Viola Burnham ...An obituary
Stabroek News
October 12, 2003

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Viola Victorine Burnham, widow of President Forbes Burnham and a former Vice-President and Deputy Prime Minister, died on 10 October, aged 72.

As with the Commonwealth’s most famous female Prime Ministers - India’s Indira Gandhi, Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto and Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike - who succeeded to high office only by chance as a result of the deaths of their male relatives, it was expected, even if only briefly, that Viola Burnham would follow suit. Her husband, President Forbes Burnham, died suddenly on 6 August 1985. What would she do?

Although Viola Burnham was not then in the People’s National Congress Administration, she was already famous. She was a leading light in the women’s movement in her own right. Her name, Burnham, was a household word. She held the chair of the Women’s Revolutionary Socialist Movement (WRSM) and was a member of the Central Committee of the People’s National Congress (PNC). Both the party’s congress and the national elections later in 1985 provided opportunities for an ambitious woman to exploit the sympathy of supporters to ride into office.

Party members were suspicious about Desmond Hoyte’s ideas and friends who occupied what could be called the ‘right wing’. Veteran Burnhamites belonged to the ‘left wing’ and were desperately seeking a successor in the image and likeness of their departed leader. The hopeful Hamilton Green hovered among the rank and file with his eyes on the founder-leader’s fallen mantle.

The adulation once reserved for Forbes Burnham was transferred to his widow who, as the closest being to his reincarnation, was expected somehow to carry on the tradition of leadership. There is little doubt in those days that, had Viola chosen to play the Burnham card, Hoyte would have been trumped.

She didn’t.

By choosing to join President Desmond Hoyte’s Cabinet, Viola Burnham signalled that there would be no revolt, at least from her side. The succession crisis was over. Her integrity, like that of Caesar’s wife, was beyond reproach. She was given the high rank of Vice-President and Deputy Prime Minister and a soft portfolio with responsibility for Education and Social Development, including Culture. She was elected to the National Assembly in December, 1985.

But these were hard times for Guyana and Desmond Hoyte had to make hard decisions. Many of the policies and projects that Viola Burnham had espoused prior to 1985 had to be thrown out of the window. Cooperative socialism was a ‘closed chapter’ of Guyana’s history. State enterprises were to be privatized and the economy liberalised. The Administration was being systematically ‘de-Burnhamised’ and less and less reference was made to the founder-leader’s legacy.

In 1989, Viola Burnham was appointed Vice-President, Ministry of Culture and Social Development, with responsibility for Women, Children and Young Persons and for the administration of the Social Impact Amelioration Programme (SIMAP) component of Guyana’s Economic Recovery Programme.

Like everyone else, she could not fail to see that the tide had turned. She may have perceived, too, that her personal position had become peripheral; her role was restricted; her stature, diminished. In July 1991, fifteen months before the PNC was to lose the October 1992 elections, she resigned. Thereafter, she withdrew from the political centre stage into the seclusion of her homestead and the privacy of her pet projects.

In truth, she had always appeared to be ill at ease with internal party politics and her acceptance of office was a difficult duty done to demonstrate that the Burnhamites, of whom she was the natural leader, supported Hoyte, and that the unity of the party that her late husband had founded had been preserved.

An indication of her attitude to party politics was evident in her response to a reporter a few months after her marriage. She said that she preferred to stay in the background. “ I don’t think that I am temperamentally suited to active politicking and there are so many other things to be done - important but necessary - that I can do...In any case, one politician in a husband-and-wife relationship is enough, especially if one of them is a Prime Minister”, she said.


For years, Viola Burnham had been well known, mainly as the wife of Guyana’s maximum leader Forbes Burnham. Whatever she did, she seemed always to be in her husband’s shadow; faithful and above reproach, rather than a firebrand. She was an educated woman of culture.

She eschewed the great ideological debates over socialism that rent the PNC in the 1970s. Viola Burnham’s driving passion seemed to be less in power-seeking than in empowerment and, with that in mind, she surfed the waves in the rising tide of the women’s movement. She defined her approach in simple terms: “What our women seem to need is education in a general sense: they need organisation and the ability to organise others; they need to know where they are going, why they are going there and how to get there; and, most important, they need to know, as the men do, too, that in a country like ours, a tremendous amount of hard work and selflessness is essential for progress”.

In 1967, the year of her marriage, she was elected first Vice-Chairman of the WRSM, the PNC’s women’s arm, but was not to reach the Chairmanship for nine years. During the 1970s, she was to play a most important role in advancing women’s rights in Guyana. This was a time of worldwide agitation for ‘women’s liberation’ and Viola Burnham was at the hub of the movement in Guyana.

She was a founder-member and first Vice-President of the Caribbean Women’s Association (CARIWA) and led Guyana’s delegations to congresses in St. Kitts-Nevis (1972); Grenada (1974); and Trinidad and Tobago (1976), presenting papers on ‘The Role of Women in Politics’ and, ‘Women on the Move’. She also led Guyana’s delegations to the World Conferences of the United Nations Decade for Women in Mexico (1975), Copenhagen (1980) and Nairobi (1985).

Her efforts in the women’s movement bore fruit in the presentation of the State Paper on Equality for Women in the National Assembly (1976). The signing and ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the enshrinement of the principle of equality for women under Article 29 of the 1980 Constitution are also the results, in part, of Viola Burnham’s tireless exertions.

Less prominent, though no less pertinent, was Viola Burnham’s contribution to the protection of children. She was appointed to the chair of the Guyana National Commission of the International Year of the Child in 1979 and, the following year, became patron of the Guyana Commission for Children’s Welfare.

Even prior to accepting these honorific appointments, however, she had been an active member of Georgetown’s Children’s Welfare and Maternity Committee and a Member of the Hospital Administration Committee. In 1976, she participated in the planning implementation of an education programme for parents and young children which would complement the formal education system.

Under Viola Burnham’s unhurried hand, the Women’s Revolutionary Socialist Movement seemed to grow more evolutionary than revolutionary, and more gradualist than socialist. Viola Burnham changed the image and modified the mission of the WRSM by small, incremental steps, rather than by attempting the huge leaps favoured by her husband in the political and economic field. As a result, she was able to transform her party’s doughty but undistinguished women’s auxiliary into a vibrant social organisation.

No Winnie Mandela, she never tried to build the WRSM into a political power-base to support her elevation to high office. But she was no slouch either. She did work hard to mould the Movement into an economic powerhouse, enabling it to embark on a variety of urban and rural women’s micro-projects. Many of these were well-meaning: they sought to employ as many women as possible in labour-intensive jobs such as garment manufacture; to introduce simple and appropriate technology such as the ‘grate-o-mate’ hand machine, or to use local products such as rice and plantain flour. The response, however, was underwhelming and none really stood the test of time.

There is little doubt that Forbes Burnham’s leadership of the Government had much to do with Viola Burnham’s easy access to resources. International organisations such as the Inter-American Development Bank and UNICEF and national institutions such as the state-owned Guyana Co-operative Agricultural and Industrial Development Bank provided financial support to these WRSM projects and, by 1984, twenty such projects were in operation. This effort culminated in the ambitious, and ultimately unsuccessful, Vanceram Tableware Factory Ltd., a commercial attempt to produce ceramics from indigenous materials.

Earlier, in 1971, Viola Burnham had established a co-operative cultivation micro-project called the ‘Dynamic Youth Farmers Co-operative’ which included a co-operative housing scheme for its members. The next year, she co-ordinated a rural training course for male and female rice farmers. She took a crash course in crop husbandry and livestock-rearing in an attempt to establish herself as a small farmer, rearing livestock and growing cash crops and orchard fruits at her farms in the Stabroek backlands in Georgetown and at Belfield on the East Coast Demerara.

Much of this public activism contrasted with Viola Burnham’s private upbringing, early school-teaching career and genteel disposition.

Born on 26 November 1930 in New Amsterdam, Berbice, the youngest of eight children of schoolmaster James Nathaniel Harper and his wife Mary (née Chin), Viola Victorine Harper attended the All Saints Scots School from which she won a Government County Scholarship to the Berbice High School. But, as her father had died and the family decided to move to Georgetown, she entered Smith’s Church Congregational School. Once again, she won a Government County Scholarship which, this time, was tenable at the Bishops’ High School.

After taking her Advanced Levels, she started to work at the Argosy newspaper alongside the likes of Olga Armstrong, Hector Bunyan, Billy Carto, Henry Josiah and Connie Theobald, all legendary figures in the annals of Guyanese journalism. Condemned to social assignments and confined to editing the women’s pages, she found journalism stimulating but unsatisfying. So she quit reporting and switched to teaching, starting out in 1950 at the Broad Street (later renamed Dolphin) Government School.

She taught there for four years and applied for a conditional scholarship which took her to Leicester University College, UK, where she obtained her BA (honours) in Latin. Four years later, she read for her MA in Education at the University of Chicago, USA. In between her university studies, she taught Latin at Bishops’ High School, the position from which she was swept into a much-anticipated marriage by Guyana’s new Prime Minister.

Viola Burnham was very much a product of mid-twentieth century Guyana. Her eighteen-year marriage to Forbes Burnham had thrust her into the limelight. With his death and her short stint in office, it was time to retire into the twilight.

Apart from battling the debilitating disease which eventually took her life, she resorted to her pastimes of designing greeting cards, clothing and fabrics; interior decorating; painting and, of course, running her little farm.

She had travelled widely as the wife of the Prime Minister and President, receiving awards from countries such as the Republic of Guinea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. In 1984, the year before Forbes Burnham’s death, she received the Order of Roraima, Guyana’s second highest honour.

She died on 10 October 2003, satisfied that she had been a dutiful wife to her husband, a devoted leader of the women’s movement and a dedicated citizen of Guyana.