It was 1980. I had just joined Guyana Mining Enterprise (Guymine), Kwakwani Operations, as Assistant Administrative Manager. I was young in my first real job on the other side of the world from where I lived in Hyderabad. The time difference between Hyderabad, India and Kwakwani, Guyana was 9 hours and 30 minutes. Still is. The only means of communication was the post which was not called Snail Mail since there was no other kind. That took a minimum of 30 days one way. So, if I was lucky and whoever I wrote to, replied on the day they received my letter and posted it immediately, and all went well, then I could expect to read the reply 60 days later. A long shot from today’s globally connected world with chat apps, video calling and what-have-you, all free. Having said that, I don’t know if these are available in Kwakwani even today. Kwakwani clings to the bank of the Berbice River, its rai·son d’ê·tre being bauxite mining. Guymine had one of its two major mining operations in this part of Guyana and Kwakwani was the town which existed to serve the mines. The Company (Guymine) owned the town and so the Administrative Manager, Mr. James Nicholas (Nick) Adams was the defacto Mayor of the town and I was his Assistant. My job was multifarious; personnel management, town administration, establishing and running the sawmill operations and hunting and fishing every weekend. Alright, so the last was not my job, but I took it equally seriously. I was alone, single, drove a yellow Land Rover, an 18 – foot, flat bottomed boat with an Evinrude outboard engine and loved the bush. And I was in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest i.e. Heaven.
There was a lady in Kwakwani Mines Office called Patsy (not her real name) who was the secretary of the Mines Manager (the Big Boss), Arnold Shultz as well as the District Coordinator of the ‘Party’ (Peoples National Congress) withLinden Forbes Sampson Burnham as the Leader of the Party and the President of Guyana. Those who lived in Guyana in the days of Forbes Burnham will remember him and those days. I won’t say in what way, but they will remember those days alright. Patsy was therefore a big noise. Patsy was several years older than I was and didn’t like me one bit and tried initially to make trouble for me by embarrassing me. When that didn’t work and instead backfired in her face, she got even more angry with me. But there was not much she could do.
Patsy would take time off on the pretext of ‘party work’ and disappear, leaving her work with others who resented this, but did not have the courage to tackle her. One day she did her usual disappearing act and then ended up in the Kwakwani Club having a drink during working hours. I was passing by and saw her and suspended her pending investigation. There were witnesses and the investigation found her guilty, and I issued her a warning letter. That was like stepping on the tail of a mamba. Given her political powers, this was a slap in the face that she was not going to take lying down.
Next morning Nick called me to his office. He had a grave look on his face. He asked me, ‘What happened between you and Patsy?’ I told him about the drinking incident and the following suspension pending investigation, which was according to the rule book. Nick was aware of Patsy’s doings himself but told me that the Minister of Mines had called him and asked him to enquire. I explained what I had done and Nick being a man with moral courage, supported me. He called the Minister and explained what had happened and why. I am amazed today, having seen a great deal of the world, how, given the political situation in Guyana of those days, Nick could have stood up for me. He taught me a lesson of standing up for your subordinates when they are right, and I will remember all my life. That was Nick for you. A man that I admire, respect, and love with all my heart.
The matter did not end with that because the lady in question would not let it rest. She demanded that I withdraw the warning letter. I refused. So once again the Minister called Nick and said that he wanted to meet me. Nick said to me, ‘I just had a call from the Minister of Mines, Cd. Hamilton Green. Comrade Green wants to see you.’ I asked, ‘When?’ Nick said, ‘Now. So, get ready and go. Patsy has complained to him about you. I will support you in this so do not worry but you must satisfy the Minister. Otherwise, things can get difficult (he meant that I could summarily be sacked and sent back to India).’ But there was no escape as I was also not willing to back down from my stance, which I was completely convinced, was right. It was also a matter of asserting my authority without which my life would not have been worth living. That is a lesson I learnt early. As a leader if you take a stance or action, make sure you are legally correct and then stick to it. Never back down.
I arrived in Georgetown late in the afternoon after a 4-hour drive. I entered the anteroom where Cd. Green’s secretary sat. I introduced myself but it appeared that I was famous. They all knew me. I was not sure if I should be happy or alarmed about this. She told me, ‘Show your face through that window and he will open the door.’ The window was a little sliding shutter in what looked like a steel door, painted black. I moved aside the shutter and peeped in as instructed. I saw a huge mahogany desk with an African gentleman sitting behind it, manicuring his nails. All the tools for this high precision job were laid out before him. He saw me peering through the glass and reached under the tabletop and pressed a button which released the lock so that I could go in. The door clicked shut behind me and there I was in the presence of the Honorable Minister of Mines, Cd. Hamilton Green himself.
I realized that the whole office was furnished and arranged to intimidate and put the other at a disadvantage. Cd. Green’s manicuring was the strangest thing that I had ever seen and to this day I cannot think of why he did it. I remained standing. He looked me up and down and then gestured for me to sit. I took a chair a couple of seats away from him and waited for the crucial interview to begin.
‘So, Mr. Baig, you are from India?’
‘What do you think of Mrs. Gandhi?’
‘I think she is a good leader Sir. She is good for our country.’
‘But some people do not seem to like her, no?’
‘Isn’t that the case with most strong leaders Sir?’
‘Yes, that is true.’
Then he came to the point of the interview. “So, what’s the issue with our friend Comrade Daniels in Kwakwani?”
“Sir”, I said, “to put it politely, her attitude at work is an embarrassment to the Party that she represents. She does not work, plays politics, throws her weight around, and generally behaves as if she owns the place. I believe this is not the impression that the PNC wants to create among the people. I tried every way I could to convince her to be a good example that would be seen as worthy of someone who is the District Coordinator, but she will not listen. So eventually, I had no alternative but to issue her a warning letter, when I found her having a drink at the bar in Kwakwani Club in the middle of the day, during working hours. I did this after following due process as per our Disciplinary Procedure, after carrying out an investigation, I have all the proceedings documented. I tried to advise her, but she is a strong woman.’
‘Strong woman, eh!’ He laughed. ‘Like Mrs. Gandhi maybe! So how do you like Guyana (Giyaana – is how he and most Guyanese pronounce it)?’
‘I like it very much Sir.’
‘You don’t miss your country?’
‘Everyone misses his country Sir. But Guyana and Guyanese have been so good to me that it feels like home. I have friends here who are like my own family. So, I don’t miss my country too much.’
‘Good of you to come Mr. Baig. It was nice to meet you.’
All the while Mr. Green continued to manicure his nails; filing, pushing back the cuticles and occasionally clipping an uncooperative piece. Strange way of conducting a meeting, I thought to myself. But such are the ways of the high and mighty. To give him his due, however, he was a fair man and gave me a chance to explain myself and then accepted the explanation when it made sense. I knew later that he had asked Nick for the documentation of the investigation. I was extremely glad that I had followed due process. I am not sure how many people in his position in other countries would have been equally patient and understanding with a twenty-four-year-old foreigner who had taken a stance against one of their own Party functionaries and leaders.
I thanked him, walked the length of the table, the door buzzed as I came to it and opened, and I walked out. The secretary smiled at me, and I left, returning to Kwakwani close to midnight and the matter was closed. The letter stuck and was not withdrawn and the lady in question toed the line. The Minister it seems told her where to get off. In the process, I acquired a huge amount of ‘respect’ because I had managed to make the reprimand stick by convincing none other than the Minister himself and because there were a lot of other poor sufferers who were delighted that the lady got what was coming to her. They did not have the power to do anything about it but were all silently rooting for me. There was an important lesson for me to take away; if you win, you will find that you have a lot of supporters. If I had been reprimanded by the Minister and ordered to withdraw the letter, then I do not know how many of my supporters would have stood on the same side of the street when they saw me coming. Winners have many fathers and losers none.
Two other lessons from this incident; the importance of building a good case and the importance of putting it in a way that makes sense to the listener from his perspective. ‘What’s in it for me?’ is a tune that everyone listens to. It is about speaking the truth but doing it in a way that makes sense to the listener in ways that are important to him. Nick was delighted.
Next morning when I went to see Nick he was smiling and said, ‘Whatever you said to Hamilton Green, Patsy seems to have got an earful from him and I don’t think you are going to have any problems with her again.’ And that is indeed what happened. Mr. Green was a just man and understood what I told him and acted upon it immediately.
Dear Dr. Yawar Baig,
Read your article. It is indeed very interesting incidence. Also lots of lessons to be learned. I am curious to know the following:
At the end of the story I did have respect for the Minister, but the mail work did pinch me a great deal.
Hope you will have time to respond.
I don’t think my ethnicity has anything to do with confidence. In any case in Guyana about 60% of the population is ethnically Indian. As for the nail work – well, that is part of the story.