By Rehanna Ramsay
Born on February 2, 1953 in Victoria, East Coast Demerara -the first village that was purchased by freed African slaves in pre-independence Guyana – Virgil Harding only dreamed of escaping a life of abject poverty and making his mother, Olga Cosbert – a single parent, proud.
Today, Harding is a respected community leader in the North Rupununi District –the place he happily calls home.
Though a distance away from his native coastland, Harding has found his purpose among the peoples of the Rupununi Savannahs; for them he wears many hats, teacher, broadcaster, mentor, community leader, advocate and coordinator.
Harding’s efforts to better the lives of people of the North Rupununi are endless. As Chairman of the Aranaputa/Burro Burro Region Nine, Neighbourhood Democratic Council (NDC), his most recent endeavour is to raise awareness among residents about the dangers of COVID-19.
Using his platform as a broadcaster for the popular North Rupununi community radio station; –Radio Paiwomak, Harding is also spreading the word of how the predominantly Indigenous neighbourhood can protect themselves from the disease.
His work does not stop there; he has also been at the forefront of facemasks distribution to the several households in the district. Harding told this newspaper, it’s the least he can do to help protect the people given the aggressive nature of the virus regarded as a global pandemic.
So much is his commitment to helping his community beat COVID-19, that Harding volunteers days at a time on radio, providing valuable information on how persons in the region can avoid contracting or spreading the deadly virus.
It is this same genuine concern for his community development that earned Harding the title of this week’s ‘Special Person’.
His disciplined dedication for betterment is tinged in his lineage—something he adapted early in life.
LESSONS FOR LIFE
His mother, he said, was a disciplinarian. “Mama Cosbert,” singlehanded raised three sons under dire circumstances to become strong, respected individuals.
Harding recalls that as a child, the family lived in a dilapidated house in the village. As a result, he said his peers would look down on him and his brothers.
“They would treat us a certain way because of our social status,” he explained.
Harding said though it was difficult for his mother to provide for them, she did the best she could to give them an education.
“She could not give us many material things, but she made sure we had good moral values, discipline and principles that would lead us to a better life,” Harding said.
According to Harding, his mother exercised a level of discipline over her children, which as a youngster he could not understand, but it served him well later in life.
She was adamant about many things, especially about being content.
“She would say to us ‘you must be contented with what you have. Never long for what you see other have, for you do not know what they did to get what they have’.” Harding recalled.
Those words, he said came over very strong to him as a youngster.
By the time Harding was ready for school, he was very conscious of himself and his surroundings.
“I knew we were different, so we did not mix too much with other children.”
This consciousness remained with him throughout his school years and gave him a burning desire to excel.
As he puts it, “the disdain from my peers drove me to want to prove myself all the more.”
“I wanted to show others who were making fun of me that despite the poverty, I was going to come out a champion.”
At the time, Harding’s mother could only afford to send him to the Victoria Roman Catholic Primary School.
The young Harding loved sports; volleyball and cricket were his favourite but he didn’t play much at school.
He recalled his mother had warned him about getting in trouble with other children and to never come home with his clothes dirty.
“The rod of correction was always in her hand reach and she spared no opportunity in using it, so I understood her words of warning,” he added.
That disciplined behaviour earned him the respect and admiration from his teachers and peers.
In fact, he was much liked by his teachers. Harding was selected to be class prefect and later promoted to be head prefect—roles that helped hone his leadership abilities.
After primary school, the youngster did not immediately enter Secondary School. Again, this was due to the fact that his mother could not afford to pay for his education. “In those days, there was no free education,” he stated.
He recalled that at one time, he tried to convince his mother that if she allowed to write the entrance exams for the Hindu College at Cove and John, he would gain a scholarship to attend the school.
But she would hear none of it.
“Our financial position just would not allow it, my mother would say.”
Yet, the teenage Harding continued to press for academic certification. He eventually went on to write the preliminary certificate of examinations and was successful.
That success only cemented his thrust for academic accomplishments. “It further proved that my social status did not define me,” Harding said.
This determination led Harding to write the College Preceptors Examination and afterwards the General Certificate of Examinations (GCE) at which he was successful.
Having experienced the love of his teacher, Harding’s first opted for a career as an educator.
He said, “I wanted to become a teacher myself because I wanted to help children the way I was helped.”
However, his teaching career did not take off immediately and Harding found employment at the Guyana Forestry Corporation in Kingston.
He worked as a labourer and was quickly promoted to the position of lumber checker.
After about five years, Harding moved to Linden where he worked at the Aluminum Plant at GUYMINE until its closure in 1982.
“I then moved over to the constabulary department of GUYMINE and after about a year, I was deployed to the North Rupununi to guard explosives.”
There, Harding was exposed to the natural beauty and exploration that wed him to Guyana’s hinterland for many years to come.
He spent eight months there and had planned to return to search for gold, when he was met with a proposal, he could not refuse.
On his way to Marudi Mountains, Harding was offered a job to teach at the Aishalton Primary School in Region Nine.
He took up the offer.
Harding noted however that he had no intention to remain there, but the satisfaction it offered him was priceless. He was giving students the same hope of a better future that his teachers offered him as a boy.
This brought him immense joy.
His teaching career took him from Aishalton to Achwib Primary School-at a nearby native settlement. Harding singlehandedly ran the primary school for two months until another teacher came along to assist.
After several years in the system, Harding eventually made his way to Cyril Potter College of Education (CPCE), where he completed his Class One Grade One Trained Teachers Certificate.
Reflecting on his time at CPCE, Harding disclosed that he had many successes. In his first year at the training college, he was crowned Campus King and the second year, he became student Vice President– And Final Year Student – President.
After leaving college, he went to teach at Mabaruma North West District. He taught there for several months before he was asked to return to the Rupununi. Only, this time, he was deployed to the North Rupununi.
“I was asked to go to Aranaputa Primary School as the acting Headteacher. Five years later, I was confirmed headteacher for Surenab Primary School.”
A few years passed and the government decided a Secondary School was needed at Annai, North Rupununi. Again, Harding was instrumental in the raising the standard of the education system in the Rupununi.
“It was 1998 and they thought no better person to do the job than me,” he recalled.
But with no facility to house the students, Harding held his first class under a large shady tree in the savannahs.
He said the school later evolved into several small buildings at Annai until finally, the Annai Secondary School was constructed at Bina Hill. By the time the new managers came to Annai Secondary School, Harding had helped to train teachers for the secondary programme.
He is currently working with a second batch of teachers to improve their methodology.
Given the satisfaction of his teaching career, Harding did not in his wildest dream think of taking a job in broadcasting. He was more focused on community development. In 1994, Harding joined a volunteer group of the North Rupununi of community-based rehabilitation and started up a group at Aranaputa to help persons with disabilities.
“This was done through the Early Childhood Education Programme. The programme helped the group to find ways to deal with persons with disabilities. For three years, the group organised social events, one of which was the ‘Easter Happenings’.
According to Harding, “Easter Happenings was focused on giving persons with disabilities an outing; a space to share the cultural experience.” The event lasted for three days and each year, Harding worked as a commentator/announcer for the event.
According to him, the people enjoyed every moment of the activities, which involved a mini rodeo.
They liked his commentating too.
“As result of my commentating that brought joy to the people, I was called on by the community to be volunteer broadcaster at the Community Radio Station. I accepted the challenge and travelled to Trinidad for some training on how to operate community radio stations,” he explained, noting that it was there his love for broadcasting developed.
“This was in 2000. It has become somewhat easy for me since I incorporated my teaching plan skills of anticipating the specific outcome that I needed in my programme presentation,” Harding stated.
To date, Harding remains a main pillar and coordinator of Guyana’s landmark community radio station – Radio Paiwomak 97.1 Bina FM.
Speaking about his experiences, Harding said that he never knew he had a future in broadcasting but as a boy he loved to listen to the radio.
I loved to listen to Pat Cameron, Matthew Alleyne and Ron Robinson. He said that their work influenced his career in broadcasting a lot.
“I remember listening to Aunty Pat on the radio and writing a letter to her requesting permission to visit the radio station which was Radio Demerara on High Street. I was soon granted the opportunity to do so.”
His work with the community radio station was so impactful that in 2001—the international year of the volunteer was recognised by Minister of Amerindian Affairs for his work with radio Paiwomak.
Harding today continues to be an outstanding personality whose name will undoubtedly be etched in broadcasting history.
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