Thursday, May 27, 2010


In a month’s time school will be out for the summer and parents need to start planning now what their children will be doing to occupy their time during the summer months. Some parents have already registered their children for various summer activities. During my childhood our elders subscribed to the philosophy that “Satan finds mischief for idle hands” and they ensured that we were never “idle.” When my younger relatives who are now mostly in their late teens and early twenties were children and spent time at my home during the summer I also subscribed to that philosophy. They were registered in summer African Heritage class and day camps which included opera camp and media arts camp. From Monday to Friday we would follow the same routine that they followed during the school year in waking early to prepare for spending the day in activities that ensured their brains did not turn to mush during the two months away from formal education.

The summer African Heritage classes were an opportunity for the children to learn about the history and culture of Africans from the continent and the Diaspora. This was to compensate for a serious lack in the school curriculum. During the summer class the children experimented with playing the steel pans and learning to play drums from various African cultures. Dance and drama from an African perspective were also part of they learned during classes. Learning about African dress including how to wear an agbada (male wide sleeved robe) tie a head wrap and lappa (skirt) made for great excitement among the students who were mostly children of African Caribbean parents.

At opera camp the children enjoyed daily sessions of music and drama. They attended movement workshops and also expressed their creativity by designing costumes and masks. They met and worked with artist-educators who encouraged and supported them to rewrite, reconstruct and present their spin on a classic opera to their parents and community at the conclusion of the classes.

The media arts camp engaged the children in expressing their creativity as budding artists, journalists and videographers. They also wrote, directed and acted in presentations that recognized their lived reality. Some of my younger relatives who lived in Durham County had the opportunity to experience life in an urban centre since my home is in St Jamestown (which has been described as one of North America’s most densely populated neighbourhoods) and the media arts classes were located in Regent Park which is within walking distance of St Jamestown. The docudramas that were made during this period of their childhood are a testament to the value of documenting various periods of our lives for posterity and even family entertainment. I still have artwork from all those summer camps decorating my home and some packed away waiting for the time and space when I can put together an exhibition. I can picture it: “Come see the great works of art from the descendants of Joseph and Clarissa Hughes.”

To ensure that there were no “idle” moments, after day camp it was time to read and discuss books. The plan was that each person could read any book they fancied, even comic books were allowed but at least one book had to read by everyone so we could have a discussion. One summer we read “Things Fall Apart” which was written by the Igbo author from Nigeria, Chinua Achebe and published in 1958. As young as they were the children were able to understand to some degree Achebe’s writing about the corrupting influence of the European culture and religion on the Africans. We also read Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry published in 1976. In her book Taylor tells the story (based on her family’s history) of a family of African Americans who because they owned their farmland, as opposed to the majority of African Americans who rented land from white farmers, were subjected to dreadful racism from their white neighbours. The story is told from the point of view of nine year old Cassie Logan who lives with her extended family on the family’s farm in Mississippi during the 1930s. There were several other books that we read during those summer time bonding and ensuring that there was no “idle” time for the young people. Many of the books we read were written by Mildred Taylor including Song of the trees; Mississippi Bridge; Let the circle be unbroken; The road to Memphis and The well.

Reading is one of the best lifetime habits we can acquire and also encourage in our children. There are some tried and true methods that have worked in encouraging children to love reading. Read to your children, read with your children and let your children see that you enjoy reading. Buy books for your children and encourage relatives and friends who express an interest in buying gifts for your children to make some of those gifts books. Take your children to the library to borrow books and introduce them to some of your favourite authors.

The summer is one of the best times of the year to encourage reading because children are out of school with time on their hands. Children who love reading are hardly likely to use the dreaded words “I’m bored.” It is important to start when children are young enough and I have started on the next generation. My three grandchildren (4 year old and 2 year old twins) have a roomful of books and love when someone reads to them and I recently bought the most amazing book (Boy! I Am Loving Me! written by Angelot Ndongmo) from A Different Booklist (746 Bathurst Street) for my niece’s 4 year old son who celebrated his birthday on May 17.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


On May 26th, 2010 Guyana (the former British Guiana) celebrated 44 years of political independence. British Guiana was also known as the land of many waters and the land of six people (Africans, Amerindians, Chinese, East Indians, Europeans and Portuguese) with the nine groups of Amerindians being the indigenous people of the land. The petroglyphs found near Kurupukari in the Iwokrama rainforest in Guyana prove that Guyana’s indigenous people (Arawaks, Arecunas, Akawaios, Caribs, Macushis, Patamonas, Wapisianas, Warraus and Wai-Wais) have lived on the South American continent since at least 5000 BCE.

The history books tell us that Christopher Columbus and his crew were the first Europeans who sighted the Guianas in 1498 (Guyanese scholar and historian Ivan Van Sertima in his 1976 published They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America argues that there was an African presence in the Americas before Columbus.) Columbus was quickly followed by other Europeans searching for El Dorado the golden city. They never did find the golden city but many Europeans became rich on the coerced, unpaid labour of enslaved Africans. Beginning with the Dutch who colonized the Essequibo region when they established their first settlement on the Pomeroon River in 1581 Europeans exploited first the native people who they unsuccessfully tried to enslave, then the Africans. The native people being on familiar territory fled into the interior of the country unlike the Africans who were thousands of miles away from Africa and unfamiliar with the South American terrain. In 1814 the Dutch were forced to cede the three colonies of Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo to the British after the Treaty of Paris was signed during the Congress of Vienna (November 1, 1814 - June 8, 1815). In 1831 the British unified the three colonies to become British Guiana.

British Guiana was sometimes referred to as Bookers Guiana because of the stranglehold on the economy of the British business firm, Booker Brothers, McConnell & Company, popularly known as Bookers. The company which had its beginning when Josias Booker arrived in the colony (from Britain) to work as the manager of a cotton plantation in 1815 was formally established in 1834 as Booker Brothers & Company and held a monopoly on the economy of British Guiana by the end of the 1800s. Bookers history is inextricably linked to Britain’s slave holding and imperialist past. When the Congress of Vienna divided the northeast coast of South America among Great Britain, the Netherlands and France in 1815, merchants from those countries quickly began to exploit the region's natural resources. To exploit the natural resources of the region and avoid the backbreaking work which this entailed, the Europeans decided to enslave Africans and brutally force them to work without pay. The Booker brothers - Josias, George, and Richard - were part of this group who between 1815 and 1834 bought several plantations and established several merchant trading houses in Liverpool to exploit a flourishing sugar and rum trade. In 1834 they established Booker Brothers & Co. in British Guiana and bought their first transport ship the Elizabeth in 1835.

In 1854, Josias Booker junior (eldest son of Josias senior) and John McConnell (who had worked as a clerk for the Bookers since 1846) created a new partnership which they named the Demerara Company. With the deaths of the remaining Booker Brothers (Josias senior in 1865) and George in 1866, Josias junior and John McConnell assumed control of all the Booker properties, including the sugar plantations and trading companies in Britain and South America. Milton Moskowitz writes in his 1987 published book The Global Marketplace that the Bookers Brothers company "became the principal shopkeepers of the colony," building a formidable trade during the late 19th century. Their "Liverpool Line," established in 1887, became one of the top shipping links between South America and Europe.

The fascinating story of how the Booker family practically owned British Guiana is documented in chapter 5 of Passage from India to El Dorado: Guyana and the great migration by Dave Hollett (published 1999.) Hollett even details the amount of money the Booker brothers made from being compensated for the loss of their slaves. In the 1830s the family collected thousands of pounds in compensation; no wonder they were able to expand their company and buy ships.

While the enterprising Booker brothers and other white men from Britain were establishing companies (including Sandbach Parker) and making money hand over fist in British Guiana, racialized people were relegated to the backbreaking and underpaid work that made the wealth of the Europeans.

At the time of Guyana’s independence from Britain the population included not only the original people (Amerindians) of the land but also some of the descendants of the colonizers from Britain, the descendants of the enslaved Africans and the descendants of the people who immigrated to British Guiana as indentured labourers beginning in 1834 after slavery was abolished. Although the Portuguese from Madeira were the first group of indentured labourers to arrive in British Guiana, the largest group of indentured labourers (who at 43% are presently the largest ethnic group in Guyana) hailed from the Indian sub-continent, arriving in Guyana beginning May 5, 1838.

The population of Guyana 44 years after independence also includes the descendants of the Chinese who immigrated as indentured labourers beginning in 1853 when three ships (the Glentanner, the Lord Elgin and the Samuel Boddington) left Amoy in the Fujian Province of China with 1,549 labourers bound for British Guiana. The descendants of the people who populated Guyana from the 1500s to the 1800s and the indigenous people of Guyana are all Guyanese who share many parts of their culture to make a unique Guyanese culture including our very distinctive, easily recognizable Guyanese accent.

At 44 years old Guyana is still experiencing growing pains but there are countries like Canada, U.S.A even Britain that achieved political independence from those they considered overlords more than 100 years ago and there is evidence that they are still experiencing growing pains.

Happy 44th birthday Guyana!!

Thursday, May 13, 2010


May is the month when we really begin to believe that summer is not something we imagined, it is not a mirage and it is almost here. Mittens, scarves and winter coats are things of the past, relegated to the back of our closets. Old man winter begins to loosen his tenacious grip on the earth, snow is a dim memory and we begin to see people who we have not seen since the Labour Day weekend. Anticipating summer, some brave souls even venture out wearing summer garb (shorts, t-shirts, sandals etc.)

Although I have been experiencing this phenomenon for more than half of my life, every year that I experience another spring, I marvel that I have survived another winter. I marvel that after spending the first two decades of my life in a country where there are two seasons (wet and dry) I have survived living in a country where for almost eight months of the year I huddle in heavy winter coats with my neck swaddled in woollen scarves and my feet encased in layers of socks and winter boots.

In the South American country where I was born there are two seasons "dry" and "wet." On Guyana's coastland where the majority of the country's 777,000 people (2009) live there are two wet seasons (May to July) and (November to January) and two dry seasons (February to April) and (August to October). In Guyana's interior region (Rupununi) the wet season and dry season are each six months long. The wet season from the end of April to the end of September and the dry season the rest of the year. Unlike Canada, the temperature in Guyana does not dip below 12°C even in the Rupununi where, by Guyanese standards, it can be very cold at night. While in December Canadians might be freezing in teeth chattering 0° weather singing of Jack Frost nipping at their noses, people in Guyana would be out in 28° weather enjoying masquerade bands (Guyanese Christmas tradition) or listening to a Guyanese calypsonian sing "Why should I leave Guyana and go outside to perish in the winter?"

The most important day in May for Canadians is Victoria Day. The Victoria Day weekend in May is the signal for gardeners to begin resuscitating their gardens since they are reasonably confident that there will be no more frost until the following winter.

Victoria Day was established in Canada to celebrate the birthday of Queen Victoria (May 24, 1819) who, as the reigning monarch, signed the British North America Act (BNA) which created the Dominion of Canada in 1867 (renamed in 1982 the Constitution Act, 1867). After Victoria's death in January, 1901, the Parliament of Canada voted to establish an annual holiday in her honour on May 24 or May 25 if May 24 fell on a Sunday.

In the Guyana of my youth May 1 was the most important day in May because it is Labour Day when we celebrate the lives and contributions of workers. It was also an important day for children because communities throughout Guyana crowned a May Queen and children danced around the Maypole in brilliantly coloured outfits as they plaited equally brilliantly coloured ribbons around the Maypole. This practice of crowning a May Queen and plaiting ribbons around a Maypole was a holdover of British colonization of Guyana which was British Guiana until May 26, 1966.

Although Guyanese did not celebrate Victoria Day, there is a statue of Victoria in front of Guyana's High Court on the Avenue of the Republic in Georgetown, Guyana's capital city. This statue, which remains standing there today 44 years after Guyana gained its political independence from Britain, is a testament to the influence of the British (1831-1966) colonization of the former British Guiana.

For many years some elderly African Guyanese sang Victoria's praises mistakenly thinking that she had freed them from chattel slavery. This is surprising since Victoria did not become the British monarch until 1837 (crowned June 28, 1838) while slavery was abolished on August 1, 1834. It was perhaps the fact that Victoria was the reigning monarch following the four-year apprenticeship period (1834-1838) when Africans received "full emancipation" that in some Africans' imagination meant that she granted them their freedom.

The elders of my community in Berbice scoffed at the idea of any member of the British monarchy deserving praise for ending chattel slavery. They insisted that the British royal family had benefited from the blood, sweat and tears of our enslaved ancestors and did not deserve any songs or words of praise from us. Any benefits that we had acquired including the land that was bought where villages were established by formerly enslaved Africans came from our hard work. Many of these villages were given British names including Rose Hall on the Courentyne in Berbice which was established as a village after land was bought by formerly enslaved Africans. The racialized people of Guyana did not benefit from the British or their monarchy so there was no need for Guyanese to celebrate Victoria Day.

In Canada, the Victoria Day weekend in May is taken seriously with fireworks and celebrations throughout the nation because the British culture is paramount in this country. Those of us who are not British can enjoy the glorious weather, the time off from work to spend with our families and friends and look forward to the celebrations that reflect us and our culture that will happen throughout the summer. Some of those celebrations are Muhtadi International Drumming Festival which includes drummers from across the globe performing at Queens Park (June 5-6), Afrofest which is a celebration of African culture also at Queens Park (July 10-11) and Caribana (July 31) which last year brought more than one million visitors to Toronto and $438 million to the Canadian economy. Incidentally, the Caribana parade this year will take place on the day before Emancipation Day (August 1).

Friday, May 7, 2010


The second Sunday of May has been recognized as Mother's Day in North America since May 9, 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed a presidential proclamation that officially recognized a national holiday to celebrate America's mothers. On Mother's Day many of us take the opportunity to thank and celebrate not only those women who gave birth to us but also our grandmothers, aunts, sisters and the women who we respect because of the mothering role they have played sometimes to entire communities.

In many African cultures and, by extension, those African communities in the Diaspora, mothers are revered. Without a mother nurturing us in her body and then bearing the labour pains giving birth to us none of us would be here today.
There are women in our communities who, whether or not they have ever given birth to a child, are considered mother figures to the entire community because of their caring and self-sacrificing nature.

Fanny Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height, Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman are all African-American women who did not have biological children but nurtured and mothered generations of their community members during the freedom struggles of African-Americans and these women continue to inspire us today.

Fannie Lou Hamer was an African-American civil rights leader and political activist who worked to improve the lives of African-Americans despite experiencing extreme racial injustice, including state and police violence. In 1961 Hamer, like thousands of African-American women living in Mississippi, was sterilized without her knowledge by a White doctor as part of the state of Mississippi's plan to reduce the population of African-Americans.

In 1962 Hamer began working to help African-Americans register to vote. She was harassed, fired from her job and received numerous death threats. In 1963, Hamer and other activists were arrested and viciously beaten (she suffered permanent kidney damage, permanent damage to her left eye and a permanent limp) but that did not prevent her from continuing her quest to ensure her community gained their civil rights.

She helped to organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's (SNCC) "Freedom Summer" in Mississippi in 1964 and became Vice-Chair of the "Freedom Democrats" which was organized to challenge the all-White, anti-civil rights delegation to the Democratic National Convention ( In 1969, Hamer co-founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative, which helped struggling farmers acquire land. She was actively involved in grassroots Head Start programs and in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign. She helped convene the National Women's Political Caucus in 1970 and when the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) created the Fannie Lou Hamer Day Care Center, she became the chair of its Board of Directors.

Hamer's life is documented in several biographies, including This Little Light of Mine: the Life of Fannie Lou Hamer, written by Kay Mills and published in 1993.
Dorothy Height, who recently transitioned to join the ancestors (April 20, 2010) was a veteran of the Civil Rights movement.

Dr. Height, who celebrated her 98th birthday on March 24, 2010, published her autobiography, Open Wide the Freedom Gates: a Memoir in 2003. Her autobiography documents the story of her life and her work as an African American woman who was born in the second decade of the 20th Century and lived through the torturous history of the African-American struggle for equal rights and human rights in the country of their birth.

Among her many accomplishments, Dr. Height was a leader of the National Council of Negro Women for more than four decades. She was an important part of the organizing of the March on Washington and stood with Martin Luther King Jr. when he made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. She was one of the few women who participated in the Nation of Islam's Million Man March in 1995. Apart from her many accomplishments I always admired Dr. Height's fashion sense, especially those amazing purple outfits.

Rosa Parks is recognized as the "Mother of the Modern-Day Civil Rights Movement". She is the face of the struggle to desegregate the Montgomery public transportation system which began with her refusal to obey a White supremacist law on December 1, 1955 when she refused to give up her seat in the "colored" section of a Montgomery City bus to a White man who could not find a seat in the crowded section of the "White" seating area.

The law at that time compelled African-Americans who were sitting in the colored section of a bus to vacate their seats for any White person who could not find seating in the White section of the bus. Parks refused to obey that law putting her life at risk. (African-Americans had been killed for refusing to obey that law). Parks was arrested and her arrest sparked the Montgomery bus boycott which saw the end of segregated seating on Montgomery City buses. The lives of Parks and her family were threatened and they were forced to move from their community for their safety.

As secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Parks was an activist before her brave action on December 1, 1955. In August 1955 she had attended the Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee center for workers' rights and racial equality. Parks had also helped to raise money for the defense of 15-year-old school girl Claudette Colvin, who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat in the colored section of a Montgomery City bus on March 2, 1955 (

Harriet Tubman was the Moses of enslaved Africans and risked her life to free those who were brave enough to flee. Tubman is credited with the famous quote: "I freed thousands of slaves; I could have freed thousands more if they knew they were slaves." Tubman first risked her life in the service of her people when as a young teenager she refused to help restrain another enslaved African at the bequest of a White overseer. Tubman suffered a head injury when she was brutalized by the White man whose orders she refused, ( resulting in a lifelong debilitating medical condition. That injury did not prevent Tubman working to free her people, even working as a spy and a nurse during the American Civil War which eventually led to the emancipation of every enslaved African in the USA.

May 9 is Mother's Day and while we celebrate the women who gave birth to us we need to take time to remember the many women whose sacrifices contributed to the freedom we enjoy today.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


In April, 1840, Buxton Village on the East Coast of Demerara, Guyana was established by an enterprising group of 128 Africans who had been freed from chattel slavery on August 1st, 1838. The Africans pooled their money and bought the 500-acre plantation New Orange Nassau from its owner James Archibald Holmes, for $50,000. They named the village Buxton in honour of abolitionist Thomas Fowell Buxton, who was also a British Member of Parliament. Buxton was the second village established by Africans in what was then British Guiana. Victoria Village, also on the east coast of Demerara was purchased in November 1839, by a group of 83 formerly enslaved Africans.

This was an extraordinary achievement because Africans had been enslaved in Guyana for centuries (first by Dutch and then British colonizers) prior to the emancipation on Augusts 1st 1834. Although chattel slavery ended on Augusts 1st 1834, a system of "apprenticeship" was instituted for another four years (until August 1st, 1838) in an attempt to continue the system of slavery under another name and guise. The white slave holders and plantation owners were compensated for the loss of their property (by the British crown and government) while the Africans were forced to continue working on the plantations where they had been enslaved. The period of apprenticeship compelled the Africans to work without pay for 40 hours a week and then they were grudgingly paid a pittance for any work they did over the forty hours. The Africans were compelled to pay rent for the very inadequate housing they were allotted on the plantation grounds, so it is surprising that out of this situation people were able to save enough money to purchase their own land.

Realising that the Africans would not continue working for a pittance after their freedom from chattel slavery, the British put in place a system to undercut the Africans’ access to fair compensation for their labour by importing labour from Asia and Europe. In late 1834, a small group of Portuguese recruited from the Portuguese-owned island of Madeira arrived in British Guiana to work on a sugar plantation in Demerara. On May 3, 1835, 40 more indentured labourers arrived from Madeira on the ship "Louisa Baillie" on a two to four year indentureship contract and by the end of 1835, 553 other Madeirans had arrived in British Guiana as indentured labourers contracted to work on various sugar plantations. These labourers were recruited using public money (gained from the unpaid labour of enslaved Africans) made available by the British Government and was used to pay the planters for each immigrant transported to then British Guiana.

Not satisfied with exploiting the labour of the Africans for centuries before August 1st, 1838, the British decided to further marginalize the Africans by importing labourers from Europe to increase the population of white people in Guyana. In 1835, small groups of English and German farmers were recruited. In 1836, 44 Irish and 47 English labourers immigrated to Guyana and in 1837, 43 Scottish labourers arrived from Glasgow. In 1839, 209 Maltese and 121 Germans were added to the population. This population of European labourers apparently did not survive working in the tropical climate.

The British then turned to Asia as an alternative source for labour and on May 5, 1838 a group of 396 labourers arrived in British Guiana from the Indian subcontinent aboard the Whitby and the Hesperus. The Indian labourers were encouraged to exchange their return passage to India after their 5 year contracts had expired, for a plot of land and a cow. The indentured labourers from Indian were encouraged to retain their language and culture unlike the Africans who had been prevented under pain of death from speaking their language, retaining their names or practicing their culture. In 1853 three ships (the Glentanner, the Lord Elgin and the Samuel Boddington) left Amoy in the Fujian Province of China with 1,549 labourers bound for British Guiana. The Chinese did not remain on the plantations after they served the five year term of indentureship. Like the Portuguese, many of the Chinese who left the plantations as soon as their indenture contracts were fulfilled entered the retail trade. Some of them, however, emigrated again to Trinidad, Jamaica, or Suriname with very few of them returning to China. Those who remained left the sugar plantations because they were dissatisfied with the low wages and poor living conditions there. Some claimed that they had been tricked when they were recruited since instead of “garden work”, they had to work laboriously in the cane fields. By 1931, many had settled in Georgetown and other large centres of population where the work was easier and the profits greater and became shopkeepers since it was then easy to obtain credit from merchants there, they were able to break the monopoly in the retail trade held until then by the Portuguese.

Although the British discontinued immigration from Europe, Portuguese from the Azores, Brazil, Cape Verde and Madeira continued to immigrate until 1882 when the last group of 182 arrived in British Guiana. The Portuguese became a buffer class between the British and the non-White population although they were regarded by the British planters and civil servants as belonging to a lower social status and were classified as a different ethnic group from that of "Europeans." The Portuguese labourers did not remain on the sugar plantations after they completed their period of indenture. As soon as their two- to four-year period of indentureship ended, they moved off the plantations and on to small plots of land as well as into the huckster and retail trade.

The British merchants in Georgetown employed many of them as agents to sell retail imported goods in the rural areas. They quickly monopolised these positions which they wrested from the Africans who worked in this area. They established retail shops and supplied basic supplies to the plantation workers who were, by this time, mainly Indian indentured labourers. By 1851, in Georgetown, 173 out of the 296 shops belonged to Portuguese. In New Amsterdam, they owned 28 of the 52 registered shops while in the villages they had 283 of the 432 shops. By the end of the nineteenth century, large Portuguese firms were beginning to appear on Water Street in Georgetown.

It is under these conditions that villages were bought, owned and administrated by Africans in various parts of Guyana. It is a testament to the perseverance under very oppressive conditions that these villages survived and even managed to flourish, educating and nurturing many generations of high achievers in various fields. I recently interviewed Dr. David Hinds who was born in Buxton and is a professor at Arizona State University about the history of Buxton.

In 1841, another group of 168 formerly enslaved Africans pooled their money and purchased Friendship, a 500-acre plantation east of Buxton for $80,000 and the two communities merged to form Buxton-Friendship village. The founders laid out housing lots at the front of the village and corresponding farm lands at the back. The villagers built roads, dug drainage trenches and established farms. They also created an administrative body, the Buxton-Friendship Village Council to manage maintenance of the village’s infrastructure and collect property taxes. Buxtonians will commemorate their village's 170th year of existence with a celebration from July 24-August 1, 2010.