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Kowsilla, the heroine who died for what she believed in
By Vanessa Narine

Kowsilla .
GUYANA has been and continues to be witness to the lives of women who have extraordinary determination and caliber, that despite living in what is still considered a ‘man’s world’, have proven themselves time and time again.

As Guyanese women, and men, commemorated another International Women’s Day, on March 8, the contributions of these exceptional women were reflected upon.

One of Guyana’s outstanding women is Kowsilla, known also as Alice.

Born in 1920 of humble poor and hard working parentage, this strong-willed woman from Seafield, Leonora, worked as a huckster on, what was then, Plantation Leonora on the West Demerara.

Beautiful Berbice - video  Phagwah 2009

She was actively involved in the struggle for liberation from colonial oppression and the imposition of a company union on the sugar workers by the expatriate company, Bookers.

However, in fighting for what she believed in, she paid the ultimate price. She lost her life.

An activist for the rights of a free people, Kowsilla was crushed while providing leadership and participating in one of the historic sugar worker struggles at Plantation Leonora.

The incident occurred when a scab driven tractor under an expatriate Estate Manager was driven into a crowd, ‘A Human Barricade’ gathered on the bridge to the Leonora sugar factory.

Kowsilla died on the way to the Georgetown Public Hospital while 14 others were injured.

The incident was sparked by a country-wide Citizens’ March on January 31, 1964, to protest Duncan Sandy’s imposition of Proportional Representation.

Following the march, when the workers returned to assume their respective duties in the field and the factory, about half of them were not offered any work and those who worked were not paid the correct rates.

Hence the workers were provoked to strike-action, shutting down all operations in the fields and factory.

The strike intensified as the workers were unsuccessful in the attempts to have their problems addressed locally.

As positions were hardened and the workers’ resolve strengthened, Kowsilla, a member of the Women Progressive Organisation, was in the midst of the workers using her leadership skills and experience to influence her colleagues and women in particular to rally among their male counterparts in the struggle.

Her active involvement in the daily struggles saw her participation on a daily basis in the ‘Human Barricade’ that workers formed to block the entry to the Leonora Factory.

Management, recognizing the resolve and determination of the workers, was confronted with the resilience spurred on by one woman.

On the morning of March 6, 1964, as the workers were involved in the protest, a scab-driven tractor was used to drive through the ‘Human Barricade’ resulting in Kowsilla’s death.

The struggle now took a different direction as one of Guyana’s own died in a fight for freedom.

Following her death, workers who did not want to be members of the company union imposed upon them by the expatriate company had their grievances addressed by a workers’ delegation and management.

Twelve years after one woman’s sacrifice, on February 27, 1976, the Sugar Company was forced to sign a Recognition Agreement with the Guyana Agricultural Workers’ Union after a poll was held in the sugar industry on December 31, 1975.

Ninety-eight percent of the workers voted for GAWU.

The ultimate price for what one woman believed in did not go in vain and in honoring her memory, 45 years after she died, members of GAWU gathered at the Anna Catherina Cemetery last Friday as they remembered Kowsilla’s sacrifice.

At the memorial, GAWU’s President, Mr. Komal Chand said, “Today as we celebrate her 45th death, the industry and its workers are confronted by one of the most testing challenges in history. The arbitrary price cut of 36 percent by the European Union for the country’s sugar which is exported to Europe has already begun to take effect. The Union views this development as most unfortunate as Guysuco has degenerated back to the years 1988-1991, when the sugar production slumped to an average of 155,440 tonnes and sugar has to be imported. However, we can overcome our challenges in the future; this will not happen this year or the next. And will not certainly happen by chance. It requires hard work, sacrifice and dedication to overcome the present and future challenges. Sugar is too important to fail. Sugar is reason we are all here in Guyana. All of us have a piece of sugar history running through our veins.”

Monday, March 16, 2009