February 23rd is not “Mash Day”, but Republic Day, period. While Independence was given to us by Britain, Republic Day was chosen by us as the day that we cut all formal ties with the British Crown. We were on our own – supposedly captains of our fate and masters of our destiny, and all that.
“Republic” comes directly from the Latin “res publica” – the public thing. We, the public, the people, were now responsible for governing ourselves, and conducting our affairs in such a manner as to achieve the goals that we ourselves would set for our country. The day itself – February 23rd – was selected to help remind us what Republic Day was all about. February 23rd was supposed to be the date of Cuffy’s great effort to overthrow Dutch rule over Berbice, and remove the shackles of slavery back in 1763. It was a landmark event in the entire Western Hemisphere.
Mashramani began as an event in Linden to commemorate Republic Day. This is perfectly in order, and is commendable. Any group of citizens have the right to commemorate Republic Day based on how they feel it’s appropriate. However, several problems arose when the Government promptly decided to adopt Mashramani and make it the official way to celebrate Republic Day. Firstly, by also mandating that all Government entities (at a time when the Government controlled eighty percent of the economy), including schools and Ministries, had to get involved in the Mash, the Government sent the message that Mash was the Guyanese way to commemorate Republic Day. To commemorate Republic any other way was in some way to be outside the pale… literally marching to a different drummer.
Now, Guyana is a land of several cultures, and each may have different perspectives on how to commemorate or celebrate events. When the Government selects a particular cultural expression as the official expression, it explicitly privileges that expression to the exclusion of others. This is an unacceptable policy in a multicultural state. In its excursions in the cultural realm, the Government has to be balanced in its promotion of values and activities.
Mashramani and its carnival antecedents in the Caribbean come out of the cultural encounter between Europe (France) and Africa during and after slavery, as an aspect of Creole culture.
Its particular expressions of unrestrained exuberance, ebullience, gaiety and exhibitionism come out of a specific historical experience, most literally brought out by the Barbadian label for its version: Crop Over. The African people were allowed to let off steam after the furious intensity and rigour of the grinding season on the plantations, in order to forget for a while the degradation that they would be forced to return to with the start of a new crop. This was the old “bread and circus” routine perfected by the Romans so many centuries ago; but, here there wasn’t even any bread.
The second problem is implicit in the first. By making Mashramani the official celebration of Republic Day, the Government was telling the population that the values demanded by Republican status were going to be reinforced or inculcated by the Mashramani activities. And this is where I part company with the promoters of Mashramani as the Republic Day commemoration activities. I would like anyone to tell me how back-balling in the streets of Georgetown would help us to be self-sufficient or protective of our country, or securing good government or any other Republican goal. Again, I restate my point: private individuals can back-ball to their waist’s content, but a Government has to promote activities that are consonant with what they seek to promote; in this instance, Republicanism.
And it’s not as if we’ve had hundreds of years of imbibing and practising Republican values, like America has had, so that we can afford to “throw back”. Look at the racial, political and economic mess we’re still in, with our citizens committing the greatest barbarities against each other at periodic intervals. Some Republic! One would have thought that at a minimum, on Republic Day, we could have reflected on why Cuffy’s rebellion on February 23rd 1763 failed. It might even teach us something about why we can’t get anywhere today.
But then that might make us demand change in ourselves that some politicians certainly don’t want: real independence.