The “order line” is the spot designated on every sugar estate for the cane-cutters to assemble daily before “daybreak” — latest by 5 am — to be transported to the location of their day’s labour.
During my childhood, cane-cutters would be carried in punts pulled by mules, like the stalks of sugar cane they would “cut and load”. Those stalks of cane are taken to the factory to be ground and squeezed and boiled and centrifuged to produce sugar and bagasse. To my eyes, the workers themselves were being ground into bagasse that would soon be fuel for the cremation fires.
My Nana and Nanie, who raised me, both worked in the fields of Uitvlugt, starting as children in the “Creole Gang” at the age of six. This was the gang that “seasoned” the workers into the discipline and punishment regime that was to structure their lives to the end of their days.
My Nanie would graduate into the Weeding Gang, from which she retired at the age of sixty, not long before I moved in with them. She received a pension of $2 per week for the fifty-four years she had worked.
My Nana’s career was a bit more chequered. He had graduated into cane cutting, where he earned the sobriquet “Steel Rod” for his indomitable will to “cut and load” his “three tons” of cane despite his slim physique. He left the industry for a while to launch a “saw-pit”, but returned to finish his working life as a shovel man and receive a pension of $5 weekly.
While most readers would probably pity my grandparents for their “poverty-stricken” lives; to the child they raised, they were anything but “stricken”. Most important to them was they “worked for their living” and did not have to ask anyone for anything. They were very proud of that: they had “garv and izzat” – pride and dignity. They insisted that I focus on an education, because their successful “saw-pit” had to be sold because both of them were illiterate in English. The demands for conversions into “BM’, writing of receipts and keeping of accounts were too much. He made a profit, but returned to the fields because not to work when you were healthy was not something he could conceive of.
I remember them frequently nowadays, when I think of the fate of the ten thousand sugar workers who will be thrown out of work with no provision made for them to find alternative employment. What will they do? What can they do? How will they be able to live lives of pride and dignity?
The Government blithely talks of “leasing land” to the fired workers to produce crops that will be identified by them (the Government).
If the Government had any idea of what they are talking about, shouldn’t they have started this project at Wales, which is already closed? Why have they started cultivating rice, for which there is no market?
I recently participated in a panel discussion wherein the question of the motive for the Government’s unilateral action was raised. I said we can never know what lies in the hearts of men when they act; we can only consider the impact of those actions. Accused once in the seventies by the PPP (during their “unity talks”) of racist discrimination against Indian Guyanese, Burnham said it was not “racial”, merely “political”.
In the present, with Indian Guyanese once again inordinately affected by a Government they see as “PNC”, we do not see them appreciating the fine distinction between the “racial” and the “political”. And this even though Wales has a large number of African Guyanese farmers and workers. From what is already happening there, we can project an intensification of all the pathologies that are endemic in rural Guyanese communities – alcoholism, suicide, and domestic violence.
It will be particularly harder on the females, who always bore the burden of providing for the family in their darkest hour. I can see a return of the 80s, when Guyanese fled to every port to escape their poverty by “doing a hustle”.
I exhort the Government to follow the recommendations of their own CoI — to gradually replace the “order line”, but not with the “bread line”. Leave the workers with their pride and dignity.