SPEECH ON THE OCCASION OF THE 19TH DEATH ANNIVERSARY OF PRESIDENT LINDEN FORBES SAMPSON BURNHAM
by Sgd. Joycelynne Loncke
Posted on 2010-05-05
There are special moments in the history of a nation when the stars ordain the birth of an outstanding personality.
I do believe that we, in Guyana, were privileged to be given Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham at the time when the country needed him – a most remarkable man, a product of strict parents who upheld the highest moral values and inculcated in him the best that a good Christian family could bequeath to its offspring. So Forbes grew and waxed strong, and as he flourished in the humanities: languages (Latin, French, English), in Literature, Music, Drama and in History, his intellect sharpened to the fine tempered steel that could cross swords with the finest minds in Europe and win international debates, and out-speak the speakers in their own language.
How proud we should be that this outstanding son of Guyana came back home. He came back home, and rolled up his sleeves, spurning the almighty dollar in order to help build a country, his beloved Guyana…a task that was so often thankless, but that presented challenges to exercise the brain, the mind and the ingenuity. Challenges worthy of a Sampson.
Today as we commemorate the nineteenth anniversary of the passing of this great man, I wish to speak to his ideas and his thrust in the domain of culture.
Yes, I know what is expected to follow, but then “culture” has a very wide connotation. I would ask you to forgive me if I do not always stick to the narrow acceptance of the word, and if I seem to stray briefly into other domains.
In the 1960’s when I was growing up, I remember distinctly the tea parties and the trite pronouncements on culture by snooty individuals who prided themselves on being of a better “class” than the common people, and who prided themselves on being the purveyors of “culture”, - and “culture” for them was largely second hand imitation of the more superficial aspects of western life. An accusation against Founder Leader Burnham was that he was attacking the middle class and championing a low class culture because he stoutly supported the Steelband, the folk songs of Guyana, the oral literature, which today we are only beginning to rediscover.
Steel band players were rejected because of their humble origins, and as for Calypsonians, - so-called middle class families pretended to shudder and wagged their heads and their tongues against these art-forms which today, thanks to the courage of the Founder Leader’s cultural policy, we are only now beginning to appreciate.
For the Steel pan which many people in the 1950’s and 60’s spurned – and indeed one foreign critic once said that “nothing could come out of a rubbish bin but rubbish” – the Steel pan which many people in the 1950’s and 60’s spurned is today playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the “1812 Overture”.. some rubbish for you, and the Steel pan is today the musical instrument that has conquered the world. Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and yes, North America, have taken over that instrument, the only absolutely new musical instrument to have been created in the twentieth century.
Even though some would like to distort the truth and deny it, President Burnham very early in the days when he was Minister of Education in the 1953 regime, promoted the idea that the Steel band should be upgraded to the position enjoyed by other instruments of the orchestra. Under his government, it was his policy to employ Steel bands at all official cocktail parties and ceremonies. Founder Leader also ushered in the Golden Age of Culture, because he made it possible for parents who could not afford to send their children to ballet lessons, to send their children to the National School of Dance, free of charge! And he brought Prima Ballerina Ms. Lavinia Williams of Haiti to start the School.
Many schools had their “culture corps”, and the National Service Culture Corps produced not only dancers and musicians but dramatists as well. Do we remember how many skits were created ex-tempore by the young fertile brains at Kimbia, Papaya and elsewhere? Do we remember the lusty voices in schools singing not only National songs, but also folk-songs, the legacy of our ancestors? Those were days when we were truly proud to be Guyanese.
Out of the Music Festival was born the GUYFESTA performances which spread the length and breadth of Guyana, permitting the most far-flung schools the opportunity to participate in the national music, drama and dance competitions on an annual basis.
Meanwhile, the biennial Music Festivals, mobilized by Ms. Lynette Dolphin and Mr. Bill Pilgrim and their small army of musicians, continued to flourish and to encourage choirs of excellence such as the NAMS choir, the Police Male Voice Choir, the Maranatha singers, the Church Choirs, and the young Woodside Choir which grew out of the Bishops’ High School singers.
The older people here present would remember the poet and writer, Mrs. Rajkumarie Singh and her son, Gora Singh, and the rare spectacle of an African-Guyanese, Philip McLintock, who was given the opportunity to train in India and returned to become one of the leading exponents of Kathak. All of those attest to Burnham’s vision of a Guyana united by respect for the cultural diversity of the country.
But, imagine!! - that certain sections of our population should still, in the face of all this ‘hard evidence’, try to deny that Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham was truly the Patron of the Arts in that Golden Age of culture in Guyana !
But, Comrades, let us not take culture to mean only the arts. The dictionaries define “culture” as the way of life of a people, involving the total spectrum of activities, beliefs and aspirations of the community. And as I said some years ago at a similar forum, against the broader back-drop of culture, “Forbes Burnham was eminently an example of a VOICE and a VISION, and the POWER to make that VISION a reality.”
His was a voice that spoke of ideas that you hardly dared to formulate for yourself. He held up a torch to the sky and a wonderful hope for a future Guyana, where we ordinary folk would take charge of the commanding heights of our economy. We would study hard, work hard; we would ‘produce or perish’.
In those days, the idea of an independent Guyana was frightening!: …to be responsible for your own development, your own destiny, to sail away Captain of your own ship ! But then, with a Leader like Burnham, you felt everything was possible ! Guyana was ours to build, to fashion, to develop. And let me tell you, Burnham did not speak in an airy-fairy manner; he did not speak with a forked tongue, flattering you with lies. No! He came through with hard facts and logical plans. His courage was eminently evident in the fact that while other politicians were making vain promises of an Utopian world if you would only vote for them…On the contrary Forbes Burnham had the courage to tell us frankly: “Comrades, all I can promise you is hard work and more work!” And he had this sentence put under his giant size photograph! For a politician hoping to capture votes, that was indeed courageous. But we were ready to work, to take up the challenge, to follow him, because he was articulating thoughts that in our hearts we had been longing to hear said – a message of dignity, pride and self-worth.
We would no longer go cap in hand begging the western nations for alms and loans. We would build on our agricultural products, use the resources that God had given us, and demand fair prices for our products. We would “Feed, Clothe and House” ourselves. And we rose to the challenge!
Do you remember when we began to produce and package our local ham and bacon, our fresh LIDCO milk, mixed fish at one dollar a pound (one Guyanese dollar a pound), local corn, black-eye beans, palm oil, packaged breadfruit flour, brown sugar, yellow-crystal sugar, rice flour and cassava flour; strong brown cotton, white cotton and mull, and the fantastic varieties of tied and dyed materials of the Women’s Revolutionary Socialist Movement! And the flowering of research into bio-gas, into rice-husk, and various branches of agriculture. The building of the UMANA YANA, meeting place of the Chiefs, which is an apex of Amerindian building technology. The highway to Linden, repairing the damage caused by the PPP’s Del Conte Fiasco, the Demerara bridge permitting farmers to bring their produce down from Essequibo at a drastically reduced price, the Canje bridge. The National Service and the young GDF, growing their own food, proud, commanding and policing our borders with courage. The days when we lustily sang: “Not a Blade of Grass!”
Under the resourceful guidance of Forbes Burnham, the PNC achieved so many firsts! We were the envy of the Caribbean. Many delegations from Suriname, Cuba and the CARICOM islands came to learn from our women how to substitute local products for imported ones. Our nibbi furniture took the Caribbean islands by storm. Zambia came to learn how to set up their National Service. Artists and writers who came for the very first CARIFESTA, -Burnham’s brainchild,- left with renewed inspiration. And it is no wonder that Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham was voted by CARICOM citizens as the Caribbean Man of the Century.
When we talk about culture, surely we cannot fail to take into consideration these multiple facets of our way of life in Guyana.
I remember President Burnham telling the late Dr. George Walcott, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Guyana, in front of the whole assembly of people at Congress Place: “ I want to see a department of INNOVATION. That’s how we must call it. We must have INNOVATION.”
And therein lay the genius of Founder Leader. His brain was fertile with ideas for the development of Guyana. Although he had been educated under the British colonial system, and had completed his university education in the august halls of the London Law Schools, he had the God-given vision and understanding not to seek to slavishly impose western systems on our newly independent country. He felt that we must do our own research; and he repeated over and over again that we must focus on research applicable to Guyana. I know for a fact that he inspired countless research projects not only in agriculture, but also in Technology and Education, Health, Economics and the Arts.
In Education, and particularly in education, he had a dream, with which all of us, if we were truthful, could empathize. He expressed horror at a system which might produce “mimic men”. He repeated again and again, that we did not want carbon copies of western systems, nor did we want people to be trained to regurgitate the knowledge they had crammed in western schools. As Forbes Burnham proclaimed at Congress Place, when speaking on the creation of the President’s College:
“We want elite in this country to change the old order towards something. What is that something? That something towards which we aspire and towards which we hope we are moving, is a society where there is absolute equality of opportunity.” (2nd November, 1984)
But he also clearly saw faults in the Soviet system. In the same way that he abhorred the idea of producing “mimic men” of the west, he absolutely rejected the idea of slavishly following Marxist-Leninism. Speaking on the writings of Karl Marx he said: [I quote]
“…there are certain things that Marx either under-played, did not understand, or could not understand, because he was not exposed to them. After all he was a German Jew in Western Europe. Africa for him was a name, India for him – a mystery; China for him – a legend. And although Lenin subsequently did attempt to deal with the question of imperialism as the most developed form of capitalism, even for Lenin, a lot of it was guess work…” [end of quote]
In other words, the Founder Leader was advocating that we must know what the best thinkers in both east and west had posited, but in the final analysis, we have to forge our own destiny, and choose our own pathway.
Little wonder, therefore, the Founder Leader became one of the most highly respected leaders of the Non-Aligned movement. He was visited in Guyana by eminent historical personalities such as Fidel Castro, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Mrs.Bandaranaike, General Yacubu Gowon of Nigeria, President Sekou Toure of Guinea, and the freedom-fighters of Southern Africa, such as Joshua Nkomo and President Robert Mugabe. And in the battle against the white fascist regime, Guyana, under Forbes Burnham, was proclaimed by the freedom-fighters to be a FRONT-LINE STATE.
But we must all surely remember the principled stand taken by President Burnham with regard to the West Indies team not playing cricket in the South Africa of the apartheid regime, at a time when the whole world had imposed sanctions against that country. Many were the hostile comments made by opposition parties in Guyana, and uninformed or misinformed letter writers in some Caribbean countries, who felt that it was too harsh of him to maintain his demand for an apology from those renegade West Indian cricketers who had insisted on playing in South Africa at that time. Subsequent events bore out the wisdom of his stance, and today, when South Africa is free of the odious system of apartheid, many who had attempted to whip up anger against Burnham’s decision have been conveniently forgetting their own weak stance, and have been hustling feverishly to identify themselves with Nelson Mandela.
But, Brothers and Sisters, narrow minds and envious eyes are not new in society and in politics. We know that his detractors will attempt to eradicate all the institution he built up, and all the symbols of his genius, as they did to an African Queen some two thousand years before Christ. But they cannot eradicate his ideas. All their efforts to distort our history will be in vain. The truth will out. They may try to suppress the ideas that Burnham held dear. They may try to deny them. But you cannot kill an idea: it may remain dormant for some time, but it will eventually rise up again and be developed and spread.
It is particularly heartening to know that young people are today questioning their elders and writing and doing research into the life and work of this great leader.
Even from beyond the grave, then, the Founder Leader is continuing to inspire his people.
Let me say how privileged I feel to have been alive at this junction of our history and to be able to present this small tribute to the memory of the first ever Executive President of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana.
Sgd. Joycelynne Loncke
6th August, 2004.