Guyana has many persons who have outstanding histories in their own spheres of operation. Unfortunately, we do not seem to be producing enough historians who can bring their stories to life. That would be a great contribution, because the lives of those outstanding persons could inspire many others to achieve great heights.
These persons include several women. One of whom comes to mind immediately is Ms. Patricia Benn. She played a leading role in what was clearly the most difficult period in this country’s history. She was a youth leader, a women’s leader, and a champion in the independence struggle. But more of her later.
Today I want to focus on another giant of a woman, whose contributions to where we are at present are also tremendous. She is Mrs. Philomena Sahoye-Shury. Today (October 13) we will be celebrating her 90th birthday. Reaching this milestone is by itself a great achievement. However, there were 90 glorious years filled with struggles, joys, disappointments, danger and daring exploits.
At the time of Philo’s birth, Guyana was a colony, British Guiana. The vast majority of people were poor and oppressed. The people had very few civil and political rights. Voting, for instance, was the preserve of the rich and well-born.
The people were just beginning to stir, and were gradually becoming aware of their circumstances. This was seen in the beginning of the formation of trade unions in our country. Philo herself was born into a class just above that of the workers. She was a Vieira. That well-known family in our country had enjoyed more social and financial security than most.
She was fifteen years old when Cheddi and Janet Jagan, Ashton Chase and Joslyn Hubbard began the Political Affairs Committee (PAC) and took the first steps in the fight for freedom. Philo was one of the young people who became highly motivated by the vision that the PAC comrades had expressed and embraced, and the ideals they were fighting for. Her sense of justice and strong feelings for the working people, the oppressed and downtrodden masses, propelled her into the ranks of the PPP.
She rose to prominence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the PPP was encouraging and organising the sugar workers to form a union. The union which had made a powerful impact on the workers, the Guiana industrial Workers Union (GIWU), became defunct after the split of the PPP in 1955.
When the new union was formed, Philomena became the General Secretary, while Harry Lall occupied the position as President of the union. It was first called the Guiana Sugar Workers Union, that name came as a suggestion of Philomena’s. It was later changed to the Guyana Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU).
It was here that she was tested. She was foraged in the fire of struggle, and became a woman of steel. In this position, Philo led many demonstrations, and was known as an uncompromising champion of the workers in general and sugar workers in particular.
During the bitter struggle for recognition in the early 1960s, and in 1964 in particular, Philo stood out as a great fighter. She made rousing speeches at mammoth rallies in challenging the sugar gods. She was so forceful that she was called the “Fireball”. That was an endearing name for the workers, but one that evoked caution and respect from the sugar bosses.
Philomena was charged on numerous occasions, and was dragged before the courts, charged with sedition. This was during the strike that evolved for recognition. Indeed, it was while she was on her way to the Rose Hall Court in June of 1964, to answer one of those charges, that she was once again arrested and detained. She was the only woman that the colonial Police arrested in that period. She was at the centre of that tremendous and heroic struggle. She bore prison with great fortitude, and refused to bend to the oppressors’ will, as many had done before.
Philo was more than just a trade unionist. She was a political leader, and served in the leadership of the PPP for many years. She was one of the leaders of the Freedom March, along with L.S.H Singh, Michael Forde, and others.
Philo also served as a member of the National Assembly for many years.
She was forced into exile after she married Dr. Shury. The story I heard about that was that Dr. Shury was afraid of what the PNC would do to him for marrying that PPP rebel. The African Guyanese members and supporters of the PPP were attacked brutally with double vengeance by PNC terrorists.
However, on returning to Guyana, the Fireball resumed from where she had left off.
In the years since 1992, Philo worked as Deputy Mayor of Georgetown. She should have been Mayor, but, as is characteristic of the PNC, they reneged on agreement they had on the issue of rotating the Mayorship. That took place between 1994 and 1997.
Philo went back to the National Assembly, where she continued to champion workers’ causes. She also worked throughout the country, organising and mobilising communities to improve their circumstances.
Philo has always been loved and respected at all levels of the PPP and the country. She served the people of Guyana with great distinction, and is truly a living legend of this land.
Happy birthday, Philo!