BOOK: A Proud Product of Guyana’s Bitter-Sweet Sugar – by Nowrang Persaud (Author)

A Proud Product of Guyana’s Bitter-Sweet Sugar  – by Nowrang Persaud (Author)Paperback – July 27, 2018 

  • A Review of Nowrang Persaud’s autobiography “A Proud Product of Guyana’s Bitter-Sweet Sugar” by Harry Hergash
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Nowrang Persaud was born in 1937 at Number 47 Village, Corentyne Berbice, Guyana (then British Guiana). A year earlier, an eighteen year-old named Cheddi Jagan, from a nearby sugar plantation, left the colony to pursue studies in dentistry in the United States of America (USA). By the time Jagan returned to Guyana in late 1943, Nowrang and his siblings were living with their mother, step-father, and several step siblings in a one-bedroom logie at Blairmont Estate.

About living in a logie, Nowrang writes “In common with all other sugar estates, living conditions in the Blairmont Estate in which I grew up as a boy were dangerously unhealthy, unkempt and atrocious.       

Imagine living in a small one bedroom logie with your parents and numerous children; only half the floor was covered with wood; the rest was pure earth infested with fleas, flies, mosquitoes and a thing called ‘jigga’ which gets under your skin, forms a hard boil which itches all the time until your mom or big sister digs it out with a pin.  Outside, the loose sand harboured more germs with stray dogs lurking for crumbs, while inside the rats and roaches roamed freely”.

Moved by his own boyhood experience on a sugar estate and noting that working and living conditions had not changed much over the years, Cheddi Jagan entered politics soon after his return to Guyana, winning a seat in the Legislature in 1947 and becoming a champion of the cause of the  sugar workers. In 1953 he published a pamphlet titled “Bitter Sugar” in which he highlighted the plight of the sugar workers.

By 1954, Jock Campbell, a scion of the wealthy Campbell clan of the United Kingdom that controlled Bookers, the company that owned  most of the sugar estates and other commercial enterprises in Guyana, became Chairman of the Board in the UK. He had spent a few years in the early 1930s observing and learning the business in Guyana and was appalled at the working and living conditions of the workers on the estates. As Chairman of the Board, finally he was in a position to effect change which he did, as documented in the book “Sweetening Bitter Sugar, Jock Campbell, the Booker Reformer in British Guiana 1934-1966” by Clem Seecharan, a former student of Nowrang Persaud.

The title of Nowrang’s book is an acknowledgement of the  invaluable contribution of Cheddi Jagan and Jock Campbell to the betterment of the lives of the sugar workers in Guyana, a process in which he (Nowrang) participated and which shaped his life-long career. He has lived through a transformative period in Guyanese history. His story as documented in this autobiography, is both informative and inspirational. He offers glimpses of various aspects of the pre and post independence history of Guyana and is a witness and participant in the labourers’ struggle for survival on sugar estates, the main source of employment for the majority of Guyanese.

Both his mother and step-father worked full-time as field labourers on the estate and supplemented their meagre earnings by additional means such as owning a few cows and selling milk, planting a small plot of rice, and maintaining a small vegetable garden. As he grew older, Nowrang too contributed to the family’s income by doing  many odd jobs such as catching and selling fish, picking up balls for a few cents at the tennis court of the European overseers, and fetching rations on weekends for estate’s staff in remote locations. At times, he like many of the labourers, was humiliated by some of the European overseers but had to suffer in silence as the Europeans were the overlords on the estate.

Prior to independence, secondary education in Guyana was costly, not free nor accessible outside of the cities of Georgetown and New Amsterdam. Thus, the majority of children from sugar estate communities were unable to gain a secondary education. Regarding his situation, Nowrang writes “My parents just could not afford the money to send me to High School and I was acutely aware, even then, that they needed my income to supplement theirs… So, while my parents might have been willing to ‘forego’ the earnings I would have contributed to their budget, we still had to find enough money for the extra expense of High School fees and related incidentals.

We decided that I will work full-time for a while to acquire the necessary fees for a start and then work week-ends and during school holidays to get the money required for my High school attendance in New Amsterdam – and this is how I was able to acquire a High School education”. To pay the examination fee to write the overseas examination, Senior Cambridge, necessary for graduation, “my mother magnanimously agreed to pawn her jewelry at the Portuguese Pawnshop in New Amsterdam to access the money I needed”.

After High School Nowrang entered the educational field, first as a Primary (Elementary) School teacher, then as the first Principal of the Cove and John High School (now the Hindu College), and finally as a senior teacher of the Berbice Educational Institute (BEI), his alma mater. By then he was married and the father of a baby girl. While at BEI, he commenced self study for the GCE Advanced Level, the entry requirement for a law degree in England. In order to supplement his income and meet his household needs, he kept a garden, growing and selling vegetables, served as a part-time tutor to secretarial students, policemen and postmen in New Amsterdam, and raised chickens for eggs and meat.

After passing his Advanced Level subjects but failing to raise the $347 passage to travel to England to pursue a law degree,  serendipity intervened. Of this he writes “One Sunday morning as I squatted in my latrine, I was reading a page of the newspaper of the previous week-end which was kept in the latrine as toilet paper. My eyes caught an advertisement from Bookers Sugar Estates Ltd ‘inviting Bright Young Men’ to apply for Cadetships in Agriculture, Engineering and Accountancy, I looked at the minimum requirement  and felt I met those for a cadetship in the Accounting field”. He applied and after a rigorous selection process, he was offered a cadetship to pursue studies for a Diploma in Personnel Manager (now Human Resources Management) at Hendon College of Technology in the United Kingdom. A most traumatizing decision was having to leave his little daughter with his in-laws as he and his wife departed for England.

After his return from England, he was set for a successful career with Bookers Sugar Estates. He faced many challenges but with guidance and mentoring (which he gratefully acknowledges) from individuals such as Messrs Earl John and Harold Davis, coupled with his talent and hard work, he rose rapidly through the ranks in Personnel Management. By the early 1970s he was one of the first Guyanese identified to be appointed Administrative Manager (Chief Administrator) of a sugar estate. Unfortunately, in standing up for his employer (Bookers Sugar Estates), he ran afoul of the  Minister of Labour of the then Government of Guyana. With concern for the safety and security of himself and family, he decided to immigrate to Canada.

His experience of leaving Guyana and arriving in Canada in 1974 is typical of many Guyanese who emigrated during that period. Of this he writes “I migrated to Toronto, Canada in November 1974 with my wife Leila and daughter Nadira… We left Guyana virtually penniless;  I did not have any savings and in any event currency restrictions then in force in Guyana made it difficult to leave with more than virtual pocket money… Thank God and the unimaginable kindness and generosity of Rudolph and Elaine McLean, who were our neighbours when we lived in the estate compounds at Providence and Blairmont and who preceded us as migrants to Toronto. They, together with their two sons and Elaine’s mother were then living in a one-bedroom apartment in Kennedy Road, Scarborough in Toronto. Unbelievably, amazingly and oh ever so magnanimously, they offered us to stay with them until we were able to afford our  own living quarters”.

In Toronto he quickly gained employment in the Personnel Department of the world famous Hospital for Sick Children. Three years later he entered the Ontario Civil Service and was instrumental in setting up the newly created Ministry of Energy. He was next encouraged by a former Booker Sugar Estates colleague who was  working for the United Nations (UN), to apply to join the UN. This he did and after the usual interview process, was offered the position of Regional Personnel Officer for South Central Asia, headquartered in New Delhi, with responsibilities for the offices in India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives. Subsequently, he held assignments in Africa, Central America and South America. His assignments were all highly rewarding but often challenging as he lived in or travelled through countries with civil war, ethnic conflict, or drug war.

In 1995 he returned to Guyana as Director of Human Resources of Guysuco, the company formed after the nationalization of the sugar industry in the mid 1970s. Of this assignment, he writes “My experiences with the Personnel Management aspect were relatively smooth, successful and professionally satisfying… However my experience with the Industrial Relations aspects was by no means easy going; it was indeed quite challenging especially as the workers’ Union, the Guyana Agricultural and General Workers’ Union, refused to acknowledge the need to change their modus operandi which to me was a virtual necessity if the industry was to survive, let alone prosper”.

In frustration he resigned and joined Demerara Distilleries Ltd but soon left to rejoin the UN as a consultant. After the APNU-AFC Government came into power in 2015, he was appointed a member of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the sugar industry. In the book he laments Government’s sidelining of the recommendations of the COI. He concludes “there are obviously widespread feelings that the sugar industry has suffered serious decline as a result of external political and other influences which are not necessarily aligned with the needs and imperatives of the industry and its thousands of employees who are dependent on an economically thriving, profitable industry”

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  • Yuvraj Ramsaroop  On July 16, 2019 at 8:35 am

    also available from Amazon
    Realizing the American Dream……
    …..The Personal Triumph of a Guyanese Immigrant ( Published 2010)
    by Yuvraj Ramsaroop
    In this rich autobiographical account, the author makes a compelling case that will inspire anyone with a gut wrenching saga of courage and determination. Readers will be given a revealing look inside life on a sugar plantation in British Guiana during colonial times.
    Although he did not attend High School, he became a Primary School Teacher for seven years before immigrating to Canada. He completed his education at McMaster University and raised his two daughters who are both Physicians .
    Yuvraj Ramsaroop shares his triumph as a Guyanese immigrant as he reveals his journey to Realizing the American Dream

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