Elsie Harry- a conscious Guyanese committed to her country’s development through Urban and Rural Planning

Elsie Harry is a Guyanese change-maker who is currently studying at the Beijing Jiaotong University in China. This young woman is no novice to academic excellence, having been named 2017 Valedictorian at the University of Guyana and 2011 ‘Runner-up State Scholar’ at the Clarence Fitzroy Bryant College in St. Kitts. She developed a strong interest in politics during her youth, which was harnessed though her participation in Youth Parliament. Harry also contributes to several nation-building initiatives in Guyana and describes herself as “development minded”. She has chosen her career path based on the developmental needs of Guyana, therefore, although she holds an undergraduate degree in International Relations, she is now pursuing a Master of Engineering Degree in Urban and Rural Planning. She has very big dreams for Guyana where she one day hopes to become President.


Questions/Answers

Why did you choose to read for an International Relations degree and why at the University of Guyana?

International Relations was the programme that I felt best served my areas of interest such as politics, international affairs, law, cultural interaction and offered me a unique opportunity to pursue learning without limiting myself to a narrow specialty. I saw this degree as a foundation programme and during my undergraduate journey I wanted to give myself the opportunity to experience maximum growth. It also provided me with the opportunity to enhance some of the skills that I already possessed such as public speaking and interpersonal communication.  I chose the University of Guyana over other options such as UWI, for the allure of going home. Since I became self-aware, I felt this longing to go to Guyana, I felt like it was still my home, even though I didn’t live there and that I needed to find my way back. Tertiary education was an initial first step to beginning my life in Guyana and the only one I could justify to my parents who were skeptical about my decision.

How is this degree relevant within the Guyanese society? That is to say, how can you pursue a career with this degree?  

An International Relations degree is relevant to Guyana in several ways; I believe an intimate understanding of the historical, cultural, political and other differences or similarities between Guyana and other nations is particularly useful for ensuring that Guyana maximizes on various agreements that it enters into.  As it relates to trade in goods and services and specifically the movement of people, international relations specialists should work in tandem with economists and trade personnel since based on my observation many negotiated agreements are heavily influenced by political considerations, rather than simply the hard and fast benefit that they offer. Though political considerations may be lost on some professionals solely concerned about the monetary value of an agreement, it severely impacts the quality of goods and services as well as the countries that Guyanese have access to. This fact is not lost on an international relations specialist.

  Furthermore, a robust Foreign Affairs Ministry is necessary to effectively tackle issues related to border controversies. Also requiring management from various perspectives, including international relations, is the recent influx of migrants from Venezuela to Guyana influenced by their political and economical crises. If ever there were a time for Guyana to focus on international relations- this would be it. Additionally, the field, because of its broad focus, does not limit an individual to work within the public service. There are various entities stationed in Guyana, such as CARICOM, the UNDP, FAO, various embassies, missions, projects constantly occurring and private sector entities with which an International Relations professional may seek employment.

In your valedictorian speech you said, “we are replaceable”, hence one should prize being of service to their community and country above personal praise. Where did your commitment to your country originate?

Intrinsically I’m a patriot- I believe I was born with this trait. Since I have been old enough to reason and to participate in initiatives on my own, I’ve been drawn to voluntary activities. My teachers from primary school will tell you that I was an extremely helpful child. That developed into community projects and of course, nation building. I was also fortified in these pursuits by the motto of St. Kitts and Nevis (the Federation where I spent my formative years), a motto which I respect deeply-‘Country Above Self’. I took it literally, it sank into my soul, and therefore I’ve sacrificed my fleeting wants for Guyana’s pressing needs.

Elsie giving her valedictorian speech -November 2017

As someone interested in leading your country, can you give us a description of your vision for it?

Summarily, my vision is holistic development; I want to see every sector thrive and every citizen become productive. I would begin with reorganizing Guyana’s physical space, to both improve accessibility to goods and services and promote positive behavioural change, since several inadequacies have been identified with the way we treat our environment and the way we treat each other. Followed by the evaluation and reorganization of all sectors using a data-driven approach to development.

Transforming the physical space is high on my agenda, not because it is central to my major but rather, I chose this major because I believe that Urban and Rural Planning can really transform Guyana. I believe the theory that transforming the physical space in which people live can positively influence their behaviour. Also, in China’s experience of ‘reform and opening up’, urban–rural development has been a critical driving force for the improvement of living standard and the minimization of inequality. The way to encourage true development and economic advancement is to connect people with each other and provide them with efficient access to goods and services.

Elsie delivering an original poem at the Guyana Embassy in Beijing, May 2019

The average Guyanese also wants to see physical improvements; they want to be able to point to something tangible and say, “Within the last five years, that was done.” I am thrilled that the Government of Guyana has announced its intention to create a Master Plan for Georgetown. However, it is also critical to have macro level planning- a Master Plan for Guyana and regional plans, which will guide micro level planning such as that of Georgetown. Planning at these levels can position Guyana to regenerate all of its regions and transform them into viable economic units that of course maintain their unique characters.

On the matter of the evaluation and reorganization of all sectors. This evaluation has to be done from the perspective of data collection and analysis, since I want to ensure that we are investing expertise and finances in the areas that can really make a difference. Data driven approaches improve productivity, promote efficient spending and curb corruption. In reorganizing all the sectors within Guyana, the aim is to make them more productive and to encourage workers in each sector to become more innovative. Guyana must move away from an economy supported by predominantly, primary commodities and must move into value-added areas, service and knowledge production.

I’ve read that the two major political parties, which exist in Guyana, are separated to represent the Afro-Guyanese and the Indo-Guyanese. What do you think of this venture? Is it more effective or destructive for Guyana?

Definitely destructive- it was the approach used by the colonial powers to divide and rule a nation of nomadic and transplanted peoples and now we have turned the weapon on ourselves. Were it effective for Guyana, we would be further along in our development by now. Guyanese politics needs to evolve beyond ethnicity to focus on critical issues of development, when we divide our intellectual capital based on ethnicity we loose so much. Certainly the damage caused by years of ethnic strife has to be corrected but a fair and representative Government is also necessary to achieve this.

In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges, which cause the ethnic divide, which exists in Guyana?

The ethnic divide was constructed during colonialism, I think two main issues keep the ethnic divide alive:

1) the remnants of colonialism that have never been repaired. Agents of colonialism created a complex relationship of strife between the indigenous ethnic group that they met in Guyana and the other ethnic groups that were transplanted there. The Enslaved Africans were pitted against the other ethnic groups for the simple reason that they were considered a physically strong group, which threatened the existence of the Europeans in Guyana and therefore needed to be subdued. The notion of ranking the society based on skin colour that was used to propagate the trade of Africans, was the same notion that was introduced to Guyanese society to aid this subduing. The ethnic groups with lighter skin colours were placed at the top of the social hierarchy and were given more access to resources, while those with darker skin colours were pegged at the bottom with restricted access. I’m not particularly qualified to talk in depth about the other issues that have unfolded in Guyanese society that have caused the various ethnic groups to treat each other with scepticism, being neither a historian nor political analyst. In my simple observation I can say that the racist social structure created during colonialism still exists and in today’s Guyana, each ethnic group faces discrimination to varying degrees and in various ways.

Elsie with a beret similar to that worn by the Che leading a protest  outside the University of Guyana.

2) The manipulation of the wounds of colonialism for political gain: Political actors within Guyana are aware of the existing traumas within and among the various ethnic groups. They have observed how various ethnic groups still look at each other with some skepticism, but they have also observed how when left alone, the younger generation especially, inter-mingle and have created a new category of Guyanese called ‘mixed Guyanese’. Guyanese politicians, like the former colonial powers, have observed that preoccupation with ethnic conflict prevents Guyanese society from holding them to higher standards of governance, not only that, but encouraging individuals to vote based on ethnicity, distracts them from focusing on a candidate’s character, intellect and other capabilities. Therefore, politicians have been strategic in ripping the scab off of these old colonial wounds and prodding the scepticism of ethnic groups during political campaigns to ignite fear and hatred among them. This method of ethnic baiting helps them to easily acquire votes and political power.

In your opinion, what are some of the biggest differences in attending a university in China versus attending one in Guyana?

I’ve observed one major difference: Practical learning versus theoretical learning- In China, their approach to learning is more practical; we are often encouraged to do, to create, to innovative rather than to simply read about a concept or do research on it. In many of our classes, we weren’t required to buy textbooks and were not given notes. Theories were presented to us through lectures, videos, field trips and software demonstration and then we were given assignments to test the theories and skills we were taught.   Case in point, I was required to use GIS software in my first semester although I had never even seen it prior. In my second semester, I was required to create a smart city design concept to solve an existing problem in China. In Guyana, more emphasis is placed on theoretical learning through reading and doing copious amounts of research assignments. Following my undergraduate programme, I was so versed in conducting research that I often joke that I can do it in my sleep. This comparison is of course not equal since in Guyana I pursued an undergraduate degree, while in China, I’m pursuing a Master’s degree and at different levels the focus is expected to be different, as well as the degree programmes are from different faculties.

International Association for China Planning Conference in Chengdu, China, where Elsie gave a presentation on urban planning in Guyana, June 2019

What are some of the difficulties you’ve encountered as a foreigner adjusting to China’s political system?

I rarely interact with the Chinese political system in the truest sense. As students we are largely insulated from it since we live on campus in a more or less artificial world where we do not face the same realities as the citizens and are only affected by Government policy if it is absolutely necessary or pervasive. Perhaps the most pervasive restriction has been the ‘Great Firewall’, which prevents us from easily accessing Facebook, WhatsApp, Gmail and other websites. We are encouraged to use the Chinese messaging app called WeChat, which we have been told by our friends is monitored by the Government and in some instances is difficult for our family members outside of China to download. Additionally, it has been difficult to follow news in Guyana since some of the media sites are also blocked.

What sparked your interest in politics and why did you choose China to pursue your studies?

As a child, my sister and I were forced to watch the news. Initially, I saw it as punishment but gradually I became interested. Soon, on my own, I began to watch more news: local, regional and international and I liked to focus on reports about political parties, bills passed in parliament and anything that directly impacted the lives of people. This interest grew into love for politics through my involvement in various volunteer activities and particularly in youth parliament.

I chose to pursue studies in China because I felt that China’s expertise in the area of Urban-Rural Planning and their innovation in this area were unmatched and I wanted to learn from the best. Additionally, I wanted to learn from a country that, as much as possible, faced similar issues to Guyana. China has the economy of a developed country, but in the area of societal issues such as poverty and inequality, it is very much a developing country. Yet it has made strides to reduce poverty and inequality through its policy changes and through the use of urban development. Additionally, like Guyana it has dealt with problems related to ethnic conflict, since it possesses 56 different ethnic groups. Finally, I was intrigued by Chinese language and culture and wanted to have the opportunity to immerse myself in it.

How would you describe the process of adapting to Chinese culture? Do you have any anecdotes that you could share?

The process has been quite interesting. The Chinese are very generous dinner hosts who will treat you to the best items on the menu and a wide variety of dishes without the consideration of cost. Another interesting thing is that on some University Campuses and at other commercial entities, lunch begins at 11 a.m. and ends at 2 p.m. to give employees an opportunity to nap after eating. I think this is something we can consider in the Caribbean.

Outside of school, I find the people to be stone-faced, especially those beyond my age group. They rarely smile or say hello (In Guyana we are taught to greet everyone we meet, especially older people) and look at me with what appears to be curiosity and scepticism. Taking the subway can be quite annoying since persons will just take out their cell phones and attempt to take my picture without asking. I’ve also had people touch my hair as I walked by. I had a negative experience with a middle-aged Chinese gentleman whom had insinuated that my country was poor and I decided to seek refuge elsewhere. When confronted by a friend of mine who speaks Mandarin, he was shocked and retracted his statement, insisting that it was a misunderstanding. Quite contrastingly, my experience in the south of China has been a positive one. So far, I can say that the experience has been an overall positive one, I’ve had many opportunities to participate in both academic and cultural activities on and off campus and what China lacks in charm, it makes up for in efficiency.

Have you experienced racism in China?

It’s difficult for me to differentiate between racism and xenophobia in China, since I am not certain if my negative experiences have been influenced by my race or because I’m a foreigner. I am not able to observe the treatment of different races in the same circumstances so my assessment may be flawed. What I have observed is that some Chinese have been prejudiced towards me when they believe me to be an African that was born on the continent, rather than an African born elsewhere. I have also observed the preoccupation of some Chinese particularly with Caucasian Americans but also those of other races. When I say I’m from South America, some will ignore the ‘South’ part of the phrase and get excited and call me by the Chinese word for Americans. Even more interesting is the Chinese word for America, ‘MeiGuo’, which literally translates to, ‘beautiful country’. So does racism exist in China? Certainly. Have I experienced it? That’s a little more difficult to answer.

In your Valedictorian speech you spoke about your « Personal Renaissance », can you describe that for us? Why do you refer to it as such? Can you tell us how your re-evaluation of your life’s plan has changed your outlook on life and vision?

My personal renaissance began the moment I realized that I didn’t need to be ordinary because I could be exceptional. I believe I was 15 years old and in 3rd Form in high school.  My grades were less than stellar and a former teacher confronted me. I was encouraged to resist mediocrity and to work my hardest to produce the best possible results. This was an immense turning point in my life. I refer to this and other ‘aha’ moments in my life as a “Personal Renaissance” because of my high school history class where we studied the Renaissance as a historical period. It was described as the rebirth of knowledge and during that period exceptional works of art and literature were created. It felt like a ‘rebirth’ because I had this newfound commitment to excellence that I would always maintain.

Elsie receiving the President’s Medal for Outstanding Student from the Chancellor of the University of Guyana, November 2017

When I turned 25 years old in May 2017, I felt like I needed to re-evaluate my life. There was a lot of introspection with regard to my life’s purpose. My original goal was to pursue a Master’s degree in International Finance or Trade and Finance. That decision was more for myself than Guyana. I decided to completely reconstruct that idea. I realized that my purpose was really to be of service to my country and I would be fulfilled doing this above anything else. My vision became to see Guyana thrive and to be integral to its development. It became not only my dream but also my goal to build Guyana an in addition, our region.

Last words

The most profound advice that I can give is the thing that I always tell myself: adopt an attitude of excellence. Let it permeate every aspect of your life. Everything that you do, do it well, for no other reason than the fact that you have committed to doing it. Do not compromise on your values and always be fair. Each of you can really make a positive difference; you only need to decide how.

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