Overseas Guyanese: What kind of tribe are we?
By Alissa Trotz
January 15, 2007
It is now more or less recognized that at least as many Guyanese live outside of the country as within it. This simple fact makes any answer to the question - Where is Guyana and what does it mean to you? - a complex one. It is very easy to set up those who have remained at home and those who have migrated as entirely different, and this happens at a number of levels, including the occasional - partly justified - outbursts in the newspapers that overseas Guyanese should refrain from commenting on things local if they are not there to face daily life or the consequences of their actions.
At the same time, easy assumptions of such clear-cut divisions are troubled when we look at the active relationship between Guyana and its diaspora. There are a number of ways in which overseas Guyanese maintain our connection to home. The most obvious is the permanent pull of family ties - one way to gauge this is by going into any Western Union outlet, especially during the holiday season, to get a sense of the extent to which the local economy is propped up by remittances. Another avenue is the mobilization of resources at times of need, the best example being in the aftermath of the horrific floods in 2005, when support ranged from the large relief effort co-ordinated out of the Guyana Consulate in Toronto to one young man in Alberta raising monies through his local mandir. People who never return find ways to recreate Guyana 'in foreign', as a trip to the Guyanese bakery Sybil, with branches in Brooklyn and Queens, New York, makes clear. We also join groups, to the extent that one consultant with USAID who has done work on remittances in Latin America once remarked to me incredulously that he had never seen so many overseas organizations as he did among Guyanese. I recently counted over 70 such organizations in Canada, covering all kinds of activities - village groups, sports clubs, professional associations, religious groupings, alumni organizations, political parties. Finally, one cannot forget the enormous contributions of overseas Guyanese to the struggle to restore electoral democracy in the 1980s and early 1990s.
What do these concrete connections mean? As a diasporic community, we sometimes pat ourselves on the back in ways that are not earned. A good example was a letter that appeared in the Stabroek News last year after the annual Last Lap Lime event in Toronto. The Lime is arguably one of the largest overseas reunions that exists, and draws upwards of 10,000 Guyanese from all over the world. The letter writer describes how he saw people of all races and all ages enjoying each other's company, and asked why those at home couldn't take a leaf out of our overseas book, couldn't demonstrate the easy solidarity he saw on abundant display that summer afternoon. Such remarks overlook the fact that the diaspora is also a fundamental part of the problem that faces the country today, making it difficult to sit back and moralise as if we have somehow arrived at a different place. If you poke this dream of an overseas Guyanese family, you see how quickly it falls apart. We have old guard political party support groups locked in their tired racisms; in fact I would argue that some of the most intransigent attitudes can be found in Toronto, New York, London, wherever the political parties go on their fund-raising visits to whip up support and partisan sentiment. We have village support organizations that sadly and too frequently reflect the racial homogeneity that is partly a result of the racial disturbances of the 1963-1964 period. We have high school associations that maintain class divisions. In short, those of us 'from foreign' also help reproduce historic divisions, are no less culpable of placing Guyanese into boxes that separate us from each other, in ways that simply cannot make us whole. It is important to take that first step, to acknowledge that we are part of the problem - in other words, we stand together, wherever we find ourselves in the world today, all intimately implicated in what Guyana has become. With recognition, hopefully, as many of us as possible can decide to become part of the solution - to stand together, all intimately implicated in what Guyana can become.