A month for showcasing the rich culture, talents of Amerindians By Ms. Carolyn Rodrigues, Minister of Amerindian Affairs
Guyana Chronicle
September 6, 2002

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(WE HAVE) launched for the seventh time, another Amerindian Heritage Month during which several activities will be held to showcase the rich culture and highlight the many talents of Amerindian people, as well as address issues that are affecting their lives.

Seven years ago on the 10th September 1995, His Excellency President Cheddi Jagan, announced the dedication of September as Amerindian Heritage Month.

As if it was a coincidence, it was on this day - 10th September 1957 - that the late Steven Campbell entered the National Assembly and created history as the first Amerindian to do so. It is for these reasons that Amerindian Heritage Day is celebrated on September 10th every year.

Unfortunately, until now, many Amerindians, let alone other Guyanese, are still not aware of the significance of this month.

What is more important, however, is just how much we have achieved as a people since 1957. To begin with, we have had a combined representation in the National Assembly of more than 15 Amerindians.

The appointment of a Minister of Amerindian Affairs in 1992, which was considered a bold initiative by President Cheddi Jagan, should in no way be underestimated but should be seen as a step towards bringing Amerindians to a different level altogether.

The presence of Amerindians in the Guyana Police Force, the Guyana Defence Force and the nursing profession is becoming more and more visible.

Scores of teachers are trained every year and several programmes have been specifically developed to upgrade those who would have been placed in unfortunate situations through no fault of theirs. The number of Amerindian graduates from the University of Guyana, though still very low, is increasing.

However, there are still many challenges within our communities. While I congratulate and respect those who would have ventured to live in the most remote parts of our country and are definitely serving a purpose as far as national security is concerned, I have to say that the remoteness of these communities provides little or no initiative for basic services to be delivered at a level that is considered on par with the coast.

Due to high transportation costs, building a modern school may cost more than thrice the amount of that on the coast. For example, to transport 16 sacks of cement, (which can be purchased at approximately $12,000) to the Upper Mazaruni one has to pay close to $200,000 - more than 15 times the cost of cement.

Nevertheless, as Government we have responsibility for all of the citizens of this country and it would be a great underestimation to say that in the circumstances we have not done well.

In areas where traditionally secondary schools were not available, students can now access secondary education. Several Community Health Workers, Dentists and Medexes have also been trained and placed in the various regions.

As I said before there are still many difficulties as it relates to potable water, education, health care, exploitation, lack of jobs etc, but we have to be committed, both Government and communities, to continue working to improve these conditions.

At present, Amerindians account for approximately seven per cent of the Guyanese population.

While I am happy that inroads are being made in other areas, as Minister I would like to see this percentage being reflected in the number of doctors, lawyers, engineers and even politicians.

As far as I am aware there are no Amerindian lawyers and only one Amerindian doctor in Guyana.

In other words, we can count on our fingers the number of persons in these professions and this is unacceptable.

This in no way represents our intellectual capability and the time is now for us to become involved.

It is precisely for this reason that the Government is making a conscious effort to have Amerindians trained in these areas.

Very shortly, approximately ten Amerindians will be departing for Cuba to study in the fields of Medicine and Engineering. Two students are pursuing Law at the University of Guyana and once the Law School is established in Guyana, I am confident this number will increase.

Other efforts are also being made to have our students attain the prerequisite subjects to further their studies at the tertiary level. A library with necessary textbooks will be available to the Hinterland Scholarship Students, who for the most part are those Amerindians who have excelled in their respective communities.

The Ministry of Amerindian Affairs is working very hard to provide better and increased services and opportunities to the Amerindian people. However, our success as a people will largely depend on our will and commitment to improve our lives. We can start by being proud of who we are and then identifying where we want to go.

It may require us to make some drastic changes but if it is for our benefit and it is the only way, then so be it.

Let me take this opportunity to invite all of you to the events planned and also wish you a Happy Amerindian Heritage Month.
(This Viewpoint was first broadcast on GBC earlier this month)