Eusi Kwayana: A Guyanese Political Legend turns 90 – By Dr. David Hinds

Eusi Kwayana: A Guyanese Political Legend turns 90

By Dr. David Hinds

eusi Kwayana -in 2014

Eusi Kwayana -in 2014

 Today, April 4, 2015, Eusi Kwayana turns 90. It is difficult to properly analyze modern Guyanese politics without taking into consideration Eusi Kwayana’s wide ranging contributions. His political career has spanned the seven decades, which mirrors the period normally referred to as the modern phase of Guyanese and Caribbean politics. This article pays tribute to Kwayana by offering an overview of his political life and work.

Political Biography

Eusi Kwayana, formerly Sydney King, was born 1925 and has been involved in Guyana’s national politics since 1947.He has been referred to as the “Sage of Buxton,”“Renaissance Man”and “Guyana’s Gandhi,” among other descriptions. He is multi-faceted– political activist, educator, writer, journalist, dramatist, folklorist and historian. But it is as a political activist that Kwayana has made his most telling contribution. He has become one of Guyana’s most distinguished political leaders. Ironically, he has also been one of the most controversial and misunderstood public personalities.  

He entered the political arena asa supporter of Cheddi Jagan in his successful bid for a seat in the Legislative Council in 1947. He soon joined the Political Affairs Committee (PAC), a small left wing group that was the precursor to the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), the country’s first mass-based political party. He served as Assistant General Secretary of the PPP and Minister of Communication and Works in the PPP government following the party’s victory at the April 1953 elections. After British troops invaded Guyana and the constitution was suspended, Kwayana was among several PPP members placed in detention.

When,in 1955, the PPP split generally along ethnic lines, Kwayana was one of a small group of Africans that remained with the Cheddi Jaganfaction. However, he left the Jagan faction in 1956 and joined the newly- formed  People’s National Congress (PNC) led by Forbes Burnham and served as General Secretary and editor of the party’s organ, New Nation until he wasexpelled from the party in 1961 for publicly engaging the ethnic problem.

He co-founded in 1961 the African Society for Racial Equality (ASRE),which was dedicated primarily to raising cultural consciousness among African Guyanese. As ethnic insecurity by both groups became more manifest, Kwayana, on behalf of ASRE, proposed a power sharing arrangement or “joint premiership” between the leaders of the two ethnic parties with partition of the country into three zones – African, Indian and Mixed – as a last resort. Both leaders rejected the proposal. ASRE was disbanded a year later, amidst fears of dividing the African-Guyanese community and the country descended into open ethnic conflict that lasted from 1961 to 1964.

Amidst the ethnic violence, Kwayana,in 1964, co-founded the African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa (ASCRIA), which, like ASRE,committed itself to the promotion of Africanpride, dignity, and culture among African-Guyanese. He served as Coordinating Elder of ASCRIA and changed his name to Eusi Kwayana, which, in Swahili, means Black Man of Guyana.

Although he never rejoined the PNC he supported the party, which rose to power in 1964 as part of a coalition with another small party, the United Force (UF).He held several influential positions in the government– head of the National Land Settlement Committee; chairman of the Guyana Marketing Corporation (GMC); chairman of the Cooperative Insurance Committee; and chairman of a committee charged with converting the Guyana Cooperative Credit Society into a Cooperative Bank.

In 1971 he broke with the PNC over the issue government corruption and became one of its severest critics. In the process Kwayana and ASCRIA began to develop relations with other anti-government organizations which in 1974 merged into the Working People’s Alliance (WPA). Hehas been a 1eading member of party and was its presidential candidate in 1985 and parliamentarian in the years 1986-90. Critically, during this period he directly and indirectly mentored an entire group of political activists who have continued to serve in public life in Guyana and beyond.

There are five aspects of Kwayana’s political life that stands out…First, for him politics is not a path to power but a medium for service and collective liberation. Second, while he has held strong ideological positions, he has not been dogmatic. He preferred to be guided by fairness rather than political correctness. Third, although he has held leadership positions in three major political parties, he has never sought the top position. He turned down such positions several times. Fourth, he is perhaps the only major Caribbean politician who has publicly admitted to mistakes on important issues. Fifth, his political practice has been grounded in political morality.

Political Praxis

An important aspect of Kwayana’s political life has been his ability to influence politics outside of formal political office. There are two major factors that contributed to this. First, he has taken on issues of fairness and justice, even when it is not politically correct to do so. In this regard, his concern is always whether it is fair or just. Second, he has been fiercely independent; his bottom line has always been what best for the people and the country rather than for the party or leader.

This independent thought and action have contributed to carving out an independent or third space in a political process that is generally dominated by duality. His independence was manifested not only by actions outside of the two major parties but when he functioned inside the parties. This independent or third space accommodated ASCRIA in the 1960s, the WPA from the 1970s and more recent organizations such as the Alliance for Change (AFC). The importance of this independent space is its ability to constantly provide a critique of the dominant tendencies that has had both radicalizing and democratizing effect on the political process. Walter Rodney’s direct impact on the politics of the 1970s was facilitated by this third space.

Although Kwayana functioned in the executive branch for just 133 days and in the legislature for a little over five years, he has had a major impact on every major political episode in Guyana.Kwayana has been a strong believer in organization and movements. From his entry into national life in the late 1940s to the present he has always belonged to at least one major national organization. He is the only major political leader in Guyana to play leading roles in the three defining movements of the last seven decades–the Independence, Black Power and Pro-Democracy movements.

Another important aspect Kwayana’s political praxis is his engagement of the concrete. Although he was ideologically grounded in the left wing of Caribbean politics, he avoided the dogmatism that has sometimes immobilized his fellow travelers. Because his point of departure has always been the concrete conditions he drew lessons from them rather than imposing lessons on them. This in turn has contributed to Kwayana’s broad praxis which is sometimes projected as changes in his approach.

While Marxists generally avoided the issue of race and ethnicity, Kwayana did not.No public person since 1961 has written and spoken more on Guyana’s persistent ethnic problems than Kwayana. He was the first political leader to raise the issue of race as a central problem on the political process and offered a solution. Since then he has functioned simultaneously as the foremost messenger of African cultural pride and regeneration in Guyana and an advocate of multiracial working class solidarity and unity. He is as committed to the working class liberation as he is to African progress and freedom. This engagement of ethnicity and race in an ethnically divided country has earned him the status of both hero and villain. But in the final analysis, his political life reflects the persistent dilemma of race, ethnicity and class. Perhaps, more than any other political person of his generation, he has managed to synthesize the three.

Kwayana has a long trail of writings, beginning with his writings in the PPP’s Thunder in the early 1950s during which time he wrote many articles and editorials that did not carry his byline. He would later serve as editor of the PNC’s New Nation, ASCRIA’s ASCRIA Drums and WPA’s Dayclean and Open Word. In addition to his journalistic writings, Kwayana has written many other academic and policy papers. Most of his writings have addressed the concrete issues of the particular time, but others have addressed broad issues such as race and ethnicity, governance and culture. He has also written the party songs of the PPP, PNC and WPA.

The Finest Human Being

I end this overview of Kwayana’s work with a personal note. I have had the good fortune of working with and learning from some of the best intellectuals and political minds in Guyana. My experience as a member of the WPA for the last four decades has been the finest education in politics and public engagement. I love the WPA family undyingly.  In all of this, the persistent example of Eusi Kwayana has been pivotal. He is the finest human being I have encountered in my life’s journey. Thanks Brother Eusi. Happy birthday.

Dr. David Hinds, a political activist and commentator, is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Caribbean and African Diaspora Studies at Arizona State University. More of his writings and commentaries and other news and views on Guyana and Caribbean politics can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website http://www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com

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Comments

  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On April 4, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    A Happy Birthday, Elder Kwayana. You have traveled a long and bumpy road. Thank you for your public service to the people of Guyana.

  • de castro  On April 4, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    Happy happy 90th brother…you are a Guyanese legend….
    and will live forever in the hearts and minds of us Guyanese wherever we are.
    Enjoy your day.

    Salud

  • Ron. Persaud  On April 4, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    He was once described as Burnham’s opponent “with a will of steel!”
    http://www.unity4power.org/EUSIKWAYANA.html

  • H, Russell  On April 4, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    Happy Birthday,
    Higher up. Just seems like yesrerday that used to call you that. Now I am 60 and you are celebrating you 90th. I thank God for you touching my life and may you continue to walk with God. I will keep you in my prayers. Thank you for being my friend, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!

  • guyaneseonline  On April 6, 2015 at 7:24 am

    Eusi Kwayana: the great teacher at large

    Posted By STABROEK NEWS -On April 6, 2015 @ 5:11 am In Letters |
    Dear Editor,

    In this celebration of Eusi Kwayana on his 90th birthday, I wish to share some of the personal and treasured encounters I have had with this ageless man.

    Only a few of the founding stalwarts of the freedom movement that began in the 1940s are still with us. Eusi Kwayana has outlived many a friend and foe and continues to work his passion, even as you read this. For his incomparable work, there is no paycheck at the end of the week, no fringe benefits, no sick leave, and no vacations. It seems as if dollars cannot measure the worth of such work, so priceless and so necessary. And this did not have to be. Mr Kwayana turned down ambassadorial offers of postings abroad (and the high life that goes with it), preferring to stay at home in the Buxton backland and presumably watch over the affairs of state from a private and non-paid position—the best, and perhaps the only way, genuine public service can be done. At one time I truly think he personified the conscience of the nation.

    In America, as we get old we come to realize, it costs more to be dying than to be living. And it is worse for those who come here at an advanced age and do not have the resident work history that provides, in old age, some shelter under the national safety net. I often wonder how my friend makes out, and I continue to play the lottery and pray. And yet, I would say to the brother, man, you have gold; you and yours are truly one. There are not many unions that can claim the same fortune. Eusi gets a minuscule pension for his services in the National Assembly of Guyana. Occasionally there are royalties from the sale of his books. Also, there are always gifts from friends, his former students and well-wishers.

    And the brother lives on, I believe, because of the good he wishes all, the purity of the thoughts that run through his veins, the never-failing vision he harbours of a better world to come, and a compass of moral and philosophical principles that guide his every move. Looking at Eusi’s example, I conclude that living for a purpose outside of your own contributes to longevity more than medications—which Kwayana hardly takes. He does do his daily walks and maintains that personal diet he has had since his early days in Guyana. The last time we met was about six months ago. As usual, we greeted each other with a mild bear hug. His body felt like tempered steel. I could not help noticing, bearing in mind his age.

    More than once I have had to ask him over the phone for somebody’s phone number, address, or email name. He would right away give it to me. I would commend him on his interactive computerized personal database management system. “What’s that?” he would ask. Then he would explain he has it in his head. I have never met anyone with such a memory. I am several years younger and am no match for him.

    He is to the folks of my generation the great teacher at large. He had words for events and things we did not understand. Every country has a body of quick quotes arising out of their history. A few that come to mind are: “The British are coming”; “They shall not pass”; and “I have not begun to fight.” As teenagers we recited passages from the Bible and words from Sydney King (Eusi’s former name) and others. We literally climbed onto house tops and competed for dramatic effect by shouting out, “This confounded nonsense must stop!” To outdo one another the more creative of us would add “damn” in front of “confounded,” or “now“ or “or else” at the end of the statement.

    That statement was attributed to Sydney, who was a minister in the government in 1953. It was not exactly what he said, but the form quoted here is the accepted version. It was in response to the commandeering of some government vehicles by the resident governor in preparation for the suspension of the constitution by Her Majesty’s Government and a declaration of a state of emergency. I do not think any other of our quick historical quotes can match “confounded nonsense” in prominence and usage.

    When Josh Ramsammy survived an assassin’s bullet and was going to appear as the main speaker at a meeting at D’Urban and Louisa Row, the whole of Georgetown came out. Eusi was the chairperson and introduced Josh Ramsammy thus: “The next speaker to address you, has just arrived from the dead,” and walked off the podium. Ramsammy was so taken aback by the introduction, he didn’t move for a few moments.

    And take the duty allowance that members of parliament had granted themselves when general conditions of hardship were widespread throughout the country. It appears the base salary of MPs was legally fixed and couldn’t be increased. ‘Duty allowance’ was the loophole that made additional remuneration possible. The great teacher explained this allowance to the people. “And what is this thing called ‘duty allowance’?” he asked; answering: “It is an extra payment for performing your duty.”

    At one time Kwayana received a subpoena. He chose the oath of affirmation rather than swearing on the Bible. The presiding magistrate inquired whether it was because he had no religious beliefs that he preferred the affirmation. Eusi’s reply sent a shiver down the hall. “Did you call me here to question me about my religious beliefs? Is this an inquisition or a court of law?”

    The matter didn’t end there. The magistrate demanded of Kwayana that he reveal the name of the publisher of Dayclean. Kwayana replied: “Under no circumstances will I tell you that.” The magistrate did not give up. He told Kwayana that he could be held in contempt of court. Kwayana’s response: “That is a problem for you, Your Worship.”

    I used to go about my business thinking how great those moments were at that time and in that place. There was more high drama on the streets in Georgetown than on the big screen at the Metropole cinema. Thanks to this timeless man, there was somebody to look up to and something to look forward for.

    Only recently during the Rodney Commission of Inquiry hearings, it was pointed out that Kwayana wrote the party song for the PPP, the PNC, and the WPA. One commissioner was evidently puzzled as the impression was given by how the evidence was led that it was one song for all three rival parties. Eusi explained that it was three different songs and he wrote them at different times. The Chairman of the Commission, who has shown a sense of humour that contrasts sharply with the grave business at hand, remarked off-handedly and as an unofficial aside, “Did that [feat] make it into the Guinness Book of World Records?”

    As you may notice, it is the words and deeds from this teacher that stuck with me over the years. Derek Walcott once jokingly asked Eusi, how come you can write so well and you neither smoke nor and drink. If the record is checked, Eusi Kwayana may very well be the most prolific Guyanese ever. He has been continuously writing since the 1940s. It is one of his natural callings. Dr Rupert Roopnaraine has given such a hint when he stated, “Kwayana’s collected writings … will astonish the world.”

    For this 90th birthday, I mused on an appropriate gift. Our man frowns upon material things, so that was out of the question. How nice would it be to take him to Freedom House (headquarters of the ruling PPP), I thought. I would say to them, “This is Eusi Kwayana, one of the founders of the party.” And to a bewildered receptionist, I would help her out. “Yes, young lady, this African man, Cheddi and Janet founded your party. He happened to be in the area, and I suggested he drop in. You know, for old time’s sake, and check out the state of his creation from 65 or so years ago.” I would pay top dollar to see the expression on the face of the office manager, who at best might have just tangentially heard the name ‘Eusi Kwayana’.

    A very private man, despite the very public role he played and continues to play, in the history of Guyana, Mr Kwayana shuns the kind of attention he might get from reminiscences of this kind. He would have no part of it. Yet, Voltairean-like, he will not say ‘no’ to my doing so. It is my right, he would assure me.

    Brother, congratulations and many happy returns.

    Yours faithfully,

    P D Sharma

  • de castro  On April 6, 2015 at 8:08 am

    Wow WOW …what a tribute to EUSI KWAYANA …..very emotive read.

    Hope the learned gentleman reads this inquisitive request and responds.

    Why swahilian ….was his ancestors from the Swahili tribes of west Africa ?

    My neice was named Kwayana which I thought to be of aboriginal amerindian origin her older sister Kimikawa…..
    But my guess it had something to do with Eusi political influences of the times…..

    Wish you can make it to the century “father of all Guyanese” wherever they are.

    Bless you my brother.
    VIVA EUSI KWAYANA😇

  • Thinker  On April 6, 2015 at 1:06 pm

    For Heaven’s sake, Swahili-speaking people are to be found in EAST AFRICA.

  • de castro  On April 6, 2015 at 2:41 pm

    My apologies sir….OK east Africa ! Hey chill out my friend.!!
    Read somewhere that most ancestors of slaves came from west Africa…
    hence my question…..sorry never studied “african history” !

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