Parliamentarian, humanitarian and preacher…Philip Duncan is a ‘Special Person’
“Love your enemies, it’s a hard thing to do but you have to, and when you love even down to your enemies you will find that when you smile, you smile from within.”
By Abena Rockcliffe
Philip Duncan is undoubtedly an individual who can afford to lift his head high and claim to have positively impacted on other people’s lives. Many persons who do this tend to perpetually praise themselves, but this week’s ‘Special Person’ is the epitome of modesty.
Even though his claim to fame at first seemed to have been the fact that he served Guyana’s National Assembly for 15 consecutive years in different capacities, including that of Minister of Amerindian Affairs, Duncan wasted no time, notwithstanding his humility, in highlighting that there was so much more to his existence.
Born on January 4, 1943, to Lily John and Duncan (his father’s only name). Philip spent his early years being raised in Aishalton. As he narrated experiences over many purposeful years, one of his repeated expressions provided ample perspective.
“We grew up in poverty, but we didn’t know it. It was a normal thing for us; we didn’t see it as hard. My family thought we were alright, because we didn’t know about rich or poor…we just lived in love.”
He said that growing up, his parents were humble and they lived happily in their community, but at that time he “wasn’t aware” his family was less fortunate. That realization, he reflected, “came only at the point when I was introduced to life in other parts of the country and when politicians told us so.”
Duncan attended Aishalton Primary and after completion at that level, took a break from schooling. During the period where he wasn’t academically achieving, Duncan developed his God-given talents with his considered “gifted” hands as he explored balata bleeding and carpentry.
Simultaneously, he served as an assistant teacher at four different Roman Catholic Schools “for the younger ones, in those days, there wasn’t any nursery school, but primary started sort of early.”
He subsequently honed his skills at the Government Technical Institute (GTI) in 1963 and his career path quickly began to become clearer, as in 1966 he was appointed Parliamentary Secretary Amerindian Affairs. This opportunity, he explained, became available to him as he was versed in speaking the English Language while maintaining his Amerindian dialect to which he referred to as his first Language.
“Back then very few Amerindians knew English, so I used to translate.”
That year, 1966 was indeed a memorable one for Duncan as he tied the knot with his soul mate Edith Roberts. The two have enjoyed 47 years of a fruitful marriage becoming the proud parents of six – five girls and a boy – Valarie, Karen, Berlinda, Immaculata, Bacabina and Philip Jr. To date he has 16 grandchildren.
Duncan described his wife as a woman of extreme strength who stuck with him through thick and thin. “She has always been supportive and for that I am grateful.”
It was merely a couple of years into his marriage that his maturity and responsible nature brought him to the fore as something of a community representative.
“In 1969, after the Rupununi Uprising, I was honoured to have gone to the United Nations as a delegate. I regarded myself as a ‘bush man’ but that was one of the events in my life that generated a different kind of feeling.
The Rupununi Uprising was an act of insurrection that historically represented the single most serious threat to our national security and territorial integrity. It was an early test of statehood. Remember we became independent in 1966. The police station in Lethem was attacked by ranchers, who were armed with bazookas and automatic weapons.
Lethem Police Station was completely wrecked and policemen were riddled by bullets as they tried to escape. Stations were seized and the personnel held captive along with other Government officials and civilians in the abbatoir at Lethem.
Five policemen and one civilian were killed, the government dispenser was shot and wounded, and a number of persons, including the District Commissioner and his wife, were herded into the abattoir and held hostage.”
The following year, 1970, Duncan was appointed Commissioner of Oaths and he remembered this as “another honourable moment.”
After doing a commendable job in his portfolio as Parliamentary Secretary, and following the 1973 election, Duncan was appointed Regional Minister.
In 1977, he became the official parliamentary representative for Amerindian Guyanese as Minister of Amerindian Affairs.
Duncan said that aside the fact that he was proud of the designation, he felt, “onto this day”, a sense of fulfillment, as he was able to acquire titles for Amerindian lands.
“Well we thought we owned Guyana”, he said in a comical tone, “but when reality hit, and foreigners started to move in on us it was a terrible time for Amerindians, but thanks to (Forbes) Burnham I was able to sort things out; I got titles to the land. It was very important to me. Thank God both parties back then supported it.”
“When I went to parliament I did not know anything about politics and being in parliament was not something that I applied for, but because of my groundwork I was elected and I never one day backed down from any challenge and from always trying to do my best, I realized that it became easy to do.”
“I kept my mind open and I learned a lot and up to today I am grateful for what I know. I have the satisfaction that I have served my country and after me I see we now have a few Amerindians in parliament.”
After leaving Parliament in 1980, Duncan moved to Awaruwaunau- another Amerindian settlement- and took up life as a farmer.
With time on his hands, he also became a student of a Christian University and spent two years of studying he became a preacher of the Church of Christ in Lethem.
“Preaching is the best job I ever had; it gives you a reason to stay true to yourself. Many people fool themselves and don’t even realize it. But, you can’t fool God. In Parliament you tell some lies, not much, and you fool some people, but as a preacher you can’t do that at all… you have to be straight with God and his people.”
“I would have preferred to do this (preaching) my entire life but the more I think about it I realize that even when I didn’t know about this life, God knew it was waiting for me. Perhaps I needed this experience so that I could appreciate purity more and so that I can share my past with others.”
“I am at Lethem now, where I can’t farm, but the source of life is God, and he has been providing for me. I am not rich, but at least I am not starving. You never know in life, sometimes things happen for the best, God closed a window to open a door. Probably if I tried to exist without God, my life would have gone in a different way. I might have had wealth, but not peace within the soul. One thing I know is that God is the source of knowledge, so I have that, he gave the air we breathe. Without him we can’t live.
His wife, Edith, endorsed these sentiments, adding that she has been richly blessed with an extremely helpful and understanding husband. “He treats me nice, very nice, and always tries his best in anything he puts his hand to do.”
Edith said that Duncan was her first and last love.
“We are together 49 years now; he was the first gentleman in my life and I love the moments I spend with him.”
Karen, his second daughter, recalled that because of work, her dad sacrificed a lot. She said that the weekend was dubbed family time, “we use to go out on the highway and have fun.”
She too described him as hard working.
His only son, Philip Jr., characterized his father as “a simple open guy…we were able to speak to him about anything.”
“As a child, I didn’t spend much time with him because of his job, but he did what he had to do. I love him, he is a good man. He has a principle that when you do things for people it comes back in different ways.”
Mr Duncan summed up his philosophy perfectly: “Love your enemies, it’s a hard thing to do, but you have to, and when you love even down to your enemies you will find that when you smile, you smile from within. Remember God is love and he is the only true source of happiness.”