Being Guyanese: unity with many roots

 In “Gardening in the Tropics”, the mixed heritage Jamaican poet Olive Senior uses the activity of “gardening” as an extended trope to analyse the brutal colonisation of the Caribbean by the Europeans and their influence in the formation of our identity.

Being Guyanese: unity with many roots
Photo : Ravi Dev

ROAR of Ravi Dev

 In “Gardening in the Tropics”, the mixed heritage Jamaican poet Olive Senior uses the activity of “gardening” as an extended trope to analyse the brutal colonisation of the Caribbean by the Europeans and their influence in the formation of our identity. Gardening, after all, does involve “rooting out”, discarding” “cultivating”, “nurturing”, “grafting”, “hybridity” and so many activities which are also at work in cultures and relationships in the construction of identities. All of us have been - and continue to be - “cultivated”, whether we like it or not.

Even when we were uprooted from homelands in Asia, Africa and Europe, we were all already “hybrids” that had been variously constituted. The North Indians of the Bhojpuri belt, for instance, were the consequences of continuous invasions for thousands of years, of which the Moghul invasion and its Islamic world view was only the most extensive. The music and the religions of the people were dramatically “cross fertilised”. The British presence in the century before the end of Indentureship had already begun to have its impact, not only for the famines that made millions hungry and homeless and willing to seek their fortunes across the “Kala Pani”, but shaping their worldviews on the relationship between race/colour and power.

In the Caribbean, the Indian, Portuguese and Chinese indentureds would encounter the Africans who had been subjected to hundreds of years of European imposition of culture and religion – forcibly and not so forcibly. While against all odds, the Africans retained elements of their cultures in Africa – they were drawn from all across West Africa – it was into their “creolised” Afro-European culture that the new arrivals would be exposed to in the Caribbean.

The Africans were expected to inculcate “English culture”, even though their humanity was denied and by definition could never be “English”. This was interesting since most of the overseers they interacted with were Irish and Scottish. The indentured servants inevitably imbibed much of their new culture from the African creoles who preceded them in the plantation, and who were expected to “season” them into the new dispensation. We all adopted the stereotypes of the Europeans, who judged us on our utility to serve their ends on the plantations, as the criteria to evaluate our self and group worth. We were, lazy/hardworking; wasteful/thrifty; licentious/ pagan/saved; civilised/savage etc, and based in these evaluations, contested to hierarchically rank ourselves, but with the Europeans always on top.

Out of this experience with independence we were yet told we were “One people; One Nation; One Destiny”. However, in Guyana and the rest of the Caribbean, people of African origin sought to counter the European hegemonic cultural imposition with the ideologies of “Black Power”, “Negritude” and “Pan Africanism” all of which privileged the African culture as the “root” of the tree of “national culture”.

But reviewing the broad sweep of Caribbean history, Senior sought to make the point that there is no “pure” origins and no “one root” that we can discover on which to construct our Caribbean identity. She borrowed the metaphor of the “rhizome” – like the ginger plant, for instance - with its multiplicity of roots that privilege no one root for Caribbean identity from the Martiniquean Edouard Glissant. He was consciously reacting against the construct of “negritute” and of “hybridity” that been proposed to describe French Antillean identity. The first excluded all others such as people of Indian origin and the French and the latter that still privileged the “African root”.

Glissant himself had adapted the image from the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari who introduced the rhizome as a metaphor for “multiplicity,” rather than a “multiple”. In a more abstract plane than Glissant and Senior, the Deleuze and Guattari emphasised “there are no points or positions in a rhizome, such as those found in a structure, tree, or root. There are only lines.” They also emphasised that we need to stop focusing on sameness since what holds all existence together is difference, not resemblance.

Yesterday, we commemorated Republic Day, and aspired to a necessary “unity” for our progress. But while we need to cultivate a “Guyanese” identity, we should recall the imagery of the rhizome, with its multiple roots. We need to uproot the presumed inevitable binary of “African” versus “Indian”, to nurture a more fluid, permeable conception of self in which “Guyanese” of all origins can become a rhizomatic edifice rather than hierarchical strata of dominator and dominated.