By Sharmain Grainger
“Don’t enter the legal profession because of the money. Do it because you want to see change and you want to make a difference in the delivery of justice.”
The name Sadie Amin is known throughout society, ranging from social to political and more recently, in the legal fraternity. Ms Amin, however, prides herself in the work she does as a “professional” volunteer with causes ranging from working with the poor, protecting the environment, promoting human, gender and gay rights, and any cause where the underdog is seriously challenged.
During a recent interview, she has this to say to new attorneys-at-law “Don’t enter the profession because of the money. Do it because you want to see change and you want to make a difference in the delivery of justice.”
She is convinced that making a difference can be realised simply by standing up and being counted as a supporter of a worthy cause.
“If you see something wrong, just don’t turn your back because you’re afraid your voice won’t be heard. Many individual voices raised become loud and will be heard,” said Sadie who years ago emphasised this notion in a column she wrote while attending university entitled ‘One Small Voice’ which addressed all forms of injustice.
It all started decades ago when she stood with others, in protest against apartheid. During this interview, she took pride in stating that she was among many who signed countless petitions, attended numerous rallies, handed out vast quantities of handbills, begged for funds to help build awareness that eventually brought an end to apartheid allowing for the release of the late South African President, Mr Nelson Mandela. This culminated in a life dedicated to standing up for what’s right and giving support even if it’s only to make a cash donation.
While some may think of her as special, she considers herself an ordinary person who was brought up by a family with strong values which promoted higher education (especially for girl children), giving back by mentoring those with potential but who didn’t have the wherewithal to improve their lot and having family members and friends who give emotional support.
GROWING UP AS AN AMIN
The Amins were well known in the Ancient County of Berbice as the “Bus People.” Her maternal great-grandfather had buses and so did her grandparents and great-uncles. In fact, all the buses which ran the East Canje/New Amsterdam routes from the early 1940s were all owned by her relatives and made for some serious competition and feuds.
The family compound in Cumberland Village consisted of four houses (grandparents, an uncle, their home and a guest house) along with a large bus garage and various ancillary storage buildings. Debonair I and Debonair II (known simply as the long bus and the short bus) were the names of all the generations of buses owned by the Amins.
Their yard was a hive of activities from morning until late into the evening where the “hammer and chisel” mechanics fixed everything including the family cars, tractors and an assortment of new inventions, that is, water pumps, generators, wind-chargers. The patriarch and matriarch of the family, Ahmad and Maratoon Amin, ran a tight operation and the helpers always had extra meals on hand to feed all and sundry during any emergency.
The Amins were taught at an early age that the only difference between people was not their social position but the ability to be someone of self-worth. Many persons who worked with her family credited the Amins for giving them their start in life.
Born the third of four children on July 21, 1962 to Rafeek (now deceased) and Marilyn Amin, Sadie recalled that her father opted out of the transportation business in the late 60s and branched off to operate an Esso Service Station in New Amsterdam where they lived at Vryman’s Erven, much to the chagrin her grandparents. In the early 70s, after the death of her grandfather and the end of the bus business, the family moved to Georgetown to operate the Esso (now Sol) Gas Station at Regent and King Streets. That operation lasted for 35 years.
Her parents were concerned about the political climate of the day and decided that they’d rather have their children be raised overseas.
Sadie was just 10 years old when she and her siblings were shuttled off to Canada in the care of their grandmother. She spent several years in Canada which she recalled was very ‘white’ and always cold. There were few immigrants in her up-scale neighbourhood of Etobicoke, Ontario. Sometimes the derogatory slang “Paki” was hurled at her by children but their helper, Carmen, who worked with them in Guyana and went to oversee the household, was a fierce protector and the neighbourhood children soon left them alone or risked a sound trashing.
Towards the last two years of high school, her grandmother passed away in Canada. This led to the return of Sadie and her younger brother, Frankie, to Guyana in 1977. Her two older sisters stayed in Canada, the eldest still living there with her family.
REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE
Her last two years of secondary school was at the Bishops’ High School. She completed school in 1979 and was among the first batch of students to write the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) examinations in Guyana. The subjects that were offered were: English, Mathematics and Geography in addition to the O’ level subjects. “It was the best two years. I broke every rule and loved every moment of it” said Sadie.
Living in Guyana made her a complete rebel and popular in school. She believes that coming from Canada lent to her daringness. She had a clique with which she absconded from school many days. The destination was usually the cinemas or the Coffee Cove at Hotel Tower. She’d found an escape route that only a rebel would dare take – a side gate under the window of the Head Teacher’s office. She was subjected to many lectures and detention by the then headmistress, Ms Joy O’Jon. Once she was nearly expelled.
But this didn’t deter the young rebel’s ways. “I called a bomb scare once from the school pay phone just to get out of writing a test. I occasionally smoked in the classrooms or in the toilets,” reminisced Sadie. “My mother says I caused her to go grey during my Bishops’ days our house on Regent Street was the gathering place where many plots were hatched. We once got detention for two months of Saturdays where we had to paint sections of the school. We could have become professional painters after that,” related a smiling Ms Amin.
She, nevertheless, was able to successfully complete high school. “I think they were glad to get rid of me,” she said. Two of her best friends from Bishops’ are Andrea Owen and Kamini Bulkan who both live in Guyana and on occasion would wonder that she actually went on to become president of the Bishops’ Old Students Association.
A BREAK FROM ACADEMICS
After school she decided to take a break from all things academic. This was rather unusual but Mr Amin decided to indulge his daughter. For her 17th birthday she became the proud owner of her first car. A mustard colour Honda 600 – PAA 1300 (it looked like a Mini Cooper), a gift from her father. And the car, she disclosed was “the love of her life. I went everywhere in it. It was so tiny two people could lift it up.” She recalled how her friends would cram into the car and people would be amazed at how many it could fit.
But her break from school was not void of responsibilities. Sadie recalled that her parents went on a world tour and placed the operation of their gas station into the care of herself and brother which they ran successfully.
However, after a year the fun time and experience as a gas station operator came to an end. Her parents insisted it was time to “hit the books.”
STUDIES IN FOCUS
After three years in Guyana, it was back to Canada. She had to complete Grade 13 before she could be admitted to a university. Being the ever outgoing person she was, it didn’t take long to find a new “posse”. Among them would be Gayle Gonsalves from Antigua, her best friend today and Jacky Noel from Grenada.
After being in the tropical weather of Guyana, Sadie found it difficult coping with the cold temperatures of Canada as such when she completed school she headed to Miami, Florida. There she commenced studies in Biochemistry following the career path of many of her relatives in the medical field. “I have family members who can attend to people from birth to death. We have gynaecologists to pathologists in our family but no lawyers. I’m the first.” disclosed Sadie.
However, after two years, she wasn’t sure about the medical profession. She took a break and did some travelling which saw her living in New York and Antigua. Eventually she headed to California where one of her sisters was pursuing a medical degree. She enrolled at California State University in Sonoma and completed her Bachelor’s of Arts degree in 1986.
Sonoma State was a hotbed for all kinds of social, political and peace activists. The anti-apartheid movement and the nuclear-free state were focal points on campus but she was a “social butterfly” and didn’t think any of those issues affected her.
“I was all about partying then but one day I saw this white guy asking people to sign a petition for the university to divest its funds from South Africa…” she recalls. At the time she was waiting to use the pay phone and could help but think “please don’t let him ask me to sign ABF (another bloody form).” But he was polite, knew about Guyana and in an unassuming way got my attention on South Africa. He didn’t have that “holier than thou attitude that most activists on campus had.”
By the end of the week she went to San Francisco to hold her first placard in front of the South African embassy. Before the semester was done, Sadie was attending forums in which Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Joan Baez, Jane Fonda and other activists were calling for the overthrow of apartheid. She was arrested a few times but was shielded by other activists from being charged since deportation from the United States was a possibility.
A turning point in her life was going to Guatemala which, like most of Central America at the time, was in the midst of civil unrest or war. A volunteer brigade from California went to help reap the coffee crop and she was among them. She spent two months in the mountains getting up before dawn and returning to camp after the sun went down. The “social butterfly” had metamorphosed into a serious activist.
In the last year of university, Ms Amin marched with other students on Washington, DC for a nuclear-free country. Ronald Regan was president and the cold war was on. She ran a rescue shelter for misplaced persons of Central America and taught English as a Second Language. She was an active member of Greenpeace and once sailed on the Rainbow Warrior – the flagship of the environmental group.
During the George Bush administration, she became a staunch advocate of the women’s choice movement. During this period she worked with many women who went on to become prominent persons.
She applied to and was accepted into law school in San Francisco with the intent of becoming a constitutional rights attorney. During the first year of law school, she worked with the gay community and in the office of then Mayor of San Francisco, Diane Feinstein (now state senator) advocating for state benefits for partners of same-sex couples affected by the HIV virus. During this period, she married Matthew Greaney, the guy who introduced her to social consciousness and they continued to raise their “own small voices.”
In early 1992, a chance conversation with her mother in Guyana saw her committing to returning to Guyana after the upcoming elections “to give back to my country.” In December 1992, both Sadie and her husband Matt put plans to move to Africa on hold to come to Guyana for one year. She applied to teach at her alma mater but perhaps they hadn’t gotten over her initial sojourn and hired her husband instead. She was offered a job at Queen’s College teaching Science and History.
After the planned one-year stay expired she simply didn’t want to leave. This meant the demise of her marriage; a risk she was willing to take to stay and be a part of Guyana’s transformation. Her decision turned out to be purposeful as she soon became a political activist with the People’s Progressive Party (PPP). She joined the party’s youth arm. It was through her political involvement that she met and eventually married her current husband, Reggie Bhagwandin, Managing Director (ag) of the Guyana Oil Company.
LAW STUDIES AND VOLUNTEERISM
Although she loved teaching and spent her meagre $10,000 salary on refurbishing the science labs and taking her students on fieldtrips Sadie eventually decided to continue her law studies at the University of Guyana, She remained politically active. After completing the second year, she opted to quit, to volunteer at Freedom House, the PPP headquarters. This was following the death of President Cheddi Jagan in 1997.
Through her volunteerism, she became close friends with Mrs Janet Jagan who later became President of Guyana. Their friendship blossomed over a shared love for books, paintings and semi-precious jewellery. “Janet and I became very close…we had a lot in common.” Sadie disclosed.
It was therefore understandable that Mrs. Jagan wanted Sadie to work with her when she became President. She was hired as Special Assistant to the President for a $1 per year with no other allowances. Her framed letter of employment holds a special place of honour in her office.
President Jagan was a stickler for time. If she said she was leaving at a certain time she only waited an extra two minutes. Sadie found that out the hard way when the president once left her behind. She said she was always three minutes early after that.
While working with the president, Sadie also worked as editor of the Mirror Newspaper. She had volunteered there for years as the staff writer of the Women’s Page.
Sadie was also asked to represent Guyana at certain key conferences including Vital Voices, of which Hillary Clinton, as First Lady then, was patron. Out of that conference, Sadie, along with Jocelyn Dow and the late Deborah Backer formed the Women’s Millennium Caucus, a forum for women across the political divide.
When Mrs. Jagan resigned from the presidency, she and Sadie continued to work at Freedom House, and the final year of the law programme was completed.
A lawyer taking a speedboat to work on a regular basis appealed to Sadie’s quirky sense of humour. And so she became the lone female attorney-at-law practicing solely in the Cinderella County – Essequibo.
She remembers being encouraged by the late Deborah Backer, her mentor, to join the Guyana Association of Women Lawyers (GAWL). The association’s work beckoned her, as she is able to give back to society through a network of female lawyers and judges. She served four years as Secretary and two as Vice President.
As the Association’s second term President, Sadie feels she has inherited a great tradition started by the charter president, Madam Justice Desiree Bernard, Retired Caribbean Court of Appeal Judge. Through the GAWL she found a viable forum for improving the legal system and making it accessible to those most in need. In addition to hosting in-house seminars, rights workshops, reviewing legislation, making recommendations to parliament, etc., the GAWL has been simplifying the law through its publication ‘The Law and You’. “This is our seminal publication and we explain the law in easy to read language, and it tells you what your rights are.
“Being a part of GAWL gives me a sense of self-worth as it advocates for the most vulnerable in society, women and children. I’m proud to be President right now as next April will be the Association’s 30th anniversary,” said Sadie.
She has also held positions in the Guyana Bar Association and is currently its Vice President.
As part of her local human rights efforts, Sadie worked closely with organisations such SASOD and Guyana Trans United since she believes discrimination against a person based on sexual orientation is a human rights issue. In addition, she advocates strongly against Trafficking in Persons and has partnered with the Guyana Women Miners Organization in their efforts to stamp out trafficking.
Another hat worn in aid of volunteerism is her 17-plus years of membership in the Lions Club of Georgetown Durban Park where she is a Past Zone Chairperson and Past President.
But she somehow finds time for farming too. What few know is that Sadie is also into organic farming and has a thriving kitchen garden and a passion for growing orchids. On free weekends she heads up to her black water creek farm at Marakai Resort on the Soesdyke Highway to commune with nature.
When asked what event most inspired her life, she said it was in Canada shortly after Nelson Mandela was released and she was listening to him speak to a large crowd. She realized that her small voice along with millions of other small voices raised in protest at his detention, resulted in his release. It bore out her conviction that one small voice can be heard.
For her years of dedicated activism, throughout her adult life, Ms Sadie Amin is today being honoured with the title of ‘Special Person.’
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