Tuesday, February 23, 2016

On Going Home: A Pursuit of the Origins and Homecoming of Migratory Guyanese

I have always had a somewhat distant fascination with Guyana. The Co-operative Republic of Guyana (pronounced GUY- anna) turns 50 years old this year. As a New Yorker living in Brooklyn, this is no small bit of news. I was born in a nascent nation, merely out of its adolescence at the time of my birth. It is a unique experience for someone that has grown up in the United States for over 30 years, but I still identify as a #blackamazonian; this cannot be taken away from me. Republic Day is today, February 23rd, and there is cause for acknowledgement and reflection. What are we to celebrate, when it comes down to it?

Columbus allegedly stumbled upon this goldmine of a place as far back as 1498, and it changed hands with the Dutch, French and English throughout the next few centuries. A former British colony since 1831, Guyana abolished slavery in 1834, and gained independence from its last colonial masters in 1966, amidst a bloody and politically-fueled transition to power to the ruling class of Indo-Guyanese citizens. And yet, the "Land of Many Waters" has "One Destiny" as its motto. Guyana is a small country, currently with a population of approximately 751,000 within its borders, 231,000 of whom reside in the coastal capitol, Georgetown where its total geographic area is 70% rainforest. Guyana has several religions, dialects and languages, representing the myriad of Diasporas that make up its current population. Approximately 43-50% of Guyanese are of East Indian descent, 30% African descent, 9% Amerindian (Indigenous) descent, and the rest of a mixed heritage that includes Dutch, Portuguese and Chinese settlers. Yet, this beautiful country still divides itself predominantly along ethnic lines, as it pertains to the politics and, ultimately economic and social welfare management of its people. Let us not forget that I grew up in a nation that currently promotes the idea that "Third World" is a derogatory term, which grossly understates and simplifies the geo-specific reasoning behind non-aligned countries like Guyana opting to forge their own path to national greatness. Its funny how oxymora function. It is a constant push and pull.

My ever-growing question, asked of elders and the internet in an almost cyclical fashion, is: Does anyone want to go home? And now that the Golden Anniversary is here, will the tide change? Will the rivers and estuaries swell and flood the plains, signalling a reverse Drain? Will the people come back to open arms, with open minds (and mouths, and books, and bank accounts, etc.)? What is Guyana doing to draw the good folk back, and what do these good folk want of Guyana, if anything? I wonder if I am ready for Guyana being ready for me. I want to make strides, raise people up, wrest respectability from its lofty perch in political dichotomy and spread its entrails in the fertile soil to feed human rights works. I want to see clean water initiatives in the city and the the Interior; real textbooks with sound factual discourse and information for hungry minds (continue); better representation in social and popular media for all the Peoples of Guyana, as they hold stakes in mutual prosperity.

On the subject of taking flight, Thomas Chatteron Williams of the New York Times succinctly said, “It’s difficult to exaggerate the existential boon of shedding one’s victimhood”.

This post was originally going to be solely an exercise in defining expatriate versus immigrant, as it pertains to my own country-folk. My specific ancestry hails from at least four continents for sure, including an earlier North American trail via Louisiana. I am inherently borne of a people that migrated, left their piece of earth by force of hunger or chains, and dared and survived to converge at the deep rivers of Guyana, then once again, took flight to England, Canada, back to Louisiana,and to many scattered points on the eastern seaboard of the United States in the last two generations. I am an immigrant, a 1.5er, in a more specific definition, having been raised from childhood through the entire education hierarchy that New York has to offer. Unlike many that hold this title in the U.S., I am a legal citizen, and so is my immigrant parent. My mother came from Guyana by way of England, educated and a bit broad-sided by life "outside", as did every single one of her siblings, and several of her cousins. She arrived in New York as a young adult, her parents having emigrated to the North several years prior.

Merriam-Webster dictionary has on definition of expatriate as an intransitive verb: "to leave one's native country to live elsewhere; also: to renounce allegiance to one's native country". Sounds harsh. Akin to the exile and displacement  often defining the émigré. For other reasons, my relatives have been expatriates; in England and Canada for years, working hard under frigid conditions in their adopted lands, ever sacrificing for children left behind with relatives, while money was wired back for home, for future. Some of them did, in fact, leave rather young on scholarship or international grant, whisked away to status and educational achievement in the places the former ruler deemed fit for their brain, if not their corporeal existence.

Guyana waited, even if it did not prepare a red carpet, or evolve the progressive mindset ready to embrace the new and exciting, the challenging and revolutionary way to think and be that these youth brought packed in their suitcases. Many did not return, or felt that they could not. Many left under political and economic duress, seeking asylum or avoiding retribution from an often uneven application of the law for questionable crimes. Many sent for children to join them in the new world, years too late, sometimes, for the often tenuous relationship between parent and progeny. The home connection was forever altered, mythologized.

I wanted to really find out where all the Guyanese people went in the last two generations, how many of them have left, and where they're destined to go, as they melt into the infrastructure of other nations, while the verdant mountains and plentiful rivers become a mythical place we all once called "home". I try not to wax too poetic, as I barely clocked real living-wage hours there, but grew up with the discourse of the "Brain Drain Generation": my parents, their siblings and cousins, intellectual contemporaries, and political adversaries.

How does one reconcile the 50th anniversary of the independence of a nation where so many of its citizens have left? As of 2016, there could be as many as 2 million Guyanese Nationals living abroad in England, Canada, the United States and several other places worldwide. I have yet to find a satisfactory assessment of the real numbers.

In a quick fact-check, I learned that Guyana has one of the largest recorded "brain drains" at a staggering figure of 70% of its overall population, which essentially means a whole generation of citizens left the country en masse, seeking better fortunes, primarily through their tertiary education.  Some 36,000 Guyanese left between 1980 and 1991. In some cases, they left with the blessing of the Burnam Administration (up for debate, I'm sure) as national scholars, slated to return and share their expertise to fashion a prosperous and respectable nation of thinkers and doers. Between 1970 and 1985, however, the economic decline and resulting austerity measures were so severe, my mother recounts learning how to use rice flour as a frustrating substitute for wheat, which had no cultural precedent in Afro-Guyanese or even British-influenced cuisine in Guyana at the time. In 1988, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) prescribed a structural adjustment program (SAP) that did just that: sapped the vitality and value out of a developing if not sometimes obstinately outside-thinking nation. The Guyanese Dollar went from a rate of $10GUY:$1USD to $144:$1.  The available literature points fingers in several directions.

It is not up for debate that Guyana has been and is in debt. However, my query here is whether Guyanese are indebted to their ancestral home? How many Guyanese abroad share the songs of The Republic (or even the older British hymns, if they value the character development more than the imperialistic undertones)? Or do they write new songs with more indigenous rhythm, ready for debut this year at the celebrations?

I want to know the fun and exciting side of Guyana: the success of ecotourism that I know Guyana is primed to take advantage of; the geographic proximity to Brazil and all its inter-continental promise; possibilities of a nation where as of 2015, the median age was 25.4 years between men and women, and by 2014 estimates, there were five times more mobile phones that land lines. This tells me that Guyana is in a prime zone for young and mobile citizens, worthy of direct investment from within and abroad. And Guyana has palpable challenges to focus on.

Young women are, on average, a little more dedicated to formal education, yet are still dying at astonishing rates for lack of adequate maternal healthcare during pregnancy and childbirth. HIV and AIDS are rampant, and better access to contraception and simple information can reverse several of these trends that threaten to undercut another generation of human capital. An educated woman is an empowered woman, is a woman with purpose and drive and substance that forges powerful waves of progress. Shirley Chisholm, if I may, had a Guyanese father. But don't sleep on the backdam children, either. We need ALL of our people on this.

What I don't want to see is the place of my birth divvied up to the highest bidders, with continued land grabs from unscrupulous neighbors, and blatant lawlessness flourish in the form of government corruption, drug and human trafficking, and infrastructure decline.  I want to know the names of the plants and animals that make Guyana unique, and I want to share this with grateful friends and allies, researchers and Earth-activists bent on preserving the most precious parts of this planet.

Guyana is among the jewels, its people AND its land and waters. I do not want to see the natural bounty categorically dismissed and mistreated to the point of irreversible decay. This is not how a proud, progressive-led nation operates.

For the past seven years, I have turned back to thoughts about the land of my birth, and how I could make a difference: plant my feet and feel grounded, even as the red ants kiss their fiery welcome. I am a writer, a traveler, a #seldom_settled product of my several environments. I, too, want to come home, and I hope that home recognizes this prodigal daughter.

I am watching, in anticipation of cheaper flights (or a well-timed invitation); inspiring rhetoric and like many other young men and women of the 1980s diaspora, wanting more reason for coming home. Is there an inversion to the prodigal child? The repentant parent? Or is that a taboo subject, never granted equal scrutiny? It's not for current President Granger's lack of effort. For those that would travel to Guyana and see for themselves what is amiss and how they can participate, feel free to check this link out, as well as the Facebook page for Guyana Diaspora Project (GUYD). I welcome feedback and constructive dialogue on this necessary transition as we reflect on the road behind and the path that lies before us.

Image credit:
Map courtesy of www.worldatlas.com

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