Andaiye's small red handwriting on the article I did not want to write and other things..
Monday 24 November, 1997. I am at work, work being in the Information Systems Department at Guysuco.
The Co-ordinator of Help & Shelter calls. "Vidya, there is a woman here to see you... she insists that she wants to see you"
I am puzzled, I don't go during the day.
"Vidya.. the woman says she has come to see you.., let me know when you can come"
The Systems Manager is okay with me stepping out. I am a little frightened in case I did something wrong.
The woman, in her fifties, is sitting in one of the Counselling rooms. She has a newspaper clipping in her hand.
The clipping is kind of open as though she was reading it again.
A newspaper clipping of the article Andaiye had 'asked' me to write (it was more told me to write) for her Sunday column Woman's eye View.
"This article, it was like you were talking to me. I saw it, I decided to come down, to get out of my situation.. "
She talked. I listened. She agreed to access the services.
I keep remembering the woman's hand, holding the clipping when she talked.
I had been volunteering for about two years quietly with Help & Shelter at the time. Another woman who read the article told me I should be careful how I deh liming wid dem WPA people because I coudl get in trouble. The nasty elections period was creating the fears again.
I did not really want to write the article but Andaiye was not someone I could say no to .
I worked on the article, took a long time on it, printed it , submitted to Andaiye thinking I was done..
And then got it back with the red scribbles, the red arrows to show where to move paragraphs.. and well, corrections to grammar and spelling mistakes. We did that one more time before the article was sent for publishing.
I don't think I ever got a chance to tell Andaiye about the woman holding the clipping.
And for a long time, until recently, I always said yes, to any other request to talk or write about domestic violence or any other form of gender based violence, or child abuse.
"You full of manners.. "
"You full of manners.. , you might not get anybody to hear you.." Andaiye told me soon after I first met her through Help & Shelter in 1995. I joined then to be a 'volunteer' , a few hours a week to help with typing letters, computer stuff and so.. not anything harder.
But Andaiye and other people at Help & Shelter had other uses for me and the little requests to 'go talk to this group about domestic violence' and so came up. And then writing the article.
Andaiye was intimidating - the mythology of her political activism against Forbes Burnham and the PNC regime of the 1970s and 1980s, her blunt language , and the wit , sometimes caustic, and her Guyana middle class 'red people' presence. And so I was full of manners when I was around her.
In April 2003, Red Thread and others did a 24 hour vigil outside the then Office of the President. Criminals had kidnapped and murdered a child , Joshua Bell , and left the body in a suitcase near the seawall.
I stayed one night with Andaiye and Vanda Radzik , an Easter Sunday night. All night I kept thinking to myself if these women were not fed up, that they were keeping vigil decades after they were dealing with Burnham for the same stupid country.
In 2019, this week, bandits held a five year old boy and his father hostage. Police killed the hostage takers, one of whom would have been 9 years old in 2003.
Andaiye is one of my teachers on gender and social justice. She used to tell me that I should keep writing the letters about alcohol ; and about beating children.
In 2011, the then Minister of Human Services Priya Manickchand organised an event for women called Feminition.
The Minister got sponsors from alcohol companies. Help & Shelter was invited to be a part of the event. I was horrified that the Government did not see the link between alcohol and the experience of violence.
I resigned from Help & Shelter when the members of Help & Shelter voted to remain a part of the event even though they understand the problems of alcohol and domestic violence.
Andaiye in a comment to me told me to make sure I am okay, and that I understand any regrets.
Andaiye wrote a letter, that even though supporting my views that Feminition should be alcohol free.
The letter was important because I thought I had made a mistake in challenging the alcohol culture of the government.
Life changed for me soon after as I reduced the activities, and became inconsistent.
The last time I saw Andaiye was at Courtney Crum Ewing's funeral in 2015. The last email exchange was in August 2018.
The librarians in the Reference Section at the National Library are nice. It is Saturday morning, the morning after Andaiye died. I am the the only person.
I come to the library to find the article Andaiye had asked me to write. I have forgotten the date, and year of the article. I ask them for the bound copies of the last quarter of 1997, and all of 1998.
My mind in being consumed with present personal circumstances , has had to shelve the past. I can't spend much time at the library as I have to do other chores and rush home back.
"We have sanitiser.. ' one of the staff tells me as she wipes the dust from the bound newspapers
Fortunately, the article is in the first bound set. I am looking for the column Andaiye did from 1997 to 2000 - Woman's-eye View. I page through , passing the political advertisements of the day leading to the elections leading to the January 1998 racial violence. The same kind of advertisements which will soon come.
Andaiye is writing in between the elections madness - social justice, Haiti, sexual harassment, breast cancer.
The week after my article , Andaiye wrote an Open Letter to Young People.
I read it in parts, thinking that soon I would be the age at which Andaiye had written that letter.
I explain to the library staff that a woman who used to write in the Stabroek News has died. They look at me with some sympathy as they recognise water in my eyes.
Water in my eyes not so much for the loss of Andaiye, but for the loss of the good that Guyana might have been.
I feel that I should probably explain to the young librarians who I am talking about. Show them the letter to young people. But I am in a hurry, have to head home.
But here is the letter, transcribed roughly. (Sunday Stabroek, November 30, 1997)
" I have been thinking a lot recently about what I would do if I were a young person in today's Guyana. I thought about it some more a few weeks ago when I was asked, along with people who belong to other political parties, to talk to a youth conference about “empowering youth".
As I said at the start of my talk to that conference, if you want to talk about "empowering" any group of people, it is because you believe or know that something is taking power away from that group. So the young people at the conference who decided on the topic of "empowering youth" were young peopel who believe or know that something is getting in their way.
For me, then, the first question is, what are the factors that stop young people in Guyana today from developing or useing their power. I want to begin my contribution to answering that question by talking about what, in my generation, robbed us of power.
When I was a child, Guyana was still a British colony. In those days, many things conspired to rob young people of power
1. For many youth, one thing was the effects of poverty. This doesn't mean that poor people are without power; it means that poverty can have the effect of disempowering you. For example, in my generation, being poor meant that you didn't go to secondary school or university except if you got a schoalrship. since secondary school and univeristy (university being overseas) weren't free.
Or it could mean irregular attendance at school because you had to help look after the younger children at home, or help your parent with work on the small family farm.
2. For most youth, a second factor was how attitudes to race and gender (this last one means how people are treated as males or females) could make you feel inferior; girls were often treated as less important than boys and then too, were subjected to a kind of sexual disrespect and violence; and certain race groups were treated as lower than other race groups because of skin colour and hair or how much education you had or how you spoke English or whether you wore "correct" clothes - and the further away you were in skin colour and air and speech and clothes from the English, the more inferior you were. I was well into my adult years before I realised that in the world of my youth, the majority of people in Guyana had been made to feel bad about themselves.
3. For almost everybody, a third factor was the widespread teaching that people stay in their place; in school and in the Christian church we used to sing a hymn that said "The rich man in his castle/The poor man at his gate/God made them high and lowly/And ordered their estate".
This was a belief system that in the first place, was meant to tell poor people to stay in their place; but it also told all us to stay in the place that our race or sex placed us in, and it told us that we could never be citizens of an independent Guyana.
4. For all of us, a fourth that thing that disempowered us was the attitude that children should be seen and not heard, that children had no rights, if parents and teachers spared the rod they would spoil the child, so that licks at home and school were an essential part or raising us to be good.
As you read this, you can see form your own experiences that some of these things have changed, and some are still true.
And the thing you have to do is to work out for yourselves, what the the things, old and new, that need to change for you to grow powerful.
When I was a child and a teenager, there were also somethings that helped us. One thing was, that although home and school and place of worship taught us to know our place, in another way they helped us out of our place.
If many in my generation couldn't go to secondary school or university, at least primary school provided a good basic education And education, in those days, could offer you a way to a better life.
I hated a lot of things about the Guyana in which I grew up, so I am not romanticising when I say that in spite of all that was wrong with it, it was as a child in that Guyana that I learned you could change your place.
And one important reason was, that i grew up when men and women whom you came to know only as belonging to this party or that party, or this race or that race, joined together when they themselves were still young people in their twenties, to show that '"ordinary" people could transform their world.
That we didn't have to be a colony. That people, poor and some not poor, women and men, from the
races that were despised, could organise together and refuse to stay in their place.
But the youth of my generation and the generation around mine have turned into adults who have offered you a poor example.
Who else but us allowed Guyana to become either by our actions or inactions - a place that gives you less than we had?
And yet you have to stop allowing us to be an obstacle in your path. You cannot change Guyana into the place it should beif like too many of us who are adults, you continue to organise yourselves, when you organise yourselves at all, only as part of this party or that or this race or that. (I cannot remember the last time I was invited to speak to a meeting of young people when the young people in the room represented all - or even most - of the young people in the country.)
There really is nothing more empowering to you than that. It means that in spite of all you have in common as young people - the problems and the strengths and the interests and the visions for the future - you who are majority in Guyana treat yourselves and allow yourselves to be treated like a host of separate minorities.
And this is almost the beginning of your century, which will be in a world that is developing out of the world my gnereation made, but which is so different form mine and which you have to make work for you and for Guyana.
Sometime soon, some of you have to try walk across the divisions between you and join yourselves together to become the power you can be.
Only then, whichever party or other group you belong to, can you work out your demands (not your requests) as young people, work out how you will make them happen, and make them happen.