Speech by Ambassador Odeen Ishmael of Guyana at the Congress on Education in Islamic Countries, at the Turkish Asian Centre for Strategic Studies, Istanbul, Turkey - 24-27 October 2007

Posted November 2nd. 2007


The transition of education development in Guyana


Mr. Chairman, distinguished guests, delegates, ladies and gentlemen.

I want first of all to thank the Turkish Asian Centre for Strategic Studies and the Foundation for Research in Islamic Sciences for organising this very important international Congress on Education - particularly education in the Islamic countries - and for inviting me to participate in the discussions. This invitation also affords me the opportunity to interact with the international participants and scholars and researchers of the Turkish universities, especially those of Istanbul University and other centres of higher learning in this historic city.

As you are aware, Guyana became a full member of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) ten years ago and has close political relations with all the member states. Unfortunately, so far, cultural links especially in the area of education cooperation have not significantly expanded with all OIC members, no doubt because of the vast physical distance that separates us. Nevertheless, we have received assistance in the form of scholarships for some of our young people, but this still remains very limited.

This forum certainly offers an excellent learning experience since it presents a wide and valuable perspective of the challenges of education in the various countries represented by distinguished scholars here. It also provides a wonderful opportunity for us to share the experiences of our educational systems, thus enabling us to learn how we confront and solve common problems.

Indeed, my participation in this forum enables me to show how my country, with what can generally be regarded as a western value system but with historical and traditional Asian and African influences, is dealing with the challenges of education in a rapidly changing world.

In my presentation today, I will, first of all, outline briefly the historical and geographical background of Guyana. I will then attempt a show the historical transition of education in Guyana from the period of colonialisation to the present time, so as to illustrate some of the numerous problems and influences we have had to confront. And noting the large number of Muslim scholars at this forum, I will then conclude by providing a brief perspective of the role of Islamic education conducted by national Muslim organisations in my country.

Guyana - Historical and geographical background

Before I go further, allow me to give you a brief background of my country. Guyana, located on the north-eastern shoulder of South America, has a land area of 83,000 square miles (216,000 square kilometres). Up to the beginning of the seventeenth century it was inhabited by only the indigenous Amerindians who lived in scattered villages mainly in the interior rain forest, south of the Atlantic coastal plain.

In the early seventeenth century, the Dutch established trading posts and small colonies on the banks of some of the numerous rivers flowing across the land from the highlands of the south and west to the Atlantic Ocean.

The rich swampy coastal soils were gradually drained and large sugar plantations were developed with the use of African slave labour.

The period of European warfare during 1792-1814 saw Guyana being seized at different times by the French and then by the British. It was finally ceded to Britain in 1814, and remained as the colony of British Guiana until 1966 when it became the independent nation of Guyana.

After the emancipation of the slaves in 1838, indentured labour was recruited from India (and to a lesser extent China and the Portuguese island of Madeira) to fill the void left by the freed Africans most of whom preferred not to continue to work, even for wages, on the plantations. Groups of enterprising freed Africans formed small "cooperatives", bought parcels of unused land from the plantation owners, and established villages where they earned their living by peasant subsistence farming.

Between 1838 and 1928, more than 200,000 Indians were transported by sailing ships to Guyana as indentured labourers on the sugar plantations, under conditions almost similar to slavery. In terms of their religious background, roughly 10 percent of the Indians transported to work in colonial Guyana were Muslims while the others were mainly Hindus.

After their period of indenture, most opted to remain in Guyana and were granted land in lieu of the cost of their return passage to India. Many of them moved away from the plantations to live in villages, and developed peasant agriculture, especially rice cultivation.

But after the end of the indentureship scheme in the 1920s, the plantations still continued to draw almost all of their labour force from among the Indians who were now paid wages on a daily basis. Those Indians who prospered in peasant farming gradually bought up more and more land and then established business enterprises in the capital, Georgetown, and the other towns and larger villages.

Meanwhile, the Africans moved to the towns where they became more exposed to education and training; in time they became the artisans, teachers and junior civil servants and policemen. As Indians became educated, they began to compete with Africans for positions in the civil service and the teaching profession. However, it was not until after 1950 that both Africans and Indians began to significantly replace the expatriate British personnel in senior posts in the public service.

Today, of a total population of about three-quarters of a million, about 90 percent live on the coastal strip bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Indians form almost half of the total population and Africans 33 percent. There are small groups of Chinese and Europeans who are mainly involved in the business sector. In the forested interior south of the coastal plain, the Amerindians who make up about 8 percent of the country's population, live in generally primitive conditions, even though efforts are being made to improve their economic and social welfare through education and improved communication and the development of sedentary agriculture. However, transportation by road and air from the coast to the interior is difficult and expensive, but the Amerindians are nevertheless gradually blending with the mainstream of Guyanese society.

Throughout the last century, bauxite production and gold and diamond mining become established lucrative industries. At present, sugar, rice and bauxite account for more than 80 percent of Guyana's export earnings. In recent times, earnings from maritime fisheries, the timber trade and gold production have brought significant financial benefits. However, declining prices on the world market for agricultural and mineral commodities as well as the reduction of quotas for agricultural products by the European Union are seriously affecting these export earnings.

Guyanese education - the four phases

Over the past 50 years, Guyana has implementing programmes to transform its education system to one which is relatively comparable to that existing in many developed nations. These programmes include the establishment of compulsory primary education, the wide expansion of secondary education and expanded technical and specialist education at college and university levels.

Like Guyana, most of the Third World countries are going through a similar process; in other words, their education systems are undergoing a transition from the stage of educational underdevelopment to one of developed education. The pace of this transition depends on a number of national economic and political factors; it is, therefore, very slow in some of the Third World countries and relatively fast in others.

A number of researchers have examined the growth of education in the developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean. In these studies they have shown how these countries are making valiant efforts to overcome the difficulties of economic and social underdevelopment - difficulties which have directly and indirectly influenced the quality and overall development of education in those societies.

Guyana is integrally a part of the English-speaking Caribbean region. The countries of this region, which experienced long period of colonisation by European powers, more particularly the British, show four major phases of educational growth, each emphasising particular purposes.

The first phase was during the period of African slavery (before 1838 which is termed the pre-Emancipation period) when there was no national education system. The schools at that time were designed to initiate children of the White European settlers and landowners into the "Christian" culture. In this period education for the African slaves, and even religious instruction to them by Christian priests, were generally restricted or forbidden activities. Interestingly, a good proportion of the African slave population were Muslims, but through repressive techniques employed by the slave-owners, and also by the proselyting activities of Christian missionaries, most of the succeeding generation abandoned their original faith and adopted Christian beliefs.

The second phase, the immediate post-Emancipation period (from 1838), saw the introduction of a limited system of education for children of the masses - i.e., the majority non-European section of the population - through financial allocations made available by the British colonial authorities.

While there was still no national education system as yet, there was organised a structure which provided one kind of education for children of the British ruling class and another kind of poorer quality for the masses.

The third phase - the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries - was the period when a small group of non-Whites began to participate in the government of the country. But education in this phase was used as a means of individual mobility rather than as a means of national development. Actually, compulsory primary education - with some exceptions - entered the statute books in 1876.

The fourth and final phase began in the late 1950s when political power passed into the hands of the people of the various British territories in the region. This phase saw rising expectations of equal opportunity and provided the impetus to educational activity.

It is my contention, that politics, along with political ideology, influenced tremendously the development of education in Guyana since 1950, which coincides with the fourth phase of education development in the Caribbean.

As a result of ideological differences between various political parties in Government at different periods in the history of Guyana, the transition of education, especially in this fourth phase, has not followed a smooth course. Indeed, there have been periods of forward movement followed by periods of reversals.

Education Before 1950

In the pre-1950 period, the Christian churches in Guyana had almost total domination and control of both primary and the limited secondary education in a multi-racial society where almost half of the population was non-Christian. The leaders of these churches formed part of the ruling class, along with expatriate sugar planters, British public servants attached to the Government of colonial Guyana, and rich local landowners. These groups were represented in the colonial Government, and under their influence, people were educated to be loyal to the British and to serve British interests in Guyana.

This period of the imposition of British culture was mainly responsible for the loss of very important language forms by the great majority of the people. For instance, in the period of African slavery, the speaking of African languages was not encouraged. Today, the descendants of Africans do not speak or understand the African languages of their ancestors. Almost the same applies to people of Indian origin. Hindi, the main language of their ancestors, is not spoken or generally understood by the vast majority.

Developments in 1953

The immediate post-1953 period was marked by the struggle for independence led by the first socialist-oriented national political party, the People's Progressive Party, headed by Cheddi Jagan. The party championed the demands for programmes to train young people in skills necessary for the development of an independent nation, such as expanded secondary and technical education and for the expansion of teacher-training schemes. The party also demanded the removal of public education from the control of the Christian church, and for it to be state-controlled.

These were popular demands, and the party was overwhelmingly elected in to the government in 1953. However, as it attempted to carry out its progressive programme, it was labelled "communist" and the Winston Churchill government sent in British troops to forcibly remove the democratically elected government and jail many of its leaders. Clearly, in those Cold War days, any attempt to struggle against colonialism was regarded as "communism" and, therefore, could not be tolerated.

To run the country, the British imposed a non-elected interim government made up of many reactionary unpopular pro-colonial politicians, most of whom were defeated in the 1953 election, along with a number of Christian church leaders. This group immediately re-imposed the pro-colonial education programme.

Education advances - 1957 to 1964

When the British finally allowed elections in 1957, Cheddi Jagan's PPP won again, and was re-elected in 1961 under a constitution which allowed internal self-government, with the British Government maintaining control over the security forces and foreign affairs.

Significantly, this government removed restrictions against non-Christians, including Muslims, from becoming teachers in public schools. Previously, qualified non-Christians were forced to convert to Christianity in order to obtain teaching appointments.

It also implemented various education projects which included the beginning of state control of education at the primary and secondary levels; the rapid expansion of secondary education; advanced programmes for technical education at the tertiary level; the establishment of teacher-training colleges in various parts of the country, including at least three in rural areas; and the setting up of the University of Guyana. Over 15 percent of the annual national budget was used to finance this expanding education system. As a result, by 1964, Guyana's literacy rate had jumped to more than 90 percent.

This education program received high commendation from UNESCO in 1963, and Guyana by 1964 enjoyed the highest standard of education among the countries of the Commonwealth Caribbean.

Unfortunately, bringing education to the masses went against the grain of colonialism, and, as in 1953, policies which were aimed at uplifting the standards of living of the poor masses quickly labelled as "communist" by the anti-independence political opposition. There followed a period of violent attempts to overthrow the Government by opposition groups, supported by the CIA, in 1963-64, when Guyana experienced a situation of an almost total outbreak of civil war. Eventually, through British and American collaboration and manipulation, the British Colonial Office introduced a new electoral system in which forced Cheddi Jagan and his PPP out of government, despite their winning the highest proportion of votes in the December 1964 election.

The British government organised the two main opposition parties into a coalition government, and soon after, in May 1966, granted independence to Guyana. The main party in this coalition was the People's National Congress (PNC) led by Forbes Burnham.

Education policies and set-backs - 1964 to 1992

The new government, fiercely anti-socialist, reversed the program of the PPP by halting the expansion of state control of education and cutting back on the school-building process while, at the same time, closing the teacher-training colleges in the rural areas. But to its credit, the Government continued the development of technical education and the University of Guyana. However, a number of highly qualified professors were dismissed from the University.

The PNC shed its coalition partner in 1968 and then conducted a series of internationally condemned fraudulent elections in 1968, 1973, 1980 and 1985 to maintain itself in power.

Previously an avowed anti-communist, the PNC leader, Prime Minister, Forbes Burnham - who was later to become President in 1980 - began, after 1975, to propound himself as a socialist, and he announced that education would be geared towards the building of a socialist society.

Thus, in 1976, the government instituted full state control of education which it had originally strongly opposed, and free tuition from kindergarten to university. A free textbook scheme was also introduced in primary and secondary schools. Such a program found wide acceptance, but the introduction of "ideological education" in the form of propaganda distorting Guyana's history found strong objection, not only from the PPP, but other social and political groups of varying ideological persuasions.

Burnham died in 1985, but his successors in the leadership of the Government continued his policies in the area of education. However, they shifted their economic and political emphasis away from socialist goals and signed agreements with a number of multilateral lending agencies, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for developmental capital.

By the end of the 1980s, because of serious mismanagement of the national economy, widespread corruption, anti-democratic policies and a wide range of social ills, education standards suffered drastically. The rate of poor discipline among students in schools gradually deteriorated. Drop-out rates from primary and secondary schools expanded and failure rates at Caribbean secondary-school examinations became among the worst among the regional countries.

And in a reversal of its free education policy, no doubt as a result of IMF pressures, the regime implemented relatively high tuition fees at the University of Guyana claiming that these would improve the financial viability of the institution and allow it to recruit highly qualified teaching staff.

Eventually, the first free and fair elections in post-independence Guyana, in the presence of international observers, took place in October 1992 and saw the return of Cheddi Jagan as President. His party, the PPP also won a clear majority in the parliamentary elections and after his death in 1997, still continued to win successive elections in 1997, 2001 and 2006.

General assessment

Countries like Guyana can complete the transition of their education systems fairly rapidly with a more positive and democratic, approach towards improving existing conditions. Clearly, one of the methods open to these countries is to expand the expenditure on education. In Guyana, this was drastically hampered during the period of rigged national elections (before 1992) when anti-democratic measures were rampant. At that period, to stifle dissent, the regime needed a relatively large army, and more than 11 percent of the national budget was used for security. In addition, a huge foreign debt was accumulated, and it was left to the post-1992 government to re-negotiate the repayment terms and debt relief from bilateral and international donors.

Since 1992, Guyana has seen a positive trend in the expansion of the educational infrastructure. Numerous dilapidated school buildings have been repaired and refurbished and new schools have been erected in various parts of the country. Training facilities for teachers expanded and a new campus of the University of Guyana was erected in the eastern part of the country. In addition, at least two new technical institutes were opened in the rural regions of the country. And the success rate at the regional school examinations has been showing a gradual improvement year after year.

But this is not to say there are no problems in education. Guyana still suffers from a shortage of trained teachers; and due to migration to North America many of these qualified personnel are attracted to higher-paying teaching positions in that part of the world.

And despite the very high literacy rate, there is an increasing proportion of "functional illiteracy". In addition, a deterioration of student discipline continues to be a growing problem in many schools.

Regarding education according to gender, an interesting pattern has developed since the late 1980s. While in the past there was a wide disparity in males outnumbering females at secondary and tertiary institutions, a reverse trend is now clearly apparent. There are now more females in secondary schools, in teachers colleges and also at the university!

Meanwhile, there has been a marked shift away from the total state control of education. More and more privately-run primary and secondary schools are now operating, even though they have to keep within the guidelines of the national curriculum supervised by the Ministry of Education. It must be stressed that the public education system is totally secular.

Religious bodies, including Muslim organisations, have taken advantage of this new situation and since the mind-1990s they have established a few primary and secondary schools which are open to children of all religious groups. The two major national umbrella Muslim groups, the Council of Islamic Organisations of Guyana (CIOG) and the Guyana Islamic Trust (GIT), have since ventured successfully into this enterprise.

Overview of Islamic education

I will now give you a general overview of Islamic education in Guyana.

The vision of Islamic education in Guyana is for the sustenance and expansion of a community that is aware of its religion and its environment and which is capable of meeting the challenges of living in a rapidly changing world. Overall, this form of education aims, inter alia, to:

1. Educate Guyanese Muslims regarding the essential and necessary aspects of their religion.

2. Launch formal links with foreign institutions to facilitate scholarships and material aid for Islamic education.

3. Establish Muslim institutions of learning across the country.

4. Organise a formal outreach programme through the use of the mass media.

5. Set up institutions that facilitate conversion and education of new Muslims across the country.

Historically Islamic education in Guyana was limited only to the madrasa system. Children would attend classes in the late afternoon and receive instruction on reading of the Quran.

However, as the country and the Muslim community itself advanced, new approaches to education have become necessary. Furthermore, there was an increasing need for specialised teachers and scholars to keep up with the growing awareness of the community.

In this respect, the Council of Islamic Organisations of Guyana (CIOG), for example, has responded to these changes in a comprehensive manner. Its education department, while still conducting and assisting with the ongoing madrasa system at the masjid level, is now widely utilising the mass media and organising public lectures, workshops and seminars to spread knowledge of Islam.

Courses during the regular school vacation periods have also become permanent features of Islamic education in Guyana. These courses include more specialised training for teachers involved in Islamic training. Yet for all of these efforts, there still a serous shortage of trained Muslims who can execute the function of imam and missionary effectively.

Another national Islamic organisation, the Guyana Islamic Trust, like the CIOG, has been conducting Arabic language courses and this successful enterprise has produced students who could read and write the basic Arabic text.

Both bodies also conduct courses in Islamic studies and training courses for imams. In these exercises, the students are equipped with a wide range of teaching and leadership skills that benefit their respective communities.

It is important to note that the history of Guyanese Muslims is directly linked to the Indian subcontinent, since the greatest proportion of the original Muslims of Guyana were originally transported from there by the British to work on Guyanese sugar plantations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The common languages of the Indian Muslims were Urdu and Hindi, with the former being widely used in the propagation of Islamic education. However, Urdu, over the past three decades, has been taking a backstage in Guyana due to English language proliferation and the Muslim orthodox movement emphasising the focus on Arabic in the propagation of Islamic teaching and rites.

Significantly, the universal use of English has also taken its toll on Hindi and very few of the current generation of Guyanese of Indian ancestry can speak the language. Fortunately, it is still used by Hindus in the general practise of their religion, and currently efforts are being made by Hindu organisations to teach extra-curricular courses in the language.

In Guyana today, the younger generation of Muslim scholars who have studied in the Arabic-speaking world prefer Arabic over Urdu, and they view South Asian traditions including the use of Urdu in propagating the religion as "un-Islamic" - a queer and illogical position which is controversial and self-defeating since Urdu helps to define the cultural identity of Guyanese Muslims of Indian origin. It is like telling Turkish Muslims that they must refrain from educating people about Islam in the Turkish language! Undoubtedly, that would be totally unacceptable!

With respect to the apparent de-emphasising of Urdu in Guyana, the lessons of the pre-1950 period, which saw the discouragement and the subsequent disappearance of the original languages of the Guyanese people, seem not to have been properly learned by some persons.

But, fortunately, there is at least one Islamic organisation in Guyana today, the United Sad'r Islamic Anjuman (which is also the oldest surviving Islamic organisation in Guyana), which offers Urdu in its instructional programme, while at the same time attempting to preserve the uniqueness of Guyana's Muslim heritage.


My presentation today falls under the main theme of comparing education development in western countries with that of eastern countries. Since I am the only presenter from a western country participating in this Congress of Education, it is easy for all the educators and other scholars in this audience to compare what is going on in their countries with what we have experienced and are still faced with in Guyana. Surely, similarities in historical experience exist but it is obvious that our approaches have wide disparities in many areas of education.

In the case of my country, all of these situations I have outlined present stiff challenges to those who manage the education superstructure at both the secular and the religious levels. They indeed raise the challenges for fresh ideas and interesting innovations, some of which can certainly emerge from forums such as this. Indeed, all such ideas and challenges form essential elements of the process of the education transition to higher phases of development.

Return to Speeches