A tragic fire at the Mahdia Secondary School in Guyana’s Region 8, two weeks ago, took the lives of 20 young students and a five-year-old boy. (While the initial count was 19, one more student died in hospital this week.)
They were burned to death, while kicking and screaming trying to get out of their burning dormitory which was locked down with grills at all the doors and windows.
This terrible tragedy shook Guyanese at home and abroad and generally the Caribbean as a whole.
This is probably one of the most heart-breaking and traumatic events which has shocked and saddened Guyanese, since the Jonestown tragedy in 1978.
Heads of Caribbean states and further afield, opposition leaders and others, sent condolences to the President and people of Guyana. Thoughts and prayers were everywhere.
A condolences book was set up at the Guyana Consulate here in Barbados and several people passed through to sign and give their sympathy.
The president of Guyana, Dr Irfaan Ali, has promised a full investigation into the matter. He and his Cabinet were full of care and compassion for the families of the deceased.
For an entire week or more, the focus has been on this “very wicked” girl who dared to commit such a dreadful act. (Time will show that this child is also a victim. The victim of a failed system. But I digress).
She has since been charged as an adult, with 19 counts of murder….soon to be 20. It should be noted however, that there is no talk of moral responsibility – no one in authority has resigned or been fired. No one else has been charged.
It is in this context that we must ask some very important questions that no one seems able to answer thus far.
For those who are not familiar with the boarding school system in Guyana, here is a simple and succinct explanation.
Due to the size and terrain of some remote areas in Guyana, especially where many Amerindians live, it is difficult for the children to travel to school back and forth daily. Road access is severely limited, so they have to board at various secondary schools in the hinterland.
Those who can afford it, may send their children to school in Georgetown, but the majority send their children to boarding schools in the rural interior.
Mahdia is a small town in the centre of the underdeveloped interior, its secondary school is one such institution.
The children only go home for the holiday season – summer and Christmas and in some instances, Easter.
While the out-pouring of messages of condolences, thoughts and prayers and promises of a full investigation and commissions of inquiry, are all commendable, there are some pertinent questions we need answered including naming those morally responsible and to be held accountable, in addition to the girl who has been charged.
1. Why were these children locked up in a dormitory like cattle? All windows and doors all locked with grills.
2. Where was the Dorm mother, or her deputy who presumedly would have the keys to let the girls out when the fire started? There were screams coming from that dorm for heaven’s sake.
3. One report states that the person with the keys had too many (keys) and wasn’t sure which were the right ones for that dorm.
4. Where were the fire alarms? If there were fire alarms, weren’t they working?
5. Are there building codes in the interior? Who inspects the schools to make sure that they are compliant with Town and Country Planning regulations?
6. Since the children are locked up behind bars at nights – are there fire drills.? Is there an emergency exit? Did the girls know where the emergency exit was located?
7. If not, why not?
8. Reports are that the firemen at the closest fire station were informed 15 minutes after the fire started – because no one at the school had the phone number for the fire station. Whaat??!!
9. The girl who allegedly lit the fire should be punished by all means, but what about the school authorities? What about the Ministry of Education responsible for the running of the school – after all it is a Government school. Most of the schools in the interior are Government schools.
This should be a wake up call. How often are these schools inspected and the infrastructure checked?
As the Editorial in the Stabroek News asked last Saturday: was this tragedy due to incompetence or slackness? A stronger word may be negligence.
But they forgot discrimination – Was it discrimination?
Whichever it is, it must serve as a lesson for the authorities – education and otherwise, to take the people of the Interior, especially the children and their education, more seriously.
Statistics show that over 70 per cent of children in the Interior fail their CXC exams.
A UNICEF report completed in 2017, showed that out of 100 indigenous boys and girls only about half reach their final year of secondary education.
There are many who say that this tragedy is being politicised, but my comments are about procedures and policies not politics. In 2008, three children died in a similar circumstance…are we not learning?
How many more tragedies need to happen before proper protocols are implemented in the schools in the interior of Guyana?
There are so many more questions than answers.
And as the Bajan calypsonian Bumba once sang: “We wanna know, we wanna know, we wanna know.”