Trinidad’s Carnival celebrations may be the Caribbean’s single most massive cultural event. There’s no escaping the energy, the buzz, that are such an intrinsic part of Trini culture. But here in Guyana we have our own smaller version of mas-making, our own festival that maybe is just on the verge of breaking out in a very big way.
Mashramani, essentially Guyana’s annual birthday bash, began in the mining town of Mackenzie (50 miles south of Georgetown, along the Demerara River), four years after Guyana’s actual independence in 1966. The Mackenzie Junior Chamber of Commerce usually organised a community fete to mark the independence anniversary; in 1970, when Guyana became a Co-operative Republic, the Jaycees sought a distinctly indigenous name for their annual merry-making. Accounts vary, but it seems that “mashramani” was a corruption of either “masromani” or “mashirimehi”, supposedly an Amerindian word (no one identified which tribe) for the celebration held after a co-operative community effort. Mashramani was born. In 1973 the Mackenzie Mash became a national celebration.
Over the years, in a country that has had more than its fair share of political and economic problems, Mashramani came to represent a sort of communal catharsis for the Guyanese people. For me, as a young boy growing up in the 1980s, the year usually centred around the dual holiday season: Christmas and Mashramani. For a few years in the mid-1990s, Mashramani seemed to lose some of its glitz; the formerly huge crowds dwindled, and there was talk of the festival being called off. But more recently, with renewed government support and thanks to the personal enthusiasm of the present minister of culture, Gail Teixeira, Mashramani has recovered its mass appeal, evolving into a festival that is uniquely Guyanese, with an official goal to reach the international standard set by Trinidad-style carnivals by 2007. A new permanent Mashramani Secretariat with a serious budget organises and promotes Mash events; more private Mash camps have started to get involved; and last year expert costume craftspeople from Trinidad were invited to help with float design workshops. Band launching parties are becoming popular, and a viable Mash industry is not unlikely in the near future.
Incrementally but steadily, Mashramani is becoming a cultural festival that may some day boast enough pomp, pizzazz, and spirit to rival even Trinidad Carnival itself.