Monday, 25 October 2010

The Last Post

Do you like it when the Last Post plays? I do, though it makes me sad. Evocation, simplicity, the different experiences recognised and thereby shared. No summaries, only a payment of tribute.

I’m leaving Guyana today. Saying goodbye to Georgetown the gorgeous garbage-garden city, Guyana the land of many waters, and Aishalton the visceral laborious beautiful home. Forgive the plethora of adjectives; they are hard to avoid in a place of such extravagance. My outsider’s impressions were of course never more than that- impressionistic, partial, leaving not much more behind than an aura, a little smoke, a whiff of mangoes or gunpowder. But if you never get the chance to come to Guyana, perhaps these words have carried enough of an aura, enough of a glimpse through a dark glass, to bias your heart a little when you hear the cricket scores, snag your attention when some Amerindians protest their land rights in Brussels, or trigger a vibration when you hear a frog belching its lovesong or catch livestock chewing your laundry. And if you have approached these outsider stories from the inside, thank you for your forbearance in allowing me such freedom to anecdotalise and compartmentalise your vivid world into two thin dimensions. I shall miss your generosity and your punchy plosive late-stressed words (‘charácter’, ‘grandfáther’, ‘vehéemently’) and your culturally intriguing responses.

As I look back over the projects and the newspapers, the politics and the alcoholism and fantastic trainees and spate of young deaths and sewing and singing and writing and planning and all these crazy vivid experiences, I am very struck by how jam-packed our world is with love and hope, chaos and despair. True for Guyana, true for anywhere. We choose by our attentions which we believe matters most. We make our choices by default gradually as we settle into adulthood, and equally gradually as our life goes on the choices begin to make us. As we absorb ourselves in love, or hope, or chaos, or despair, so we are absorbed by them. I am sure I would have assented to this a few years ago, but I’m not sure I knew how to live by it. (I’m not sure I do now).

In his novel ‘The Eighth Day’, Thornton Wilder’s feistiest woman says: “Cities come and go... like the sand castles that children build upon the shore. The human race gets no better. Mankind is vicious, slothful, quarrelsome and self-centred. If I were younger, and you were a free man, we could do something here- here and there. You and I have a certain quality that is rare as teeth in a hen. We work. And we forget ourselves in our work. Most people think they work: they can kill themselves with their diligence. They think they’re building Athens, but they’re only shining their own shoes. When I was young I used to be astonished at how little progress was made in the world... From time to time everyone goes into an ecstasy about the glorious advance of civilisation- the miracle of vaccination, the wonders of the railroad. But the excitement dies down and there we are again- wolves and hyenas, wolves and peacocks... Everything’s hopeless, but we are the slaves of hope”.

I am uncomfortably aware that some of the stories I have told you have been distressing, and a few were downright disheartened. Development work is a minefield, littered with sloppy good intentions, bossy interventions and the exploded limbs of a thousand insane outsiders’ crazy projects. Desolation is sometimes inevitable, but other times it’s just lazy. Hope, on the other hand, is an extremely demanding path to follow. I look back over our time here in some awe at all that has happened to us. I’m glad we weren’t only shining our own shoes (shiny? Hmmm!- pungent, more like...). I particularly marvel at how many profoundly worthwhile people actually shared themselves with us in some significant way.

Despite the real insights in Thornton Wilder’s words, I do not believe that the conclusion he draws is right. Seems to me there are a lot more creatures out there than wolves, hyenas and peacocks. We are not slaves of hope, though we may choose to be its servants. In his “Last Essays”, Georges Bernanos wrote “Hope is a risk that must be run”. I cannot put it better than that. I think what he means is something like this- do not sleepwalk your way unbeknownst into a future that chooses you as victim of its whim. Risk everything. Spend time like the wisely rich spend money. Spend it on something valuable, somewhere unforgettable, with people who matter to you.

Thank you for reading.

With love,


Saturday, 23 October 2010

Falling for Kaiteur

Our trip to Kaiteur begins at 5a.m. Certainly we are looking unkempt and bedraggled (especially B who returned from two weeks in the wilds of Waiwai country the previous afternoon), but directing us with one dismissive wave to the cargo department seems a little harsh. This turns out to be where the scheduled service goes from. The other three passengers are all going to Mahdia for work. One of the mechanics calls us tourists, which startles me for a second with its aptness. We see so many crazy sights that I forget I’m out of the swing of formal sightseeing. It’s comic and peculiar and refreshing to be a tourist sometimes in a place where you feel at home. As we pass through security I fill in a “Transportation of Offensive Items Form” for my penknife, which puts me in an even better mood. We board only fifteen minutes late, but as we are taxiing two Chinooks arrive to whisk away the President, who cruises past us in two blue sedans. So we are decamped back to the lounge, and make it out half an hour later after an impressive lack of pomp and kerfuffle.

The first falling away is the tarmac. I watch Ogle airstrip’s plate-welded asphalt sink away in disreputable irregularity. It is raining grey and sloppy; perfect weather to be gaining height from.

The second falling away is the capital city. I love flying over Georgetown: it’s so compact and gridded. From up here, it is tropical toytown gorgeous. The sugarcane looks feathery as thistledown, the palm fronds delicate and homely-glamorous. We cross the immensely fat brown Demerara and head for the even fatter and browner Essequibo with its enormous inhabited islands.

The third falling away is Mahdia, the mining community where the little shuttle plane sets down first. This time the runway is crumble-topping, grey under-shoe chewing gum, bubbly at the edges, and seamed like an old man’s face. It falls away as the foothills swell and scarp and promise unspecified drama after hundreds of miles of flat rainforest.

Kaiteur is Guyana’s only national park. What I didn’t expect was that it really does feel like a park; good, well-kept paths, a lovely basic wooden guesthouse almost exactly the same age as me (and showing signs of wear just as I am), and guides who not only know the area and its wildlife but also pick up rubbish and take pride in the place. It’s only about ten minutes walk from the airstrip to the guesthouse, and then another five to the Falls. The sound insinuates itself gradually into your ears as you walk down the hill. You notice it as a realisation that the noise was already there, inside your head.

The fourth and biggest falling away for me (and I suspect for most people) comes when you lie over the edge and follow the eager water into the gorge below. What falls away probably varies a lot, but it’s likely to be the disproportions of your daily life. This waterfall is elemental just as we are. It thunders regardless of everything that matters and everything that doesn’t. It isn’t ABOUT anything- it is what it is, magnificently. The lure to join the water is very, very strong. You wouldn’t need to be suicidal or even sad to take a running jump. The water abandons itself with such freedom over this edge. In the plunge pool below, two layers are visible: a churning bomb explosion smacking up to the surface in almost geometric webbing, with a billowing smoke of thick rich vapour pluming white above it. Spray is driven with a powerful logic- nothing drifts here. Everywhere around the huge bite from the plateau, morpho butterflies rush for the edge. They give the impression of fluttering but their strength is enormous. Like the water, they seem to hurl themselves above Kaiteur Falls because it is the inevitable response; the only right thing to do.

Lie down a good way back. Inch forward over the skin-grating rough rock until your nose is over- far enough over that reaching for the butterflies is clearly unwise. Now turn your face into the sun, into the spray, into the feast of colours in the water. Notice the textures across the water curtain; old man’s combed beard on the east side, long and straggled and grey-white. Then the giant’s huge thick hurl of the body of the Falls, churned like porridge but the colour of iced tea with rum. There is no foam- too much power. To the western side, the beautiful plumed white water, taffeta sheen with globs of chunky gleeful eager water thrown diagonally, outshone by a shower of diamonds separating themselves off and out, catching the sunshine, not falling but leaping. Fill your eyes with all of this, and the hazy rainbows shifting with the spray. Fill your ears with the boom that has no beginning nor end (an ‘ooooooommmmm’), thunder that forgot to stop and has lost the power to, a bomb going off forever. Fill your stomach with the reverberation of rock determined not to be eroded, water like the beat of blood rather than the beat of drums. For days or weeks afterwards, when you close your eyes these will still be there. They wait for pauses in the conversation. They claim your attention with their distant ongoing presence. Some part of your subconscious mind will remain aware of their continuance as long as you exist.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010


I remember the first time I heard the words of the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion’s famous ‘Bragge’, written not long before he swung at Tyburn; “the expense is reckoned; the enterprise is begun”. Why does that fire my blood? Why does it ring so thrillingly round my head like a yell down a well? Probably because I’m reflective by nature, both in the nerdy list sense and the meditative one. Reckonings tend to fortify me for the future as well as reconciling me with the past.

Valuation is a skill- necessary, and therefore delegated to experts in most fields; wine, gem mining, art, counterfeiting, training courses, antiques. But placing any kind of sensible value on work done is a task requiring humility, realism and a lot of contrasting opinions. We’re all replaceable, until we believe it, at which point no-one is. Humility is as fleeting as it is delicate. Public recognition is a very bad indicator of actual value, but it’s probably the commonest and certainly one of the most seductive. “Doers of good have their seasons of weakness. They know that there is no spiritual vulgarity equal to that of expecting gratitude and admiration, but they allow themselves to be seduced by the sweet fantasies of self-pity”. Thornton Wilder embarrasses me with his acuity. I am a shocker for taking myself at other people’s valuation, especially when I’m feeling weak.

So if I try to do my own reckoning, to think through what has been valuable about the time in Guyana, it is easiest to start with what has been valuable to me, because I KNOW that to be true. So here are three things I will treasure that have changed in me, and changed me.

* I am learning perseverance: not just persistence, bashing my head off a worthy brick wall, but trying and trying and trying to do or comprehend things in different ways until something actually takes.

* I feel a freedom from belongings and attachments greater than any I have known before. It’s facile to say that possessions own you: wealthy people can maintain a healthy open-handedness (although I wonder how many do). But it feels lovely owning so little to be anxious about, having a home completely bare of trophy or kudos items, and being able to make no statements at all with my appearance except involuntary ones. I wonder how long this freedom will last?

* I am slowly coming to understand how easily my own passion and articulacy and competence can disempower other people. This is a painful lesson, as counterproductiveness tends to be. “If I understand all mysteries and all knowledge... but do not have love, I am nothing”. When I work at maximum efficiency I am most apt to cause damage. Going back to a country where efficiency is an unquestioned virtue, this new and rather fragile seedling is likely to get crushed. It’s my job to see that it doesn’t.

In terms of other people, I cannot measure what has been valuable and to whom. But it helps me to ask myself what will last. The funding bids are Patek Philippes as far as I’m concerned; did I take the opportunity to plant any coconut palms? These are three palm trees that did get planted, and I hope are rooted deep enough to survive.

* While most of the work in Aishalton was ostensibly about passing on knowledge and techniques, the manner in which it was done was the heart of the work: by showing people what is possible and then giving them a chance to practice, I think the skills gained are interwoven with self-esteem and with confidence into a cord that will not be easily unwound.

* But humbling as it was, in Aishalton I came to realise that simple presence is the most valuable gift an outsider can bring. This is what it means to stay- a statement of optimism. Humans dignify mundane and back-breaking concerns only by sharing them. And that is an embarrassing privilege: why should something gain dignity just because a white person does it? My politically correct instincts cavil, but if the gain is genuine, it’s best that I swallow my pride and get hauling that bucket. Just to survive, to live in local conditions, is enough. We have to accept that, we work-focussed idealists, especially on days when we lie in bed sick, or there is no power to charge the laptop, or when a project fizzles into nothing.

* I think people will remember our personalities and our friendship longer than they will any of our work. Ten years ago I would have been too stupid and too success-focussed to value that. But hold a baby, watch someone you love sick or dying, weep for joy or yearning at an airport or a wharf or beside a cold road, and you will know unarguably and profoundly that nothing matters as much as people. What could be more heartening than to be told “you guys will always be in our memories as long as ever”?

And to anyone who asks if I have “made a difference”, an expression endemic to volunteer circles that I am violently allergic to, I guess I would ask them if THEY have. Isn’t a bit patronising to think that you somehow have a miraculous ability to make more of a difference to ‘poor people’ than you would to your friends and neighbours in the country of your birth? I like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s yardstick for making a difference: it has nothing to do with where, a little to do with what, and everything to do with how.

“To laugh often and love much;
to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children;
to earn the approbation of honest citizens and endure the betrayal of false friends;
to appreciate beauty;
to find the best in others;
to give of one's self;
to leave the world a bit better,whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation;
to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived --
this is to have succeeded”.

Saturday, 16 October 2010


Jargon can be deadening. If it ends in ‘-ility’, I notice a lot of eyes begin to glaze over (sustainab-, accountab-, irritab- leading to early sen-). But of course big concepts like this are important. Accountability is a much-loved word in development circles because it makes donors feel safe. It holds together ideals of responsibility, attentiveness, honesty, organisation and relationship. So don’t get me wrong, I’m all for accountability. However.

It’s a salutary experience for a development worker to try to describe what accountability is, and why it matters, to a group of intelligent but semi-literate villagers. Intellectually I agree that accountability is vital. If we are not accountable, it is much harder to distinguish between dishonesty and incompetence. Bad records look like attempted fraud (and embezzlement can be disguised as disorganisation). Without it we get sloppy if we’re lazy, and carried away if we’re idealist. Accountability keeps our feet on the ground. But emotionally, it provokes very different reactions in the requester and the justifier. I see an oily shimmer, a certain oleaginous expression on the faces of funders (and donors in other kinds) that makes me yearn for a good scrub or some strigils. I find myself remembering that expression, later, and questioning their motives. Conversely, on the faces of those accounting for themselves the concentration, obsequiousness and anxiety form an uneasy alliance that is no more reassuring.

Any agency that prides itself on solidarity should be very good at keeping a respectful balance. If the receiver and the giver are both equal in value as humans, accountability should surely work both ways? Just because you the donor are accountable to the Almighty at judgement day doesn’t mean you’ve got no reporting responsibilities in the meantime. It’s an act of profound respect, equality and solidarity to give account of your work, or yourself, to people who are less powerful than you. (It also tends to be illuminating and startling, as any parent who has genuinely tried to give an honest rationale for something unwelcome to a small child will know). To expect them to be accountable to you and not to account to anyone in return may be carelessness, but it’s going to come across as arrogance.

As I tie up loose ends here in Georgetown, I’m spending a lot of time on funding and budgets. And it strikes me afresh that when funders require accountability, they should be examining themselves about what it is that they want exactly. What do they really need to know, and how will they use it? Is the information they are requesting helpful to the recipient in understanding the value of what they are doing with the money? Forms are very deadening if there is no clear reason for them.

Bid-writing, and the report-writing that follows, are so alien to any people who did not grow up hedged about with text. And when they are done, what do they prove? Apparently our Aishalton village library lends out more books than it owns, without fail every single month. Paper is no guarantee of truth, although the lies written on it can be a very useful guide as to what those reporting back THINK the donor wants. Good accountability teaches people about honesty, responsibility and the satisfaction that comes with being organised. It leaves people with a maturer organisation, or a better personal understanding of what it means to work in relationship with strangers, respecting their right to know and your own responsibility to tell the whole truth. Bad accountability is a cheap, inaccurate and inadequate substitute for spending quality, generous listening time with people, actually understanding their reality and then getting valuable feedback from them in a way that teaches everybody something. I see villagers baffled, humiliated, and often failing to get support for the real, valuable, locally-originating initiatives because they can’t articulate their way through the shiny international hoops.

Of course, if what a funder WANTS is a chance to flex their muscles, an abuse of power tidily called ‘keeping people on their toes’, then this is exactly what they will do. A funder like this will be utterly unaccountable in return. How can you tell?- ask them what accountability means and they will give you some dreck about universal standards of good practice (translation- ‘someone else says I can demand this so I haven’t stopped to think about what that means, which suits me nicely thanks’). The questions asked will be the same in Tajikistan, Trinidad, Tamil Nadu, Turkey and Tuvalu. There will be no spaces built into the process for the donor to learn anything. Their structures of accountability will be arbitrary, undiscussable and will maintain the balance of power between giver and receiver exactly as it is.

These kind of donors are the goalpost shifters. They require one set of forms and information and then add another as the previous ones have just become obsolete, sorry. They change their minds and their standards and their measuring tools; disappear, reappear and pretend everything is fine; insist on ownership and local people drawing up their own project plans, and then after months of local effort reject them because they’re not right (too old fashioned, too cheap, too expensive, too local, too international; not ‘appropriate’, which seems like a pretty fruity outsider’s oxymoron to me). This is ironic, considering that many of these funds are blood money, acquired by extremely sharp business practice or even directly from colonialism or slavery, and now being offered back (naturally in some vastly reduced proportion) as a conscience-offsetting tool. Seems rather skewed that the donors aren’t the ones on the defensive. But we all have our justifying to do, so here are your completed forms- can we please get on with the actual work now?

Friday, 8 October 2010

Will miss, won't miss, wouldn't have missed for the world

What do you miss when you leave your home behind? I have enjoyed hearing very different answers to that question from the distinctive subgroups of Guyana’s White Invaders. Gap Year volunteers select their yearnings carefully as a statement of personal identity: “I miss a proper pint of real ale/ cheese and onion crisps/ Wkd”. These are statements of self as much as statements of appetite, and tend to come out loudly and proudly. Few admit to missing their family: it takes a lot of security to announce that at eighteen. Older volunteers rather intriguingly tend to choose a statement of national identity: “I miss marmite/ cheez whiz/ moules frites/ biltong”. The posher expats miss high culture: “good bookshops/ a decent glass of wine/ a top-quality concert”. Their yearnings nearly always seem to include a quantifier.

My own missings have been very different this time round. In China in the mid-90s I was homesick, so whilst marmalade and coffee and grapefruit had me mildly wistful, it was missing family that really twisted my gut. Here, for the most part, I have hankered less. Guyana is itself. Enjoy it while you can. I miss big sensible things like exercise and vegetables (the outcome, I fear, of turning into a big sensible thing). I don’t have many belongings that I love, and even those I do (like my engagement ring) I left behind in England without feeling any threat to my identity.

But as I begin to unwind all the small roots from Guyana, I become aware, stem by stem, of losses that will hurt. Here are some of the things I will miss, won’t miss, and wouldn’t have missed for the world.

Will miss

Aishalton mornings between 6 and 8am. The sunshine is autumnally cool and effulgent. There are tiny droplets on all the flowering grasses. It’s quiet but never silent as people go about their morning tasks, and there is usually laughter floating in the cool fresh air.

The placid, deep smiles of people who have not had any truck with ambition. We carry more tangle in our eyes than we are usually aware of, but it’s only visible by comparison.

Working with our young adult trainees. They remind me joyously why I came here, and the memory of them will keep me wistful that I had to go, even when I am glad to be elsewhere.

Watching Eustace weave- that hypnotic ité green, rustling and dancing itself down into flatness. That is the best Wapishana dance there is.

Knowing and being known by pretty much everyone you meet, every day. A world almost devoid of strangers has a lot less calculation and a lot less hostility in the air. Devoid is the wrong word of course: it’s a fullness, not an emptiness.

The stimulating company of people whose culture is immeasurably different from mine. Trying to learn their language keeps that fascination daily alive.

Having the freedom to choose between a range of interesting work each day, all of it clearly valuable and worth doing. It’s invigorating even when it’s daunting.

The visual vibrancy of Guyana. I remember when I left Yushu and slowly moved out of the Tibetan areas through the Hui Muslim and back into Han China, that sense of dullness and desolation that made my footsteps leaden. Life looked so grey, physically as well as metaphorically. An English November is unlikely to be any more technicolour than I remember.

Won’t miss

The only place I said goodbye to with glee: my pit latrine.

Milk powder. Why?! You’ve got cows: don’t you know how to use them?!

Forro- one of Brazil’s great aural abominations. I never, never, never, never want to hear that relentless 4/4 major-key robotic moronic identical-chord-progression essence of tedium again in my life.

Funding bids. It’s hard to spend so much energy on interventions I don’t really believe in. There are very few people in Aishalton who wouldn’t gain more benefit from skills training than they possibly would from money at this stage (though I’m happy to be bidding with one person who will).

The wildlife usual suspects within my compound (scorpions, monkey spiders, poisonous snakes and centipedes least of all).

The feeling of artificial performance fabrics on my skin. This is how I imagine bacon feels in a Styrofoam breadroll. I am so looking forward to silk dresses, in colours other than beige, to cotton undamped with sweat, and cuffs unadorned with a sticky astringent glue of suncream and mosquito repellent.

Being so po-faced and having no sense of humour. I sometimes regret becoming moulded quite so ponderously into the shadow of my work. Taking life so very seriously isn’t always a virtue. My face actually aches after a good laugh now- my laughter muscles have literally atrophied.

Wouldn’t have missed for the world
Being taught to pick a lock by two tiny giggling nuns. Blues Brothers meets the Sound of Music (with a touch of bhangra thrown in).

The sensory richness of life in the Rupununi. At risk of rhapsodising for hours, I will just mention three examples. The indescribable green of a mango tree heavy with fat sweet mangoes and fat screaming parrots fighting each other for the best. The fireflies that flash back at lightning. The ungainly improbable lollop of a giant anteater brushing its mad feather tail through the dry crackle of savannah grass.

Watching my husband’s incremental transformation from person-with-camera to photographer.

And, in the end, rather to my surprise I find that I would not have missed any of it. Not even the scorpion sting in my sleep, not even the months of illness. Life could not be the beautiful equation it is without every element in poised relation, even the mysterious dark matter. Who knows what we would become, or fail to become, without it.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Balwant Singh Hospital

We arrive for an appointment at 8am. Sister Calista, sweet and tiny 70-year old nun from tribal North-East India, has been told by an optician that she needs a cataract removed. Georgetown is intimidating to her after the scale and comfortable sociability of Aishalton, so I and another friend accompany her.

Balwant Singh is widely agreed to be Georgetown’s best hospital. Certainly it is the smartest. The bevelled edges of the formica cupboards are painted verdigris; all the pillars and doorframes are in slightly antiqued old gold. The floor is spotless; for the first hour of morning surgery, patients are rigorously shunted out of their chairs so that thorough mopping can take place.

Like most Georgetown hospitals, there are no real appointments. You may be given an appointment time, but in practice everyone arrives together and waits until system or whim allows them in. Why? Why fill your hospital with angry, impatient and bored people when you could at least give them an appointment hour? Our appointment purports to be at 8am. Sister Calista, gentle and slightly out of tempo in the city, is trying hard not to worry. She has fasted as instructed from the previous dinner time. We wait.

There are three women on the nurse’s station. Three heavy-lidded Furies tapping their expensive talons on the desktop, handing papers back and forth with that strange receptionist’s relish of rustling nails and tactile page-turning deliberation. A tall, wealthy-looking man is waiting with his small son for the child’s broken arm to be reassessed. The boy is about five- just young enough still to have that heavy head on a beautiful vulnerable stalk of neck. The cast has been taken off just now. A metal bar protrudes from the elbow on one side, cottonwool from the hole in his arm on the other. At first he is cheerful, but after an hour or so of standing waiting for an x-ray, he is beginning to weep. Finally the Third Fury tells the father that he was supposed to pay first at the cashier. Getting angry now, he sweeps off in search of the cashier. All three Furies watch him miss the window, watch him wander around the open-plan hospital floor bewildered as the child begins to wail. They tap their talons, purse their lips, look on in something between apathy and disdain. Eventually he finds the correct window and pays.

We have ample time to watch this episode, as we ourselves are still waiting for the ophthalmologist. After only an hour and three quarters, we are ushered in. He appears extremely knowledgeable, and makes extremely fast judgements. He asks Calista questions but does not appear to wait for or hear the answers. And he responds at a machine-gun speed that I can follow but only just, with terminology utterly foreign to Sister Calista, and does not pause to see whether she absorbs it. It is like watching a Porsche overtake a penny farthing.

She would have NO idea that he diagnosed retinal bleeding if I had not been there to hear it- and I had to ask him to repeat himself three times. No paperwork is given, and there seems to be no formal procedure of patient information. It’s ‘the doctor knows best’ taken to the extreme (perhaps ‘the doctor won’t bother to explain to you because you don’t need to know’). She is packed back out to the waiting area to have eye drops which will dilate the pupil and allow a more detailed examination. But Fury Number 1 who administers said drops is busy. Upstairs. So, after repeated pleading, we wait 45 minutes before Fury Number 2 condescends to put the eyedrops in, a procedure that takes about a second and a half. After that we have to wait another hour for them to take effect. By now Sister Calista is hungry and weary and dejected, but she hasn’t yet acquired the knack of complaining in her 70 years, so she keeps her eyes shut and waits on the Lord (or the doctor: perhaps here the two are synonymous).

The facilities are good. The doctors are knowledgeable. But the atmosphere is an odorous agglomeration of high-handedness, arrogance and disdain. Why do they feel this is acceptable? My physiotherapy twice a week at Georgetown Public Hospital is conducted amidst peeling paintwork, rusty bicycles in the waiting room, elaborate filigrees of cobweb catching my eye as I lie on my back, and pungent pillows I lie upon (and try not to dwell upon) on my front. But Bernadette treats me as a human just like herself. I have an appointment which is rarely more than half an hour late. It feels like a place for people- with too many people in it, granted, but FOR them in some way. Balwant Singh feels like a medical Harvey Nichols where the ladies on the perfume counter curl their lip and pointedly hide the atomiser. I guess I’ve always found that kind of exclusivity exclusionist and rather repellent, but perhaps that’s intentional. I’m not their desired clientele. I wonder who is? The Furies look as though their dream is of a hospital with no patients at all.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Culture Revitalisation and Amerindian Heritage

Amerindian Heritage Month draws to a close with some banquets, a few sports days, lots of culture shows and an upsurge in Amerindian issues in the press. All of them aspire to a positive future for Amerindians. What that positive future might be is moot. The government want economic development. Most of the Amerindian communities have never articulated what they want. Up until last year, the motto of Aishalton’s Village Council was ‘Together We Will’. Together we will what? Now, with the Community Development Plan, at least the sentence is complete: the community decided by consensus that ‘together we will build strong healthy families, develop leadership and responsibility, sustain and strengthen cultural activities and develop skills and create opportunities’. The implementation is hard, but at least the plan is there, and came from within, and points in a clear direction.

I received an email from an Aishalton friend the other day, about an essay he is trying to help a student write on how to promote economic development that will protect sustainable livelihoods and traditional culture. This is the question that everyone is asking. It is rare to see the question itself interrogated. In 1969, describing the Orkney Islands, George Mackay Brown wrote: “The notion of progress is not easy to take root in an elemental community; the people are conservative, cling hard to tradition which is their only sure foothold and the ground of all their folk wisdom and art and of the precarious crafts by which they lived... The notion of progress is a cancer that makes an elemental community look better, and induces a false euphoria, while it drains the life out of it remorselessly”. I believe that he is on to something profoundly true here, and that Aishalton must do everything to protect itself against such cancerous ‘progress’. What ‘progress’ are they being offered from the capital? My two best friends in Georgetown, locals completely attuned to life here, were beaten and robbed at gunpoint this week, in daylight in a public place. There is little temptation for Aishalton to replicate Georgetown’s model of development, but what they put in its place is a burgeoning challenge.

Amerindian Heritage Month has been a positive recognition of the place of Amerindians in Guyanese society since its inception in 1995 by President Cheddi Jagan. But how do children learn what is of value in their culture? Certainly not from UN documents about cultural diversity. Not from school, either, or special events in Amerindian Heritage Month, despite the helpful influence all of these may provide. We accrete our identity from daily life, not special occasions. If the most powerful people I see regularly, and the gorgeous vehicle I once got a ride in the pick-up of, and every book, and all my schooling, and all of the people and the things that I admire and envy, and all of the people and things that my parents praise and ponder and aspire to for me, are associated with English and with the outside, I as a child will draw my own conclusions. I am not stupid. And I already know that what adults preach is not what they practice, and I as a child am very perceptive about where their heart really lies.

Economic development cannot pre-empt personal development in Amerindian communities. If you are not proud to be Wapishana or Macushi or Patamona, ‘progress’ will simply entice you to leave. If the education you receive in Georgetown teaches you to leave behind your ‘backward’ self and embrace a ‘real’ 21st century persona, the identity you dump will take some of your soul with it.

The Wapishana are lucky. With a sizeable population of about 7000, and several formidable, well-educated and articulate spokespersons, there is a potential for both the language and the culture to thrive. Adrian Gomes, graduate of Guyana and Leeds Universities, and headteacher of Aishalton Secondary School for eleven years, leaves his job today in order to devote himself fulltime to the revitalisation and strengthening of the Wapishana language. He intends to run literacy classes and tutor training, foster cultural preservation and creative writing, and establish new forms of Wapishana media throughout all seventeen communities of the South Rupununi. I think he might be just in time; for the last decade, many people tell me that Wapishana language and culture have been under grave threat, on the cusp of disappearing as a way of life and becoming a glamour item at special events. You know as well as I that culture is not what we wear or what we do: it is the bedrock of who and what we are. Once it dies, it is unresurrectable. And most languages die not with a bang but a whimper. This century, the world is losing an endangered language every two weeks. They simply fade dingily away, unwept, unhonoured and unsung, taking their worldview with them. Wapishana must not join the corpses.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Georgetown Newsflashes

Until moving to Geneva in 1995, I had always ignored current affairs with a combination of cynicism and village idiot insouciance. (Maybe it’s also a byproduct of growing up in Belfast during the Troubles, knowing how absurdly the events we were living were being misrepresented by the paper news). Whatever the reason, ever since my brief Economist-reading phase I have felt a trickle of responsibility to keep up with current affairs if I can.

You can therefore imagine my glee when, through no fault of my own, I can’t. Aishalton has no media except the internet, and the Chicken Shed Endurance Test would not encourage anyone to spend longer online than they absolutely have to. However, now I’m in Georgetown my social conscience is developing the familiar nervous twitch. On previous visits I have mainly ignored the papers because I find them so depressing. Not exactly a mature approach. So I decided that each day for a week I would pick one headline from the front page of one of the Guyana dailies. The only criterion of choice is that it must be the first thing that catches my eye. I will, however, also keep track of murders on the same front page, so that I don’t appear to be choosing only the worst.

This is not an analysis; just a snapshot, from a very British perspective.

Sunday September 19th (KAITEUR NEWS)


Garfield Skeete borrowed his neighbour’s horse for $40,000 (that’s two-thirds of a teacher’s monthly salary, or one off-road tyre for a jeep). When he had finished with it, he reneged on the agreement and instead chopped the neighbour with a machete. This gets six column inches: a small-fry story.

Charge- unlawful wounding. (What is ‘lawful wounding’?) Sentence- 6 months. Murders on front page: 2

Monday September 20th (KAITEUR NEWS)


Kaiteur News is probably not one of Guyana’s finer papers; I do find the poor baby in the latrine all the more poignant for the inattentiveness of this headline. There is something missing metaphorically as well as orthographically. The article itself is a more thoughtful piece on child protection and community responsibility.

Murders on front page: 2

Tuesday September 21st (STABROEK NEWS)


Seven armed, masked robbers broke into a businessman’s shop and home, severely assaulted his wife and son and threatened several more people with “big guns”. They escaped on foot with $100,000 (around £350) and some jewellery. The police arrived a few minutes later but were unable to trace them. Seven of them, masked, on foot, vanished without a trace in minutes.

Murders on front page: 2

Wednesday September 22nd (STABROEK NEWS)


The government has rejected calls by Canada and the UK for independent investigation into reported human rights abuses, including murders by members of the armed forces. In response to the UNHRC’s call, the government’s official response was “Guyana considers these recommendations... one-sided, misinformed and prejudicial”. This story gets almost a full page.

Murders on front page: 0.

Thursday September 23nd (STABROEK NEWS)


Police were responding to a domestic violence call when they recognised two “known characters” on one bicycle and ordered them to stop. When they did not, a policeman kicked the bicycle, and all three officers attempted to apprehend the suspects on the ground. One escaped completely, with HIS bag of guns: the other savagely bit two policemen before being brought under control. At first I thought ‘nab’ a strange word for a headline, but on reflection, full marks to the leader writer for choosing a verb smacking of luck and farce. Not an incident I would have selected to illustrate a triumph of policing.

Murders on front page: 0.

Friday September 24th (STABROEK NEWS)


Sandra Alli died on 13th September. Her friend Sharon is accusing Sandra’s mother and brothers with whom she lived of persistent physical abuse. The first half of the article is vague and alleges nothing, until suddenly this quotation appears: “I did not observe a dark red blotch on her right arm”, says the officer investigating Sharon’s allegations, “but noticed that her left arm appeared to be broken, as well as her neck appeared to be broken”. Only at this point do we discover that the dead woman also made extensive allegations of abuse. She died in hospital three days later. The certificate shows cause of death as “terminal cancer”.

Autopsy: today. Murders on front page: 1

Saturday September 25th (STABROEK NEWS)


Several headlines that I swithered over this week have focussed on a wealthy Georgetown business couple who have had a series of Amerindian maids. Interestingly, the entire furore has blown up around their racist remarks, not their actions. The occasion for these remarks was having their Amerindian maid removed from their home by officials responding to reports that she was imprisoned. Earlier this week the Singhs complained about the support being given to their maid by the Ministries of Labour and Amerindian Affairs (“they should not be paying her they should be locking her up”, said Cynthia). Within the week, a previous allegation against the couple of what appears to qualify technically as human trafficking has come to light. No prosecution is in train.

Murders on front page: 0

Three days out of seven with no headline murders is, in my limited experience, a good week (although sadly there are plenty on the inner pages). There are so many factors at play here, not least the acquired tone of the press, and more generally, the scurrilous sensationalism of newspapers. I’ve had this conversation with friends on three continents, and all bemoan the fact that ugly news sells papers. I can’t find any solidly based research that draws correlations between reportage and crime rates, and I’m not sure I’d trust it if I could. But the atmosphere in which we nurture a nation is surely not immune to the noxious gases released into it by the daily press? Every nation’s papers declare “This is our normality- this is real- this is what matters in the world”. Even if they’re wrong, are we sure that we are immune?

My Penarth friend used to sigh despairingly about the classic big banner headline in the Penarth Times- “GOAT EATS WASHING”. But reading the papers here for a week has left me feeling as though I am precariously balanced on a tectonic fault line. It is not the individual crimes so much as the missing framework of response. It is only in comparison that I can understand how ordered life in Britain is for most people (not all): our relatively high trust in the police, the outcry if social services fail a vulnerable individual, the accountability of politicians and public figures, and the unconscious substructure of regulations, safety nets, structure, order. It makes Britain look like a gleaming super-health-and-safety-conscious fairground in comparison to Guyana’s Jurassic Park. Please don’t think I am saying that Britain has a low crime rate (which it doesn’t), and that our social services or police always succeed (which they don’t). But it is a matter of degree, and nothing makes me as conscious of it as reading Georgetown’s newspapers.

What does this do to Georgetown society’s morale? What does it do to the capital city’s self-identity? Is it better to avoid the newspapers and risk missing the pulse of your city? Or reading from the bitter beginning to the bitter end and fighting the tug between despair, anger, blame and even shame as you try and get on with your busy life? Maybe your skin thickens as a sort of social evolution. I have noticed here in Georgetown a recurring abnegation of responsibility that strikes me forcibly in all kinds of conversations and I wonder if this news-vomit, this violent regurgitation, contributes to it. A kind of ‘disassociate or migrate’? I used to get frustrated with the recurring phrase “this is Guyana”- it sounds so defeatist. But maybe it’s a survival tactic, a refusal to inhale. The ability of Georgetowners to remain positive, creative and resilient in the face of all this strikes me as extremely impressive.

Monday, 27 September 2010


My first encounter with Godfrey was the morning after reaching Aishalton. We arrived in the middle of huge centenary celebrations commemorating Father Cary Elwes’ arrival in the Deep South Rupununi. There was Culture Show mania in the air, and where Culture Shows are, there Godfrey will be also. He had written several songs (music, and lyrics in both English and Wapishana) celebrating the occasion. These songs follow the zeitgeist of Rupununi roads- they flow with the contours, get caught up abruptly crossing a creek here and there, and meander off-road whenever it feels easier or more pleasant to do so. He has a strikingly good ear for a melody, and isn’t in the least confined by musical conventions such as a fixed time signature. He isn’t even restricted to singing a song with exactly the same tune or rhythm each time through. Which works perfectly well for a soloist, but is a little challenging for the choir, whose rehearsals take on a kind of chewing-gum bewilderment. He plays the guitar well, and the keyboard uniquely. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard ‘Amazing Grace’ played in 3/4 on the ‘auto tunes’ setting, and simultaneously in 4/4 in generous fistfuls of chords over the top? It’s a memorable experience.

Godfrey was also my first Wapishana teacher. He follows the old and trusty pedagogical method of drilling (endless repetition), but offset with startlingly complex digressions. We might learn words for fruit, for example, giving us ‘suzu’ (banana), and then Godfrey would teach us ‘suzu suzu’, literally ‘banana banana’ but actually the fork-tailed flycatcher... although Godfrey does not know the English for fork-tailed flycatcher, so a considerable portion of the lesson is spent in a describe-the-bird guessing game. We then get caught up in an exhaustive list of small brown Rupununi birds for which we now know the Wapishana but not the English. Or what the bird looks like precisely. Or what it sounds like. Let’s hope they’re mostly onomatopoeic. We never did get further than three fruits.

Both of these incarnations could be profoundly annoying, but in practice they are rather loveable because they so clearly spring from enthusiasm and the desire to create. Godfrey does everything with all of himself. It’s physically perceptible. He holds his head at a permanently engaged angle- tilted slightly to the side and back, like a walking sunbather or an expectant baby bird. Everything is wide open; his eyes, his smile, the gap between his teeth. He cannot sing or play quietly. There is a sparking and a glitter about him. If he were a Viking, he’d be called ‘Godfrey the Vigorous’.

Godfrey is not reliable in the normal usage of the word. This affects his character as a teacher; after sitting sweltering in the community centre for a few hazy afternoons, the Wapishana classes drifted off to nothing. He has recently left his stable job at the hospital, after decades, only three years before he would have qualified for a full pension. Most people scoff at that, accuse him of having no foresight, of being injudicious. I suspect that the opposite is true: I think he has taken a hard look at the future and made some big changes. He has been ill lately, and perhaps that has sharpened his focus on how he wants to spend the years he has left, and it’s not at work. I have always rated reliability highly, probably because I myself am reliable to a fault, but with Godfrey, what is reliable is his verve, his creative flux. Sure, he’d be a terrible manager, but so what? If we lose the odd beat per bar and a few words for fruit in the sparky eclectic hotpotch of a Godfrey creation, it’s probably worth the sacrifice.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Liar liar pants on fire

The other day, a lawyer called me a liar. Of course it was a joke (in self-defence at my casting nasturtiums at the integrity of the law profession), but it echoed an ongoing writing struggle that I don’t think I’ve talked about.

In choosing four Amerindians to write about for each week of Amerindian heritage month, I have begun and aborted many descriptions. First, take out the people who might read it and mind. Next, take out the venal, the drunk and the corrupt. Last, take out anyone about whom I have negative impressions on a slim acquaintance because, in my experience, it’s extremely easy to be unfair about people you don’t admire.

I slightly fear the resultant Dharma bunny accumulation. I do not want to glorify Amerindians in the way that so many people idolise Tibetans. Having lived in a 97% Tibetan town for a year, I will vouch for it that people are just people, and I believe that every city, town and village on the planet has its fair spectrum of inspiration, aspiration, ugliness and violence.

However, this is only the first, and easier, portion of the conundrum. The second is political. Guyana is, yes, a small society. On the coast everyone knows everyone, and even legitimate or verifiable criticism tends to go down like a chilli sandwich at an acid reflux convention. Double it if you’re a foreigner. Innocent of this at first, in the interior, on the one instance where I spoke unguardedly it blew up in my face like a blunderbuss stuffed with broken glass and rusty nails. I’m still picking the bits out. This limits not just freedom of speech but trust. And I can’t tell you about it.

So how can I sharpen the focus on what it is I’m not telling? I’ll give an illustration from that year on the Tibetan Plateau. The college president there is a grease of a man, who keeps his eyes half-shut to prevent their barrenness leaking into his permanent half-smile. A heavy gambler with a beautiful, silent, forbearing, unmanned wife. A heavy drinker whose favourite food is the gristly tendons from a goat’s back hock. A man who allegedly stole the whole of the college’s caterpillar fungus crop- he certainly rebuilt his house on the proceeds of something. One does not have altercations with this man; seabirds don’t have altercations with oilspills. The nearest I came was when I found a notice on a lamp-post downtown proclaiming that I would be staying for the whole of the summer vacation to give lessons in Business English to anyone who could pay (him, naturally, not me). As a VSO I was forbidden (and would also have refused) to give lessons for profit, even had I been lunatic enough to sacrifice my six weeks of hard-earned oxygen-rich air down in Xi’an. So VSO, bless them, had the altercation on my behalf. He was a significant player in that experience. My sister Ruth once accidentally made a cake with no flour in it: that’s pretty much what you’d get if I described that year without him in it.

But to a certain extent that is what I have been doing in Guyana. I have four people-descriptions tucked away that I would dearly love to load but know I never will. Cathartic to write, but Guyana will not forgive me if I make them public. Of course the contrast is partly due to the fact that almost no-one from the Tibet year can read English. But it is more than that. I think Guyana is extremely touchy about its dirty linen. Coming from a Britain where we practically compete with slagging each other off as a nation, it’s easy to fall foul of a sensitivity that is uncustomary to us. And I suspect there’s a kind of inverted disingenuous snobbery in the way a powerful country denigrates itself. I think I’ve learnt my lesson (a year ago I would have told you the Tibetan college president’s name!).
So self-censorship has run through the whole of 2009 and 2010. At one point, I actually started keeping a record of ‘the stories I didn’t write’. I look back through it now, and wonder with some amazement whether I have given any kind of genuinely evocative representation at all when I see the giant characters, the extraordinary frustrations, the pertinent and unnecessary obstructions that I have never described. It’s like expecting you to understand the dynamics of the Cinderella story with no ugly sisters and a curfew.

What is left? The truth, two-fifths of the truth and nothing but the truth.