“My Story” Chapter 13

“My Story” – by Randall Butisingh.

(Reminiscences during my life beginning 1913)


The suspension of this examination was a retrograde step for education.  The examination was a motivation for study and the anticipated salary an incentive.  Also, among the subjects to be studied was School Management which, though not a perfect document was very helpful to the teacher who was introduced for the first time into the principles of teaching and some child psychology.  It was somewhat heavy for the beginner who had to rely to a great extent on his capacity for cramming which bypasses comprehension and assimilation.  The Certificate Examination was difficult.  It was divided into two groups A and B, and a failure in any one subject will cause you to rewrite the whole group or groups.

After I left school in 1932, there followed a period of idleness and un-productivity, but it relieved me of the strain of a job I disliked and which was telling on my nerves and my health.  However it put a financial strain on my mother who had separated from my father.  With the money we both had saved, we built a little two-room cottage.  My mother had left my father after eighteen years of living together and I was not happy about it.  She depended much on the money I earned to help support her and my younger siblings, my brother and three sisters. I did not care; the strain of school life was about to make me a nervous wreck, so I cleared out in time.

At this time, at the age of eighteen, I cultivated a friendship with one of my African classmates who taught me to play the ukulele and the rudiments of the violin.  We also did photography with cheap box cameras, which in those days could be purchased for a dollar and fifty cents.  We learnt how to develop the films and print the photographs.  But let me tell you something about my friend, whose name was George Clarke and who lived with his mother, a brother and an aunt.  George, whom we nicknamed ‘the Pooj’ was the brightest pupil in school so we could not believe when we heard of his failure at the Primary School Leaving Examination.  He was very versatile.  With a good ear for music he taught himself to play the ukulele, the guitar the violin and later the clarinet and the saxophone, all with a good degree of proficiency. He was also a clock repairer.  All these things he did part time for a living but he also supplemented his living by doing manual work.  He was the first person outside of school who taught me to do things which I could occupy my time with when I was unemployed.  We two, sometimes played as a band, and we would play at small parties, he, the violin, and I the ukulele.

As things grew tough, I tried to find work even manual labour; so when a call came from my former head teacher, Mr. La Rose, who was transferred to Port Mourant Anglican School, I responded and took up the position of uncertified, untrained teacher at a salary of fourteen dollars monthly.  The headmaster introduced me to the school and commended me highly.

I began to teach and do whatever was required in the system.  There was only one trained teacher in the school of about near three hundred, one certificated and three uncertificated teachers.  He made the teachers stand during the whole five hours of teaching and this caused him to come into conflict with his senior assistant who was a trained teacher.  He argued that there should be some time for sitting, especially when marking work.  The senior assistant was determined and the head teacher had to give in.

I made some friends at Port Mourant: the Karpens, The Bhikis, and some teachers of my age group.  I was doing physical culture at this time, inspired by Charles Atlas who transformed himself from a skinny youth to a physically magnificent man using a system called ‘dynamic tension.  I used to get up early in the mornings and exercise before going to school.  I did not use weights at any time.  I practised dynamic tension.  I would imagine pulling a rope in a ship or lifting something heavy, battling with a lion or a ferocious bull using tension all the time.  I would do dipping, chinning the bar, shadow boxing and skipping.  I would also swim in a canal nearby and box.  Later I joined a troupe of trapezists and pyramid builders.  These exercise call for a high intake of food, especially proteins, but I was only getting the ration of a sedentary worker.  I was a vegetarian but could not have supplemented my diet with milk or eggs or nuts as my salary could not have provided them.  Sometimes I would go to the canal when the boats were coming in and buy mangoes, five or six for four cents and devour them, skin and all so as to appease my hunger.  I used to feel a constant hunger which was the result of my strenuous physical activities.

I recall once, when the woman who boarded me took me to gather firewood with a donkey cart, but this time there was no donkey; I had to do the pulling. We filled the cart with as much dry wood as it could hold and I had to draw it home on rough terrain.  When I reached home, it was late afternoon, I was so tired that I fell on the bare floor and immediately went to sleep.  I slept so deeply, a dreamless sleep, that when I woke up I had no idea of the time.  I thought I had slept for about two hours, but it was early morning already.  I got up, crept into bed and rested the few remaining hours before daybreak.

It was at Port Mourant that I got to know more about life in the sugar estate.  At this time, housing was better there in the Corentyne than it was in Demerara.  There were no logies but small two-roomed cottages on three-foot blocks.  At the crow of the cock which was an accurate timepiece, the workers would arise.  They had no alarm clocks, so they depended on the rooster which is invariably correct as Guyana is a tropical country, near the equator, and the day and nights are equally long.  The first cock-crow is at 11 p.m. and signals that all were in bed except the vagrant, the thief or the policeman on duty.

So, at the signal of the roosters at 4 a.m. the women would arise and there would be a hive of activity.  You could see rows of oil lamps in the cottages and you would hear the winnowing fan of the women as they begin to prepare breakfast and the food they will take to the sugar cane fields for lunch.  Their food was monotonous; rice or roti, curried vegetables, mainly potatoes, boulangers or pumpkin, or a lentil soup called daal..  Whatever was cooked was placed in one container, a saucepan, and this became cold before it was ready to be eaten.  Formerly, the workers did not carry water, but drank the black water from the irrigation canals.  At Port Mourant, the workers were provided with an impervious canvas bottle for storing their drinking water.

Before 6 a.m, the workers were ready to catch the open locomotive which took them to their workplace sometimes a distance of six miles or more which was formerly done on foot.  Then they had to cross over the canals to get to the fields.  Flat-bottomed vessels were provided for this purpose, but formerly men and women had to wade through the water, sometimes almost chest deep to get to the other side.

In those days, the lot of the workers was hard.  They worked throughout the day in the burning sun, with a brief pause at mid day to partake of the food which had got cold, a little rest, and then goaded on to work by drivers or supervisors,  who were men selected from workers who demanded  the “pound of flesh for their white masters, the overseers and managers of the plantations.  Sometimes, for favours, they would recruit young women for the white overseers who were young unmarried men.  Fortunately because of the religious and social traditions of the immigrants, this was not common.  There are very few Eurasians as compared to Mulattos.

After a few months as a teacher in Port Mourant, I became sick with pleurisy, which is inflammation of the lining of the lungs.  It was very painful.  The disease was not diagnosed by the physician at Port Mourant and as the pain worsened, I decided to return home at Buxton, Demerara where my parents lived.  The local doctor diagnosed the disease and ordered hot flannel compresses on the chest .and a diet of hot fish soup.  I was a vegetarian at the time and did not like the idea of using any flesh, so I drank the broth and left the fish.  My mother observed this, so she would crush the fish into tiny bits and this made it inevitable not to consume the fish.  I recovered quickly, and after two weeks at home, I received a letter from the head teacher telling me that I would lose pay if I did not report for duty at once.  I immediately packed my bag and returned to school.

After teaching for a few months, the manager of the school who was vicar of the St Joseph’s Anglican Church was concerned that all his teachers be members of the church.  One of his teachers who had a moral lapse was suspended and had to go to the confessional before he was admitted again.  The priest, Father Headman observed that I was not a registered member, so he invited me to the vicarage and questioned me about my lapse as a member.

I was a confirmed member used to the teachings of the church and the doctrine of heaven and hell.  Being sensitive as a child, every lapse in conduct produced fear in me.  This was reinforced by reading the poem in the Book V Royal reader; “That day of wrath, that dreadful day. When heaven and earth will pass away.”  This fear persisted in me until the advent of Communism when I read of men like Marx and Engels and Lenin who were atheists and dubbed religion ‘The opiate of the people”.  I found this doctrine a relief for my conscience and I ceased to have fear of hell fire.  I heartily endorsed Communism especially as it was praised by the Rev. Hewlit, Dean of Canterbury aka the “Red Dean”. So when the vicar asked me to become a member, I told Him that I did not believe in God. He said he could understand.  He then gave me some Church Literature to read.  I was to reply within a week..

I would have agreed to become a member to save my job, but I could not agree to go to him for confession.  I was a Low churchman at St. Augustine’s and the congregation was required to make a general confession when they met for Mass, so the idea of confessing in a confessional was not to my liking.  I tendered my resignation.  My head teacher was disappointed.


1 Comment »

  1. Andrew Westmaas said,

    With the right cinematic director, sensitive screen interpretation and actors, this life experience (‘Biography’) would make a truly memorable human interest movie, surely comparable with the moving, well publicized and brilliantly marketed ‘Slum dog millionaire’.

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