Executives of the 8th of May Movement
Executives of the 8th of May Movement

guyana chronicle March 26, 2016

 By Neil Marks

Photos by Delano Williams
SOME 177 years ago, 62 freed African slaves learnt that the owner of the East Demerara plantation of Beterverwagting was about to sell the land, and they decided to make the gutsy move to buy it.

Oswald Rodney points to the jungle that has taken over agricultural lands aback BV

Quickly, they summoned the one who would save their money in a hole under a tamarind tree to see if they had enough. They did! And so, they took a wheelbarrow and loaded up the 52,000 Dutch Guilders to effect the transaction on May 8th, 1839.

Just two decades later, they would take another bold step – form a council to govern the village. Forty of the village’s proprietors met at the train station (now the base of a taxi service) and, on August 31, 1857, formed what would become the first village council, giving birth to the notion of local democracy in this country.

Now the Baronians (a name they call themselves in honour of Baron Van Groniegen, the Dutch plantation owner from whom the village was bought) have once again taken power back into their own hands.

In this year’s Local Government Elections, held on March 18, 2016, residents chose the community group called the ‘8th of May Movement’ to take control of the Neighbourhood Democratic Council that governs Beterverwagting (called BV for short) and its sister community of Triumph. The movement won 12 of the 18 seats that were up for grabs, with the opposition PPP taking five seats, and an independent candidate taking the other seat. Their win is significant, given that in perhaps most of the other Local Authorities, citizens chose to go with a political party.

Firsts for BV/Triumph* In 1864, BV/Triumph was the first village to be drained using a steam-powered drainage pump, and so was the first to have drainage canals running north to south…and as a result BV/Triumph was the first community to have housing lots running from east to west.

* The first community high school to be built in Guyana was built in BV/Triumph.

* Donald Jackson, the First Chief Justice of the colony of British Guiana, was from BV

* BV is the only village to have produced three ministers of education, namely Ceciline Baird, Vibert Mingo and Dr Henry Jeffrey

“We decided to go this as a village movement, because if we had belonged to a party we might have been asked to toe the party line, even if it is not in the best interest of the community,” Leyland Harcourt, chairman of the movement, told the Chronicle this week. “And so we believed that, as a community group, we are in a better position to call the shots for the development of our community.”

Harcourt and a group of other villages formed the 8th of May Movement in 2003 to ensure that the cultural and social history of BV is preserved. The Baronians never thought they would get involved in politics, but the poor state of the community — clogged up by thick vegetation, streets with potholes, high unemployment among young people, and sprawling agricultural lands that are now but a jungle –- forced them to run for office.

“In my opinion, the village was kind of lost, and so we decided to take back this village. And we have the kind of people within our group that we feel can do it; the people believe in us,” said Mr Oswald Rodney, one of the original members of the 8th of May Movement.

Indeed, the Movement is made up of a blend of young and experienced individuals, together with a balance of males and females who come from various social and educational statuses.

Shelly Burrowes, who sells clothes, sees the need for “building up, fixing up, mending up” BV. “Really, the people didn’t want a party; they wanted a group to represent them. So that is why I think they voted for us,” she said.

Oscar Glasgow, Director of Academic Affairs at the Guyana School of Agriculture, says the way to create jobs in the village is to make use of the 10.5 square miles of agricultural lands that were abandoned over the years due to poor infrastructure, such as the lack of a proper access road,
and clogged drains.

“We intend to undertake massive projects at the back which will involve using some young people,” Glasgow said.

He acknowledged that many young people are not attracted to agriculture because they see it as back-breaking labour, but he said the projects the Movement will undertake will use the latest affordable technology available.

“So rather than persons going in there slugging it out, we are going to use more technology. We want to get into, in a big way, agro-processing and fishing in this village. Before end of the year, you will see the progress.”

Dennis Griffith, 62, a retired prison officer, contested the constituency called “The Gulf” in the south of the village, closer to the abandoned agricultural lands.

“I was down in The Gulf, and 90% of the youths there will go into the agricultural ventures,” he said.

The second in command of the Movement is young economist Latecia Frank, 27. She believes that young people hold the key to BV’s development. She pointed to the fact that the village houses big corporations – beverage and distribution giant ANSA McAL Trading, Qualfon call centre, telephone company GTT – but many of the young people may not be able to take up positions with those firms because of lack of education or training.

“It hurts my heart to see these young people not being aligned to job opportunities,” she said, noting that once sworn into office at the village council, her priority would be to develop entrepreneurial and skills training programmes.

Delmar Abrams, 27, an Information Technology technician, also believes that there should be a focus on youth empowerment. But before doing anything, he believes that there must first be social cohesion.

“As a community, we can’t expect to get a lot done if we don’t have the support of the people. There is need for open conversation.”

Eustace Hamilton who, at age 13, appeared in a village play as an African slave, values the importance of people participation in development. When he tried to get involved in Council meetings in the past, he was seen as a nuisance and was even once kicked out of a meeting.

“Some people don’t like opposition,” he said, “but you need various ideas from the people to ensure the community works well.”

He spoke to this newspaper while seated on an abandoned fridge next to a building that was meant to be a resource centre for the village. It was built many years ago under the so-called President’s Youth Choice Initiative (of former President Bharrrat Jagdeo) but is now dilapidated.

The 8th of May Movement is now seeking to restore the building and have it serve its intended purpose, but the community needs more that a resource centre; it needs a place where Ronella Callender, 35, can dance and not fear that she will pass through the floor!

A cook by profession, she is part of the BV Uprising Dance Group, and she hopes to be able to advocate for the restoration of the community centre, which, apart from a faulty floor, has just a few of the windows still on.

Carol Bollers, a housewife who is also part of the 8th of May Movement, couldn’t agree more. She pointed to the fact that the community’s majorettes had no choice but to use the streets to practise their moves for the upcoming national independence celebrations.