Cultural Values Vital to Evolution of ‘One Guyana’

President Irfaan Ali

By Dr Tara Singh

A national conversation has begun on the concept of “One Guyana” that was introduced into the political lexicon by President Dr Irfaan Ali. This is an idea which the President believes would bring together the various segments of the community to promote sustainable development and create the good life for all Guyanese.

A unified society (grounded in instrumental and affective values) could maximize the benefits to be derived from the oil and other sources of wealth that flow incrementally into the public treasury. But to identify the cultural forces that could produce a united society is a complex challenge.

The situation is accentuated by the pluralism (characterized by social cleavages and cultural diversity) of Guyanese society that is also reflected in the divergent comments on the ‘One Guyana’ concept. While some commentators view One Guyana as an opportunity to bring together all ethnic groups through adherence to a common set of core cultural values and institutions; some view it as an opportunity to enhance the main creole culture system; some view it negatively as an attempt to stifle specific ethnic cultural values and institutions; some regard it as an attempt to create a Guyanese nationalism; yet others view it as an opportunity to create an economic rights-based policy.

The main culture system of Guyana is referred to as “creole.” In the plantation system there was the need by the colonial class to identify their Christian-based Euro-centric culture system that has its intellectual roots in 18th century enlightenment principles (of rationalism, natural rights, and progress), separately from the local emerging creole culture. This “low value” creole culture system has been viewed as distinct from the “high value” European culture. The emerging creole culture system has been evolving through a process called creolization in which syncretism (a combination of two separate cultural elements are combined into a new, unique value such as in chutney music) and acculturation (where Guyanese adopt, acquire, and adjust to the European culture system such as in education). The impact of acculturation is not uniform, it varies among the ethnic groups.

Many scholars have seized upon and explained societal changes in terms of “creolization,” which has caused, according to Professor RT Smith, “fundamental change in culture and social structure of ethnic groups but did not lead to a unified society.” The Amerindians, for example, have hardly been affected because of their geographic location (hinterland) and away from the center of political power. Indo-Guyanese have resisted attempts at acculturation/syncretism and have been inclined to embrace only those cultural values that are compatible with their instrumental (material) needs. Professor Philip Singer and Dr E Araneta highlighted the “tenacity of East Indian culture despite creolization.”

Despite previous attempts to push forth unity, Guyana like Suriname, and Trinidad & Tobago has remained, according to Professor MG Smith, a plural society. This point did not escape the scrutiny of scholars like Dr Erique Araneta and Professor Philip Singer who stated that for Indo-Guyanese what was evolving has been a process of “Hinduization” and not creolization. While they accept some basic western values and institutions (such as education, dress code, language, commerce, etc.) which facilitate their instrumental (materials) needs, they (Indo-Guyanese) have preserved the integrity of core Indian cultural values such as songs, music, festivals, rituals, dances, arts, cuisine, and kingship.
In trying to forge a nationalism in Trinidad & Tobago, there had been stiff opposition by the Indian leaders who felt that their traditional cultural values/institutions would have been downgraded and marginalized, to which Prime Minister, Dr Eric Williams, ascribed them as “a hostile and recalcitrant minority.” Guyana leaders should avoid this type of rhetoric and always be mindful that ethnic identity and personality, which are shaped by cultural values/institutions are stable traits that could not be easily undone. People are skeptical of state sponsored ideology which experience has shown could lead to dictatorship or totalitarianism. They are therefore likely to feel comfortable with a well-thought out and articulated policy.

What is becoming evident is that One Guyana should be founded upon an Economic Rights-Based Policy and not on an ideology of nationalism. An economic rights-based policy should be built upon some core instrumental values such as (i) a modern constitution, (ii) equality of access to opportunity, (iii) empowerment programs, (iv) and mutual respect for diverse cultures. Upon these core instrumental values/institutions should be added affective values such as (i) natural rights, (ii) allegiance to state, (iii) defense of territorial integrity, (v) and respect for national symbols, and national anthem. In the pursuit of an economic rights-based policy, sub-cultural values/institutions should not be stifled, but respected.


The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.