TODAY, I dedicate my column to a little-known activist, Kathy Wills, who died this past week in Florida, USA. Kathy, as we called her, was a WPA activist during the heady days of the 1970s-1980s. Kathy was the true matriarch of our party and movement. She was a fearless fighter and an example to the rest of us. On a personal note, when I was incarcerated as a political prisoner, Kathy, for 15 months, cooked my meals and personally brought it every day to the Georgetown Prison. She did the same for other political prisoners of that time.
Often, we remember the big names, the leaders of movements, but there could be no formidable movements without the inputs of the often-unknown workers who perform the tangible and intangible tasks that make the ultimate difference. As a tribute to Kathy, I reproduce an article written by my colleague, Dr Nigel Westmaas, based on a conversation with her. The article was first published in the June 2008 edition of Dayclean Global.
“IT IS IN THE EYES”: A CHAT WITH KATHY WILLS, ULTIMATE WPA ACTIVIST
IT was around 1970 or 1971. Kathy Wills was strolling on Vlissingen road when she saw Prime Minister Forbes Burnham inside The Residence and decided to go ask him a few things that were on her mind for years. Burnham, charming as ever, entertained her questions. She asked him why there was still division between Africans and Indians in Guyana after all that time and another query she could not recall, concerning the system in place. She recollects Burnham stating, among other things, that when he returned from England in the 1950s, division was not what he desired. For Kathy, however, his “eyes didn’t look good to me.” She explained from her early adult life she had picked up an instinctual manner of looking into people’s eyes to test their sincerity. She had in fact drifted away from the norm for a person of her race in the period by gravitating towards the People’s Progressive Party.
Kathy would frequent the PPP’s bookshop in Robb Street to visit her friend Indra Chandarpal. Later, she ventured upstairs at Freedom House for chats with Janet and Cheddi Jagan. At the time, in the early 1960s, Kathy said she was more or less a supporter of the PPP. She was actually walking close to Freedom House on the same day and time of the bombing that claimed the life of the bookshop’s eventual namesake, Michael Forde. It was at a PPP public meeting on the Bourda Mall that she met Andaiye –- whom she claimed appeared curious about Kathy’s presence at a PPP event. They struck up a discussion and long friendship from that point. It was during the chat she learnt that Andaiye was the daughter of her own family physician, Dr Frank Williams.
Kathy Wills was born in Mahaicony. Her parents died when she was two and an aunt took care of her. At one point, they lived in Ruimveldt, Georgetown. Kathy later moved to Cane Grove after her marriage to George Wills. She also lived for a while in Gordon Street, Kitty, from where she took her daughter Avril to dance lessons at the Taitt house (Woodbine) at 294 Quamina Street (then Murray street) and struck up a friendship with Helen Taitt. Kathy disclosed that she became great friends of the Taitts and was invited to stay. There she assisted the family with Dr Jabez Taitt (former general practitioner at GT hospital) when he fell ill.
Taitt’s house was a magnet for people of all walks of life and it was there she met with Pat Rodney, whose two little girls attended the very dance school. Through Pat, Kathy eventually met Walter Rodney. The ’eyes’ again did it. She saw ‘honesty and commitment’ and soon began to follow Rodney and the WPA in its early stages.
The camaraderie and energy the new organisation generated was contagious for someone like Kathy, who herself enjoyed hearing people talk and public meetings. Kathy formally joined the WPA and became more and more active in party activities including meetings, distribution of handbills and Dayclean, talking with people, and visits to other parts of the country. She also assisted in taking food to WPA prisoners in jail at the time, including Tacuma Ogunseye, David Hinds and others. Kathy also announced public meetings in the WPA’s Tapir vehicle along with Karen de Souza, Adeshina and others. She was particularly fond of the public announcement refrain, “Come one, Come all.”
At the high point of WPA meetings at the mall young people would come up and ask her why she was not at home cooking; she would reply, “what are you doing liming, you should join us and stand up for rights…” Fearless in crowds and under attack, WPA members cannot remember a time when Kathy was not in court pews in solidarity with party activists or one charged with one offence or another at the height of WPA militancy. Eusi Kwayana said Kathy Wills, after joining the Working People’s Alliance, “Became one of its living banners, set an example in street action such as picketing, demonstrations and placing herself as a human barrier to wrongdoing. Sister Kathy placed herself in the court room whenever human rights and freedom of expression were on trial.
“Those who sat in judgment always knew that at least a mature pair of bespectacled eyes watched them and weighed their words.” Walter Rodney recounted in one of his speeches, Kathy’s feats of everyday activism and compassion when teargas blasted the crowds at the height of the civil rebellion; there she was in the thick of things, with water and napkins in hand amidst the commotion to assist –- washing the teargas away from activists and supporters. She remembers preparing meals late at the Catholic school on the evening of June 13, 1980 with Pat Rodney, when Fr Malcolm Rodrigues brought the fateful news of Walter’s assassination.
Later, she and others accompanied a bleeding Donald Rodney to the care of Dr Horace Taitt, at the place which she knew as home and which was always abuzz with “so many faces and comings and goings.” Kathy Wills was co-founder of Women against Terror, established in September 1980 at St Andrew’s Kirk church with the purpose of re-creating “a healthy, safe and just society for our children.” Among her co-founders and colleagues she recalled in the organisation were Tchaiko Kwayana, Doris Loo, Daphne Johnson, Gwennie Kissoon, Mudas Rajkumar, Brenda Koama and Olga Bone. A year later, on September 17, 1981, she and other WPA women became targets of hockey-stick charges of the police who broke up a WPA demonstration against Apartheid in South Africa and against the sharply rising cost of living in Guyana.
The police arrested some 20 women and detained, that is, imprisoned them at Eve Leary overnight. As Kwayana put it, “the right of protest against Apartheid had also been nationalised.” In June 1983, Kathy was chairperson of a Women against Terror discussion, “Family Care of the child in Guyana and its implications for Society.” At which Olga Bone was the main speaker. In October 1984, she represented the WPA at “Encounters” of Caribbean women in Antigua. The programme there dedicated itself to the Grenada Revolution and to the memory of Maurice Bishop.
Kathy was elected to the WPA’s Central Committee in 1985, along with Andaiye, Lallbachan Arjune, Sidney Benjamin, Bonita Bone Harris, Norman Dalrymple, Eusi Kwayana, David Hinds, Stanley Humphrey, Tacuma Ogunseye, Ameer Mohamed, Wazir Mohamed, Bissoon Rajkumar, Rupert Roopnaraine, and Nigel Westmaas. Whether at Taitt house, WPA headquarters, or other events, Kathy Wills was a stable, sunny presence with a trademark smile, friendliness, optimism and empathy as broad and with the deep roots of the huge landmark sapodilla tree that was a symbol of the famous Taitt residence in Quamina Street.
Legions of WPA activists — if you ask them about Kathy Wills — will speak with one voice about the true goodness of this remarkable woman. And yes, her eyes too were warm, generous and honest. Kathy now lives with her daughter Avril and family in Florida. Her son, Mark Wills, who had also been active with the WPA, also resides in the USA.
More of Dr. Hinds’ writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org