By Dr. David Hinds
Death is inevitable, but we are still shocked when it comes to those close to us or those who crossed our path. Our friend, mother, sister and comrade, Tchaiko Kwayana was called home to the ancestors on Saturday May 6 after an almost year-long battle with cancer. She fought back against the dreaded disease in her characteristically fearless manner, but, in the end, she accepted the inevitable. With her beloved husband and children at her side she transitioned peacefully.
Her passing was understandably greeted with shock by her many colleagues, students and admirers, many of whom did not know of her illness. Those of us who knew that she was sick were also shocked, as we anticipated that she would have survived.
I have known Tchaiko Kwayana for close to five decades, first as a little boy in Buxton and later as a colleague and friend. She is known in Guyana as the wife of Eusi Kwayana, our esteemed elder, educator, cultural activist, political leader and humanist. Sister Tchaiko was all of those and more. Yes, she was Eusi’s partner, his other equal half, but she, on her own, was a tower of strength.
Tchaiko Kwayana was born in Georgia, USA in 1935 as Ann F. Cook. She was a graduate of Paine College, Augusta, Georgia and of Teachers College, Columbia University and a doctoral student in African Studies at the Union Institute. She taught English at the high school and college levels in three continents: Nigeria, Africa; Guyana, South America; and on both the east and west coasts of the USA.
Sis Tchaiko first visited Guyana in 1968 as part of her interest in studying the African diaspora. As an internationalist and pan-Africanist, she had already lived in Africa, where she taught English in Nigeria. She was part of a larger group of African Americans who answered the call of Africa and migrated to the continent to help the newly independent countries regroup after the long period of colonization. Many went to Ghana, the home of the legendary Kwame Nkrumah, but some, like Sis Tchaiko, opted for other countries on the continent.
By the time she visited Guyana, her future husband, Eusi, had cemented his place as a pioneer of the modern Black Nationalist and Pan Africanist Caribbean movement. He had co-founded the African Society for Racial Equality (ASRE) in 1961 and the African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa (ASCRIA) in 1964 and was the spearhead of what became known as the “Cultural Revolution” among African Guyanese.
It was inevitable, then, that any visitor to Guyana with an interest in the African diaspora would encounter Eusi. Sis Tchaiko met him when she visited in 1968 and the rest is history. They got married in 1971 and she moved to Guyana. The couple bore four children and the marriage lasted until her death.
While in Guyana Sis Tchaiko continued her career as a teacher. She took up duty at her husband’s school in Buxton—the famous County High School, which later became the Republic Cooperative High School. While Eusi’s name remains inextricably linked to the school, Sister Tchaiko stamped her own personality there, independent of Eusi. She taught English and was outstanding at it. But it was as a disciplinarian, one who paid close attention to standards, and as a practitioner of a holistic education that combined academics with culture that she is best remembered by her students. I remember well how my sister, Denise, who was one of her students, became a transformed person after attending County for her first term. She still to this day speaks of the impact of Tchaiko on changing her attitude.
I also remember how Sis Tchaiko quickly blended into the Buxton community. She became a Buxtonion soon after settling there. She made friends independent of Eusi, especially with the women of Buxton backdam-side, where the family lived. I remember as a little boy seeing this new resident taking her cow to “graze” and wondering whether she had lived in our village before. She went about her business, not as the wife of a famous man, but as an ordinary resident doing ordinary things just like the other women of the village. It is the utmost respect that one could give to a village. That respect for our village stayed with Sister Tchaiko for the rest of her life.
When in 1979, the world honored the children of the universe by designating that year International Year of the Child, Sister Tchaiko was one of the local coordinators. She organized the young people in the village into a youth brigade that spent the year doing cultural and social projects which enriched our village and also opened our eyes to the cause of social justice. On a personal note, it was at one of our “public meetings” that I first mounted a public platform as a speaker. When, I sought to get out of it because of nervousness, Sister Tchaiko, in her usual decisive manner, said “you are down to speak and it’s this evening.” This rest is also history.
Sister Tchaiko also found time to pursue writing. She co-authored with Eusi the book Scars of Bondage: A First Look at the Slave Colonial Experience of the Africans in Guyana. She also wrote “Black Pride? Some Contradictions”
At the national level, Sister Tchaiko participated in the activities of ASCRIA and later the Working People’s Alliance (WPA). She was a founding member of the Women Against Terror (WAT), a group of women who organized themselves to aid the struggle against the authoritarian government of the day. Like other WPA members, she suffered at the hands of the State and Para-State forces—she was harassed and physically assaulted. As the WPA observed in its tribute to her:
From the time of her arrival in Guyana Sister Tchaiko became immersed in the struggles of the African community and the Guyanese nation. Her commitment to our people and country was a lifelong endeavor. From the moment she answered the call to serve to the time of her death, she remained unwavering in her support of the Guyanese struggle, for liberation, racial pride, political and racial reconciliation and the empowerment of women and children and the elderly.
In ASCRIA she played an integral role in the organization’s work to promote the “Cultural Revolution” which sought to reawaken African self-consciousness. As a member of Ascria, Tchaiko supported the political decision for the formation of the WPA and worked to advance its cause. Sister Tchaiko’s commitment to the liberation of the Guyanese masses was exemplified by the role she played in the group, “Women Against Terror” where she was on several occasions caught up in the confrontation against the supporters of the administration. She did not escape the violence that was unleashed against the political opponents of the government in the period of the seventies and eighties and received a sound beating on North Road in the vicinity of Bourda Market on September 17th, 1983 while participating in a protest demonstration for the recognition of democratic and human rights in Guyana (WPA Press Release May 10, 2017)
In 1982, as the regime became more aggressive she left Guyana with her children. Like other WPA members, neither she nor Eusi could find work. Her children were growing up and needed to be fed. She returned to the USA and instantly became the sole breadwinner of the family. They visited Guyana regularly and Eusi visited the USA, but it was Tchaiko wo shouldered the burden of the day to day affairs of the children, freeing Eusi to continue his service to Guyana and the world. She also continued her advocacy on behalf of Guyana. In Atlanta, she co-founded Helping Uplift Guyanese (HUG) a group formed to support the struggle in Guyana.
Sister Tchaiko resumed her teaching career, first in Georgia and later in San Diego, California where she spent her last years. Eusi joined her in 2002 and together they soldiered on as activists and educators while still mothering and fathering their now grown children. Sister Tchaiko would take another step—she embarked on studies toward a PhD in African Studies. Unfortunately, she passed on before its completion.
In San Diego, she not only taught high school, but also at the tertiary level. She taught English as a Second Language at Southwestern College and History and English from a Black Perspective at both the Honors and the Regular levels at Mesa College. As testimony of her teaching skills, in 1994/1995, along with eighty-nine other teachers of English nationwide, after a year of rigorous requirements including two-days of written examinations, Tchaiko Kwayana made history by becoming the first African American teacher in California to become a Nationally Board Certified Teacher of English.
We remember our sister as a fighter for justice, a mother, a wife and above all a humanist who rose above narrow sectarianism and embraced our common humanity. Perhaps the words of Guyana’s national poet, Martin Carter, as always, capture the essence of my short tribute.
if it must be
you speak no more with me
nor smile no more with me
then let me take
a patience and a calm
for even now the greener leaf explodes
sun brightens stone
and all the river burns.
Now from the mourning vanguard moving on
dear Comrade I salute you and I say
Death will not find us thinking that we die.
More of Dr. Hinds ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org