President David Granger: Ladies and gentlemen, it’s difficult to say how happy I am to be in this group this evening. Having grown up in colonial Guyana I could not imagine a British governor, living in government house, having this type of ceremony on the lawns of this residence. Certainly [it] is a great change from when I was a youngster in colonial Guyana to what we can enjoy in independent Guyana.
I’m happy for several reasons. One is that we saw this evening an expression of culture, which is part of the Guyanese experience which started to flourish I would say, in a much wider sense than during colonial times because when we were growing up Phagwah was not observed; Diwali was not observed as a national holiday. These are some of the gifts of independence and they contribute to national unity because it helps us to understand, it helps us to appreciate the differences in Guyana’s culture and also the uniqueness and the features of Guyanese culture, which unite us.
I have some experiences. I have a nephew who was passing through Houston airport some years ago and he saw somebody, she looked like Guyanese, an Indian woman. Of course, he didn’t know because this was an airport, so he went up to her and asked, “You want some mittai?” She said yeah. He said want some mittai? She said yeah and that was the bond because he recognised her as a Guyanese and asked her if she wanted some mittai, and she don’t know when last she had mittai and he gave it to her; and for that moment two Guyanese met in Houston airport in Texas, which shows you that we come from so many shared cultural experiences.
Before many of you were born about 45 years ago, I was in Delhi and I had the opportunity to see a magnificent cultural show. It was right about January. It was very cold. I didn’t realise New Delhi was so cold and you saw the complexity of Indian society. Maybe some people in Guyana think that India is one race, one culture, one religion but what I saw that night, there are people of absolutely all complexions from very pale, very white [skin] to very dark [skin] and there are people with completely different ethnic backgrounds, completely different religious backgrounds, complete different languages, but when you go into India you will see what a beautiful but diverse society it is.
Here in Guyana we don’t appreciate our diversity and, as Brother Ravi said, you know, we tend to set ourselves in little compartments sometimes, in enclaves, but I can go to an Islamic qaseeda competition over at Anna Catherina and enjoy it. A couple weeks ago, I [went] to another Hindu ceremony at the ashram to celebrate Shivaratri; here I can come this evening, and appreciate a Guyanese festival. And I wish, having gone around all of the regions of Guyana, I wish that some of these ceremonies are not confined to the coastland, and I wish they can go into some of the rivers and creeks, go into some of the other communities, so people could understand our society much better.
When I campaigned, and I did a lot of campaigning over the last six years I can tell you that, there are some areas I go and I don’t speak English because I have to get an interpreter. There are many people in Guyana who prefer not to listen to English or not to speak English and among the Indigenous people alone there are about nine different languages and, if I want to be understood, I still walk with an interpreter. I may try to say something in English and they’ll look at me – an interpreter will translate what I said and everybody will start to laugh because the interpreter will be able to interpret much more richly what I’m trying to say… Here in Guyana you mustn’t assume that everybody is the same. There are people who still cling to their culture, cling to their religion, cling to their different languages and we have a duty to try to understand. Now, Ravi has explained the Chowtaal.
Again, when I was in India 45 years ago I learned to count but I can’t count too well – ek, do, teen, chaw, panch, so I know up to five, right? But I did figure that the taal represents the … variations in the musical you’ve been playing the musical… what do you call it? The taals, the rhythms? And the charo is the four; ek, do, tin, chaw, panch … you see I can count up to five …but again, this is a gift of India brought from the Bhojpuri regions, which we have maintained for over 178 years and, as I said, it may survive in Trinidad or Suriname or Guyana but it is starting to die out in the land of its birth. But the fact that you’ve been able to preserve this tradition and this custom and still find joy in it, and other people can find joy in it, shows the power of culture, the power of retention of these norms and also not only your own ability to retain those norms but to spread in the new generations that are coming up. And I would like to ask that maybe from time to time, just as you come to State House, go to other areas of Guyana and let people understand. I say this today, to the Muslims I said, let people enjoy the joy of qaseeda. Let people understand the joy of chowtaal.
Tomorrow we observe a festival which perhaps is one of the most joyous festivals in all of Guyana. The colour, the sheer fun, the vigour, the vitality, it says everything about spring, it says everything about regeneration, it says everything about rebirth and you should not be surprised that within, literally within hours of Holi, Christians celebrate Easter. Why? Easter, too, is a festival of spring, and it’s a festival when in the Middle East where, of course, Christianity was born, where Islam was born, where Judaism was born. It is at this time of the year that we celebrate the end of winter and the start of the time of the year when people are seeing regeneration and they start to replant for the New Year.
Some people do things which they don’t have an idea what the causes are. At Easter time when people talk about Easter eggs, Jesus Christ had nothing to do with eggs. I can tell you that, but people speak about Easter eggs and you have chocolate eggs and painted eggs and so on. Sometimes you see rabbits and you know what rabbits are famous for, not crucifixion, multiplication; so it is a time of procreation that’s what it’s all about. So Holi is part of that tradition when all of us celebrate regeneration.
And I hope we get some rain because we had some El Nino affecting us in the Rupununi. So I hope for that; there are some rains. Every time there is Phagwah there is rain. In my family, we observe Phagwah for different reasons because my first daughter was born on Phagwah day, my second daughter was born two years later on Phagwah day; so we can’t forget Phagwah, they can’t forget Phagwah. So my brothers and sisters, we are celebrating an important festival. I had an Indian professor once who said that he came from a part of India where they don’t celebrate Phagwah. So I said, are you serious, you sure you came from India? He said, it’s basically a time when winter ends and spring starts and people plant again, but where I come from there is no winter and there is no spring, there is just perpetual summer. So we find that in North India, where this festival comes from, and in South India the customs may vary. Similarly at Diwali when there’s the onset of autumn or winter you might find that the festivals might differ in different parts of India. It’s all due to the complexity of that sub-continent.
So tonight I’m very, very happy here because I feel like a Guyanese; I feel part of everything you’ve done, everything that you’ve involved me in and I hope that a festival like this continues, but I’d hope that it spreads to other communities so people can understand. One of the great deficiencies of our country is ignorance. People just do not know much about the beliefs and the customs and the cultures of other people, regardless of what we say, and many people do not really understand. Maybe they tolerate, they know they shouldn’t interfere or speak out of turn but they don’t understand the depth of the affinity which we have and sometimes people make a lot of mistakes when they take others for granted.
In Christianity, for example, even among Christians there is a wide range of diversity. I for one am an Anglican; then you have people who are Seven Day’s Adventists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics. When I was at Bartica I went to an Anglican school, then I went to Whim [where] I went to what is called the Church of Scotland school. When I came to Georgetown I went to the Moravian school then afterwards I went to a Roman Catholic school; so by the time I was 11 I said, what is going on here; how many Gods are there? One, but it shows you that we all come to the same God, the same creator by different routes and it is good for us to learn to appreciate how seriously other people take their faiths because we would then appreciate better not only ourselves, but we are not entitled to be exclusively hateful of other religions.
We must be tolerant because other religions may have truths, which we ourselves may not be able to discover particularly the benefits of compassion which all our religions preach. It is important for me because at Christmastime last year December, I said a mother’s place is with her children and I’m not going to keep a woman locked up because she’s selling a few joints of ganja. So I let out some women; I let 11 women out and somebody wrote saying, ‘why not more?’ And I said, well, only 11 qualified, but I’m not going to let out any murderer or anybody trafficking in cocaine but I believe that a woman’s place at Christmastime or any time in the year is with her children. Who looks after the children? You got five children, who looks after the children when she’s doing three years in jail for possession of ganja or trafficking in ganja.
So it is part of my compassion and I can do it under the Constitution. I don’t break the law. The Constitution allows me to do that and I believe that all of our religions teach compassion – Hinduism teaches compassion; Islam teaches compassion – and when we lose that compassion; when we lose that love for fellow man and woman we take a dangerous road, we take a dangerous road, my brothers and sisters, I tell you that, when we start to hate. We see what is happening in countries where there is hatred. I don’t know of any religion which tolerates hatred, which tolerates murder, which tolerates the taking of human life.
We, in Guyana, are like in an oasis of tolerance, a quiet place where I’m not aware of any person of any religion taking up a weapon against people of other religions. And tonight this is what we see here; we see tolerance; we see an expression of joy; an expression that should be taken to other citizens of this great land. I believe in national unity. I don’t mean that we must erase differences. I don’t believe that we need to pretend that we’re all the same. There’s unity in our diversity; just as by the age of 11 I could have gone to four different Christian schools and not come out hating any one of them but appreciating their differences.
Similarly I can go to a masjid. I remember when I went to one masjid I went early because when people invite me for something at six o’clock I tend to go at six o’clock. I know the Muslims; they tend to pray on time. You know sometimes they have a computer; on the computer or their cell phone gives them an alarm when it’s time to pray; and studying in Nigeria, Northern Nigeria, which is almost completely Muslim, sometimes you might be in a conversation and when the time comes you must break the conversation to pray, come back and continue the conversation.
The point I’m making is that punctiliousness about observance of the religion and it is something that we must be tolerant about, something that we must appreciate in Guyana. As a Christian, I am respectful of other religions. As Hindus, I’ve always been assured that you are respectful of my religion. I don’t think there is any occasion in which people will try to force me to go to a masjid or force me to go to a mandir or force me to understand their beliefs, but there must be more.
I would like to propose, during my tenure of office, that we produce texts, maybe a real history of Guyana which pays tribute to the various cultural and historical threads, which come together to create this Guyanese society, this tapestry of Guyanese society. There is no one book that does it. There is no one book that explains all of these threads. Sometimes we forget that on the 5th of May we not only celebrate the arrival of Indians; we celebrate the arrival of the Portuguese, who came from 1834. In January, we celebrate the arrival of the Chinese and we celebrate the arrival of Indians in 1838.
So we have to understand that this country is not just made up of one ethnic group or two ethnic groups or three ethnic groups and we must understand there was a man living here called Arthur Chung; he was Chinese. There is a man living here called Donald Ramotar; he is Indian. There is a man living here named David Granger; he is of African descent. So we must understand these things. It doesn’t matter what ethnicity I am. I am Guyanese, 100% Guyanese, and you all are free to come back here next year.
So thank you, members of the Swami Shivashankar who arranged this beautiful ceremony. For me it is very significant. It’s a celebration not just of Holi but of our ‘Guyaneseness’. I’d like to invite you to keep on doing your work not only in your own communities, but also in public places and as you can see around Georgetown, we will open more and more public places so that we’re not closed in by bush and garbage. You’ll be able to go to pleasant places, safe places at evenings with lights and no mosquitoes and you’ll be able to perform your cultural activities. I will always remember in 2000 or before 2000 Camp Street used to be a very bad place for pedestrians. If you wanted to go from Lamaha Street to Church Street you had to walk at the side of the road and dodge the motorcars and the motorcycles but a group of people, many of them Portuguese, completely rehabilitated the avenue between Lamaha Street and Church Street and the next year you saw Hindus with their, what it’s called, rangoli, with the coloured rice and so on? Because it was rehabilitated and it was a pleasant place to go during Hindu ceremonies, it didn’t matter who rehabilitated it, but I would like to rehabilitate not only Georgetown but all of the towns in Guyana; and you know I’ve created three new towns, and I’ll create some more, you just leave me a little and I’ll create some more – Mabaruma, Bartica and Lethem. Some more are to come…
So I believe, we gaffing now, right. Only when you travel, maybe to the West Indies, you realise how great a country Guyana is. When you go to Antigua and Anguilla you realise that this country is a beautiful and bountiful country. Region One alone is four times the size of Trinidad and Tobago. Barima-Waini Region, northwest, is four times the size of Trinidad and Tobago and when you go to Mabaruma – I cannot imagine how people expect Mabaruma to administer a region that is four times the size of Trinidad and Tobago. Mabaruma gets five hours light a day. Everything run down. It has to be supplied by an old ferry called Lady Northcote.
I’ve made Mabaruma into a town and I want you all to go to these towns, take your culture. Every single region must be administered by a town and we must go to these regions and occupy them with our Guyanese spirit, and that is what I want to see, Guyanese culture spreading to all the corners of this country. We’re bigger than England and Scotland combined. We’re bigger than England and Scotland combined and I want to see this culture, whether its Indigenous culture, whether its Hindu culture, Christian culture, Islamic culture, African, Indian, Chinese, Portuguese culture spreading throughout the country and making us all proud of the tapestry and complexity of this great nation, this great people. Great things can come from Guyanese; great things are ahead for us if we are tolerant of each other and if we have ceremonies like this going on year after year.
Thank you very much. I am very proud, very pleased. I don’t normally talk a lot, but when I talk a lot it means I am very happy. Thank you and Happy Holi.