THE MAN ON HORSEBACK
There used to be a running joke about the late President of Guyana, Forbes Burnham and horseback riding. This was before the joke turned to reality in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
The joke stemmed from a gift of three horses which Burnham was said to have received on a trip to the United Kingdom after he became Prime Minister.
When he later visited the United States, it was said that the then President Lyndon Johnson presented him with a saddle, and the joke was that Burnham was told to go and ride the Guyanese people. Both countries of course knew that Burnham loved horseback riding and they feted his desire.
The joke about Burnham and horseback riding became a painful reality when Forbes Burnham devastated the economy of his country and left people who once enjoyed a comfortable living in dire deprivation while he went off on overseas trips with plane loads of officials.
But the lasting image of Forbes Burnham for many remains a leader who loved to ride around on horseback while his people suffered.
Those who still idolize Forbes Burnham wish to get rid of the image of the late dictator as a man who rode about on horseback looking down on his people. They wish to disabuse the country of the image of Burnham having office workers coerced to work on a plantation which he treated as if it was his own personal property.
Managers of government enterprises were forced to go to Hope Estate on weekends and do work that they would have otherwise consider beneath them. They were forced to literally step into the mud to weed coconut beds and clear drains while the dictator rode around like an overlord belching out orders. It was a most humiliating exercise for these state workers and many wish to remove that terrible memory.
More humiliating was that many of them could not refuse because to do so would be to invite dismissal. Many also went to be able to get to buy food items. It is an experience that is unthinkable these days. But an entire nation had to go through this because this was what the former dictator wanted.
Burnham did not get his feet muddy on the estate. He was high up on his horse. His feet hung over the sides of his horse and made a distinctive sight because of the striking leather riding boots which he loved to wear whilst riding.
But Burnham’s fascination with horseback riding preceded the Hope Estate experience. Burnham was a horseman. Just after he took power in the 1960’s he could be seen every morning riding his horse around the city, often with a bunch of children excitedly running alongside the horses.
Unlike many leaders who come down to the level of the people, Forbes Burnham loved to interact with the people from atop a horseback. He used to go through the city meeting his constituents while riding a horse. He would usually end his ride near to the Georgetown Seawall. So his love for horses dated back to his early days as Prime Minister and did not, as so many feel, develop during his latter years when his socialist experiment brought nothing but ruin to the economy.
When things dipped for the worse, food became short and Burnham responded with yet another of his thoughtless ideas. He decided that people should plant every available piece of land, including the parapets in front of their homes.
Instead of trying to deal with the problems of poor drainage facing farmers, Forbes Burnham decided to make every citizen a farmer. And so he used to go around on horseback every morning, often in the company of a senior police officer who was also a good rider. He used to go around sharing out cassava sticks and urging people to plant the parapets in front of their homes.
Not many took him seriously but from his position looking down on the suffering people, he did not notice the public indifference to his ridiculous idea.
While no one should ever deny that he was an anti-imperialist and was opposed to colonialism in Guyana and elsewhere, Forbes Burnham loved the trappings of monarchial power. He dressed like a colonist, enjoyed their pastimes and according to one political elder, spoke with Churchillian pauses.
And yes he did take Guyana for a good ride.