Guyana: Reflections on growing up in a racial landscape – By Dennis Nichols

Growing up in a racial landscape… in Guyana

Kaieteur News_ -Oct 21, 2018  Countryman – By Dennis Nichols

‘Race’ has practically become a four-letter word for some Guyanese – although it’s simply a categorization of humans into groups, based on anatomical similarities and on cultural, genetic, geographical religious affiliation etc… It is perceived as a root cause of social division and antagonism, and in our ‘Land of six peoples’ this concept has often taken on strange and ominous connotations that tend to make a mockery of our ‘One People; One Nation; One Destiny’ motto.

This piece barely scratches the surface of ‘Race’ in our beloved El Dorado.   

How serious is it? As a young child in Highdam, East Coast Demerara, in the mid-to-late fifties, my friends and I were certainly childishly aware of racial groupings, their characteristics and epithets. But there was little or no malice associated with this awareness although the village and surrounding area comprised a motley collection of Blacks, East Indians and Mixed (really mixed) people. We children were too busy having fun. And adults seemed to get along just fine.

Name Calling

I remember, once only, being scolded by my mother for referring to a teenaged neighbour of ours with a crude rhyme I’d heard somewhere before, “Putagee bumba f**t cucumba…” I also remember East Indian schoolchildren being teased with “Coolie Water Rice…” You know the rest. Black people were taunted with something like ‘Black Man Sala, pound Masala; who ah yuh dadee…?” Yet there was, or at least seemed to be, genuine camaraderie among villagers.

Well, maybe it was just us, children. Learning our three R’s, playing Cricket in the schoolyard, Skipping Rope, Ring Games, Marbles, shooting rubber, riding coconut tree branches, or traversing the dusty red road between Strangroen and De Kinderen (the school’s catchment area) didn’t leave much time for animosity, yet somehow, it left a great deal for friendship and affection. My first post-toddler ‘girlfriends’ were of all ethnicities, including Dougla girls. And so we lived.

Racial Violence in the 1960’s

My family left Highdam for Georgetown in 1958, and by the early sixties, things had changed. I remember in my child’s mind, the racial upheaval of that time. I remember the violence – the beatings and murders, the bombings, riots and fires, the foreign soldiers and local police with their tear gas canisters, the squatters and demonstrators, and above all, the fear and disharmony generated from, I was told, within the main political parties.

I remember the confusion and the angst of my parents, and I’m sure, among PPP and PNC supporters in the 1961 elections, when it was announced that one party had won, only to be later reversed in favour of the other. I remember seeing cars with huge (PPP) cups strapped atop, driving down Camp Street dragging (PNC) brooms behind them, symbolizing victory for one and defeat for the other. I remember hearing the term Apaan Jhat for the first time; and everything seemed pervaded by race.

As I grew up, I heard and ‘learnt’, that Black people were physically stronger, more aggressive, yet lazier than East Indians who in turn were more cunning, clannish, and stoop-to-conquer ambitious. I was privy, as a sort of insider, to both sets of sentiments since, for some inexplicable reason, I wasn’t considered really Black, and I had many Indian friends along with a few almost-Indian relatives. But I saw myself as Black, and thoughtlessly reacted as I imagined an Afro-Guyanese child might, to criticisms and prejudices directed toward ‘my people’.

I was also confused by the racial ambivalence I felt in my teenage years. With ancestors from West Africa, Egypt and Scotland, I tended to relate well to mixed races, but at the same time felt a growing awareness of, and need to assert, my Black African-ness. This was heightened by vicarious exposure to the burgeoning American Black Power movement, and so, by the time I got married in the mid-seventies I’d already planned on giving my children West African names.

The effect of Cricket

Preconceived notions about Blacks and East Indians in the ‘60s, lost some traction for me, after the ‘70s, as discretion and wisdom replaced reactive thinking and feeling. Sports, particularly cricket, helped a great deal in this regard. Like most Guyanese, I knew and felt a sure sense of oneness and nationalistic pride with the exploits of Kanhai and Butcher, Lloyd and Kallicharran, Hooper and Chanderpaul. Cricket, like death, levels the playing field, and puts race in its place.

But some old notions die hard. Prejudice reared its sinister head in 1995 when my eldest son drowned at Anna Regina, Essequibo Coast. My wife and I actually gave heed to the insinuations of some persons in the predominantly East Indian enclave where we lived, who felt that he had been ‘sold’ to appease the wrath of some Hindu deity. Suddenly, what I felt was a certain accident, took on troubling and racist undertones. But resignedly, we left the matter in God’s hands.

Racism in Guyana’s History

Interestingly, a few years ago I read a book written by a colonial magistrate from England in the 19th century. (I can’t recall the name of the book nor the author) But a sizeable part of it dealt with the vicissitudes of life in then British Guiana. The author was particularly keen on recalling incidents in which the criminal acts carried out by perpetrators seem, in hindsight, to have a distinct correlation to many of the very assumptions and prejudices we express today about our races.

Then, like now, it was mostly Blacks and East Indians who were charged with offences ranging from simple larceny to premeditated murder at its most brutal. In this context, most Afro-Guyanese were indeed portrayed as quarrelsome and aggressive, while many Indo-Guyanese were depicted as scheming and cruel. But behaviour traits tend to overlap, and it would be imprudent to imagine that other ethnicities – Portuguese, Chinese, Amerindian and European, were all model citizens. Lawlessness is part of human nature.

The Future

Presumptions and prejudices don’t go away easily. These phenomena are ingrained in the minds and hearts of multitudes of individuals worldwide, from Guyana to Guam, to Greenland. But things will change. That’s my opinion and my optimism; looking through slightly rose-tinted glasses, I see my own version of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World emerging from the ashes of racial intolerance and bigotry. And the champions of this paradigm shift are, CHILDREN!

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  • The Last Brahmin  On 12/24/2018 at 11:29 am

    Dennis, very apt and informative article, I was born in Nabaclis, the very few East Indian families in that village, My neighbours were “THe Scotlands” today one of them is the Speaker of the House, my neighbour to the north was a headmaster Mr Melbourne who had the sweetest golden … tree When I was 9 we moved to but I had friends Vibert, Marvin and Harry who were my buddies.
    I agree with you one day we will get there;

    I have to quote this gentleman who asked, “How do we mould a country?” Imagination, intelligence and integrity, sometimes simple decency, it works as well. Talking about gossip he remarked, “We can’t afford it; we’re a little nation. We need to think and act outside of our skins. Every day must be about excellence without let-up until we drop; where every person feels like a leader because every person is a leader.” He said that even a man who has a family is a leader, but stops being a leader when he beats his wife. “Then he becomes a word; coward, a coward. You can’t build a nation from cowardice, you can’t do it; you destroy it like that. Our country can be a very, very special place, but we need to take practical steps to make it real.”


    Let’s get to the very real story
    And review our sorry history
    Firstly our leaders vied for Independence
    It’s our right to get rid of this hindrance
    Promising progress with very lofty idealism
    Then the Big Two accused us of Communism
    Got instead a lukewarm brand of Socialism
    Those were the hot days of Cold Wars’ ism
    We ended up with a big dose of corruption
    Racialism, bloodshed and sheer destruction
    The people run away from their beloved Guyana
    To England and to the cold harsh North America
    Causing a huge brain drain leaving Guyana rudderless
    Various parties struggling they too come up clueless
    The good ol’ days when rigged ballots rained
    And at the same time coffers were drained
    As the other parties jump and take over
    So did the people as some run for cover

    But a simple Guyanese people we are
    Don’t want to relive another Wismar
    After 51 years we still have a chance
    We’ve to stop this bias racial dance
    Sadly politicians would never change
    It’s like telling a dog it has bad mange
    The two races have to come together
    Live again like sister and like brother
    We have to be Guyanese again not a black man
    Think like a Guyanese and not like a coolie man
    Be accepted as real down earth Guyanese
    You are Chinese, Amer-Indian or Portuguese
    Maybe our last chance to make it
    Or hate will drive us out of our wit
    And politicians on both sides please pard!
    Stop hiding behind the stupid race card
    There are some things we have to eradicate
    Stop fighting one another and stop the hate
    Talk to one another stop deny we’re steeped in racialism
    Stop lying, face the fact, we have far too much nepotism
    Govern for everyone bring back equality
    Or drop the darn “e” and focus on quality
    Pray to the one Above
    For all we need is Love
    Listen people take heed
    For Love is all you need.


    I was born to the East Indian race
    When things were so very scarce
    I know there was a war going on
    But at six who cares if they fight
    I did know about imported ration
    And ‘twas very expensive to face

    And as I grew up on E.C.Demerara at Nabaclis
    My black neighbours were doing their business
    With very few East Indians minions
    And we got along fine at that time
    Though things were scarce like onions
    We were poor but without any racial madness

    I didn’t know anything much about politics
    I looked upon all as Guyanese without tricks
    My mind on evenings was on Marvin’s toy car
    And would use any ruse to visit to watch
    I’d get away to his house which wasn’t too far
    With Albert to play with it even if I get licks

    Then on the other side of the street
    Harry my friend every day we’d meet
    He took me sometimes to the far Middle Walk
    To pump for the houri fish by the koker
    With fishing rod eating green mango we’d talk
    And Ma would fry them for us to eat

    We had to walk nearly 2 miles to school
    With by my sisters Seer, Chan and Phool
    That’s nearly 4 miles all the way
    My eldest sister Shri was a tomboy

    And would get into fights every day
    She was our protector and was no fool

    We lived in a very peaceful village
    There was no black or brown image
    Everyone called the elders Mister
    We never call elders by their first names
    Everyone was like a brother or sister
    There was no hatred or racial rage

    My father was the grounds’ caretaker and caters
    For the Delinquent Girls Home of the misbehavers
    And we got the very best darn fruits all grafted
    Since then I’ve never seen such big mangoes
    The taste of butter grafted pears not yet abated
    Life was slow and quiet but then vice had no takers

    As I progressed in body mind and spirit
    Grades were given to us according to merit
    I excelled in class and when you run errands
    For Miss Joseph who chose you to share books
    Clean the blackboard and or other demands
    The cane was used only to discipline a lil bit

    At the Nabaclis Cinema, I saw my first movie so keen
    I cannot recall the name but I did remember a scene
    A huge black scary train was coming straight at us
    And of course, all of us dived for cover under the benches
    Such was our simple childish ways without any fuss
    I don’t think anyone of us really recall what was seen

    At about ten years the good life almost freeze
    When we moved to the west coast of Berbice
    I think it was betterment for our welfare
    For my dad was misbehaving at Nabaclis
    And ma thought her brothers would care
    Being there all bad behaviour would cease

    At Bush Lot it was the opposite politically
    There were a few blacks and lots of coolie
    We lived at the factory house atop the barn
    Which belonged to my three Uncles
    Pa worked at the rice mill and wasn’t lazy
    And we had acres of concrete to play daily

    Something strange happened no one would win
    It had to do with money and it was bad as sin
    One of my uncles owed my father some cash
    When it was pay back time all hell broke loose
    That day the workers were ready to bash
    Wrecking our fowl pen under the kitchen

    I guess this was time to go for we had our fill
    Thus ended our happy stay at top of the rice mill
    We moved a few blocks away to a home much smaller
    And it was a dump located in a flooded area
    So when it rained we’re in over a foot of mud and water
    The kitchen was not raised for my pa had no goodwill

    And things went from bad to worse it behooved
    Us and so to my grand mother’s house we moved
    To the centre of the village by the Middle Dam
    They call it a separation living in a 10×10 shack
    With lots of smoke, we were caught in a real jam
    Much to the chagrin of the other in-laws, unmoved

    My grandmother was a saviour in those days
    Who for us had a smile on her face always
    Making her oil as I help to grate her coconuts
    She was a loving, kind wise old soul who
    Taught me proverbs as I fetched water in buckets
    She said “Boy bear you chafe this is only a phase”

    We were a burden now to my mother
    So we were shared out among the brothers
    I went with my good Uncle King
    And started a new chapter in my life
    At first, my Auntie R loved me
    And then this love turner to hate later

    I was getting an education so I did strove
    Had to burst wood to fit in her stupid stove
    Feed, clean the pens of the fowls and ducks
    And many days when all kids were inside
    I had to coax the ducks home with clucks
    Whilst in the rains fighting mosquitoes in drove

    I was scared of nights for my aunt scary stares
    Put fowls to nest in my little room downstairs
    The fowls got nimbles and it was all over the room
    And I spent my nights scratching and itching
    My cousins peeping me through the cracks in gloom
    Laughing and giggling at me showing no cares

    I took the abuses orally and a few physical
    For I was all alone without a relative or pal
    To do my homework I got a small lamp
    At times I hid under rice bags from the rains
    To stay dry and not catch a cold from the damp
    As an orphan I bore my chafe awaiting my call.

  • geoffburrowes  On 02/18/2021 at 10:42 am

    All these stories may not be happy but I love them as they give us a peek into various Guyanese experiences!
    The author of the article above certainly seems to feel we can put our racia
    l differences aside and become the “One nation, one people and one destiny” that will cause Gyana to shine brightly in this fractured world. I pray that this happens!

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