Kimani S. K. Nehusi
I have held my destiny in my two hands
and I am the shape I made.
I have suffered and loved.
I have walked through fire and did not burn.
I have been blown by wind and did not fall.
I’ve walked the long road and kept to my
journey though I met no other traveller.
I have lost and found myself in every rock, field and tree.
I know what I am and what I imagine.
I know shadow and light,
and I have never been satisfied with shelter and bread
when the great was left unattained.
Awakening Osiris: The Egyptian Book of the Dead
Clarence Ellis arrived here on the seventh day of September, 1929 in Queenstown Village, Essequibo Coast, Guyana and returned to our sacred ancestors on the seventeenth of April, 2010 in Washington, DC in the USA. Immediately, people and tributes began to pour in from near and far. People gathered for service and a viewing at the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Silver Springs, Maryland in the USA on Saturday 24th April, then went to Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church for the repast. They gathered in Saint James-the-Less Anglican Church in Kitty, Georgetown, Guyana on the 30th April, to pay more tributes and say more prayers. They gathered again at Saint Bartholomew’s Anglican Church in his birthplace and held another service on the 1st of May. Many were there in the flesh in each of these assemblies; many more were gathered in spirit in these diverse places. Then, with great reverence and much regret at his transition, they buried his body in the bosom of his beloved village, in the soil that is part of a region which many generations of his people toiled without pay to transform from a pristine, waterlogged and disease-infected zone constantly contested over by land and sea, into a habitable and productive environment which still nourishes many generations of Guyanese.
Some kind-hearted and well-intentioned people will say that that is the end of Clarence Ellis. But that will not be enough, for it is only his physical body they buried in that graveyard in Queenstown. None could bury his spirit. That is not possible, for spirit never dies, and Clarence’s spirit lives on, his example a model and a constant challenge to all of us who are his inheritors. Most will have come to celebrate a life and a shining example of a spirit which incarnated and animated qualities of courage, commitment, openness, honesty, knowledge and humility in the personality we have come to know, honour, respect and love as Clarence Ellis. And so it was merely his body that they buried in that grave in Queenstown on that May Day of 2010.
I first met Clarence in the flesh when I was a boy of fifteen playing cricket for selection to the village team and he told me off, publicly and correctly, for reckless batting. But the truth is that I had met him before, though I may not have understood it then. I had heard of him through his brother, Dennis, who was my teacher, and doubtless from other folk in the village. But I had known him, in a certain way, even before then too.
It was that way we villagers – and perhaps others, also – have of celebrating and possessing, perhaps appropriating, those we raise to the status of celebrity or even hero merely because they had gone to some prestigious school, or to a university, or attained prominence in the public service or whatsoever profession they had chosen, or had been chosen for them by circumstances they did not control. Like almost all the members of his generation and like too many of the current generations, Clarence was forcibly subjected to socialization into that horrible and humiliating condition called the colonized.
But despite these contradictory intentions of the dominant colonial institutions such as the system of (mis)education, the church, the law and the press, the process of socialization in Afrikan Guyanese villages more often instilled common values of dignity and pride in oneself, humility, respect for others, hard work, a determination to succeed, a commitment to service as well as a certain consciousness held dear by all who were fortunate enough to be raised in a village. Those who successfully negotiated these contradictions between colonial values and the collective good were recognized and celebrated as outstanding. They had to be, because they were our best representatives and so belonged to all of us. You did not have to meet them to know them. So we knew Clarence before we met him.
Clarence is about the first person I knew of who went to university. He had journeyed from his birthplace in a rural village to the city of Georgetown, the center of colonial Guyana, and to the United Kingdom and the USA and had assignments in many other parts of the world. On the way he attended St. Bartholomew’s Anglican School, now Queenstown Primary, Queens College, the University of Leicester, the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and acquired such academic honours as BSc (Economics, Leicester), MSc (Development Econs, LSE) and Advanced Studies in Economics (MIT). He worked as a school teacher, mainly at Dartmouth on the Essequibo Coast, in the British civil service, and in the Guyanese civil service where he rose to the stations of Deputy Governor of the Bank of Guyana and head of the State Planning Commission. He was awarded the Cacique’s Crown of Honour (CCH) and subsequently migrated to the USA where he held positions on the boards of the World Bank and the Inter American Development Bank and was also Economic Advisor and Consultant to the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank.
Clarence’s journey from Queenstown to Georgetown, thence to Leeds and London and eventually to Washington was much more than a mere physical journey from the most underdeveloped aspect of an underdeveloped periphery to the leading centres of the capitalist world. Those geographical signposts should not be allowed to conceal the eye-opening and perhaps life-changing experiences and insights acquired first hand on such an expedition. The advantages of such travel were considerably more than the mere certification usually though mistakenly understood and too often accepted as university education, especially because of its promise of greater pecuniary reward.
London and other parts of Britain in the 1960s still degraded themselves with signs announcing ‘No dogs, No Irish, No Blacks’. First-hand experiences of British racism, (still widespread today) and the workings of the British civil service amounted to valuable social and professional capital that enriched his life and enriched the contribution Clarence later made to this world. A close acquaintance with both colonised and coloniser rendered him a powerful and articulate witness to and an expert on the condition of each. His outraged sense of decency compelled him to be sharpened by the demystification of evil in the very belly of the beast, affirmed his belief in himself and deepened the foundations for the commitment to the hard work of liberation to which he thereafter contributed with such great distinction.
As it is with so many Guyanese of a certain generation, from village or town, Clarence was a bearer of a proud tradition of a thirst for knowledge, skills and training, in fact for education and service to the people. So even though he migrated from Queenstown to Georgetown, from Guyana to England and to North America, he never left our village, or our country, and the struggle for a better Guyana, for to him our people’s business could never be left untended. He was almost inevitably on duty, urgently seeking solutions to the collective problem of being Afrikan in these desperate times our people inhabit all around the world, including our beloved Guyana.
Clarence Ellis remained passionate in his attachment to the development of all Guyana, especially the villages, which he recognised to be the critical battleground for transformation. He understood that the return of villages to the villagers would mean more participation and promote democracy, accountability, efficiency and overall development. He developed economic plans for Buxton and Queenstown and helped to author plans for local government reform.
If the realm of economics and planning became his profession, teaching always remained his vocation. After his return to Guyana from London he fearlessly undertook to teach at the African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa (ASCRIA) when it was politically risky and therefore not fashionable to undertake such necessary work. More recently he became a very influential member of our village organization abroad, the Queenstown New York Association (QNYA), as well as of the Afrikan Cultural Development Association (ACDA), based in Guyana, and the Global Afrikan Congress (GAC).
Clarence Ellis embraced the possibilities in new technology, became proficient in the use of email, and undertook a prodigious output through this media on the social, political and economic problems of Guyana. His profuse contributions to that fine tradition alive in Guyanese newspapers, ‘Letter to the Editor’, not only expressed his ideas but became a vehicle for public discussion and education. He regarded his ‘Letters’ as urgent, necessary and reaching a wide readership. His contributions were always distinguished by great humility, honesty, dignity, respect for everyone, forthrightness, learning and wisdom. He earned the status of elder in our global Afrikan community as well as our global Guyanese community.
His distinguished contribution places him among the most celebrated traditional thinkers and actors of Afrikan-Guyanese history and culture, among whom must be numbered Kofi, Accabre, Kwamina, Damon, E. F. Fredericks, Hubert N. Critchlow, Norman E. Cameron, Jake Croaker, Martin Carter, Walter Rodney, Eusi Kwayana and Phillip Moore.
Clarence recognized that like charity, liberation begins at home, or, as the elders of our village would say: Yuh gat foh larn foh dance ah yard befo yuh dance abraad. Besides, he did not suffer from that chronic colonial sickness Martin Carter calls the scorn of ourselves. He loved his own people, be they Afrikan Guyanese, Guyanese, Caribbean or Afrikan, though he did not dislike humanity. But he did not permit his love and commitment to be lessened by any lack of standards or deficiency in any manner or means. He understood that Afrikan Guyanese cannot enter into any meaningful dialogue or healthy relationship with Indian Guyanese, or indeed anyone else, unless Afrikan Guyanese know themselves, and therefore know their true interests. He was therefore entirely in favour of a process which, in that memorable phrase of Dr. David Hinds, with whom along with David Granger we shared collaborative efforts, there must be a conversation among Afrikan Guyanese in the hearing of Indian Guyanese. In his contribution to the struggle for a better world he undertook an honest, critical, forthright and respectful engagement with a wide range of people, transcending race, creed, class, profession and political persuasion. At first, bound by his respect for public service rules, his critique was internal; when he left the service he was increasingly public – and he was always fearless.
Clarence could have chosen to live differently. He could have concentrated narrowly upon reaping the rewards of his certification by renowned western institutions of higher education. He could have chosen to forget about the collective good and pass through this world like a jumbie, leaving not a single footprint upon our people’s time. But he recognized that a people seeking liberation cannot afford the nuisance or the dangerous wastefulness, or worse, of the non-committed worker, irrespective of whether the major focus of that person’s toil is intellectual or physical or technical.
His dedication did not permit him to lessen his commitment to national liberation. In the last months and weeks when it became obvious that his health was failing I called to check up on him. But Clarence was never a man for short conversations. He did not complain about his illness or the pain it must have caused; he merely explained how it limited his capacity to contribute. But it did not lessen his desire. Even in our last conversations he was ready to engage in searching and exhaustive examination of issues and I would have to seize the first available opportunity to run off the ‘phone. He was always a man of great selflessness and high standards.
Those who gathered in those many places have been moved to understand and celebrate a life made wholesome by an unshakable dedication to a necessary and just struggle, a fearless commitment to truth and social action whatsoever truth is and wherever action may lead us. The foremost examples of a healthy people can never die, for the people shall never permit that to be so, as such examples live in the collective memory as sources of inspiration and models to be admired, copied and imitated.
In these challenging times when the equilibrium afforded his loved ones by the rituals of transition may be ambushed by precious memories of one so dear to so many, our thoughts must be with Clarence’s children, Cyrene, Gareth, Malcolm and Saran; with his sisters, Bernice Franklin and Gwen Neblett, and with his brothers, Pervis, Dennis, David and Claude, as well with other close family and friends. We wish you the space necessary to adjust to your great loss. We hope that you are comforted by these words, for words are all we have to point towards the lesson and the spirit of dedicated and disciplined selflessness of the highest order, and the consequent possibility and promise of redemption, that Clarence has left for and with all of us.
Dear Clarence. At this moment grief and a sense of loss pervade our being at your going. But the work of a community is never done, so we must carry on, and improve. We are comforted by our knowledge that it is your wish for it to be so. We shall be inspired by your example. We shall miss your many thoughtful, honest, forthright and enlightening contributions to national debate. When we pour libation we shall always pour one for you, for by your work you have established yourself as a shining example in the common memory we will keep and guard and pass down as part of our collective inheritance. And when we erect that other shrine, a physical one, yours shall be one of the names inscribed upon our walls of remembrance there also. You shall always be among us, a treasured participant in the march of our generations in proud majesty through eternity, your example and your name echoing and re-echoing down through the corridors of our collective memory in that company of sacred ancestors who have distinguished our people and so distinguished themselves by long and consistent service of the highest order in the common good. Martin spoke for you to all of us when he left us with this and other resounding truths:
I am a man living among my people
Proud as the tree the axeman cannot tumble
So if my people live I too must live!
And they will live, I tell you they will live!
Clarence Frederick Ellis. 1929-2010. Maa Kheru: True o