GUYANA: Extraordinary People: Cheddi Jagan and Sonny Ramphal – By Ian McDonald


Hardly a month or even a week went by in my working life without one or the other or both of these men appearing in the world’s headlines. It was exciting to play a small part in their big lives.


●    For everyone it was like a death in the family. Even those who opposed him all their lives felt the shock of a sort of bereavement. Not before was there ever, and not since will there ever be, such an overwhelming flow of publicly expressed mourning. On the day of Cheddi Jagan’s funeral, Georgetown, who never voted in a majority for him, came out to honour him.       

President Cheddi Jagan

At Buxton they halted his cortege on its way to Berbice to pay due respect. Flying up to the obsequies, circling over the villages and sugar estates all around, I saw the streets and habitations all abandoned, deserted, ghostlike, all the men, women and children gone to Babu John. In the family of any nation there are quarrels but these are set aside when such a revered elder figure in the family dies.   

I found myself more shaken by Dr. Jagan’s death than I thought I would be. That morning at 3.00 a.m. my wife and I were wakened out of sleep to be told. We sat and held hands and talked of our memories of him and said a prayer. He was never anything other than civil and generous in his dealings with me though often what I wrote could not have at all pleased him and surely even at times greatly vexed him, especially when I wrote approvingly of Karl Popper’s complete repudiation of Marxism in his great books The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism. He never bore me the slightest malice.

While I was Director of Marketing in the sugar industry we quite often talked the business of sugar but it was our talks on other matters I remember best. He would ring me out of the blue to discuss something I had written or said on the radio or to ask for more information on a subject I had discussed. He sought knowledge voraciously. Sometimes he invited me to State House just to chat and we would sit and the conversation was very easy between us. One of those times I like to remember he wanted to talk about the great American Black Renaissance poet Langston Hughes and I gave him some poems from Hughes’s Weary Blues which he liked very much. My overwhelming feeling about Dr. Jagan was of a good man through and through, generous-hearted, deep-souled.

I have a particular memory of Dr. Jagan which I treasure. It was on no great state occasion, at no momentous political event, during no gathering of the eminent and the famous. He was at Rose Hall estate to give out house lot deeds to about fifty sugar workers. It was pouring with rain but he did not think of cancelling and they did not think of not attending. When it came to his turn to speak an aide handed him a speech, I suppose, but he gave a smile and did not take it. He then spoke from the heart to those few sugar workers and their families in the falling rain and I have never heard words so clear and powerful and suitable.

Not a long speech, no rolling periods. No ideology, but simple words spoken in a straight line to their heads and hearts. How their ancestors had suffered much in slavery and indenture. But now through years of struggle and sacrifice a different time had come, a better time, a prouder time. But they should know it was a time when they must bear responsibility, they must take care of what they had won, they must show they were worthy of the efforts of those who had gone before. Now they must look after their house lots and improve them, they must leave things better for their children. He trusted them. He had always trusted them. They must remember what he said.

It was not really a speech. They had gathered around him and he was telling them the truth. I swear they will never forget what he said. And somehow on that quite insignificant occasion I knew I had got a glimpse of genuine political genius and what this man meant to the mass of people who loved him very much.

Whirling around in my head is what remains after age has taken its toll of the vast amount of poetry I have read in my lifetime. Often lines surface and I cannot for the life of me recall from what poem they come or who authored them. When I heard President Jagan had died some lines came as if summoned but I could not remember their source and since then I have not traced them. I wish I could remember the whole poem and who wrote the lines. The summoned lines captured for me then and still do something of Dr. Jagan’s fighting heart and the flame he lit for countless others. “He was one who in his life fought for life/Who wore at his heart the fire’s centre.”


Sir Shridath (Sonny) Ramphal

●  In the last three decades of the 20th century Sonny Ramphal was at or near the centre of world affairs. He was the chief architect of the Lome Convention, that imaginative partnership between rich countries, the European Union, and poor countries, the ACP group, which promised so much for a fairer world until it fell foul of the free market fanatics of a more selfish time. As Secretary-General of the Commonwealth he participated in countless international crises and debates and in particular powerfully assisted in the birth of a democratic, apartheid-free South Africa.

He was the  indispensable common denominator – no one else belonged to them all – in the work of the five great international Commissions which formulated a comprehensive vision of a better world: the Brandt Commission on Development; the Palme Commission on Disarmament and Security; the World Commission on Environment and Development; the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues; and the South Commission on the major problems facing Third World countries. He was the dynamo in them all. It was an almost unbelievably unique summons to duty. Imagine the time, the researched knowledge, the daily stint of hard work and thought, the fervour devoted to these five great blueprints for humanity.

These will continue to have relevance as long as men aspire to shape a real community of nations. Who can doubt that for this indefatigably undertaken body of work alone he should have received a Nobel Peace Prize. He would certainly have been Secretary-General of the United Nations except that he was too brilliantly gifted and had too much of a mind of his own for the liking of the big powers. In the Caribbean region he was  prolific in his contributions to the ideal of West Indian nationhood. In his work as Chairman of the West Indian Commission in 1991/92 he produced a road map, Time For Action, for the coming together of all West Indians, and a strengthening of their external influence, which stands to this day beckoning for fulfillment.

Our paths crossed often in these past few decades. In particular I worked within touching distance of Sonny when he played a key role in negotiating the Sugar Protocol as an integral part of the Lome Convention. And in 1991/92 I worked as editorial assistant for the West Indian Commission and in the compilation of its report Time For Action. Those were exhilarating times. The gifts I observed at first hand – and which gave rise to his multitude of achievements as a regional and world statesman – amounted, I am sure, to genius: his extraordinary ability as a negotiator, the splendid elegance of his writing reflected in the eloquence of his oratory, the capacity to take endless pains and tenaciously hold on until the job was done, the persuasiveness of vision which made doubters into believers and believers into fervent apostles.

And something I have found without fail in all the exceptional people I have been lucky enough to know – being with them made life and the world more exciting, simply more fun if the truth be told.

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  • brandli62  On 03/28/2021 at 3:07 pm

    Ian, many thanks for sharing your personal experiences with these two giants of recent Guyanese history. Made a nice closing of my Sunday evening!

  • wally n  On 03/28/2021 at 6:13 pm

    Great read.. I was always fascinated by both Jagan and Burnham, as a young man the were kinda mystical, loved going to their meetings, listening to Ram John Holder entertain, the message passing over my head.
    Many years later, in the nineties we had an opportunity to interview him at the CHIN radio station, he came in with a few people, looked like body guards, one being a future minister that was killed in Guyana. He sat alone, while we were setting up the lighting, I went over, nervously, just to have an opportunity to speak to him.
    After I introduced myself, he did mention that he knew my family. Being a genius as a thought I was, I asked why would he still continue the mission, he looked so worn. Got his attention, he said (para) there are times in your life when you have to finish what you started. I knew he thought I was a jackass, so I went for the generic, how do you relax, what makes you happy.
    He immediately lit up. big smile. told me he likes to make Jewellery for his family.
    As the host came over, I thanked him, but it took me a lil time to understand, remember, Dentists do work with gold intricate patterns.
    I treasure the memory, too

  • Francis Quamina Farrier  On 03/29/2021 at 2:41 pm

    I knew both Burnham and Jagan and both knew me – but only just a little. The last time I saw President Burnham alive, was on the Saturday afternoon on the occasion of the ceremony of the re-naming of “Murray Street” to “Quamina Street” in Georgetown. I vividly recall the boots he was wearing being very shiny. Also him loosing his voice mid-way of his address. He passed the following Monday. The last time I saw President Jagan alive was at the 100 Birthday celebration of a lady in Georgetown. I vivid recall the lady slapping the president on his thigh asking him to get a phone for her, so that she can call her children and grandchildren abroad. He told her that it would be difficult. He died a week later. However, he had already set things in motion. The lady got her phone. Regards Sir Shridath Ramphal, he also knows me a little. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing him for my Radio Programme Series, “PERSONALITY PROFILE.” It is a story which includes Female bravado.

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