The problem with Guyana - and this applies to many developing countries - is that the things which really matter in terms of the definition of a country and its identity over an extended timeframe, have to compete for limited funding with what are deemed to be urgent needs. Sometimes those needs are not that urgent, or perhaps are not really even needs at all, but have been denoted as such by whatever administration is in office. Governments here have not yet grasped the fact that contributing towards building the cultural contours of a nation is critically important, although they will encourage national days or heritage months and the like, since they are not an undue burden on the budget, added to which they involve elements of public display with which ministers can associate themselves. No doubt they see that as their contribution to respecting culture.
This is aggravated by the problem that for the most part, those who traditionally have ruled us are in many cases themselves simply insensitive to cultural matters, if they have not actually opened themselves to allegations of philistinism (and some of them have). What can definitely be said is that they would never go on the campaign trail promising funding for the National Archives, the National Library, the National Gallery, the National Museum and the Walter Roth Museum or the National Trust, for example, in the expectation it would be met with massive cheers of approval from their audience. Most of their attendees at political meetings have never been educated about the value to the nation – both themselves and future generations – that such institutions and others not named here, represent. Even if they had, it has to be conceded that most would be there to hear the cut and thrust of a different kind of political engagement.
Culture is an umbrella term for a variety of activities, but contrary to what our politicians seem to believe, it can generate funding at all kinds of levels. One obvious case, of course, is the material heritage, which every government in this country has been cavalier about, and the PPP/C administration in particular, positively irresponsible. It was in last week’s Sunday Times of the UK that the travel section featured the Guianas, and Georgetown was unfavourably compared with Paramaribo in relation to the survival of its colonial buildings. Guyana had not preserved them, was the thrust of the comment, while Suriname’s capital was altogether quite impressive in this regard.
This, it might be said, is at a time when that country’s material heritage is not even as imposing as it used to be, owing to a lack of funds. Nevertheless, it was clear that tourists were being advised that our Dutch-speaking neighbour was the preferred destination. Our politicians appear incapable of learning that visitors do not want to
see malls. What they want to see are traditional buildings, which while they may date from the colonial period, were built by locally born Guyanese, whose skills were grounded in those developed during the Dutch period by the Winkels of Berbice.
But where today are the heritage buildings of this country – and that includes the early temples and mosques −especially the former − hardly any of which now survive? But then, what can one expect when the PNC, among other things, allowed what had once been known as the region’s most elegant poor house to disintegrate, and a PPP/C Minister of Health stood by for years without lifting a finger as New Amsterdam’s remarkable old hospital was vandalised and finally crumbled into nothingness. And then there was the Chess Hall in Main Street, which his government after much pressure had agreed to restore, but left it so long that citizens woke up one morning to find it just a pile of sawdust lying where it once had stood.
Or let us take the National Library, which owing to the lack of understanding on the part of Guyana’s first independent government, was mistakenly tacked on to the Public Library. It is an error which has never been put right, and partly (not wholly) for this reason, perhaps, it has suffered the same fate as the library to which it is harnessed, i.e. utterly inadequate funding. That is a situation which has undergone no change under the financial management of the present Minister of Finance, who perhaps thinks books are an outdated holdover from last century.
Whatever the computer whizz kids among our politicians of all political persuasions might think to the contrary, a National Library should collect and preserve the written heritage of a nation from the earliest publications up to the present day, and that collection needs to be managed by librarians and/or academics of the highest calibre. Most people in the developed world, at least, have heard of the British Library or the Library of Congress, and along with the Schomburgk Collection in the New York Public Library, among others, these institutions have collections on Guyana which put us to shame. And as for the kind of personnel who headed them, one could take the example of the writer Jorge Luis Borges, who for many years was in charge of Argentina’s National Library.
There is, however, one possible qualification to the National Library’s neglect over the years, and that is that personnel did go for training in the Netherlands recently (as will be seen below) on the preservation of paper. Whether, however, that exercise will redound to the benefit of the National Collection (as opposed to the Public Library books) or will not because of bureaucratic or financial reasons, is not something which it is possible to know yet.
Britain has been fortunate in that it was not invaded after 1066, and can still produce the Domesday Book from 1086, or four copies of the
Magna Carta of 1215, which has such symbolic significance in terms of the story of the evolution of democracy. The former of these is now found in the UK’s National Archives, which of course holds responsibility for an enormous collection of public records.
Unfortunately, the story of our own archives is a shameful one, beginning in the colonial period of the early twentieth century, when our national records were piled up in the dome of the Public Buildings. According to the late Vere T Daly, many of them were periodically burnt on the instructions of J Graham Cruickshank, who held responsibility for them. The documents he had collected from those records on the maroons of this country for a book he was writing, were burnt in the 1945 fire; he had placed them in boxes in the old RACS library which was completely destroyed. Subsequent to that, most of the Berbice records from the Dutch era were inundated by flood waters in the vault of State House, New Amsterdam.
Thereafter, much of the story is no better, until we come to the very recent period that is, when courtesy of the Dutch, the local archives from the Dutch period were taken to the Netherlands to be restored, and then were also digitised. In addition, the Dutch arranged training for a number of personnel in the preservation of paper, including some employees from other institutions. That is certainly the most positive news in the Guyanese historical field that anyone has heard in a very long time, and truly represents a bright spark in an otherwise fairly gloomy cultural scene.
And if anybody thinks that from now on, we could start rectifying some of our earlier mistakes, they should be reminded that building up a vibrant local cultural tradition depends in the first instance on a copyright law. If that does not exist, creators in all fields are going to be dissuaded from producing anything here, and there will be no development of cultural industries – which could earn the country money – or the evolution of a unique tradition which would make its input into the Guyanese sense of national pride. Ignorance aside, Mr Bharrat Jagdeo’s statement last year on copyright, which is presumably supported by his party, was nothing short of a national disgrace. It is what we create, along with the cultural institutions we fashion and reinforce, which give us our sense of nation and distinct identity.
Whatever the politicians do or don’t do, or whatever hostile exchanges are in progress about who should or should not be in power, there are all kinds of things which a nation has to do to give itself a profile in the long term. What we do now will create the context for what those who come after us will be able to achieve, and nowhere does that apply more than in the case of the cultural area, where institutions should be given the means to flourish, and creative spirits in all fields, not just cultural, encouraged and respected.