Baroness Valerie Amos: Wakenaam to Westminster

Born on a tiny island in Guyana’s Essequibo River, Baroness Valerie Amos has journeyed to the world’s corridors of power. As Joshua Surtees discovers, her Caribbean heritage has journeyed with her

Baroness Valerie Amos. Photo courtesy The School of Oriental and African StudiesBaroness Amos in Haiti, during her time as United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs. Photo by Corbis ImagesWakenaam Island remains a rural community, with an economy based on agriculture. Photo by Aadil Hussain

The way Baroness Valerie Amos speaks — in an accent more Kentish than anything else — you get the sense that the extraordinary achievements and historic landmarks of her career aren’t all that astonishing to her. She commands a sense of authority combined with a sensibility and intellect that suggest she always knew these accomplishments would be reached.

Amos’s remarkable life has taken her from her birthplace on the small island of Wakenaam, in the mouth of Guyana’s Essequibo River, to a childhood in Kent, “the garden of England,” a career of increasingly influential roles in British public life, a life peerage in the House of Lords, the United Nations headquarters in New York, and now back to London, where she recently took on the position of director of the famed School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

Something about the latest milestone did surprise her, though. When she accepted the job at SOAS, she learned there had been no black head of a university in the UK before her. She suggested that Britain has a way to go to emulate the United States in terms of equality in high-powered positions, particularly in education.

“On our first day at school,” says Amos, talking about her arrival in Britain in 1963 with her mother and two siblings, “the classes were graded, and for some reason we were just automatically put into the bottom class, we didn’t know why. When we came home, my mother asked us about our day, and we said we hadn’t learned anything, because of course Guyana had a strong education system and we came with a huge amount of knowledge.” The following day, her mother went to the school to correct the assumptions the teachers had made about her daughters. Amos and her sister were moved straight into the top class.

The legacy of low expectations for Caribbean children in British schools is an ongoing problem. Black Caribbean pupils are often at the bottom of league tables, and there is a notable lack of black students at universities. Some blame curriculums and a lack of black teachers, and others say cultural attitudes towards education need to change. In further education, the staffing statistics are shocking: just eighty-five of Britain’s 18,500 professors are black.

In the United States, Amos told the British press last July, because of segregation, black scholars founded their own universities a long time ago, and so the heritage of African Americans in higher education is a long one. In Britain, that kind of solid foundation and a culture of academic ambition are yet to be put in place. Amos hopes to be a role model in that regard.

Both of Amos’s parents were teachers. Her father came to Britain in 1961 to study for a degree, as British Guiana did not have a university at that time. But when he went to enroll, he realised he hadn’t been registered on the right course, so he found a teaching job instead to support himself financially. His wife and children followed him across the Atlantic two years later.

Amos was the first black girl at her secondary school in Britain, where she became deputy head girl. There weren’t many black people at all in Kent at the time, but her mother encouraged her to become a pivotal part of their new country and culture, while retaining her Guyanese identity. They visited friends and family in London and constantly received visitors at the family home, and so kept a very strong sense of connection with their country of origin.

 

Wakenaam is just twenty-five miles from Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, but its location in the mouth of the mighty Essequibo, with no bridges to the mainland, has kept it relatively isolated. The eldest of three children, Amos lived on the island until she was nine years old. Growing up in such a unique place at a time of great social and global change, it’s not surprising that Amos’s memories of Guyana have remained strong, and form an essential part of who she is.

“I grew up very much in the country,” she says. “A small community — everybody knew each other, lots of family around. Education, reading books, and schooling were always very, very important,” she adds. “And one of the main reasons we moved to England was because my parents wanted us to have the opportunity of a university education.”

Her family lived in a village called Fredericksburg, which Amos can picture vividly. “We lived in a lovely house, which is not there any longer — I have been back a couple of times — and it felt very idyllic. Long holidays running around in the sunshine with lots of fresh fruit and wonderful food.”

“Guyanese culture not only shaped my upbringing, but it’s also been a very important part of who I am and what I’m about,” Amos says. “That sense of generosity of spirit that Guyanese have — a very welcoming, friendly culture — has shaped who I am. I watched my parents have the equivalent of an open house in Guyana and the UK, welcoming in all our friends and everyone.”

Growing up in Guyana also gave her a strong sense of connection to the African continent. “Although I was too young, really, to absorb it all, there was a very strong movement of making sure Afro-Guyanese reconnected with their history,” she says. She was aware, too, of the tensions between African and Indian Guyanese communities. In 1963, the year she left, there were race riots in Guyana. But in the countryside where she grew up, the communities lived in harmony. “I’d always grown up with a feeling that people could live side by side in unity, and that it’s possible,” Amos says.

In Guyana, the colonialist project had driven divisions between the two main ethnic groups as a legacy of the plantation economy and how it was sustained by bringing indentured labourers from India following the emancipation of enslaved Africans in the nineteenth century. In the build-up to independence in 1966, ethnic power struggles manifested themselves politically, with both sides fighting for control of the resource-rich country.

In the UK, meanwhile, first- and second-generation Caribbean people in the 1980s reacted to decades of inequality and hostile attitudes, particularly from the police, in an explosion of rage: burning and looting their own communities in places like Brixton in London, Handsworth in Birmingham, and Toxteth in Liverpool. The tensions in Guyana and Britain, although very different in context, both came, essentially, from the same source: British colonialism.

In her career in local government in London, Amos’s diplomatic skills and cross-cultural awareness put her at the centre of the UK’s struggle with racial tension. In her position as race relations advisor at Lambeth council in south London in 1981, she found herself giving a live interview as the Brixton race riots waged all around her.

So within her lifetime, Amos has experienced the contrast between such difficult times and the triumph of breaking through various ceilings, and changing attitudes from the inside. Her progress is in itself a microcosm of the change the world has seen over the past half-century.

The Caribbean’s relationship with its former colonial power has changed in different ways also. As minister in charge of Caribbean affairs within the British Foreign Office from 2001 to 2003, Amos became aware that, as she puts it, “Caribbean countries felt that with Britain’s membership of the European Union, and because of how its relationship with EU partners evolved over time, Britain’s historic relationship with the Caribbean had changed significantly — and, they felt, in a detrimental way.”

That said, the influence of Caribbean people in Britain continues to register, even if Amos’s generation were the ones who, through sheer necessity, carved out the social, cultural, and political space that made things easier for those to follow. The Guyanese influence in Britain is particularly strong. That includes a small but influential group of highly educated, talented, and successful figures in public life — not least Amos herself, who became chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1989, was made a life peer by Tony Blair in 1997, became the first black woman in the British Cabinet as international development secretary in 2003, and was appointed under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs at the UN in 2010.

“I think it was Prince Charles who coined the term ‘Guyanese mafia,’” says Amos, laughing. “Because at one stage you had myself, Trevor Phillips [former Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality], Colleen Harris [the first black royal press secretary], David Lammy [Labour MP and former cabinet minister], and Waheed Alli [a baron in the Lords and multimillionaire media entrepreneur], whose father is from Guyana and his mother is from Trinidad.”

“All of these people, either born in Guyana or with a strong Guyanese connection through their parents, were emerging in their different fields at the same time,” Amos recalls. “And the term ‘Guyanese mafia’ has kind of stuck. I think what happens is people are always there, but suddenly there’s more public consciousness about them all at the same time, even though they were there all along.”

 

That it took until 2003 for the first black woman to hold a position in the British Cabinet, fifty-five years after the Empire Windrush arrived in Britain, opening the great wave of post-war Caribbean migration, is an indicator of the size of the battle Amos and her peers had to negotiate.

“I got a lot of letters of congratulations,” Amos says. “People were very pleased, because it wasn’t just about me. They saw it as recognition of the very important contribution that people of Caribbean background and African heritage were making to the UK. For me personally, it was a huge step — but you just get on with it, you have to do your job from day one. I was made more conscious of the significance of it from the people around me.”

Like all of her achievements, Amos took took it in her stride. But nothing will ever detract from the hugeness of her journey from the humble island of Wakenaam to the corridors of power in Westminster. Amos remembers first arriving in Britain on a very grey day — the sort of slate-grey cloudy day when you can’t really tell if it’s raining or not. These are the sort of days when British people wonder why anybody would want to move here from a tropical climate. “I found the first winter pretty difficult, but adjusted very quickly after that,” Amos says, predictably.

And in the glorious English summers, Amos indulges herself in one of her big passions: cricket. “I have spent the last five years living in New York, so didn’t have much opportunity to watch cricket,” she says. “Now that I am back in London, I hope to see a lot more. I haven’t been to cricket in the Caribbean for years. It’s such a fantastic atmosphere. I never saw Gary Sobers play, but grew up revering him. The dominant West Indies team of the 70s and 80s were my heroes. Who could forget the superb batting of Viv Richards, the destructive pace of bowlers like Andy Roberts and Michael Holding, under the able leadership of Clive Lloyd. The whole team were incredible.”

Like many other serious thinkers and politicians, Amos finds Test cricket affords her the rare opportunity to unwind: the kind of luxury she did not enjoy while coordinating the United Nations’ emergency relief efforts from 2010 until earlier this year.

“It was a time of escalating conflicts,” says Amos of her five-year tenure at the UN. “Not in the sense of large-scale conflicts between countries, but a lot of internal conflict in countries like South Sudan, Syria, the re-emergence of conflict in Iraq and Yemen. It seemed as if something major was happening all the time. And at the same time we had some major natural disasters. It was a job with a huge remit in terms of coordinating global response to those disasters: fundraising and bringing the world’s attention to what was happening, being a strong advocate and communicator. It was probably the most interesting job I’ve done to date.”

Now a new challenge awaits her at SOAS. Such is her versatility, Amos has taken on a major role in academia, in which she has no previous background — and her ambitions are great. As renowned as SOAS is for its research, she recognises the need to disseminate its important work to circles outside of academia.

“Particularly now, SOAS has such expertise, experience, and knowledge about the regions it works in — Asia, Africa, the Middle East — and when we look at what is happening globally, the work of SOAS needs to better inform policy decision-making around the world. I hope with the background I have, and the strength of SOAS’s work, we can make those connections.”

2016 marks the centenary year for SOAS. The appointment of Amos is a major coup for the university, and ensures it will be celebrated in style. Meanwhile, if her illustrious previous career is anything to go by, Amos will take this major new role quietly in stride, drawing on her lifetime’s experience of confidently crossing boundaries.

  • Joycelyn Duke

    Very proud of this Guyanese Lady’s significant achievements. It gives one hope for the next generation.