have done by opening up the same type of stores selling the same products which already saturate the market, may quickly stagnate. But the genuinely resourceful business person will find out how to import unique products for the public, whether they be footwear, bicycles, posters, films, literature, etc. Such people will not give the public what it has already, but what it does not have. There are so many interesting things lacking in Guyana today, that interesting business opportunities abound.

A variety of unique businesses is what can generate a better livelihood locally, and stimulate the economy, while bringing back badly needed pleasures in everyday living in Georgetown, its environs, and rural areas. Providing a variety of products, items, commodities, for the mind and body, is a proven value which stimulates the making of money. Both education and culture are pleasures which have created booming businesses in all civilised countries. Guyana should seek to be one such country.

However, violence and aggression perpetuate a situation of no winners. Absolutely no one will pay attention to countries and societies where they cannot venture out day or night to stores, clubs, cinemas, cafes, friends’ houses, parks, seawalls, etc., without fear of being attacked or robbed.

Do Guyanese deserve such a crisis? Frankly, no.