By Raywattie Deonarine
September is considered a very special month for Indigenous people across Guyana and they are celebrated under the Indigenous Heritage Month banner. This year, the celebrations are being held under the theme “Maintaining Our Traditional Integrity, Celebrating Our Cultural Identity”.
The associated commemorative activities are understandably numerous and continue all month long.
While for some the focus is on education-related activities, there are others who indulge in the more “fun” side of the festivities. But there are others who give equal focus to both the educational activities and the celebration of our first people, and with good reason too.
One such person is Sonia Latchman – a teacher and Toshao of Bethany village in the Pomeroon-Supenaam region.
She is an outspoken leader. Ever since she was a little girl, she wanted to become a teacher and she rose to the top position in her community just over three years ago.
A few months ago, she has re-elected as the Toshao of Bethany village, where she promotes good governance. She is also in charge of preparing strategies and plans for the protection, conservation, and sustainable management of her community.
Toshao Sonia is among the youngest leaders and has a passion for the development of her people.
The 28-year-old vibrant, courageous and ambitious leader is descended from the Arawak Indigenous tribe and grew up in Bethany, Upper Supenaam Creek. She is the youngest of two children.
“Back then we had farm… My sister and I had to go with daddy to the farm to assist in planting and reaping his crops. It was fun for us back then. In the boat we used to feel like superheroes, always anxious to get in.” Sonia told the Sunday Times.
She added that those days were the best out of all since she enjoyed fishing, swimming, and being on the farm all day planting, reaping, and showering the plants with water.
After completing her education, Sonia applied for a teaching job and in 2013, she started her career at Aurora Secondary School on the Essequibo Coast.
She would paddle for about half of an hour along the Supenaam Creek to get to school and never saw it as a hassle since she was getting to work in her dream job. Still, she’d say, “It was not far from home.”
Little did she know that as she paddled each day, she was really leading herself towards a path that would result in a rather successful career in education and also an additional career in leadership that would allow her to help her fellow Indigenous people.
Having held several important posts in education, Sonia decided to further her studies and achieved an Associate’s degree from the Cyril Potter College of Education and later read for a degree in Education at the University of Guyana.
Today, with 8 years in education under her belt, her advice is simple: “Qualify yourselves and grab as many opportunities as you can.”
Sonia, after several years in the teaching profession at Aurora Secondary School, now serves as the school’s Head of Department for the English Language.
Sonia told the Sunday Times that “Education takes you out of poverty and if I hadn’t such, I would not have been where I am today. The position that I have, I didn’t get it easy. So, to me, once you have an education, you can achieve your goals. I would always encourage children to remain focused and grasp as many educational opportunities as they can.”
Poverty was surely one of the many challenges along the line for Latchman, who noted that she came from a very poor family where her father used to do peasant farming and her mother was a shopkeeper. She added that in her young days she had to assist her parents in going to the farm planting fast crops just for a daily bread.
In 2018, Sonia was elected Toshao of Bethany and life changed for the little Indigenous village after then.
She is actively working to not only to develop the village but also herself. Sonia is currently pursuing her Master of Arts in Education Leadership studies through the Liverpool John Moores University in London.
Bethany is an Indigenous settlement about 17 square kilometres in size and located approximately five miles up the Supenaam Creek from the Supenaam Stelling. A peaceful forested community, Bethany is home to approximately 500 residents, some 30 per cent of whom are below age 18.
Toshao Sonia noted that as a leader she loves to see things operate smoothly so as a result, she proposed some community development projects which got aid from the Government of Guyana. She noted that some time in February, the community was awarded a $1.9 million cheque by the Minister of Amerindian Affairs to assist in the community’s agricultural development.
She said that due to the pandemic, many persons in her community were unemployed and as such, they are turning to agriculture. The grant, she said, has assisted residents to start agricultural projects within the community.
The young leader added that her passion lies in educating youths and her Indigenous women. She is hopeful that more of the women and girls in her community will push for academic excellence so they too can become future leaders in their community.
Toshao Sonia is on a path to further develop her small community and she is hopeful that the changes will make life in Bethany village much more comfortable.