In 1972, members of the Non – Aligned Movement and Third World Nations chose Guyana as host of the first meeting of the Non – Aligned Nations.
This was the first meeting of its kind to be held in the hemisphere. Hosts of previous meetings had staged their affairs in buildings, which can only be described as ‘glittering showcases. A committee of government officials was assembled to identify a building to accommodate the conference.
Guyana, as host to the prestigious event, was unable to afford the construction of a brick or concrete building and time would not permit the erection of a new wooden building. In light of these constraints the idea of an Amerindian benab enthused the committee.
The lawns of the former Mariners’ Club, at the northeastern end of High Street where it met with Battery Road, was selected as the ideal location for the benab, that was to be constructed in the classic pattern of the benab built at Konashen by the Wai – Wai people.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was charged with the responsibility for the construction of the benab, with the assistance of the Department of Interior Development.
The materials and work force were to be secured from the interior. Wai Wai Chief Elka and sixty odd Amerindians were recruited for the execution of this task. An architect was then commissioned to prepare plans for the building that would house the meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Non Aligned Nations. A circular area of the lawn, about 26.8 metres in diameter was cleared of grass and excavated, the soil leveled and compacted to a smooth hard finish by the Wai – Wai who stomped the ground, feet unshod, moving rhythmically forward, backward and round and round as in a sort of tribal dance.
Sand was then placed over the area and a concrete foundation slab; complete with holes for the insertion of the poles was laid to protect the structure from dampness, given the nature of the shallow water table of the coastal soils.
Poles straight as arrows, round wood saplings, vines and lush green troolie fronds culled from palm trees growing in profusion in swamp lands upriver were used by the Wai – Wai.
They climbed the smooth poles with remarkable agility, sat astride the round wood grids, or hung bat – like with stocky legs high above the ground to secure the materials utilising the techniques used by their countless generations in the construction of buildings.
Unlike the traditional Amerindian building, nails were used to secure the roof against wind pressures given its location.
After only eighty days the Umana Yana was completed at a modest cost of $26,000.00. On 8 August 1972, the flags of more than 80 nations fluttered proudly along the eastern edge of the Umana Yana’s compound as the meeting of the Non – Aligned Nations commenced.
Like sands of the time, the Umana Yana is an eloquent reminder of the diversity of our culture, a reflection of the lifestyles between the indigenous peoples and the western oriented dwellers of the city.
On 26 August 1974, ‘Namibia Day’ former President Forbes Burnham unveiled the African Liberation Monument in memory of all of those who have struggled and continue to struggle for the freedom of Human Bondage.
This monument consists of five polished greenheart logs encased in a jasper stand on a granite boulder.
The varying heights of the logs are representative of the different ages of the martyrs; the slab of granite represents the strength of the freedom movement and the pebbles around the base of the monument represent the millions of peoples who are involved in the fight of human bondage.