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The cumulative effect of these observances has kindled in the baby-boomers and the 60-something generation memories of that era that straddled the years of the anti-colonial struggle and the early post-Independence period, when the people of this country sought to re-invent themselves and to forge a distinctive identity as Guyanese.
It was indeed a remarkable era. By the 1960s, the nationalist fire that kindled in the bellies and souls of political leaders from the late 1940s had assumed the character of a steady blaze that was to be continually buffeted by powerful international winds and storms, as well as by domestic gusts from those sections of society that had an ingrained distaste and an almost violent hostility for any local political leadership. The leading heroes of the nationalist movement were Cheddi Jagan, Forbes Burnham, Janet Jagan, Ashton Chase, Sydney King (now Eusi Kwayana), Ramkarran, Martin Carter, Jocelyn Hubbard, Jane Phillips-Gay, Jessie Burnham and others. The citizens, most of whom were working-class men and women, were proud of their leaders and would leave their homes in the evenings and wend their way to Parade Ground (now Independence Park) and Bourda Green (now the extended municipal market) and wait for hours to hear their favourite political leaders on the hustings.
In the book ‘Walter Rodney Speaks’, the late Guyanese and Third World thinker captured the mood of that era with these lines: “When you went out to political meetings you also saw people that you knew. My mother, who was a simple woman, would walk far distances from our house to go to political meetings, perhaps carrying a little bench in her hand so that ultimately she could sit down, since those meetings lasted for hours. One expected to hear at least a dozen major speakers who would come on and give rousing speeches. Each one of them had names that they carried like ‘the Bengal Tiger’, etc. These were our people expressing themselves in a way that they certainly weren’t taught in secondary school. Because I knew from my experience, and I moved on into secondary school shortly after, that the schools were very hostile to this kind of manifestation. Secondary schools weren’t about training people to express themselves for the people.”
Just last week, two senior regional journalists found themselves comparing the differences in stature and personalities between present-day Caribbean political leaders and the Premiers and Prime Ministers of decades ago. Leaders such as Alexander Bustamante and Norman and Michael Manley of Jamaica; Dr. Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago; Errol Barrow of Barbados; and Forbes Burnham and Cheddi Jagan of Guyana, were all infused by the energy and solidarity of a working-class citizenry essentially seeking bread and justice, and a better quality of life for their children. Years after their deaths, the visions, achievements and philosophies of these leaders are re-examined and honoured by their people. These pre-Independence leaders emerged in part as a response to the stringencies of colonial rule and were fired with the idea of leading their people into dignified nationhood and economic advancement. The present generation must never lose sight of these laudable goals.