NOTHING is conventional about Dr. Asante VanWest-Charles-Le Blanc. Her unconventional upbringing began as the granddaughter of Forbes Burnham who reigned supreme over Guyana and ruled with might and myth for 21 years until his death in 1985; undoubtedly, and historically, one of the most controversial and colourful political figures of the region.
"I would play under the table where he held his cabinet meetings. I also went around with him on his horse. On Fridays, he rode around town and through the country areas. I also remember he would have his entire cabinet swimming in the pool at the residence. I can't remember all the dignitaries I met but some of the African leaders, Clive Lloyd, and Sir Shridath Ramphal who I grew up calling uncle." Her middle name is Indira. It is said that Indira Gandhi impressed Burnham so much when they met that he bestowed her name upon his granddaughter and first grandchild.
At eight months old, she was photographed, in a crisp christening dress; a gift from Fidel Castro, Burnham's close friend and ally. "But they forgot to christen me," she says with a chuckle. After some effort, she locates the album and shows me a black and white photo coloured with pride. "The rumour is that Fidel is my godfather," she smiles mischievously. "That's what everybody in the family says. He and granddad were very close. He came to Guyana for granddad's funeral." Castro's closeness with Burnham inspired many things, among them, CARIFESTA, the Caribbean Festival of Arts, first held in Guyana in 1972. Later in life, Castro would give her another memorable gift of a university scholarship to study medicine in Cuba. He would also grant her the access and privilege that came with knowing Castro or more so with Castro knowing you. Being able to drop his name when it mattered most saved her, a few times, from being arrested. "I would have to call his name," she laughs. "It was because of my skin tone, my features, and my Spanish accent that I was often mistaken for a prostitute. That's when I would also whip out my Guyanese passport."
Actually, she was born in Cuba. Her parents were there as university students and care-giving for a newborn clashed with classroom hours and cramming for exams. "My parents got married in Guyana. Mom was 21 and dad was 23. Mom had me when she was 22." She arrived in Guyana at two months old. "I stayed for a year and a bit and then I was sent back to Cuba." Viola Burnham, the second wife, cared for her in those early months. "She always said that family had no step. So I never saw her as my step-grandmother. She was my grandmother." At three years old, her travel chaperone, Vincent Teekah, the Minister of Education, was allegedly assassinated. There are many accounts but no one official account of the events that lead to his death. Conspiracy theories abound. She was a toddler when it happened. Her memory, of these events, and others, was pieced together, over the years, from what she heard and overheard. "He was very close to granddad. They blew him up in a car," she says in a hushed tone, the kind of tone that was probably used in the days following Teekah's death but hardly expected 33 years later. She mentions the name Walter Rodney. We look at each other and our eyes conspire to go no further.
Her mother was studying political science. She's the first of three daughters Burnham had with his first wife, Sheila Lataste, a Trinidadian optometrist who worked for decades at Imperial Optical and died last July. "They divorced when mom was around 11." Her father was studying medicine and graduated as Guyana's Minister of Health.
Growing up, she and her dad sold her grandfather's political newspaper, New Nation, in the marketplace. "I only knew him as grandfather," she laughs. "I was nine when he died. I was actually in Trinidad. I'm only now cognizant of what he was politically and some things were just wrong. He didn't tief money but he was the politician who made sure he won." Her hysterical laughter tells a story of its own. It could be a case of if you don't laugh you will cry when thinking of some of Burnham's decisions and policies. It was reported that he banned condensed milk but asked for a spoon of it on his death bed. "Bittersweet," she says, in deep thought. "In retrospect, I guess that's his political history. No matter his faults, he's one of the founding fathers and he had the guts to fight. But he was a human being."
"I'm very proud to be his granddaughter and I am able to differentiate the politician from the father and the grandfather. He taught his children well, so well that they could recognise where he was going wrong." The somber moment ends. She's no longer reflective. Now, she's keeping it real. "He was a man who would fight with his own family, his own children, over politics," she hollers. Her laughter carries various emotions, expressions and a variety of coded meaning. This dose of laughter is decoded along the lines of an acceptance that Burnham was quite a character and that's putting it mildly.
"Everything around him was purple. He loved purple. I went to the high school he founded, President's College. He died in August 1985 and it opened in September 1985. The uniform was purple. Let's just say he was hooked on purple." Our eyes meet at her feet. She's wearing Chinese house slippers in purple mesh. We both erupt in laughter. Then she cuts me a playful look to confirm that whatever Burnham had, his idiosyncrasies and eccentricities were neither contagious nor genetic.
"He was just very strong in his beliefs. He was a Methodist but he had every holy book. He said he chose the good out of every religion."
We spent two days together. Easter Sunday spilled into Easter Monday.
For those of us who came back, on Monday, it never felt as though we ever left. Her home is filled with love, life, laughter and lots of food; on second thought, too much food. Guyanese Pepperpot simmered to perfection, in an authentic but secret cassareep recipe served with imported Antiguan clay oven bread for the dipping. Cook-up rice, fried channa, akee, saltfish in coconut milk, callaloo Jamaican style, Johnny bake, duckanoo (it tastes like pamie but looks like cassava pone), pastelles, barbeque chicken; the works! She's a fantastic hostess. She really knows how to entertain. Let's just say she's very entertaining. "My grandmother was a strong woman who taught me how to be a strong woman without alienating myself from men, from being a wife or from being in the kitchen. She was a first lady, a farmer, a mother, a grandmother, and a feminist." A lot of her best memories are in Guyana with her grandmother. "I would always go back home to Guyana for holidays. But I moved back in 1995." She was 19. "Mum Vi, that's what I called my grandmother. She had a farm and I would help her plant vegetables, milk the cows and sell the milk."
Losing her grandmother, in October 2003, was devastating. "We found out she had cancer in January 2003. She said Asante what do I do I said Mum Vi it is your decision, quality versus quantity of life. She had no biological grandchildren, I was about to graduate, it was very difficult for her because there was so much getting ready to come to the fore, so she decided to fight for us and herself. But it wasn't going well. She decided to stop treatment." She was finishing the final year of an internship. She flew from New York to a Miami hospice to spend those last days with her grandmother. "She was in a coma due to the morphine. She went when we were all asleep." She got to pronounce her grandmother dead. "Since I was five years old I wanted to be a doctor. Of course, I had those moments where I also wanted to be an air-hostess and secretary," she laughs uncontrollably. But now she's solemn. "I didn't think it would happen. I fell out with my father and that was my money supply." Her six years of medical school were the longest years of her life.
"I could have never done it without Errol." She married her husband, the month after her grandmother died, after a six-year long distance relationship, and with the approval of the woman who raised her. "I wouldn't have done it if Mum Vi didn't approve." From the day he entered her life, her husband, Errol Le Blanc, managing director of UNICOMER Ltd. (trading as Courts Furniture Store) has been a driving force behind her success and stability. "He's a good friend, my advisor, and my business partner. A long-distance relationship has its own rules but our long-distance relationship was one of a kind. When you don't plan things, good things happen." Lots of good things have happened between them including two beautiful daughters Kamili seven and Zola five. "I also have three sons Kwame 21, Jelani 18, and Raymond 16 and as Mum Vi said in family there is no step!" She was pregnant and working, in Grenada, in 2004, when Hurricane Ivan hit.
"There were a lot of casualties, the morning after. I was a surgical intern and it was also my first pregnancy. I couldn't leave. I kept working. My feet were so swollen that they sent me home. When I went to bathe there was blood. I was standing so much that my placenta was grazed. They wanted to keep me but I took my IV (intravenous therapy) and went home. All night, I was turning my IV but the bleeding got worse." Her husband broke the curfew to get a doctor. "They didn't believe him and held a gun to his head."
The next morning, she flew to Trinidad where she stayed until Grenada settled. The year after, they moved to Trinidad where she has lived since 2005. But at first, things didn't go as planned. "They didn't want me to work here. It was during the controversy of the creation a parallel medical board to register Cuban doctors. They said my Cuban medical degree was from an unrecognised university." She got around it but it wasn't easy and certainly wasn't cheap. Eventually, she did one year in pathology at the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex in Mt.
Hope. "Autopsies," she laughs. "Besides the smell it was a great experience. Pathology is one of the cornerstones of medicine. You really get to see the impact disease has on the body. Some days were hard if you got a baby or a child." She was the only female. "My scrubs were always tight and I guess they didn't expect to see a woman cutting the body and coming out to tell you the cause of death. I met some great people there." I couldn't help but ask, "Who, the dead"
Her laughter is now uncontainable. "Well at last that's one place the patients won't argue with you." She's a riot. Anyone who knows her will attest to that. She can also cause a riot. "The working conditions were bad. We demanded better conditions. There were trials and tribulations but overall it was a good experience."
She's now in private practice as a general practitioner and certified medical herbalist. She's also one of the most sought after practitioners of alternative medicine in the country. "I use the traditional Chinese diagnostic model. I found that I could do more for my patients using both models; traditional medicine and alternative medicine. It was just the right thing to do." She contends that using a combined model offers a better understanding of the patient. "You are able to understand the patient as an individual." Some would call her approach unconventional. But even in her practice, she embraces diversity and doing things differently because no two human beings are the same. The overwhelming demand for her services in alternative medicine means she's getting results. "Medicine is not one size fits all. It is a continuous and dynamic process."