Nov 25, 2018 Special Person
Pull Quote: “There were leaders before me – community leaders, community members – who stood up against political pressure and continued articulating, lobbying and advocating for the rights of indigenous people. Many attempts were made to shut the APA’s voice down, but I am proud to say the APA spoke on truth, spoke on facts, and when you speak the truth and the truth speaks to power, nothing can kill that.”
By Sharmain Grainger
When the University of Guyana held its 2018 convocation ceremony earlier this month, it decided to make the event an historic one by conferring for the first time honorary doctorates on four outstanding Guyanese. Among them was a lone woman, Laura George, who has worked her way into becoming an eminent Amerindian rights activist.
The university in justifying its pick of Laura for this illustrious commendation, recognized her outstanding community development and advocacy. This recognition, many would agree, was long in coming.
But what many people do not know is that Laura almost refused to accept the university’s honorary offer altogether.
“When the University Council contacted me about this honorary doctorate, I said I wasn’t prepared to accept something like that because I have not been doing the work by myself. I told them that there was no way I could’ve accepted this accolade for myself,” Laura shared.
Although she eventually submitted to the idea, Laura ensured that she utilised the platform offered by the university to further her advocacy mission, which she had long engaged by becoming a part of the Amerindian Peoples Association [APA].
“People know me as the APA and that’s how largely I see myself; I am not Laura George only, so I could not have accepted an honorary doctorate for Laura George. Elders before me had seen a vision that there needed to be a place from which the voices could be heard, and I was reminded that that is exactly why I should accept it, because it will be in celebration of the work of our leaders, some of whom have passed on, some who have gotten elderly and some who are still in the struggle but have never given up,” a passionate Laura related.
She surrendered even more to the proposal when she recalled that, “There were leaders before me – community leaders, community members – who stood up against political pressure and continued articulating, lobbying and advocating for the rights of indigenous people. Many attempts were made to shut the APA’s voice down, but I am proud to say that the APA spoke on truth, spoke on facts, and when you speak the truth and the truth speaks to power, nothing can kill that”.
In fact she disclosed that the APA, as a lone voice, has stood up to political pressure to articulate representation for indigenous peoples’ rights relentlessly, and to date, it has remained unchallenged.
Moreover, Laura accepted her honorary doctorate on a conditional basis – that she continues her APA advocacy before the convocation audience, and even further through the media, which captured the auspicious event.
You see Laura in her acceptance speech at the convocation ceremony held at the National Cultural Centre on November 10 last, shared her conviction that the university could play a strategic role in correcting the history of the Amerindian people.
“The university should be able correct history that should influence not only the curriculum but policy in our country,” Laura noted.
She shared her belief too that “the time is overdue for our people to be recognised as a people from here, and not having been discovered by somebody else, like Christopher Columbus for example; information like that needs to be corrected.”
“The curriculum needs to reflect the resilience of our people and independently reflect and portray, and promote, how as Guyanese we have been able to work to overcome colonialistic approaches that are so very prevalent today. While we should be working to overcome this, we still teach our children the very things that colonialists wrote, and I would like the university to embark on taking its role as an independent academia,” said Laura, who hails from the Kapong nation also known as the Akawaio tribe.
Since the convocation day, Laura has been asked to submit her acceptance speech to the university’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Ivelaw Griffith, and its Council, a development that has left her optimistic that the desired outcome will materialise. “I will have to hold them accountable not as Laura George, but as the APA,” she during an interview.
But life was not always about advocacy for this mother of three girls – Lauralee, Angelica and Angeline.
Born on November 12, 1974, she was the eldest of Charles [deceased] and Daphaney George’s four children. She remembers growing up in Phillipai Village, Region Seven.
She spent a stint of her childhood with her maternal great grandparents – Helen and David Edwards – who lived just outside the title boundary of Phillipai.
“I was back and forth between my parents and my great grandparents. I remember my great grandfather was a very skilled hunter and a fisherman,” Laura recalled. She said that by the time she was around five years old, she was required to live on a full-time basis with her parents.
Laura recalled her mother being a teacher and her father a farmer, and her return to their domicile was in order for her to attend school – Phillipai Primary, which was established by the Pilgrim Holiness Church.
Laura remembers being among the second batch of three female students, including her aunt Cliva, from the community, to be selected to write the Secondary School Entrance Examination, now the National Grade Six Assessment.
“We were deemed prepared enough to sit that exam,” Laura said, as she recalled her first sitting of the exam saw her gaining placement at Bartica Secondary School. But given the distance she would have had to travel, out to Georgetown before travelling to Bartica which is also located in Region Seven, to reach the educational institution, her parents decided against her registering there.
However, because of her age, Laura was eligible to sit the examination a second time, and this occasion she was placed at Campbellville Secondary. This also meant travelling to Georgetown and finding alternative accommodation. Laura recalled that since she was not eligible for a hinterland scholarship, her parents had to make the necessary financial arrangements for her. Since they were not a well-to-do family, Laura recalled only being able to return home once per year during her secondary school years. “It took a complete stranger to become our guardian – Cheryl and Franklin Charles – they were complete strangers, but they took me and my aunt under their wings,” Laura shared.
ADAPTING TO CHANGES
Growing up in Phillipai, Laura was an especially outspoken and outgoing girl. She was, however, reduced to an introvert soon after starting school in Georgetown.
“Coming to Georgetown took a heavy impact on my personality, I think…It might have been traumatic for me, because back home I was the most happy, cheerful child because I was a most loved child. I enjoyed swimming, I enjoyed playing with my friends, I was a most vocal child and I had all the freedom an indigenous child could experience, but when I came to Georgetown it was a completely different situation, everything was just being taken away from me,” Laura remembered.
She recalled that it was an especially hard task for both herself and aunt to fit in with the other students. “We were thrown into a classroom that did not respect or identify with indigenous children… we faced racist comments and that is something my people still go through today in Georgetown,” Laura noted.
Aside from speaking with her aunt, Laura hadn’t much to say to anyone, save and except for a classmate, Michelle Lord, who she was understandably drawn to because of her quiet personality.
After persevering through her secondary school years, Laura was eager to return to the only place she ever saw as home – Phillipai. Upon her return though, her parents quickly persuaded her to join the teaching profession, and indeed she complied, gaining a position as a Junior Acting Teacher at the Phillipai Primary School.
But from all indications, this was not the right move for the blossoming Laura.
“I felt I was being pressured by a male teacher who was the head teacher at the time and so I decided to submit my resignation. I explained to my mom what had happened and told her I wasn’t going back to teach,” Laura recounted.
Shortly after her resignation, Laura was invited by the Jowalla Village Council to sell at their small village shop. She did for a period, but soon after was off to the Government Technical Institute, where she had applied to pursue secretarial training.
On this occasion, her trip out to Georgetown was catered for through the Hinterland Scholarship Programme. Soon after completing her training, Laura was recruited as a typist clerk to work in the office of the very Scholarship Programme.
“That experience exposed me to the Scholarship Programme a little bit more. I was able to support the students and staff too,” Laura recalled.
While still employed there, she became a first time mom and decided to again return to Phillipai to be with her family. However, by then her mother had travelled out to Georgetown to attend teachers’ training college, leaving Laura to cater to the domestic needs of her father, siblings, and of course, her newborn.
BECOMING AN ACTIVIST
Her return home saw her becoming a member of the Village Council, through which she got her first exposure to the APA, for which she offered services as a translator during meetings they held in the village.
Laura was intrigued and inspired by the exposure she got from interacting with the APA’s Jean LaRose, who currently holds the position of Executive Director of the organization, as well as the human rights lawyers who worked closely with the APA.
Her affiliation with the APA all started back in 1996 or 1997 which officially started with her becoming a Project Assistant and then moving on to being more integrally involved.
“That was the turning point for me in terms of finding a forum in which I could voice my curiosity and voice my concerns about things that I was so interested in. I was hearing a lot of things coming up [at meetings] that I had heard when I was just a child, and these same issues were coming back now that I was an adult, and I had a lot of questions,” Laura related.
Among the concerns that she had become aware of was the fact that Amerindians were long faced with many issues, including many related to land rights, water pollution in the Mazaruni River, the leadership and security provided by the Guyana Defence Force, which had a Barrack in Kamarang, the hydro dam development and a whole host of others.
“These are things that I was hearing about since I was a child when I would go outside to play…Here I was, back full circle, and I needed to know what we were doing about them, and that really captured my attention,” Laura explained.
”That was the turning point of me becoming vocal again,” said Laura, as she added, “today I can say it was the APA that really restarted me being vocal all over again.”
Laura, who had also returned to teaching in her village, was able to benefit from training programmes, which helped her to better join the advocacy mission of the APA. Essentially, she was able to gain an understanding of the local laws and how it impacted in the indigenous peoples’ rights.
Even as she sought to qualify herself by attending the teachers’ training college, Laura was increasingly becoming an activist by heart, even within the teaching profession. After completing training college, she taught at the Agricola Primary school for 10 years, all the while being an advocate for the rights of teachers, even through the Guyana Teachers’ Union branch meetings.
“But all the time I kept contact with the APA and what they were doing… what was covered in the media wherever I could,” Laura added.
She also had to advocate for a good life for herself and the three daughters she mothered.
“I was in an abusive relationship and I was prepared to sacrifice whatever it took to provide for my children. I was not prepared to stay in a relationship where my children will see me sad, angry, upset, scared, frustrated…I didn’t want my girls to see that at all. I wanted them to be happy, I didn’t want them to be scared as well…I am not afraid to talk about that, because I don’t want them or other women to think they have to stay in an abusive relationship,” Laura asserted.
Even as she embraced being a single mom, Laura was not prepared to be stifled by the frustrations within the education system, and so she decided to quit teaching too.
“I believed that teachers who are experts in their own right were not being consulted in the revision or development of curricula… I found that the teaching system did not promote exposure of teachers other than to stay and do this rote teaching; it wasn’t progressive at all, and so I decided to leave,” Laura related.
After leaving the teaching profession in 2010, she became more involved in the APA, even starting off in a voluntary position before working her way up the ranks to becoming the Governance and Rights Coordinator, a position she holds and has been using to advance her advocacy for the Amerindian people of this land.
In fact, her efforts, which have allowed for many positive changes within Amerindian communities, have seen her being recognised on multiple occasions. Her only regret having been through many struggles as part of her activism is “not having my father here to see what is happening and to give him the recognition he deserved for the years of sacrifice that he and my mother made for me…he would be proud.”
Even as she continues such efforts in the face of some daunting challenges, today Laura is being bestowed with her newest commendation – Kaieteur News’ ‘Special Person’.
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