As a Guyanese who attended Queen’s College on Thomas and Camp Roads, Georgetown in the late sixties and early seventies, I saw the societal changes as they affected Guyana’s pre-eminent secondary school. Then I bore witness to the efforts of Alumni in the New York area (mostly Brooklyn-centered) while at the same time saw the burgeoning new immigrant society in the Richmond Hill area of Queens.
QC’s role as an elite school was in keeping with the British Prep school supply chain for producing administrators of the country. When I look around at the immigrant societies of the Diaspora I see QC Alumni as professionals, while Diasporans from other schools are successful business people, making a large impact on their new immigrant communities.
US QC Alumni, tend to be gung-ho of our QC-ness. I actually spent 8 years in the school (repeated 5th form), engaged in the competitive spirit, was second-in-command of the QC Cadet Corps in the year that it was disbanded; became Deputy Head Prefect and was a Chess Champion; so I can speak to what QC meant to a student there. However, I look at our Alumni in the Diaspora and wonder how much it prepared us with respect to the Alumni of other schools. For the networking, yes; but were we prepared to take our proper places in our society or just to lord over?
Most QC Alumni would say that QC shaped their lives – that may be so – but my focus is not the institution, but rather on the larger picture of what we all got out of it.
For instance, I agree that the competition was an important factor (each of us driving the other) and the quality of resources that no other school enjoyed (in keeping with the elite status – that’s a whole other debate about the need for 21st century version of the philosopher-king and the Ivy League schools, etc.). However, it was what the endgame of the British for QC – people to “run things”. You see this shortcoming manifested when taken out of the Guyanese society and thrust into immigrant communities in North America and elsewhere.
In our days and up to recent times, education was geared to make us minor leaguers supplying the North American major leagues. That’s because Guyana had no manufacturing to speak of (energy cost disadvantage and a shallow port that made shipping costs per unit load disadvantageous). It’s either Guymine or Guysuco or get the hell out!. QC was the place to groom administrators and people to “run things”. The preppy boys school imagery did not lend itself to business, entrepreneurship and such like. As Engineers and medical and law people we were mere professionals in a foreign country.
So when we reminisce about the elite environment, the stories, the competition, etc., what are we really reminiscing about? What contribution did we make to Guyana (yeah, our Presidents, sic!)? Or the immigrant societies we find ourselves in? Leave the hubris aside and do some serious reckoning with observed data And the evidence. Then think of the raison d’étre of a QC and whether our reminiscences are hollowed experiences rather than hallowed ones.
I will state this with no degree of ambiguity – Guyana, the country that gave me birth, a childhood and a QC education, resides somewhere in the last century from many perspectives.
If you’re a foreigner or an ex-pat in a bubble life’s good. If you live here, pay bills, shop for groceries and fruits and veg, use taxis (a classic oxymoron), have to get restaurant food, etc., you will notice that we’ve slid backwards from the 1970s.
When we speak of Guyana’s wealth, I cringe when people say we are a resource-rich country – until oil was discovered. Here’s why I say so.
Guyana lost its calcined (refractory) bauxite monopoly just after nationalization as the kilns in Pennsylvania and Ohio started using synthetic materials as a substitute. It is clear with our overburden that Guyana could not compete with the new giants Australia, Brazil, Zaire, etc. in metal-grade bauxite. We see the results today in a decrepit industry.
Sugar was on a special protective arrangement which ended with the ACP-EC Lomé Convention successor, the Cotonou Agreement ended. We were producing at US20 cents a pound while the world market price was 6 cents. Today only 3 out of 10 sugar factories are in production producing way below their targets at 1/10th what Guyana used to produce.
To get one greenheart log then another you have to go a good distance. You have the undergrowth to contend with to haul the logs. Unlike North America trees were not planted for economic extraction a century ago. Long story short we used to do a pittance with logs. No treatment and no upstream value-added to talk about (that energy cost bug-a-boo) and we should stop talking about how tremendous our forest resource is – other than as a carbon sink.
Fishing is now under assault from the oil drilling environmental impact. It wasn’t much to talk about either as it was artisanal and small-scale.
Our manufacturing suffered from five times the cost elsewhere in the Caribbean and out shallow ports meant more per-unit cost of shipping and then there is the insurance cost disadvantage. Loo at how the Elite shirts, the Buffalo Jeans, the IDEAL stoves and fridges, the Tapir vehicles, etc. all disappeared in the 1980s.
Remittances still account for our 2nd largest export earner but is now being overtaken by the oil revenues. Gold has been our savior. Here’s the deal – a lot of our gold goes unaccounted for and resulted in gold miners being among the richest Guyanese. Some miners go to South Africa and buy Kimberly diamonds for ¼ the world market price, smuggle these to Guyana and re-export for an enormous gain. Recently Omai discovered with new assay methods (not unlike seismic in oil and gas) and have found South African-type reserves. Think US$ Trillions (that’s not a mistake or typo – trillions). I keep telling people the real gold will eclipse liquid gold down the road.
With oil and gas we do not realize how lucky we are. With the ingredients (algae / plankton / etc.), the cook (earth movement heat when Pangea separated Africa from the Americas), and the kahari (the trap, the limestone from the crustacean age or pre-Jurassic age rocks), Guyana has enormous oil and gas reserves that have low impurities, and cost less than Mid-East oil to produce.
The gas-to-energy and Amalia Falls hydro will add over 500 MW to a country that consumes a little over 300 MW. And this will lower energy costs to single digits US cents a kilowatt hour. The Wales Development Authority will be an amazing industrial base with fertilizer (urea plant), cheaper cooking gas and electricity.
The prospects are good, but with all the US$ Billions and the tall glass buildings going up we’re still a country seeped in the old ways and an absence of “cultures” Diasporans take as the norm. We have no AC culture (compliments to our high energy costs), no café culture (no manufacturing and modern business process to get people together with a compute device exchanging ideas, and a café environment), no restaurant culture (try getting a Shanta’s roti after 2 PM) and be prepared to eat Chinese food ad nauseum. The taxis don’t come when they say they will come, and when they do they are like saunas. When they serve takeout it looks like slush. I can go on and on. I’ve lived in Suriname and Trinidad and see the gap in quality of life. Walking along Middle St from Waterloo St to Main St is an exercise in a minefield. You can get a cutlass for looking at someone the wrong way. We don’t have value for life. No middle class. And the roads, er, death traps – no speed bumps and no road etiquette to speak of…..
Guyana wastes about 40% of its produce, fruits and veg (cash crops) due to poor handling, storage and transport. At the recent CARICOM Heads agri investment forum whose launch I attended at the Cultural Center, the emphasis was on crop safety and crop insurance, along with the use of technology.
This was a Guyana initiative. Interestingly the afternoon before I had a conversation with the QC Headmistress, the QC Agri teacher and the QC IT teacher on the agri project the NY Chapter wanted to fund. The use of technology (hydroponics) shaded-house farming (especially for urban spaces) were discussed. You can literally run a farm with a smartphone using sensors and drones.
Agriculture in Guyana is moving to a different phase. It produced commercial quantities of soya and corn. I’ve seen strawberries. Now it’s potatoes. With 3 crops tested already and ready to roll out in Berbice, rice is targeted to see an unprecedented 2.5 million tons (It never produced more than half- million tons in its history).
Agri processing at source is part of the new moves, as Guyana seeks to provide food security for the region (Covid-19 supply-chain issues taught the region a lesson).
There are investments in a milk plant, processing and packaging of cash crops, etc., as Guyana seeks to diversify and avoid the dreaded Dutch disease.
Some of that is happening already in Guyana. The foreign companies realize Guyana did not have the capacity for foods hitherto (what a thing to say!) and are building capacity. Meanwhile the inflationary prices for fruit and veg is palpable at
In late June on my way to the airport I saw land where the Chinese have tons of greens and vegie for their restaurants. SBM, the offshore Floater builder, is funding the Hubu Aqua Farms to rear premium prawns and shrimps, powered by solar energy and using advanced technologies for sustainability. SBM is sponsoring a Guyanese startup called “Earthwake”, that has developed the “Chrysalis” which converts plastic waste into diesel and gasoline.
One bridge (Demerara) and one half road (Linden – Mabura) getting started with oil revenues from the NRF (Natural Resource Fund) and likely to be completed after the next election cycle (2025). The only people to benefit is the 5% in the supply chain, and the Chinese who will bring their own workers and who did some payoff. The benefits down the road are obvious – a road from Brazil to a potential deep water port (somewhere in Mahaica out in the ocean)
The Wales Development Authority with industrial companies like the Urea plant, cooking gas and the gas energy plan is likely to be cranking after 2025.
Inflation is hurting the 85% Guyanese who see meat, fish, veg and transport going up with no relief (the govt just announced a minimum wage of G$70,000 monthly and lots of VAT relief to pensioners and the mining industry). This is going to be a problem with the rising Guy dollar and exports hurting.
Procurement, tenders and contracts continue to be in the ballpark of the current tiny sliver of Guyanese who are actors in the new economy. The way that at the Stabroek 4th Field Development Plan review was handled was a seminal moment for me. ExxonMobil and partners have a lot of influence on aspects of that industry with a country that wants money and fast. The Diaspora Unit faces a tough challenge given how tough it is for Guyanese accustomed to the conveniences (I didn’t say comforts or North American standards I’m used to – just normal human standards) of life to get their talents and investment money to work in Guyana.
These are human standards whether first world or third world. I frequent Suriname a lot and have stayed for some time in Trinidad and their standards of decency, respect for human life and quality of life are way above Guyana’s. When you see how the take-out food is packaged slap-dash so that it looks like slush; when a taxi says coming and you have to make 8 phone calls to find out where he or she is, when you see drivers use their vehicles like battlefield weapons and Guyanese say it’s just Guyana, you have to shake your head. Guyanese do not know what a coffee is. You can’t get clap-hand roti after 2 PM. In the land of Pepperpot if you do not order by 9 AM (and only on weekends they serve – very limited) you don’t get it. I went to Germans to get cow heel soup and the sign says closed at 4:00 PM. I was there at 3:30PM and they’re closed. The girl told me they run out of food and so they closed early!!!! I spent 4 hours trying to get dinner one night. I get a phobia when it comes to taxi (sauna rooms) and dinner. Even saltfish and bake run out at 8 AM.
I walk to pay light bill, Internet bill and water bill. Forget taxi as when you get there you’re drenched in sweat. They have no anterior room to wait or fans. You wait the sun. Inside there is no AC. What kind of a country is Guyana? They announced that handicapped people (including those with HIV and cancer) get free treatment for life, and you don’t even have to get tested. But ask any Guyanese, no one wants to go to a hospital where you share a bed, and no one comes to check on you timely. And the hospital food???? You have to pay money to get Woodlands or Mercy.
Venezuelans have been imbued with the idea that Essequibo is theirs from the time they’re born – no surprise here. Venezuelans in Guyana are taking over all the road side food vending. Just take a walk by the sea wall and you see how differently they prepare and serve food.
We only have one way to serve shrimp or meat – no creativity in simple foods. The other day I got some crisp salad but no dressing. And the gravy was mixed with the fries, so it tasted like mud.
We have had the “light” race (Portuguese) like Trinidad (Syrians) and Suriname (Lebanese). The latter two also had whites (both native and foreign) and had Latin Spanish (Trinidad) and Indonesians (Suriname). Guyana had your binary Indians and Black. We did not have the influence on our cuisine like those two countries, for instance its packaging and variety.
When I cut a tomato in the US (and elsewhere) you get a clean cut with no mess. It’s as if the gnomic alteration of the tomato was made for storage, transport and ease of cooking. In Guyana even with the sharpest knife on the planet you get a mushy tomato that does not lend itself to a creative cuisine like caprese.
Have y’all had a Guyanese sapodilla or star apple recently? The look sick and skinny with little of the juicy taste we used to know (climate change with the hot and humid conditions maybe?). In Suriname I’ve eaten sapodilla that are twice the size of Guyana’s sapodilla. As to starapple – God they’re so starchy and lost that taste we used to know growing up. The mangoes too are sick. The gullet mango in Suriname makes any buxon spice mango in Guyana tasteless.
As we’re on fruit and veg: it takes 5 Guyana oranges to get the same amount of juice as one Florida orange. And the juice tastes like lime juice. What happened? The soil? I had to throw away the pine I cut up to eat – the thing tasteless.
As for eschalot, sometimes you need a microscope to see the damn thing –so stringy. And we’re talking about assuring CARICOM of food security.
My only interest was a returning Diaspora person with an investment of his hard-earned savings, retirement time and his skills to help Guyana; only to be living with the reality I described and no interest amongst Guyanese to ascend to a standard and quality of living even poor-ass countries are accustomed to. You know, like respect for human life, getting a coffee at a corner store, having civilized fruits and veg (heck even what we were accustomed to in the 70s), being able to use the roads safely, being able to use a taxi reliably, order food after 2 O’clock with confidence, paying bills withing reasonable business hours and not have a siesta where no one is available.
We somehow transported this Guyanese-ness to Richmond Hill, Queens, New York where we bring this approach to life on full display. Try ordering food at a Guyanese restaurant or buy groceries along Liberty Ave in Richmond Hill. We lack European sensibilities. We’re more Americanized and you see the stuff Monsanto and General foods give the public – salt, sugar and fat …… to go to the hospitals (get sick like the justice system incarcerate Blacks and Hispanics at record pace – gotta have the supply side of private prisons) and the pharmacy. It’s all about money Baby!!! While the Chinese factories make European clothes that would last long but cost a little bit more, Americans get the cheaper product that fade after two washes …
I always ask the question why would a Guyanese from Richmond Hill, Queens or from Brooklyn take a one-week vacation in Cancun or Punta Cana, DR, instead of going up to Bartica, travel up the Pomeroon, go to Kumaka / Sant Rosa, travel up the Corentyne, visit Madwini Creek, etc. That was a rhetorical question, but it is the reality. No one wants a stabbing or bullet to make them leave here and go there to die.
Foreigners live in a bubble. They don’t have to take taxi, order food, pay bills, go to Bourda market, etc. They live in AC houses, get driven in AV SUVs, have their foods prepared, etc. – all with ordinary people’s money because Exxon is a net zero cost producer of Guyana’s oil (cost oil up to 75% per barrel, and no taxes take care of that). Why you think Diaspora Guyanese are not coming in droves for the oil boom and the hotels and casinos?
By Aftab Karimullah