Remembering Janet Jagan
Happy Birthday Janet
by Dale A. Bisnauth
I wanted to insert a number before “birthday”, but I am not too certain about Janet’s age, so I decided to be cautious, because I am aware of how sensitive some people are over their ages. Not that I believe that Mrs Jagan falls in that category. Speaking about age, you have noticed that I speak full-mouthedly of the former President as Janet. Two things may be responsible for this. One is the fact that the status of being senior citizens does develop in those of us who enjoy that status, a sense of camaraderie (and comraderie) that transcends the boundaries of formal salutations. Secondly, and more important, Janet Jagan herself does not stand on ceremonies. This makes it so easy to relate to her as a person, and not as a person occupying an office, or a rank, or a status. I am sure that on her birthday many persons would have paid her handsome tributes which she deserves, and would have praised her fulsomely on her work and achievements. I would want to add my applause to those tributes. But, I want to comment on some personal glimpses that I have had of this remarkable woman, whose husband was the late great President Cheddi Jagan. I am stating it like that because I want to indicate that she was a special person in her own right. To be sure, quite in keeping with her own character, she has given the impression of almost playing second fiddle to the man for whom she defied her parents - an act which speaks of the strength of her character.
All kinds of myths and folk stories have grown up around Janet. That in itself is a tribute to her, however good or misleading these myths may be, since myths do not grow up around ordinary, everyday persons. A UG student once approached me to arrange a meeting between herself and Janet Jagan. The student was working on an assignment for her lecturer. I arranged the interview. When the student came back from the interview, she said in great surprise: “Gosh! She is so human!” What did you expect, I asked. The twenty-five-year-old told me that she had heard and believed so many stories from her parents and their friends that she had concluded that Janet Jagan was something of an ogress with a mean streak who had a built-in hatred for people of a certain colour. The meeting was a revelation which completely changed her.
I went to a particular church once. An older woman came over to me after the service and we became engaged in a conversation. She remarked on the greatness and goodness of Cheddi Jagan, and then began to blame all that she felt was wrong about him, on that “wicked witch of a communist woman” Janet Jagan. I have heard a few persons explain their ambivalence towards CJ, in like fashion in different words. These persons could not have known Cheddi Jagan. Nobody could influence him against his will. Janet Jagan could not have. I knew that Dr Jagan changed his position on this or that issue, but only if you could rationally state why he should.
I have no memory of her on the campaign trail in 1953 when I first heard CJ and Forbes Burnham and the rest. But I do have a distant memory of her at my grand-father’s house. (I even recall with great vividness, the framed pictures on the walls and the abir-stained almanac). While Dr Jagan was, in his usual style, giving his spiel to an enraptured collection of men who were being entertained by my grand-father in his usual style, Janet was engaging the women folk in a conversation about things domestic and house-wifery in a casual and most non-condescending manner imaginable. Children gawked at her probably having never seen a white person that close before. That night she battled mosquitoes and inadequate lighting as she presented her case why people should vote for her. But she need not have tried so hard. She was speaking to the converted. She had won their hearts already.
Janet Jagan is an avid connoisseur of the arts way beyond the stage of the dilettante. While it was I who made the formal move to transform the former residence of President Forbes Burnham into Castellani House, the “home” of the national arts collection, it was she who was the prime mover behind the transformation. I remember so well the occasion of the formal opening of Castellani House. She came with an arm in cast causing me to quip that I hoped that forcing President Jagan to come to the event did not cause her the injury. Poets, writers, dancers, sculptors, painters and playwrights can testify to her influence on them in both encouraging them and providing them with the opportunity to pursue their special interests.
She even got me to read poetry in public and to do book reviews. Hey! I like to think that I have a flair for these things, but I’d rather practise them in private. Once three of us went to a book launch, Janet, Sadie Amin and myself. None of us liked the book, but none of us wanted to say so in public. We hit upon a strategy on how to deal with our dilemma. Janet gave a tremendous off-the-cuff talk on literature in general and Latin American writings in particular!
There are so many things that I could say, but I have to at least mention the time we went on an official visit to Jamaica. Kofi Annan was visiting UWI. Without her knowing it she almost drove the security guards up the wall! She insisted on behaving her natural style, that is, like an ordinary person. But she was a Head of State! And Heads of State do not go down to the lobby to pay their hotel bills or to browse in the hotel shops.
I wish this wonderful lady many more happy birthdays to come. Peace!
Tribute to Her Excellency Janet Jagan OE in the National Assembly
by Ms Indranie Chandarpal
On April 9th, 2009 the Prime Minister and Minister of Public Works and Communications moved a motion in the National Assembly captioned Tribute to Mrs. Janet Jagan, O.E., and Former President of Guyana and member of the National Assembly.
The Motion sought to express the deep sadness and immense loss to Guyana by the passing of Her Excellency Janet Jagan, O.E; as well as to give honourable recognition to the enduring, selfless committed and distinguished service which the late member gave to Guyana and to the National Assembly of the Parliament of Guyana during her extensive, varied and dedicated career in public life as a pioneer in politics and the struggle for independence and women’s rights’ being among one of the first women Members of the Legislature in Guyana, the first female to be made a Deputy Speaker in the world in 1953, one of the longest serving members of the National Assembly, the first female Minister in Guyana, the first female Prime Minister on 17th March, 1997 and the first female President of Guyana on 18th August, 1997.
The motion also sought to record the heartfelt sympathy to her children, grandchildren and relatives.
Members from all four Parties in the house spoke about the sterling contributions Ms Janet Jagan made to the Assembly as well as national life.
All those who spoke referred to some of her endearing qualities such as her discipline, commitment, service to humanity, loyalty to the people of Guyana and the PPP and strength of character.
Ms Indranie Chandarpal, Chief Whip on the Government side of the House and General Secretary of the Women’s Progressive Organisation paid tribute to her Excellency Mrs. Janet Jagan who at the time of her death was the President of the Women’s Progressive Organisation.
We print below her presentation in the National Assembly.
The political activities and contributions of Mrs. Janet Jagan and Dr. Cheddi Jagan have been so intertwined that Mrs. Jagan own contributions have often been overshadowed by her very charismatic political icon husband. Such a link needs to be considered in terms of the contributions which they jointly made as well as the numerous dynamic achievements of Mrs. Jagan herself.
Together they dedicated their energies and total commitment to the improvement of the life of the ordinary men and women with great humility and compassion.
Ever since her arrival she was propelled into the activities with her husband as they sought to address the various issues confronting the underprivileged and downtrodden.
We, who have worked closely with her, are well aware of the multiple roles she had played as a trade unionist, a woman activist, a politician, a Member of Parliament, Minister of Government, Deputy Speaker of the legislative Council, Prime Minister and President.
As we pay homage to this noble human being we do so knowing that no other woman before her had championed the cause of women as she had done. One year after her arrival (1944) she took up the cause of women by penning a letter in the Labour Advocate on the question of adult suffrage.
This quotation is used to illustrate her early vision for women rights and to place on record her leadership role in giving purpose to women’s equality.
“The very vital question of adult suffrage, today while being of extreme importance to the male population of British Guiana is of equal significance to all women of the country.
The existing law does not qualify many women to vote, since very few could possibly meet the property qualifications. The present struggle for adult suffrage is also, one might say, a struggle for the women to vote, although, a women suffrage amendment was given effect we are well aware, did not enfranchise more than a handful women up to several years ago.
The majority of women in this country still occupy a relatively minor place in society. Their function is still one that does not reach very far outside the confines of the homes.
Early marriages, too many children, and the meagre education hinder many who have abilities equal to men.
Women are not encouraged enough to become more educated and take part in political meetings and organizations as are the men.
The women of this country must fight hand in hand with the men for rights and reforms that are needed. The women must try to educate themselves and do their best to educate their daughters as equally as they educate their sons. The women of British Guiana must prepare themselves and their daughters for the work they must do in the future.”
This vision formed the basis for the emergence of the Women’s Political and Economic Organisation which was formed in 1946 on the 12th July and the three women responsible for the formation were Mrs. Janet Jagan, Ms. Winifred Gaskin and Ms. Frances Van Stafford. The mission was to ensure the political and economic organization of women in order to promote their economic welfare and their political and social emancipation as well as their betterment.
The WPEO set about encouraging women to register as voters for the election in 1947. It was at this election that Mrs. Janet Jagan made her entrance in the political arena. She contested the central Georgetown seat and although she made a great impact, she lost because of the limited franchise.
The WPEO not only encouraged women to vote but also urged women in the charitable organisations to exert pressure on the government to create improvements in social welfare in general and in housing conditions in particular. Within the first three months it attracted approximately 165 members both working and middle class.
We are aware of Enmore and its impact on the lives of the Jagans in 1948 as well as the events that led to the formation of the PPP and the subsequent winning of elections of April 1953 under universal adult suffrage when three women were elected to the House of Assembly. Mrs. Jagan was elected Deputy Speaker of British Guiana’s first House of Assembly.
On May 27th 1953 the WPO was formed by Janet Jagan, Jane Phillips Gay and Mrs. Aukland with the following mission “The WPO stands for a better educated woman who can bring up her children in surroundings of security; it stands for the raising of our living standards and it stands for peace and friendship among the peoples of the world and for the ultimate liberation of or women from colonialism and poverty.”
It would be of interest to note that just 2 days after the formation she left British Guiana to participate in a meeting in Copenhagen Denmark organized by the Women’s International Democratic Federation. At that meeting she made a call for British Guiana to become independent.
“We the colonial peoples under the British domination are obliged to sell at low prices and buy at high prices. Thus wages never cover the cost of living; our women are hoping for a future granting them equal rights and the possibility to develop their talents, as the women of Eastern Europe. We are part of the peace movement since we are aware of the fact that war threatens not only our people but all of civilization. Help us to win freedom for all the oppressed colonial people.”
What is remarkable is that the work of the WPO which she was the founder member and President of never swerved from that vision.
She was a pioneer of the movement to improve the conditions of Guyanese women organizing them in their communities and at the national level for equal treatment and full human rights.
She lived to see that vision becoming a reality where she herself had attained the highest office of the land; where girls were excelling in all areas of life and where free and fair elections became a reality.
Janet Jagan played a special role in the formation of the PAC in 1946 and the many actions which helped to light the torch of the popular movement for political independence.
When the Peoples Progressive Party was formed she was elected as the first General Secretary and was indeed the driving force behind the Party’s dynamic organizational efforts for the rest of her life.
In a letter to her constituency in Essequibo after the suspension of the constitution in 1953 she wrote
“Since the shocking events of early October when the rights of Guianese were so ruthlessly taken away, I have had uppermost in my thoughts the desire to see each and every one of you. However, due to the fact that our leaders Dr. Jagan and Mr. Burnham had to leave British Guiana to represent our case abroad, and since the unjust action of detaining the five leaders of the Party at Atkinson Field, I have been forced to remain in Georgetown to carry out the many duties involved in my function as Secretary of the People’s Progressive Party.”
It was during this same period she was sentenced to six months imprisonment with hard labour.
Former President Janet Jagan lived a purposeful life filled with many challenges and triumphs. The challenges were numerous starting from the decision she took when she decided to marry Dr. Jagan and to come to the then British Guiana and continuing to the period of her Presidency.
Her feats are chronicled in various documents and the one which illustrates her passion and commitment is the reference by Dr. Jagan in his book the West on Trial when he referred to her role as a Minister of Labour Health and Housing in the period 1957-1961.
“It was under her leadership that malaria was practically wiped out, a mass campaign was launched to wipe out filarial in 1959 and children throughout the country were inoculated with anti-polio vaccine. An anti-typhoid campaign was also launched. New health centres were established in all parts of the country and it was under her guidance that pure water supplies were expanded throughout the countryside.
The logies in the sugar estates were coming down slowly. The Rent Restriction Ordinance that was in place for Georgetown was extended to cover the whole country. It was during this period that the working people saw an improvement in their living conditions. The Sugar Industry Labour Welfare Fund (SILWF) was forced to take action to alleviate the housing needs of the sugar workers.
New maternity and child welfare clinics were established in the riverain areas. Housing was expanded in towns and in the country side.
In the field of labour, by means of wages councils and advisory committees, wages and conditions for work were improved for workers in quarries, groceries, hardware stores, dry goods stores, drug stories, rural cinemas and the garment industry. Watchmen and shop clerks enjoyed better hours and working conditions. The Shops Ordinance passed in 1958 restricted the weekly hours of work of shop assistants from 47 to 40 hours.
Annual holidays with pay were prescribed for clerks, domestics and chauffeurs, and for workers in bakeries and in the timber, sawmill, garment, printing and stone crushing industries. Amendments to the Workmen’s Compensation Law gave protection for the first time to domestic servants and increased benefits and protection to all workers.”
We are well aware of the various unions she had participated in and from her actions and writings we know that she was a true friend of the working class and a Champion for the independence of Guiana.
On September 6th 1961 Mrs. Janet Jagan was the delegate of British Guiana at the Inaugural meeting of the Caribbean Council. She declared in her presentation and I quote the following:
“As the delegate from British Guiana it gives me great pleasure to be here at the inauguration of the new Caribbean Organization. For us it comes at a most significant moment. For today, in British Guiana, a new Government is being formed, under the first self-governing constitution in our long history as a Colony.
There is now left for British Guiana only the final step to independent status, which we predict will follow shortly.
Thus, the change-over from the Caribbean Commission to the Caribbean Organisation, with all that it implies, on this day is doubly significant to us and fills our hearts with joy.
The Caribbean Commission has died a timely and honourable death to give life to its offspring, the Caribbean Organization. We welcome the new organisation and are confident that it will be a useful and integral part of our Caribbean Community. To make it a meaningful body is the task before us in the days which follow this impressive inauguration.”
During the 28 years when the PPP was in opposition she spent a considerable time working at the Mirror Newspaper and also ensured the publication of Thunder the theoretical journal of the Party. These publications were dear to her heart.
When the struggle was intensifying against the removal of essential commodities in Guyana, Janet Jagan was in the forefront of the demonstrations and other protests. On international issues, she was always a part of the picketing exercises whether it was for the release of Nelson Mandela or in solidarity with the people of Palestine or Chile.
Her role in the fights for the restoration of democracy was a relentless one, and she used her pen effectively to expose and inform of the infringements as they occurred.
Her position as the First Lady was one of simplicity, humility and decorum. While she was in a position of power she never allowed it to create a barrier from her and other people. That in itself was greatness.
When Dr. Jagan passed away she stood there as a tower of strength and provided comfort to all even though her heart was bleeding.
The election of 1997 was a very testing period for Mrs. Janet Jagan. I recall vividly the campaign, the energy she displayed and the support which she received everywhere she went. However, the violent protests by the opposition made her assumption to office a very difficult one. For me it was a privilege to listen to her reflecting on the early stages of her struggle when she addressed the ceremonial opening of the 7th Parliament and declared:
“Today as I address you as the first woman Head of States, fond memories of the long and hard struggles of our people come to mind. I particularly recall the plight of women in the late forties and the early fifties. I remember the courage of many women who came forward in those dangerous times to join the struggle. A momentous occasion was when in 1953, I was among the first three women ever to be elected to Parliament after we had just completed a vigorous election campaign. For me it was doubly difficult since in contesting the Essequibo constituency, which I won, my gender was a central issue as I had to do battle with two wealthy macho landowners.
Our victory in 1953, and the spirit of oneness and togetherness which accompanied it, was like the end of a long eclipse which had engulfed our nation. That day, May 3, 1953 was a proud moment as the PPP Parliamentarians, with Cheddi Jagan and Forbes Burnham at the lead, marched from the Party’s headquarters to Parliament Buildings for the opening ceremony. We were dressed in white shark skin suits, the men wearing red ties and the women with red shoes, handbags, scarves and hats. Dr Jagan would have preferred a more modest mode of dress, but nevertheless, we were all confident of the future and filled with patriotic fervour to start a process of genuine independence and economic and social progress.
The process began but was soon affected by many difficulties. These did not, however, deter us as a nation and we moved from independence to Republican status. Today, as we look back, we understand that there are many interpretations of our history. But at some point, we as a nation must have a common approach to our history, our difficulties and where we go from here. As a nation we have to constantly move forward. We cannot turn back. We have to live with our history. It is ours and the most we could do at this point is to learn the lessons that that history taught us. Our past should not divide us but give us strength and deepen our commitment to pursue boldly the interest of the nation and people. We must understand our unique cultural experience and realize that our oneness as a nation transcends the sum of its parts.”
Another issue which I would like to refer to is an interview that was done with President Janet Jagan on the 25th January 1998. This interview dealt with issues such as the Herdmanston Accord, Constitutional change, media matter, Parliament government performance and the Rights of the Child. President Jagan in responding to Earl Bousquet on the Accord stated and I quote:
“I want the whole nation to know how dangerous the situation was and that it was due to the responsible attitude of the PPP/Civic government that we were able to make what necessary concessions were required to bring about peace to this land. We are hoping that all Guyanese would understand what happened and would also appreciate our contribution has been one of a responsible government; a government that cares, a government that does not want anything untoward to happen to its people. We want their safety, their future, etc.”
What is important to note is that it was her great sense of character, her dedication and strong organizing ability and commitment which helped her to withstand the assault on her character during her 66 years in Guyana.
She was a morally upright and fearless human being who was never afraid to take a position on any issue even though her views may not coincide with others.
By 1997 she was the longest serving member of the National Assembly and as a debater she argued well and stood her ground on any issue.
She was a great role model for the women of the Party. She was intensely private yet reached out to people at all times. She promoted the highest moral standards and led by example. While she believed in women’s equality she did not encourage mediocrity in women.
Almost all the comrades who worked closely with her will attest to her humanity, her kindness, her thoughtfulness. I am sure all of the women around her – young and old – would have received a piece of jewellery from her, the male comrades some little memento and the children some little present on their special days.
Members of the public who came to see her weekly would have laid their stories to her and would have received assistance from her or would have been sent to some official for assistance.
She was fiercely independent and always gave a good fight for what she believed in; we have seen her on so many occasions standing firm and holding her own.
Unfortunately, she was vilified by some who cannot even begin to understand the contributions she has made to this country which became her real home. She never wanted sympathy or thanks since whatever she was doing – she was doing so by her own accord and for what she believed in.
As General Secretary of the party from 1953 -1970 she managed that office, helped the WPO, wrote for Mirror, represented the Party at special forums, visited groups and managed her home and family. When asked about her ability to perform such diverse tasks on a daily basis she would always respond “that you have to know how to manage time and for women they need to know how to balance family life with public and professional life”.
Janet Jagan was the comrade many had gone to in times of doubt and uncertainty. She was always willing and was never afraid to give advice.
As we pay tribute to her we do so knowing that she would have preferred all of us to remember her living. The Cheddi Jagan Annual lecture at the Cheddi Jagan Research centre on March 17 was the last public event at which she spoke. Some of us remarked about the strength of her voice and opined that the way she was looking and talking she would be active for many years more. Unfortunately, she passed away just a few days later ending an era of supreme service by a remarkable husband and wife team.
Cheddi and Janet Jagan came into the political landscape at a critical historical period and having completed the most difficult tasks passed on. It is now left to us to build on the legacy they have left us.
We must all be proud of this daughter, this mother, this friend and comrade who lived a life of service to humanity and the liberation of man and womankind.
It is with a deep sense of gratitude that I join in asking this august Assembly to support this motion in recognition of the magnificent life and contributions of our Former President and Member of Parliament Comrade Janet Jagan.
Remarkable Janet Jagan at 86 -- CARICOM's oldest and still very active politician
By Rickey Singh
BRIDGETOWN -- The oldest politician of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and one still actively involved in party politics, marks her 86th birthday today in Georgetown where she lives, does her own cooking and manages her health problems.
She is Janet Jagan, a remarkable woman of American birth whose outstanding contributions have helped to significantly shape the social and political environment of Guyana. She has an incomparable record of "firsts" in Guyanese politics -- including first elected woman city councillor, Prime Minister and Executive President.
Guyana is the CARICOM state that has been her adopted homeland since arriving from her hometown in Chicago 62 years ago as wife of the late Cheddi Jagan, a veritable household name in Caribbean politics.
Whatever the selection criteria, readers of the informative handbook "CARICOM -- Our Caribbean Community", published in 2005, should not look for her among the recipients of the "CARICOM Triennial Award for Women" that was established back in 1984.
But this indomitable political personality of the Caribbean region, who has survived many ordeals -- in colonial British Guiana, including as a political prisoner and through the turbulent post-independence politics of Guyana -- is outstanding in many ways in the positions held in the service of Guyana as a woman politician.
A co-founder of the now 56-year-old People's Progressive Party (PPP), one of the oldest in CARICOM, "Janet", as she is popularly hailed at social and even official events, has had the honour of serving as the first elected woman member of the Georgetown City Council; first woman Deputy Speaker of Parliament; also as Minister of Labour and Minister of Home Affairs. She has served as General Secretary of the PPP for 20 years.
With the return of the PPP to government in October 1992 -- after a prolonged gruelling battle for restoration of electoral democracy -- she became Guyana's first woman Prime Minister with the death of President Jagan in March 1997 from a heart attack.
Following new elections in 1997 at which she led the PPP to its highest percentage of victory (55 per cent), Janet Jagan, the former nursing student of Chicago who had fallen in love with the Guyanese dental student at age 23, was elected as the country's first Executive President.
Failing health forced her to give up office two years later but as the honoured matriarch of the PPP, she continues to serve on its Executive and Central Committees, while also functioning as chairperson of the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre. As of last year, she also returned to the post of Editor of "Thunder" the party's ideological quarterly. She was its first Editor when the journal was launched in 1950.
A mother of two, a son and daughter, and grandmother of five, Janet Jagan has produced an anthology of Guyanese children books and is currently editing for publication soon a book on the writings of the famous Guyanese dancer and performing artist Helen Taitt.
Based largely on a series of articles written by Taitt in the PPP-linked weekly newspaper, "Mirror" -- of which Jagan is a former editor, the book will be entitled "My Life, My Country", after Taitt's published series.
Asked to point to an aspect of her official positions that she really liked, in her often stormy political career, this once firebrand leftwing politician surprisingly singled out as "perhaps the most enjoyable, satisfying period was when I served as Guyana's United Nations ambassador. I loved that very much..."
How it feels to still be around to witness her party heading four successive governments since the restoration of electoral democracy in October 1992, I asked this controversial, mercurial politician: "Well, when you think of it, we (PPP) have won all the free and fair elections contested, starting from the first in 1953..."
What are the prospects for a rapprochement between the PPP and its traditional main rival for state power, the PNC, in view of all the talk after the recent (August 28) general election for "creative initiatives" to move the country forward?
The old, crafty politician's reply was: "I don't think that either side has that as a priority right now, but I would prefer to leave it at that..."
And how does she plan on spending her 86th birthday?
"Oh, I have no special plans...I will most likely make a visit to Freedom House (PPP headquarters); read, follow the news -- local, regional and international, as time permits..."
Then, laughingly, she added: "Don't ask me what I am going to cook because I haven't decided that. It could be something quite simple, depending on what I feel like eating... Frankly, it is just good to still be around to follow the progress and challenges of Guyana and to be a part of it all."
I have since gathered that birthday surprises await her, and not only from her PPP.
Happy 86th, Mrs Jagan!
Hydar Ally Monday, 14 March 2011 00:00
The prestigious and widely circulated TIME Magazine named Janet Jagan as one of history’s most ‘rebellious’ women. This great honour and recognition came as the world community celebrated the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day which was observed on March 8. Before proceeding further I need to put two issues in perspective least it be misunderstood or deliberately misrepresented by detractors to create the wrong impression.
The term ‘most rebellious’ does not in any way convey negative connotation but is meant to recognize the role played by these women in challenging the status quo which was in the main oppressive and anti-people. The other salient point to note is that the recognition by TIME is not limited to this decade or century. It went back to time immemorial which makes the citation all the more historically significant.
The PPP and the entire country for that matter have been given a lift by such recognition and not just Mrs. Jagan. It is unfortunate that she did not live long enough to experience how the world felt about her and her role in the liberation of Guyana from poverty and undemocratic rule. Mrs. Jagan ranks among great women of history including the celebrated Joan of Arc, a 15th century French peasant girl who fought against the British and played a key role in the lifting of the siege of Orleans. She was eventually burnt at the stake by the British for heresy and witchcraft.
Other popular names mentioned in the TIME citation included Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who spent 15 years under house arrest until recently when she was set free by the military junta and Jiang Quing, wife of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong. These are ‘rebels’ with a cause most of whom championed the cause of the poor and the downtrodden at tremendous odds as in the case of Phoolam Devi who became famous for taking up the cause of India’s ‘untouchables' and earned in the process the nickname of “Bandit Queen”.
In the case of Mrs. Jagan the citation read as follows: “For Chicago born Janet Jagan, the vibrant labour struggles in the mid-20th century of her own country was not enough. After falling in love with Cheddi Jagan, a Guyanese dentistry student at Northwestern, Jagan followed her future husband, with Lenin’s writings in hand, to his homeland in 1943. Setting up a shop as a dental assistant, she set on a path that would lead to her becoming Guyana’s first woman president.
In 1946, she and her husband formed the People’s Progressive Party which sought to promote Marxist ideals as well as decolonization from the United Kingdom. Strikes in what was then referred to as “ British Guiana” by domestic workers in the late 1940’s had been inspired by the Jagan’s and the movement arrtacted the ire of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who put the Jagans in jail. But Jagan proved to be a political survivor, remaining in the game despite various attempts to politically purge her from leadership posts.
An impolitic public relations campaign singing the praises of the Cuban revolution attracted the attention of John Kennedy in the 1960’s who in turn targeted the country’s labour movement. Relegated to the sidelines, after a leftist government flopped in the 1960’s Jagan took to the pages of the Mirror newspaper and became its editor. By the time she was elected the country’s president in 1997, the country achieved the complete independence from Britain that she had sought and nationalized much of its economy.
This citation by the TIME Magazine provides a panoramic view of the epic struggles waged by Mrs. Jagan and her husband Cheddi Jagan for the liberation of Guyana from the yoke of colonialism and neo-colonialism and for a free and democratic Guyana. This is why the PPP of which they are founding members remain wedded to the ideas and ideals that they passionately embraced and defended throughout their political life which together surpassed a hundred years, quite a remarkable contribution by any political couple.
The fact that Janet Jagan was identified as one of the outstanding women of history by an international magazine with a readership that run into millions is, in my view, a fitting tribute to someone who had dedicated her entire life along with that of her husband Dr. Cheddi Jagan for the cause of humanity. For a small developing country with a population of less than a million people, Mrs. Jagan’s contribution had to be extraordinary and outstanding to have gained the notice of the directorate of the Time magazine.
Mrs. Jagan and the fifteen others named in the Magazine had one thing in common: they were all women of substance who was prepared to defend and struggle for what they believed in. Those of us who know Dr. and Mrs. Jagan can attest to their strength of character and to their warmth and humility which characterized their lives. The Weekend Mirror, of which she was a contributor and editor, is especially proud of her as indeed the PPP and its entire membership.
Remembering my Parents
by Nadira Jagan-Brancier - Babu John, March 2010
March is a month that brings back many happy memories, most of all, March 22 when we celebrated my father’s birthday. But March is also a month that holds my saddest memories – my father’s illness and finally his death on March 6, 1997 and my mother’s death last year on March 28, 2009.
As we remember them both this month, I would like us not to dwell on their deaths, but to remember and celebrate their lives and how they have impacted on all our lives, the differences their sacrifices have made for us all and what we as a country have gained by their struggles for a better way of life for all Guyanese and for the world as a whole, not only on political and economic issues but also on the cultural life of our country.
I am very proud to have had such wonderful parents. They were warm and loving, kind and caring but also sometimes stern parents. Although they were very busy with their political work, helping not only the people of Guyana, but also lending support to the struggles of others the world over, they found the time to spend quality time with my brother and me, and later with their grandchildren. Growing up they were not the kind of parents that would sit around with you for hours and chat or watch TV – unless it was about the news or politics. We had great times with them at the beach at Bee Hive, Red Water Creek, the Sea Wall, visits to other countries and sometimes just along for the ride, going to meetings across the country.
As an adult whenever I was home, especially late at night, while my father was working (he always worked late into the night), he would stop and take a break, and I would sit by his side and talk about all sorts of things. If I had a problem, he would come up with all kinds of solutions, as I am sure many of you who knew him personally would have had the same experiences. Some of the best times spent with my father were those evening talks, just us, alone together.
He was also a kind, loving and playful father. He was such a lovely person. He had a great sense of humour and you could say something and he would laugh and joke around. I have this great photo of him with an urni on – the kind my grandmother used to wear – he looks a lot like her in it - he is laughing and he has the most beautiful smile. I look at it every time I sit down to work. When I think of my father (and that’s a lot of the time), I always remember his happy and cheerful face, with that wonderful and beautiful smile. As you know that smile was not only for his family, but for the world.
Both my parents traveled quite a bit but never at the same time. Growing up, while Mom was away Daddy and I would go to the cinema to see Indian movies, usually to the late show or to the drive-in – I remember Sangam and Dosti as the most beautiful ones.
Over the last 13 years by working on my father’s papers, I have come to know so much more about this passionate freedom fighter, this messenger for world peace and the eradication of poverty, this brilliant and dedicated politician named Cheddi Jagan, who I am lucky enough to call my father.
I am amazed by the amount of work my father was able to accomplish in his lifetime. The quantity of his written work is overwhelming. When I think I have photocopied all the papers for a given year I still find more. I look back at some of those years and wonder how he was able to write so much, be an active politician here in Guyana, participate in world events overseas and also be such a loving son, husband, father, brother and grandfather.
My mother was a very loving, kind and generous person. She was the one who encouraged me to do the things I wanted, when others thought they were not possible. I will always cherish and love the times we spent together, especially over the last 13 years since my father died. She was more vulnerable then, being alone and missing my father tremendously. But she carried on with her work as President. You would not know this but several times as President she was very ill, with a very high fever, but she insisted on going to whatever meeting or function she had to. Even during the last week of her life, when she was in pain and discomfort from a broken shoulder she attended two functions to remember my father.
My mother was a very private and humble person; she did not demand or expect anything for herself or for her family from anyone. She and my father had the highest moral and ethic values I have ever seen in any one. These are values that more people in this country and in other countries need to have, in order for these countries to move ahead.
She had very strong family values; it was she who made sure that we were very close to my father’s family, especially as her family lived so far away in the US. She took care of all the finances, the general running of the house, etc, so my father never had to bother with such things. She drove her own car, did her own shopping at the grocery and market and never had a bodyguard until she became President. I remember in the late 1960’s how she used to drive all over Guyana by herself late at night. Once coming back from a meeting in Berbice at night alone, she was so tired she nodded off for a moment at the wheel and ended up in a trench.
She stood by my father all his life and continued this when she insisted that the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre be establishment in March 2000. This Centre is now dedicated to both of them.
Since she died last year I have been going over her papers and diaries as a way of documenting her extraordinary life. Most people know that she was a politician, who worked alongside my father, a journalist who edited the Mirror and Thunder, and that she wrote children’s stories. But she was so much more than these brilliant facets of her life.
She also had many artistic talents, and loved making things with her hands. She used to make small art sculptors using driftwood and shells she picked up on the beach at Bee Hive. She loved jewellery and once long ago she started making fun jewellery and that is how I got involved in making gold jewellery. I have also come across a few water colour painting she has done, together with sketches of old comrades. She has written many beautiful poems dedicated to her children, freedom fighters of Guyana and the world, and also to children in general. I will be launching a new publication on March 23 at The Cheddi Jagan Research Centre in Georgetown, dedicated to my mother, which includes some of these poems and drawings.
My parents were wonderful grandparents, and taught their grandchildren important values which I hope they have all learnt. The grandchildren loved play-fighting with their grandfather, they had so much fun when my father took them swimming and played tennis with them and when my mother took them to the Zoo and read them stories. Some of my son’s fondest memories of his grandfather were when he went alone with him to meetings on the Essiquibo coast and other places.
My children will remember the long conversations they had with my mother when she visited my home, sometimes for over 3 weeks at a time. They were able to interact with her, and really understand who she was. She gave them support in their studies and in their sports.
I invite you to find out all these and more things about my parents by visiting the Cheddi Jagan Research Centre in Georgetown or by visiting our website at jagan.org. You can also purchase your own copies of their published works there.
It is my hope that through all these methods – the Centre, the web site, reading their books, etc. - more people around the world, will come to know about these great but humble people, who have made such an impact on so many lives.
My father said in 1995 and I quote: "I don’t think I have reached the pinnacle of my life, for the Presidency is only a means to an end, to attain the end is to attain a sane and safe world, to bring an end to exploitation, suffering and misery, to construct a New Global Human Order. The struggle will continue."
My father has left a great mark on world history – his call for a New Global Human Order is gaining support every day around the globe. His views and ideas on the protection of the environment and the preservation of the forests have been carried on by this Government. I would like to take this opportunity to thank President Jagdeo for this and also to remind him that it is necessary to make sure that the world knows where these ideas originally came from. I would like to thank President Jagdeo, and also to request that the Government gives due recognition to my father's role in the development of these initiatives.
I would like to thank you all for coming out today, to pay homage and show your love and for remembering my dearest parents – also the Father and Mother of our Nation.