“I am proud of my country…But I find it impossible not to acknowledge that we have wasted decades in backward, divisive and destructive politics, which I attribute to our politicians and the political landscape they have nurtured and on which they thrive.”
By Kiana Wilburg
Stand up for what is right, even if you are the sole voice in the wilderness—this is the philosophy that governs the life of one of the nation’s most outspoken advocates against corruption—Mr. Christopher Ram.
Perhaps, his unrelenting pursuit to be a daily embodiment of this mantra can be credited to his admiration of some of the country’s greats, such as former Presidents Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham; economist and educator, Dr. Rawle Farley and former Ambassador to Washington, Lawrence Mann.
Like these erudite gentlemen, Ram has already left an indelible imprint in the fields of accounting and has proved beyond any doubt that everyone possesses the compelling ability to challenge and change a corrupt system.
In an exclusive interview with this newspaper, this 72 year old opens up about some of the most intimate parts of his life, while sharing what sparked his interest to join the fight against corruption.
Below is an extract of that interview.
Kaieteur News (KN): Not much is known about your parents. Do share with our readers, a brief introduction into the life of your parents, where you lived with them, the relationship you shared with them and the most valuable lessons you learned from your mom and dad.
Christopher Ram (CR): My dad was the first of his extended family – his dad I think was born on the ship from India – to go to high school (Central), which ended when he was taken out of school after his father remarried following the death of his biological mother. That left an indelible scar with him and he would often bring it up when speaking about his life. He was a hugely talented man with a mischievous sense of humour (like referring to my Nurse niece as Dr. Dead), an amateur boxer until he nearly lost his nose, was adept at making toy boats as he was at being a boat Captain with Sprostons, or at playing the drum in the Hindu Temple in Alexander Village when the regular drummer did not attend service. Unfortunately, he was also an alcoholic, whose first call on payday was to the rum shop to pay his bill, with only the balance to upkeep his wife (my Mom) and eight kids.
My mother was clearly a most tolerant woman and did as best as she could with the little we had to provide three meals per day for all her eight children and my father. That I cannot ever recall going without a meal is a tribute to her resourcefulness, careful management of the household budget, selling fruits from the backyard at the head of the street, being a small stallholder in La Penitence Market and later a gardener at the Promenade Gardens. She was an ardent Hindu, but tolerant enough to give our bottom house to an evangelical group to hold Sunday School and Wednesday night service, at which the pastors would rail against people who worship stones and false gods! I still do not understand why she never even complained!
Like most people, I guess, I consider myself lucky to have had parents like I did. They were like the good cop and bad cop, and I do recall some serious corporal punishment from my Mom, who would end the session by telling me “wait till your father come home”. To my perpetual relief, his arrival was usually an anti-climax.
Unfortunately, while I never acquired any of the qualities of my father – I would run from a fight, cannot sing, dance, play an instrument or retell a story – one incident involving alcohol abuse by him when I was ten years old caused me, rather early, to decide that I would never use alcohol. That, and turning vegetarian, are about the only resolutions I have ever kept.
My relationship with my Mother had two distinct phases – pre- and post-high school. It changed after I changed my mind about preferring to go to Onderneeming than to continue going to school, which I hated with a vengeance. The catalyst for that change of heart was a conversation, which my mother had with Ms. Daphne Rogers – my scholarship class teacher, who, bless her, is still around.
But what I think I learnt from my Mother was that giving up was simply not an option, although having buried four of her children, she did not infrequently question God, like why he did not take her instead, in keeping with some natural order.
KN: Tell us a little about where you grew up, how did it shape the man you are today?
CR: I was born in Albouystown, Georgetown, but my parents moved to Alexander Village where I grew up with seven siblings. We used to refer to Alexander Village as Peyton Place – it had just about every type of person who could easily have been the Guyana counterparts of Vidya Naipaul’s characters in Miguel Street. It was a mixed neighbourhood in more ways than one – sugar workers on the Ruimveldt Estate and factory and industrial and commercial workers in the sawmills, emerging factories and commercial businesses; and Indians and Afro-Guyanese, in some cases residing in alternate houses.
It was also tough – some serious poverty, just a couple of standpipes to serve the five streets, the obligatory false name (nickname), and alcohol abuse on a grand scale. I know it sounds corny, but the Village could easily have been a model for social cohesion, with neighbours celebrating whatever success came the way of any Village child, and participating fully on every religion or social occasion. The wake night, continues that tradition. We had at least one place of worship for every religion, and in the case of the Muslims, two.
I cannot say the extent to which the Village shaped my life, what it would be like had I lived in another place, or whether my attitude and outlook was shaped as much by the home in which I grew up with supporting siblings and, not infrequently, cousins coming to learn a trade or pursue a vocation in town. What I did learn however, is how much the two main races have in common, how interdependent we are, and very importantly, that very often, a word of encouragement, a kind gesture or a little help goes a long way.
KN: What are some of the most fascinating memories of your childhood?
CR: Just waking up on Christmas morning to see new blinds, ice apples, grapes and walnuts, and finding a caps gun, perhaps with a holster, was enough to erase the hardships and challenges of the entire year; driving in a car for the first time and thinking the trees were moving; getting electricity in the home and accompanying my father to Affonso’s to buy a Pye Radio; and getting my first love letter!
I am sure any child reading this will wonder which age I lived! And I do not blame them – the world has been transformed, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. It has been so for all times.
KN: Kindly provide details of your educational background.
CR: For my early education, I went to Broad Street Government School, which catered for residents of Charlestown and South Georgetown. The high school I attended was Cambridge Academy – probably a fourth or fifth tier secondary school, attended mainly by children of the working class. As I recall it now, I think I resented school because I was put into Scholarship class, populated mainly by children from better homes. The class distinction was not one I handled well. Cambridge was known for its disciplinarian principal Robert Pinkerton who insisted that until you have returned home from school, you were bound by the school’s discipline.
I came out of Cambridge Academy with the Senior Cambridge Certificate, which I supplemented with some GCE “O” Levels by private studies. For this, I was encouraged and coached by a resident of Alexander Village who also suggested that I move on to the examinations of the Corporation of Chartered Secretaries. Rather than wait for those results, I left for London, where I studied for the ACCA in between part-time jobs and dabbling in Student Union politics, becoming President of the South West London College Students’ Union. I think London shaped my interest in public affairs, my approach to life, reading and the theatre.
I saw the Cost and Management Accountant qualification as a necessary addition to my accounting knowledge, but the success was attributable to the remarkable assistance of my wife Ena, while we lived in Grenada.
Life after all, is nothing if not an adventure in continuing education, both formal and informal.
Let me also acknowledge the sacrifice of my parents and siblings, especially my sister Yvonne, who supported me while we both lived in England, my teachers and members of the Alexander Village community for their support and inspiration and my family, especially my daughters, for their patience and encouragement.
KN: Was it always your dream to be an accountant? How did you find your passion for this field?
CR: I do not think anyone becomes passionate about accounting – it’s boring, unattractive and unexciting. But having near completed the Chartered Secretaries exam, accounting was one of the few options then available to me if I wished to go on. Having said this however, I do not for one moment regret having pursued accounting as a career.
The accountant is a key person in any company and can be, if allowed, in the public sector. She/he has been credited with the successes of many major multinationals although as auditors, a number of us have allowed our relationships with clients to compromise our professionalism.
KN: What sparked your interest in the area of law and what most displeases you about the legal system?
CR: Probably two things. The first is that I considered a gap in my education was that I had never attended a University. The second was a brief conversation I had with Professor Aubrey Bishop, then head of UG Law Department, after he had bought a copy of the first edition of Ram & McRae’s Companies Act Handbook. His language was puzzling: “One does not earn a place at the head table without proper legal education and training.” His encouragement that I apply to the Law Department was clear.
In terms of studying law for Oil and Gas, it was simply to be able to make an informed contribution to the emerging society and to give Ram & McRae a competitive advantage.
The idealist likes to think that the legal system dispenses justice. It does not. It is still about access to the courts and who can pay the best lawyers. The legal system also operates too slowly, although we have seen many improvements in our Courts recently.
I also think that the legal profession gets all the blame when the legislature is as slow, if not slower, than the Courts when it comes to passing progressive legislation.
Finally, many lawyers seem to forget that the laws apply to them as they do to the rest of us, that they have ethical obligations and that they are officers of the Court.
KN: You have been described by some as a most outspoken person when it comes to politics and issues of corruption. But what made you want to join the anti-corruption movement in the first place?
CR: Growing up in the fifties, I’ve always had some observer interest in politics and particularly good political speeches. La Penitence, which was close to Alexander Village, offered many of these: Cheddi Jagan, Lawrence Mann, Ramjohn Holder, Forbes Burnham and Dr. Rawle Farley. It is not that I wanted to join the anti-corruption movement, but rather, that I think that politicians have lost their way and that corruption is one of the more visible manifestations.
I am no less concerned about incompetence in Government, which often causes as much losses of state resources as corruption does. No one wants to attack incompetence, because that is considered ad hominem. But faced with recent performances, it must be time to call out Ministers and the government when paralysis and indecisiveness set in or when they make all the wrong decisions before, at best, making the least inefficient and irrational decision.
KN: Do you believe as a nation, we are prepared to really root out corruption?
CR: No, nor is there the will to. It is rooted in the party system, in the electoral system, and in the spoils system favoured by the politicians, and accepted by their followers. Our political leaders think only in terms of votes, implicitly discarding civil society and criticisms, however constructive or legitimate.
We need laws regulating political parties and campaign financing, forcing them to operate in a transparent and accountable manner. But will they even entertain a discussion on these two fundamental matters? The answer is no, and that is because they know voters are as indifferent as the politicians.
KN: What have been some of your most worrying observations in Guyana’s management of its resources?
CR: I believe that in many ways, we have retrogressed. In natural resources, we had giants like Winston King and Hubert Jack, while what we have seen over the past eight years or so, it was a parade of ineptitude and incompetence, with the current Administration, a stand-out. What makes it worse is that politicians obstinately either think they have all the answers or try to conceal their weaknesses.
Exacerbating the situation is an unwillingness to admit that they do not know and to seek help. For example, the Government, and not (Natural Resources Minister, Raphael) Trotman alone, tried as long as they could, to hide everything about the 2016 ExxonMobil Agreement: that it was no tweaking of the 1999 Agreement; that there was a signing bonus and that it was not protected by confidentiality. The most worrying thing is that the Administration was prepared to and actually did lie to the nation.
KN: Looking back, are you proud of where your country is today?
CR: I am proud of my country and having lived or travelled to several countries. I think Guyanese are, on the whole, wonderful people. But I find it impossible not to acknowledge that we have wasted decades in backward, divisive and destructive politics, which I attribute to our politicians and the political landscape they have nurtured and on which they thrive.
KN: What big issues do you believe the nation needs to work on in order to have a better future?
CR: There has been endless talk of amorphous constitutional reform, but little to none on political and electoral reform. The political parties, with any exception being of degree than substance, are the most unregulated entities in the country. They take unlimited sums from all kinds of characters, undermine democracy, fail to do any proper accounting, and then get elected to run the country. On electoral reform, I advocate that at the national level, we allow independent candidates at least for 50% of the Assembly seats, not dissimilar to what takes place in local government elections.
KN: What piece of advice would you pass on to those who seek to be part of the fight against corruption?
CR: Do something about it: join Transparency Institute of Guyana or start your own crusade in the media or in whatever activity or community, which you think will bring results.
KN: What is the legacy you hope to leave behind for your children and others to follow?
CR: I am not really into legacy, which is reserved for the really special and accomplished people. But a word of advice: make the best of your opportunities at your doorstep, be the best person you can be, work hard and play hard, and never be afraid to stand up for what is right, even if you are the sole voice.
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