“My friends, if I have rats in my house, I would need a cat to take out the rat. I wouldn’t care if the cat is a white cat, a brown cat, or a black cat. I want the mouse die … If we want betterment in Guyana, we want good things for Guyana, I don’t care if it’s a black, white or brown person – if you can do the job, then Guyana is yours – Guyana is all of our own, to develop and to work towards making a better country.”
The speaker was a young UG graduate and the co-founder of the United Movement Alliance (UMA), a new youth-focused party in Guyana. Rodley Mathoo and his fellow ‘executive members’ were there to hold their first public meeting – shifting the debate from a social media platform to a real one, located on the shiny top floor of the Kalyan Mall on Lamaha Street (a space, Mathoo later explained, he had been able to get a good price for hiring).
The co-founder of the party, according to a Newsroom Guyana piece, is
“25-year-old Ubraj Narine, who is a graduate Hindu priest from the International Vedanta University and is currently a priest at several temples across the country.” Mathoo was also joined on the podium by his sister (I realise now, I didn’t hear her introduced), who spoke of some of the challenges facing young people in Guyana:
“We know the struggle of having to work and go to classes. Coming home at 10, 11[pm] – just to graduate … We’re going to make education a little more affordable [so] we won’t need to be spending our whole paycheck at the end of the month to better ourselves … We’ll be putting youth first. We have suffered enough due to politicians putting them first and us last.”
In Guyanese politics, split for many years down racial lines, people are quick to judge we were told. Mr Mathoo said some people have accused the party of being an offshoot of the PPP. Yet, he claimed, no one in the fledgling party has any political affiliations. And he was pretty unimpressed in his analysis of both the two main parties: “You all expected change in 2015. I did. But we’re still waiting for it … We would have sat down for 23 years and we would have allowed a political dictatorship to take away our resources and give to their own friends and family.”
There was a clear attempt to position the party as multi-ethnic. The other two guest speakers were a young afro-Guyanese student at UG and Ras Leon, the publisher of a newspaper called ‘Unite’ that he was selling as the small audience trickled in. “I’m fully in support of the initiative you have taken,” the elder man enthused. “Simply because life is like a relay race and right now my generation ought to be turning the baton over to yours. But a lot of us are holding on … and that ought not to be.”
Referring to the half empty hall, attended by some 30 persons, he reassured the organisers: “Do not be dismayed by the fact that there are more empty chairs here than filled seats. No. Because in those chairs are spirits of our ancestors who are here with us, because you young people are really ancestors who have come again and, trust me, you walk with older folks around you.”
In terms of policies, the group (unsurprisingly) focuses on issues affecting young people. In their hands, the VAT on education would be scrapped, and education standards improved. Youth unemployment would be tackled, and there seemed to be much hope pinned on the gas and oil industry – although mention was made of other industries. “80% of UG graduates leave this country every single year,” claimed Mr Mathoo, “Why? Because the environment has not been created to sustain themselves and to sustain their families.”
The focus was on growth, independence and Guyana first (“Aren’t Guyanese capable enough of dictating their own policies?”). Topics under attack ranged from large gold mining companies suffocating small miners and not paying duties, to the lack of processing for aluminium in Guyana’s booming Bauxite era – and the misconception that Guyana needs to bring in foreign experts. “If you go in any part of the world, in every sector there is a Guyanese there. Why can’t Guyanese work towards the development of their own country?”
With no leader yet appointed, and little or no political experience (the UMA Facebook page and fundraising seem to be their main achievements so far), the group might be expected to aim for lower-hanging fruit – local elections, building support in Guyana’s ten regions as they ambitiously plan to etc. But although they say they’re not reaching for presidency or government, their aim for 2020 is to get five to seven seats in the national assembly, from which to advocate on youth issues, corruption and nepotism.
“In this day and age…to get a job or to get something done at GRA, you have to get a little line,” said an exasperated Ms Mathoo. “If you don’t, you’ll get nowhere. and we have to stop that … you can’t get things done on your own. You have to know either know somebody or you’ve got to be high up there.” Whether the group is really drawing a new line, or just tracing an old one, time will tell. But to see young people engaged and leading the debate is welcome – even if it’s in smart shirts and suites.