• 07 Feb, 2023

Ameena Gafoor Honoured by the University of Guyana

Ameena Gafoor Honoured by the University of Guyana

Ameena Gafoor Honoured by the University of Guyana

The University of Guyana has awarded Ameena Gafoor an Honorary Doctorate in Letters in recognition of her significant scholarly and philanthropic work. Ameena was born in Guyana in 1941. Her paternal grandparents were indentured immigrants who hailed from Basti in the UP state of India, arriving in Guyana in 1898. After a five-year indentureship at the Success Plantation in Demerara, they settled down to farming at the backlands at Triumph. 


As Ameena wrote: “Each morning, they went to their farm in a narrow bateau and each evening they returned with the bateau laden with produce, my grandfather sitting in the stern like a Rajah while my grandmother fixed the fat rope attached to the bow across her right shoulder and walked barefooted on the grassy left bank of the middle walk canal pulling the boat, produce and grandfather with her.” Her maternal grandmother, the daughter of indentured labourers, was born in Guyana in 1889, and was one of few young girls given a primary school education. She owned a small shop selling washing soap, matches, tomato paste in tiny tins, little squares of Ricketts blueing tablets. 


Ameena said she owed her love of learning from her. “At nights she read aloud, by the light of a small “speak easy” lamp, from the Taleem Islam, about the Hijra and the Battle of Kerbala and recounted to me the lives of the Prophets and many tales from the Arabian oral tradition. What I did not know then was that she infused in me a thirst for books, for knowledge, with a curiosity and an appreciation for storytelling, so that in decades to come, I was drawn to the literary arts.”


 Photo : David Dabydeen


Ameena’s mother was also a mysterious fount of knowledge, philosophical and literary. “My mother also used to spew out quotations from Confucius, Shakespeare and other poets to keep us children in the line of moral rectitude, lines that are indelibly engraved on our minds; to this day I have no idea from where she learnt them. In addition, my mother had the most melodic voice and she constantly sang and hummed such Scottish and Welsh classics as Drink to me only with thine eyes , By yon Bonny Banks ,The Lonely Ashgrove , as well as Surahs from the Qu’ran, Munajats and Quaseedas. These sounds seemed to lift our spirits above our poverty.”



Ameena Gafoor Institute for the Study of Indentureship


Ameena, from such humble beginnings, acquired the Higher Senior Cambridge Certificate and went on to study at the University of West Indies, graduating with BA and MA degrees. Having taught at Central High School (Literature and French) and at Tutorial High School (French and Latin) she went on to a stellar literary career, publishing the first major study of the fiction of Roy Heath( 2017) as well as a Bibliography of East Indian Writing 1838—2018( 2018).  Her fictional memoir, Lantern in the Wind, was published in 2020, and was described by David Dabydeen as “a rare insight into Muslim life in Guyana…rich in detail, its realism enhanced by her equally rich imagination.” 


However, it was her role as founder and editor of The Arts Journal which marked her out as an outstanding contributor to Caribbean cultural history. The Arts Journal ‘s purpose was to provide “Critical perspectives on contemporary literatures, arts and cultures of Guyana, the Caribbean and their Diasporas.” Thirteen volumes were published between 2004 and 2018. Not since the pioneering literary Journal, Kyk-Over-Al  (1945—1961), edited by the legendary A.J. Seymour, has such a monumental publishing project in the arts been undertaken. Apart from giving a platform to writers and scholars like Michael Gilkes, Frank Birbalsingh, Sister Mary Noel Menezes, Stephanie Correia a pioneering Amerindian poet and potter), Brinsley Samaroo, Mark Tumbridge, Ryhaan Shah, Charlene Wilkinson and dozens of others, The Arts Journal also showcased the work of artists like Philip Moore, Darshanie Kistama, Bernadette Persaud , Betsy Karim Philbert Gajadhar and many others.  That Ameena almost singlehandedly commissioned and edited articles, reviews and creative work, designed the layout for the volumes, then presided over their publication and distribution, is testimony to her amazing commitment to the cultural and intellectual development of the region. 


Whilst undertaking this work, Ameena was also involved, with her husband Sattaur, in a myriad of charitable activities, the Gafoor Foundation funding a dozen and more medical, educational and sports projects. Her many roles include being Patron of ChildLink Guyana, an NGO that seeks out and counsels abused and neglected adolescents, and Chairman of the Doobay Medical Centre, a non-profit medical clinic that offers Haemodialysis treatment to patients suffering renal failure.


In 2020, the Ameena Gafoor Institute for the Study of Indentureship and its Legacies was established, the only such body in Britain or Europe. The Institute, under the Directorship of Professor David Dabydeen, works closely with Cambridge University, in establishing posts in Indentureship Studies. The Cambridge Visiting Fellowships in Indentureship Studies will begin in 2023, the very first such posts anywhere in the world.