By Shabana Sharif
“Long live the king” chants will be absent at Guyana’s fifty-seventh independence anniversary from the British Empire on May 26th. Unlike his mother, Queen Elizabeth, Charles III will not grace the newly oil-rich country’s currency.
King Charles’s reign starts where his mother left off, head of state of fifteen realms, including eight Caribbean countries, half of which plan to leave the United Kingdom’s monarchy. Guyana is the only English-speaking country in South America and is considered Caribbean through culture.
I’m a multi-hyphenate, an Indo-Guyanese-American, and I’m also Muslim. Explaining this layered identity involves uncomfortable topics. Colonialism. Slavery. Indentureship. Race. My parents are Guyanese immigrants, and my ancestors were Indian Indentured servants in British Guiana. Indentured Laborers from pre-partition India worked sugar cane plantations along the Guyana’s coastline from 1838 to 1917 after slavery was abolished.
Guyana is a multi-racial country with about 800,000 people, while over a million Guyanese-born people live abroad. Yet, on May 26th, all Guyanese will celebrate the country’s independence from the United Kingdom regardless of race or religion. Echoing the country’s motto, “One People, One Nation, One Destiny.”
Before 1966, British Guiana’s race war challenged the empire’s reign in the South American colony, “Terrorist bands of East Indians and Negroes roamed British Guiana,” declared a Time magazine article in 1964. The colonizers left nations when tensions and body counts rose, as they did with Hindus and Muslims in India and similarly with Indians and Africans in Guyana. Issues still exist decades later in both countries respectively. After slavery was banned in British Guiana in 1835, the British looked for new cheap labor instead of negotiating wages with the formerly enslaved people. As a result, distrust was etched into both groups immediately. “Do not trust the Indians” was said to the Africans, and “Do not trust the Africans” was told to the Indians by the British overseers, preventing the two groups from cooperating and working together.
Now fifty-seven years later, Guyana has moved away from its sugar estates and colonial past and is now the fastest-growing economy in the WORLD due to rapid oil production. In contrast, the UK’s economy continues to falter after the pandemic and Brexit.
Nations worldwide are now focused on the small country north of Brazil. Al-Jazeera World created a documentary titled “Ramadan in Guyana,” focusing on Islam in the South American country. The documentary highlighted Guyana today, its beauty, and an assembly of three religious groups coexisting in the Amazonian heat. A multi-ethnic country where the current president is a Muslim, the first Muslim head of state in the Western Hemisphere. Guyanese Muslims comprise twelve percent of the country’s population.
Guidebooks were my lifeline in my twenties for traveling; Guyana didn’t have a guidebook. In the South America guidebook, there were a few pages on Guyana. However, the guide seemed clueless about Guyana and labeled it a flyover region. Aside from noting it was dangerous, with racial tensions, nothing was compelling to attract tourists. According to “expert” opinion, Guyana was not worth traveling to. At the time, my family echoed that sentiment.
I left the Peace Corps shortly after I entered in 2005. While in Costa Rica, I wondered about Guyana – the land of many waters. Did Guyana have a similar landscape to Costa Rica? How did Guyanese people dress? What did the market, bakery, butcher, and grocery store look like? Were Guyanese hospitable like Ticos? Finally, and most importantly, was my beloved chicken curry tastier in Guyana?
I needed to see my parents’ birthplace and how Guyanese locals lived. However, my timing was off. I returned home to New York and learned Guyana was in the middle of an election. Unfortunately, the country often became unsafe during elections. So I did the next best thing: I bought a guidebook for India and booked my flight. Aside from awkward Islamophobia, I survived India as an English speaker. I volunteered to teach English at a non-governmental organization (NGO) and connected to my ancestral homeland.
A year after visiting India, I booked my trip to Guyana during the winter holiday break, and coincidentally it was also Eid al-Adha. When I visited my aunty’s house, we put together “hampers” for the less fortunate people in the community. Little by little, I answered all my questions about my parent’s birth country (the curry was better) and saw the Guyana guidebooks failed to acknowledge. Hindu religious flags flapped in the wind greeting travelers — a country filled with hundreds of masjids and mandirs with all shapes and sizes of domes. Adventurous minibuses zigzagged the country’s land, and speedy motorboats crisscrossed the country’s coasts. Mangroves. Black water creeks. The botanical diversity of the country’s flora and fauna. And most importantly, the people, culture, customs, and food make Guyana worth exploring, and guide “experts” and investors should take notice.
Shabana Sharif is currently working on her childhood memoir – Pagli. Shabana is the daughter of Guyanese immigrants, a descendant of Indian Indentureship, and a mother of two children. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of The West Indian.