In The Diaspora
By Linden Lewis
Stabroek News
May 7, 2007

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This is one of a series of fortnightly columns from Guyanese in the diaspora

(Ms Lewis is Professor of Sociology at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania)

On May 1, the Stabroek News reported the violent death of Radika Singh of Good Hope, East Coast Demerara. The sad reality is that many Guyanese have almost become immune to the daily visitation of violence, murder and brutal assaults so that this report of a murder might not have caused too much concern outside of the circle of immediate friends and family of the victim. Nonetheless, this news item was shocking even for those close observers of the Guyanese scene. Radika was beaten to death because she was believed to be an Old Higue. The allegation against her was that she was believed to have sucked a baby's blood and left a mark on the child's chest. Many of us would have grown up on a rich Guyanese diet of folk culture replete with mythical figures such as moon-gazers, mermaids/fairmaids, jumbies, masacura man and yes, old higues. Nothing however prepared us for this perversion of culture, where myth and reality became so twisted, and ended so tragically.

It is too simple, to reduce this brutal beating to stupidity or mere superstition. This is after all, a country in which political maneuvering resulted in official endorsement and legitimizing of obeah. Radika Singh's death should not be dismissed without raising some serious questions about the culture of violence that engulfs contemporary Guyanese society. First, the community surrounded the woman and threw rice around her. As the myth goes, the old higue cannot pass over the rice and is forced to pick it up one grain at a time. Next, some people threw kerosene oil on her in an effort to burn her to death, but as reported, she would not burn, confirming in the minds of some that she was indeed an old higue. Finally, in accordance with the folk legend, they proceeded to beat this woman with a manicole broom. One can only imagine the intensity of this beating, which must have been administered with such force as to result in death.

Frantz Fanon, the Martinican psychiatrist and philosopher, addressed this matter of violence and culture, when he discussed the issue of what he called 'collective catharsis'. Collective catharsis is an affective or emotional release that is used as an outlet for all of the pent up forces of aggression, anger and frustration of the community. In a mind-boggling collective action, the residents of Bare Root displaced all of their rage upon a hapless, defenseless and, we have since learned, mentally ill woman in an orgy of violence. There are some very disturbing issues to ponder here. How could there be such consensus about the certainty of this woman's alleged magical powers? Were there no dissenting voices, no voices of reason pleading for clemency? Why did no one call the police while this heinous crime was being committed in an effort to stop the brutality? Vigilantism is not unheard of in Guyana, but when the line between folklore and reality becomes blurred, does this not take matters to a whole new level of nihilism and despair? The powers that be must carefully consider what the appropriate forms of intervention should be in order to stop this hemorrhaging of the society.

One should also be mindful of the racial and gendered nature of this murder. The violence of this attack was meted out on an Indo-Guyanese woman, who became the focal point of an essentially African legend. In addition, the three persons charged in connection with this crime - one of whom is a woman - are all of African descent. In a racially polarized society, the implications are worth pondering. One wonders for example, given the nature of the crime, if there may be more than is immediately discernible here. In a region and a country with high rates of violence against women, Radika's death underscores the way such acts continue to be played out on the text of the body of women. It was reported that Radika was a mentally unstable woman. This fact raises some very troubling questions about the state of public health education in Guyana. This incident occasions an urgent need to provide the relevant public health education about mental illness, so that in the future people would treat the mentally unstable more humanely, and not seek to beat them to death. The folk tradition of Guyana is a long and rich tradition; every effort should be made to save it from abuse.