Most people in Guyana today know nothing about May 26, 1966. They simply were not around. I was and I remember the day as if it were yesterday. For starters, I was born when this country was still a British colony.
I sang God Save the Queen and Britannia Rule the Waves, Britons shall never be slaves. And like many my age, we sang lustily not knowing what we were singing. The rulers were white. There was the Police Commissioner, the Governor, the principal of my school and to my eyes, the people working behind the counter at the commercial banks.
Buildings all flew the Union Jack. As Boy Scouts we mounted that flag, sometimes incorrectly. I still remember being corrected that a broad white band marked the top of the flag. To fly it upside down was to indicate distress.
The police stations were manned by people who looked like me but who came out on the road to salute when the commissioner had to pass by. If they felt any bitterness they never made it known.
I was a teenager when the announcement came that the country would become independent. Of course we did not know what it meant except, that we would be ruling ourselves. A Governor General would be the supervisor.
There was a competition to name the flag. I remember seeing the name of a schoolmate against an entry that said the Golden Arrowhead. But there were names such as the Guyana Penticolour. We know what the name of our flag is today.
Another schoolmate, later a world renowned pianist, Ray Luck, played the national anthem on a piano. It was recorded.
As May 26, 1966 approached the excitement was there. Flags were flown all over the country; steelbands were there in galore and of course, the Police Force Band practised to a frenzy.
But even before that Queen Elizabeth came to Guyana that February. In dock was the Royal Yacht Britannia. Britannia rule the waves. School children came out in droves to welcome her wherever she went.
I remember sitting in the sun on the police ground at Eve Leary when her sister, Princess Margaret came in 1962. I was one of the boys selected to form the outline of Guyana. The Queen was visiting. I got a glass of drink and a piece of cake for my contribution.
I was much older when the Queen came. I remember a big event, a fair, at the British Guiana Sports Club Ground adjoining Queens College.
May 25, 1966 saw me borrowing my uncle’s bicycle, putting it on a train and travelling to Georgetown for the flag raising ceremony. What a night it was. I saw my schoolmates who formed the QC Cadet Corps playing toy soldiers.
The flag went up and the tramping through the streets began. I switched from band to band having left my bike at a house at Albert and Lamaha Streets. The homeowner assured that my bike would be safe and so I joined a band.
I remember tramping all night and riding to Beterverwagting the next day to meet a most furious uncle. I never got his bike again but I didn’t care. The day looked the same to me, except that the flags had changed.
Gradually the face of the leadership of the country changed. More locals were beginning to gain top positions. Felix Austin became the first Guyanese police Commissioner, replacing a Mr. Owen.
Many things have gone. The segregation that kept people like me from certain clubs disappeared. And to remove any semblance of racism even the names of some clubs had to be changed. The Chinese Sports Club became Cosmos Sports Club.
East Indian Cricket Club became Everest and BG Cricket Club became Guyana Sports Club. The East Indian Education Trust College became the Richard Ishmael Trust College.
Everything that happened over those fifty-three years were not for the better. There was a railway, the first in South America. It moved hundreds of people along the coast daily. In places where the roads were so atrocious that people simply put their cars on the train.
It is hard to imagine that cars could not drive easily to either Rosignol or Parika. We scrapped the railway when fuel was cheap and the roads improved. That was a terrible mistake, something that the late Ptolemy Reid later admitted.
Law enforcement is a thing of the past. People display utter disregard for cleanliness. We still dump garbage in the streets; we disregard authority and bribery is a culture.
We swear regardless of where we are and elders are no longer respected. Schools, at least some of them, have become doors through which some children pass without learning anything.
Guyana was at one time the most literate society in the region. Illiteracy was rare. Today the number of illiterate young people is astonishing. I enter police stations and hear young people saying that they cannot read or write.
We complain about grammar, something that was a must in the pre-independence days.
We nationalized some industries not realizing the consequences. Foreigners controlled them. When we took over those, we suddenly found problems with the marketing. I still do not regret nationalization.
There was a change in dress. Our women dressed like the white ladies with hats and fans. Men wore tight suits with waistcoats and tie choking them in this sweltering heat. The dashiki came and the ties were actually scrapped by Forbes Burnham.
They came back with Desmond Hoyte, as did the suits which we still wear to formal occasions. Of course, some of us make the tie optional. I have dozens but simply can’t bring myself to wear them.
And so we celebrate fifty-three years of independence with joie de vivre. By the end of today many of us will be tired or drunk or both. Fortunately, we have a whole day to recover, although people like me will be working just as I do all year.
I don’t see the decorated buildings anymore for this occasion. There are no Best Garden competitions and there are no music festivals. Instead we have Buju Banton and Machel Montano and Kes and the Band.
One good thing is that we have not lost of right to live and have fun.
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