Politics, Culture in the Shadow of Colonialism

The obstacles to culture in Guyana and Suriname

GUYANA and Suriname are enigmas not just to outsiders, but to their own citizens. These countries are engaged in a process of cultural redefinition during a time of political change and economic hardship. Threats to cultural development range from the most sophisticated economic and political factors to the basics of whether electrical power is available. Guyana and Suriname, neighbors on the northern tip of South America, share a colonial history. Guyana, formerly British Guyana, has an estimated 750,000 citizens of East Indian, African, Chinese, European, and Amerindian origin, whose official language is English. Suriname is the country the English traded to the Dutch in exchange for New York. Its population is a richly complex mix of Dutch, Indonesian, Hindustani, and African. The official language is Dutch, but over 40 languages are spoken.

The crisis of cultural identity is made complex by a flight of culture capital over many decades. Exile is both voluntary and political. Nearly half the Guyanese population lives abroad.

Statistics are similar for Suriname, where the problem became more acute after a 1982 massacre of 13 of the country's prominent citizens by the military dictatorship. Suriname still identifies strongly with Holland, even though the Dutch withdrew all economic aid in response to the regime's political repression.

My husband and I recently traveled to Guyana and Suriname. We had access to government and opposition leaders in both countries. As lecturers we were able to exchange views and information with university colleagues. We were impressed by the vitality and creativity of those who made the difficult choice to stay behind in the face of formidable obstacles.

There is a lack of basic communications facilities: newsprint, publishing technology, modern broadcasting and television systems, books, magazines, are painfully scarce. One woman recently returned to Suriname from years of exile in Holland to reestablish her once-popular radio station. She was frustrated in efforts to obtain the licenses and financing needed to start her business again. An independent newspaper in Guyana does not have the foreign exchange to buy newsprint, even though the paper has sufficient Guyanese dollars to pay for this basic material. News about Guyana and Suriname is deficient in the local media; information comes by satellite TV, news wire services, short wave radio, and foreign news publications.

Because political and economic issues are so pressing, culture is often given lowest priority. Public discussions virtually exclude the topic. Silence and neglect become self-fulfilling prophecies, symbolized by the beautiful public buildings in Georgetown - landmarks of Victorian-style architecture - allowed to crumble into disrepair. My lecture on American literature and culture in Georgetown had to be moved from the university to the USIS lecture room because the university was on strike and because frequent power outages leave most of the capital without lights at night. The USIS building has its own generator.

My small, but well-informed audience included articulate young faculty from the university, which has now been closed for a full semester. One of them used the phrase, ``the difficult art of staying home,'' in reference to the St. Lucian writer Derek Walcot, who renounced exile. We spoke of the many writers who have left the Caribbean region to make their homes in Europe or the United States: notably the late C.L.R. Jones, V.S. Naipaul, and Wilson Harris. Surinamese names on this list include Astrid Roeer, Leo Ferrier, Bea Vianen, and Edgar Cairo. Two of these writers, Jones and Naipaul, rank among the best in the English language.

In Suriname, those who are rebuilding the country after eight years of military dictatorship lament they are picking up ``not even the leftovers'' from what they describe as a former tropical paradise. In the beautiful capital city of Paramaribo, with its colonial Dutch architecture, we saw men carrying pet songbirds in cages. These birds are trained rigorously by master songbirds. The cages are placed strategically apart so the apprentice bird can hear but not see the master. The new virtuosos are then entered into national competitions. One thinks of the new writers of the new Guyanas and wonders what their song will become, with their mentors far away and critical of their homelands.

In Georgetown, we attended a performance of Eugene O'Neill's ``Long Day's Journey Into Night,'' directed by Ron Robinson and starring Claremont Taitt and Margaret Kellman. The show went on after some delay due to the blackout of the entire neighborhood in which the theater was located. The theater company, well known in the Caribbean, gave a stunning interpretation of the classic American tragedy. While I first wondered why this play had been selected for production, it became clear to me that the skilled company used this story of the decline of a family to make a statement on the region: It didn't have to be this way.

The fact that the performance was possible, however, gave the most important message. Cultural life goes on in these countries against all odds. Dialogue with cultural leaders is maintained, even at long distances. Writers who have left feel the obligation to return to visit. Culture, in all its ethnic variations, is celebrated in words, images, and music, as long as the lights aren't out.

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