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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Preserving our literary heritage

Basil Cuthbert Rodrigues

By Petamber Persaud
He belongs to a breed that is facing extinction. Born some 70-odd years ago in a poor, desolate settlement in the jungle of Guyana, South America, Basil Rodrigues was invited to make a presentation at an international writer’s conference in the frenzied city of Miami, Florida, North America. That was in the year 1994.

Three years earlier, in 1991, he was awarded a Medal of Service (MS) by his country for ‘exceptional dedication in the fields of education, culture and community work in the Rupununi’.In 1998, he was again honoured by his country with an Arrow of Achievement (AA).

Teacher, folklorist, musician, culturist, Basil Cuthbert Rodrigues was born in June 1932 in Waini, Bullet Tree, North West District, the tenth of 13 children. His father, Stanislaus, was a carpenter, and his mother, Ignacia, an organiser of cooperative projects among a people who perfected the art of cooperation long before the word came to prominence in our quasi-socialist society. Both parents were of mixed Scottish, Portuguese and Arawak blood.

He grew up in a highly religious society, steeped in Catholicism with a strong Spanish influence. Despite that religious intrusion, his people, the Arawaks, were able to hold on to their customs and beliefs. Rodrigues recalls how one day he caught the biggest fish of his life, but was prevented from eating any of it because if he did, he would be unable to catch any more large fishes.

Quite early in life, he took to cricket and boxing. His progress with cricket was so inspiring that he was able to field his team in uniform, a team that went on to become regional champion for 11 years. That is the story of his life: Any group he worked with, be it in sport, culture or education, excelled, not only in those particular disciplines but also in etiquette.

Newspaper accounts of Joe Louis and Billy Kohn propelled him into boxing. He erected his own ring by clearing a patch of sand and roping it off. Fists were padded in grass or rags; everything was makeshift…. but the exchange of blows. But for all these action-filled undertakings, Rodrigues was a very lonely man, whose search for his true calling in life often left him in tears.

That calling was writing poetry; putting to music those words and singing his composition. His writings redefined the Amerindian Peoples who have been denigrated and maligned for centuries. In a poem, he wrote:

‘Sons of Moruka/we’re proud of you/…you’ve made this place show/what potential it has/for producing such a class/of workers and craftsmen/professionals too’.

Those words call to mind the achievements of the likes of internationally acclaimed poet and singer, David Campbell; potter and ceramicist Stephanie Correia; Desrey Caesar-Fox, who, as far as we know, has the distinction of being the first Guyanese woman of Amerindian extract to hold a doctorate; and Stephen Campbell, who distinguished himself by being the first Amerindian to be elected to the Legislative Council of the then British Guiana.

Besides being designed for children, Rodrigues’ songs were entertaining as well as instructive. His singing was influenced by the Brazilian folk group, Los Indios Tabajares, and the legendary Hank Williams and Nat King Cole. It was this singing that led him to a higher calling: To become a teacher for over 40 years. The story goes like this: After a nun, Sister Theresa, discovered that he was the singer who was disturbing her sleep, night in and night out, she pressured him to go into the teaching profession. That’s how he came to arrive in the Rupununi on September 18, 1951.

Undoubtedly, he was an enterprising young man, as he used his talents and his money wisely. In 1958, he bought a motorcycle for $900 and would traverse 77 miles of rough terrain just to visit Dolores (Doli) who became his wife in 1959….after having him wait at the church for all of 45 minutes.

It was a great union, for it was his wife who convinced him, despite all the hardship it would entail - separation of family and alienation in the mainstream of Guyanese society - to formalise his education, which he did from 1972 - 1974 at the then Teachers’ Training College, located in the city.

However, he opted to retire from teaching in 1987, thereby relinquishing his post of headmaster and all its privileges. This was also the end of his sojourn in the Rupununi.

His contribution to education may be recorded in history or perhaps hidden away, but his songs and poems will live on in the hearts of men and women whom he touched and moved to action.

Basil Rodrigues performed several times at the annual Guyana Festival of Arts (GuyFesta), winning many commendations. He was on show at the first Caribbean Festival of Arts (Carifesta) which was held here in Guyana in 1972. On my television programme, Oral Tradition, he performed ‘Merry Indian No More’, which is a lament of the continuous battle the Amerindians wage against misconceptions and encroachment - ‘a carefree life I’ve lived/hunting the forest, land, the river bed/a new light shines today/which threatens my traditional way’.

Basil Rodrigues is presently working along with his wife to improve the delivery of health care in his community - a new direction… a new dream, still willing to serve, humble to the very end, even though he was honoured by His Eminence, the late Pope John Paul, the II.


·Uncle Basil: An Arawak Biography by Justin Greene-Roesel.

·Dictionary of the Guyanese Amerindians compiled and edited by Lal Balkaran

(Courtesy of

Posted by jebratt :: Wednesday, September 28, 2005 :: 0 comments

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