I’ve been silent you say?

Over the past few months, people have been asking me about my silence. I didn’t realize I was silent but apparently there is consensus. It has gotten to the point where a lot of conversations result in the question, “Are you still writing?”

There seems to be a lot of curiosity as to why I am no longer “causing trouble,” and within these questions hides the unasked one, “Do you no longer care about crisis (A) through (Z)?”

I really had to sit with this for a bit because I did begin to feel as if I was not being as vocal as I “should” be. This guilt came despite being intimately aware of the reasons I did take a break (stop?) from punching out hot takes on social media. Like damn, can I not just chill??? Sometimes a girl just wanna share some memes and act a fool, ya feel me?

Is truly my favorite thing to do.

But when you are involved in advocacy work, particularly in spaces this small, there is an expectation that you must dedicate all your time and efforts towards it. Doing otherwise makes people uncomfortable. Certainly, having the ability to take a few steps back is a privilege as that option is not available to many, but there is power in prioritizing your own care and protecting yourself from burnout.

The thing is, I have not stopped writing. I have not stopped creating. I am still doing the same things and commenting on the same set of issues that I always have. I realized that it wasn’t that I was silent, it was just that people were no longer seeing me as that angry Black woman (for those that consider me Black, heh) and that man-hating feminist. (Both are labels that I greatly embrace, because let’s face it, misandry is fun and ridiculing overt and covert racists has its high points). I don’t know man, this work requires patience and I don’t have much patience where ignorance is concerned, so there’s also that.

And sometimes you does just ga tell people to fuck out.

In this myopically stagnant society, way too many people expect you to spoon-feed and bear the brunt of social justice labour for them. Not only is it selfish, it also depletes a lot of energy from those whose lives are already surrounded by trauma and instability.

Seriously, how many times we really ga have these kiss me ass conversations about anti-Black racism within Guyana? How long before people stop viewing it as being divisive or as an American issue? How many times must we explain the ways in which toxic masculine culture impacts women and others?

It is tiring having to teach people and point out glaring truths that we are quite literally witnessing pon the daily, particularly when they are resistant to understanding and constantly try to abuse and gaslight you. (We get that you daft buddae but owww)

Live footage of trying to talk to Guyanese about anti-Black racism and misogynoir

For those who are committed to social justice, you can quickly begin to feel dehumanized by the pressures of being constantly seen, heard and actively silenced. There is always an expectation for perfection and adherence to the ideals others set out for you. The reality is though, the perfect activist does not exist. Unfortunately, too many do this work from a place of ego and unaddressed trauma and have no intentions of healing and being accountable. This contributes towards a lot of harmful in-movement and community conflict that thrives on the culture of martyrdom inherent in social justice spaces. I don’t want to be a martyr for the causes I support. No me gusta. Me no like it there.

I am at a stage where I am beginning to reclaim my energy. I have begun actively disconnecting my self-esteem and identity from my work. In doing that I realized I could contribute towards the things I cared about in a more healthy and sustainable way. I want to learn how to write for me again – not because of expectations or fear – but because I want to. I do not want to do anything from a place of trauma and ego. In everything I do, I want it to be from a place of strength, understanding and genuine curiosity.

Ethnic solidarity and political power

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When analyzing Guyana’s curious politics and the ethnic relations between Indo and Afro Guyanese, there are some things in our history that we need to consider. Any attempt at an analysis that begins at our march for sovereignty and democracy is ignorant/dismissive of the intricacies of our history. We need to acknowledge how race was weaponized by the colonial state to break the possibility of a united afro/indo class/labour struggle against the plantation system, as our struggle today is still rooted in this.

There are those who don’t understand the dominant role ethnic insecurity plays in our historical and current political impasse. They use the mythical veneer of multi-ethnic party unity to claim that ethnic based politics is gone and now there only exists a political struggle for power.

It must be noted that our politicians did not create our racial/class divisions, but from the beginning they have fed and strengthened it, even now. Our ethnic political premiers Cheddi and Burnham would solidify ethnic rule and create distinct narratives for their individual support bases. Their legacies of racially polarized and consolidated power would become cemented and remains even today. But let me circle back on the point of the colonial state a bit…

It is well understood that class is a barrier to group cohesion due to unequal distribution of wealth/power but class has also become intricately tied with ethnicity/race due to colonial divide and rule tactics and cementing of ethnic power domination by those whose legacies still haunt us. As two minority groups in the colonial context, should the newly freed Africans and the newly arrived Indentured servants join together, it would mean an overpowering of white power and rule.

But the colonial state, well skilled in the art of divide and conquer, would use various tactics to instill fear, mistrust and hate. Indians were taught that Africans were lazy and untrustworthy and Africans were taught Indians were conniving and clannish. A lot of this was easily spread due the ethnic/cultural differences of Africans and Indians that saw them regarding each other as strange…

To add, the Indo population replaced the freed slaves not because ex-slaves no longer wanted to work on the plantations, but because they began collective bargaining and demanding higher wages than plantations wanted to pay. So the arrival of the Indo population undercut Afro labour power and fostered resentment. So from the beginning, there were stereotypical/ethnic/economic divisions that prevented them from forming a class alliance.

Given the different systems under which the two major groups came (Enslavement/Indentureship) the different benefits they received from the colonial state also fostered fierce class divisions that became ethnicised and strengthened. Land was a big source of contention as Indians were given land by the colonial state so they did not have to spend as much on repatriating them. Repatriation and monies given etc. were also a source of contention. Coupled with the ethnic mistrust, this would cement ethnicized conflict and thoughts as the main reason for the division, without acknowledgement of the unequal power/resources the two groups possessed.

Circling back to Cheddi and Burnham now – In understanding that class would be ineffective in gaining a large base, politicians would utilize race to enchant large voting blocs. Class solidarity ideology at this point served more as a Band-Aid holding together a multi-ethnic group rather than any driving force behind it. With the splintering of this brief interracial unification, the idea of ethnic political dominance and control was solidified as an ideology between the two groups. Rigging of elections would be and is still used to maintain this grasp on power and would further cause divide amongst ethnic lines.

The brief instances of cross-ethnic solidarity between Afros and Indos during the periods of (1920-1940s and onwards to 2011 to 2015) have splintered not only due to political corruption, rigging and mismanagement, but is also driven by our ethnicised economy and systems of governance. Similarly, in countries such as Trinidad, we see how despite brief cooperation between the two ethnic groups, this was always followed by increased separation amongst racial lines. It’s almost as if you know, race and power has become intricately tied in postcolonial multi-ethnic societies such as Guyana and Trinidad…

Something that must be acknowledged is that despite the PNC being an afro dominated government, (1964-1992) this did not necessarily equate to increased wealth and power for afros. Under the PPP/C indo dominated government however, indos benefited and prospered due to centralized ethnic power of the state, leaving many afro-Guyanese cut off economically with only a few able to benefit. This ownership of the economy and indo-dominated rule would marginalized afros further and solidify them as a minority group.

In refusing to analyze our historical insecurities that led to our current political impasse, we are blinding ourselves to how ethnic dominance politics is the one responsible for our repetitive problems. How do we transcend ethnicity when our politics are driven by it? How do we ensure racial justice without questioning racist power systems and structures? How do we move on when limited resources are still divided along racial lines?

I am very suspicious of those who ask us to move on from our ethnic/racial history because it no longer impacts us, or those who adopt a color blind approach to our nation’s political problems and solutions. Classicism and the ruling class are the root of the problem they say – yes, well acknowledged – but classicism and racism is intricately tied together due to ethno-driven systems of power that have formed and persisted.

Politicians will for as long as we allow them continue to promote racial ideas and narratives to gain political mileage and we should always be careful when listening to elites speak of our race issues. However, this does not mean that our ethnic insecurity should not be thoroughly discussed and analyzed. It is our long held refusal to seriously discuss race and the tensions amongst us that has seen us relying on the same well-worn narratives not grounded in history or current systems of power.

Women’s Right to Reproductive Healthcare

Speech on women’s right to reproductive health care, delivered at the Caribbean Forum on Population, Youth and Development 2018.

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Greetings all. Let’s gyaff about access to information, access to services and the inequalities that exists in the distribution of these as it relates to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Information has the ability to shape narratives and narratives have the ability to shape culture. So, when it comes to providing information, it is important that we get it right. One of the things affecting many Caribbean countries is the high rate of adolescent pregnancy. Yet, with very few notable exceptions, the Caribbean remains a place that is resistant to comprehensive sexual education due to miseducation, religious fundamentalism and political interests.

Currently, Guyana has the Health & Family Life program, which includes sexual education. Unfortunately, this program does not exist in a majority of schools and most glaringly, it takes an abstinence only approach and is often very useless in explaining issues of consent, body, abuse and is not inclusive of varying sexualities and gender identities. Abstinence only approaches do not prepare young people for the world.

I became a mother at 16, a lot later than many of my friends I went to school with. We became sexually active and later pregnant, not because we were “force ripe” as we would say in Guyanese parlance, but because we did not have access to information on our changing bodies due to abstinence only sex education programs or the complete absence of them.

We were expected to know what to do or what not to do. At every point, we were reminded that the beginning of a pregnancy meant an end of opportunities – but yet no one thought it important for us to talk about sex because of fears that talking about something somehow encourages it. I honestly do not understand that misguided line of thinking. As my friend Andaiye would say, give me a confounded chance.

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For many of us who got pregnant, many of our educational, economic, social and political opportunities and dreams did end. The more privileged of us were able to reintegrate into private school. There was no school reintegration policy as is currently being worked on by the Ministry of Education and the Guyana Equality Forum, most notably the Guyana Responsible Parenthood Association and the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination.

There have been adjustments over the years to the HFLE program, but it is still lacking and even in the most progressive of schools, falls short of touching on contraception and abortion care. We have 20-year-old mothers with three children, all different ages because they do not have information on family planning. When we speak of inter-generational poverty and breaking the cycle of repeat pregnancies in young mothers, we must examine the role in-access to reproductive services plays in perpetuating a cycle of unequal gender balance relations and economic inequalities, particularly in rural communities.

While abortion has been legal in Guyana since the passing of the 1995 Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill, we continue to have abortion related complications and deaths because neither information nor services are readily available. Making these inaccessible is a tactic used by the Right to hinder women’s access to reproductive healthcare. It is just one in many ways that religious fundamentalists seek to infringe on women’s rights and bodily autonomy. This often results in women choosing to either take matters into their own hands, or going to a “bottom-house clinic” to have the procedure done.

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There are too many cases of women gaining injuries, becoming sterile and even dying as a result of botched abortions. This was seen in 2012 in the case of 19-year-old Karen Badal who died at the hands of a hack doctor and more recently in 2016, a young woman who injected her stomach with a poisonous substance – from which she died – because she was pregnant and did not want to be.

The stigma associated with abortion in most societies such as Guyana, remains a hindering factor for women getting rid of unwanted pregnancies, even if they are able to. This stigma has been fostered over several generations, aided on by our deep religious values that we were pounded in to us from years of colonialist teachings and writings.

We do not need long failed approaches; we need ones supported by facts and not beliefs. We need politicians who care less about political interests and power and more about ensuring we have a safe and well-informed populace. As we’ve covered and proven many times already, not talking about sex and reproductive health can be dangerous. Not being able to access it can be even more so.

That is why we as advocates and movement builders should demand more and hold our leaders accountable. We have way too many spaces such as these filled with bureaucracy and inefficiency under the guise of being apolitical and separate. We need to become more radical in our approach, we have way too many policies and bodies but very little implementation. It is time that cycle stops. Leaders, you cannot keep asking to hear our voices and then silence us when we speak.

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Empowerment: More than a buzzword

 

 

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BRAND YOUth is a series of events by “Conversations With Selwyn” that aims to empower the youth of Guyana. The first event was titled “Emerging through Generations.” It was hosted by Sherry Ann Dixon, a Guyanese born author, communication specialist, International award-winning entrepreneur and life coach.

As a part of the event, I was asked to say a speech. This was my contribution with minor edits for clarity. 

Over the past few years, “Empowerment” is a word that has become increasingly present in our politics, books and television screens. It has slithered into the worlds of advertising and consumerist culture. Finally, finally…us women and girls were being represented positively and we were bearing witness to it.

But therein laid one of the fundamental problems. We were bearing witness yes, but how many of us were actually being empowered? With increasing popularity around women’s liberation, several elements of feminism have been incorporated into popular culture and political movements.

The ideas of liberty are shrunk, filtered, mass-produced and then promoted aggressively in the media. This is not done by mere coincidence, there is vested interest in ensuring women’s movements never move past catchy sound bites and hashtags.

The word over time, began to leave a bitter taste in my mouth. I was not quite sure why. Maybe, it had something to do with how corporations touting empowerment in one product, pandered to blatant sexism in another. Maybe it had to do with how women meant to represent the very concept of empowerment, upheld the patriarchal systems in which women were continuously disadvantaged- Or, maybe it was how political women are discarded or stifled when their voices become a little too loud, a little too strong.

Maybe, it had to do with the way in which the empowerment of women had become a snappy sound bite that has been capitalized upon- a buzzword whose meaning now stares back at us through depoliticized packages.

When women ascend to high positions of power, they call it empowerment- a win for feminism- a true mark of progress and how far we’ve come. Too many of these women however, are more concerned with their own ascendency, agendas and pledged political loyalties. Often, as we have seen both at home and abroad, they act in direct contradiction to the catch phrases they offer to the public.

Just note how former Minister of Social Protection, Volda Lawrence failed women and children by going to the defense of an accused sexual molester during her first year in office. She labeled the allegations as a “family matter.” Just recall how no big hoorah from women in leadership was made when- with no sense of irony- alleged child molester Kwame McKoy was appointed to the Rights of the Child Commission.

Yet, everywhere I look, I see statements that we as a collective whole are now empowered. They say there is no need for feminism. We working now, ent? We cannot be sold for three cows and some strips of nice cloth, ent? Things not as bad as it was before, ent? We does get government aid, foreign aid, all kinds of aid. We does get skills training and equal access to everything, we have so much freedom and autonomy that we’re even in charge of our own bodies, ent? What more we want?

The conditions of women have drastically improved over the last few decades. The things that I am theoretically able to do now would not have been even remotely possible had I been born in a different period.

The progress we have seen however has been anything but holistic. Significant barriers in the home, education system, justice system, business and health sector still see women being held back. Our bodies and sexuality are monitored to the point where it is often necessary to ask, “Is who body is this, man?” Progress should not make us complacent to the significant inequalities that still exist in the systems around us.

Paid domestic work- economic opportunities- educational programs- safe and easily accessible abortion services- political power and mobilization. These are just a few of the things that will truly serve to empower women.

When I say empower, I mean it in the truest, harshest, most political sense of the word because we’ve had enough shiny packages that did not take into account, the multiple ways in which women regardless of race, class and sexuality, are still being marginalized- often through the backing of the state.

When we think about empowerment, we should not think of it solely in terms of the glossed magazine images of our few female leaders- we should recognize that while things such as economic participation is good, participation is not empowerment. Way too often, participation is in direct opposition to it.

Empowerment we should remember is about-sustained resistance and progress at every level- it is not tokenism and buzzwords.

 

Color Blindness & Racism Without Racists: A privileged ideology

 

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I am a privileged person. My entire life, I have been provided with economic, educational, familial and other forms of social security. Even if I did not want them, they were available should I change my mind. I was not always aware of the ways in which I was privileged and at a certain point, I would have argued that I was not. You see, when you’re a light skinned, educated person belonging to a certain race or class, doors will inevitably open for you. Due to the ease with which I could have moved through certain spaces, I assumed the same opportunities afforded to me were the same ones afforded to everyone else.

Plagued with a violent history of the commoditization of black bodies and the willful separation and breeding of mistrust between the races by colonizers, the Guyanese experience and its politics has always been firmly rooted in race and oppression. We have sought many ways in which to address our problems with race. The one thing we have not put enough emphasis on is the discussion of race itself and how social systems are designed to upkeep racial divisions.

Instead, we have sought to popularize the concept of “Color-Blindness,” which posits that everyone should be treated equally, regardless of their race. It asks you to promote the individual, rather than a social group.

At face value, the ideology of colorblindness seems to be worth its salt even in its idealism. Upon closer inspection however, the arguments for it quickly fall apart. How do we even begin to achieve a “post-racial” society without first dismantling the systems of oppression racial minorities are still subjected to?

Color-blindness is a frequently touted half-measure that is largely insufficient to heal racial wounds. It is akin to throwing a wet blanket over racism and pretending it does not exist. This perspective usually comes from those who lack awareness of their own racial and economic privilege. These are the ones who are usually out of touch with the everyday man. It is an ideology grounded in ignorance.

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Not talking about race is never an ideal we should strive for. Instead, it will do us all some good to become more conscious of race and how our privilege can be stymieing the conversation on it. Color-blindness can also fall victim to the rejection and invalidation of cultural heritages and unique experiences. Race affects not only the perceptions one has when they look at you but also the opportunities that may be available to one throughout their lives. Suppression of race conversations can often leave people’s feelings of internalized racism to be exacerbated. With every mention of race, people become uncomfortable and the conversation is switched. Raw honest conversations are intrinsic to the healing of racial wounds. One cannot come without our active interest in the other. Relying on a color-blind approach that individualizes conflicts pertaining to race rather than addressing systemic discriminatory practices is not something that is in the best interests of racial minorities. But we knew this already, don’t we?

The truth is, racism has taught us to attribute certain social values to persons based on their physical characteristics. Colorblind ideology is one that effectively helps to reinforce the existing systems of inequality while appearing as if they are dismantling them. Things such as institutional racism and discrimination are disregarded as concepts and replaced by statements of equal opportunity. Effectively, the privileged touting arguments for color-blindness continue benefiting from systems of oppression that validate them, yet tout themselves as progressive. We must reject this. We must reject those who tout it- particularly if they have no interest in seeing the limits of their viewpoints.

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When marginalized stories are suppressed, it is not the discriminated against who benefit, but rather those who are already profiting from a system built on the back of racial and ethnic oppression. What this ideology does is allow the privileged to comfortably tell themselves that their successful socio-economic status in relation to minorities is through their individual work, savings and educational attainment. This removes any suggestion of racial supremacy while simultaneously legitimizing the structures that surround it.

Being blind to dominant social realities is not the same as being fair. Let us take a look at the example of “Lady Justice,” who is often symbolized as being blindfolded. The blindfold is used to symbolize the long aimed for impartiality of the justice system that pursues justice regardless of one’s racial, social, and economical and class status. Yet, there are a disproportionate number of poor, black people languishing in the prison system while their rich, racially acceptable Indo counterparts are allowed avenues to avoid justice.

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The privileged have the benefit of promotion of the individual because they live in a society that validates them. Racism is a powerful social system based upon economic interests, so of course it is easy for the rich to tell you that economic factors and skin color are not factors in your systematically hindered progression. It is easy for us to quote statistics on the racial economic disparities in education, economics, health and the prison system but no one ever really wants to talk about the racial experiences that contribute to the statistics.

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We can’t put a muzzle on race conversations because it is uncomfortable, we need to create an environment where these stories are heard and addressed. If you can’t find such an environment then create it and encourage others to create it too. While it is good to strive for ideals, it is not always the best strategy even if you feel that you are not contributing to the inequality. Refusing to talk about a powerful social reality does not make it disappear and I may be wrong but whenever I hear the narrative that race no longer matters, I automatically think they are saying that minorities now have equal rights, treatment and opportunities when that is not the case.

Racial inequality is upheld in basically every social strata and sphere. From segregation to biased hiring and loan approval practices- discrimination persists. Color-blindness does nothing but protect people from ‘having to have difficult conversations about race. If our goal is a future in which the long strived for equality is seen, our solutions should not seek to erase powerful social realities that affect our everyday lives. If you cannot see the privilege intrinsic in color-blind approaches, it might be time evaluate the ways in which you are stymieing the conversations on race.

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Let us strive to see the beauty in color. Let us strive to address the inequalities amongst the colored. Pretending it does not exist is not an option- unless of course you are actually color-blind.

Oil and Bad Politics: Part 1

During the days leading up to the end of 2017, the APNU-AFC coalition government revealed the long asked for Petroleum Agreement between oil giant, ExxonMobil and Guyana. While it is undoubtedly a great win for transparency, we should be careful not to hail them as heroes for something that should have been revealed to the Guyanese public a long time ago. It was journalists, Civil Societies and individuals- all demanding the release of the contract that saw it being made public. This should serve as a good lesson in the civic responsibility of the people in demanding better from their leaders.

When it comes to powerful oil companies and their interest in countries with poor governance and high poverty rates, blind idealism with regards to their interests will do us no good. We only have to take a look at the examples of how other countries such as Chad, Nigeria and Papa New Guinea, have fared with regards to extremely heightened economic instability, social conflict and human rights violations following the discovery of oil. One of the many things these countries have in common is their predator-prey relationship with ExxonMobil.

Kaieteur News had in June 2017 began a series of articles titled, “What Guyana needs to know about ExxonMobil.” The series explored ExxonMobil’s blatant disregard for the countries in which they have oil interests. With a long thread of litigation suits aimed towards Exxon for their disregard of environmental protection, deceiving of shareholders and the underpayment of royalties, one can see a clear pattern of abuse that the government does not seem to care about.

ExxonMobil is currently being probed by the US Securities and Exchange Commission regarding the way in which they valued oil and gas “in the backdrop of low oil prices and possible curbs on carbon emissions.” Over the years, they have engaged in the active funding of climate change denials despite being aware of the connection between “the burning of fossil fuels and climate change”. Aside from funding climate change denials, Exxon, also had a lawsuit brought against them for committing human rights violations in Indonesia where they have oil operations.

They have had several major oil spills, caused by ruptured pipelines, and those have caused lasting effects on the ecosystems. Exxon was also responsible for one of the largest oil spills in the United States of America. After a ship’s hull was torn, 11 million gallons of oil was released into the environment. Up to this day, oil still remains in the areas where it was spilt; and plant, land and marine life are still being affected. That reality, matched with the fact that Guyana’s Environmental Protection Agency currently does not have the capacity to enforce environmental regulations in the oil and gas sector nor monitor compliance with environmental regulations of the state, spells disaster for the future of our “green state.”

 

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Oil and bad politics too often tend to go hand in hand. Given that taxation meant to create fiscal revenues is not necessarily needed in oil rich countries, leaders can choose whether or not the concepts of transparency and accountability are ones they abide by.

In the interest of ensuring oil wealth is managed properly, many oil rich countries have created Sovereign Wealth Funds. Too often however, these crumble due to human failings in the form of corruption, malfeasance and bad investments. Minister of Finance, Winston Jordan was reported in the media as stating that Cabinet approval has been given for the fund to be used “for three specific purposes.” These are: intergenerational savings, stabilization of the fund and infrastructural development. We’ll see how that goes.

While extractive industries such as oil, gas and mining help in the economic growth of a country, significant thought must always be given to the vast number of negatives associated with them. It is interesting to note that the Norwegians had late last year disclosed that they were considering divestment from holdings in fossil fuel companies. With $5 trillion in assets, the Norway Sovereign Fund is one of the largest holdings so far to consider divestment. Despite the remarkable economic success gained from the oil industry, this poised considering suggests that they do not have a lot of faith in oil’s future and are seeking alternatives. Norway’s own oil giant, Statoil has through the building of large offshore wind-energy projects, begun to diversify its holdings.

Guyana’s leaders should take a page out of Norway’s book and begin securing our future in things other than extractive industries. Dr. Justin Ram of the Caribbean Development Bank had in 2011 advised that Guyana should not rely on its natural resources based products. “…Concentration of the extractive industries such as agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining and quarrying focus on low value added, natural resource based products for export and leave the country vulnerable to “Dutch disease,” he had said. The Dutch Disease refers to the negative effects of anything that provides a sharp rise in foreign currency.

Guyana, like many resource rich countries do not put as much efforts into the area of sustainable growth strategies. Money earned from extractive industries should be reinvested so as to ensure the economy remains stable and not wholly reliant upon them. Extractive resources are limited and prone to frequent fluctuation. As such, we need to be sure that we have other options when they eventually fail us.

Trickle-Down Feminism

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Guyanese leg of the Life in Leggings Caribbean march which happened on March 11, 2017.

The best thing about being a writer is that I have documentation of everything I have written. The worst thing about being a writer is that I have documentation of everything I have written. It is useful in the sense that I am able to see growth from my previous work to now. But sometimes I would rather not have reminders of how misinformed and surface level a lot of my politics were.

Over the past year, I have done a lot of self-reflection regarding my beliefs on what I assumed to be critical feminist thought. I’ve come to accept my own previous ideations of feminism as vague and lacking of the intersectionality needed in a women’s movement. My ideas previously centered on the missive of “equality of the sexes” and concerns of equal pay. This sort of feminism does very little to reimagine women’s role in the world. It is more concerned about the privileged few that will be able to ascend while marginalized sub-groups such as colored and queer women are told that they just need to work harder to achieve the same things as privileged women.

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This simplistic and singularity of thought is one that was challenged long ago by women of color, particularly black women. It was these radical thinkers that would galvanize a movement that did not believe that women should adjust themselves to the system, but rather- the entire system needed to be challenged, upturned and restructured. It was through women of color that we now have a feminism that resists not only the ideas that we are unequipped to stand on the same scale as men, but also combines and resists the struggles of class structures, racism and homo and transphobia, just to name a few. Why this was necessary was because, even though women were connected in their shared oppression, white and/or rich women were the ones who gained support from men. It was up to revolutionary colored women to reshape the way in which we discuss gender, class, sexuality and the interconnectedness of it all. This intersectional approach was in direct opposition to the ideals of the often-connected white, lite and neo-liberal feminism in which we are often fed sound bites of “empowerment” as if it is now a commodity. This sort of neo-liberal feminism is the belief that women in high positions will cause more women to achieve same- as if feminism thrives under a trickle down system rather than one that seeks to remove barriers for all women. At a quick glance, it seems as if all our problems as women will disappear if only we achieve equality with the men. If only we are allowed to ascend into positions of power. On closer inspection, most of these arguments remind me of a little sister begging her older brother and his friends for a chance to play on the big boys team. 005aa59d65d43c13d340894781c971e5

Because of the relevance and popularity around women’s liberation and equality, many elements of feminism have been incorporated into popular culture and political movements. The women filling these roles however are often more concerned with their own ascendency, agendas and pledged political loyalties. Often, as we have seen both at home and abroad, they act in direct contradiction to the catch phrases they offer to the public. Just note how former Minister of Social Protection, Volda Lawrence failed women and children by going to the defense of an accused sexual molester only last year and labelling the allegations as a “family matter.” Just recall how no big hoorah from women in leadership was made when – with no sense of irony – alleged child molester Kwame McKoy was appointed on the Rights of the Child Commission.

It would be too dismissive for me to label these women as just props of the establishment because this does a disservice to them. It assumes that they themselves are not capable of recognizing their role in the continued upholding of economic and social barriers for less privileged women. That idea just assumes that they are not making a conscious decision to encourage subjugation through silence, participation and timidity. To assume that of them would be relieving them of their role to not add to our collective struggles. We cannot call for the equality and protection of the sexes if we actively contribute to the culture of diminishing women’s experiences.

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All of these concepts are intersected to our experiences as women.

There is the belief that we no longer need feminism; that women’s place in the world has been improved and there is no more to do. It is important that we recognize the failings of neoliberal ideas concerning equality of the sexes because it is these very same ideas that have been used in arguments to keep us content with our lot. It reminds me of how capitalists use religion and the virtue of “hard work for success,” to ensure that inequality of the class system remains the same. The competitive nature of capitalism always ensures that there is oppression.

These pseudo-feminist ideas however, are then mass produced and promoted aggressively in the media. There are many names for it: white feminism, faux feminism, and lite feminism. This is not done by mere coincidence. There is vested interest in ensuring that women’s movements never move past catchy sound bites.

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To erase the concept of intersectionality is to erase the concept of protected humanistic freedoms and to disregard the need for solidarity amongst women. In a world that continuously tries to force us into little subsets of womanhood, it has never been a more important time to stand together.

 

On “Turning abuse to advocacy”

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Upon coming across Oluatoyin Alleyne’s weekly “Women’s Chronicles” in Stabroek News, I messaged her telling her how thankful I was that she was taking the time to share the stories of women. She asked me whether I’d be interested in being one of her subjects, I happily agreed. I have decided to post the Stabroek piece here since many persons do not have access to Stabroek articles. 

You can see the original article Here-

“About a year or two ago I actually started being vocal and stuff. Before I was just one of these persons who just didn’t care [you know] just living my life because I thought nothing really ever concerned me.”

At 21, Akola Thompson has lived through things that persons double her age are yet to experience. She has an active presence on social media and is a weekly columnist in the Guyana Chronicle. I was hesitant about speaking to her, but what won me over was the fact that she speaks openly on issues so many persons shy away from.

“When we had the issue with [Minister] Volda Lawrence and the councillor Winston Harding and when she labelled the [alleged] sex abuse case as being a family matter, it got me so angry. And I didn’t see a lot of people talking about it. Then I saw Red Thread was holding a protest and I contacted somebody and found out the time. I actually left one of my UG classes and I went and that is how it started,” she said in reference to her advocacy.

“After that I would kept in contact with certain people I would have met, and began going to events and so and that is how my political development started. I would go to events and have conversations with some of these older women and then you would begin to evaluate some of the beliefs and values you would have had.”
She speaks rapidly, sometimes with an intense facial expression.

“A lot of time when I speak on certain issues, I am very mean, and I would like – call people out; some folks don’t like that, but I know the reason behind why I do that,” she said about what some may describe as the abrasive manner in which she approaches persons.

I had intended to raise the matter with her, as even though I wanted her to control the narrative there were a few issues that needed clearing up.

“[You see] it was not so long ago that I myself held some of those same beliefs and if it wasn’t for people who called me out [I would have still been there] and they were very raw and being honest.

“We are not all born progressive, because we are shaped by society’s values so when you actively start to question some of these ideals, you have to unlearn some of the conditioning that goes into it.

“It wasn’t so long ago that I was moderately pro-life to abortion and now I am pro-abortion and the reason why I was pro-life because I was very misinformed. I was told abortion was wrong and that is what I grow up to believing until people started challenging me.”

At this point she switched the conversation, surprising even me.

“One of the reason I got so angry at the Volda Lawrence thing is because when I was about 13, I had moved with my father to Grenada. And you know daughters and fathers always have this attachment; I loved my father so much. I moved to Grenada and it began to feel weird after the first few days. I saw him looking at me funny and one night he came and started touching me and I started to cry and he stopped. And even though he would have apologised several times I could never really get back to that space I had before. I am always uncomfortable around him.”

There was obvious pain as she shared this experience but as I looked at her, I got the sense that she is good at masking.

I asked her how comfortable she was talking openly about her abuse not only with me, but with the public and if she wasn’t afraid of her father’s reaction.

“I shared it on the internet before…,” she said. “I wrote it and before I published it on my blog I went to my aunts [her father’s sisters] and even though they felt sorry there was this kind of victim blaming. I published it and since I have been able to publicly talk about it.

“After this, he sent me a text that said, ‘I heard that you are telling people that I molested you when you were younger but know I still love you.’

“In that text, it seemed that he was not accepting responsibility even though he would have apologised for it several times in the past.

“I sent him back a message telling him yes. After that I saw him about twice and he acted normal and we never talked about it again,” she said.

“I think people underestimate the importance of social spaces where you could share your experiences. Because a lot times you have stuff you have to talk about, or experiences and feelings that you feel only you alone are dealing with and when an opportunity opens now where you see people willing to hear your story that is important.”

She then, with a laugh, asked me whether I had any questions.

I said I had none, but then after second thoughts I did ask her again about her abrasive attitude and I threw in the term ‘cyber bulling.’

“People only see when I shoot down, but I have strong points on women’s issues and LGBT issues. I would go and ask questions and try to provide information and even after this they would still come with misguided views and that makes me angry,” her palms were folded into a fist as she spoke, anger maybe, or just intensity.

“I know it was only because of people challenging me that I was able to think about it and re-evaluate the points of view I had,” she continued.

“A lot of times people message me and say I am a young lady and should not be saying certain stuff…”

Like what? I asked. Before she answered, I questioned whether it was her penchant to use profanities on social media during her discussions.

“Yes, like cursing, and I am always talking about reproductive health and they don’t like that. I have never bought into the idea that women should be seen and not heard, even before my advocacy.”

I asked what her mother thought.

“I have never lived with my mother even though technically I lived with her, but she is always working. She has a business in the interior. I grew up with my grandparents. Since I was young we have always been close whenever we met up but there was never that space. And sometimes I wish she was around more, but she offers all the support that she can and I am very grateful,” she answered.

“I remember when my father would have molested me, the first person I told was my mother and immediately she would have sent a ticket for me to go home. It always meant so much to me that she never once doubted me.”

Akola is the only child for her mother, she has siblings by her father.

“My mother is still working, she will be coming home soon for Christmas.”

Akola is also a single parent.

“I have five-year-old daughter. I was a teenage mother; those were interesting times.

“When I got pregnant, my mother was such a big foundation she gave me the option of aborting or keeping the child and that was so important because I felt like I had a choice. A lot of times with young women, they are forced into abortion or to keep the child because of religious or morality reasons of their parents.

“I kept Athena and that experience was one of the reasons I am so vocal about women’s right and their rights to abortion. Because we keep monitoring women’s bodies, telling them that they need our permission to have abortion.”

She paused for a while and I took the opportunity to ask her why she described her pregnancy as interesting.

“You know, you are young and you think that it was the person. I ended up convincing my mother to go live with him and his family. I was 15, I gave birth at 16.

“I was living with him and his family and after a while he started hitting me. He hit me in front of his family. And sometimes they would say stop but would not make an active duty to stop him and it would continue. Eventually it got so bad and I decided it was enough. We were sleeping over at one of his family, I can’t remember what the incident was, but he wrapped a belt around my throat and started choking me. The family members started shouting for him to stop. After he fell asleep I packed my bag and took my baby and left while everybody was sleeping.

“I never went back. He would try to come around, call my family and they themselves, not my mother, would try to tell me to go back but I never went back, and I have never regretted that decision.”

I expressed the opinion that she has experienced much in her short life time. She laughed, throwing back her head with what she called her “navy blue” dyed hair. I did not join in the laughter because there were myriad thoughts going through my mind; I wondered if her experiences were not too much for her tiny shoulders.

“Yeah, I know people get so surprised when I tell them I am 21 and they would say ‘wow I thought you were older.’

“While I would have not wanted to go through certain things, I think certain experiences shape who you are as a person.

“Everybody have their own experience that would hinder parts of their social development, but I feel like when you have certain experiences you are in a better position to understand and relate to the experiences of others,” she said.

“I feel like all of those experiences are connected to my advocacy, because I am not sure if I had not had those experiences that I would have felt so strongly about abuse and that was actually one of the driving factors why I ended up joining that Red Thread protest.

“And it was out of that I began to develop myself more politically and challenged some of the ideas I had.”

 

 

 

A home of one’s own

“My view is, and my intention is, if I am going to relocate a squatter, I must be able to upgrade them in some way or the other. Upgrade their life.” – Minister in the Ministry of Communities, Valerie Patterson.

Patterson made that statement back in June 2017. She had revealed that the Central Housing and Planning Authority (CH&PA) were considering “constructing low cost houses to accommodate squatters” who were to be removed from the government reserves. Close to a week ago however, staffers of the CH&PA descended on the ‘A’ Field, Sophia reserves and demolished close to two-dozen structures. The demolition works were said to be in preparation for community development works under the US$30 million ‘Road Network Upgrade and Expansion Programme.’ Most of those affected have nowhere to go.

A Keno George photograph in Stabroek News showed a family, standing guard on their bridge. In order to save their home from being destroyed, they disassembled the bridge leading to their home. A grandmother, a mother, several young children, including a toddler, would have found themselves homeless had they not taken a stand. I applaud them.

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In the aftermath of the hurricanes that ravaged several Caribbean islands, President David Granger was quoted as saying that the government would offer land to persons from hurricane-affected islands. This at face value was a commendable offer. However, one begins to wonder whether Granger’s concern for the poor and the displaced runs thin when it comes to the actual people he was elected to serve.

The CH&PA were quoted as saying that they had advised persons who have never applied for Government Housing Solutions to lodge applications for a plot of land. While that is very good advice, what the CH&PA failed to take into consideration is the failings of the land allocation system within Guyana. Agatha Valentine, whose daughter and grandchildren were photographed on their bridge, stated that it has been over 20 years since her daughter has been trying to acquire a plot of land. For many, acquiring land is not a possibility. Even if they do acquire land, they have no access to building loans.

Caroline Shenaz Hossein in a study conducted in Guyana titled, “The Exclusion of Afro-Guyanese Hucksters in Micro-Banking,” explored the systemic reasons behind the difficulties Afro-Guyanese face in getting home loans through conventional banking and other financial services. In the paper, she argues, “micro-banking managers and staff hold onto historically-rooted prejudices which interfere with the allocation of loans.” Race, she found, was one of the main issues that stymied the progress of many afro-Guyanese from getting building loans. “Issues of race, class and gender bias intertwined in the lending process that deny poor Afro-Guyanese women loans,” she wrote.

No one wants to live in a shantytown. No one wakes up in the morning and goes, ‘Oh, I will go squat in an impoverished community with little or no means for my further ascension and make my life there.’ No one wants to have to defend their home by dismantling their bridges. For many, it was a choice between facing the ire of the CH&PA or sleeping on pavements. In a similar situation, I too would have squatted.

Imagine yourself as a child, returning from school to a destroyed home and a family broken by grief. Imagine the implications this has on the future of your mental, physical and economic health. The children of Stephan Forde did not deserve to have had their homes ripped from them. Then there is Fitzroy Blair who pleaded with CH&PA to give him two more days. He was given more time yes, but the reason for him being there in the first place should not be overlooked. He had to resort to squatting not because he was ‘lazy,’ but because of the economic violence that was meted out against him. Due to his landlord raising his rent, Blair would have had to move, as he could no longer afford to pay.

Poverty is cyclical. The government and bodies such as the CH&PA are implicit in this cycle through their policies and actions. Finance loaners and home renters are involved in perpetuating this poverty. The messages sent to us through these policies, rising rents and demolished houses tell us that you do not care for the disenfranchised. Bureaucracy and the government’s hatred for poor people will be the fall of this nation. The callousness with which they deal with us tells us a lot about the way in which our country will either progress or stagnate. Stop punishing poor people for being poor.

The caricatured woman

I’m going to start off with some interconnected questions that I want you to think about for a few seconds. What does the term “letting yourself go” mean as it relates to the context of women after marriage and childbirth? What does it mean when men tell women that not because they might have birthed a child or married someone that they should not stop ‘dabbling around in makeup and treating themselves to shopping therapy?’ What constitutes our self and is that self tethered to materialism and aesthetics? Finally, what does it mean to be a woman in Guyanese society and how are we challenging or upholding the caricatures of womanhood set out for us?

As women, it is more than likely that many of us would have at some point in our lives been told that we are letting ourselves go, particularly when we begin tending to more traditional duties that exist within domestic life. The phrase is meant to tell a woman that by society’s dominant definition of how she should look, she is falling significantly far from the bar that was set for her.

We have come a long way in demolishing the set ideals of womanhood and the roles we are expected to play in the home and society but the work is far from done. This was seen when government propagandist and sexist apologizer, Gordon Moseley felt the need to tell women, particularly married women and mothers, that they should stop letting themselves go.

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He claimed that he was “seeing way too many women letting themselves go after marriage or a child,” and urged them to “still dress and look good.” What that post and the comments stemming from it revealed, is a truth that has long been known, both men and women are complicit in the sexism that is perpetuated within society.

When he was called out for this sexist rhetoric, he claimed that the point of the post was being misunderstood and that those who objected were mere attention seekers. No one is saying that you cannot offer advice on things, even if you yourself are in no fit position to offer that advice. When one insinuates however, that a woman cannot truly be considered a woman if she does not fit certain ideals, then whatever good intentions one might have had has now been replaced by the insidious sexism ingrained within your psyche.

It might not have been his intent to belittle women for not conforming to beauty standards, but in a way, that makes it worse for me. It is men like this who feel they are ‘looking out’ for women but are in fact just apologizers for sexism who are a threat. They are so invested in the idea that they are doing good that they refuse to see how problematic their rhetoric and actions are and how it perpetuates harmful notions.

When he realized that persons refused to allow his sexism to pass, his line of defense began to run something like this, ‘Oprah said it, so can I.’ The piece he references does talk about women taking care of themselves yes, but Moseley’s context is entirely different, whether he meant it to be or not. The piece on which he so religiously bases his defense on does not insinuate that a woman’s worth or a woman taking care of herself is tantamount to wearing makeup, getting her hair done or even spending money.

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Oprah’s main contention was that women should stop keeping themselves on the back burner. Firstly, Oprah is a woman using her platform to speak to women. Do not presume that you know enough about the struggles of the marginalized to tell them how they should be without taking in the structural and societal barriers to achieving those things.

Even if your intent is to encourage women to take better care of their selves, there is a way to do that. There is a way to tell women that they deserve to give themselves the same care and respect they might give to their families and loved ones. However, when that unasked for advice treads the ground of telling women to dress, go shopping and keep themselves “nicely groomed,” that is when I begin to question both your motives and intellectualism. When one is asked to ‘stay true to ourselves,’ is the only way to do that through defined gender aesthetics? I am a mother of one. On the surface, I have not entirely let myself go. But, I eat unhealthy, I never exercise and I don’t get enough sleep. These things are all very bad for me but no one tells me that I’m letting myself go because: One, I to some extent conforms to beauty standards. Two, anyone who knows me knows that they cannot tell me what sort of woman I should be and not be shot down for it because we as women are not here to satisfy the male gaze or to conform to ingrained ideas of femininity.

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