Viola Victorine Burnham: Death, Dignity, Resilience and the Passing of the Old Guard
By Aubrey W. Bonnett, PhD
On Friday morning October10, 2003, Viola Burnham, wife of the late Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, the first Executive President of the Cooperative of Guyana, joined our ancestors after a brief, but valiant struggle with cancer. In many ways the passing of Viola Burnham - who was also an accomplished champion of Guyanese excellence, and a fierce nationalist, regionalist and leader of the PNC - represents the passing of the old political elite (guard) - Ptolemy Reid and Desmond Hoyte, for example, who gave shape to many of the policies of the earlier Government of Guyana.
Viola Burnham, nee Harper, was in many ways a renaissance scholar, trained in Greek and Latin in England and at the graduate university level in the United States. She could manifest the common touch in her dealing with the little folk, be forceful and inspiring in her tenure as a leader of the Women’s Revolutionary Socialist Movement (WRSM), while conversing and interacting with perfect ease and aplomb with formidable heads of state on the world scene, and leading and educating Guyana’s future elite at the prestigious Bishops’ high school, where she was an alumna. She believed firmly, and was rooted, in the concept and practice of ethnic integration, cultural understanding and education, inasmuch as she herself was the product of both Chinese and African heritages. One of her last public speeches and appearances in Guyana was at a conference on the Chinese Diaspora in Guyana, designed to deal with their historical and social interaction with other ethnic groups in that society. Just last August, as we reminisced about my revising an edition of one of my texts on the Emerging Perspectives on the Black Diaspora, and about a noteworthy award from India to Guyanese patriot Sonny Ramphal, we sparred academically on the role of creolization in a multiethnic society such as Guyana’s; the impact it had on her own biracial identity; the true meaning of “home” for diasporic Guyanese; and the need for Guyana - a need I may add both she and her husband so doggedly pursued - to forge a new and unique Guyanese social persona which would facilitate, hasten and give form to true nation building. Her mind was still sharp, her wit forceful and pointed.
She reminded me of some work I had done for the then Prime Minister, Forbes Burnham, in 1966 as a young and recent college graduate, and then an administrative cadet in the Office of the Prime Minister. There, prior to assuming another scholarship at the University of Alberta, Canada, I had conceptualized a model of Community Independence Projects, (CIP’s), to be completed a year after independence, in 1967, and which were to be funded tripartite by the government, the community, and by external aid agencies. It was a project that the Prime Minister had eagerly bought into but, as I now recall, wanted to discuss with an important “significant other”, before approving. That “significant other” was she, I learnt, and those projects, which were culturally based, were of primary importance to Forbes Burnham, who closely followed their progress despite his hectic schedule, I learnt. Viola Burnham‘s interest in the arts continued to the day of her death, and her and her husband’s support, for Carifesta, Mashramani, Aubrey Williams and other such artistic initiatives and personalities are legendary, and their impact on Guyana still long-lasting.
In the Caribbean, as in many developing regions, political power was traditionally believed to be the province of men. Women were seen as exercising power at home or, at best, as “the power behind the throne.” Viola Burnham exercised both. She served in many positions: as deputy Prime Minister and Ministers of Education, Social Development and Infrastructure in the Government of Guyana, under both her husband and, later, President Desmond Hoyte. She was also a leader of the women’s socialist arm of the PNC, and not only espoused and supported the doctrine of the paramount of the party, but used her influence, academic training and sagacity to mentor many women in the guiles and nuances of party politics and real political power. Many of Guyana’s later female leaders benefited from her example and guidance, not only at the formal and early level at Bishops, but also from more direct political levels at the institution of government and nation building .She was a founding member and first Vice President of The Caribbean Women’s Association (CARIWA), an organization dedicated to the development of women in the Caribbean region, crafted and later modified and executed to include women in the Dutch and French speaking regions as well as the Anglophone ones. Viola Burnham was very proud of these ventures, which she shared with luminaries such as then Justice Desiree Bernard, for example.
Often, she and I would debate the dilemma of higher education in developing nations, the competing imperatives and multiple constituencies impacting on them, and the tremendous brain drain and ways in which I, then a University administrator, could play a helping role in effecting more alliances between the “diasporic others” - the scholars/academicians abroad - and the Universities in the Caribbean, especially Guyana. My institution has many strong partnerships with Universities in China and was building and making forays at that time in Puerto Rico, while attempting to revive those with the University of the West Indies.
She knew, for example, Professor, the Honorable Rex Nettleford well and, after reading my postscript in his book, “Inward Stretch, Outward Hunger”, we talked about her own experiences at universities abroad, her roles as Minister of Education - a role first held by her late husband in the short-lived 1953 PPP government - and ways in which she felt mass education can be effective and maximizing, while simultaneously maintaining academic quality. Professor Nettleford, it should be noted was director of extra – mural studies at UWI for many years. Viola Burnham could easily have been another superbly trained Guyanese academic - qua intellectual - living in the Diaspora, vicariously and esoterically debating this topic. Instead, she chose to live at home and build bridges of cooperation there, while “grounding with her sisters. ’’ In December 2001, for example, she initiated such a contact between me and some appropriate University of Guyana officials which, unfortunately, never materialized into programmatic initiatives, despite her best efforts.
But her, (Aunt Vi or Comrade Vi, as she as affectionately known), dying love was the “farm”. She was a “gentlewoman farmer extraordinaire” and reveled in the art of cultivating and nurturing various livestock and fruits and other stock, and the challenge of the vagaries of that profession - especially in a developing nation faced with its own formidable deprivations. For her, this field of endeavor was akin to creating and producing something anew, from the land from which we all come and to which we must ultimately return - all but our souls that is - and for this, she had both a strong fascination and satisfaction of fulfillment and enjoyment.
With her passing and that of Desmond Hoyte’s, Ptolemy Reid’s, Shirley Field- Ridley’s and Forbes Burnham’s, for example, only Hamilton Greene remains of the “old guard” of the PNC; and he, the mayor of the former “ premier garden city in the Caribbean” is but a fallen star whose glory days are behind him. The hope now is for a generation of new leaders with a fresh and dynamic vision for Guyana, grounded in historical reality, but aiming for a new national unity of all its peoples.
In the final analysis, however, Viola Burnham was more than all that has been adumbrated above. As a human being, those who met and knew her were impressed with her ability to transcend social distance among groups, and the inhibitions of the color/class hierarchy, so indicative of the old Caribbean. She was also able, in my opinion, indeed because of her biracialism, to move beyond the inter class and ethnic isolation to which some political elites in Guyana were so transfixed. Many others were equally impressed with her equanimity, enamored with her dignity and steadfastness under pressure and formidable challenges, and the acute and heightened sense of self confidence in her ability to be a change agent, by the exemplary life she lived. She was a consensus builder and one who sought, always, to find the common ground - often on a principled plane. She was, ultimately, a model of gender role transformation and an important lever for change in the patriarchal Caribbean societies which reared us and which we call, “Home.”
And so, in the prolonged interpersonal relationship while she lived, and in her short but valiant battle with her illness, she showed us great humility, tenacity of purpose, resilience and a deep abiding love for her family, for those she worked with and for, and for her many, many friends. So too, in true pastoral form she reminds us, in her passing, of the poet Charles Mackay, who wrote:
“There is such thing as death.
In nature nothing dies.
From each sad remnant of decay
Some forms of life arise.”
May she triumphantly rest in peace, Viola Burnham, -Aunt Vi, Comrade Vi - leader, educator, sister, and proud patriot of Guyana.