By Dr Dhanpaul Narine
The lady next to me was puzzled. She couldn’t understand why I was “taking the trouble to visit Guyana to speak for only fifteen minutes.” I explained that it was the most important speech of my life. She smiled and shook her head, unmoved and unconvinced. It came to pass that I was standing before hundreds of graduates amidst pomp and ceremony and this is what happened:
If only Ma can see me now! Thank you, Mr. Chairman. We welcome your Excellencies, Members of the Diplomatic Corps, Ministers of the Government, Members of the Opposition, the Pro-Chancellor, the Chancellor of the University of Guyana, our esteemed Vice-Chancellor, and the Faculty and students of the University. A special welcome also to the overseas students of UG. In my time we didn’t have you, so welcome to our beautiful country.
Today is a special day for our graduates who have worked very hard and are proudly sitting here with their families. You are here with your parents, aunts and uncles and your Nana and Nanee and I know how you feel. I was in this same building in 1976, forty-one years ago.
I felt a happy and proud graduate of UG. So congratulations. Let’s hear it for our graduates please, and their teachers, and the people that did the cleaning and picked up the garbage. Like a jig shaking the loom, we are all involved.
I am proud to be standing here because we are part of each other. I am you and you are me and together we make up this green land of Guyana. We are the ocean in a drop, to quote Rumi.
I was speaking to former Chief Justice Desiree Bernard, a distinguished Guyanese, and I asked her what she thought I should speak about. She said, “Just tell them about yourself. Give them a dose of integrity with honesty and keep it simple.” So I will leave that long speech on development economics and social policy for another time.
I was born at Vergenoegen on the East bank of Essequibo and lived in a logie in Sookhoo Yard in Stelling Road. I lived with my grandparents and was close to my grandmother, or Ma. The logie was makeshift housing with no sanitation. It was awful. We wore no shoes and our feet were constantly wet. When the rains fell the logie would be flooded for weeks and our ‘foot bottom’ would get so soft that small bricks would cut into them.
My first recollection of school was to be placed in a dunce class with a dunce cap. It was around 1961 at Vergenoegen Government School where C.V. Nunes was the Headmaster. I could not read, write or do arithmetic. I played all day and went to school with one shirt or ‘shut and pants’ and no books.
I did not have the smell of new clothes on my skin. Ma begged for hand me downs. I was in every sense a child of Stelling Road. My grandfather sold sweets and Ma and I would ‘catch shrimps at the koker.’ Stelling Road had all of Guyana’s six races and I was in and out of their homes. There were two women that helped Ma to raise me.
Adela was a tall and proud lady with no children. I was her child. She would cradle me in her bosom and would protect me. I felt comfortable. Mother Hackett was a grandmother with a big petticoat. When Ma would chase me to scold me I would run to Mother Hackett and she would lift her big petticoat and I would hide under it. No one could touch me. Looking back, there is nothing like a warm petticoat!
The lesson here is that we were poor but we had love for each other. We cared for each other. We looked out for each other. Adela and Mother Hackett were Afro-Guyanese but who cared about skin color? They taught me to make the best fufu in Stelling Road. Ma cooked dholl puri and shrimps curry and we shared what little we had. We did not see skin color.
The lesson is that we can have all the gas and oil in the world but if we don’t unite as a country and go beyond race we would not get anywhere. The old people have shown us the way. Our young people, you the graduates, have to blaze the trail and practice mutual tolerance and respect. We are all in this together; we are all involved.
Do not look at each other and see race. We are one people, one nation with one destiny. Race will get us nowhere. As graduates, you have the responsibility to work for a tolerant society, to ensure that we eliminate racism and look out for each other. We can have oil wells pumping in our living rooms but if we can’t get rid of this racial bogeyman we would be standing still. It starts with mutual respect and tolerance.
I failed every test I took and they blamed the school. So I went to Philadelphia Scots School and met many wonderful teachers but failed Common Entrance as well. They called Ma to a conference and said that “this child can’t read, write and do sums” and Ma said, “Sir, I can’t teach him. I can’t read myself.”
Ma and I collected old newspapers that we pasted on the walls on the logie. I fell in love with the pictures. There was one picture that Ma couldn’t take her eyes off. I had to know who the smiling face was and I began to ‘pick pick’ the words and with the help of teacher Miss Cox I found out that the face was that of John F. Kennedy. His picture was all over the walls of our logie. When the landlord came to ‘bruk down’ the walls because we couldn’t pay the rent we would beg him to leave the pictures of JFK.
One day, my father went to school and saw me playing and said, “Bring your slate. You going to Saraswat High School.” This was a school at Dekinderen headed by the illustrious Julius Benjamin Nathoo, one of Guyana’s greatest educators. I was a little fish in a big ocean. I couldn’t adjust. I loved to listen to Mr. Nathoo. I never saw anyone so brilliant. He was a colossus. Please permit me to acknowledge Mr. Nathoo and all the teachers of Guyana, from kindergarten to university. You are doing a wonderful job molding the minds of our children. We love you teachers.
It came time to write the GCE O’ levels. We counted the pennies and Ma begged to make up the difference. I took the exam and failed. I took it again and failed. Ma said that I shouldn’t give up hope. When you are down you have to get up, you must pray. I didn’t see it that way. All of my friends were moving up; I was behind.
Now here is another lesson: I was in the dumps but not once did I think of harming myself. We read with dismay and much grief that our country has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. We must stop this insidious practice.
(Part 2, next week)
The 2017 Graduation at the University of Guyana was Amazing!