Guyana SPEAKS on the Guyanese diaspora and local writer Colin Babb

As part of Wandsworth Art’s Black History Month programme, which celebrates and honours work by local Black artists, writers and community leaders, Rod Westmaas and Dr. Juanita Cox from Guyana SPEAKS celebrate the work of Colin Babb, a local writer whose books explore social change and the culture, history and legacy of the Caribbean migrants in the UK.

Guyana SPEAKS runs a monthly programme of events at The Classic in Tooting Bec that celebrates and promotes Guyanese culture and provides a forum for Guyanese diasporans. Read more here.

West Indies fans celebrating after their team’s victory in front of the pavilion at Kennington Oval in England – July 31, 1973. Source: Stabroek News.

Known as the ‘Land of Many Waters’, Guyana is a nation that is situated in north eastern, South America. Bordered by Venezuela, Brazil, Suriname and the Atlantic Ocean, it is the only English-speaking country on the continent. Its people are a melting pot of East Indian and African descendants, indigenous Amerindians, Europeans, Chinese, and those of mixed ethnicity. 

Tooting has long been the home to many West Indians. Guyanese, in particular, settled there during what is often referred to as the Windrush era (1948–1971). The ageing generation of Guyanese who migrated to Britain in the 1950s, 60s and 70s have held onto their cultural roots and shared experiences. Many, however, fear that the lack of knowledge young, British-born Guyanese have of their homeland may negatively affect their sense of identity. 

We came to the realisation that Guyana and Guyanese needed a public platform in London to share discussions on the arts, the sugar industry, ecotourism, colonial history, architecture, the newly discovered oil economy or the rich cultural background of each ethnicity. The narrative clearly had an audience – and Guyana ‘needed to speak.’

On 29 January, 2017 the Guyana SPEAKS initiative was born. As we wanted to support a Guyanese-run business, we partnered with Tafawa Ntune, the proprietor of The Classic Banqueting Suite in Tooting Bec, and began a series of events held on the last Sunday of each month, with the aim of stimulating, informing and inspiring audiences. For each event, three guest speakers are invited to explore a Guyana-related topic. To encourage conversation with Guyanese from across the diaspora, one of the guests normally joins via Skype from a country other than England (typically Guyana, the US or Canada). Time is also allocated at the end of the programme for, as we say in Guyana, ‘liming’: eating (Guyanese food), drinking (Sorrel, Ginger beer or Mauby) and networking.

Colin Babb

Wandsworth resident Colin Babb, a writer who describes himself as a ‘BBC’ (a British Born Caribbean), was one of the first speakers to join us at Guyana SPEAKS via Zoom in this post-Covid-19 world in May 2020. Speaking about his recently published book, 1973 and Me (Hansib Publications, 2020), and his family roots in Guyana, Guadeloupe, and Barbados, Colin reflected on his family and how they ended up in Britain. 

Working for the BBC as a radio producer, website producer, broadcast journalist, and as a photographer in Antigua, Barbados, Dominica, Guyana, St. Lucia, and Trinidad for an education book publishing company, Colin has produced a book that brings together a collection of memorable events surrounding that period.

Taking us back to when he was a young schoolboy, Babb tells of his life in 1970s Britain. In 1973, the West Indies cricket tour of England, captained by the Guyanese Rohan Kanhai (widely considered to be one of the best batsmen of the 1960s), was on the minds of all cricket-loving West Indians, and Colin’s family and friends were no exception.

1973 and Me explains why the aforementioned year was significant to many of the people who contributed to his book. It reflects on patterns of Caribbean migration to the UK, offering a more complex picture of society in 1970s Britain. Colin shares stories about his family’s response to watching British television, their response to British football, colonial history, and sense of identity. In so doing he successfully recounts the experiences of the Windrush Generation in this period.

Colin’s rare talent for capturing the true West Indian spirit is also reflected in his first book, They Gave the Crowd Plenty Fun (Hansib Publications, 2015), which explores the social impact of cricket on British Caribbean communities from the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 onwards. Even for non sports fans, cricket was a medium for the West Indian diaspora in Britain to express and share a collective sense of identity. The book also explores factors that have challenged the sport’s position as a social, unifying force for the current descendants of the Windrush generation. He also reflects on his life, telling many humorous stories as a second-generation West Indian boy in 1970s/1980s Britain.   

Colin Babb’s talk was a prime example of the aims and intentions of the Guyana SPEAKS programme, which is motivated by the desire to highlight the achievements of the Windrush generation and their descendants, and ultimately to inspire a sense of belonging and identity.

Rod Westmaas and Dr. Juanita Cox, Guyana SPEAKS, October 2020