Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Camp Street Prison escapees: the Amelia’s ward shoot-out - another personal account

A collage of the picture post on Big Smith's Facebook page

Some of you may have read my last blog post about my recent trip to Guyana which was a personal account related to the Camp Street Prison fire and my brother being caught up in that tragedy. What follows is first an attempt to bring to attention and thereby clear up 'misconceptions' and 'misinterpretations' about my brother’s involvement in ‘harbouring’ the escapees Uree Varswyck and (Mark) Royden Williams. Second, in doing so I hope to make clear that some elements of the Guyanese media owe the public a much better duty of care to ethically report facts rather than perpetuate sensationalism that burden the collective Guyanese psyche with trash, violence and wanton disregard for the loss of human lives. It might best serve the reader to read the previous blog post as the two are linked and I won’t have space for repetition – this already will be like some kind of necessary sermon.

Friday 1st September - the phone call

I woke up that Friday morning acknowledging that since my return from Guyana I had been feeling distracted, unfocused, unsettled. I was aware my brother was due to appear in court on 6th September for the marijuana charge which had landed him in prison and subsequently caught up in the Camp Street Fire on July 9th and for which I had bailed him whilst there for the Diaspora Engagement Conference. I can’t say if this was the reason (at least not soley) for my feeling unsettled and distracted but I marked the feeling.

Later that morning my cousin called to say that there had been a shoot-out in Linden between the escaped ‘bandits’ and police; that this was on the news and on social media (Facebook); that it had taken place at my brother’s place in Amelia’s ward. It’s impossible to describe what went on in my body and my mind in that moment, so I’ll not try. My mother was in the room when we got the call. I was just about to go out, so advised my cousin to call back once he was able to confirm the ‘story.’ I was trying not to think my brother had lost his mind and had told the prisoners, with whom he’d been cooped up in the stink Camp Street Prison (as he’d described it), where he lived.

My cousin called back saying – ‘it’s true.’ He had seen the video, which by now had circulated on facebook, of my brother’s little house in Amelia’s Ward featured on a report by Travis Chase.

Some years ago I made a conscious decision to limit my use of expletives. But before I’d even seen the video and because my cousin would not make up or embellish a false report I went a little outer body with my curses. For those few hours, I thought my brother had lost it. He had over familiarised himself with the prisoners and for reasons only he could explain found compassion for them enough to offer them refuge when they made their way to his house. Had he planned it prior to his own release?
I had dared imagine if the thing was true that the escapees he was supposedly helping were those who had maybe fled from Lusignan, maybe ones imprisoned for minor charges as he had been. But when I heard that the escapee who had been shot was Uree Varswyck – the expletives turned to art as I unleashed my utter vexation and the anger that I’d be the one to have to tell my mother about the seriousness of the charge my brother would face.

My brother on the land in Amelia's ward

5118 Central Amelia’s ward and the blue and white house

A friend shared a news article of the shot Uree Varswyck which I now had to process was real, and that this shooting took place on a joint plot of land my brother and I bought over 20 years ago. At that time it was all bush and big trees. We were among the first people to be given land there. I was a student at the time, neither my brother or I had/have money to build on the land, but were told by the Housing officer (can’t recall his proper title) to make sure we built something ‘proper’ there because they’d earmarked that area as a front facing well-to-do street. He must have imagined we could do something ‘proper’ there as we were from ‘outside.’ In any case, we cleared it down, sprinkled our high wine and ting to hail up the land. We were helped by the very cousin (a young teenager then) who had called to let me know the extent of the story. We were proud that this was not inherited land that was tied up in historical disputes but our very own and finally transported (as of 2015). When I heard the story and realised that blood had been shed on this very spot my heart became heavy. Why of all the possible places in the whole of Guyana did this act play out on the land that we had bought? I was later reminded that Guyana in its most violent and negative expression is really what it is through blood shed and conquest. Somehow this little portion of land had come to share in the violence that proliferates, of course along with the sure signs of peace.

My brother’s house is the small blue and white cabin (really) that’s almost diagonal to where the Amelia’s Ward police outpost is located. The two are separated from direct view by bush and trees. It’s wooden, unlike other big houses that surround it, that are made from concrete. It was not meant to be a permanent residence but it’s my brother’s home, until such time that he’s able to build a different house there.

When I was finally able to watch the Travis Chase video wherein he was interviewing the Police Commander about the shooting, I thought I was in a nightmare. I watched as though entranced. Only weeks previously I had been to the house, the day I had paid my brother’s bail. It was the last time I saw my brother. The Commander responded to Chase’s questions with cool composure, he was careful, I observed, not to give too many details because clearly investigations were ongoing. But I watched, my stomach disappeared somewhere and heard him say that Uree Varswyck was shot and killed in an exchange of gun fire with the joint forces, that Royden Williams was there too but had again escaped, that they had taken a man in custody. He told Chase that investigation was ongoing about whether this man – who lived at the property, was involved in aiding the escapees. Royden Williams too? What? Had my brother lost it for real?

Then I watched, in silent anger, as Chase trampled around this ‘crime scene’ (!), scaled the cut out wire mesh fencing, landing no doubt where the dead body of Varswyck had earlier lain, trudging around to the back of the blue and white house, edging his camera into it to give viewers WHAT exactly. It didn’t seem, he said, almost under his breath that the escapees had been there for long, then he hopped back through the opening, turning his camera to a bag of tennis roll the escapees had allegedly dashed in the shootout. The back door to my brother’s home was left open all the while, his bicycle (now gone) was bracing against the house. Those who know this house and the Rasta who lives there would be left with the impression of his complicity in aiding the escapees. They were not alone, for I knew my brother knew these men from his Camp Street experience. I know my brother’s heart too. I wanted to believe that they might have forced him to aid them, he would have no choice. But a part of me felt that my brother would maybe have sympathy for them too. In truth I was thinking all kinda ****. Yet, there was a beacon, flimsy as it was, of hope. My brother’s name or image was not in the reports. There had to be a damn good reason why. A reason that yet might save him.

My brother in the times he wore blue robes outside his house

I had to tell mum

Like most working class and single mothers, my mum has been through a lot; her own experience documented in my book Mama Lou Tales. Each time she experiences a new tragedy, she would call her prayer friends at Unity (school of Christianity) to ‘uplift her in prayer,’ and she would grow stronger, spending every moment in prayer. She prayed for everyone, feeling that her children are not only biological.

It was after I had watched the Travis Chase video that I lugged my body into her bedroom and broke down. I couldn’t tell her actual words then, I just bawled, bawled as though my brother had died. And that was precisely what my mother most longed to find out – if my brother, her son was alive; she did the Guyanese lopsided questioning – ‘Orien is alive?’ to which I shook my head, yes. Then I persisted in bawling, finding it impossible to actually tell her that he was taken into custody. This she would learn when my tears were spent and I could speak.

A few hours passed between us consisting of varying emotions - ‘if that’s how my brother wants to play like he is big criminal there’s nothing we can do; that’s it’ – to me trying to find a defence that the system had to answer why someone would go to prison for a minor offence and end up facing a more severe one upon his release, albeit on bail. Had my brother himself, having associated with the hardened criminals become hardened? It wasn’t making sense. But this argument was running around my mind. He should have been released sooner if the system had worked as it should. He should not have been denied bail countless times, since 20th April. That is tantamount to victimisation, straining his emotions as well as putting a financial burden on his family. It was serving as some kind of pseudo punishment, psychological as well as physical. At least by now I had stopped cursing.

Mama Lou, her faith tested

My brave young cousin

He lives not far from my brother. He was the one who told us the story. He said he’d go to the house and find out what he could after the scene had been cleared of the numerous police. I was grateful to him from that moment. He said he walked by the house observed the numbers of police so didn’t push up himself to let them know he was related to my brother. In another world maybe, but in Guyana, he felt he didn’t want police to implicate him too.

On the Sunday his conscience stirred him and he made the decision to find out where my brother was being held. He kept thinking that there was no one else in the family that was going to find out. He had not too long seen my brother, who had just had his liberty, now he couldn’t believe he was experiencing this bitter fate. He learnt that they had my brother at Mckenzie station. He had not been given anything to eat since the early hours of Friday morning when they had taken him in. My cousin called to ask what he could give my brother to eat (being Rasta he knew this wasn’t any and anything). He took him food based on what I told him. He was told by one of the officers that my brother had been ‘cooking for the escapees’ and ‘charging their phones.’ Stones fell into my stomach. If that was true, I couldn’t see how, save mystics my brother would get out of this. They had told my cousin that my brother would have to appear in court the following day, Monday.

My cousin became braver by the minute. He went to my brother’s unsecured home to secure it. He noticed the bicycle had been taken. The back door was still open. He locked up the house. He said he wasn’t afraid of having walked on the spot where the dead man had been. I said ‘good’ for there was nothing to fear. I forgot to say earlier that this was the half of the joint plot of land that is mine. By now I had learnt that Uree Varswyck was also known as Michael Gordon, my birth name is Michelle Gordon, the name in which I had purchased the land. The spiritual and mystical/spiritual aspect of this human story was taking hold.

The following morning, my cousin called early. I could tell that like us, he had not really slept. His beautiful conscience was sparking, like the rising sun. He said he realised my brother would need clothes, toothbrush, yet more food. He’d go to the house and get clothes and toothbrush, then go into town to get food for him. This he did and made swift his movements to catch him in time before his court appearance. When he got to the station he was told that my brother would in fact not be going to court that day; that they didn’t know when he would be going to court. I knew that I had to get a good lawyer for my brother. I was confident he could represent himself for the Marijuana offence but this was serious and he needed credible representation. I hoped we could find a human rights lawyer (I was told there aren’t that many in Guyana) who might be sympathetic. A few inquiries led to Nigel Hughes, whom I contacted, my mind all the while trying to summon the money out of nowhere to pay for any lawyer. I had called one who was local to Linden. She had given me the name of another since she was representing someone else for the same offence. That lawyer’s name was Gordon Gilhuys, but I didn’t get in touch with him. The ‘Gordon’ name was throwing me in this by now providential narrative. I had asked the present lawyer who could speak with my brother, she said only a lawyer – they wouldn’t allow family to communicate with him because of the nature of the crime.


Items allegedly recovered by police that the escapees had; this was one of the photos in the Big Smith post of facebook, which served to give the impression they were recovered from my brother's house.

My emotions were intensified with chest burns surfacing when I saw the facebook post by ‘Big Smith’ with the title ‘’Priest’ was harbouring escapees.’ There was a watermarked image of my brother on the post along with photos packaged in a way to verify the title and convince readers that my brother was guilty as per this social media facebook charge. His name – Linden Orin (incorrectly spelt) Gordon was printed. His address, which by now we knew (from Chase’s video) – 5118 Central Amelia’s Ward there too – actually here are the details (cut and pasted exactly) Big Smith posted about my brother and the case:

“Police sources have confirmed that a "Rasta Priest" Linden Orin Gordon, age 52 years a Rastrianfarian Priest of 5118 Central Amelia's Ward, Linden was ensuring that prison escapees Uree Varswyck and Mark Royden Durant/ Williams had everything they needed to make them comfortable while hiding from the law.”

I was astonished that this post was in circulation – with all my brother’s details big and bold on facebook for his friends, family and the larger Guyanese (local and in the diaspora) to see. Most of us aren’t discerning. What we see is what we believe. But something about this post stank. Why had no other report provided all this detail? The post was affirmative. The pictures, the words conclusive - my brother had colluded with the hardened criminals – was harbouring them. That is how it was deliberately constructed in this post. I contacted facebook to ask them to take it down. But they wouldn't because it wasn’t inciting violence, nor showing disrespect to women and so on. Against better judgment I read some of the comments:

‘Rastaman ... whuh yuh really deh pon big man? De fiyah gonna Bunn yo now dread’
‘A true Rasta don't mixed up in stuff like this’
'Rasta, like you been smoking High grade, if was cheap weeds you would have focus on the right ,to call the police to capture those criminals. Rasta, sorry meh brethren but them ahfee buss you dreadlocks.
‘He needs a fifty year sentence: let him die in prison…’

There were a few hearty ones:

‘Sorry boss’
‘Everything is in God 's hand this is not the time to blame anybody.'
'All we need to do is keep praying.’

Ok, so I shouldn’t have been reading these but I was all over the place emotionally. I contacted Big Smith privately to ask him to take down the post because the investigation was ongoing and nowhere else had my brother’s name and image been released. I said his post was sensationalising an already complex and sensational story. I inferred that he was doing this for likes and comments. I couldn't see how the post was accurate, especially if we were to believe the remarks by the official on Travis Chase's report. It would also be fantastic that my brother was providing the escapees with food like those presented in one of the pictures supposedly to ensure 'they had everything to make them comfortable.’ His response was that my ‘approach’ was ‘disrespectful’ as it affirmed he was positioning it for ‘likes’ and ‘comments’- he had never before nor would he now take instructions from anyone and especially in the manner in which I had approached him. I tried to appeal to some human element by saying that what he read in my ‘tone’ (his word) was ‘distress’ which the family were feeling from the post, especially my 85 year old mother; that though it was a ‘public interest’ story (his argument and reason for putting it out there) it was indeed sensational (the way he had packaged it/my interpretation) and it was also, I said to him a ‘human story.’ By this I meant broadly that as well as the perceived actors – the ‘Rasta Priest,’ the dead Uree Varswyck, the on the run escapee Royden Williams, all families (victims of their violence as well as theirs) and the Guyanese communities being impacted, as well as those others who were legitimately whether forcibly or not aiding the escapees - all were caught up in the violence, pain, hurt and grief.

Big Smith argued that the reason he alone had the image of my brother was that he sourced it before others, had watermarked it preventing other reporters from being able to use it. I want to say thank god for that, but I can’t. You see, if one surveys his page now, you’d see that of all the recent posts this one was shared 466 times. The one presently that has more shares (497) has pictures of a man – ‘bandit’ shot with bullet wound exposed and bloodied t-shirt beside him. Persistent images of violence made me stop reading the Guyana dailies as much as I once did. Now it is that Guyanese near and far, family, friend, and foe of my brother were instantly turned judge and jury. I felt cold inside, wondered how we’d come to this, but I must face the reality that for many of us this window to the world is all we have; this moment to shine is all we’ll ever experience. I share this experience in the hope that the many followers who followed and like Big Smith's page, who shared the post with their friends and followers will likewise share this post, which might go a small way in remedying the defamatory damage it solicited. It is true my brother is no saint but who would dare stand beside him and boldly declare him a sinner?

Big Smith's page is very popular with Guyanese home and abroad and recently reached this landmark


Its synonym is ‘coincidence.’ My brother would also call it a ‘fluke’ when I was finally able to speak with him. I knew that his word was the only one I’d believe about what went down that fateful Friday.
Over and over we kept playing it in our minds (my mum, best friend, my cousin), that if there was a ‘shoot out’ and my brother was aiding and abetting the escapees how was he not shot too. How was the house not shot at? Where was he when the ‘shoot out scene’ was taking place? Why had we not heard his name (other than a facebook post) in the official reports?

It was the same day, Wednesday last, and just over 72 hours of detention in the police station that myself and Big Smith were in a futile dispute about the defamatory post, which he refused to see as such since he had been swift to the scene, gathered (in the public interest) ‘facts’ that amounted to my brother’s collusion with the escapees. I woke up that morning and went into prayer. There had to be some reasonable explanation why the tragedy was at my mother’s heart, why my brother had just missed losing his life in the hail of bullets at his door step.

Though I had intended to pray foremost for my brother, words wandered first towards the dead ex-cop whose name ‘Michael’ was the male version of my own – its meaning – ‘one who is like God.’ I prayed for his spirit to rest in peace; after all, as my mother kept repeating, he was some mother’s child too. That he did not begin his life in the violent way it ended; I prayed that in death he’d find some kind of peace. I prayed too for the man on the run – Royden Williams. My spirit was tapping into what he must be going through – yes – he’s this big murderer, having the Bartica massacre (not massaccar as I saw it spelt on Big Smith’s post) on his head and for which certainly he will meet his own death soon. But I was praying for him to find peace with himself, after all he too is someone’s child (and also a child of Guyana), he too would be experiencing all kinds of emotions and perhaps somewhere inside himself repenting. And then, as though there had been a necessary twist in my heart I finally found a way to pray for my brother. I prayed that the truth of the matter would out itself without delay. It could not be otherwise. I called on all the forces, his guardians, our ancestors to work on his behalf.

When we were alone, and my mum marking only two (instead of the gathered three) we decided to pray together. I had been trying to prepare my mother for the worst outcome (though I didn't really know what that might look like entirely), hoping to spare her shock borne from the idealism that magically the case would flee. Mum, I’d said,’ Orien is going to do time for this.’ She wouldn’t have it. ‘Why?’ she asked. Because if he was ‘cooking for the prisoners and charging their phones’ I can’t see how he’d get off from that. She held her peace. She had not yet cried openly to me, I believe I saw tears spring on one occasion but they retracted without fully falling. After our praying energies were spent, we wanted to rest. Within the hour, however, I received a call from my cousin saying he would call me back to speak with my brother. What? Speak with my brother? And he did. But he actually put my brother on video call, from the police station, where I saw my brother’s bright face, beaming. ‘Don’t listen to what they say on Facebook,’ he said, ‘I wasn’t helping dem man, it was fluke, happenstance, I didn’t tell dem where I live…yoh mad.’ I was struggling to believe I was really speaking to him. Seeing him. He was handcuffed, in the process of signing a statement to the effect that the prisoners had indeed stopped at his home that night, but not by his design. He had not been harbouring them. And, my brother was shouting over the phone - ‘the boy who was shot, his father’s name was Orin Gordon.’ That caused a whole heap of confusion when they took him into the station. I didn’t know if my brother knew that the ‘boy’ as he called him was also called Michael Gordon. For now our two names (Michelle/Michael and Orien/Orin Gordon) were entangled in this unbelievable narrative.

I took the phone so my mum could see her son. Her cheeks elevated. He assured her there was nothing to worry about. He was chuckling his familiar easy-going chuckle. My smile must have been enormous too. When I told mum about the ‘coincidence’ of the boy’s father’s name being ‘Orin’ she was like WHAT? And this went round and round in her head, as she pondered if there might be some mystic connection indeed.

A short time after I received a message from Big Smith:

‘Ms Asantewa good afternoon. I did some consideration with respect to our conversation this morning via this platform and given much of what u would have said, i habe decided on a few course of action. First and foremost would be to extend an invitation to your brother to speak with me in relation that this issue if he so desires which would allow him an opportunity to clear up any misconceptions that myself and others may have or might have reported in relation to his arrest last week. Please feel free to respond or contact me on 6009747 or 6226730’

I elected not to respond. I would, however, attempt to write a comment on the post (it’s cut and pasted here, my typos too):

'My fellow Guyanese I have delayed commenting on this post and this is only a brief one because it has been disturbing me since seeing it last Friday. I wondered at some of the comments; whether any of those commenting took time to verify any part of this story; from the title - 'PRIEST' WAS HARBOURING ESCAPEES" to the BIG SMITH watermarked image of said 'Priest.' His name too was posted, photos carefully arranged to give you a perfect impression, one that frames the narrative of complicity against him - I wondered if this didn't seem staged. There were some humane considerations - some comments acknowledging that they 'know the priest' but the extreme condemnations citing that 'he is as bad as the escapees,' that he should 'die in prison' and so on leave me very concerned about the healthiness of the collective Guyanese mind. There has been no mention of the 'Priest's' name in the official news. There has been no release of any pictures of the man who police took into custody in pursuit of their investigation following the shoot out in Amelia's ward. Did no one of the many commentators on this 'platform' take time to consider whether this VERSION of the story was true? Was it perhaps enough that this tragedy was not presently at your door step, affecting your heart, causing distress to your family, especially your mother? The 85 year old, Mama Lou, my mother whilst praying for her son, the 'Priest' to be freed from the LIE of this situation also prayed for the soul of the Uree Varswyck (the shot escapee) to rest because it had clearly been tormented in this life time. Perhaps when he meets his maker, the certain and more righteous JUDGE he will find answers about why it was he lived and died through violence. And were you to learn that the 'Priest' DID NOT ENSURE THE ESCAPEES HAD EVERYTHING TO BE COMFORTABLE WHILE HIDING FROM THE LAW' would your heart ease up a little in its judgement without proof, without due diligence to the fact? I am so so sad that our lives are riddled with the need to point harsh fingers, rather than extend an arm to embrace. Were it so we might begin to see a different view from our window. I salute all those who took some time to temper their considerations about the 'Priest,' life has interesting ways of testing our faith, integrity and love.’

Big Smith bounced back:

‘Michelle Yaa Asantewa you would appreciate that we spoke extensively on this issue. I did among other things pointed out to you that I was the only journalist who managed to secure the photo of this gentleman (the priest) and that is why he was only published here. I further pointed out to you that is it not common practice for media house/journalists to use on their medium, an image which is already watermarked like in the case if the "priest". I am a bit taken aback with your assertion that this might have been staged because of the layout of the images on this page. It was not state. At the time I posted these images, all other images except the one with your brother was already out there. At the time of me posting this, those images and incidents which unfolded in Linden (except the priest's image and his name etc) was old news so with me having updated information, which included the priest and his name etc, I decided to lead the story with that as the rest of information was already out there. I did not see you mentioned anything here about the priest being placed on bail pending legal advice which the police are awaiting.’

I am yet to perceive anything verging on compassion and acknowledgment that this post was every kind of wrong.

A picture of my brother as a young man my mum and I found as we prayed for him

Within the hour of seeing my brother on the WhatsApp video, my cousin shared a picture of him at home. He had been in the lock up over 72 hours. He was not charged because there was no evidence that he was harbouring the escapees. Yes, they had asked him for water – he gave them. Then pulled himself back into the house. They had guns. Yes, they had asked him to charge their phones, he complied. They had guns. He asked the officers at the station who questioned him, what they would have done in his position. What would any of us do? Sadly Big Smith’s source fed him information that again made him arrogantly sure that he was reporting facts. My brother was not ‘put on bail’ for this offence. Why would the police issue bail for such an offence when my brother had been denied bail for intending to sell 3 ounces of marijuana - a case still ongoing? I wished he'd thought through his response. I have nothing against Big Smith or any one trying to do our Guyanese society some kind of justice by bringing real life stories to the people. But I couldn't help but wonder where were the ethics and good practice taught him on his journalism course? I sincerely appeal to him and others to be more careful and considerate in their manner of reporting. To check, double check, verify and extend human compassion at all times if we are to ccollectively change the script of lawlessness and indecency permeating the Guyanese society - indeed our world. I feel a sense of shame and remorse that it is likely repeated several times over, without any serious effort to stop it. I couldn't help marking the lack of humanness in rushing to put out a ‘public interest’ piece without ensuring he had been correctly plied with the facts by his source, obviously from the police.

My cousin in selfie with my brother after his release

Faith and providence

He stood his ground because my brother was confident he knew his truth. He’d prayed as my mother had taught him words to affirm – that ‘only good can come.’ She was at the same time affirming those words and her favourite ‘leave it to God, - Divine Order.’ She kept saying that the boy came home to his father (Orien/Orin) to die. She saw my brother in his spiritual guise as the boy’s spiritual father since they shared the name. In the Amelia’s ward area my brother is known as a priest, some call him Moses. In the prison he’d cooked for Royden Williams, who ate ‘ital’ (no meat, no salt). They called my brother ‘blacksip’ (something to do with the nature of the ital food he prepared). I always see him as a bird – though never always free – like those pet ones he has in cages. He remarked that there were no bullets fired at his house because the police were being careful to contain the incidence of misadventure by wildly shooting.

The night of the shoot out

My brother was in the house. He heard a car stop sharp outside. He came out and saw his fence being scaled by the escapees (then he didn't know who it was). He asked who was trespassing into his property. ‘Rastaman we don’t want any trouble,’ came back the reply. They had moved round the back of the house. Royden recognised him – ‘sip (short for ‘blacksip) is you?’ Then ‘is heh you living,’ in what my brother said was a kind of scornful tone since the house is rudimentary! My brother recognised them as the bad men dem from prison. NO! Yall cyan stay heh, heh hat like fyah, look da police station deh jus down deh,’ he told them. ‘We just waan lil water and charge we phone.’ My brother gave them the water, took their phones to charge then hauled himself back into the house. I can’t imagine what kinds of beats were pounding his heart. He felt, not least in hindsight but also at the time that he’d given them sound compassionate advice if they were seriously trying to flee – to get the hell away from there. They stayed, however, waiting for the driver who had promised he would check out the road block at the head of the entrance into Linden, then circle back and pick them up.

He had moments before handed the escapees back the phone, pulled himself back into the house, when my brother heard the car pull up again outside the house. The escapees presuming it was just the driver went to get into the car when police jumped out and the bullets were exchanged landing primarily at the now dead Uree. It’s believed he had pulled his gun on the forces. Royden, meanwhile had fled. The police then shouted for whosoever was in the house to come out. My brother did so with his hands above his head and was taken into custody. The driver it seemed from the perspective of the escapees was not to be trusted, but for some reason they really did.

When we finally spoke my brother, like me was perplexed that these escapees didn’t think to flee beyond the urban population. Why were they not far into the interior, nearing some border? Why couldn’t they have made the bush their shelter (eat off the land if necessary for the rest of their lives)? It’s an interesting analogy that whilst Guyana has so much land, the majority of us club up close to the coast and each other as though afraid of the deep, free land where we might live alone from the main. For the escapees there seemed to be no difference. Why too were they headed back towards Georgetown the hotter fire from whence they’d fled two months prior? It’s crazy trying to get our heads around it.

We must live, therefore with the probable providential explanation, that some destiny more far reaching/seeing than our eyes was played out that day. It was the way Uree had to return to the dust. It was the way his violence would end, his adventure on earth terminated. My mother expressed a vague wish that my brother might have spared a moment to bless him and say some soothing words to his spirit, which she maintains must have ventured to be home with his father and there finally to meet his maker. I'm sure my brother did what he had to in his way. Indeed, the killing marks a veritable alteration in my brother. He had to step over the dead man’s body to give himself over to the police. That act, according to his rite as a Rastafarian meant he would now have to shave his locks and start afresh. I think this is somewhere in the Bible. Either way, we delight in giving thanks that my brother’s life was spared once more. For as a priest (linked in Rastafarian terms to the Levite priesthood/tribe in the Bible) his spirit and faith is strong. Thus cloaked in the protection of our ancestors, particularly my grandfather who was known among other names as ‘Aaron’(the Levite brother of Moses), my brother’s name is linked to this tragedy perhaps as a sign of some greater works he has been put here on earth to fulfil in his spiritual capacity and the priesthood he claims.

My brother as he looks now, head shaven as part of his Rastafarian rite after seeing the dead.

I end by saying I do not take it at all lightly but recognise the providential synchronicity and meaning encoded in these words from Numbers 18 in the Bible (NIV), “the Lord said to Aaron, “you, your sons and your family are to bear the responsibility for offenses connected with the sanctuary, and you and your sons alone are to bear the responsibility for offenses connected with the priesthood.” Martin Carter’s name will ever be called in acknowledging that ‘all are involved,’ the ‘sanctuary’ is for us all to nurture, protect and maintain. Daily we’re seeing lives cut short by sickness (physically and mentally), most harrowingly by disasters both man-made and natural (like we're now experiencing with Irma), it’s high time we all bear responsibility to the truth, to live lovingly and respectfully with each other, to think of ourselves as our brother/sister's keepers, instead of pelting stones at each other’s hearts. There might yet come a day when we see something resembling a longed for peace in all our lives. But that achievement can only manifest when collectively we accept the responsibility to clean up and correct the atrocities that continue to be committed against the golden sanctuary.

Shout Out.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Guyana Trip July 2017 II: Camp Street Prison Fire – a personal account

I arrived in Guyana one week after the Camp Street Fire that burnt down Guyana’s infamous top security prison. Located in the city centre, against better advice and calls for decades to relocate it, this was the most major of several calamities befalling the prison. Many before this calamity, and since, have suggested relocating it to the Linden Highway where there is sufficient land space to accommodate it. The original construction was ordered, I read somewhere by Queen Victoria 133 years ago. Her ghastly statue remains, as do many other symbols (physical and psychological) of colonialism, dominant outside the High Court. That says much. British Law and what else persists in the way Guyana is governed.

The reason, we're told, for keeping Camp Street Prison so close and personal in the lives of local residents has something to do with proximity to the Supreme Court for those on remand to get there quickly. The fence is hardly high enough to prevent missiles of goodies and baddies to be lobbed over it. There is a sign on one side of the wall prohibiting contact/communication with prisoners. This is surely a parody that justifies the need to move it elsewhere.

By now citizens of the world ought to be aware public inquiries, following some state disaster are costly and often wasteful. Governments rush to order them after a major tragedy to appease its public that justice is being efficiently served. An inquiry was conducted after the 2016 fire at Camp Street in which 17 prisoners perished. Recommendations were made but not implemented because it would be too expensive to do so. A year later and another major fire that will once again start the chain of events; another costly inquiry, more recommendations, with the likelihood of there being no satisfactory outcomes.

Let me back up a bit

On 9th July my cousin sent me a WhatsApp message about the fire. Had I not seen it on Facebook? I had been to the river doing a ritual, so was on a good vibe (no social media) that day. When she shared pictures of the blaze, it became difficult to breathe. I was afraid for my brother who had been at the prison for the past three months. He was remanded there, charged with ‘possession of narcotics with intent to traffic.’ Weeks before in London I had bawled with the nation over the Grenfell Tower Inferno, for which ‘authorities’ have yet covered up the numbers that were consumed by it. We know the toll could never be 80, a figure they dragged out over weeks and have neatly squared for our consumption. I feared my brother might be a victim of the Camp Street fire and didn’t learn of his safety for a rough, sleepless 48 hours. I couldn’t tell our mother, she was already on a prayerful mission to get him released from there. We learnt that the authorities had decided to divvy the prisoners between Berbice, Timehri and Mazaruni. Eventually many were transported to Lusignan on the East Coast. I eventually learnt that my brother was among those.

Let me back up a bit further

My brother and I, as all siblings do, disagree on a number of things. He has been a Rasta since youth, smoking weed, as I did in my youth. He defended himself previously in the Courts in London and had never been incarcerated for possession with or without intent to do anything there. That changed when he returned to Guyana. A few years ago he was sentenced for three years for selling marijuana. It tore our mother up – in her twilight years having to deal with that stuff was too much. She is strong, however, praying through those trips to Mazaruni on the wily speed boats to visit him, and later to Berbice to where he was moved. My brother has had dealings with Guyanese police with regard to marijuana countless times. So when we received the call on this occasion that again he had been arrested to say I was angry, my mother frustrated would be understating our feelings. I can’t go on about how much and for how long before that anger turned from him to the stupid legal system that imprisons people for minor offences like possession or even selling Marijuana; when in a hot minute this will be made globally legal. My brother was refused bail at his first Court appearance. New court date served. Bail was refused again. Each time he went he appeared without a lawyer, since he is capable of speaking and defending himself, and ultimately since he believes by reason of his faith and culture that there is no legitimacy for locking him up for marijuana possession or trafficking. It’s not cocaine. It’s not large quantities. In this case, when we eventually got to speak, he said it was no more than 3 ounces.

Liberalise or legalise it

When I last saw my brother, in October 2016, he had been singing a tune I didn’t pay much attention to. He believed the government, spearheaded by David Granger especially, were going to ‘legalise’ marijuana. I’ve since learnt that ‘liberalising’ the law on marijuana was part of the coalition mantra, earning them relevant votes from young males and particularly from among the Rastafarian community. My brother is a Rastafarian who has naturally been championing the protracted global call for legalising marijuana, so it seems he ran away with the idea espoused by David Granger and the Coalition government that they would free up the herbs. The pre-election promise, it appears, is yet to be fulfilled because numbers of young (mainly) African men and Rastafarians are targeted with arrests for possession and smoking weed. These charges account for disproportionate numbers of prisoners at Camp Street. And on remand. A friend relayed that on winning the election in 2015, Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’ track was played for the Coalition’s victory celebration, he noted no less that Marley’s memorable tunes were compiled with a pen in one hand, a joint in the other.

When I arrived in Guyana I learnt that a Rastafarian Conference would be held at the University. I went. It was sparsely attended but there were some worthwhile presentations. I saw the near end of one that spoke about the relationship between reparations and repatriations – the latter needn’t be literal but should be contextualised as reclaiming history and decolonising the mind. I missed the one on ‘decriminalisation’ of marijuana as opposed to ‘legalising’ it. During Q&A I learnt though that this was based on the assertion that the Rastafarian community (he was referring particularly to Guyanese, but the Conference appeared international in scope), were not organised enough in terms of readiness for legalisation. Legalising the trade in marijuana would open up the investment potential to anyone. Those with resources, inside and outside of Guyana could easily purchase lands to accommodate the development of an industry that could see Rastafarians outwitted in their own back yard. Eric Phillips, director of African Cultural Development Association (ACDA) presented passionately about the same lack of organisation when he said that despite calls (he mentioned from the Government) to tell it what the community needed, no proposal had yet been made. This could, he was suggesting, include a proposal for acres of land on which to farm. This needn’t be as per individuals vying for small house lots or even farm plots but as a considerable collective. I had the cringing sense he was scolding the community like a school master might. He seemed frustrated, but I can’t speak to the intricacies of his apparent vexations nor the response (or lack thereof) by the Rastafari community.

I kept asking myself why after the fire and knowing that many of Camp Street’s prisoners were there on marijuana charges this community had not stampeded the government offices demanding immediate release, not on bail, but with charges dropped of those prisoners on remand for pitiful amounts of marijuana. I know it’s a legal issue, but really, what kind of 'legal?' Fair, just? I couldn’t understand the hush, either, and the lack of mobilisation and organisation by anyone actually in demanding something radical is progressed after this new fire, and especially after there were recommendations from the last one that were ignored. The business as usual thing bugged me. I am not amused by the chorus ‘this is Guyana’ that excuses all kinds of lawlessness and stupidness.

In London (even bearing in mind cultural, social and economic differences) Grenfell residents and supporters stormed the affluent Kensington and Chelsea Council premises demanding answers since the Council was culpable and had to be called to account. They had been warned about a possible fire by a residents group but ignored them. Likewise, the Commissioners of the previous inquiry after the 2016 Camp Street fire had, according to Guyana Chronicle “noted that repeat offenders have increased by over 100 per cent, “indicating not only a waste of taxpayer dollars but also the need for a more comprehensive and structured partnership within the wider justice system.” Clearly, something had gone and had been going terribly wrong for some time. Why wasn’t the moment seized to challenge the legal system that disproportionally criminalises African males, especially where the charges are related to marijuana and by inference therefore for choosing the Rastafarian way of life? The silence continues.

They’re rebuilding Camp Street?

I prayed before travelling to Guyana that I wouldn’t find my brother in prison. Whilst at times we disagree on things, I’d challenge anyone who thinks they can condemn him for his beliefs and even his actions. My issues with him and what I consider a kind of obsession with marijuana (despite its cultural/social/religious significance and health benefits) has as much to do with my spiritual growth as that of my brother’s. When a mother, an elder is heartbroken because her son, not a child, a grown man with children of his own faces the prospect of imprisonment yet again for the same offence one has to ask whether it is really worth it. It seems so to him, whether I/we like it or not. In any case, I had hoped he’d be released, even if this meant he’d be given community service. He had a court date on 20th June. The magistrate didn’t give him any hearing but instead cancelled the session and gave him another date, thereby putting him back on remand, with the near possibility of him being a victim of the fire that took place on 9th July.

Having arrived in Guyana, a week before the Diaspora Engagement Conference, and one after the fire, I visited the site. The fire had indeed flattened the wooden part of the prison. Only the two concrete buildings remain. Work men and machines were labouring on the sandy site, smoothening it with no trace of debris (perhaps bodies – my mind overran!) visible. My cousin was with me, “what they doing to this place,” he asked one of the workers. “Rebuilding it,” the workman said, sadly, his eyes looked deep into ours as though he wanted the weight of those words to penetrate our souls.

The Police mess across the road was also burnt, but being concrete is reparable. A nearby house had caught fire; cables looked ominous and now useless as they too were caught by the blaze. It was a Sunday, naturally it was quiet. But this quiet was not natural. Small children watched us as we walked the perimeter of the prison, their eyes and those of the odd parents/older family members we saw looked sad. Or was it shame I was seeing? For when at last the locals might have felt freed from that blight in their neighbourhood they were instead faced with the horror that the site would be rebuilt to once more contain the most violent members of the wider Guyanese society. A smaller fire had taken 17 lives a year previously, it was, therefore, difficult to accept the official report that all 1018 prisoners survived the blaze.

What follows is based on a conversation I had with my brother after I paid a supposedly ‘reduced’ bail (when there had been no issuance of any in the first place) that has given him a hint of freedom.

3 ounces of Marijuana - bail denied!

The story goes that my brother's neighbour was robbed. In their routine investigation to find out if locals knew anything about it, they came to my brother’s home, discovered his bagged out weed and arrested him. Bail, as he had expected and messaged me in London to hopefully secure somehow through my at the time vexed face since we didn’t know where else we’d find it, was denied. He had to go to court.

Prior to the fire, my brother had been trying to secure bail, each time the magistrate said ‘No bail.’ The fire provided the exigency for the court authorities to award reduced bail for ‘minor infringements’ and since many of those in Camp Street were there for petty crimes, the Coalition government’s pre-election promise to liberalise the law on marijuana became an inconvenient imperative.

The wanted escapees

The fire

Source - Guyana Chronicle

‘Smallie,’ or Mark Royden Williams, dubbed the ‘mastermind’ of the prison break is a Rasta like my brother. He didn’t (at least at this time) eat salt. And as my brother had been working in the kitchen, he was put in charge of cooking meals for all those prisoners who didn’t eat meat and ate only Ital. My brother is an excellent cook. He said that ‘Smallie’ seemed to be 'running things' in the prison, for example, making demands on the guards and officials for whatever he wanted. This was mainly around his meals. If they scrimped on seasonings, so that meals were made without tomatoes and adequate seasoning, he refused to eat it. The officials scurried to find requisite items and a new pot of meal was prepared.

According to my brother, the first attempt to escape by the means of setting alight the prison was last year. That plan was foiled. Allegedly a known official was overheard saying ‘let them’ (the prisoners) burn!’ Obviously, there’s no way of verifying this. The 17 who did burn were in this instance being avenged, at the same time as there being a renewed plot to escape. My brother said some of the prisoners who had escaped last year’s fire were traumatised, some coiling up in foetal postures when relaying the story to him, turning their backs from the terror of memory.

The fire was possible because the guards were docile and sleepy, particularly on a Sunday afternoon, either from overeating, drunkenness or weed smoking. Once ‘Smallie’ and the main actors in the break out had overcome the guards, by means of struggle, including chopping an important figure (whose title now escapes me) as they went along, a sight my brother said he had to turn his face from seeing, they released other condemned prisoners. That ‘figure’ (the ‘OC’ I believe, but don’t know what it stands for) was detested by the prisoners as he was cruel. The ‘plotters’ made sure the prisoners were safe before setting alight the prison, in strategic locations. Some of the male prison guards ran from the prison leaving their female counterparts to face not only the fire but the prisoners. As the chaos ensued, my brother and other prisoners made it to the gate, awaiting transport across to the mess, but this too was soon set ablaze; from that frightful scene too the prisoners were later transported to Lusignan. ‘Smallie’ and accomplices were long gone. Given that they were high security offenders, who are still on the loose, I am astounded by the silence. But I don’t live in Guyana and some things I naturally won’t be able to get my head around. In any case, my brother surmises that there is some kind of vendetta yet to be fully played out between the escaped condemned prisoners and the Chief of Prisons, Gladwin Samuels.

I was told, on a separate occasion by an ex-policeman, who had left the job because of the corruption it carried being part of that system, that the other ex-policeman (Uree Varswyck/e?) who had escaped with Smallie, had also become hardened by his experiences on the job. He, being well trained from overseas and having ambitions beyond his present rank was tasked with training (with drills etc) other officers and sometimes senior ones. There arose acrimony between him and these senior officials who couldn’t handle his (as a junior with more experience) ‘orders’ and would challenge him and make life hell for him. He decided to quit. But this didn’t stop the bullying and eventually charges, the ex-policeman said were trumped up led to his arrest and imprisonment. Again, there’s no way to say which of this is true and which myth. But Varswyck too raged and holds a vendetta – and is now on the loose, with his skills as a trained killer intact.

The conditions at Camp Street

Cramped and stink! My brother reckons the numbers detained in this hell hole superseded the figure of 1018, pushing to more like 1200 or more. When he had arrived at the prison, he was expected to sleep 3 men to one small bed. He bought some material, as did others and made himself a hammock, sleeping above other prisoners like big bats.

When he got the job in the kitchen he said it was disgusting, roach infested (though I can hear the shrewps that this is nothing when these vermin are sometimes seen in homes and hotels!) But it’s the image of this blackened, stink mop with which he was expected to clean the kitchen that stays with me from our discussion after his bail release. He bound his belly and began scrubbing the mop with his bare hands. Now my brother is super scornful so I can’t even imagine him doing this, and don’t think I could have done it myself. But he said, when other kitchen hands saw him, a Rasta do this, they too followed suit and began to take active/conscientious part in trying to clean the kitchen.

Prison officials were deliberately retaining government supplies meant for prisoners, whether this was seasonings for the food or the quantity of peas and rice supplies.

There was a business racket in the prison, with profits of 300-500% compared to outside for items like the many mobile phones being sold there. These profits and trade are shared between prisoners and officers. The usual sum for any small payment (bribe or goods) might start at $5000. A credit system operates in the prison and is the means by which items are purchased. For example, a family member on the outside tops up the prisoner's phone with credit which they can use to trade for necessary items, but one might suppose this is current in other countries around the world.

The bail release

On the Monday morning after I arrived in Guyana, I called Lusignan prison, thanks to contacts friends in the UK had in the police who had given them an officer’s details. The senior officer to whom I spoke sounded understandably stressed and asked me to call back a few hours later. When I did he advised that my brother was due for bail reduction and if we/he was ‘desirous’ to pay this he would find out how much. I found out the following morning it was to be $65,000. He instructed me how to make payment to secure my brother’s release.

I went to Brickdam at Prison Headquarters and collected the bail release form. I then had to take it to the magistrate court. As I didn’t know exactly where it was, an elder woman and daughter who were headed there walked with me to show me. The daughter said her son was also at Lusignan. He was taken to Camp Street following his arrest a few weeks back for alleged armed robbery. They said it was a trumped up charge by a police officer who was having an affair with her son’s child mother. The police officer had wanted the son out of the way so he and the child mother could be together, so he contrived this armed robbery which supposedly took place 2 years previously. She also related that her neighbour had once been arrested and served 3 years for having a small marijuana plant growing outside his yard.

The miserable official faces at the magistrates' court looked like zombies propping up a tardy system that was oiling itself from the substance of their human energy. Behind their bars and uniforms, they seemed scornful of those on the other side. The young female police (there were a lot of young police offers I noticed and many African – this as compared with the numbers of young East Indians behind counters at the banks) who searched my bag as I entered the court yard did so with the life and conviction of a limp bird. She too, it seemed to me was doing some kind of time, food and home longed for instead of those hours in the heat and contrivance of a justice system.

As my brother’s case began in Linden, they couldn’t find his file or ‘Case Jacket.’ As there is no computer system, one of the clerks looked exhausted as she contemplated how long it would take to locate it. Eventually, they realised it was over the river, I would have to return in the afternoon as someone had to manually bring it across. I returned as instructed but was told the magistrate who would have to sign the bail release form had left for home - this was at 2pm. I returned the following morning, at 9.30am as the helpful clerk had advised, where upon she said she would ensure it was signed when I arrived. It wasn’t. I waited. One hour. I waited. And noticed that a number of people had been moving in and out and I was still waiting. At one time, by myself in this miserable antiquated place. I got vexed. What was taking so long? Like clock work in Guyana only when we perform like we really mad and gon tear de place down can we sometimes see movement. I said to the clerk I wasn’t blaming her. I had things to do. I have been patient. Where is the magistrate – and this was a genuine question, I wanted to see the face of authority that would be responsible for signing this document and perhaps challenge them as to why he wasn’t issued bail previously. I told them the magistrate needs to sign the form then as I’d come a long way to deal with the matter. It was returned within 10 minutes. I rather regretted not getting that chance encounter with the magistrate.

I had to find a policeman for the next process. I located one who would go to Lusignan and bring my brother to town. This young man also looked pained as though the weight of the work disturbed his soul. And indeed, he would relay to my brother that since joining the force, he had once been arrested (I can’t remember for what), but the ‘case’ was thrown out and he was restored to his job. But now with the pain of what it means to be part of that system enshrined on his brow. My brother had been given a new court date. It was on the day I was presenting at the conference so I couldn’t go. He showed up. The magistrate gave him another court date. It is a livelihood that comes with its risks. And though pride or something else might make him appear as though he's weathering this new storm in his life pretty well, I think it's taking a mental toll on my brother. I know it is on my mum and if I too could crush my pride, I'd say me too.
It's beyond the purpose and limit of this article to record how many conversations I had with random people about police stopping and arresting young African males mainly for petty marijuana 'offences.' Guyana, I know is not the only country disproportionately imprisoning African males. Time also doesn't allow me to consider the racketeering in the prisons, the sense that imprisonment doesn't seem to be about rehabilitation or essentially justice but something else I can't figure and why despite so many complaints about how the police themselves show scant disrespect for the law, taking bribes that prop up their salaries are they allowed to continue this racket with impunity. I hear the chorus, it's a familiar phenomenon, state instruments protected/protecting itself and forgetting the public service fact of being sworn into the roles.

Conditions at Lusignan

They were put in a field, all types of offenders bound together. In the Camp Street chaos, according to my brother, most of the prisoners who left there had weapons on them because they had not been searched in the transfer. Fights between prisoners and even murder are part of the prison system. My brother says one murder took place when they moved to Lusignan. The officials originally hadn’t been giving the prisoners food – though they were being brought supplies. This was made expedient by the social media images of prisoners slaughtering a cow (I think some other animal too). When he was able, my brother called my cousin and told her about the slaughtering of the animals. He said when they start killing the animals (he being Rasta wouldn’t have been involved in this) one of the cows came up to him, with sad eyes as though saying ‘ow, ow, tell dem na kill meh, na kill meh!”

They didn’t have coverings to prevent exposure to sun and rain. Eventually, some kind of make shift thing was erected. And of course being in a field it was not long before we learnt that 13 prisoners had escaped from Lusignan. This was the day the Diaspora conference began when I watched President Granger make for the exit to deal with the situation. 7 of the prisoners were caught but the first ‘original’ escapees, including ‘Smallie’ and his fellow, condemned prisoners and now these from the field in Lusignan on the East coast, casting new shadows and textures of silence on the city as people continue the daily grind of surviving.

Shout Out

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Guyana trip July 2017 I: Diaspora Engagement Conference

Reluctant Participant

The theme ‘Dreaming Diaspora: Doing Diaspora’ sounded fluffy. This wasn't the reason I didn’t initially want to go to the conference. I knew I couldn’t afford it! From the outset, I understood that it would have to be self-funded, given that I’m not attached to an academic institution, but am independent, based in the UK, where average travel fare to Guyana would cost £700. But in July! Double that. I decided I wouldn’t go. It kept pushing me to attend, however, and finally, I agreed I’d find the funds and go. My decision to finally go was due in part to a sense that there would be few if any presentations on culture. I was right. Even so, what could I really contribute? When the current administration took office, ‘business’ for developing the economy was its focus; our High Commissioner here in the UK was formerly in business. I saw a future in which the arts and culture were forced off centre as the poor cousin of advancing the nation’s economy. My paper/presentation would highlight that culture is the bedrock of societies and should not be sidelined since it is issued from the peoples that make up our communities and societies. What culture needs in order to contribute effectively to economies is for the government to institutionalise processes for creative industries to develop and thrive. As they do in the UK and elsewhere, ‘inward investment’ is necessary, along with securing music (where we at with copyrights?) and consistent education programmes.

Active Participant

The conference opened on Sunday 23rd July with a reception. Some anxieties about feeling out of place among the suits and business people dominated. One of the first people I met, who settled some of my misgivings was my cousin, Michael Brotherson. He works in the Foreign Office, headed by Karl Greenidge, the Minister of Foreign Affairs whose absence did not go unnoticed. I was surprised but had no choice but to rise to it, when Vice Chancellor Professor Ivelaw Griffith asked me along with others to say a few words about the conference. I waited my turn, all the while styling anxieties about what I’d say. I was the last to speak. Thankfully the speaker before me, Paul Tennassee (University of the District of Columbia) had closed his remarks by introducing a young poet called Keon Heywood, who performed a wonderful piece about Guyana. The springboard was easy; he’d allowed me to highlight the importance of culture and arts in all our engagement about how to develop Guyana, to remember that culture too is business and key to our humanity. Professor Griffith did an intriguing thing giving me that momentary platform, totally unprepared as I was. After I spoke, he was able to confirm that as well as the newly developed Business/Enterprise Unit at the university there were plans too for developing the Arts. I knew of this in any case from previous conversations with the Vice Chancellor. I would embrace the conference with confidence now and appreciate that I had a place there.

The Papers and Presentations

It was impossible to attend most as I’d hoped but that’s the nature of conferences. I read a sour note on FaceBook that some of the presenters sounded as though they’d swallowed a dictionary. It was perhaps difficult for this observer to appreciate the quality of the papers and that it was a conference initiated by the University where one would expect the calibre of contributions I saw. What was lacking was sufficient time for us to digest and question the presenters and also better rooms to better facilitate the PowerPoint slides. We ran way over time the first day of the conference, which was due in part to the opening formalities that included a Keynote address by President David Granger. The fact that the University had sought to include the government as well as opposition leaders marked its intention to have far reaching inclusion and obviously to highlight the important role each need to play to engage the diaspora effectively if we are serious about development.

There were excellent, if hurried papers from the Theme: ‘Engaging the Diaspora’ – which included methods relating to policy development to utilise the potential of the diaspora; entrepreneurship and investment possibilities that move beyond remittances and establishing a methodology for researching the diaspora; Building Partnerships with the Diaspora Theme saw papers on creating a ‘multi-dimensional Process for engaging the Diaspora’ and exploring the reality of the resources (skills based and financial) of the diaspora. A paper I enjoyed was on the government Green State initiative, pushing for us to explore and implement renewable energy as an industry, delivered by Gary Best. It’s a commendable initiative but my misgivings about the oil exploration and development make it difficult to be convinced about how the two will mesh. I caught only an enticing tail end of ‘Mimicry and Fantasy in the Diaspora: the view from Richmond Hill in New York’ by Dr Dhanpaul Narine but others said it was a treat.

My presentation was titled 'Embedding Guyanese Culture' and showcased a few organisations/initiatives based in the UK, Bogle L’Ouverture Publications, Huntley Conference, Guyana UK Sports and Development Association, Way Wive Wordz and 'Guyana Speaks!' It emphasised the need to institutionalise/embed culture for it to effectively matter in development strategies. It was well received, though time didn't allow for any questions following.

It was several times noted that the Diaspora contributed around $US450 Million in remittances, with the majority of Guyanese located in the USA. Although the US based Guyanese dominated, I was actually really impressed by the enthusiasm, initiatives (educational as well as business related investments) and experience they amass. For example, Dr Vincent Adams, one of the appointed Education Ambassadors has 30 odd years’ experience in oil and gas. He will be lending his skills in a mentoring role from the University.

There were, at times tiring rounds and key notes by government Ministers and representatives. Gerry Goveia, buoyant but for me exuding a businessy arrogance that grated, was there to speak on behalf of the Private Sector. He said some things about the business community going and demanding x and y from the government, forcefully it seemed. Gail Texeira represented the opposition and seemed to be citing statistics about increased migration, as though this was consequential to the new administration and not a process inherent to Guyana’s progress (or lack thereof) throughout its nationhood. I didn’t hear connections being made here either with the zealous dishing out of 10 year Visas by the US Embassy.
The Foreign Office was tasked with serious questions from the floor following a presentation by Michael Brotherson, who was there in place of Karl Greenidge. The Diaspora Development Policy document or strategic document was the issue. It seemed this had been ‘in process’ for far too long, wide consultation with the diaspora missing; the possibility that Mr Brotherson, responsible for its advancement hadn’t clapped eyes on it. I felt it for him; those US delegates were not letting up. And rightly so.

I wish I could say something about the Minister for Education’s presentation. Either by this point in the day I was tired or it was flat and unimpressionable. Words were said, lots of graphs and seemingly well-organised charts and things but I can’t speak to the substance of Minister Nicollette Henry’s discussion, which was unfortunate. On the other hand Cathy Hughes, now Minister for Technology (the title might not be totally accurate) was vibrant, acknowledging some of what our young people are developing, discovering and needing investment for. Animation seems to be big. There is a Guyana Animation Network, which collaborates with Trinidad and Suriname. Ms Hughes noted that Animation could be done more cost effectively in Guyana than some of our neighbouring countries. I can’t verify this but think the opportunity worthwhile to bear in mind.

Ambassadors from Mexico, China and India attended the conference and presented on their respective country’s success at engaging its respective diaspora. Again the policy issue crept up because countries like Jamaica and Haiti all have one – Jamaica particularly, we were told say the ‘diaspora is an extension of itself?’ All this to beg the seriousness of the Guyana government in making use of its diaspora. David Lammy, our MP for Tottenham flew in to give a keynote. He did so with the use of charm and some comedy but seriously noting that if the Guyana government was serious about development with its diaspora’s contribution it should consider why children born to Guyanese parents outside of the country aren’t automatically Guyanese too, as they would elsewhere be regarded citizens through heritage.

In fact, a bug bear of one of the delegates was our use of the term ‘diaspora.’ He was suggesting we switched to the term ‘Persons Of Guyanese Origin’ (POG) which might be less confusing to Guyanese generally and broadens identities linked to Guyana. ‘Come backee’ was also questioned as to its appropriateness, despite being culturally in circulation a while.

On the question of oil.

I don’t remember when exactly the oil discussion took place – though one of the papers was on this – but someone asked about the contract. They wanted to know where we could find it. I confess I’m not in favour of the oil industry development. There have been too many instances in my life time where this has proven to be a nightmare and destructive force to small countries forced to give unfavourable terms to multi-national corporations that have more wealth than those resource rich countries they exploit. What undeniably happens, as I recently read in the case of the small African nation of Equatorial Guinea (though what kind of ‘small’ we mean is another discussion) is that sickening, corrupt contracts are made with the so-called leaders whom the corporations give whatever revenues are yielded to directly whilst the mass of the population starves, the country continues in underdevelopment. Why should Guyana be different? In the Equatorial Guinea example, this disgusting deal was made with Exxon Mobil who directly paid money into the President’s bank account. Why does our government have faith that Exxon Mobil would grow moral fibres just for Guyana? Okay, so it wasn’t this administration with whom the contract was made. We were told at the conference that the contract was made with Janet Jagon in 1999, during her brief term as President. When administration changed in May 2015, British lawyers advised the government that owing to our border dispute with Venezuela it should be cautious about what goes out to the public. This is shocking – that Guyanese actually don’t know what’s in the contract. Further, former President Bharrat Jagdeo in 1997 added a non-disclosure clause in the petroleum Act. And something I didn’t catch properly about the ‘licensee being the one to give permission for disclosure.’ Someone who was there can authenticate the correct note. None of it should sit well with us. Put simply, we can’t see this contract. In the first place if this was made with the highest person in the land who has absolute power, then we can only move our mouths like we’re circulating saliva but can’t do anything to change the course of action weighing on this impending industry, positively or not. An industry that some at the conference, I couldn’t help noticing seemed entirely assured would bring great wealth to the nation. It seemed too that this industry would be so economically transforming for Guyana that we might as well get rid of bauxite, sugar and rice. There is a despairing sense that this winding down of same has already begun. I can’t see when disclosure would come since the border issue with Venezuela has been long. It’s being put before the international community at the end of this year, in any case.

We were further told about the 50/50% division of profits from oil revenues with the stomach churning caveat that this would be after the cost of investment had been accounted for. In other words, it would really be (if I understood the thing properly) 75/25% initially. How long this would last I didn’t hear. I hope at heart many of us were concerned about Guyana's sovereignty and its development otherwise the blades of grass Venuezla claims will pale beside the probable ravages multinationals like Exxon Mobil are capable of imposing on 'small' countries.

Where were the Young People?

Any major gripe I have with the conference is that there wasn’t a contingent of young people present. I didn’t see any from the University doing a presentation or from the wider community. I communicated with a young man, who was a Civil Engineer teacher at UG who had brought a few of his students to the conference. I would have liked to see a panel discussion, chaired by and comprised of young people. This issue was raised on the last day and hopefully the feedback was noted along with others for organising future conferences. Importantly, there was a suggestion to develop a diaspora conference for young people. Perhaps the cost was prohibitive, if students were encouraged to attend, at $US50.

However, the Conference did offer an opportunity to engage with the community, including young people. This was the day to ‘give back,’ where delegates could take on a volunteering activity within the community. I went to a Youth Volunteering Day, held at Umana Yana. It was great to see young people engaged in development efforts aimed at supporting educational and social needs of other young people. There were groups pitching their ideas for development to a panel of judges. The winner was one that had developed an app called Maths Guru. I met some Youth Ambassadors. They were sponsored by the US Embassy to go to the United States for three weeks, take part in youth projects which they would return to Guyana and repackage in some form to offer to Guyanese youth. Most of the ambassadors were selected from Queens College. One, Visharnie, a previous QC student, bright and focused worked for the Guyana Chronicle and invited me to do an interview for the paper. This interview focused on culture, its lack, its potential in Guyana. She surprised me (pleasantly) and reinforced why I thought we needed the presence of our young people at the conference, by cutting to the chase and asking about the impact of cultural imperialism on the way we do or do not embed/institutionalise initiatives to promote, advance and centralise Guyanese cultural identity.

Cultural diversity?

At some point the fact that the majority of attendees were African Guyanese was made. It is a disgusting, shameful reality that events initiated to encourage wide participation when lead by an African Guyanese often results in a lack of involvement by Indian Guyanese. This has been my experience for years. I can’t speak to the ravages of the 1960s when the mud and blood were slinging both ways but in my lifetime I’ve observed efforts by African lead organisations to be inclusive of all the ethnicities. One of these is the Guyana UK Sports and Development Association, which organises a folk festival every year (for the last 20). This is for all Guyanese to take part in. But Indian Guyanese stay away. This has been the case no matter which administration is running the country or the ethnicity in the UK’s case of the High Commissioner. Of course, I can’t speak to events organised by Indian Guyanese or other groups where Africans are actively sought to attend? How would one know in a divisive society as ours? I know that I’d sooner see African Guyanese participating in the variety of festivals, donning clothes to reflect than I would the other way around. But that story is tired. A refresher to this came at an Emancipation event (I’ll blog separately on this) where Prime Minister Nagamootoo wore a dashiki, so too all his body guards.

An article by a Guyanese of Indian heritage suggesting that those Indian Guyanese who attended the conference were there for cronyish benefit was stupid for too many obvious reasons. The writer was there – looking, she suggests for her mattie and when seeing few, thought she was in the wrong place. Her comments remind me of a forefinger straining forward, an action which forces the thumb to invert backwards. The lack of representation by Indian Guyanese has nothing to do with the University since it’s an institution for all Guyanese, neighbours and international community. Invitations were far reaching for this reason.

If that writer’s comments can be described as stupid, John Mair’s comments (in an article he wrote about the conference) were insensitive and equally foolish. Firstly, he bemoaned being a ‘token white’ – if that’s how he chose to self-identify that’s his shame. In truth, did he expect organisers to rally minority numbers of ‘white’ (European/English/Spanish/Portuguese) Guyanese to satisfy some quota? As for renaming the ‘diaspora’ – ‘dire-spora’ – this suggests he really is ‘token’ that he is not one of us – however way we want to identify our connectedness with Guyana. When he referred to the President’s attendance with his ‘gang’ I was reminded of his paper (he presented same time as I) on the so-called ‘Guyanese Mafia’ a term he wants to have on record as his. Baroness Amos beamed one morning of the conference from a pre-recorded video and said Prince Charles had coined the term. I can’t stand it. Worse than this, however, and snakey too was his comment that the conference was a ‘coronation for the Vice Chancellor.’ The Vice Chancellor was hands on, but he didn’t ‘chair’ everything as Mair reported. This was a disgusting exaggeration. The Vice Chancellor tried to attend as many of the panels as possible, moving from room to room as we, the delegates were. Mair got personal about the VCs bowties too, though I couldn’t work out whether it was an endearment or slight. He might reflect (?) on his own curious eccentricity of writing as a pseudonym as well as in his own name in the same article; in other words referring to himself in the third person. He might chew on the hating notes in his paper, which probably have more to do with punctured privilege and realisation that when he's in Guyana, he is a minority than anything else.

The cultural finale on the last night was disappointing. There was an attempt to be inclusive here too – something East Indian, Chinese, Indigenous and well – Dave Martins! We only live in some fickle hope that ‘inclusion’ might mean we don’t separate like this but revere and creatively demonstrate our coming together, attempting to ‘one people’ in a way I've observed Surimamese handle the diversity issue. Keith Waithe, the University’s Artiste in Residence had promised us something special, that we’d get the chance to dance and do weself. He would give us, one supposed a bit of something we might connect with African Guyanese. That didn’t happen. Unfortunately, the group of musicians he’d organised (comprising Rukiza Okera, Larry Bartley, Chris, Buxton Fusion and Helen McDonald) didn’t pull it off or even together and appeared to be rehearsing. I think it was unnecessarily elaborate, in any case. What would have worked in my humblish view is an array of drums. This would have sounded a timely note for emancipation, which was three days after the conference ended. The might of the drums would also have been appropriate to follow Dave Martins house tearing down act which had overrun and preceded Keith Waithe et al. And yet here too there were some comments about a lack of diversity on this night. And on and on the racist bile prevails.

The Investiture – of the Vice Chancellor Ivelaw Griffith
(photo from Guyana Chronicle; see their article on the 'installing' here)

I thought I could have ducked this programming of the conference. I didn’t know how ‘formal’ the thing was, didn’t know what an 'investiture' was. I went and it really was pomp, as I now realise these things are. Felt woefully underdressed in my newly purchased UG and DEC tee - merchandise I was glad to support. The President, Prime Minister, other Ministers, UG Chancellor, UG faculty members and Deputy Vice Chancellors (I was surprised that there were more than one); guests from different parts of the world and their respective universities all there to see the installation of the 10th Vice Chancellor to the University of Guyana. I can (outside and inside the event itself) see and hear the cries about it because it is change. What I can’t witness more directly are the sneers by those who think the diaspora (Professor Griffith representing) are taking over. I’d have to be resident proper to appreciate that aspect and the quarters whence it cometh. For whatever reason and however it was made possible, who can really envy the Vice Chancellor the role he accepted? Anyone who merely dreams, I suppose.

Building bridges

Finally, I had to acknowledge it was worth being present at the conference because it gave the occasion to get to know other Guyanese living outside. Whatever the reasons they attended the conference I got a sense that there was a serious commitment to helping Guyana to develop. We have between us earned extensive skills in all fields that can contribute to this process. And many have been trying for years to find ways to ‘give back.’ We could all lament the seemingly deliberate closed doors and bureaucratic instruments that have stopped our collective/individual efforts – be they to return and teach, set up sports clubs, contribute hospital supplies, rebuilding schools, supplying schools with computers/books, facilitating literacy initiatives, wide ranging business enterprises (using local produce/services), helping to alleviate mental health and other medical issues, domestic violence, particularly against women and so on. It was noted that many of us (I am one) who left Guyana didn’t do so by choice. The sense that when we come back we’re seen as ‘stepping on toes’ is something we learn to live with. At least I have. The conference organisers didn’t consciously enable those present to make connections with each other, by say making it part of a programme/morning or afternoon; that had to be organic. It would have been good to have a sense of who was in the room, but with our last minuteness (mine included) that might be a stretched expectation. The chance to get to know Guyana was programmed, I’ll write on this in another post. But this would have served as an opportunity to connect.

We can measure the success of the conference in so many ways. I choose simply to refer to its inception. It had to be dreamed up, in the first place. Then believed possible. Who would dream only and not attempt the practical steps to realise their vision? So although the theme appeared philosophically fluffy to my ear and mouthing and laughter at times I fully appreciate what has been achieved by this initiative, which began with a dream or vision. One of the outcomes was the launch of the Centre for Caribbean Diaspora Engagement. Another was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the University of Guyana and University of the West Indies. The Investiture, too, set a new standard, like it or not. The conference brought together people who would otherwise never be seen together because of our respective interests. And we don’t have to like each other, nor share the same ideology. We need as a start to recognise that the University has attempted in this initiative to be a mobilising force, and its new Vice Chancellor seems serious about the business of running it with the necessary contribution of key players, just as elsewhere Universities are developed, maintained and become important instruments through which the moral, philosophical, political, social, economic and cultural values of a nation are progressed. Many of the delegates are the University of Guyana Alumni, perhaps attesting to their interest and genuine desires to give back. Success then is what we make of it – and my gratitude to the Vice Chancellor and team for organising this first Diaspora Conference is fully expressed here.