Leading up to the 57th Anniversary of Guyana’s Independence, a searing tragedy occurred in which fire destroyed the girls’ dormitory of the Mahdia Secondary School and took the lives of 19 children, all but one being girls. This catastrophic event transformed the observance of Guyana’s Independence into a remembrance for the children who had tragically lost their lives. The children are: Mary and Martha Dandrade (twin sisters), Bibi Rita Jeffrey, Sabrina John, Loreen Evans, Belnisa Evans, Omefia Edwin, Natalie Bellarmine, Andrea Roberts, Lorita Williams, Nickleen Robinson, Sherena Daniels, Eulanda Carter, Lisa Roberts, Cleoma Simon, Tracil Thomas, Delicia Edwards and Ariana Edwards (sisters) and five-year old Adonijah Daniels. Memorial events have been held for the children countrywide and all Guyanese are in sympathy and solidarity with the parents, relatives and friends of the children.
Some interviews have been given by the Minister of Home Affairs and others which have given some indication of the cause of the fire and the circumstances that prevailed during the period when the children tried to escape. But the President has announced that a commission of inquiry would be established. It would therefore be preferable to await the findings of such an inquiry before arriving at conclusions about anything relating to the fire.
Hinterland residents face difficult circumstances generally and they encounter additional hurdles in securing education for their children. From a certain age many are required to reside in dormitories away from home because of the small size of the communities and the need to place schools at central locations to facilitate access by as many children as possible. The expansion of education allows for the mass education of hinterland children whereas in the past education was only available to those who were able to send their children to the city or other developed communities on the coast. While there is much that remains to be done, a different future for hinterland communities is beckoning. One of the major elements of that future is education.
Today, when parents send their children , particularly girls, to residential schools within hinterland areas, they send them with dreams of a future that will elevate them from circumstances that offer no hope of personal development beyond marriage, children and hinterland village life, admirable though these might be for some. Education opens up opportunities to gain professions as teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers, computer scientists, pharmacists, social workers, accountants and others. These are the hopes that the grieving parents had for their children. Not only are these hopes now shattered, the parents will never see their children again. This is the worst nightmare that a parent will ever face. And it is a nightmare that never ends with perpetual, gnawing anxieties of where their children are, or are they safe, or are they still in pain.
In the President’s Independence remarks at Lethem, he reported comprehensively on what the Government has been doing to assist the parents in this traumatic nightmare. He said that the Government is “committed to doing everything that is possible to assist those who have been affected. This support will be ongoing” The President has announced that a commission of inquiry will take place into the circumstances of the fire. It is clear that he intends that the scope of the inquiry will be broad. He said that we must “evaluate the consequences” and “determine a path to avoid such recurrence.” A wide mandate for the inquiry is necessary to achieve the objective of the President. While the specific circumstances of the cause and consequence of the fire will no doubt be examined, it would also be appropriate to examine the security, fire prevention systems and measures for emergency evacuation of the building. If possible, it is hoped that broad enough conclusions can be considered so as to be applicable across the board. The President also promised that consideration will be given to compensating the parents for the loss of their children. While no value can be placed on life, or suffering as a consequence of the loss of life of a family member, nevertheless there is a system by which financial compensation can be calculated.
The politicization of the tragedy started the next morning. Placards demanding “justice” and “compensation,” obviously orchestrated, appeared in an organized display, a few held by children too young to be able to read them. Other dissonant voices recorded demands that failed to give space to the grieving relatives, but took full account of political posturing. These are not designed to ease the pain of the families but to gain political one-upmanship. The demands for a commission of inquiry, are couched in language of a tuneless cacophony, as if the Government is already guilty of attempting to hide the truth. It may have been lost on some that in an inquiry that embraces national fire prevention and other national issues, the victims of the Mahdia fire and their parents and relatives are likely to be forgotten, not that the lessons of Mahdia may not be applicable countrywide.
As Guyana continues to mourn the victims and express condolences to the parents and relatives, let us resolve to do all we can to help in all material ways to lighten the burden of pain and sorrow being felt.