Guyana Politics: A neighbourly old tale of race relations – By Dennis Nichols

In Guyana, ‘old time story’ is a phrase that can be interpreted a couple of different ways. One relates to an argument or feud between families or friends that could date back several generations. Another is the recall of an amusing or striking event that happened in the past and left an indelible impression on your mind.

The following can be described as a mixture of both, with a bearing on Guyana’s political and social history. It relates to a time when, in Charlestown, Georgetown, I first became aware of the amalgam of races in our capital city, and a few memorable encounters.   

I was my family ‘go-for’ errand boy in the early sixties, and I went – mostly to the neighbours and neighbourhood businesses – from Channa Shop opposite the jail on D’Urban Street to Jewan’s drugstore at the corner of Russel and Howes Streets.

Along that Camp-Russel Street strip there were groceries, drugstores, a supermarket, a sawmill, a watch and jewellery store, a taxi garage, a cloth store, pastry parlours, and at least one rumshop. These were operated by Portuguese, Chinese, East Indian and Black proprietors – Gonsalves, Chung, Wong, Loy, Haniff, Lachmansingh, Ramsamooj, Rahaman, Daniels and Seaforth.

Into that multiracial setting, Providence placed Ms. Jacobs and Mrs. Shah (real characters; fake names) in houses adjacent to each other along a narrow passageway on Russel Street, with our family separated by that divider on the northern side facing Princes Street.

The two women didn’t appear to be enamored of each other; maybe it was because one was a strapping, loud, Black woman and the other, an older conservative East Indian lady, and in that racially-charged period those could be the ingredients for a good old Guyanese cuss-out.

Both women were husband-less and prone to verbal outbursts when one felt the other had disrespected her on that point. To tell the truth it didn’t happen very often but when it did, it could be a spectacle of scrappy entertainment.

Ms. Jacobs had a juke box and possibly every ‘45’ and LP pop record pressed in the 1950s and early ‘60s, from sublime love songs to bawdy calypsos; and she and her sons hosted dances, it seemed, just about every Saturday night.

Incongruously yet seamlessly, Patsy Cline’s ‘I fall to pieces’ could be followed by Sparrow’s ‘Benwood Dick’ and Marty Robbins’ ‘Devil Woman’ and partygoers danced to them all. These were boisterous affairs, and fights were not infrequent; often when intoxicated young men fought for the favours of the party girls. I can only imagine how poor Mrs. Shah must have struggled to endure those all-night affairs, some of which continued well into the next day.

In August 1961 there were general elections in British Guiana. In the wee hours of the morning after the poll, there was a rumour that Burnham’s PNC had won. Shortly after, Ms. Jacobs’ juke box began to blare. Neighbours were aroused, and awoke to the sight of the music box in her yard with a large pointer broom tied to the front; it being the party symbol of the PNC. By mid-morning the tune had changed. Jagan’s PPP had in fact won and he was going to be appointed premier of the colony by Governor Sir Ralph Grey. That’s when Mrs. Shah got out a large enamel cup, the PPP symbol, and started banging on it.

Ms. Jacobs turned up her volume from blare to blast, but somehow the tinny, metallic sound of the enamel cup held its own. Mrs. Shah increased the percussion and for some reason began a shrill vocal accompaniment of ‘Heh, heh, me ah Nazir wife! Heh, Me ah Nazir wife’. Veins in her neck and forehead stood out distortedly as she upped the tempo to a frenzy.

I later figured that she was maybe ‘throwing a thing’ at Ms. Jacobs whose husband had been lost at sea, (unlike hers) implying some financial benefit that kept her from having to resort to the kind of entertainment the latter employed to supplement otherwise meagre earnings.

Later that afternoon a number of vehicles trundled by on Russel Street with enamel cups strapped on top while from each rear bumper a pointer broom dragged unceremoniously behind. By then the musical battle had stopped in the passageway with the contestants retired to their sanctums; one in smug triumph; the other resigned to the country’s political fate. Neither could then have foreseen the racially-tinged events that would wrack Guyana in the coming years and make their noisy little spat seem like what it really was – a petulant and childish display.

To my family’s credit if I remember rightly, we never got embroiled in any racial confrontation or tit-for-tat exchanges. My mother especially was neither fazed nor influenced by her neighbours’ run-ins, but I knew she and my father were initially rattled by the booming jukebox music, having left a rural quietude for urban upliftment a few years earlier.

On one occasion, though, we were at a loss for words when Mrs. Shah begged my mother to go with her wherever it was she was going that day because she was fearful for her life, having heard that East Indians were going to be attacked. In my opinion, even with the presence of Ms. Jacobs, she had little to fear.
Over the next three years, although residents were normally civil to each other in the neighbourhood, there was the occasional racial provocation. In one instance an older mixed-race friend of mine got lashed with a bicycle chain, presumably because he looked more East Indian. He was actually Portuguese and Black.

Once the wife of Baboo, a man from whom we bought provisions, ran into our yard believing she was being chased by some black youths, pleading that my mother tell them how much she loved black people. Her words caused some amusement, since no one had ever observed that declaration in action.

Sometime in 1962 or 1963, my father had joined a few male neighbours in keeping an all-night vigil after hearing talk of a plot to burn down the Ramsamooj shop next door. The watchers included a feared Black cartman, an ex-con with an acid-scarred face, who later befriended my father when he did some repairs to our house. No one seemed bothered by his presence that night.

A few years before then, a male in the Ramsamooj family had married a ‘coloured’ American girl. I remember being at the reception and for the first time in my life eating food from a large, oval-shaped leaf, with relish. I hadn’t been aware of a single mixed-race marriage before then, and I’m sure the experience helped shape my later acceptance of inter-racial relationships.

Although racial fear in those days may have been very real, I can’t help but imagine it was sometimes overstated. Ms. Jacobs and Mrs. Shah mellowed with the passage of time, and on occasion, actually hailed each other in passing.

By 1967, when my family moved from Princes Street following independence, a measure of stability had returned to the country, and it was reflected in the neighbourhood’s social interactions. A decade later I was to see another side of race relations (with an Amerindian twist) in the North West District, but that’s another story.

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