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MARCUS Garvey succinctly said, “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” This statement speaks a lot to who we are as a people and a nation, and where we want to go. Having a past, though thorny at times, cannot be run away from.As Guyanese mark this year with reflection, and gain knowledge of a past that has, in significant measure, shaped the 50th year of our independence, an area of interest is that of national naming. Naming is important, since it carries with it aspects of lived experiences and aspirations.
Historically, names have been ascribed to places based on experience or desire, pleasant and unpleasant. For instance, Buxton, a village bought by freed Africans, is named in honour of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, an English Member of Parliament who used his influence in the corridors of power to wage a vigourous campaign for the abolition of slavery. In an era when Africans were seen as subhuman and cargo to trade, use and dispose of at the whim of European ownership, Thomas stood apart in his denunciation of slavery and fight with likeminded persons to end a brutish system. Thus in reaming Plantation Orange Nassau to Buxton, former slaves were paying respect to a man whose influence aided their struggles for emancipation.
In the pursuit of freedom, naming honours those who have fought for it, and removes vestiges of those who suppressed man’s innate desire to be treated as equal and with dignity. Thus Murray Street, which was named after Demerara Lieutenant Governor John Murray (1813-1824), was renamed Quamina Street in honour of the slave who led the 1823 rebellion and was executed by his enslavers as a consequence of Murray’s watch.
As this nation evolves and necessary revisiting of our history takes place, it is understandable that in instances where honour is paid to those who participated in the dehumanisation of mankind there may be need, after the nation is made to understand the story behind the naming, to engage in acts of remaining. Such is understandable and justifiable in the process of building and strengthening nationhood. In the post-independence era, government has engaged in acts of ascribing names to places based on events, important personalities, and marking significant milestones in the nation’s development. Two places that come readily to mind are Carifesta Avenue and Festival City. Carifesta Avenue is named in honour of the Caribbean Festival of Arts which was first hosted in Guyana in 1972 and was considered a major landmark in strengthening and deepening the people’s quest for integration. Its precursor was the Caribbean Free Trade Association (Carifta) (1965-1972) which was preceded by the West Indian Federation (1958-1962). Festival City was the area where the festival’s artistes were housed, and its name is derived from this experience. This first act of harnessing the indigenous cultural resources of the region for its people’s benefit reflected the spirit of determination of a people who succeeded in dismantling the brutal systems of slavery, indentureship and colonialism.
That this major feat resulted in the pulling together of artistes and patrons from various territories demonstratively reflects the vision, capacity and commitment of the regional political leadership to ensure the sharing of common space, diverse dialects, and common message. This determination has been forged out of recognition and necessity for unity, integration, peace, solidarity and the importance of young and small states consolidating energies and resources to maximise opportunities in trade, production of goods, delivering of services, and remaining relevant in a global economy.
Today culture forms a very important element in the Trade Agreement between the European Union and CARIFORUM. It is this recognition, first commemorated in 1972, upon which culture was built as the bedrock in post-colonial development, which now sees it being sold in the international place as a unique product.
Achievements and milestones like these need to be preserved, remain intact, and served as inspiration for generations to come, to be retold as often as possible.
Where the West Indian Federation failed, and CARIFTA was limited, Carifesta remains the foundational achievement of self-worth and global acclamation that the peoples can hold their own and be competitive. If it were not for Carifesta’s success, the (CARICOM) Caribbean Community and Common Market (1973) would not have been, given that that was the event that energised the integration process through collective participation and involvement. It would be commendable that as Guyana marks its Golden Jubilee and CARICOM its 43rd anniversary, with Guyana’s turn this year to co-chair, fitting tribute be paid to physically upgrading the avenue to mark the historical feat and determination of the Caribbean peoples.