October 1, 2022

The hand of the box – Stabroek News

“When ah draw me the box han’

I don’t want anyone to mistreat me”

These two lines, repeated with the same melody, are taken from a Guyanese folk song that I collected from my close friend, the late Wordsworth McAndrew, folklorist.

It was December, Sacred Heart RC School was closed. At home, I sometimes overheard Lydia, my mother, chatting with friends, saying that she had to “…go throw a box”. At that time, children did not ask questions; it was considered rude. A child “was to be seen and not heard”. Victorian values ​​operated, affecting children in particular. A misbehaving child anywhere could and would be harshly corrected by any stranger, who was generally considered “aunt” or “uncle”. Woe to you if they knew your parents and made a report.

Being of an imaginative nature, every time I heard the remark “box in hand”, I tried to imagine mom going somewhere to throw boxes. The first question was why throwing boxes and what kind of boxes were they, certainly not the ones my dad, John, encountered at his waterfront workplace in Sandbach Parker. They were wooden things, difficult to handle. The only possible source remaining would be the Chinese grocery store on King Street. It was quite close to my house, a building on Carmichael Street near Church Street. The grocery store typically stacked boxes on the side of the road for sanitation workers to collect in their brick-red-covered horse-drawn carts.

This question having been answered, the next one was: Where did the throwing of the box take place? It must have been daytime, judging by my mother’s remarks, as I couldn’t think of anyone throwing boxes at night unless it was moonlit and involved some sort of magical ceremony of obeah for purposes I’d rather not think of. Throw boxes also needed space. The first that came to mind was the nearby parade ground, but I had never heard of anyone, including my friends, witnessing it. They most definitely would have reported the show and invited me to the event. So the boxes definitely had to be thrown away somewhere secret. The next place in my neighborhood that came to mind might have been St. George’s School Hall, but I couldn’t see the English Archbishop granting permission for questionable activity with dubious origins. Anyway, even the sound of throwing empty boxes would have caught the attention of my friends and me. We often sailed boats through the nearby trench. Finally, what happened to the boxes after they were thrown was another mystery.

The years have passed. I was about twelve when one day Mom sent me on an errand “to throw the hand box.” Adding the word “hand” immediately worsened the original question, sending my imagination into a larger twist. I saw myself using several unique hand techniques to throw boxes. Such accomplishments, when demonstrated to my friends, would certainly inspire respect and enhance the prestige I might have enjoyed from my pencil copies of comic book heroes. However, the mystery would eventually be solved as this time I asked questions and received the following fascinating tale.

The “throw box” was a savings system practiced among the working class, where six people formed a group taking into consideration twelve months of the year. The foundation of the practice is based on mutual trust, which is why groups have formed among close friends. A member received a monthly fixed sum of money from each of the five others. The members took turns doing this, each receiving two “box hands” during the year. A wonderful ethical practice within the groups was to allow someone in dire financial difficulty to go to the front of the line.

The folk song of course takes on great significance when a ‘hand box’ is collected in the run up to Christmas, the favorite time. Any approach to borrow money is quickly rejected. The Season of Joy meant My Season of Joy. Despite the rejection, some sharing took place for those who desperately needed help.

The “Box Hand” for me meant opening my puzzling box at Christmas to recoup savings over the year. My father would usually cut a narrow opening in the side of a can of sardines to receive coins, then nail it to the wall to be removed at Christmas time. On his Friday pay day, I was given a shilling and encouraged to develop the habit of saving, which is one of the greatest gifts he gave me. A Christmas to remember, after months of admiring it, I was able to acquire a cheap copy of the famous British two-blade Barlow pattern penknife from Kawall’s Hardware Store on Regent Street. My first tool. A revered and more expensive example is one of three in my collection.


Instead of the term Box Hand used in Guyana, comparatives in the Caribbean include “Meeting Turn”, indicative of its activity, and “Sou-Sou, which I believe is of French origin because the word “sou” means coin The activity of contributing to the common mass is of West African origin I have been told.The principle of Box Hand is exemplified in a memorable historical occasion in Guyana by the collective action of the villagers of the coast east of Demerara using their resources to buy the villages of Victoria and Buxton after emancipation, a case can perhaps be made for its politicization during President Burnham’s attempt to create a Socialist Co-operative Republic, something which according to me, was designed around the Box Hand tradition to operate on a national level and which also extended the practice.

One institution, the Small Industries Cooperative Bank, has done a good job of providing small, low-interest loans to individuals and very small groups to fund their businesses. A supervisor ensured success by visiting those to whom loans were given to ensure that they were being used correctly. I particularly remember the lady who made a living by sewing school uniforms at home. Thanks to a loan, she acquired an industrial sewing machine to replace the famous Singer household sewing machine in her home. Its production has increased considerably. A young man who owned a bicycle repair business in the house downstairs was able to expand it by acquiring a welding machine to repair damaged frames. At one point, while at the University of Guyana, I even planned to throw a Box Hand with my close friends. This did not happen unfortunately; some went on leave and others emigrated. The monthly Box Hand could have financed some interesting projects around bottles.

Another very effective application of the Box Hand principle was the Friendly Burial Societies, which had working class members. These companies, unlike the Hand Box launch, had to be officially registered. Each month, members paid a small sum, which was deposited in a bank. When a member dies, their family receives a lump sum for burial expenses. At the end of the year, the interests of the bank were shared among the members. The commendable efforts of the Box Hand and Friendly Burial Societies, humanistic in intent and practice, have dutifully served their working class members in the effort to alleviate the effects of poverty.

These institutions have served my family, earning my eternal gratitude. I’ve respected both and hope they still exist in some form. Regardless of the state of the national economy, there are those who will always need help.

Have a good season everyone and good health in 2022.