top of page

Commemorating the Wismar Massacre on Its 60th Anniversary

By: Miranda Rachel Deebrah


“I’m going to grow my hair as long as I possibly can.”


This was a promise I made to myself in November 2021 — a promise I am proud to have kept and fulfilled for many reasons. Two-and-a-half years later, my hair cascades down my back like a dark waterfall at a length slightly over 40 inches, from the very top of my head to the tips of the longest strands. To see this goal fully realized is gratifying and emotional.



Photo by Leeanna Hariprashad 

Especially emotional because the central purpose was always more than just growing my hair for the sake of it. This undertaking has been a labour of love that began all those many months ago on an ordinary autumn day when my soul experienced a shift, as did my understanding of being an Indo-Caribbean woman. At the time, I was participating in Jahajee Sisters’ Leadership and Empowerment Institute program. During a workshop on Indo-Caribbean history led by Dr. Aliyah Khan, noted scholar of Caribbean/Muslim Studies and author of “Far from Mecca: Globalizing the Muslim Caribbean” (2020), we explored pivotal moments in our history — one of those being the Wismar Massacre in Guyana that took place from May 24-26, 1964. 


Many of us know from existing documentation and news reports about what unfolded over the 38 agonizing hours of this tragic event 60 years ago, during which thousands of Indo-Guyanese were deliberately targeted and victimized in horrific acts of ethnic cleansing and violence fueled by anti-Indian sentiment. Many of us still don’t know or have only recently learnt about this dark chapter in Guyanese and West Indian history that continues to go largely unacknowledged even within our diaspora — understandably so given the depth of the resulting trauma which has led to much hesitance in openly discussing this subject. Those among our elders who do recall that time often bury it away and wish to leave it behind, the pain of remembering too great to bear. I cannot blame them for choosing to do so.


Yet still, there are many untold stories and so much more left to be uncovered about what happened at Wismar that is not included in the written narratives. What struck a chord and resonated within me during the workshop was when Dr. Khan shared a little known anecdote noting the fact that many women and girls had their hair cut off during the massacre as a way to further demean and violate them in multiple acts of gender-based violence. This forcible removal of their hair was with the intent to degrade and shame them, a means of diminishing any self-worth tied to ethnic and cultural identity which their hair represented during Indian girlhood and womanhood.


Dr. Khan further shared with me, “It is based on eyewitness oral testimony from my mother, who met the women as a child after her parents took some of the women in, in their masjid in Georgetown. It is a detail that, of course, stuck with her, her whole life”.


It is a detail that also stuck with me upon learning this, stirring something in my soul as the significance of it sunk in, and thereby inspiring me to grow my hair with intention and purpose.



Photo by Leeanna Hariprashad 

My hair has always been my favourite feature. For me, it has represented beauty, strength, and certainly cultural heritage and identity. I often remember, when I was a child growing up both in Guyana and New York, how my mother would comb my hair, anoint it with oil, and carefully arrange it in thick, neat plaits before school. After she was finished, she would usually say something along the lines of “And don’t let anybody touch your hair”. 


Ever since those early childhood days, I came to understand that my hair was precious, sacred, and something to be protected. It was mine, part of my body, and absolutely not to be touched by anyone without my permission. Naturally, I took my mother’s directive seriously. My hair was regularly admired and received many compliments, instilling within me a great sense of pride, but never once did I allow anyone to lay a hand on it.


In my reflections on how the women and girls of Wismar had their own hair, not only touched by strange hands but torn and taken from them, how then could my heart not ache for them? As a survivor of gender-based violence myself, I cannot help but be deeply moved and hold some of that pain every time I think of it. And so, in an act of solidarity and reclamation in their name, I let my hair grow and grow and grow in honour of these souls who had theirs stolen from them. In honour of all those fallen and those who survived. 


I wasn’t always sure if I had the patience and discipline to commit to the promise I made to myself. After all, it is very high maintenance work to care for and manage hair at this length. There were numerous moments of frustrations when I was ready to be rid of it all but, inch by inch, I persisted.


This is the longest my hair has ever been in my life and every day of its growth for the last 2 ½ years, I have kept the memory of all the victims and survivors of Wismar alive in my heart and soul. With every brush stroke, every braided style I wore, every strand along with the few gray hairs that appeared, and every single moment I spent caring for my hair, I was always reminded of why I was doing this and for whom. Even on the days when having to comb through the many knots and tangles proved to be a nightmare. It was absolutely worth it.



Photo by Leeanna Hariprashad 

While this endeavor began as something I was doing for personal reasons, it gradually became bigger than myself. My own experiences, not just as a survivor, but also as a mental health professional and performance artist whose work lies in the healing arts, have led me to view my relationship with healing as a part of our communal healing from intergenerational trauma such as this, and I wanted to extend this beyond myself. During this experience, it occurred to me to document and capture this effort for posterity so that I might share it with others, especially those who did not know about Wismar and this particular detail —  in the hopes of educating and bringing more awareness to this part of our history within living memory, and facilitating a way through which to heal from this tragedy and the consequent collective wound in our diasporic community. I am a firm believer that art is a powerful means of healing and my instinct was to turn this into a creative project to foster healing through the use of myself as an extension of our diaspora to pay homage to our Wismar ancestors and uplift them. They may not be my direct ancestors but they are among those who I consider within our ancestral legacy as Jahajee Bhais and Bahens all the same.


This has been years in the making and the result is a performance photography collection entitled “Wismar Woman”, an intentional commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Wismar Massacre.



Photo by Leeanna Hariprashad 

Created in collaboration with Indo-Caribbean photographer Leeanna Hariprashad, this project further holds manifold purposes — to reflect on my own journey with my hair and why this all came about; to deepen connections to our ancestors, past and present; to represent the women and girls of Wismar, hold empathy for their suffering as a fellow survivor, and serve as a tribute to cultural identity, coolie womanhood, and strength; to serve as a reminder that this happened to our people and prevent erasure of this event in our historical narrative before it becomes a lost and hidden story for future generations to come; to directly address a very tender topic, confront a painful past and the resulting intergenerational trauma, and shed more light on it because I feel it is important to acknowledge even the darkest parts of our lives and history so that we may learn from it in order to move forward and truly find healing; and to stand in solidarity with peoples around the world presently experiencing acts of genocide, considering the very acts of ethnic cleansing the Indo-Guyanese community experienced at Wismar.


This month, as we acknowledge and commemorate Indian Arrival/Survival Month and Guyana’s 58th independence anniversary, I urge our community to do the same for Wismar and remember those who endured the horrors of that moment in living history. Only 60 years have gone by and many more years of reckoning with it lie ahead. 


I am acutely aware of my still very limited knowledge of this history, as well as the need for cross-racial perspectives in fully understanding it, and I am committed to continue learning as much as I can about this with a wholly intersectional and nuanced approach. I am equally as aware that I am possibly opening a Pandora’s box by daring to address this subject at all and inviting conversations around it. But my hope is that those conversations will not be for pointing fingers or placing blame, but rather will be fruitful and productive. I hope that we might be able to gain mutual understanding and develop empathy among Guyanese of all ethnic backgrounds, rooted in our common humanity for the sake of moving towards healing and unity as a people who hold great affection for our homeland.


I will always value the significance my hair held for me over these last few years and continue to remember our Wismar ancestors even long after I part with it. My time with my hair is nearing its end, as I will soon be letting it go and cutting it with the intent to donate it to those who will have use for it. Perhaps they, too, will find beauty, strength and pride in it, just as I did.


 

Miranda Rachel Deebrah is a Guyanese-born performance artist, actor, and mental health therapist whose work centers and uplifts the Indo-Caribbean community and the wider diaspora Descendants of Indian Indenture. More about her can be found at mirandarachel.com and on Instagram @mira_baii.

82 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page