• 24 Jun, 2024

Change “Ministry of Culture” to “Ministry of Multiculturalism in Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad

Change “Ministry of Culture” to “Ministry of Multiculturalism in Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad

Change “Ministry of Culture” to “Ministry of Multiculturalism in Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad

Because of the COVID 19 pandemic, we were spared the usual heated debate that swirls around the every Mashramani (Mash) which the Guyanese government sponsor to commemorate Republic Day. There would have been the usual accusations of governmental control of the event and the questioning of the suitability of the ‘cultural’ items on display for the commemoration. 

Especially of the “wine down” subculture that had come to typify Mash and which, it is asserted, discourages other cultures, traditions and sensitivities. The content of Mash, it has been suggested is “hegemonic”; originating as it does from a single cultural stream and assimilationist in its premise by implicitly establishing the parameters for participation.  A great opportunity is being missed to use “Republic Day celebrations as an opportunity to create the web that will link these separate communities and bind and unite us as a nation.             

In a word, the authorities are ignoring Stuart Hall’s crucial distinction between “multicultural” and “multiculturalism”, even though at the drop of a hat they insist that Guyana is “multicultural”. Hall explains that the former is the lived reality of a country with groups originating from different milieus and retaining aspects of their culture of origin. And this is exactly what Guyana is: “the land of six peoples”.

Hall calls this use of ‘multicultural’ - ‘adjectival’ – e.g. “Indian Guyanese” or “African Guyanese”. He notes that it, “describes the social characteristics and problems of governance posed by any society in which different cultural communities live together and attempt to build a common life while retaining something of their ‘original’ identity.” Multicultural speaks of the “what is”: the lived realities of the various cultural segments.

“Multiculturalism”, on the other hand, is a political process that is quite substantive. ‘It references the strategies and policies adopted to govern or manage the problems of diversity and multiplicity which multicultural societies throw up. ´ It's a process through which cultural differences are recognized, publicly affirmed and institutionalized.

A socialist national culture for Guyana?

As with all political processes, multiculturalism as State policy (and Hall notes that ‘multiculturalism’ is invariably singular, while ‘multicultural’ is just as stubbornly plural) involves the question of power. In Guyana, unfortunately, the question of who has the authority to create norms and social hierarchies within society or to exclude anyone and on what basis has been consistently glossed over.

‘Multiculturalism’ demands that society present a full range of prospects, membership, and respect to all its members – regardless of cultural and religious differences –while also creatively accommodating them in a fashion that is both morally persuasive and practically effective for the majority of society. From this perspective, to paraphrase Gandhi’s famous quip on western civilisation, Guyanese multiculturalism “would be a good idea”.

It certainly has not been articulated much less implemented. And the manner in which Mash was foisted on the people as a “national festival” demonstrates the gap between the rhetoric and the reality.


Photo : Ravi Dev 

Inheriting the assimilationist premises and prejudices of imperial Britain, even as the founders of our republic railed against our “white bias” universalization of the British specificity, the PNC regime sought to impose a new hegemonic ‘norm” –  epitomized by Mash. This was an explicit imitation of the Trinidad Carnival that arose out of Eric Williams’ fostering of an art form from the Creole practices of the African Trinidadians. Earl Lovelace, among others, has delineated how that ethos was transmuted from the African cultures the ex-slaves had brought from their homeland.

We in Guyana have been ‘winging’ it up to now but periodic eruptions of dissatisfaction invariably peter out because they are dealt with them in isolation rather honing in on the systematic contradictions in our ‘multiculturalism”.

Ironically, under the rubric of ‘National Culture’, the Guyana Constitution Art 35 states: “The State honours and respects the diverse cultural strains which enrich the society and will constantly seek to promote national promotion of them at all levels and to develop out of them, a socialist national culture for Guyana.” So while our ‘multiculturalism’ accepts that we are a ‘multicultural’ society and promises to ‘promote the diverse cultural strains” it explicitly seeks to “develop a socialist national culture”.

Promoting an Afro-Caribbean Culture

While the ‘socialist’ qualification might have been discretely dropped by the authorities in the last few decades, the fundamental goal of creating a unitary ‘national culture’ is still the overarching goal of our State. The National Motto - One nation; One people; One destiny – emphasises the assimilationist imperative of the old British imperialist model but this time with the de facto ideal being the African Caribbean Creole Culture. Other cultural groups such as Indian Guyanese are expected to jettison their respective distinctive cultural identities/practices and hark to that putatively ‘higher’ ideal.

The constitutional stipulation proposes a sort of ‘all awe a one’ cultural melange from the aforementioned ‘strains’ a la the ‘melting pot’ model. But the American experience that gave us the latter term is instructive. While the ‘melting pot’ suggests an interpenetration of all cultures into each other, in the US, British culture became the de facto standard to which all were supposed to cleave.

Jews, for instance, routinely changed their names to English ones. The question, as previously pointed out, always boiled down to the cultural premises of those that possessed power: definitional power in the hands of any one group is never neutral. In Guyana and Trinidad this has always been the African Creole segment.

And we can begin to discern the problems Indians had with Mashramani from the moment it was introduced in 1970 in Linden. It was then adopted by the government of the day as the ‘national’ celebration of Republic Day with absolutely no consultation or even discussion. While the “Republic” promised equal participation as citizens, Mashramani demanded they fit into a ‘cultural’ festival defined by the carnival ethos of T&T. Cultural citizenship was denied to these groups.

Thus while the official rhetoric of the Guyanese State after independence suggested it was interested in ‘cultural hybridity’, the form it took, as in the US, was that some cultures were more equal than others. With Creole Culture being Uber alles and the others having to go along with the ‘standard’ to get along. Calls for Indians to participate in Mash – as when one newspaper recently called for the organisers of Diwali to come aboard -  arrogantly take for granted that the premises of the former cultural form are in consonance with the latter.

PPP Government vigorously promotes Mash

The irony, of course, is that after an initial period of honest appraisal, the (People’s Progressive Party) PPP has vigorously promoted Mash, but with no discernible improvement in Indian participation – either by numbers or by content. The point, of course, is that the PPP, which now has control of the State to create norms and by definition a reordering of social hierarchies, also has not seen it fit to initiate a national discourse on the contour of our multiculturalism. The official ‘Guyanese’ culture is still to a large extent disdainful of the Indian component of the ‘multicultural’ reality.

Mash, therefore becomes simply a trope for the excluded cultures to dispute the mono-cultural foundations of our ‘multiculturalism’. In a multicultural polity, groups will always challenge their silencing on the national stage – or its token representation – in the name of some universal standard or value. Because such a silencing is always a consequence of a lack of power, such challenges are ultimately political in that it calls for a more equitable distribution of power.

But such open contestation should not be seen as threatening once it is accepted as necessary and it is dealt with through national dialogue and discussion. It also positive because it not only addresses dissatisfactions with the status quo, but reduces the potential for demagogic manipulations that have become standard in Guyana. And this occurs not only at Mash.

One point that we have emphasised in arguing for an equitable national policy on multiculturalism over the last two decades is that it will make available such a wider array of knowledge and practical wisdom to our nation. And we are certainly in dire need of such wisdom.

We have proposed that the “Ministry of Culture” be transformed as a “Ministry of Multiculturalism” since “Culture” promotes a singular, monolithic, overarching culture operating as a stalking horse for assimilation through the back door. We also suggest our motto be changed to “Unity in Diversity through Equality in Diversity”. Multiculturalism can be seen as “a systematic and comprehensive response to cultural and ethnic diversity with educational, linguistic, economic and social components and specific institutional mechanisms”. This suggests areas in which we initially pursue equality.

Need for ‘equal treatment in culture’

We stress that we are not suggesting any ‘separatist ideal’ in which each group live in

hermetically sealed enclaves. We are suggesting that the ‘equal treatment in culture’ imperative if implemented and becomes real, will eliminate the barriers of hauteur and exclusion that set off their inevitable reactions of resistance. We believe when we deal with each other as equals there would be the inevitable cross-cultural fertilization (in all directions) and not one-way that is seen as top down.

With the State kept out of ‘culture’ it should focus on promoting a feeling of “Guyaneseness” among our people through the conscious construction of a democratic State – the creation of conditions where we are all treated as one, equally, by the State. Equality of opportunity; human rights, encouragement of diversities, due process; justice and fair play and rule of law may seem dry compared to the warmth of the blood ties of “nation”, but they can engender the unity of public purpose and the recognition of individual worth where we can be proud of our common citizenship. Citizenship of Guyana has to become something that has concrete meaning to all of us.


Photo : Divali in Guyana 

For Guyana then, our ethnicities would be defined outside our “Guyaneseness” and to be African-Guyanese or Indian-Guyanese would not be contradictory in any sense. The first part of our identity would be specific while the latter universalistic. The “national” will now be a space where ethnically imagined communities can live and share. To be Guyanese would be to share moral precepts – norms, values and attitudes – rather than shared cultural experience and practice.

A “good Guyanese” would be one who is loyal to this country and strives to practice the secular universalistic ideological values it extols because he or she can enjoy cultural as well as political and economic citizenship.

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