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Re-Imagining the Guyanas

Lawrence Aje
Thomas Lacroix
Judith Misrahi-Barak

Mapping and Charting the 3 Guyanas

Beyond ‘Cats & Dogs’ A Geopolitical and Cultural Analysis of Guyana’s ‘Mashramani’ Independence Celebration

Natalie Hopkinson

Texte intégral

  • 1 There were letters to the editor about the general conduct of Mashramani, however the crowd's reac (...)

1Donald Ramotar, President of the Co-operative Republic of Guyana, wore a red polo shirt, jeans and a massive Amerindian-style cacique headdress. The Indo-Guyanese leader of the ruling People’s Progressive Party (PPP) faced reelection amid scandal and accusations of corruption. The president stood along the Mashramani parade route with a coterie of plain-clothes security guards on Georgetown’s Church Street when a middle-aged Afro-Guyanese woman wearing a large straw hat with pastel colors approached him. This constituent raised her arms in the air, and as she got closer, she began to thrust her pelvis at the president to the beat. President Ramotar grinned in a flash of surgically white teeth, and thrust back. Onlookers laughed and snapped cell phone photos around the pair. The streets of Georgetown were filled with ‘back-balling’: women twerking rear ends at a male partner grinding behind them, naughtily tweaking middle class sensibilities. As the day of music, parades, chutney and calypso competitions that were part of the annual Independence celebrations since the 1970s wore on, prim letters-to-the-editor writers ritually complained that the festivities were beneath the dignity of the Guyanese public.1

  • 2 6000 New Solar Panels for Amerindian Villages. Granger calls it tokenism. Stabroek News. Feb. 26, (...)

2Eventually the float for the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs arrived. At more than 10 percent of the population, the Amerindian community formed a critical block of voters. The ruling PPP government had announced 6,000 solar panels would be installed in Amerindian villages. But the ministry had also been selling off their ancestral land to Chinese investors at shockingly cheap prices.2 As about a dozen Amerindian revelers in caciques and native dress paraded by, they too, danced suggestively as ‘Que Beber’, a popular Brazilian song about an American gringa tourist who liked to drink, blared on loud speakers. Off to the side of the Amerindian revelers, an Afro-Guyanese female PPP official stood by, wearing an orange polo stitched with custom Ministry of Amerindian Affairs ‘Mash 2015’ insignia. The official had a butterfly painted on her face, and her gloved right hand balanced a can of beer and yellow rope laced between her fingers. As the revelers in Amerindian traditional dress processed in dance, she and other orange polo-shirted officials held the yellow rope around the them, literally keeping them in line.

3Scholars have mined carnival celebrations around the world for insights into the hybrid identities, cultural traditions and political history that birthed them. Bakhtin (1965) finds ritual humor, irony and the collapse of boundaries between actor and spectator among the carnivals of Medieval-era Europe; Scher (2007) traces the evolution of Trinidad carnival—perhaps the most influential in the English-speaking Caribbean—in resistance to its shifting colonial puppet masters; in Haiti, Averill (1994) marks various dictatorial government regimes’ attempts to weaponize carnival as a tool of creative control and propaganda; In New York, Buff (1997) sees the West Indian Labor Day festival as a public site of struggles over immigration policy and pan-African solidarity. Most notably, Browne (2013) theorizes Caribbean carnival itself as a vernacular form of ‘mas rhetorica’, a public ritual that operates in metonym for a way of seeing, being seen and of being. Thus, the carnivalesque form of rhetoric is ‘less a symbolic exercise than a calculated approach to a series of activities in material contexts’ (Browne 2013).

4Guyana was a relatively late acquisition of the British Empire—it became a British colony in 1815, carved away from the other Guianas (indigenous for ‘land of many waters’) on the northern tip of South America claimed by the Netherlands (Suriname), France (Guyane), and Spain (Venezuela) and Portugal (Brazil). Mashramani, the festival created in the 1970s soon after Guyana gained independence from Great Britain in 1966, is also a late entrant to the world of carnivals. This latecomer thus builds on the cultural traditions of its indigenous population which provided its name, as well as influences from Caribbean, North and South American neighbors as well as Guyanese populations’ ancestral roots in Africa, Asia and Europe. Emerging soon after the country’s political independence from Great Britain, Mashramani (Arawak for ‘celebration after hard work’) festival and parade has been used as a tool of various Guyanese government regimes striving to create a new political and cultural order.

5Similar to Fiji, Mauritius, and Trinidad whose populations are also heavily represented by the descendants of African slaves and Indian indentured workers, more than 50 years since Independence, Guyana (formerly British Guiana) continues to struggle with a legacy of strife between various cultural and ethnic groups vying for power, attention and respect. This essay will unpack how the 2015 Mashramani festivities functioned as a medium to unearth the ghosts of historic political and cultural struggles, as well as marked a pivot point to move society in a new direction.

6This essay will closely examine the history and evolution of Mashramani (commonly referred to as ‘Mash’), analyze its cultural geography, historic and political influences, as well as the experiences of Guyanese students, cultural workers, and other participants in the Mashramani festivities in February 2015. The contest of meaning and power played out in the imagery, music and movements along the parade route, a discourse that culminated in national elections that took place weeks later. While the government deployed the full power of the state in an attempt to shape a public narrative of government benevolence, largess and social progress, a multicultural coalition of political parties resisted this narrative at the polls, overthrowing the ruling party after 23 years in power.

7As in my previous study of Washington, D.C.’s go-go music culture (Hopkinson, 2012), this essay is informed by Roach’s (1996) work on ‘orature’, and Habermas’ (1962/1989) notion of the public sphere in which people ritually gather to negotiate their identity, remember (and sometimes forget) the past and reimagine the future. These public rituals perform a collective identity and history, as well as challenge the porous boundaries of what Roach calls a ‘circum-Atlantic’ identity. Like any human activity, Mashramani reflects a series of texts—historical, visual, oral, political and temporal. As Burr (2003) and Scott (1990) note, such texts can be considered ‘interpretive repertoires’ which reveal various ideologies and power struggles. Given Guyana’s diffuse colonial and neocolonial influences, also useful are the tools of cultural geography: the analysis of the confluence of man-made and natural landscapes through a patchwork of qualitative methods that draw on theoretical traditions including feminist theory, postcolonialism and postmodernism (Shurmer-Smith 2002; Hoggart et al. 2002).

  • 3 Parts of this ethnographic material on Mashramani, as well as extended life histories of two Guyan (...)

8The organization of this essay follows Korr’s (2011) cultural landscape analytic model, which includes a description of historic and political dimensions, exploring perceptions and the dynamic relationship, and finally, a cultural analysis. This analysis is integrated with the voices of Guyanese who participated in depth interviews, as well as a series of small-group arts policy discussions of the Interactivity Foundation (IF) Future of the Arts & Society guidebook (Hopkinson, 2014), and the IF dialogical method described by communication scholars Black and Wiederhold (2014).3

9The following section will provide historical and political dimensions of this particular cultural landscape as Guyana’s national 2015 elections approached. I will then analyze the parade, drawing out any political messaging and latent discourses that reflect shifting perspectives of this landscape. Next, I offer present key insights from contemporary Guyanese who participated in depth interviews and the IF discussions on and off the site at Mashramani parade. Finally, I conclude with an analysis of what these findings say about cultural imperialism in a globalized context.

10In recent decades, Guyana has developed a reputation for murderous ethnic strife primarily between African and Indian descended workers shipped in by British sugar imperialists. However, violent racial, cultural, and political strife preceded the clash between these two largest remaining ethnic groups by centuries. In 1815, the British took possession of British Guiana, making it the British Empire’s only toehold on the continent and a key military and economic port (De Barros 2002). Guyana is the only English-speaking country on the continent, and the only member of the British West Indies geographically located on the mainland of South America. Amerindians were the first to be enslaved, lasting until 1793. The first enslaved Africans to arrive were Akan from the Gold Coast, arrived in Essequibo around 1621. Later other West African ethnic groups followed, including ‘Abuna, Akan, Aku (Yoruba) Egba, Effa, Fula (Fulani) Ibo, Ijesa, Kongo, Kru, Ondo (Doko) Oyeh and Yagba’ (Cambridge 2015: 5) Although colonists also planted coffee and cotton crops, it was the combination of planting and harvesting sugar and importing African slaves as labor that made the project of colonizing the thick Guyana rainforests (which today still cover 80 percent of the landmass) an economically viable enterprise.

11Guyana was among the newest British acquisitions in 1834, when the British Parliament voted to abolish slavery. When Parliament approved £20 million to compensate slave owners, powerful British Guiana planters negotiated the highest rates of compensation, nearly twice as much per slave as in the older colonies such as Jamaica and Barbados (Draper 2010; Lange 2009; Beckles 2013). Powerful British planters, many of whom served in Parliament, demanded and received compensation and assistance to acquire replacement workers—indentured servants from Portugal, China and the largest group came from India. Then-British Guiana received more than a quarter million Indian indentured workers—among the highest in the British Empire.

  • 4 World Factbook 2013–14. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2013. (...)

12This economic and colonial history shaped the demographics of present-day Guyana. Ten percent of today’s population is indigenous Amerindian. Thirty percent are descendants of African slaves. About 16.5 percent are ‘other’ or European, and the largest ethnic group is of Indian descent at 43.5 percent.4 Since Independence, Guyana’s political and identity struggles continue to fall along this basic colonial framework.

13In the period immediately after Independence from Great Britain in 1966, the African-dominated People’s National Congress (PNC) controlled the government through fraudulent elections supported by imperial powers in the United States and Great Britain (Rabe 2005). This African-dominated regime ruled until 1992, when Guyana’s first truly free and fair elections took place. From 1992 until the 2015 elections, the Indian-dominated Progressive People’s Party (PPP) held power. Some 23 years into Indian-dominated PPP rule at the time of 2015 Mashramani, many Guyanese were ready for change. As the author and journalist Bahadur reported in a July 2015 dispatch for Foreign Policy magazine:

The [PPP] party seemed poised for an undoing of its own making…Critics charged that Guyana had become a corrupt narco-state under PPP rule and, even more unnervingly, that the government either tacitly condoned or actively sponsored a death squad run by a drug lord now in U.S. federal prison. Local government elections had not been held in two decades. Faced with a no-confidence vote in parliament last November, Ramotar simply suspended the body.

14Ramotar bowed to international pressure and announced elections on May 11, 2015. A new multiracial alliance of political parties called APNU (A Partnership for National Unity) which included the PNC, posed the first significant political challenge to the PPP in two decades. It was under this political context that the Mashramani festival took place in February 23, 2015.

  • 5 Mashramani 2015: Guyana’s Official 45th Republic Anniversary Commemorative Magazine. 6th Edition. (...)

15A 2015 government-produced magazine provides one account of the origins of Mashramani.5 Guyana’s first post-Independence leader, People’s National Congress (PNC) founder and Afro-Guyanese Leader Forbes Burnham, created Mash in 1973 as the national celebration of the moment he declared the country a ‘cooperative republic’. As a young lawyer under British rule, Burnham challenged colonial-era laws that oppressed African traditions such as ‘obeah’, a spiritual practice similar to voodoo, according to the cultural scholar Cambridge (2015). Once in power, Burnham vowed to use the authority of the state to actively affirm non-European culture and local identity. Burnham declared steel band Guyana’s official ‘indigenous’ music. Burnham asserted cultural leadership in the region by hosting the very first Pan-Caribbean cultural exchange, Carifesta, in 1970.

16Burnham laid out this cultural policy framework in a 1966 speech at an Independence conference. He vowed that the new government would create conditions for Caribbean artists to stay and thrive rather than migrate abroad for recognition. He anticipated literature, paintings, sculpture inspired by the ‘peculiar temperament of West Indians’ and Amerindian languages, and visual art ‘inspired by the tropical jungles of Guyana’. He acknowledged the cultural influence of Europe, but warned against following its lead on cultural matters (Cambridge 2015: 194).

  • 6 A.J. Seymour, Cultural Policy in Guyana. Paris: UNESCO, 1977.

17In the early 1970s, as sugar prices shot up to record levels, filling Guyana’s coffers, Mashramani was just part of Burnham’s cultural patronage strategy to create what his advisors described as the new ‘Guyana Man.’ A.J. Seymour, a prominent Guyanese poet and editor, described this concept in detail in a 1977 cultural policy document for UNESCO.6 Seymour traced Guyana’s musical heritage to Amerindian song and dance, including the Mari-Mari, Snake Dance and Monkey Dance, and the sounds of homemade violins and shak-shaks (shaker instruments similar to maracas). Guyanese music was influenced heavily by the porous boundaries to Venezuela and Brazil, which gave the Latin influence on melody and rhythms, Seymour wrote. The task ahead for newly Independent Guyanese was to create a new, post-Independence aesthetic. ‘For the artists of Guyana, the revelation of a national identity is the most revolutionary possibility that exists’, Seymour wrote. ‘The Guyana man has to re-create himself in his own image as an indispensable basis on which to realize the image of a national identity’.

18The Mashramani festival should be understood as an aesthetic claim for nationhood, a claim also expressed in a series of monuments Burnham commissioned in the 1970s to shape the built environment. The ‘1763’ Monument commemorated the day when an enslaved African man named Cuffy led an uprising of 5000 enslaved workers to seize command of Dutch-owned sugar plantations, and ruled as Governor of Berbice for nearly a year. The Cuffy monument was erected 1976 by the noted sculptor and painter Philip Moore. In a nod to the Indo-Guyanese majority, Burnham commissioned the Enmore Martyrs memorial to commemorate a group of protesting workers who were shot and killed in 1948 by police protecting a sugar estate.

19Burnham’s attempts at a renaissance were marred by key silences and omissions. In government policies elevating the culture of the ‘Little Man’, and new ‘Guyana Man’, women were not explicitly included. The regime privileged African culture and marginalized non-African ethnic groups, including Amerindians and Guyanese descended from India and smaller groups from China. The means of financing a 2000-seat National Cultural Center in 1976 was particularly fraught: Burnham used the funds held by colonial authorities in escrow to send back Indian indentured workers who completed their contracts. The practice of indenture had ended in 1917, so it was highly unlikely that original workers would exercise that right to return. However, the Indian majority deeply resented Burnham’s manipulation of the elections, and thus many Indo-Guyanese boycotted the center. Further, as Cambridge notes, to many Indo-Guyanese took cues in matters of high culture from their motherland in India. Many Indo-Guyanese initially dismissed spectacles such as Mashramani as a ‘black man ting’ (Cambridge 2015: 174).

  • 7 Dmitri Allicock. ‘The Birth of Guyana’s Mashramani.’ Accessed May 2017.https://ohbeautifulguyana.f (...)
  • 8 Personal e-mail communication with Dr. Walter Edwards, June 12, 2016.

20Cultural theorists Bhabha (1994) and Fanon (1967) noted that the naming process is at the heart of the postcolonial quest to be recognized and heard. Davis (1998) wrote that in West African philosophy, the process of ‘nommo’—naming things, forces, and modes—is a mean of establishing control over the object of the naming process. However, in naming Mashramani, some Guyanese accused the government of cultural appropriation of the Arawak tradition. This continued to be a source of controversy with some respondents in 2015. The name Mashramani was inspired by a memory of one organizer’s elderly relative of an Arawak marriage celebration, an Amerindian pronunciation of the phrase ‘muster many,’ according to a remembrance written by Guyanese writer Dmitri Allicock.7 Wayne State University linguist Walter Edwards, who helped to advise in the effort, said the festival name was based on an Arawak word ‘masedeme’ or ‘matriman’.8 This was a day when members of a village helped each other to cut a new farm or build a house. ‘At the end of the day the helpers are treated to food and drinks by the host as appreciation for the assistance. It's a celebration of work accomplished and neighborliness.’ According to another account written by Allicock, the noted local historian Adrian Thompson was less certain about the lineage of the word: ‘I don’t know the word and its meaning,’ Thompson said, a quote widely repeated. ‘I suspect that no one does. Therefore, go ahead and use it,’ according to Allicock.

21However imprecise, the naming was an attempt to honor Guyana’s original inhabitants and their ancestors. Stuart Hall famously noted that there was no original Caribbean because ‘everybody there comes from somewhere else’ (quoted in Browne, 2013: 27). While widely held, this sentiment is an act of erasure of the Indigenous population that inhabited these islands and continents long before the European conquests. As mentioned earlier, in continental Guyana, the population of indigenous Amerindians who survived the brutality of slavery, genocide and colonialism and continued to live as centuries of their ancestors did in the rainforest hinterland remained a sizeable and influential political block.

  • 9 Happy Mashramani: Forbes Burnham.

22Burnham chose February 23 for the date for Mashramani in a nod to the date of a Cuffy 1763 slave rebellion in Guyana. Burnham declared Mashramani a celebration of freedom from colonial chains as well as the collective work of many.9 For months leading up to the festival, Guyanese schools suspended normal classes to allow children to make costumes and floats to be displayed during the Mashramani Day Parade.

23In terms of structure, the Mashramani festival, can be loosely compared to other West Indian carnivals, with its most obvious influence coming from its closest Caribbean neighbor, Trinidad. A procession of floats featuring hand-built structures play with popular music on loud speakers, some steel bands, and various groups parading through the streets of Georgetown. The procession ends at National Park, where judges award best band, best float, best costumes, and the ‘king’ and ‘queen’ of the road march. Cambridge (2015) notes that other influences include the Christmas masquerade tradition, religious processions, and the New York West Indian Labor Day parades established in the 1940s.

24By the late 1970s, changes in Mashramani reflected Cold War pressures. From the beginning of his rule, Burnham faced internal pressures from Marxist anti-imperial critics including Indo-Guyanese (Jagan 1997) and Black Power radicals such as the historian Walter Rodney (Quinn 2014). Under internal pressure from the left, Burnham nationalized the bauxite and sugar industries. This action prompted the communism-fearing United States to slash aid to Guyana from $20 million in 1968 to $200,000 in 1974. As sugar prices fell precipitously, devastating its coffers, Guyana sought other global allies. Cuba, Soviet Union, China could provide limited help to Guyana. Burnham turned to another larger nation: The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, as the cultural scholar Moe Taylor (2015) describes in his study of the period.

25Under the leadership of Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) provided cultural guidance to Guyana. Pyongyang’s DPRK advocated the notion of economic and cultural autonomy through ‘juche’ a Marxist/Leninist inspired philosophy of revolutionary self-reliance. As part of the plan, Guyana banned food imports such as apple, wheat, and flour. Instead of relying on wheat imports, Burnham ordered Guyanese to buy cassava bread created in local Amerindian villages, a policy designed to boost indigenous markets and culture. However, the ban on bread and flour offended Guyanese of many backgrounds since roti made of flour was (and remains) one of Guyana’s signature dishes.

26Mashramani also added movement and visual elements inspired by North Korea: ‘Mass Games’ or large-scale gymnastics demonstrations were integrated into the annual Mashramani celebrations. Guyana school children devoted weeks of class time to practicing the tightly choreographed, quasi-militaristic gymnastic routines and creating massive multi-paneled paintings of Guyana’s head of state. Instructors such as North Korean Mass Games instructor Kim Il Nam taught Guyanese students how to prepare massive scale paintings commonly displayed in public settings in North Korea. These massive portraits of Guyana’s ‘Supreme Leader’ Forbes Burnham appeared during the first Guyanese Mass Games during Mashramani in 1980 (Taylor 2015).

27While early Mashramani sponsors included rum and alcohol companies, as the global recession hit in the 1970s and sugar prices dropped dramatically, the government also began to take on more of the financial sponsorship of the Mashramani festivities. It is during this period in which calypso competitions—once a bedrock of fiery political critique—began to shift toward praise music of the ruling government.

28Various regimes in Haiti and Trinidad similarly deployed government-sponsored creative competitions as a way to control the messages created during carnivals. Carnival musicians performed praise singing for Duvalier and musicians told Averill (1994) of performing during carnival festivities under fear for their lives. In the 1968 Haitian carnival, Duvalier created four floats symbolizing important government projects. As Riggio (1998) writes, in Trinidad, the move to official carnival contests in the 1880s marked the carnival’s shift from the margins toward respectability.

29In the transition to Indian-dominated PPP rule in 1992, the Mass games and the North Korean influence was (mostly as we will see shortly) abandoned. But most of the rest of basic structure of Mashramani did not change. Burnham’s longtime rival, the Indo-Guyanese, American-trained dentist named Cheddi Jagan who took the reins of power in 1992, dictated a similar revolutionary role for the artist in Guyanese society (Cambridge 2015: 151; Jagan 1997). Under the Indian-dominated PPP, the political function of Mashramani continued to be a political tool of cultural patronage and control. Cambridge compares Mashramani to ‘bread and circus’ strategies employed by rulers at the end of Roman Empire to deflect society’s attention away from their problems through massive spectacles that enabled the public to release pent-up frustrations.

30I will now address some selected pertinent elements of the 2015 Mash festival. As Browne writes, mas rhetorica is an ‘exemplary and characteristically Caribbean response to complex situations. In short, it had the effect of masking the fact that there was a deliberate, dialectical engagement with official opinion’ (2013: 11). So how to interpret the Mashramani scene that opened this essay?

31The dance between the Indo-Guyanese political leader and his Afro-Guyanese constituent is a ballet of seduction. For the constituent, it may be an authenticity test toward the leader, to assess how much he truly embraces a tradition commonly associated with the Afro-Guyanese population. For the Indo-Guyanese president, it is a bald attempt to court voters beyond his Indian base, to show he is willing to tango politically.

  • 10 The University of British Columbia scholar Dr. Janette Bulkan made this observation during a keyno (...)

32Scholars such as Janette Bulkan have noted, the Amerindian community views with detachment many of the political debates between Guyanese regimes of African and Indian descent. 10 These two newcomer groups to the continent are viewed as merely yet another colonial ruler they have seen come and go in the centuries their families have inhabited the rain forests. Thus the dance between the Indo-Guyanese president and the Afro-Guyanese constituent he is courting would be a spectacle they observe with some ironic distance even as they tolerate the yellow rope around them by government officials.

33Early that Mashramani morning, Guyanese began to fill the side of the roads and a center median on Church Street, eating local street food from vendors and waiting for the parades and floats to pass. The morning the sky was overcast, but the sun blazed through the clouds and reflected off the bright Mashramani costumes: fluorescent spandex, wide wire hoop skirts, rainbow veils, translucent wings, gold headdresses, gold paint splattered on bodies. Onlookers populated a very wide median on Church Street, as well as the sidelines holding umbrellas to block the equatorial sun. At the intersection of Vlissengen Road and Church Street (names that told of the Dutch and British who once ruled), several handsome wooden houses reflected Georgetown’s colonial, ‘Garden City’ past (De Barros 2002).

  • 11 ‘Bai Shan Lin Leases 27.4 Acres of Amerindian Land at $5000 an Acre’. Kaieteur News. February 26, (...)

34Some of the political subtext was subtle. A gigantic semi-truck called ‘De Emperor’ represented the Chinese Association of Guyana: ‘Celebrating our Cultural Diversity in the Year of the Sheep’. A large Chinese flag engulfed a tiny Guyana flag before a red backdrop. These were not the small group of Chinese who came as indentured sugar workers after the abolition of slavery, but an entirely new group of immigrants, many of whom have come to build the Marriott Hotel and other major infrastructure projects. These projects have created outrage locally because while the $58 million (USD) project was funded by Guyana taxpayers, people I spoke to said few of the construction jobs went to locals. As I mentioned earlier was also concerns about the Chinese influence when the PPP government announced a deal to lease ancestral Amerindian land to the Chinese investors.11

35Several large trucks with DJs booming sound systems passed along the parade routes, but very few live bands performed on the parade route aside from one steel band orchestra float sponsored by the government cultural ministry. The racial composition of the crowds was mixed. I saw a small number of Amerindian families looking on, and even more Guyanese of African and Indian descent wearing Amerindian-style cacique feathered headdress. There were quite a few Afro-Guyanese revelers, as they still dominated the urban Georgetown population.

36It was difficult to avoid the patina of government throughout the parade. A majority messaging of the floats was dedicated to iconography of PPP leaders, and outright election sloganeering. There were no hand-painted panels of the Supreme Leaders. The Mass Games, bread bans and mandatory iconography created by Guyanese students were abandoned nearly immediately after Burnham’s 1985 death. However, echoes of the North Korean influence remained visible. There were monumental-scale enlarged photographs of PPP’s head of state, President Donald Ramotar, displayed on several of the largest and most imposing floats. A huge yellow semi-truck bore a banner with the names of the civil engineering government contractors H. Nauth & Sons. Plastered across the front of the semi-truck was an enlarged photo of President Donald Ramotar perhaps 10 feet tall. Below in bright red letters, the banner read: Vote PPP/C and then a box with the X marked in one box, and a coffee cup in another box.

37On the side of the yellow truck had more sloganeering for the President’s Youth Organization and several young people mounted on the float to represent the future leaders of Guyana. I was told that the young people in all the government-sponsored floats were paid $8,000 GYD each to participate—an election-year bribe. Some of the young people on the floats wore business attire, others wore cricket uniforms alongside still more monumental-scale photographs of PPP candidates.

38A recurring theme in the float imagery was the government developing and building the country. In one such float, the image of PPP head of state Donald Ramotar’s face was incorporated in a small architectural model of an urban skyline. I was struck by the possessive ownership mentality among many government officials I encountered. This was evident by the yellow rope that encircled the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs procession. Also, as I took photos, the Minister of Health approached me, introduced himself and urged me to join the dancers on his ministry’s float. When I politely declined, he slipped me a card with his personal cell phone number on it.

39As Browne notes, carnivals are epideictic performances—ceremonies where the public praises or denigrates. Because these rituals

do not call for any immediate action by the audience, audience members have the default prerogative of not being moved once the occasion has passed; moreover, if they were to read the festival as a metaphor for Caribbeanness, they would also have the privilege of minimizing the performance of grievances to a temporary release of every day social frustrations that once, expressed, would inevitably revert to the normal run of things. (Browne 2013: 25 )

40Of course, the ultimate judgement would come at the polls two months later.

  • 12 I dismissed this as mere paranoia, until on the flight back to the U.S. in March 2015, my seatmate (...)

41Many Guyanese did not want to talk about the elections publicly, and ceased even speaking about it to neighbors. Many feared violence whatever the outcome.12

  • 13 Girish Gupta, ‘In Guyana, Feeling Stifled After Needling Government in a Song’. The New York Times(...)

42One respondent, a 40-something Indo-Guyanese blogger told me he appreciated that Mashramani is an economic generator for local merchants and cultural workers. He also praised the effort to include lectures and other parts of the festivities besides the carnival parade. However, he refused to participate in the parade, echoing Cambridge (2015) that Mashramani was a ‘black man ting’. Mostly, the blogger resented the ruling PPP government’s heavy hand in silencing and controlling chutney and calypso artists who are required by to submit their lyrics to their songs before they can be considered for prizes.13 Some 35 prizes were given in the 2015 competition. Digicel, the Irish-owned, Jamaica-based company that held the monopoly on cell phone communications, took the most prizes, according to local press reports.

43The blogger described the chutney competition as ‘pathetic’, ‘vulgar’ and ‘nasty’. He explained: ‘The lyrics are restricted to men drinking rum and dying because their women are leaving them. Or the woman drinking’. He said calypsonians and chutney musicians should be honest and open about Guyana’s political climate. ‘They will not touch any politics. That is how sad it is’. He said artists and everyday people alike feel threatened by the ruling government, which controlled roughly 80 percent of Guyana’s economy. ‘People are very scared and fearful. People start [being publicly critical] but they might stop because they have business or work and they need money’.

44Another respondent, a 40-year-old Afro-Guyanese visual artist criticized the government’s attempts at racial and cultural pluralism in Mashramani and its cultural policy in general. She said the way in which the manner of upholding the cultural and ethnic pluralism was itself rigid and stifling—drawing boundaries and boxes and boundaries that keep various cultures trapped in time:

The people who are managing the arts in Guyana are very lost. Guyana presents itself at Carifesta, you see India come on stage, and they do their [cak-cak] dance and whatnot to their tableau. And then you see the Amerindians come on stage with their skirts. They do mari-mari, which they’ve been doing for 50 years, and then you see the Africans come on, and you see, they beating drums and doing dance that have no specific cultural reference to the African culture that they are supposedly referencing back in continental Africa. It’s been going on the past 20 years. I expect it to continue for the next 50.

45After the Demerara Rum and Banks beer has kicked in later in the evening and the popular concerts and bands filled with audiences of mostly young people deep in the night. In a moment of frenzy, I ‘lost’ a wallet in my back pocket. As Averill (1994) noted of Haiti’s carnival, the desired ambiance ‘teeters just short of chaos’.

46In the small group of young people 19-24-year olds, attitudes toward Mash were more positive. This Millennial generation of Guyanese had no personal memory of the infamous ban on bread, or of Burnham, who died in 1985. They had no memory of a Guyana not ruled by the PPP party—and February 23rd being anything other than Mashramani, which many young people of various races expressed warm feelings and feelings of ownership.

47One Afro-Guyanese man whom I met along the parade route fondly recalled getting to leave class to practice gymnastics for the Mass Games. A 24-year-old Indo-Guyanese woman, an environmental researcher, said that Mashramani was her only access to the arts instruction growing up. A 19-year-old Indo-Guyanese economic student described Mashramani as a reprieve from day-to-day racial divisions and strife. ‘Mashramani is not really segregated you know’, he said. ‘It’s everyone coming together under one purpose to celebrate’.

48The economics student struggled to articulate the ongoing cultural struggles and tensions boiling beneath the surface. ‘What I’m saying is that it wouldn’t necessarily be a completely good idea to have all the cultures united and that they merge. It’s like, you can’t put a cat and dog together. Some things are meant to stay apart’. The comparison to different species of animals was startling statement I initially interpreted as a dehumanization of his fellow Guyanese. However, as he continued to speak, it was clear that his point was that group cultural differences should be preserved, respected, and not dissolved into one stew, or ‘cook-up rice’. He continued:

One culture can end up dominating the other and that will eventually be overturned, somehow converted... So you lose part of your culture in that majority of the population. Say for instance, you have Mashramani. Most likely the Indians and Africans will want to see their cultures put forward. And with such a small percentage of the population being Amerindian demanding their culture, it would just go out. It would cause the smaller percentage to lose their culture.

49The fear of erasure was buried deep in this wish to keep various cultures unified and intact. This 19-year-old believed that the arts and culture had an important role to lay in in forging a future Guyana. ‘If you want to have a change, you actually have to have someone who is quite imaginative’, he said. ‘They say someone isn’t smart based on how much they know. It’s about how much they can imagine what’s possible. If you can imagine a way of solving it, then you can solve it’.

50As the 2015 national elections approached, Guyanese voters struggled to imagine a new future amid poverty and lack of development and debilitating racial tensions. The conversation about Guyana’s future continued at the polls on May 11, when by some estimates half voted for the first time. The multiracial alliance, A Partnership for National Unity, or APNU, narrowly prevailed with 206,817 votes to 201,457 to the PPP. Newly elected President David Granger, Afro-Guyanese former brigadier general with the PNC, was the leader of this coalition of parties. Thus voters resisted the ruling PPP party’s attempt at propaganda during Mashramani, state-run media and elsewhere.

  • 14 Krauss, Clifford. ‘With a Major Oil Discover, Guyana is Poised to Become a Top Producer’. The New (...)

51Political observers struggled to pinpoint exactly what put the multiracial opposition over the top. As Bahadur (2015b) wrote in a follow-up in dispatch, ‘with the May 2015 contest decided by only 4,500 votes, it may have hinged [on mixed-race] couples and their mixed-race children’. The difference also might have been Millennials of both races such as the ones with whom I spoke for the IF cultural policy discussions. It might have been the 10 percent of the Amerindian population’s exercising its swing vote. Whatever the cause, it was the first change in Guyanese party leadership since 1992. Democratically electing a candidate of a different race than the largest ethnic majority marked a new beginning for Guyana. And shortly after the elections, that the oil giant Exxon announced it had discovered nearly $200 billion (USD) oil off the Essequibo Coast14 is also another chapter, a test to see if the patterns of exploitation continue.

52Much as in Averill’s (1994) historical study of Haiti’s carnival, on one end of spectrum, carnivals such as Mashramani can function as instruments of social control, a way to divert popular attention away from oppressive social realities. Averill also notes, carnival can also be a site of popular pleasures that challenge taboos, hierarchies and social conventions but uphold them by acting as a ‘pressure valve.’

53The cultural conflict epitomized by Mashramani may never be fully resolved. Mas rhetorica is a process, not a destination. As Browne notes:

It is the strategic practice of seeing and being seen that gives Caribbean practitioners a means of knowing the world through process and repetition, the construction of new knowledge, controversial meanings, and the insistence on alternative perspectives of reality. (Browne 2013: 23)

54Among people with a history of brutality and oppression, there is deep yearning for ‘authentic’ cultural identity that cannot be erased. Centuries of colonization, trade and immigration on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean have created a syncretic culture (Gilroy 1993; Agawu 2003; Roach 1996). Despite the oppressive forces that have attempted to manipulate it as an exercise in power and control, a generation of young people of all ethnicities claimed Mash as its own.

55Mashramani is an occasion for the Guyanese public to celebrate its survival amid centuries of struggles against domination from various outside influences, from the Europeans, to the North Korean and the United States, as well as to negotiate their own intra-nation struggles over migration and identity. Part of the project of postcolonialism has to be to finding alternate systems of knowledge and validity. Freedom and independence means exercising the prerogative to center the self at the core of one’s own reality, beyond hegemonic cultural frameworks dominated by forces that would pretend some peoples never existed. In this sense, Burnham’s was a prescient vision for building a cultural identity that Guyana, which often finds itself lost between the crossroads of empires, can stand firmly on its own ground.

56Mashramani has proven to be a celebration of enduring cultural power and an important expression of postcolonial identity. Mash is artificial; like all culture, it is human-made. It is a tradition bursting with layers of history and politics and cultural struggle and strains under that weight. It has too many clashing flavors, too many competing voices in its head. It is idiosyncratic, distinctive, hybrid. It is one way to imagine a globalized future.


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1 There were letters to the editor about the general conduct of Mashramani, however the crowd's reaction to Ramotar received none of the public outrage that bottled up a week earlier in nearby Trinidad when images of an Afro-Trinidadian opposition leader danced suggestively with an Indo-Trinidadian constituent went viral on social media. ‘Facebook Furore Over Wine With Rowley’. Trinidad & Tobago Guardian. Feb. 19, 2015.

2 6000 New Solar Panels for Amerindian Villages. Granger calls it tokenism. Stabroek News. Feb. 26, 2015. ‘Bai Shan Lin Leases 27.4 Acres of Amerindian Land at $5000 an Acre’, Kaieteur News, February 26, 2015.

3 Parts of this ethnographic material on Mashramani, as well as extended life histories of two Guyanese artists quoted here (Bernadette Persaud and Ruel Johnson) also appear in Natalie Hopkinson. A Mouth is Always Muzzled: Six Dissidents, Five Continents and the Art of Resistance. The New Press, 2018.

4 World Factbook 2013–14. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 2013.

5 Mashramani 2015: Guyana’s Official 45th Republic Anniversary Commemorative Magazine. 6th Edition. Corbin Media Group, Inc. East Bank Demerara, Guyana. Accessed May 2017.

6 A.J. Seymour, Cultural Policy in Guyana. Paris: UNESCO, 1977.

7 Dmitri Allicock. ‘The Birth of Guyana’s Mashramani.’ Accessed May 2017.

8 Personal e-mail communication with Dr. Walter Edwards, June 12, 2016.

9 Happy Mashramani: Forbes Burnham. Accessed May 2017.

10 The University of British Columbia scholar Dr. Janette Bulkan made this observation during a keynote speech she gave at the 3-G London: Imagining the Guianas/Ecologies of Movement and Memories Conference, University of London School of Advanced Study, London House, October 2016.

11 ‘Bai Shan Lin Leases 27.4 Acres of Amerindian Land at $5000 an Acre’. Kaieteur News. February 26, 2015.

12 I dismissed this as mere paranoia, until on the flight back to the U.S. in March 2015, my seatmate told me about a cache of weapons he and other Guyanese were stockpiling across the border. His mother was Indo-Guyanese and his father was Afro-Guyanese, and it was not immediately clear which side for him he had pledged to take up arms. He never responded to my emails asking him to elaborate.

13 Girish Gupta, ‘In Guyana, Feeling Stifled After Needling Government in a Song’. The New York Times. December 5, 2013.

14 Krauss, Clifford. ‘With a Major Oil Discover, Guyana is Poised to Become a Top Producer’. The New York Times. Jan. 13, 2017.


Natalie Hopkinson, Ph.D. is a writer whose work explores the arts, public policy and cultural identity. She is an assistant professor in Howard University’s graduate program in Communication, Culture and Media Studies and a fellow of the Interactivity Foundation. A former staff writer, editor and culture critic at The Washington Post and The Root, she is the author of two critically acclaimed books: Go-Go Live (Duke University Press), and Deconstructing Tyrone (Cleis Press; with co-author Natalie Y. Moore). A Mouth is Always Muzzled, her third book of essays that expands on the themes in this chapter, was published in 2018 by The New Press.

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