GUYANA: Celebrating Dr. Desrey Fox and Amerindian Heritage

The late Dr. Desray Fox

THE late Minister within the Ministry of Education Dr. Desrey Caesar-Fox, has contributed immensely to the awareness of every aspect of Guyana’s indigenous people’s culture and Guyana needs to keep her memory alive, primarily because she was such a shining example of what our First Peoples can achieve when provided requisite opportunities, such as those promised to Amerindians in the PPP/C Manifesto.

At an inaugural lecture at the Umana Yana in Kingston in June 2012, organised by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport under the then PPP/C Government, to honour the life and work of the late minister within the Ministry of Education, a number of prominent persons reflected on Dr Fox’s many accomplishments and her passion for the development and preservation of Amerindian languages.         

At the time of her death, Dr. Fox, along with Ms Teixeira and Foreign Affairs Minister, Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett, was in the process of translating the National Anthem into the nine Amerindian languages

Dr. Fox was born on January 2, 1956, at Waramadong Village, Region Seven and was Christened Desrey Clementine Caesar. She was awarded a nursing scholarship in 1973, and was a trained midwife at the Georgetown Hospital School of Nursing.

She secured a Master of Arts in Environmental Anthropology from the University of Kent at Canterbury in the United Kingdom in 1997, then a PhD in Linguistics from Rice University in Houston, Texas, in 2003, and a Master of Arts in Linguistics at the same university in 2003. She also obtained a BSc in Sociology from the University of Guyana.

After completing her primary education, Fox was sent to Georgetown to attend Secondary School, but, after just two terms, she was forced through penurious circumstances to return to Waramadong.

However, teachers from the coastland came to the village and tutored the children, preparing them to write the GCE Exams.
Minister Fox became one of the founding members of the Amerindian Language Project at the University of Guyana, subsequently called the Amerindian Research Unit.

Fox spent 29 years at the Amerindian Affairs Unit, where she became instrumental in the publishing of many publications on Amerindian languages and culture, as well as dictionaries on Amerindian languages, which were reprinted by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport.
She had also helped to produce the radio programme , ‘Focus on Amerindians,” with the intention of demystifying the hinterland.

She went on to pursue a degree in Sociology at the University of Guyana and was awarded the Dennis Irving Prize.

In 1996, Fox won a European Union scholarship to read for the Master of Arts in Environmental Anthropology at the University of Kent at Canterbury. For her Masters dissertation, she decided to study the age-old tale of the Kanaimas.

She excelled at Rice and subsequently became president of the University’s Graduate School. In 2000, she won the Robert Lowery Pattern Prize from her university. In 2001, she won the “Who’s Who among students in American University Award” from Rice. That same year she also won Rice University’s ‘Women’s Impact Award’. In 2002, she was the recipient of the Post-Doctoral National Science Foundation Grant to complete her studies at Rice University.

She became the Co-ordinator of the Amerindian Affairs Unit, as well as curator of the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology in Georgetown. Some of Fox’s selected works include, among others: “The Indigenous Condition in Guyana: A Situational Analysis of the Mabura Great Falls Community”, co-authored with Professor George K. Danns of the University of Guyana; “Caught within the Cracks: the case of the Amerindian Women of Guyana,” published in Polygloth, USA; “Zauro’no dok Akawaio Yau: Variants of Akawaio spoken in the village of Waramadong,” Ph.D thesis, Rice University; “Body Metaphors in Akawaio House Construction,” published in the Journal of Anthropology, USA.

Dr. Fox had translated extracts of then President Bharrat Jagdeo’s Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) into the Akawaio language to make it comprehensible to older folk.

Dr. Fox was appointed Minister within the Ministry of Education by then President Bharrat Jagdeo after the 2006 elections. Her appointment was celebrated in a unique ceremony, presided over by toshaos of the Amerindian community. Along with another dynamic Amerindian woman, former Amerindian Affairs Minister Carolyn Rodriques, Dr. Desrey Fox played a major role in bridging the dichotomy between coastlanders and hinterland dwellers.

Minister Desrey Fox was mandated with direct responsibility for the development of Technical and Vocational Education, Health and Family Life Education, Schools Welfare Services, School Sports and Physical Education, in which she excelled; and the promotion of culture through music, dance and drama. She also played a role in reactivation of the National Schools Choir and Steel Orchestras.

Dr. Fox played a vital role in the process of Guyana achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals in Primary Education. She represented Guyana at the 48th session of the International Conference of Education in Geneva in November, when she presented a paper titled ‘Inclusive Education: Approaches, Scope and Content to Broaden the Understanding of the Theory and Practices of Inclusive Education.’ It was her belief that inclusive education ?- a children rights-based approach that develops the capacity to work with and maintain the diversity in Guyana ?- was becoming an important element in the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

According to a letter penned by Alister Charlie, “Dr Fox had always remained a humble daughter of the Amerindian people, proud of her heritage, loyal to her community, and a patriotic citizen of our country.”

He posited: “A shining star of the Amerindian people was extinguished in the aftermath of a tragic accident on December 11, 2009.
“But the lives of great men and women indeed live after them, and the legacy of Dr. Desrey Fox is lighting the lamp of knowledge in scholars who study from her works and the people of the Akawaio tribe who continue to propagate their language and culture because of her sterling contributions to Amerindian academia.”

It is within this light that it is also important to note that remarks made by Deputy Speaker of the House, M.P., Lenox Shuman during his budget presentation, when he attempted to link PNC-led governments with successive PPP/C administrations for not providing enough resources and assistance for the preservation of the Amerindian culture, heritage and languages, could hardly be seen as well-informed.

On the occasion of Amerindian Heritage Month, Guyana salutes this outstanding daughter of this nation’s First Peoples, Dr. Desrey Fox.

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