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A view on Britain’s Independence Day (from a former colony)

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On 26 May I joined in Guyana’s Jubilee celebrations, marking 50 years of independence from British colonial rule. A month later, I find that while I’ve been away Britain has gone and had its own independence day. At least that’s what UKIP leader Nigel Farage crowed after the results of the Brexit referendum were announced.

The irony is not lost on many. After centuries of empire building, the nation made rich off the back of slavery, exploitation and mass theft of resources has thrown off the yoke of European autocracy and is free. “Britons never will be slaves”, as flag-waving attendees of The Last Night of the Proms lustily sing every summer. Forgive me if I don’t bring out the Union Jack bunting just yet.

Viewing Brexit from Guyana has been an interesting experience. First of all I have to guiltily admit I didn’t vote – for the first time in my life – due to a combination of bureaucracy, laziness and complacency, which meant I didn’t get my proxy voting application in on time. Perhaps I have no grounds to discuss the referendum, but I’m going to anyway.

Speaking to friends here and back in the UK, Brexit is the talking point. Though I sense that people here in Guyana are asking more out of politeness and vague curiosity than any real fascination in the geopolitical affairs of the country they were once forced to call ‘the motherland’. There is some coverage in the local newspapers though, including editorials on what Britain’s departure will mean in terms of the EPA (Economic Partnership Agreement), trade (Guyana exported €192m to the EU in 2013, and imported about €122m) and EU funding streams for the Caribbean.

“It is most unlikely that the 27 EU countries, which had no historical relationship with, or colonial responsibility for, the English-speaking Caribbean, will want to maintain the level of official aid and investment that now exists,” wrote Sir Ronald Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador, in Kaieteur News. Investment, I’m guessing, like the Gy$2.2bn in budget support that Guyana received from the EU on Monday.

But does Guyana really benefit from this assistance? Have things changed in this country because of foreign aid and investment, or because of local entrepreneurship and partnerships not involving the EU at all?

The British High Commissioner to Guyana, Greg Quinn, promised in a recent Facebook video message, “We will stay a close friend of Guyana and we will stay committed to Guyana”. I’m not sure Guyana is that bothered. When people want to emigrate it seems to be for the US and Canada, these days, not the UK. Minibus drivers hang small stars n stripes on their rearview mirrors, not Union Jacks. Just 11% of Guyana’s exports are bound for the UK, compared to 28% for Canada and 17% to the United States.

The days of the British empire are mercifully numbered. And everyone’s starting to adjust to the new world order. And ask, hang on, why does this small island get a bigger say than us? The UK senses this, but can’t quite face up to its waning power. By voting to leave the EU, the ‘Out’ camp has seized on that last, desperate battle tactic: batten up the hatches, raise the drawbridge and try to pretend you’re safe behind those big stone walls. While the Remainers said, I don’t want to live life that. Let’s talk to our neighbours and see what we can work out.

It seems foolish to leave an institution then spend the next however many years trying to build up the same relationship from outside. Like breaking up with someone, screaming ‘I HATE YOU!’ and expecting they’ll still cook you dinner, lend you stuff and have you over anytime you like – but, you know, just as friends. Yeah sure, that’s gonna happen.

In Guyana, there is anger at foreigners coming in to steal resources and wealth from Guyanese hands, but this is mostly reserved for big business from China, America and Europe. Not struggling individuals seeking a better life for themselves and their families, as with EU migrants coming to the UK.

I’m proud of my UK brothers and sisters who fight against racial prejudice, stereotypes and misinformation. And I try to remain tolerant with those who talk about the country being ‘taken over’ – while still challenging them – because (like with every wave of xenophobia the UK has seen) they’ve been told that our problems lie at the feet of migrants, not our own self-serving political and economic elite.

No wonder they seek comfort in the extreme right. They are ignored by Labour, the Conservatives and other mainstream parties who dismiss them as bigots, without listening. As much as I detest the British National Party, would you get David Cameron or Jeremy Corbyn talking to people on a level like the BNP man in the video below? No. They’d sneer and mock them. And we ask ourselves why so many folks used the referendum as a protest vote.

But I’m embarrassed too. By the worrying signs of increased racism on the streets. By the people who represent us on the world stage, like Farage and Boris Johnson. I can imagine now what it feels like to be American and have Donald Trump as your presidential candidate. The global impression of the UK right now is a bratty little kid jumping up and down saying ‘Stop telling me what to do. I’m a big boy now. I don’t need you’ – forgetting that he still lives at home and gets his pocket money from his parents.

When you’re a hero to nationalistic, far-right groups with a hazy dream of going ‘back’ to some monocultural paradise that never existed, you know you’re not doing something right.

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11 Things to Know Before Coming to Guyana for the Golden Jubilee

Image courtesy Government of Guyana
2016 Republic Day celebrations (image courtesy Government of Guyana)

Dear impending visitor to Guyana,

Congratulations!

You have been accepted to be one of the thousands… hundreds… tens… (who knows) of people touching down in Guyana for our Golden Jubilee celebrations. This joyous occasion marks 50 years since we kicked the colonisers out with a flea in their ear (and potfuls of gold and sugar in their pockets. Probably).

But there are a few things you should know before you disembark at Cheddi Jagan International Airport (and not just that bids are open for a restaurant/bar at the terminal. Personally I’m hoping for a gourmet egg ball and pine tart stand, with rum on tap).

1. Not everyone is as excited about the celebrations as you are: You’re thrilled to be in Guyana for its historic 50th anniversary. The bunting! The flag raising! The lengthy speeches! You can’t wait. But remember everyone in Guyana has been hearing all about the ‘Jubilee Celebrations’ for months and months, and while many are looking forward to the party – a lot are sick of the whole damn thing. One journalist is even advocating boycotting the whole thing. Market traders are pissed off at being shunted around at short notice for the big clean up, so it all looks pretty for when you arrive. Budgets have been diverted from other much-needed projects. And, according to one outraged minibus conductor, “chineyman now charging $300 for a flag”. So if you see someone rolling their eyes as you rave about this historic occasion, don’t take it personally.

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Improvement works at Stabroek Market last week

2. Everyone’s banking on a Jubilee bonus – from you: Whether it’s buying a $500,000 bottle of 50-year El Dorado from DDL Diamond Distillers or a Golden Arrowhead hat from a souvenir stand, a lot of business people are hoping you’ll be feeling in a spending mood on this visit. And your contributions matter. So patronise local shops, restaurants and bars; buy locally produced produce and crafts; stock up on gifts for your family back home (Guyana-themed Christmas anyone?), go to shows and other events on the official calendar, and put a few smiles on people’s faces (and dollars in their pockets).

3. Be safe, not sorry: You don’t need to be warned twice about security in Guyana… but you will be. Many, many times. Crime is the number one topic of conversation for Guyanese in the diaspora and here in Guyana. Be sensible and heed the warnings. Book your cab rather than flag one down; don’t wear expensive or flashy jewellery; put your wallet away before leaving the shop or bank; don’t wave your phone or gadgets around in public; don’t walk alone at night; wipe the top of your bottle of beer before downing it… you know the drill. But don’t be so paralysed by fear you don’t do anything. Leave the valuables at home, walk confidently and explore. Otherwise you may as well have stayed at home and watched it on TV.

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4. Know what NOT to wear: If you’re not very familiar with Guyana, you may think: South America + coast + sunshine = flipflops, shorts and vests. That’s fine, but be prepared to be turned away if that’s all you pack. Because Georgetown likes nothing better than a dress code. No short sleeves, no shorts, no short skirts… The first time I visited Guyana I was turned away from the National Library twice – once for inappropriately short sleeves, another time for wearing shorts. I’ve been known to walk with a cardigan and leggings to whip on, just in case… At least those trousers and long-sleeved tops will come in handy of an evening when mosquitoes are in full attack mode.

5. No one has change: You’ve been the the ATM, have a wallet of crisp $5,000 notes, and voila you’re sorted for the rest of your stay. Except you won’t get far. Few people, in my experience, have change for such a sum – from taxi drivers to market traders. So whenever you’re in a supermarket, restaurant or bar, take the opportunity to get some smaller $20, $100, $500 and $1000 bills.

6. Guyana does not end at Georgetown: If you have the time and money, do yourself a favour and bugger off. Guyana is not GT. There are so many other places to discover and things to do: lime on Parika beach, watch the boats on Bartica, spot caiman at Irokrama, encounter real-life cowboys in Lethem, fly over Kaiteur Falls, practise your Portuguese at the Brazil-Guyana border, speed up the Essenquibo… see the beauty of Guyana. Then go home and tell everyone about it.

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On the way to the blue lake in Linden

7. Photography is a privilege not a right: Visitors taking photos is a bit of a thorny issue for some Guyanese attractions – the National Museum, for example – in that they don’t let you snap a thing. Maybe there’s something to be said for visiting a museum of gallery and engaging with the works instead of just snapping them, but sometimes there’s an image or detail you really want to remember – or would love to share with others – but can’t. I’m not sure what the thinking is behind it. There are endless photos of most of the world’s biggest tourist destinations, but you don’t see anyone saying, “Well, I’m not going to the Taj Mahal/London Eye/Louvre because I’ve seen a photo of it.”

8. Sometimes it’s best to listen and nod: In Guyana, one of the main things people like to talk about is race. About their racial heritage. About yours. About the differences between the races in Guyana. “You’ll find Afro-Guyanese are more friendly,” a taxi driver told me on my last visit, the instant we drove away from the airport. “Indians are more likely to save their money.” “Light-skinned is seen as beautiful.” (I’m selecting the milder comments). But don’t be too offended or shocked. Despite this racial consciousness and stereotyping, Guyanese people also seem proud to call themselves the land of six peoples, and look into many people’s family albums here and you’ll probably find a mixture of Indian, African, European and Amerindian ancestors.

9. The sun is hot: No kidding, I hear you say. But I’m serious. This is no average summer’s day in London or New York, the sun will scorch you if you insist in wandering around in a vest top and shorts. And this is not just for the white visitors prone to going red quicker than you can say ‘lobster’. I’ve done it myself: exploring on foot, under the blazing sun. I still do sometimes. But now I bring an umbrella, try to remember to slap on some sunscreen, or just don’t venture out in the high sun. Keep hydrated (you’re never far from a water vendor or a coconut stall). And remember, it’s rainy season now too so that umbrella has a dual purpose.

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10. Zika is more common than you think: “There have been seven confirmed cases of Zika,” I heard a TV news anchor announce the other night. And then the rest, I thought. Guyana doesn’t actually have the facilities to check for Zika, so samples must be sent to Trinidad and Tobago – and I hear there’s a serious backlog. I know a handful of people who’ve probably had Zika – myself included – and just did the recommended thing: rest, drink a lot of water and wait for the symptoms to pass. Maybe this is being far too blasé about it, but when you’re in Zika-territory somehow it seems less of a scary monster (unless you’re pregnant, I can imagine). And I think with Dengue, Chikungunya, Malaria and more all up for grabs, Zika is the least of your worries. So pack your mosquito spray and hope for the best. Sorry.

11. Don’t tell a single story: “You think everything about Guyana is nice!” I’m probably the only person who’s been accused of this. Everyone loves to put Guyana down. Especially Guyanese people themselves, I’ve found. It’s true, there’s a lot to fix. But focusing only on the bad parts isn’t motivating. So for every bad thing you tell your friends back home about Guyana, try to say one positive thing too. “The crime is out of control… but there’s now 4G so we can upload photos of our robbed house so much faster.” Then maybe more people will want to invest in Guyana, trade with Guyana, come live in Guyana and help Guyana. Be the change you want to see, as they say. Donate to a charity doing good works. Raise money to buy equipment for Guyana’s hospitals. Fund a student through university. Send books. Start companies to employ people. Import Guyanese-made products.  Support sustainable projects to protect Guyana’s rainforests. Adopt a jaguar. Whatever. Just do something, so at least you can say: well, I tried.

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The wobbly flag pole + a national hero

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On a visit to D’Urban Park in Georgetown yesterday in search of the giant Guyana flag unveiled on Republic Day (23 February), I encountered the 1763 Monument (better known as ‘Cuffy’).

This striking statue was built in remembrance of the African slave rebellion which took place at a plantation in Berbice that same year. Created by Guyanese artist Philip Alphonso, it was unveiled on 23 May 1976.

According to local arts venue Castellani House (via Stabroek News), the figure’s pouting mouth is a sign of defiance and resistance. While in his hands he throttles a pig and dog – the pig representing ignorance; the dog covetousness, lust and greed. “This image … is inspired by a quotation from the Holy Scripture: ‘Cast not your pearls before swine nor give what is sacred to the dog.'”

Beyond the powerful figure of Cuffy, the super-size Golden Arrow flag was still nowhere to be seen. Surely a 65 × 35ft piece of patriotism isn’t lost so easily? Fear not, a friendly security guard told me, the 180ft flagpole has been taken down for extra reinforcement. “But don’t worry, it’ll be back in time for Independence Day!”

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Flag image credit: Ministry of the President, Guyana

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Flashback: 21 July 1969. Pan-African culture festival rocks Algiers

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(ARISE magazine, issue 18) “It was absolutely amazing, explosive,” remembers Algerian artist Houria Niati. “People were embracing each other, there was total acceptance of what they were seeing. It was very pure, very untouched: raw Africa.” Algiers had never seen anything like it. Miriam Makeba, in exile from South Africa, sang protest songs, while Nina Simone premiered her take on Jacques Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas. In shaded courtyards, Black Panther leaders discussed revolutionary tactics with their African comrades. Wide-eyed children stayed out late under the twinkling streetlights, determined not to miss a second of the action. And the air was filled with the smoke of gun salutes, the sound of drums and a hubbub of tongues from all corners of Africa and beyond: Arabic, Portuguese, French, English, Yoruba, Swahili.

Niati was just 21 at the time and working in the Algerian Ministry of Sport and Culture. “Every day was different. Wherever they said there was a big singer I would go. We had open halls, open theatres… It was just incredible. People wouldn’t sleep because the weather was so fantastic.” Musical and political conversations thrived, inspiring scenes such as acclaimed US jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp freestyling on stage with Algerian and Touareg musicians. “We are still black and we have come back. Nous sommes revenus,” Shepp can be heard chanting on a live recording. “Jazz is an African power. Jazz is an African music.”

Funded by the Organisation Of African Unity (now the African Union), The Pan-African Cultural Festival of 1969 celebrated the achievements of a decade that had brought independence to Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Kenya, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and, in 1962, Algeria – among others. Africa was united by a new sense of shared purpose, a sentiment evident in the excited yet overawed faces captured in Le Festival Panafrican D’Alger, American artist William Klein’s remarkable first-hand documentary of the event, which invaded Algiers from July 21-August 1, 1969.

But this impressive display of Africa’s rich culture had a deeper purpose. “The first Pan-African Festival is not a general diversion that distracts us from the daily fight,” says Algerian president Houari Boumédienne in the film to a UN-style conference of country representatives. “It is part of an immense effort for our emancipation”. Although today Algeria might seem an unlikely location for a pan-African festival, the country’s brutal eight-year struggle for independence in the 1960s had made it something of an African hero. Nelson Mandela trained with the country’s National Liberation Front in 1962. And it was the adopted home of Martinican writer Frantz Fanon, a key voice in Algeria’s independence struggle.

Nathan Hare, founding publisher of The Black Scholar, attended the festival and noticed Algeria’s resistance to “the re-entry of the French and American imperialists”. In the November 1969 edition of The Black Scholar he writes of seeing revolutionary graffiti on “buildings, walls and fences, and the old pre-revolutionary symbol of resistance, the haik (or veil), worn by so many of the women”.

A symposium was held to give a platform to speakers including Guinean revolutionary Amilcar Cabral, US Civil Rights activist Stokely Carmichael and Negritude theorist Leopold Senghor. “People came here specifically to check each other out,” says Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver in the film, “to see what was going on and to get some ideas as to which movement they could relate to.” An Afro-American Cultural Center was also opened and a Pan African Cultural Manifesto drawn up, calling for culture to form the basis of a new, empowered Africa.”I don’t think there will ever be any African festival like that,” says Niati.

Nevertheless in 2009 there was an attempt to recreate the glory of the 1969 festival. The €80million event, organised by the Algerian government and African Union, attracted 8,000 artists from 51 African nations – including Salif Keita, Khaled and Binyavanga Wainaina. However a lot had changed since the first festival. “It’s quite amazing because [in 1969] you can see women wearing the traditional veil next to a topless African dancer,” says Ali Meziane, one of the organisers of London’s Algerian Cultural Festival. “But in 2009 you could hear from the crowds shouts of ‘monkeys’ towards the dancers and some racist comments.” In 40 years Algeria had been through a lot: Algerian Civil War, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. But, says Meziane, “the festival is a good tool to educate people to reopen the Algerian identity towards an African identity. We are Algerians and we are Africans”.