“My Story” Chapter 03

“My Story” – by Randall Butisingh.

(Reminiscences during my life beginning 1913)

CHAPTER THREE

Up until 1917 Immigrants were still brought into British Guiana. In my childhood days there were still indentured Indians, called coolies.  “Coolie” was a derogatory term, but we accepted it.  I should mention that before East Indians came there were batches of workers contracted as indentured labourers from countries in West Africa, (especially Ghana); and from China and poor Portuguese from Madeira, an island off the Northern coast of Africa.  British Guiana was advertised as a land of six peoples then – the Aboriginal Indians or indigenous people living in the forest region; the Blacks or Africans, the East Indians, the Chinese, the Portuguese, and the other Europeans who were the masters. The Europeans, mostly from the United Kingdom, enjoyed the highest positions in Government offices and on the plantations.  In those days of flourishing, white supremacy, I only knew of one white derelict, a mechanic by trade and an alcoholic.

The limited number of Chinese and Portuguese who came took to shop keeping. The Africans went into the building trades, service jobs, or became vegetable farmers in their villages. A number of them became well educated and took to teaching, the police force, the postal service and the technical trades.  East Indians, for most part, after Indentureship stuck to the land, planted rice and vegetables and reared cattle.  They hardly ever entered the Government service.  Some tried to avoid the elementary schooling for their children which was provided, and which had become compulsory.  Girls were taken out of school before they reached puberty, and time and again a parent would be taken to court and fined or jailed for not sending a child to school.  In those days parents needed all the resources to survive, so children, boys and girls had to contribute by helping with farm work, gathering wood, fetching water and catching fish. To those parents the hours spent in school were counted as lost.

The aim of the typical Indian indentured immigrants in those days, was that they would fulfill their contract and then return to their homeland.  Some did this, but most of them returned to Guyana after finding that they had lost caste (by crossing salt water) and were not accepted by their relatives and friends. Most remained, some renewed their contracts and after their Indentureship were given lands on which to grow crops.  These remained and worked on the plantation without compulsion and they grew vegetables, and later rice, to augment their wages and to live more comfortably.

East Indians, in those days married at an early age by arrangement, sometimes before puberty.  Sometimes there were child marriages.  I had a classmate who was married while in primary school and returned to school after marriage, as he was not of the age when he could leave school.  Of course, in those days, there were the extended family and young couples continued to live with their parents.  This arrangement made them better equipped to assume the responsibility of household duties in early adulthood.

This system however changed with time; the influence of western education and culture brought about the disintegration of the extended family.  It did not take long for the East Indian to follow some of the ways of the West, and instead of hindering education, second generation parents encouraged it; girls remained longer in school and there were less and less arranged marriages. I was of the second generation and was encouraged to get a good education.

Let me go back a little to my childhood.  My parents were Hindus, though I suspect my father was baptized because of the ethnicity of his mother, but he never went to church.  However, we their children were baptized in the Anglican Church and my sister and I went regularly to church at an early age.  We were the only Indian children to be seen among the predominantly black congregation.  I was not comfortable and fidgeted during the service.  I did not like wearing boots and was glad to get home to remove them.  I disliked the mass, which was long, and the sermon which I could not understand and the long periods of kneeling on the wooden stool provided. Matins was more acceptable as it was short and less demanding on the patience.

All this time a Hindi dialect was spoken.  The children of the immigrants forced into a school environment began speaking Creolese – an English dialect with African roots.  I spoke Creolese a language I acquired both at home and at school where my classmates were predominantly of African descent.

Up till the early 1940’s Hindi, and to some extent, Urdu played a significant role in the Government services.  Notices were posted up in English, Hindi and Urdu.  There was need for interpreters in the courts of justice and exams were held for qualifications as interpreters. I had the good fortune of studying for both the Lower and the higher standards.  I was able to offer Hindi instead of history at the Teachers’ Certificate Examination with very good results. It helped me to gain the Group B in the Second Class.

After the forties Hindi gradually declined as a spoken language, and today very few descendants of immigrants could speak it or care to learn it.  But its influence remains in worship, in the hymns and songs which are very popular among the youth.

Early in my childhood, as far as I can remember, just before the beginning of the World War I (1914-1918), there was some prosperity in my home , I came in almost daily contact with Afro-Guianese – the African domestics who came to help when my mother was sick, the midwife or nanny, unlicensed in those days, who came to deliver my siblings, the women who came to sell cassava bread, conky,  freshly baked cakes and chocolate, the children of neighbours with whom I played and the village dispenser.

When I was about four or five, my younger sister died within days of her birth; the house that night, which was a wooden one, was filled with African neighbours who came and sang hymns throughout the night, drank coffee and ate biscuits. The following day, the body was borne to the churchyard by four African youths accompanied by African and Indian mourners.

I was afraid of the dark because I believed that ghosts appeared then.  My mother was a good storyteller.  She would tell us all kinds of stories of Ghosts, rakshas, moongazers and old higues. So at nights a lantern was lit to dispel the darkness in the bedroom.  As little children, my little sister and I always slept with our parents, not so much for want of accommodation, but from fear of the night.  When we got older, we were placed in a separate room, but the bedroom was always open and a lamp placed on a little table near to it.

I always liked the lamp to be placed in a certain position where it would cast the shadows of pictures, wall plates, and other hangings on the wall, because these shadows would take the form of living things and move.  They provided me with wonder and amusement.  If I am not sleeping I cannot close my eyes, as I would see various human forms approaching me.  When I sleep I would invariably dream of something that frightens me.

2 Comments »

  1. Vi said,

    Culturally Guyanese people are fantistic story tellers. Like you we were entertained by story telling. From childhood we were trained to have vivid imagination. My Dad is in his 80s and still tell me stories based on the character of some villager. Some so funny, you’ll laugh untill your rib cage hurt.

  2. naraine Datt said,

    Interesting story Randall, I also have written my story called ‘The Berbician” We have a lot in common, I was born at Nabaclis, EC Demerara, but grew up in Bush Lot WC.Berbice. My maternal parents once lived in Buxton, My great geat gran father came from.Kashmir. eed I say my mother was almost white and very beautiful.


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