Culture: the best bet for unity

Allan A. Fenty

Despite obvious differences, there are common strands of language, music, food and behaviour that have helped to create a uniquely Guyanese culture that values tolerance and peaceful coexistence.

Often described as the ‘Land of Six Peo­ples’, Guyana brings together a diverse population with origins deriving from many parts of the globe.

In addition to the original indigenous inhabitants of American Indians (‘Amerin­dians’) – who still predominate in the in­land mountainous and forested areas of the country – Guyana is also home to people of European, African, Chinese, Portuguese- Madeiran and East Indian descent. While the European and African populations first laid down their roots in the dark era of early conquest and the slave trade, the other groups arrived in a later phase as im­migrant labourers. They were imported and contracted to sustain the sugar plantations and estates that formed the basis of the co­lonial economy, which for several centuries looked towards Britain.

What is readily identifiable as Guyanese culture is based in large part on the cus­toms, beliefs and behaviour brought by the formerly enslaved or immigrant labourers from their various places of origin. The national language may be English, but the majority of Guyanese think and speak a Creole dialect. If anything makes Guyanese recognisable anywhere, it is the sound of their Creole delivery, and this distinguishes them from even their Barbadian, Trinida­dian and Jamaican Caribbean cousins.

Regardless of origins and preferences, many Guyanese sing calypso and folk songs crafted at home; they play steelpan, sitar and guitar and listen to the same folk tales, myths and jumbie (ghost) stories. And whatever their race or religion, all Guyanese eat the same foods, including Amerindian pepperpot, African metemgee or cook-up, the popular Indian curries and roties, and Chinese chow mein and lo mein. All Guyanese households and caterers are adept at preparing these spicy dishes.

It is not uncommon for Guyanese of any ethnic origin to wear clothing brought to Guyana from different places of origin – whether Indian shalwar or orhnie, Afro dashiki or Chinese kimono – but there is no single national dress, and Western clothes are just as widely worn as in most countries of the world.

There are other elements to the cultural adhesive that binds Guyanese together and these can offer other societies a role model of tolerance and peaceful coexistence.

One past president decreed that the holi­days of all religions practised in Guyana should be recognised, just as the Christian ones were. Hence, there are now Islamic and Hindu public holidays along with Christmas and Easter. Christmas especially permeates every Guyanese household with age-old Creole traditions of food, music, worship and renewal. The Republican anni­versary observed every February also em­braces all Guyanese with its Mashramani festival of varied celebratory activities.

Cricket is another adhesive factor, not only uniting Guyanese against all other cricketing opponents but bringing the entire Caribbean region together. Guyanese and West Indian cricket teams reflect the wider region’s ethnic make-up and form a beacon of collective solidarity.

The historical divisions, which in the past were highlighted by both the British colonisers and, later, local selfish politi­cians, have over time become submerged by a common need to forge a true nation according to the best definitions possible. While politicians, preachers, non-govern­mental and civic organisations may not yet have succeeded in creating the much-touted ‘oneness’ implied by the national motto of ‘one people, one nation, one destiny’, they still appreciate the comfort provided by the culture.

Guyana’s culture and unique national identity are the best means to weld the country’s people of varied origins into true Guyanese – who are above all people of tolerance, peaceful coexistence and unity of purpose.

About the author:

Allan A. Fenty is a columnist for the daily Stabroek News


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