You know how as you get older the brain seems to be deleting stuff to make space for new memories? Well one thing this old brain hasn’t deleted yet is the memory of me at my grandmother’s on August 6th, 1985. I was just 4 years old, but the atmosphere of quiet jubilation and glee that my relatives exhibited that day when it was disclosed that President Forbes Burnham had died has seared itself into the grey matter. I was too young to really understand why they were so happy but it gradually revealed itself later on. My mother onto this day gets upset when she has to talk about the sacrifices she made as a young mother to try to adequately clothe and feed us on a teacher’s salary in the heyday of the “bans”.
She called me a “Burnham pickney” because I was fiercely nationalistic growing up, lending support to the notion that I was being ‘brainwashed’ in nursery school. I don’t remember that, but that is what a brainwashed person would think. Nevertheless, in spite of my relatives’ travails of life with no flour, I grew to see Burnham as a man who had the right idea. We should indeed be self-sufficient and not dependent on colonizers! When I started President’s College, grappling with my admiration for the man and the quiet discomfort that I was deliberately ignoring something sinister, I told everyone that Burnham was my grandfather. I’m not sure how many people actually believed this implausible story about my maternal grandmother having an affair, but I think part of why I decided to tell this lie was to feel less complicated and have more connection to the school I was now living in and that was built by Burnham solely for the intellectual elite.
As I got older I realised that Burnham was a lot more complex and nobody was talking or writing about it in any meaningful way. Cheddi Jagan has a popular book examining his life, and many written articles, but the same can’t be said for what was undoubtedly one of the most influential Caribbean personalities of the 1960s and 70s. We haven’t as a nation, dealt with any of the scars left by this man. What scars you might ask? Of course Burnham’s sharp turn to the left (after getting into power in the first place because he assured the Northern powers that he wasn’t a stinking communist like Jagan) affected the whole nation. His National Security Act which meant that the police could search and seize whatever and whenever, his stranglehold on communication and his ineffective socialization and privatization (with the attendant parts played by external interests who were never going to let a former colony, with a Black leader succeed anyways) affected all Guyanese people.
But from the time of the Wismar massacre, to the eroding of agricultural jobs, banning of staple ingredients in Indo-Guyanese’s diets (dhal and flour especially), National Service stipulations, Indo-Guyanese voter suppression and ‘kick-down-the-door-gangs’, Indo-Guyanese persons felt particularly targeted. Emigration of Indian heritage persons from Guyana reached an all-time high in the 1980s as people fled from a man who seemed intent on eradicating them from the country.
This was a traumatic period of time and by not talking about it, old wounds fester. And affect our future. These same emigrants now live in Richmond Hill and see Burnham in every Black Guyanese person, perpetuating racism and hatred in all they do. The Indo-Guyanese who remained, sit in their bottom houses and think how they will never let another Burnham happen again, even if it means voting against their own interest. The funny thing is, that we relived history recently and nobody is talking about that either! Bharrat Jagdeo, like Forbes Burnham, started off as an impassioned young man with plans and ideals. He gradually became something else. Corruption, greed and ego led, and the country was turning into a narco-state with terror and violence that largely affected Afro-Guyanese persons, and especially young Afro-Guyanese men and boys. There’s a whole generation of Guyanese now growing up who were exposed to the lifestyle and morals that come with a narco-state and we will have to struggle with the consequences of that soon.
As we head to the polls in a few days, we are a people who have been traumatized. Resilient, but traumatized. We love to talk, but the deeper issues, the Burnham era, the Jagdeo era, the wounds and the uncertainties, we don’t talk and write about enough. As we confront the fact that one of these men is still pulling the strings in a major political party, we have decisions to make. Jim Jones had the clichéd sign at the entrance to Jonestown: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”; and we can’t heal from our trauma by ignoring it.
Dr. N. Rambarran