Memories of Viola Burnham
By Ms. Cheryl Sampson, Chairperson, National Congress of Women, At Memorial Observance, Florida, Monday 13th October, 2003

 The Day Thou Gavest Lord Is Ended.

Today the National Congress of Women, formerly the Women’s Revolutionary Socialist Movement, that organization which the late Cde. Vi, as she was fondly called, led for 14 years is the poorer at her passing.     But even as we mourn her passing we of the National Congress of Women are pleased to celebrate her life, for hers was an exceptional one. 

Even as I speak on behalf of our organisation, my tribute will have a personal touch, for I had the fortune of being associated with her as a member of staff, as a colleague on the Executive of the WRSM and later as a friend. 

Viola Victorine Harper Burnham, O.R. was first and foremost a loyal Guyanese, one who walked with Queens and Princesses but never lost the common touch.   Her contribution to the development of Women, whether in the Party on in Guyana as a whole, is unparalleled and will forever be remembered.  

Her Political work:

Cde. Vi was a Women’s Rights advocate, who championed  Equal opportunity for women,  With regard to Legal issues, the laws of Guyana corrected to reflect equality. 

The WRSM had Units in all 10 Regions of Guyana and Cde Vi travelled the length and breadth of Guyana meeting with women.   There were;

  • District / Regional Conferences

  • Conventions

  •  Anniversary Rallies  /  Marches

  • She was instrumental in the formation of the national Women’s organisation CASWIG  &  the Women’s Affairs Bureau

  • The WRSM, through her guidance set up the Guyana Overseas Action League (GOAL) – USA and the London WRSM

Cde. Vi encouraged the Use of local products .

Projects of the Vanguard Women’s Organisation:

  • Market days & Jumble sales to raise funds

  • Supermarket

  • Vangear            -         Garment Factory

  • Vancraft            -         Tie-Dye

  • Vantex              -         Paper recycling

  • Vanaid              -         Bandage Making

  • Vanpro              -         Marketing outlet

  • Vanceram          -        Table ware

  • Vantage             -        Health Centre

  • Rice Van            -        Bakery   (Recipes on Rice Flour)

  • Appropriate Technology -  Solar dryer; grate-o-mate

  • Mat making – coconut fibre rope from Belbaag. 

  •   Cottage industry was encouraged

International Work:

  • She was instruemental in the formation of the Caribbean Women’s Association  (CARIWA), of which she served as its first Vice President.

  • She led delegations to the UN Decade Conferences-1975  -  Mexico,  1980  - Copenhagen Denmark, 1985  - Nairobi, Kenya.  Although she was not as active, for her work with women, she had an all expenses paid trip to the 1995 UN Conference in Bejing, China

  • World Conference of Women, hosted by the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) much respect was shown her by many Foreign delegations

  • She spearheaded us hosting of foreign delegationsfor Conventions:-  delegates from the Caribbean countries,African nations, Asia and Europe.

The women of the world have lost a stalwart in Women’s Rights

Cde Vi practiced what she preached.  Excellence was her watchword.  

Educated, widely read – I recall Robert Mugabe’s visit for African Liberation, and Cde. Vi had to give the opening address – some men sitting behind me declared – they were convinced that she wrotes Forbes Burnham’s speeches.  Simple, Stately, dignified, poised, loving, always well dressed  -  are but some of the words used to describe her. To many she was Guyana’s only First Lady. 

The greatest tribute that the NCW could pay to this outstanding daughter of Guyana is to emulate her values.  Only last Sunday, October 5th we celebrated our 46th anniversary.   Last year at 45, she said to me Cheryl start preparing for the 50th.  Get up the pictures and begin to write.  Tell Urmia to write.   Last Thursday evening Urmia and I had a long discussion and we both resolved to have her wishes carried out.  Cde. Vi, where ever you are “Thy request will be honoured.”

Urmia, Yvonne, Ovril, Blacket-Hall and all of the WRSM / NCW send their love to the children.                                                           

For  our departed  sister  I  must  read  one stanza of that  familiar  poem  by  Martin  Carter           

            DEATH  OF  A  COMRADE            

Dear  Comrade, 
if  it  must  be
you  speak  no  more  with  me
nor  smile  no  more  with  me 
nor  march  no  more  with me
then  let  me  take 
a  patience  and  a  calm –
for  even  now  the  greener  leaf  explodes 
sun  brightens  stone 
and  all  the  river  burns.  
Now  from  the  mourning  vanguard  moving  on 
dear  Comrade  I  salute  you  and  I  say 
Death  will  not  find  us  thinking  that  we  die.

Personally my daughter, Benita, and I will miss Mum Vi.   Since my daughter’s birth Cde became Mum Vi to me.   She was my mother, sister, friend.   On many occasions Mum Vi was my baby sitter.  Uncle Herbie spoke of the four girls she helped prepare for their Common Entrance Examinations, my daughter was one of them.  We will always have fond memories of you. 

Melanie, Ulele, Kamana, Asantie and all other close relatives,  I say Be comforted in the fact the Viola Victorine Harper Burnham, has completed her work here on earth and she will receive her rewards in Heaven.

May her soul find eternal peace.