Can you imagine a world where everyone looked as though they were all from the same family, spoke in exactly the same manner and had no differing opinions on any subject? How boring and monotonous would our existence be if we lived in homogeneous societies lacking diversity and individuality. These days it seems like there is very limited tolerance for people who look or seem to represent something different than what is considered the norm wherever we live. It is as though some seek to revert to a world where safety and comfort is only found with people much like themselves. Intolerance is creating a hysteria and fear of people or things which are different from what are seemingly familiar. The differences which people use to create barriers can range from skin color, accent, religious beliefs, education, sexual orientation and even gender. Instead of becoming more evolved and open minded, it seems as though humanity is regressing and spiraling out of control in their intolerance and fear of each other. When I see such unwillingness to recognize or respect others who are different, I think back to my childhood where I first learned about multiple cultures. From the earliest age, my upbringing inculcated in me a deep and valuable appreciation of diversity.
Being a person of mixed race, I have always been shocked at the way that we are sometimes required to categorize ourselves into boxes which we conveniently check off when asked. The first time that I ever confronted this was probably when I had to do standardized testing in the USA. I did not ethnically fit any of the choices, but had to check one. So I did, choosing the option which seemed to encompass a larger percentage on both sides of my family. I did not feel comfortable doing so, as I thought about my grandparents, and how I was negating their existence; by choosing to fit myself into one broad type.What a dilemma for people of mixed heritage. I wanted to write that I did not belong to any of the above. Fortunately since this time, there is now a mixed race category or “Other” on the listing from which to choose.
Watercolor of St.Andrew’s Kirk Presbyterian Church in Georgetown,Guyana
The Guyana of my youth was one where I grew up with friends of different races and religions. Skin color, hair texture, facial features and religion were never an issue during my childhood. I am Roman Catholic and attended St. Agnes’ primary school where the Ursuline sisters taught and shepherded the pupils. Being Catholic was not a requirement for entry to the school. Still, everyone went to chapel every Wednesday morning and religious classes were taught to us all, but the sacrament of holy communion was only offered to Catholics. I have the most wonderful memories of my time there and my friends; many of whom I am still in touch with today.
Near to my home in Providence, there was a Mosque at the entrance of the area where I lived. At the crack of dawn every morning we were awakened by the muezzin chanting the Adhan call to prayer. Though I could not understand the words, the daily calls to the faithful of this religion were just part of the soundtrack of my early life.
Watercolor of the Peter’s Hall Mosque on the East Bank Demerara, Guyana.
Along the main public roads from Georgetown to various towns along the coast and rivers are where the bulk of the population lives. When driving, you can’t help but notice the different religious buildings. Beautiful Hindu temples can be seen in almost every village, as well as an array of colorful Jhandi flags which are proudly isolated in the front yard of homes which tell of the owners religious traditions. Some larger temples have gigantic statues of Hindi Gods and Goddesses displayed in the courtyards. I could identify many of these brightly colored effigies by name from stories of the Indian comic books I enjoyed reading as a child. Elegant mosques can also be seen in many towns and villages . The beautiful minarets and wide courtyards are characteristic of these religious buildings. The tantalizing sounds of Indian rhythms as well as Hindi chants with their mesmerizing instrumentation, drums and percussion were very present in my culture.
Painting with the St. George’s Cathedral in the background.
Scattered all over the towns and villages are also churches of various shapes, sizes and denominations. Guyana is also home to the largest wooden building in the world, the majestic St. George’s Anglican Cathedral. Protestant, Catholics and other Christian Faith based churches make up 63 % of the country’s religious sector. The 2nd largest religion is Hinduism with 24% of the population as faithful followers. Different religions have coexisted peacefully in Guyana for generations. There are religious public holidays and observances for Christians, Hindus, Muslims and native Amerindians.
The Peter’s Hall Hindu temple
Guyana has long been known as the “Land of Six Peoples.” The Amerindian tribes are the first people of Guyana. Their land was colonized by European powers in search of gold and other precious resources. The exploration and scramble for overseas territories was a part of our history. Over the last 300 years Guyana has shifted from Spanish, French, Dutch and then British possession before finally becoming independent in 1966. The demand for sugar, cotton, cocoa, tobacco and coffee in Europe established the plantation system in the Caribbean colonies of the French, Dutch and British. This fueled the slave trade bringing thousands of African men, women and children to the colonies to work the land. The Dutch west India Company established sugar plantations in Guyana from 1658, and by 1759 there were over 300 in the Demerara and Essequibo regions. The vibrant economic growth during the industrial revolution in Europe and America heightened consumer demand for goods. Upon the emancipation of slavery in Britain and its colonies in 1834, other ethnic groups from China, India and Madeira, Portugal were brought as indentured laborers to fill the need for a workforce. The majority of people who had arrived during these times stayed upon completion of their indentureship. Today their descendants make up the population of Guyana as we know it.
A typical multi ethnic market scene in Guyana.
Guyanese are lucky enough to enjoy many public holidays and religious observances. Mashramani is an Amerindian word which means celebration of the harvest by collective work. It is fittingly the name of our Republic Day commemorations on February 23. In Guyana, Christmas and Easter are enjoyed by most people, irrespective of their religion. Christmas parties, present exchanges and Santa Clause are often observed by most families, irrelevant of their religion. Easter is the most important Christian event. It forms the basis of the Christian faith. The symbolic resurrection of Jesus is practiced through the act of kite flying; honoring the risen Lord. But for all Guyanese, Easter Monday is a family fun day and a kite flying extravaganza for everyone, Christian or not.
The Hindu celebration of Phagwah or Holi is played with gusto by Guyanese of all ages. I remember going to school on the day before Phagwah and knowing with some trepidation that I would be coming home stained in colored dyes from head to toe. My white Bishops’ school shirt would more than likely be fuchsia tinged from the inevitable dousing of colored water by classmates after school. I was always so happy to receive the most generous gifts of delicious sweet meats or mithai made and shared by our Hindu neighbors and friends in celebration of this new year.
My family is a multicultural one. I am so proud to say that I have ancestry from China, India, Portugal and West Africa. After doing my AncestryDNA earlier this year, I discovered I also had Polynesian ancestry as well as a few other European and Mediterranean DNA groups. Growing up, I was always classified as Guyanese-Chinese due to this being my most predominant gene pool. I always felt offended whenever I traveled and people would ask where I was from and when I answered “Guyana”, the response was usually, “But, you don’t look Guyanese!” What does a Guyanese look like? I guess my family falls into a category of “mixed race” people with our DNA so very diluted over the course of several generations. No longer are we from one pure strain. Having to guess an origin can prove to be challenging, but somehow, they can never come up with Guyana, South America. In fact just recently I was asked during a dinner conversation, ” so tell me about La Reunion”. I guess it was the fact that I spoke French and perhaps resembled a native of this tiny island situated in the Indian Ocean. I answered ” I know that it’s in the Indian Ocean near to Madagascar, but I have never been there myself!” Guyana however is never the country with which people seem to be able to associate me.
Guyana means “Land of any waters” and the painting above depicts one of the many waterfalls in the country.
When I went to university in the USA, I had my first experience with racial profiling. During my first semester, I was sitting in the student union between classes. A young woman came up to me and said to me quite bluntly, ” I am the President of the Chinese student Association, we have been noticing you here for a few days and wanted to know where you are from. You seem to have some Asian blood but we are not sure. Your nose bridge is straight. And did have surgery on your eyes?” I was floored. Never had I been asked such questions nor had I had someone be so invasive of my ancestry, especially someone I was meeting for the first time. I realized then that my pre-requisite to being invited to join the Chinese Association depended on my degree of “Chinese” ancestry. Growing up in Guyana, both of my grandfathers had been a part of the Chinese Association. As a child, I along with most of the Guyanese-Chinese families attended festivals, fairs, banquets and celebrated Chinese New Year. I replied to her that my maternal grandfather was originally from Canton province but that my grandmother was bi-racial and was a mixture of black and white ancestry. She nodded and then said “Aha!! Okay, thank you!” That answered it all for her. I was not really Chinese or not sufficiently so. We never spoke again. What a revelation! This was an indoctrination into a different classification. I realized at that point that I was truly a person of mixed heritage; and I proudly embraced this fact even more deeply.
From then on, it became increasingly clearer how other people perceived race and color. I noticed for the first time how similar people tended to group themselves together. The Caribbean students were the most diverse group. The people of this region have experienced several generations of intermarriage and have learned to deal with the bigotry associated with the small mindedness of those who prefer to keep the races separate and pure. Growing up in Guyana, I personally had never been exposed to this. My beloved maternal grandmother was biracial. Her mother was an Afro-Guyanese and her father was Portuguese. I am sure that discrimination existed during this time and there was stigma attached to such unions. My paternal grandparents were also mixed with Chinese and Indian ancestry.
Today, my family members are a kaleidoscope of colors in all shades and hues. My children in addition to my mixtures add to the equation as Proud Haitians and are even further mixed with French, Dutch, Jewish, Spanish and Haitian DNA. My extended family lives all over the world and are so diverse. If it were ever possible to take a family portrait of 3 generations it could appear like a meeting from the general assembly at the United Nations with its country representatives all present.
I am thankful to have been raised in a country where I was colorblind. I learned from a very early age to be all encompassing and accepting of cultural differences. The rich history and diversity of the different nationalities are the colorful threads which were woven together to create the beautiful tapestry representing the culture of Guyana. When I moved to Haiti, I encountered new people and a very different ethnical diversity. I am thankful for my early experiences which have helped me tremendously in integrating and understanding my new home. I was able to adapt, relate and work with all kinds of people without issue.
As a parent, I am so thankful to have the opportunity to raise my children with a wide angle view of life. They can blend in comfortably into any group or feel at ease in conversation with others. I never see myself as fitting into a particular mold, I am cognizant of who I am and thankful to my ancestors for their sacrifices and their struggles in the past. They lived in a time when the world seemed larger and prejudices and misinformation greater. Today I find strength and courage in breaking barriers and changing paradigms about race. Being multifarious most definitely allows me to relate to a variety of cultures and situations, especially in the world currently. It also enables one to be more open minded, tolerant and understanding of the differences which separate us. It also offers a more empathetic ear to listen to the issues and to become stronger through one’s comprehension of them.
My family alcove with souvenirs and photos.
I truly hope that the world of the future is one where we can cast aside stereotypes and labels and have greater respect and empathy for those who are minorities. The bottom line is that fundamentalists tendencies create factions and this causes people to react negatively to those who do not share their belief system. If we all strive to treat others with dignity and respect, regardless of their views and convictions, the world would be quite a different place.
I only write of my Guyana as I remember. I have not lived there for 32 years now. I am thankful for my childhood memories and my life in Georgetown. The Universe had other plans for me and I now reside in Haïti; but I know in my heart that my upbringing, my family and my life in Guyana was an important part even today of who I am and I am most thankful.
I always loved the John Lennon song below. The lyrics are idealistic but beautiful. If only it were that simple; but then I can at least ‘ imagine‘ with a childlike innocence, just how perfect this world could be.
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace, you
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world, you
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
One of my favorite paintings is this Haitian Tea party. It embodies the innocence of childhood and the magical harmony that accompanies the age when we are not as yet tuned into things which divide and separate us as adults.