Saturday, May 20, 2017

Goan Association, UK: another challenge to overcome

Glorious past, present tense, uncertain future
Goan Association has battled crisis before,
and should overcome current one
By Eugene Correia

Last year, the Goan Overseas Association (UK) passed its half-century mark in its journey which has seen many ups and downs. Inaugurated in 1966, the memories of the past years are well captured in the souvenir released to mark the momentous occasion.

In 1977, a new name, Goan Association (UK) was adopted, though retaining the acronym, GOA, as its trading name. Many other Goan bodies have mushroomed, as the diaspora community has grown with the influx of the Portuguese-passport holders. Shockingly, it hasn’t translated into increase the GA member. In fact, the GA membership has decreased and, therefore, it’s no surprise that the GOA is embarrassed to release the figure.

The GA has been in crisis before as it’s facing one now over the resignation of some of its directors and general secretary. No official explanation is forthcoming. Even those who resigned have remained silent. A conspiracy of silence prevails in the management of the association. The GA has been to court to sort out legal issues and confrontations at least six times in its history, according to someone in the know.

Some Goan and Manglorean Catholics, who made a trip to neighbouring countries under the auspices of the Overseas Student Catholic Organisation, felt the need for a Goan association. The souvenir describes the failed attempt as, “That freshly-sprung idea of a Goan association wilted no sooner it had come about.”  This failure in 1962 made a handful of Goans to take up the challenge again two years later, and the East African Catholic Society (EACS) was born. A seed was sown.

The pair of Camillo de Souza and Amorito Nazareth played leadership roles in setting up EACS. The far-sightedness and vision of these two, who were well versed in the club life of Goans in East Africa, resulted in formalizing the idea that shaped the arrival of GOA.

As one of its objectives, the GA stated that it would like to see its “elders as members of parliament” and “our part fully in the life of the country.” They may not be “elders” or members of GA, but there are three Goans MPs, namely the long-serving brother-and-sister team of Keith and Valerie Vaz, and newcomer Suella Fernandes. Keith and Valerie’s mother, Merlyn Vaz, was a councillor, and today Rabi Martins sits as a councillor in Watford.

Playing a vital role in the formative years of GA, Martins showed his penchant for politics when, writing in the association newsletter in 1975, he forcefully stated, “What then is the future of the association? Not much, unless the members awaken immediately to the need to reorganise our body into a radical political body capable of representing the Goan community in the country.” Martins headed a Standing Committee on Race Relations and Immigration (SCORR). As a representative bod, its impact on issues such as immigration, welfare, and housing is said to have been “minimal.” The GA hasn’t transformed itself into Martins’ dream and, perhaps, the view of being a “radical political body” is no longer valid.

No doubt that Goans who came in large numbers from the liberating East African nations as well as those forced to leave their lands because of political upheaval, particularly Uganda in 1972,  boosted the numbers of Goans in UK. Goans in the new land wanted to replicate the social life enjoyed by them in the East African nations that they left behind. The urge to socialize, have dances and entertainment fuelled the desire to have an association and, gradually, for a clubhouse of its own.

The reality of owning a piece of land came in September, 1983, when the Goan Association Sports and Social Club was declared open at Beckenham, Kent. The playing fields were acquired, making the premises the jewel of the association. The grounds helped in providing youngsters with facilities to horn their sporting skills, as well as provide keen matches, particularly in cricket and field hockey. Few dedicated members worked hard to make the dream come true. A decade and half later, the dream went up in flames. The clubhouse was burned down by an arson attack, and, later, the insurance claim was settled, providing  the GOA money to invest in flats.

The will to keep the cultural spirit going was strong. In 1984 came SCOGO (Standing Committee of Goan Organizations), the brainchild of Marcus D’Souza, a founding member of the GOA. The new organisation was the coming together of village associations. One year later, it held its first Goan Exhibition & Festival. With rising number of Goans, the festival too grew in scope. To accommodate the crowds, the festival was moved to a bigger arena in 2011, and today it has become a massive celebration, drawing nearly 20,000 people, of Goenkarpon, the much-used word in Goa today, in all its forms. But surprising, profits were low. In 2011, the GA hosted the four-day Global Goan Convention, promoted by the NRI department of Goa government. It also secured a grant of 38,300 pounds by the British Heritage Lottery Fund for compiling the oral histories of British Goans.
The GA isn’t without its critics. One of them is a former director and editor of its newsletter, Melwyn Fernandes, who let his membership languish after three decades. In some of his letters that has been circulated on Goa forums, he has questioned some of the practices of the current management, including auditing procedures. He opines that the GA is “run down due to collective dereliction of duty by the Directors…” He has also raised concerns on office-bearers getting “paid for unaudited expenses” and functioning of the Goan Welfare Society (GWS).

Melwyn is joined by Joseph Rebello in questioning the state of affairs in the GA and have called for a “shake-up” or “overall clean-up” to make members renew their faith and confidence in the GA. He says that the GA is in “disarray”. A source informs that director Paul de Mendonca, who was president for two years, withdrew when he came to know that he would lose to the ultimate winner, Sandra Fernandes, at the last AGM. Later on, Paul’s, Chloe and Neil, resigned from their directorships. Then came the sudden resignation of former president (1988-89, 1998-2012) Flavio Gracias, who was general secretary and welfare director.

Flavio has been quoted in the souvenir as saying, “… the Goan Association (UK) has reached a stalemate and is unable to attract new members despite the increase in the number of Goans living in Britain.” However, president Ravi Vaz, who took over from Flavio in 2012, assures that “through far-sighted financial planning, we have ensured that the association is financially sound, and is able to sustain itself and serve the community for a long time to come.”

In an email, the president elaborated, “We are an outward looking organization…. We have adapted ourselves well with the changing times…. With the influx of Goans on Portuguese passports into the UK, the Association has lived up to the roles and changes and achieved new heights.”

There’s no doubt that the GA will survive in one form or the other. Giving its current status, the GA, must show better transparency and accountability if it needs to win the new Goan arrivals. The GA can win confidence of its members if It let go of itself from the alleged control of few families. Goan associations worldwide look at the GA not only as pathbreaker but also as a model.

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