One of the areas of my responsibility was the Commissary. This was the company owned department store from where you got your weekly supply of food and practically everything else you needed. It had a small frozen foods section, rough wooden shelves with rice, flour, lentils and other groceries stacked on them, farming tools, alcohol and beverages, tea, sugar, condiments and flavors, seeds, and fertilizer for the vegetable gardens that most people had. There was a small display of regular shirts, pants, and Dishikis. Basic needs for everyday life in the mining town. Since this was the only store in town, it did good business. All the stuff came across the Berbice River by the bus or up the river by barge. The object of the Commissary was not to make profit and some things were even subsidized by the company. It was more a social obligation as well as a necessity if you wanted to run a mining town in the middle of the rain forest.
One day, thanks to one of the periodic economic crises that we used to go through, there was no rice in the store for several weeks. Things got pretty bad as rice is a staple of the Guyanese people. Kwakwani being a mining town in the forest had the advantage that most people had vegetable gardens where they grew cassava, bananas and tapioca, so nobody was starving but tempers were high. Their anger was really against the government of President Forbes Burnham, who was Head of the PNC (People’s National Congress), but in a communist (called socialist, but really communist) dictatorship the first thing you learn is to keep your mouth shut about the Party and the President. But anger must be vented. So, the most convenient target was the Company and its Management; though everyone was fully aware that the Company was as helpless as they were individually both in creating the financial crisis as well as in resolving it. Actually, come to think of it, a shortage of rice in Guyana was like a shortage of coal in New Castle. It was more a matter of distribution than of production. The two major agricultural exports of Guyana were rice and sugar and so not having rice in the country was ridiculous. But that is exactly what happened on this occasion. So, people were very angry.
Then one day, rice came. The store keeper, Griffith, unloaded it and packed it into 2 kilo bags, stacked them on the shelves and was ready to open the store. A crowd had collected in front of the store and like most such situations, a combination of old resentment, misplaced anger, and short tempers, things started to get a little hairy. Griffith phoned the Office and I took his call. He said, “Yawar, things are bad here. Looks like there will be a riot and they will break into the store and loot it. They are calling for Nick. Is he there?” Nick had gone to Linden that day for a meeting and hadn’t returned. So, I said, “Nick is not here, but I will be with you in five minutes.” Griffith sounded very doubtful. He said, “Man!! These guys are sounding nasty. I ain’t know if you can handle it.” Now say that kind of thing to a 24-year-old with red blood in his veins and what do you get?? Off I went to the store. The store was about a kilometer down the hill from the Admin. Office and so I was there in less than the five minutes that I promised Griffith.
The store was built on a concrete plinth platform with steps on either side which you had to climb up to get to the door. I parked my Land Rover to one side and walked up to the crowd. They let me through, and I climbed up the stairs and stood on the platform and what do I see? A huge crowd of men and some women, all shouting and cursing (and boy, could those Kwakwani people curse!!) …. many men with guns slung on their shoulders and cutlasses in their hands. Now these guns and cutlasses really meant no harm in themselves as that was the way the men went to their farms in the jungle. As it was evening, they were all headed there and had stopped by the store. But the mood was ugly, and the guns and cutlasses were there.
I raised my hand and the noise died down. I said, “The rice is here. We are sorry for the shortage, but you know this is not in our hands. But it is here now. Please form a line and come and get it in an orderly manner.” There was a moment’s silence as I said this. Then the shouting started again. “Ya rass coolie man wanna come and tell a’we Guyanese how to live?? Who the rass is you to tell a’we anytin?” I realized that this was not the normal Kwakwani Guyanese I was listening to. Somebody had started this ‘we versus the foreigner’ thing and it was catching on. This was the beast of the mob, which has a mind of its own. At times like this, I believe that if you face the situation with courage you are taught what to say. Later you can analyze it and wonder why you said what you did. But at that time, it is spontaneous and right. I let them shout for a few seconds and then yelled at them, “You wanna come and loot this store, you gotta kill me first.”
My worry was never about my life but that I would fail in my task. I could not believe that Kwakwani people would harm me; that is the normal Kwakwani person. But this was a mob. It was entirely likely that they would call my bluff and I would die. They would regret it later, but I would be dead. All it needed was for someone to fire from the crowd or throw a cutlass and the deed would be done. Mobs give their members the immunity of invisibility and people can do strange things in such circumstances. The situation was definitely getting out of my control and I was wondering what to do, when suddenly Morris Mitchell (Chinee, the truck driver who I had mentioned earlier) jumped up onto the platform. He was also on the way to his farm, so he was wearing a much-used shirt, jeans, his cap backwards on his head, cutlass in his hand. Chinee was a big man. He was well over six feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds, all muscle. His wrists were a foot wide (or at least they looked like they were) and his hands were like shovels. I remember one day he was sitting in my office and lazily squeezed a tack (nail) into a piece of hard green-heart wood that I used to keep as a paper weight. Squeezed it into the wood. Not hammered—squeezed. Get it??
Well, he jumped up onto the platform and in a voice that was used to being heard over the roar of truck and bulldozer engines shouted, “A’yo raas lisen and lisen good. You wanna kill dis baay? You gotta kill me fus. And a’yo raas know, I ain’t gonna die alone. So, who ready??” As in any mob situation, there is a critical incident that changes the mood. This was the one here. Suddenly someone started laughing and said, “Man Chinee. Yawar a’we baay man!! Nobody ain’t gonna do nothn to he! A’we just mad at the company man!! Anyway, the rice dey ere an so leh we go’n get it. Stand in a line folks. We ain’t ga all night!!” And that was that. All that camaraderie apart, the reality is that if Morris Mitchel had not stood by my side, there is no saying what would have happened. Seeing him with a cutlass in his hand had a sobering effect and broke the mood of the mob and people came to their senses. As I say, Guyana is beloved to me because of its people. Amazing people who would cheerfully put their own lives on the line for a friend.
The incident did not end there for me. When Nick got back, instead of a pat on the back, I got my ear burned off for being a hero. Nick was angry at me for putting my life in danger for no good reason. He wouldn’t believe that the Kwakwani people wouldn’t have harmed me. He said he knew mobs and that they had a life and will of their own. People did things in the mob frenzy which they may well regret later, but the damage would be done. He was angry, but said he respected my courage and standing on principle and that he would personally ‘fry my butt’ if I ever did such a thing again. It was said with so much love and concern for me that I only grew to respect and love the man even more. He said to me, “Your father told me to look after you when he left you here and I gave him my word. If you had died today what would I tell Dr. Baig? Never do this kind of thing again. You hear me?” “Yessah! I hear you.” I heard you that day and I hear you every time I think of you. I hear your words, I hear the tone, I hear the love, the responsibility, and the honor. I hear it and I bless you and thank AllahY that He gave me you as my first boss so that I could learn from you how to be a man. And He is witness that you taught me very well. Nick was a father to me in a strange land where I was alone, and I loved him like my own father.
That is one of the many lessons that I owe to Nick. Another was in hospitality and consideration. The first time it happened I was astonished. Then it became a regular feature. One weekend Nick called me and asked me to go over to his place. When I walked over, I saw that he had a pen full of live chickens (about 10-12 in all) and a knife. He said to me, “Ya-waar, can you please slaughter these in your way? I will put them in the freezer so that we are sure we give you these when you come over to our place to eat.” What do you say to such a man?
To return to our story, these were the days of President Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham’s presidency. The PNC (People’s National Congress) was supreme. Race was the underlying thread in any conversation. I was not counted because I was a foreigner. But when I was among strangers, who took me to be Guyanese thanks to my fluency in Creolese, I could sense the tension. There was a lady in Kwakwani Mines Office called Patsy. Patsy was the secretary of the Mines Manager (the Big Boss), George Shultz as well as the District Coordinator of the ‘Party’. So, she was a big noise. Patsy was several years older than I was and didn’t like me one bit and tried initially to make trouble for me by embarrassing me. One day she called out to me in a loud voice, ‘Comrade Baig, do you know the meaning of screw?’ There was an immediate hush and an expectant silence. All the typist girls in the room looked up waiting to laugh their heads off expecting me to beat a hasty embarrassed retreat. But to their surprise and Patsy’s consternation, I turned around and said, ‘Patsy, you want me to tell you or you want me to show you?’ The office collapsed into shrieking laughter. You must see a West Indian African laugh to know the meaning of laughing. The whole body laughs, not just the mouth. And the person literally throws himself around the room, shrieking in delight. It got so loud that George Shultz came out of his office to see what was going on and on being informed, he joined in, much to Patsy’s disgust. But she learned her lesson and that was the last time she tried that trick with me. However, that was not the last of her attempts to make my life difficult.
Patsy would take time off on the pretext of ‘party work’ and disappear, leaving her work with others who resented this, but did not have the courage to tackle her. One day she did her usual disappearing act and then ended up in the Kwakwani Club having a drink during working hours. I was passing by and saw her and suspended her pending investigation. Patsy, as I mentioned, was the PNC District Coordinator and behaved as if she was the country’s President. Since she was in real life a secretary and that too in my office, I tried very hard to convince her that she had to at least pretend to work. But to no avail. So finally, I issued her a warning letter. That was like stepping on the tail of a mamba. Given her political powers, this was a slap in the face that she was not going to take lying down.
Next morning Nick called me to his office. He had a grave look on his face. He asked me, ‘What happened between you and Patsy?’ I told him about the drinking incident and the following suspension pending investigation, which was according to the rule book. Nick was aware of Patsy’s doings himself but told me that the Minister of Mines had called him and asked him to enquire. I explained what I had done and Nick being a man with moral courage, supported me. He called the Minister and explained what had happened and why. I am amazed today, having seen a great deal of the world, how, given the political situation in Guyana of those days, Nick could have stood up for me. He taught me a lesson of standing up for your subordinates when they are right, and I will remember all my life. This is Nick for you. A man that I admire, respect, and love with all my heart.
The matter did not end with that because the lady in question would not let it rest. She demanded that I withdraw the suspension – I refused. So once again the Minister called Nick and said that he wanted to meet me. Nick said to me, ‘I just had a call from the Minister of Mines, Cd. Hamilton Green. Comrade Green wants to see you.’ I asked, ‘When?’ Nick said, ‘Now. So, get ready and go. Patsy has complained to him about you. I will support you in this so don’t worry but you must satisfy the Minister. Otherwise things can get difficult (he meant that I could summarily be sacked and sent back to India).’ But there was no escape as I was also not willing to back down from my stance, which I was completely convinced, was right. It was also a matter of asserting my authority without which my life would not have been worth living.
I arrived in Georgetown late in the afternoon after a 4-hour drive. I entered the ante-room where Cd. Green’s secretary sat. I introduced myself but it appeared that I was famous. They all knew me. I was not sure if I should be happy or alarmed about this. She told me, ‘Show your face through that window and he will open the door.’ The window was a little sliding shutter. I moved it aside and looked in as instructed. I saw a huge mahogany desk with an African gentleman sitting behind it, manicuring his nails. All the tools for this high precision job were laid out before him. He saw me peering through the glass and reached under the table top and pressed a button which released the lock so that I could go in. The door clicked shut behind me and there I was in the presence of the Honorable Minister of Mines, Cd. Hamilton Green himself.
I realized that the whole office was furnished and arranged to intimidate and put the other at a disadvantage. Cd. Green’s manicuring was the strangest thing that I had ever seen and to this day I can’t think of why he did it. I remained standing. He looked me up and down and then gestured for me to sit. I took a chair a couple of seats away from him and waited for the crucial interview to begin.
‘So, Mr. Baig, you are from India?’
‘What do you think of Mrs. Gandhi?’
‘I think she is a good leader Sir. She is good for our country.’
‘But some people don’t seem to like her, no?’
‘Isn’t that the case with most strong leaders Sir?’
‘Yes, that is true.’
Then he came to the point of the interview. “So, what’s the issue with our friend Comrade Daniels in Kwakwani?”
“Sir”, I said, “to put it politely, her attitude at work is an embarrassment to the Party that she represents. She does not work, plays politics, throws her weight around, and generally behaves as if she owns the place. I believe this is not the impression that the PNC wants to create among the people. I tried every way I could to convince her to be a good example that would be worthy of someone who is the District Coordinator, but she will not listen. So eventually, I had no alternative but to suspend her. I tried to advise her, but she is a strong woman.’
‘Strong woman, eh!’ He laughed. ‘Like Mrs. Gandhi maybe! So how do you like Guyana (Giyaana – is how he and most Guyanese pronounce it)?’
‘I like it very much Sir.’
‘You don’t miss your country?’
‘Everyone misses his country Sir. But Guyana and Guyanese have been so good to me that it feels like home. I have friends here who are like my own family. So, I don’t miss my country too much.’
‘Good of you to come Mr. Baig. It was nice to meet you.’
All the while Mr. Green continued to manicure his nails; filing, pushing back the cuticles and occasionally clipping an uncooperative piece. Strange way of conducting a meeting, I thought to myself. But such are the ways of the high and mighty. To give him his due, however, he was a fair man and gave me a chance to explain myself and then accepted the explanation when it made sense. I’m not sure how many people in his position in other countries would have been equally patient and understanding with a twenty-four year old foreigner who had taken a stance against one of their own Party functionaries.
I thanked him, walked the length of the table, the door buzzed as I came to it and opened, and I walked out. The secretary smiled at me and I left, returning to Kwakwani close to midnight and the matter was closed. The letter stuck and was not withdrawn and the lady in question toed the line. The Minister it seems told her where to get off. In the process, I acquired a huge amount of ‘respect’ because I had managed to make the reprimand stick by convincing none other than the Minister himself and because there were a lot of other poor sufferers who were delighted that the lady got what was coming to her. They did not have the power to do anything about it but were all silently rooting for me. There was an important lesson for me to take away; if you win, you will find that you have a lot of supporters. If I had been reprimanded by the Minister and ordered to withdraw the letter, then I don’t know how many of my supporters would have stood on the same side of the street when they saw me coming. Winners have many fathers and losers none.
Two other lessons from this incident; the importance of building a good case and the importance of putting it in a way that makes sense to the listener from his perspective. ‘What’s in it for me?’ is a tune that everyone listens to. It’s about speaking the truth but doing it in a way that makes sense to the listener in ways that are important to him. Nick, needless to say, was delighted.
Next morning when I went to see Nick he was smiling and said, ‘Whatever you said to Hamilton Green, Patsy seems to have got an earful from him and I don’t think you are going to have any problems with her again.’ And that is indeed what happened. Mr. Green was a just man and understood what I told him and acted upon it immediately.
Mirza Yawar Baig is based in Hyderabad, India and is the founder and President of Yawar Baig & Associates; an international leadership consulting organization. He can be reached at email@example.com