Saturday, 19 December 2009

Instead of another success-stuffed Christmas Circular...

... it seems fitting to celebrate the end of this blog with an enormous, intermittently attractive, unwieldy patchwork quilt of the new experiences that have made this year so-

vivid. Remarkable. Four-dimensional. Engrossing. If it’s true that a change is as good as a rest, I must now be the most relaxed person ever to grace their hammock.

The year has held many haunting moments. Standing in the moonlight outside Sand Creek’s termite-infested church, being bitten by ants, while the ladies sang “Silent Night” to me in Wapishana and I sang it for them in German, our voices soft and unreverberant in all that thick air. Chewing, disbelieving, on my first redolent taunting Bacchic spice mango. Sitting on the balcony at the presbytery, holding B’s hand and watching his heart leak out his eyes on that strange, wrong, incomprehensible day in March. Panning for gold in the meandering and rubble-strewn rivers of my students’ remarkable Literature papers. Listening to little Ashley’s brother Hank performing ‘Wind beneath my Wings’ on Teacher’s Day, hearing the sparseness of his breath, wondering if he will need heart surgery next year, hoping so much that he won’t. Opening my mouth at the music school to explain the lyrics of “And Can it Be” and hearing my father speak. The different burn of each of this year’s four deaths. Realising I was wrong. Realising I was right. Realising I was scared. Realising I was enough.

On a sillier note, here is an offering for the list-fetishists! I’ve included the good, the bad and the ugly, but each is memorable (!) or important in some way.

• I pitied a lizard (poor iguana, condemned to steaks for nicking the haricot beans)
• Rode a hundred miles (on unsurfaced road, without stopping) in the flatbed of a truck
• Ate an egg still hot from a chicken’s butt (cooked, I hasten to add)
• Killed lots of scorpions (I didn’t pity them at all!)
• Bought fourteen pairs of pinking shears
• Lived under a thatch
• Slept overnight in a hammock in various bizarre mud buildings
• Awoke from a nightmare of a cockroach in my armpit biting me- to find a cockroach in my armpit, biting me
• Sang and danced in the Amazonian rain
• Baked proper cake in a pan
• Threw bricks at cows (slobbery washing-mascerating gits)
• Taught music, giant stave and all
• Developed a profound and affectionate admiration for a sixty-eight year old nun
• Shared a latrine with three bats
• Fell in love with mosquito nets
• Got pulled into a Wapishana dance in public and didn’t completely disgrace myself
• Got gum disease from poor nutrition
• Got an article published in a Swedish journal (random, I know)
• Awoke to find myself being stung by a scorpion IN MY OWN BED. I’m sure that’s against the rules.
• Finally acquired the art of reading slowly! Me!
• Smelt pungently of powdered black pepper and cassava, for weeks on end
• Hated horses (WHY must they scream all night?)
• Started learning an Amerindian language
• Valued my Chinese fan at its true worth
• Had my computer pooed on deliberately by a gecko. MANY times.
• Had to present my Yellow Fever Certificate at a border
• Facilitated a whole-village plan for the future
• Found a live bird-eating spider in my house (the Broscombe Court promptly condemned it to death, with Mr Broscombe as executioner)
• Failed utterly to get bored of water spice mangoes
• Gazed my fill at an equatorial sky-full of stars
• Kept a blog (never say never)
• Had my shower hut squatted in by a stubborn small snake and had to shower in the laundry bucket in my house with all the shutters closed for privacy for a few days
• Killed my first snake (the day we left). Right back atcha!
• Set up Aishalton’s first school choir
• Machet├ęd a coconut open and drank the milk straight from it
• Lost my irreplaceable friend and mother-in-law Sue

What strikes me as I write that is how creature-filled the year has been. I never realised before quite how unpopulated my life has always been by anyone except people. ‘Close to nature’ (a phrase redolent with eco-tourist mystique) smells, hurts and keeps you awake.

Has it been a ‘good’ year? Depends on your gauges. Valuable, certainly: I have gained so much- stamina, patience, exactitude. It has had some treasure moments. But I have lost some things I can’t afford too, most notably health and fitness, and a person very precious to me. A year like this tends to suffer from too much measurement. Taking stock can become a bit of a jostling stock-take when too many people join in! It’s sufficient to say that I am grateful for it, amused and bemused by how much there is still to learn. Next year I will laugh more, say ‘No’ more, fear less, pay more attention to our wellbeing. Thank you so much to everyone who has stayed with this journal: your comments were the thread that stitched the patchwork together. Without them there would be no cohering. Merry Christmas!


Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Stitching up the Sewing Project

When I last wrote about this on 12th October, the project was in its early stages. Now it is nearly complete. It's been a perfect equilibrium between intriguing, heartening, frustrating and infuriating.

All of our final visits went fairly well because I warned them in advance through handwritten notes (delivered via the usual fluidities of the Rupununi Cowboy Express) with individual’s names on them.

Some of the complications of the project were never solved. Sand Creek is still utterly innocent of any plans to build the long-awaited sewing centre. They are also the only village that complained that they did not get their fair share. ‘Fair share’, that is, of a free gift for which they had done nothing, with no strings attached. My child-id is very tempted to rush back there and rip the carefully selected supplies out of their ungrateful and petulant hands. My adult-ego recognises that it takes a lot of high-handed outside interventions, a lot of white parachutists, to create an atmosphere like that. (Still want to slap something, though!)

I have written into the final report a collaborative workshop next Spring, when two women from each village would have transport paid to come together for two days and discuss how best to run their sewing centres. I hope the funders agree to it. The village women will do a better job together than I could, going round running 'group management training'.
Village One, who passionately wanted everything, got it.

Village Two (The Privileged) got only dregs but remain positive.

Village Three got most things and will get their requested training too.

Village Four got parts to repair the existing machine instead of a new one.

Village Five got several new machines to help them create their new generation of seamstresses.

And Village Six got quite a lot and then complained.

Dependency culture is a massive curse here. In the Pakaraima mountains apparently it is even worse. Don’t get me wrong. Money is good. Donors are generous and to be applauded. But I am SO glad that I do not spend most of my time implementing funding projects! I WOULD eventually slap someone!

Monday, 14 December 2009

Invisible Privileges

Margaret Thatcher believed she had pulled herself up by her own bootlaces and she owed none of her success to anyone else. Arrant nonsense. Pull hard on cheap bootlaces and they snap. It’s one of the most pernicious threads that you can find woven into the fabric of every self-justifying perspective- the idea of the meritocracy which starts at birth, and which makes all the world’s injustices fair and reasonable to some smug git somewhere. We in a Western democracy may not be born on to a level playing field, but at least we’re on the pitch at all.

Why do we tend to believe that we deserve our blessings when we have them, but never our sufferings?

I think it’s when our privileges are invisible to us that we find it so hard to be grateful. One of the invisible privileges of life in Aishalton, for example, is that I am not ‘a woman’, I’m me, Sarah the development worker. I don’t get any hassle except the occasional smiley catcall up at Burning Hills. I didn’t even notice that as a privilege until I went to Georgetown last month.

Here are a few of the privileges that I have understood retrospectively about being a Westerner.
In Britain, I never had to perform tasks I was bad at. I missed out on the humility (humiliation?!) of playing the guitar in concerts (playing?!- imagine a cockroach running up and down a badminton racquet. 'Scritch sss- scritch sss- scritch scritch'). Of running training in fields about which I know little.

Throughout our time here, we know that we can always leave. I remember a British politician living on the minimum wage for the seven weeks of Lent, and proudly discovering that, whilst it was not easy, he could manage fine. I wonder if he kept accounts in the weeks before and after? I wonder did he buy any clothes, any furniture, any trips to the dentist? I wonder about his social calendar before and after too. I would bet that he went to at least one big public entertainment (play, opera or football match depending on proclivity) within a week of finishing that. He seemed blind to the stamina that comes with temporariness. Poverty is not primarily about limited money- it’s about insecurity and fragility, the tedium, powerlessness, debt, and most of all, a sense that it will never ever get better. I am anxious when the well runs dry, but not despairing anxious. It’s novelty anxiety.

Cheap groceries. It’s such a shock to live in a country of low salaries, in a village where hardly anyone has any formal employment, and pay AT LEAST double for every single item. 'Tesco value'-quality pop for £1.50. Rubbish shampoo that makes your hair squeak for £3. A can of tomatoes for over £1. In a way I knew this, but it’s so blatant. We watch the film “Amazing Grace” with pride, thrilled at the abolition of slavery, as though we don’t have slaves, because all of the people who make our lives cheap and simple are invisible to us.

Perhaps the greatest invisible privilege of all is that we don’t accept other peoples’ prejudices about us. Paolo Freire says that oppression survives because the oppressed collude. So did Robert Tressell in ‘The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist’. If I ever doubted it, I would no longer. Coastal Guyanese believe Amerindians to be passive, lazy, over-indulged, dependent, unmotivated and bad at everything. ‘Backward’. Many Amerindians return from Georgetown with a disdain for their culture from which they will never recover. The rest don’t return at all. But the sight of Wapishana young adults aping black DJs and tarty Brazilian dancers makes me cringe with a deeply embarrassed pity. People despise you because of your race. So you accept their superiority and copy them. So now they despise you even more. But it’s a rare person who starts down that road and ever turns back.

What do we do with this knowledge? Because it is not our fault, and we cannot fix it.

For me, the provisional answer is this. I suspect that most people are a seagull perched on the iceberg of their own lives, observing its exterior and drawing conclusions with great confidence but a minimum of information. Only the wise can be a diving penguin, seeing the iceberg’s looming hidden bulk, knowing the seen and the unseen intimately, and predicting their impact on each other. And the rarest, rarest ARE the iceberg, feeling its mutability from far inside. And maybe that’s why we in the West are not happy despite all our privilege. We even boast about being miserable. In a highly developed society, one of the great lost gifts of being human is the sheer, simple, wordless joy of not being uncomfortable, or in any pain, or there being any big thing wrong; the state of being that equates ‘nothing is wrong’ exactly with ‘everything is right’. Finding ways to be penguins or icebergs, to remind ourselves of our privileges, to learn contentment, is an obligation. You cannot have this, you cannot feel it, in a state of permanent ease. Maybe that’s why an easy life is not easy to live well.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The well has run dry

- an expression I have always used metaphorically, up to now. Our well has no water, and the rains continue to tease and flutter in the edges of our vision. But they do not come.

Today I collected shower water from the largely disused public well. It smells and tastes rusty but flows clear. My skin itches, but maybe that’s psychological. The taste remains with me, sour iron- I can smell it on my skin. It reminds me of when I was on blood thinners and had a perpetual slight scent and taste of blood from the frequent nose bleeds.

And so today I find myself preoccupied with water. Will I come out in a rash? What will I cook with, wash up with? There is no real cause for worry: I will collect drinking water from the Sisters. If necessary, I will ask the Jesuits for a daily shower at Fortress Jesuiticus up the hill. But it’s the awareness that is striking me. How many more things do I take for granted, as I have always taken water for granted? Because they aren’t really visible until I don’t have them. Is it into the thousands?

I think, properly for once, of what it is like to live without water security. Because the rusty well water I am trying to avoid is the upper aspiration for many millions of people (but how real can that be to us? Just as mortgage anxiety isn’t really imaginable to them). How will it feel to me when the ‘inferior’ well dries up? Will I be better equipped to imagine watching my children drinking filthy water, scooping out dollops of excrement before washing, swimming in a sewer? And then to imagine them feverish and ill, and knowing it’s the water that is causing it, and having NOWHERE to go to wash them clean, to rinse out their insides? It reminds me once again that Aishalton is not really poor. The other users of my well are going to collect from relatives: it’s a slightly longer walk, but they are not worried for the short term. (Water conservation for the long term is becoming a pressing issue for the South Rupununi now, though). But for those people in hundreds of places suffering from chronic water shortage, what GRACE they have, not to hate us all for our mindless privilege. How understandable when they do.

If you can have a glass of tap water that isn’t disgusting- not chilled, not filtered, not cordialled- right now, please drink one and give thanks for it.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Learning Wapishana

In my life I have learnt one language (Mandarin Chinese), made an effort with three more (French, Spanish and Tibetan) and had a lovely time dilettanting about with another four (Italian, Welsh, Latin and Modern Greek). Learning a new language gets steadily more fascinating as I get older. It’s so intriguing to discover what people have no need to say, how they clump some sounds, split fine hairs of distinction with others and sift out fundamentals I can’t do without. My ears need to readjust, but so do my assumptions. A language embeds its culture, and perhaps none more so than a culture that is dying.

Eleven of us are coming to the thatched community centre for five hours a week to learn Wapishana. Two are native speakers and are coming to improve their reading and writing. The rest are beginners. The teacher is a fluent native speaker, but (like many TEFL teachers of my acquaintance) knows very little about his own grammar. The primer is written for native speakers working on literacy, so it doesn’t help him at all. I am rapidly turning into the next door neighbour’s five-year-old that you always wanted to slap, with my relentless “But why...?”s.

He tries to teach us the dead ‘u’ and ‘au’ sounds that remind me of North Wales ‘y’s. But he does not mention the tiny glottal stop before every consonant which gives the language its lovely heavy-on-the-clutch-bus-driver rhythm. He teaches us a bewilderingly random vocabulary. We know the noun ‘fork-tailed flycatcher’ long before we have learnt any nouns for household objects. The verb ‘to collect poisoned fish’ comes three lessons before ‘to hear’, and we still haven’t reached ‘to do’. When I asked for the verb ‘smells bad’ to complement our newly acquired ‘my armpit’, the teacher whooped with hilarity as if I was immensely witty. In fact I was trying to make use of ‘armpit’ in any context at all, and this was all I could think of. Do I REALLY need to word for armpit so early in my language development? We also do a fair bit of learning a noun for “a small brownish bird” or two different verb forms distinguished by “well, they’re more or less the same, but you can’t use them the same, but they’re the same really”. “Is this present or past tense?” (Pause). “Both”. (Pause). “Oh”.

My favourite thing so far is numbers. Wapishana only counts up to 400, because it counts by the body. In English we tend to talk about ‘... on the fingers of one hand’, but take away shoes, and it’s logical to use twenty rather than ten as your base unit. So twenty whole persons makes 400. Over that, you just say “enough/ plenty/ many”.

One is ‘its seed’. Two is ‘with a companion’. Three, possibly my favourite, is ‘according to the number of stones under a pot’. Four is ‘each with his companion’. Five is ‘one hand’, ten ‘both our hands’, eleven ‘one toe to our foot’. By the time you reach fifty and ‘two people’s bodies and both hands more’, the words are becoming seriously unpronounceable- “Dya’utam-pi’(d)yan-nannaa-baokooka’u-powa’a”. I have never spent a day trying to learn the numbers 1-5 in a language- and failing. I love the length of time it would take you to count anything. Imagine Wapishana accountancy classes. Or mental arithmetic- that’s not mental gymnastics, that’s contortionism!

So together we struggle onwards amidst a great deal of hilarity. It’s quite likely that we will come out at the end of the course only able to tell almost any person or combination of people that they have seen a deer. We are learning from the inside in a way that isn’t at all coherent or comprehensive. But as a result we’re gaining a few precious insights into this understated culture that has welcomed us. And we foreigners hope that our enjoyment of the language, and fascination with its particularities, might give some of the disenchanted young adults pause before they finish dumping the last vestiges of their ancestral culture into a nice shiny modern trashcan.

Monday, 23 November 2009

When the Bough Breaks

Amerindian communities are often said to have alcohol problems. Before we came, I imagined that this meant some hardcore drunkards. It’s a lot more disturbing than that. I have to rack my brains to think of men in our community (over six hundred adults) whom I have not seen paralytically drunk on numerous occasions. I don’t mean giggling. I mean staggering around bloodshot with vomit down their fronts, looking like a small weary moose that’s been back-ended by a pickup truck. I can think of men that I have not seen in this state. About eight, offhand.

Locals react to extreme intoxication with tolerant amusement. There is no shame in losing control of your bladder in public occasionally. No shame in being so drunk you cannot stand up by eleven a.m. on a market day morning. No shame in giving your wife another black eye because she nagged you when you were tanked up on sweet potato hooch.

I hate to state the obvious, but opium is the opium of the people. I often think of Homer’s lotos eaters here, lulled into oblivion by a consumption that ends up consuming them. Gentle, friendly personality absorbers that disguise their winding path to damage and eventually death.

Our friendly pesky drunk is Silvio. Silvio is early forties, and lives very close to us in the valley bottom. He warmed to me the very first time he met me. Of course, Silvio would have warmed to a lamp-post in his bemused and glowing state, as long as it stood still and listened. He is always friendly and almost always beyond coherence. He is also one of the main drivers of the village tractor. The village tractor does not go very fast. This is probably for the best. Silvio took B round to photograph his wife and children, who gave him short shrift and looked absolutely murderous. I only found out why yesterday- he has no wife. He manufactured a life, perhaps to impress his new foreign friends.
Silvio died last week in a mining accident. They sluice channels through forested areas and pan gold from the sluiced mud. The sluicing undermined some tree roots, and the tree fell and killed Silvio, and a young father of two infants from Karaudarnau, and maimed several others who are still undergoing medical treatment across the Brazilian border. I thought Silvio’s liver would carry him off in another ten years or so. The last time I saw him, about three weeks ago, he was carrying a bucket of plantain wine which he vainly tried to share with me. He lurched close in, talking softly on zephyrs of fermented plantain fume. I realised he was going in for a big lippysuction just in time, so averted my face and got a wet spongy smacker on the neck instead. I just smiled and said goodbye. I’m glad I didn’t shout at him now. As if it makes any difference. I think he was a pleasant man, but already it was hard to tell who was left in there.

Friday, 13 November 2009

How Bollywood Helped Me Buy an Amerindian Boy's School Shoes

"I'm looking for a boy's black lace-up boot that fits this DVD box". Not an auspicious start. The sales assistant responds to this quixotic opener with that special Georgetown bored quizzic. I explain the situation. Raul, the gorgeous Ashley's older brother, needs a pair of black lace-up shoes or boots for school. My sizing guideline and style remit is as follows:

That's all I have. And that is how I find myself swizzling school shoes repetitively over the face of Bollywood's smiling Top 50 Golden Melodies. We decide that Raul must be a size 2 (perhaps 3 in a narrow fitting). He tells me I only have seven days to bring the shoes back if they don't fit. (The journey to check size would take 6 days and cost approximately 17.7 times the price of the shoes). We break a broom straw to length to aid us in our deliberations. We poke the various shoe and boot options. Of course he doesn't have the one I want. I end up with what I hope is a happy compromise.
The shoes are plastic and not cheap: they cost two days of Alison's wages. Weep, all ye who purchase leather shoes cheaper than this at TK Maxx on a whim. Mourn, thou who who throwest away perfectly good footwear for no better reason than that thou art sick of it. I squirm uncomfortably as I think how I would feel if I had to give my hard-earned to a foreigner who knows nothing about children's feet so that she can bring back something that might be completely wrong, just because I have not the power to do my own shopping. Isn't it ironic that the same people who have all the money, and all the choices, also get everything cheaper than the poorest? Oh, yes, I remember, that's what made America and Britain great in the first place. But slavery is in the past. Colonialism is in the past.
Yeah, right.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Trepidation, contemplation, acculturation

A year ago today, I landed in Guyana, alone and bursting with trepidation. Would this be our next home? Did I have the right balance of work skills and gumption to be useful here?

Now I sit, once more alone, in a cafe fifty yards from St George's Cathedral, the tallest wooden building in the world (allegedly). I am in Georgetown getting my head cleared out with nose drops, antibiotics and dental implements. (My sinuses and gums seem to be attempting a mail merge without the approved software). B is back in Aishalton, being cooked for, cooking and as usual being cooked. I am here allowing my head to clear in several senses, unremarkably and without haste.

It is a rare treat in any life, and perhaps more than average in the Guyanese interior, where even a "day off" unavoidably includes the usual roadie-cum-domestic servant duties, to hit 'pause' and rest. The painkillers are working, kind Claire does my laundry, and this time round I am not bursting with anything.

Georgetown looks different now. The market is a beautiful scruffy cornucopia, spilling over with juicy largesse. Catcalls and being called "baby" seem dreamily absurd, like shouting out "hummingbird!" to a rhino, or calling a spade a flibbertigibert. I wander around too smelly and clearly spaced out to be worthy of a choke and rob. The shops are funny- half of the produce looks desirable, the other half comic. Designer handbag for a year's meat and rice price? Why?!?! Next year it will be shamefully out of date, and frankly a lot of them look like a skinned camel's arse with bicycle ballbearing races stitched into them anyway.

I like Guyana's eclectic exigencies of place. Set three of us down in the supermarket, with a trolley each, one shopping for the Pakaraima mountains, one for the Deep South savannahs and one for Georgetown, and you would not believe the three trolleyloads had come from the same shop (or possibly the same planet). I come away bemused by the shop's demand that I make choices, with two cans of fish spray (death to scorpions ha HAAAA!), biscuits containing roughage for B, packet soups that I would not consider stomaching in England but which I now fall upon with a beagling Aunt Dahlia whoop, the same soy sauce I buy in Leeds at three times the price, a bashed Betty Crocker box cake for a fifth of the Aishalton price, mosquito coils and powdered orange juice. Such extravagance. Of course, I only buy non-perishables: I can't buy anything that melts (soap, sweet biscuits, fruit...) or crushes (noodles, crisps, breakfast cereal) as the bus journey back is bumpy, dusty and hot beyond imagination.

Last year I was in portentous mode. Big decisions, marvelling at the exoticism of it all. This year I am mundane in my thrills. Aishalton is home, normality, and Georgetown in contrast feels so developed that I keep forgetting I'm not in England. Buying some bad novels is the limit of my ambitions. I wonder what the relationship is between mundanity and peace? Whatever it is, I like it. I need less. I desire less. I am content with less. Or perhaps it's the painkillers talking!

Sunday, 25 October 2009

"Miss, what's a pavement?"

We sit in the lab twice a week, sharing our weighty borrowed purple ‘Elements of Literature: Introduction’ tomes. Every third lesson I write up or dictate one of the syllabus’s set poems from our sole copy of the anthology, and they use half our available time writing it into their exercise books.

There are seven of us, including me. I haven’t taught this form before. One boy I recognise from frequent detentions. One girl is one of our sporting stars. One has a heart defect introduced to me theologically by her mother. One came to me over the summer for a private tutorial because she was upset by her summer English exam mark. The remaining two are our scholarship students, though neither is outstanding: all six are similarly bright.

I count myself because we are an experiment (hence the lab, perhaps?). Not only has Aishalton Secondary School never had literature on the syllabus before: they’ve never had any arts options for CXC (the end-of-school public exams, which are Caribbean-wide). Students sit whatever subjects the staff are qualified to offer them. Since most are Aishaltoners who studied in this same region, the scientific bent self-perpetuates.

Despite loving reading, these students have read very little because there are so few books in the village. Most of them are regular church-goers in conservative traditions. Perhaps that is why they have such a strong instinct to view all texts as infallible. They approach each item with deference, seeking only to understand its top layer. They struggle to understand that stories and poems are authored. They want to stop once ‘what’s it about?’ is answered. And the story has absolute authority: if the moral is that it’s bad to be lazy, then it’s bad to be lazy. ‘Why?’ does not arise. And ‘how?’ is the hardest of all. The text’s plucking of your heartstrings or tickling of your funnybone is accepted, not examined. And like most students, they want to get it right. ‘Do you like this poem?’ has always been a hard question.

They also struggle with form. Take rhyme, for example. I remember realising that I’d always taken English rhyme for granted as an aural absolute, until my Chinese students couldn’t grasp it. With good reason: no syllables in Mandarin end with a consonant, so they couldn’t exactly hear the consonants as rhymes. You can’t call words with different tones rhyming, so if you said “sea” falling and “he” rising, they don't rhyme in Chinese. It wasn’t at all that they couldn’t hear enough- they could hear too much going on. How could they say whether those final consonants rhymed or not? It was bewildering. Like my friend Katy, who is so musical that she used to do really badly at exam aural tests, because when they played two notes for her to sing, she could hear all the harmonics clashing and vibrating in her head. She heard sixteen notes, not two.

I’ll give you one further shard from the tip of the cultural iceberg. We read a pleasingly understated poem called ‘Richard Cory’. I’m using deduction to help them engage with the poem, so I write it up leaving out the shock denouement. I try to explain the concept of living on the street- there is no homelessness here, and in a place that never gets cold, where people spend much time outside their house, roof it with ite palm leaves, and live on local fruit and wild meat, it wouldn’t be a very meaningful hardship anyway. I finish my explanation, feeling pleased with the general understanding, and a hand goes up. “Miss, what’s a pavement?”. No wonder I’m so keen on teaching them to read for gist... They guess with success the denouement, despite not recognising the pavement.

Despite the yawning gaps, they progress by leaps and bounds. Golda’s test poem ("rhyme 1&3, 2&4") about the Inter-House sports jumps off the page at me:

On the track I ran the three thousand metre race,
With my hands moving to and fro for speed.
The sun was very hot as it reached my face,
Falcons shouted for first place- their only need.

She’s clearly feeling for a regular metre, as well as choosing perfect rhymes. I think, all things considered, that’s extremely impressive.

Detention boy turns out to be sparky and full of imaginative flair. Sporty girl is perceptive, and intriguing when she tries. Scholarship girl is a budding actress, reading her drama parts with verve. Scholarship boy is lazy or tentative and it’s hard to deduce which. The girl with the heart defect is full of heart. Worried Summer Tutorial girl is zooming through with a great combination of originality and pleasing turns of phrase. I have no idea whether they will ever do well, but I have every confidence that they deserve to. I wonder is there room in the system to value excellence from scratch?

Friday, 23 October 2009


‘Expat’ is a heavy word. For most of us, the baggage it hefts is negative. Volunteers generally despise expats. I think insulation is the main reason. Expats to them are people drive from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned office in an air-conditioned jeep. They bring home with them, thus neatly preventing ‘abroad’ from having any chance of becoming their home. Their privilege maintains an imbalance (of goods and power) that makes it very hard to form real friendships. So they become ghettoised. I guess they find their unfreedom to walk unmolested through the streets a preferable state to living like the locals. And their ghetto is usually companionable and comfortable, and not packed with searching questions or eyes.

But do I stop being a foreigner myself, just because I despise the expat lifestyle? Just because ‘all my friends are local people’ does not mean that they view me as one of them exactly.

There are two kinds of books that fill me to overflowing with rage. One type I mentioned previously: “Grapes of Wrath” or “Cry Freedom” paint injustices that act on me like caffeine. My pulse quickens, my throat tightens, I leap and dash. The Chinese have a fantastic word for stimulant- ‘ciji’ –which combines the word for thorn with the idea of energy. That’s it exactly.

But the other kind is a book so vacuous, so glib that I’m filled with disgust, and a burning desire to slap someone. I have just finished reading an American publication called, simply, “Expat”. If you are unpleasantly racist about Americans and seeking evidence to support your bias, buy it immediately. Such a collection of solipsistic, arrogant, smug, incapable, narcissistic, racist, self-satisfied, neo-colonialist, unresourceful, judgmental, pitiable fools has not been seen together in public since the British Raj tea-parties in the late thirties.

The majority of the women speaking through this volume moved abroad to write. Perhaps they hoped that being somewhere more interesting would make them more interesting. They move to exotic foreign locations such as Belfast and Liverpool, as well as Bangladesh, Mexico and China. Most are pre-Copernican in their belief that the central drama in the lives of the foreigners they encounter is their arrival. There are four main kinds of story: comedy (‘Aren’t they absurd?!’), pathos (‘It’s really really difficult being abroad’), righteous anger (‘They should be like us!’), and the most honest: autobiography (‘Look at me! Look at me! Look at MEEEE!’). The majority seem to gain no self-knowledge from their experience.

Take one instance. A young woman spends a year in China, and writes a story about trying to cook a chicken. The obvious thing to do is to make it funny. Nope. One might suspect that the hapless foreigner unable to do basic tasks would be the butt of the story. Nope. She begins by being disgusted by the market, is then disgusted with her oven, and finally gives up and THROWS AWAY A WHOLE CHICKEN. This should be a parable about spoilt brat waste, not a biographical account of a life abroad. The terrifying thing is that I think she hopes we will empathise with her. It does not occur to her to boil the chicken. Or make stock with the chicken. I am particularly struck that in walking down twelve flights of stairs, presumably past 24 flats or so, it does not occur to her to GIVE THE CHICKEN AWAY! She throws it on the rubbish for the rats. Or “perhaps the wispy-haired homeless woman who searched the trash pile daily would make her a meal”. Fortunately, she had the foresight to wrap the rubbery carcasse in a copy of the Washington Post, so if the homeless woman was disorganised enough to have no cooking appliances handy, she could read some good quality American journalism instead.

Did she never once look inside herself and wonder whether Qingdao’s refusal to adjust to her bore any relation to her refusal to adjust to Qingdao? Did she ever wonder if the disappointed expectations extended further than the market and the oven manufacturer’s? I wonder if the homeless woman despaired of (or indeed noticed) her?

I suppose everyone who writes does so in the hope that people will feel. But these women all seem to write in order to encourage the reader to clone THEIR reactions. Most remind me of the tidy blonde girl in the primary playground, mocking in a piping voice those who can’t do the newest skipping game, arbitrating primly on acceptable shoe style, and squealing to teacher if you step out of orthodoxy in any way. The best stories are the anxious ones. Four out of twenty-two recognise that it might not be reasonable to expect the country to adjust to them, rather than them to it. Most striking of all is the narcissism. They are greedy. I am flicking through again, desperately trying to find one who isn’t unquestioningly hoovering up all the benefits to themselves. Yes, there is one- the one who goes mad and goes home.

I am checking in the honestest bit of my head. Yes, embarrassed though I am to admit it, I can see the ‘Look at MEEEEE!’ in this blog. I can see the pathos too. But I can truly say that I write to try and bring Aishalton into your room like a vapour; sights, smells, occasions, particularities. I think I am more interested in you imagining Guyana than imagining me in it.

I am an expat here, whether I like it or not. I do not belong and never will. But that brings its benefits. We all need sympathetic outsiders sometimes. Aishalton already has plenty of bright, committed, interesting locals. They don’t need any more. They accept me for my good intentions, my hard work, for some useful skills I might bring, and BECAUSE THEY ARE KIND! To be an outsider and not resented is a lovely abnormality, not a divine right.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Planning the planning for a Community Development Plan

People here don’t plan. Why?- all sorts of good reasons, most of them subconscious. For folklore, Kanaima is a kind of Amerindian demon in mufti that is to blame for pretty much everything that goes wrong. Kanaima plays havoc with cause and consequence. For farming, Wapishanas are used to a pretty abundant nature and a growing season that lasts all year, though of course best in the rainy season. For history, Amerindians are inured to making the best of arbitrary outside powers with absolute control. Theirs is a story of tenacity, avoidance, tracking runaway slaves and handing them over to the Colonists, and disappearing into the forest whenever disappearance was the best option. It’s a history of powerlessness. Someone else writes the story, and the Amerindians get to make decisions only about the fringes of their lives.

How do you plan? Not a question we even ask ourselves- we just get on with it. We make lists, think ahead, and balance our personal priorities with exigencies like work and mortgages and family. We plan in a context of choices. But what if we had never had much choice, and never really expected a future that’s any different from the present?
More interestingly, why do you plan? To take control of your life, of course. To make the most of the time and opportunities you have. Ay, there’s the rub: time here is cheap and plentiful (in the weedlike rather than the bountiful sense), and opportunities rare and intimidating. And even if you do plan, Kanaima or a new government strategy or a big NGO will come and mess it all up for you.
When I told my boss about my hope of running a Community Development Plan with Aishalton Village Council that involved every adult in the village, he sent me an extremely witty reply with the following image attached:

It made me chuckle, but I think he’s got an interesting point. Real community participation sounds like communism to British people, not democracy. Why? Because we are on some deep level actually rather smug about our bastardized, warmongering, unconsultative proto-fascist pseudodemocracy. In fact, we are way past democracy- Britain generally (judging by most of the mass media) is too interested in celebrity, acquisition and getting drunk/ fit/ fat/ slim/ rich (delete according to penchant) to have much time spare to notice how our country is being run. When we do notice, we despair or despise, as if that’s enough. I think I shall call this political system ‘slobmocracy’.

So I go to meet the village council to discuss the proposal. At first I am overwhelmed by the negativity. Gradually over the first hour it dawns on me how dominant and insulting my proposal seems to them. I come from a place where the facilitator designs the process, so I have offered them a whole framework. They come from a world where high-handed outsiders lay down the law and expect them to be grateful. They want control of the framework. Over the second hour, we had some good discussion of what the village might need, and decide to go ahead with a first ‘pre-plan stage’ with a group of key stakeholders.

I had thought I was starting at the beginning, but to people here I seemed to be diving bizarrely into the middle, right into the thick of things. I had started by thinking about what the plan should contain. But no- go back a step. What needs to be planned for the plan? Go back another- who has the right to decide what needs to be planned for the plan? Not me, as the Village Council point out! Go back a third- who needs to be consulted about how to plan for the plan? Go back a fourth step- whose permission needs to be asked to plan for a plan in the first place? And go right back to the beginning, and start properly- should we have a plan at all?

So this is where our first stage begins. We hold a three-hour discussion between 24 of us. We work out what constituencies exist in the village, coming up with 28. I particularly enjoy the questions- do people who own ten sheep prefer to be called ‘ranchers’ or ‘livestock owners’? (The latter). Are ‘traditional knowledge holders’ the same as ‘culture experts’? (No, they’re all different people). Are ‘fishermen and hunters’ a subset of ‘farmers’? (No). Why are there no elders or Wapishana-only speakers here? (Silence). And we write a focus question together with everyone contributing: “What strategy and systems do we need to implement over the next 3-5 years, to turn our vision for Aishalton’s future into a secure and vibrant reality? How can every group contribute to and benefit from Aishalton’s development?”. OK, I admit that it’s two questions. It’s not concise, and it’s not smooth. But we reach a genuine consensus, and that’s remarkable. Perhaps the most potent force in the day is the sense of taking control. This community has a good quotient of clever, distinctive, thoughtful people. They can do a great deal if they put their collective mind to it. But they are also pragmatic realists- why on earth would they if there seems to be no point?

Sitting at home alone, nervously waiting for the first meeting to begin, I suddenly remember a quote from LaoZi that I used at the World Social Forum:

Go to the people.
Live among them;
Love them;
Learn from them;
Start from where they are;
Work with them;
Build on what they have.
But of the best leaders,
When the task is accomplished,
The work completed,
The people all remark:
‘We have done it ourselves’.

I tremble at the privilege of being a part of something with such potential in this community. Facilitators so often get in the way. I am fortunate that it was pointed out sharply to me by the Village Council that I was NOT starting where they were. But now I think we are building on what they have. Amen to LaoZi. Do I have a cat’s chance of proceeding with such humility and grace? Death to slobmocracy. We might as well try.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Treasures of film

Right. Not enough people are making comments. You’re all being far too sensible. I’m currently devoting all my efforts to community participation, and you are going to be the victims of my enthusiasm. So here is a proper singalonga blog entry. “Join in, everyone, Kumbayaaaaa....”

I love that each of us is a little world made cunningly. I love that I and you are unique dishes, sweet or savoury, made up of the ingredients of our past, our character, our attitudes, what we have heard and read and seen, and every huge and tiny thing that has happened to us. It isn’t just love and work and living on different continents that make me what I am- it’s Annie Dillard, and my primary school teacher Miss Moore, and chocolate buttons, and Philip Larkin’s ‘Born Yesterday’ too. And for me, my sense of humour and romance and wonder has been heavily influenced by films.

B and I were watching Amelie the other night and I thrilled again at that wonderful opening, where people are introduced not by their jobs and relationships, but by what they like and don’t like doing: that sensual hand plunging into the sack of beans, the hoover nuzzling into the handbag’s grubby corners. So much more intriguing. Such potential for delighting in people’s oddities.

Is it just me? I find myself remembering (and quoting annoyingly from) films often when an incident amuses, angers or impresses me. The funny thing is, it’s not necessarily from favourite films- it’s those genius single ideas, sometimes right in the middle of a heap of old tripe. So I am going to start with ten of my absolute favourite film moments, and then I hope you will add yours in 'comments' and make us all laugh, sigh, or discover new film treasures from each other.

Heart-stoppingly romantic
The end of “A Very Long Engagement”. The only war film I have ever loved. It holds such difficult emotions and macro/ micro views together. But that final moment: “and she looked at him, and she looked at him, and she looked at him...” – I choke up now remembering it, and I only saw it once, years ago. So many war films brutalise the viewer, because that is easier; to be true to war and yet retain a sense of hope, that’s fragile and fantastic.

Most depressing
There are whole French directors’ oeuvres vying for this crown. I am going for the final death in ‘Manon des Sources’, where I very nearly managed suicide before the numerous characters did. It’s one of those films that I know I should think is brilliant, but actually has me paging through the Radio Times looking for re-runs of ‘Allo Allo’.

Vicariously satisfying
“Groundhog Day”- the insurance salesman, Ned Ryerson, played by the incomparable Stephen Tobolowsky (best ever date scene too, in Sneakers- “breakfast- shall I phone you, or nudge you?!”). Bill Murray in his endlessly repeating day, slowly developing coping strategies for Mr Infuriating, right up to the smile, the bright “Ne-ee-ee-d Rrrrrrrryerson!” and the magic fist. Ahhhhhhhh! The day the Snappy Comeback comes true.

You’ll never see reality the same (frivolous)
The tannoys at the beginning of Airplane, where the white zones and the blue zones get into a war of supremacy. Oh, and the cult members with their flowers. Oh yes, and the drinking problem. For such utter candyfloss, it has remarkable staying power. I never have seen an airport terminal in quite the same light.

You’ll never see reality the same (serious)
The night scene in Morecambe Bay in “Ghosts” by Nick Broomfield. I guess it’s hard to ignore migrant labour here in Aishalton, with our population vacuum between 16 and 40. Chinese illegal migrant workers in the UK are the tip of the iceberg. Every time I pay £3 in Aishalton for a bottle of rubbishy bargain VO5 shampoo which is 99p in Superdrug, I become more uncomfortably aware that we in the West are ripping food out of the mouths of the poorest and their children, with our subsidised lifestyle. The sad thing is that the film has no answers, and neither do I. Blame globalisation, sure, but who IS that? The buck stops on peoples graves, not in the pockets of the rich. Maybe we can’t do much, but we have to do something for somebody, anybody, or despair will cauterise us. Yes, it’s that kind of film.

Best musical moment
In Amadeus, where the brat Mozart is sparkily describing the slow movement from the Serenade for Nine Winds to Salieri, and that clarinet is followed by the oboe soaring in as if life can never go wrong again, promising to solve and satisfy and set unchangeably in order, and Salieri understands that this man cannot be outshone- he can only be crushed.

Most cringeworthy
John Clees in almost anything, but I do have a soft spot for 'A Fish Called Wanda' ’s love scene where the flat owners arrive back with their small children to find him naked, brandishing dreadful Y-fronts, and he recognises them from high society, so they chat brightly about garden parties, gymkhanas and small worlds whilst all but the children do an emperor’s new clothes. But to be fair, it’s also hard to beat the moment in ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ when she asks the Afrikaans champion swimmer sympathetically, ‘Are you black?’.

Most brilliant gift
I don;t think there's any contest for this one. 'Stranger than Fiction'- the “I brought you flours” moment, when he makes his declaration of love to the baker.

Most intriguing film facelift
‘The Philadelphia Story’ mutating tidily into ‘High Society’. A story of a woman with a brain and tongue like caustic soda divorcing a violent alcoholic, turned into a pretty musical with a saintly pairing of Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby. Butter would definitely not melt. Sixteen years previous, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart and Cary Grant sizzle dangerously. Post-McCarthy censorship blandified zingy hot sauce into sweet ketchup.

Best biopic
‘Il Postino’- what a brilliant ellipsis to have a biopic of Pablo Neruda where he isn’t the main character. He appears and later vanishes, leaving lives altered, but not mattering absolutely. How much does poetry really matter? Is the main character right to act on it? His wife certainly doesn't think so.

So there's some from me! Your turn!

Monday, 12 October 2009

The South Rupununi Sewing Project

About four years ago, a Jesuit here drafted up a funding bid for sewing in the South Rupununi. He requested money to buy sewing machines for six villages, so that local women could make their children’s uniforms at cost, and also earn a little income to support their families. The Austrian Women’s Day of Prayer responded generously, and the funding arrived last summer, two years after the Jesuit who requested it had left Guyana for good. And so it sat for a year, cogitating, while the current personnel wondered what to do with it.

Sounds tidy, eh? What’s not to like? A neat little development project which will benefit local women, and we can all feel satisfied and benevolent. But people change. Circumstances change. Village governance changes, and with it the dynamics and stresses in communities. Sewing can be politicised just as any resources can. In a world with as few systems as this one, which may sound like bliss to any vaguely left-wing psychoanarchists out there, it is almost inevitable that personality clashes and power dynamics dominate every group, and get their own way more often than not. There are six small villages named in the bid, and six big complications that thicken the plot.

Having visited one last month, we spent the last two weeks travelling round the other five villages. [Complication 1: the messages radioed ahead arrived as a particularly inventive Chinese Whispers]. All but one clearly need some kind of support, but their needs are different in each place. The bid was imagining sewing machines, not nuanced discussions about pinking shears, pattern books and paltry human resources. [Complication 2: in all but one village, sewing machines have appeared from other sources, so let’s hope the donors are feeling flexible, as buying more machines wouldn’t make much sense].

Of the six centres in the bid, two already have sewing centres. [Complication 3: two of the villages claim they are about to build a sewing centre. They also said so back in 2005 when the funding was applied for. They haven’t. Will they?]. The village we visited last month was given everything they needed to build a new sewing centre, and it is already half-built; halfway through, their only chainsaw broke and they have to cross the border to Brazil to get a new part. [Complication 4: half of the money was spent on this one village before I got involved, leaving one half to go into fifths, which sounds rather like too many children and not enough cake].

I said two villages already have sewing centres. [Complication 5: one of these actually has TWO sewing centres! One is Catholic and one falls under the village council. I’m here with the Jesuits, so who gets the money? Both centres assume that they are the appropriate recipient].

This leaves three. I take along my little form, and talk through my little chart, but people are bewildered by choices. I ask about their priorities in several different ways. “What do you find yourself needing here? What is frustrating about sewing in your village? What supplies are hard to get?”. No reply. “If I dropped you in Georgetown with $100,000 for your sewing centre, what would you buy?”. Confused silence. “If we were only able to get you one thing, what would be most useful?”. Blank stare. This applies even when the marvellous Ivy translates into Wapishana for me. In one village, I finish my meeting, leave the women to chat and then come back half an hour later and ask if they want to add anything. They blurt out that what they really need is training on how to run a centre- how to manage their money, how to keep tally of supplies, what to lend and what to give away and what to charge and how to form a committee. This does not come within the project in question. I might be able to help later, off my own bat, but will I have the time, opportunity or permission? I still don’t know.

And two of the villages prove disheartening company. [Complication 6: a bright and dynamic young member of our own village council said to me today “It’s a problem we Amerindians have. We wait. We lie back in our hammocks and wait for someone to come and fix things for us. We don’t want to work for ourselves. Some of our people are like that.” Apathy lurks at the bottom of every bottle of parakari, rises off the Department of Education paper with your CXC fails listed on it, sneaks in the door that closes behind the next white person who had parachuted in with the answers to all your problems].

To summarise. Village One wants everything (that’s the easy one). Village Two has everything and wants more (token gestures will have to do). Village three needs everything but actually wants training. Village Four wants a new machine instead of repairing the existing one. Village Five wants to create a new generation of seamstresses. And Village Six is torn between wanting supplies and having no-one who cares enough to use them.

I look back over the visits and see all their faces once again. Brenda beaming, showing off the little skirts and trousers they have made for their sewing centre fundraising event. Vivintia tight-lipped and solemn trying to choose priorities in the face of all that need. Edwina doughily determined not to understand a word I say. Toshao Arnold talking enthusiastically about converting a half-finished mud and thatch building outside his office into their new sewing centre. Saydan bright with excitement about the sewing training she has just been booked to deliver in WaiWai territory. Ann biting down frustration about yet another woman dropping out of the free training she was due to begin the following week.

How to be fair? How to split the money? Will it really make a difference to anyone? It’s like living in the textbooks I studied for my Development masters. Will the sewing projects be sustainable? To be honest, I do get rather sick of donors banging on about sustainability- why on earth should it always be possible for villages to sustain projects when the donor pulls out? Do you think they were just being LAZY, not finding the resources themselves in the first place? In which Deus’ Machina is the money going to float down when a community has so little they are thankful to feed themselves?

If I thought that donating money was the best way to help, I would be a management consultant with a lot of standing orders. But certainly the money is needed. I just feel even more strongly now that the money needs to be in hands that live close to local people, that lived there before the money arrived and stay after it is spent. Among all the challenges of working for the Catholic Church here, the biggest plus is their commitment. The Jesuits have been here for a hundred years- they are not going to pull out when the money is spent, or huff and leave when it doesn’t change people’s lives to their exhaustively researched satisfaction. The developing world is not a problem to be solved. We are all ball-bearings in a Newton’s Cradle- sometimes a harmony, sometimes mesmerising beauty and sometimes a battle. The sewing centres will follow their path and I will follow mine. The Austrian women have taken action to make someone’s life better, and so have I, and now I will try to support them in making use of it rather than bossing them into a pseudo-perfection which our own efforts did not attain.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Ask anxiously for whom the bell tolls

It is 6:45a.m. and I am up to my elbows in soapsuds when I hear the tolling begin. The church bell (acetylene tank) is struck briskly for meetings, slowly for deaths, one strike for each year of the life ended.
One. Two. Three. A long pause. Four. Five. Each time it pauses out of sequence I draw a sigh of relief that it's primary school age. Not one of my students, please God, not another one from the secondary school.
Thirteen. Long pause. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Long pause, dragging and dragging, until I accept that it's not going to be struck again. I drop everything and trot out of the house, up the hill to the sisters, heart in my mouth. Let it not be a student, please, let it not be. The sisters will know, they always know every bit of news.
And of course they do know- they found him. Little old Bernard, alone in his house, dying of fever and old age and his hourglass simply running out. Sister Goretti saw him the night before, and when two of them drop in in the morning to see how he is doing, they find him cold. No-one knows his exact age, so they strike just long enough to announce an adult death.
Mainly I feel relief. How good that he had company on his last evening. What a blessing that he was found quickly, early the next morning, before the predators could take over. How GLAD I am that it was no sixteen year old. But I also feel stretched, tugged somehow. The deaths I have encountered over the last two years- my father, Michael Hinds with his bike accident in March, B's mum Sue, and then Jude's suicide in May- have all been tragedies. Too early, too mysterious, too agonising. No-one is traumatised by Bernard's death. There is no-one to mourn him. Is that a good thing? Is death's rightness imaginable? I'm so used to the raging against the dying of the light, or the indignant sanctimony over an unmourned grandparent (as if the acceptance of death is an outrage), that I do not know how to appreciate this Wapishana pragmatism.
I think none (or very few) of us comprehend that we do not really believe we are going to die until someone close to us does, or we receive news of our own potential death. Maybe the memento mori isn't morbid at all. Perhaps when we accept the rightness of death we can say "In the midst of death, we are alive".

Thursday, 8 October 2009

To boldly go where John Steinbeck has gone before

There is such spiced, luxuriant pleasure in realising within the first few pages that the book you have just started is a treasure chest. I’ve been sulking at John Steinbeck since “The Grapes of Wrath” put me into days of agonised rage bitterer than I had known since early childhood, when one of my sisters stole my favourite toy and convinced my mother it was hers. Injustice slit me like razor blades. I was angry, so angry I couldn’t sleep. I blamed the book. Now I look back in awe at a novelist with such moral power, but texturing so confidently and with such restraint that I never heard his voice.

Now I find that my lambent moments are perfectly described in ‘Travels with Charley’. If you haven’t read it, get to the library now.

OK, now you’re back from the library, let me tell you what intrigued me so much. Steinbeck reckons that the breathless long droplet of a lambent moment, when past and present and future collapse into one, can only happen when you’re alone. I described lambent moments as those times where you can’t tell if it’s poetry, art or life that is so beautiful. Where time abolishes sequence, and ‘no’ and ‘maybe’ are powerless and a moment holds you in thrall to ‘yes’.

I have never seen this described elsewhere, until now. I feel simultaneously gazumped and comprehended. On the whole, it’s a lovely feeling. To boldly go unawares where great feet have trod is affirming as well as deflating. A view is not necessarily spoilt by signs of habitation. I’m not sure he’s right that one has to be alone though- my lambent moments bring their bubble walls with them. I become alone even if I’m not physically. We walk the valley of the shadow of life alone, as well as the other one.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Rupununi Couriers

There is a fantastic poster irony at the Aishalton Administration Building. It is an information flyer for the National Post Office. It advertises their wonderful range of services, and gives new postal rates, with a phone number below to find out more. It is carefully laminated, and displayed in the lobby of a town with no postal service and no telephones, landline or mobile. I seem to be the only one who chuckles.
When I was in primary school, I remember a short story about the Pony Express. I’d always had an instinctive pro-Indian bias in the playground games: injuns seemed to breathe a musky potential, whereas cowboys evoked gung-ho cloddishness- what B would call ‘seat-up kind of guys’. But this was different. The wild but controlled dash to get news to the farthest reaches. Sensible derring-do, that seemed laudable; American rugged individualism, the hard graft of the American Dream.
There’s an element of the Cowboy Express in the system here. Every vehicle becomes a post van, every motorbike a Rupununi Courier. We all carry what we can, and most items seem to arrive at their proper destination too. You may remember that Guyanese post is fraught with trauma; this is much simpler. Under the ‘proper’ post, friends from here cannot pick up a package for us in Lethem, the nearest post office, even if they have a letter from us authorising them, so picking up a ‘proper’ parcel would cost us ten hours in time and probably $10,000 in fuel. On the other hand, under the informal Rupununi Courier System, people trust you with fragile and terrible responsibilities, most of them not sealed. I haven’t been asked to carry a baby yet, but it’s certainly not out of the question.

Travelling round the villages in recent weeks, we have had our first proper experience of being Rupununi Couriers.

From Karaudarnau we return with a package for the District Education Officer, two important handwritten forms for the church, of which of course there are no copies, and a splitting black plastic bag of clothes (with a treat of cream crackers peeping out) for Roy’s little daughter at Aishalton Secondary.

From Dadanawa we collect a small box for a patient in Aishalton hospital, and a young Amerindian man in need of a lift.

At Achawib, the headteacher hands me a $1000 note to give to his daughter who is in my choir, with strict instructions to buy flipflops with it, NOT snacks. We also bring back one small boy for the school, and one large and quite new Brazilian bicycle which a woman had borrowed to cycle from Aishalton to Achawib with her baby on her front in a sling- a whole day’s journey.

The least straightforward errand is at Sand Creek. We have been asked to bring back a photograph of a boy who was operated on for his cleft palate in January. He was due back to the hospital for a check-up some months ago, but how can parents even consider the expense and complications of the seventeen-hour journey when it’s not an emergency? Little Peter Jacobs comes out of nursery school with his teacher, takes one look at B and bursts into the most heart-rending sobs.
Peter waiting to be dragged away
We had not stopped to think, but B looks (very, by local standards) like the R.A.M pilot who took Peter away from his Mummy those months ago. He naturally deduces we have come to take him away. I could kick myself hard for a thoughtless idiot. B had the brilliant idea of getting all his classmates out for a group photo, so he slowly recovers his composure. I suppose I now have a glimpse of what it’s like to serve a subpoena. (I speak to his mother, who says that the scar does not pain him much, but when he eats hot food it leaks through the little hole at the top of his scar, under his nose, and hurts him). We eventually leave without Peter, but with several photos and a flatbed full of coconuts.

Peter reconciled, looking most fetching in my hat

It all sounds rather charming; a kind of grapevine-cum-underground railroad-cum-giant family. And often it is. But think how much power resides with the vehicle owners, who already had the clout of money behind them. If I was a local person, I would struggle sometimes, having to place my trust and my urgent errands in someone’s hands simply because they have more power than me already. It’s a place where rights are not sufficient. What use is it to me if I have rights to freedom of information and freedom of movement, but not much possibility of either? The Rupununi Couriers carry a big responsibility, whether they are conscious of it or not.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Deep South Games

You’ll want James’ photo album up in a different window while you read this!

The only fitting equipage in which to arrive at the Olympics of the South Rupununi is in a flatbed truck. It is dark when we load up the Bandeirante, a true bandit of a vehicle. Into the flatbed go the two bench cushions, requisitioned from a minibus in days long gone by. In go the buckets of snacks and flasks. Into the spare tyre goes Sister Leonarda. The rest of us perch on the bench cushion, all lined along the right-hand side because one of the bolts is gone from the spring-leaf suspension on the left chassis. Last of all, in comes a heavy, dumpy wooden flight of stairs, for easy ingress and egress. B climbs into the driver’s seat, “Grrrrrmph” grumbles the engine, and we’re off, just before 6am. They say a prayer on leaving, with a lovely unselfconsciousness. We sing to the sunrise, voices juddering and jerking over the bumps. We stop off for a picnic after an hour and a half of rectal lobotomy, and complete the journey in good spirits, arriving at about 8:15.

The Deep South Games are in their thirteenth year. The seven communities of ‘the Deep South Crescent’ (Aishalton, Awarewaunau, Maruranau, Shea, Karaudarnau, Achawib and Parabara) participate, and the winner hosts the games the following year. So this year Maruranau was the venue. The event lasts for six days, of which five are for imported sports (volleyball, football and cricket) and one for ‘cultural activities’. As if that wasn’t unbalanced enough, they call the imported sports ‘The Games’, and the last day ‘Indigenous Day’. What could be totemic risks being tokenistic.

The Games themselves are enjoyable of course. The opening ceremony is set for 9am, and by a feat of unparalleled organisation, it actually is. Maruranau’s Toshao, Mr Patrick Gomes, is head of the District Toshao’s Council and a man of great presence. (He’s also generous: he lent us his outhouse to sleep in, and later put up the Peace Corps volunteers too with no prior warning). Grass skirt for culture and microphone for modernity. Alcohol for sale all day to keep the visitors happy and boomed commands to pick up rubbish all day to keep the locals happy. The opening ceremony proceeds with the obligatory local dance, done with great dignity by older women brandishing excellent home-made maracas. A skinny giant white person lopes through it all, oozing around as unobtrusively as he can.

The teams then parade out. Our banner-carriers get dressed up in traditional Wapishana costume, just for the march. No-one ever wears this now except for cultural shows. Our sulky sultry young man is told sharply to remove his gangsta-style heavy chain and put on a traditional necklace instead. He wears his traditional dress hipster-height to show off his CK boxers. The feather headdress suits his smooth young face. All in all, it’s a profoundly telling outfit. The girl wears lycra shorts below the skirt for modesty; traditional dress doesn’t cover much.

We (Aishalton) have been preparing quite seriously for these Games. The footballers have been out training at 5:30am each morning for weeks, the volleyballers at 4:30pm for a couple of months now. The 8th August heats for the cultural events were hard-fought too, and for the most part impressive. We’re determined to do well.

We are ready. Our elegant young Aishalton ladies troop out to their cricket match looking the part, trim and fit. The barren and dusty crease is ready, after half an hour of brushing with a pointer broom. Here come Maruranau. They stomp out to the wicket heavily, barefoot and dressed in matronly skirts. But as it turns out, Maruranau is peopled by Valkyries. These valiant stout ladies should be running the world. If the gap at Thermopylae had been filled by those bosoms, the outcome would have been altogether happier for Leonidas. Those breastplates shining in the sun, those smiles, would have had the Persians fleeing for their lives. They excel in the element of surprise- no-one could ever be ready. And then BAM! – they smack that ball like a child’s worst nightmare clobber round the back of the head and they’re OFF. On the wings of song (perhaps Flanders and Swann). Fleet of foot, doughty and dainty and so, so fast. I hear the hoods in the back of the stands laughing in disrespect, but I’m laughing in delight. They acquire 97 runs in 20 overs without extending themselves at all.

With the Games complete, Indigenous Day takes its turn. I can make it sound dreamlike. I can zoom in close and show Eustace Martin’s face, patient and timeless, blowing smoke and then fire from tinder. I can charm you with Valerie’s speedy spindle, and fill your eyes with the rich gorgeous colour and flicker as the speed weavers race their ite leaves crossways and crossways into baskets. Or I can step back and show the emptiness at the edges of the wide angle. Fatima running in bare feet from the Awarewaunau boundary to win the long distance race against no-one. Rosana cycling alone to ‘win’ the bike race. Every single female archer failing to hit the target with all three arrows, and having to move them closer to winnow out a winner. Only three out of seven villages entering the arrow-fletching contest; two in the young people’s spinning race. And over it all, pounding Brazilian music. At the edges of every prospect, men stupefied with alcohol; staggering, dancing or down and out. Or I can speak with pride; of Aishalton’s many victories, and of their presence in every event. I can describe their triumphal return to Aishalton on the tractor, blowing horns and banging things, waving their trophies, brown-skinned and beaming and beautiful in the sunlight.

Overall we won. So next year, the Games are in Aishalton. And for the first time, there will be a planning committee with representatives from each village, so participation should be up. Maybe some trends are reversible, and the Games will be able to nurture a new generation of Wapishanas proud of their culture, and increasingly expert in its ingenuities. Maybe next year we’ll end the Deep South Games with an Indigenous Day that is not its colourful fringes but its crowning glory.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Virtually attending a Wedding

“It is only the beginning of a journey”, I tell myself with a sniffle. “One cannot always be there to see people off”.

Stephen and Sarah’s wedding day, four thousand eight hundred and twelve miles away. How can I mark the day auspiciously? Should I dress up? Should I go and stand outside Aishalton’s empty church at the appointed hour? Or find a white butterfly to throw confetti at? My stiff upper lip is at a loose end.
The wedding is almost ready to begin. You stand front right, waiting, nerves stretched tight as a harp. Stephen. I remember the undersized purple shrimp pocketed in a frail elbow. Two days old and still losing weight, four pounds twelve I think you were, and a peeled grape of tiny squeals. For some reason I remember vividly the bad eighties haircuts round the bed. Helen’s mullet, Philip’s loose perm and tight jeans. Esther’s exhausted face and dark (scared?) eyes. That was the last time I remember you looking helpless. You were an adored little thing, the beadiest most heart-rich smile 309 Whitewell Road ever saw.
I have a wonderful recording of you as an eleven-year-old, accent thick and chewy as liquorice, saying “So, am I going solo on this tape or what?” and a dry-as-dry-ice adult voice in the background drawling “Just carry on, Stephen”, as you entertained me strangely (far away in the Chinese desert) with jokes about corks up doggie’s bums. I never saw a child so suited to the epithet “irrepressible”.

As the readings sound out, I remember you reading at my wedding, almost two years ago. 1 Corinthians 13, the naming of love’s parts. Your strong accent somehow turned those adjectives into commands. I see my father’s face, heart-shaped and pointed with illness, the black eyes clinging on to you, averted for just a moment from the shadow of death. Seeing himself in you, hearing himself in the certainty and clarity of your voice. Profoundly and unshakeably proud of you. I exhort you with those words now. Love IS patient, it IS kind. It is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. Never forget, both of you, that love does not just aspire to these things. It IS these things.

The ceremony finishes. “Splendid!” booms the organ. I am in the back row, standing by the aisle as you leave the church. As they throng you outside, I take you in my arms, and tell you everything I wish for you. My heart for your happiness, my smiles for your joys, my teeth gritted in sympathy with the difficulties, my stomach clenched with the pains, my hugs for the coldness and my tickles and Monty Python for the dullness. I share a warm and excited hug with your bride. And as you leave the reception, amidst a big goodbye, for the first time on your wedding day I am akin with all the others. We all say farewell and continue on our diverging paths.

True, it is only the beginning of a journey. Not all is lost- I have not ‘missed it’. I am seeing your wedding through a glass darkly. And you both know that in a sense I was right there with all the others, seeing you off in style.

Friday, 11 September 2009

A cockroach in the mug is worth two in the mind

Today's 6am shock. Need I say more?

("The cockroach says "We are such stuff as nightmares are made on, and our little life is rounded with hatred and insect repellent".)

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

An interview with Paul and Taise

I met Taise first, back in March, huge baby Pius slung on her slim hip. But since then I see them often, working in the Sisters’ garden in return for food or some money. Paul attended a summer education programme and is now avidly interested in computers. Both of them come and look over my shoulder as I send emails in the chicken shed.

[Did I ever describe our internet access? It's redolent with Bond-esque subterfuge. Enter a grubby old shed, press one button and a huge bank of high-tech gadgetry rises from the floor, all dials and levers and gleaming chrome, as behind you a lake drains away to reveal a giant satellite dish. Actually that's not true- enter a grubby old shed, bring your own laptop, plug in a blue network cable and hey presto, satellite internet as long as it’s not too cloudy or stormy or otherwise inclement. Our shed is peopled with modem, wheelbarrow, chicken feed which is subject to ongoing chicken raids, leftover cardboard boxes, handwoven reed bags, fuel in huge drums, broken equipment, wistful hungry dog, dead car batteries, fish drying, laundry buckets, a vast collection of pointer brooms and two worn truck tyres.]

I am not sure how clearly Paul and Taise understand the reach of the internet, but their short online chat with my sister Naomi about a month ago made a big impression on them. They asked me to put them ‘on the internet’ so you can all read about them. When it came to the crunch, however, they were tongue-tied.

Paul and Taise with the church bell

There are eight children in the family. Paul is the fifth and Taise the sixth. (See for some of the others).

Paul says "my favourite things are fishing and reading. I love reading storybooks bad". Taise loves playing with the Sisters’ table football. When I asked what they think is the best thing about Aishalton, Taise said that Aishalton has jumbies- she couldn't think of a compliment. Paul said Aishalton would be best by keeping our village and environment clean. He thinks the best things are going to school and coming to church, but Taise interjected indignantly he doesn't come to church as much as she does.
Both of them like school. Paul's favourite subject is mathematics, but he likes all the work. When I asked about dislikes they weren't so sure, but Paul doesn’t like the floor when the dust is blowing in his eyes (the concrete was recently re-laid but it's powdering up to oblivion). Taise says "I like reading and drawing. I like the hot meal. But I don't like when people fighting me. Paul does fight me sometimes".
The difficulties in Paul's life are the exams at school, and the cows that come into the compound: "and I have to chase, and it be hard, and my hand is blister", he said, showing me his small brown callused mitt. Taise's hardest memory is when she went to Kayu’s birthday and got left alone in the dark. Neither of them mention the gardening, or hunger, or looking after younger siblings. These are the fabric of life, not the negotiables.

When I asked "If you could change one thing in your life to make it better, what would that one thing be?", Taise immediately answered "A dolly". Paul said "By not fighting when they calling me by names at school (like jumbies they calling me)". Oh, and a toy gun.

The last question is a hoary old chestnut: 'What would you like to do in the future?' Paul says he'll train to be a police and stop people fighting. Taise wants to train to be a nurse.

So what is their message to the world, via the mysteries of the internet?
Paul tells the world to stop fighting and stop drinking.
Taise says stop playing jumbie.
Both Paul and Taise are intrigued by the idea of the world outside Aishalton. But from a life of knocks, they are canny and cautious. They aren't taking too much as read in the fact/fiction department. If you have any reply to them, please leave a comment below this blog, and I will pass it on.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The road goes ever on and on

Thick dust boils up behind us in a dry foam, barrelling inward in grey-white plaits, like the swirls the beater leaves in half-whipped eggwhite. We are in the plank flatbed of the mini-truck on our way to Lethem. Minutes pass like hours, hours like dreams. We reach red rubbly trail, hard-crimped into vertebrae by work machines. I can feel the road’s spine in my own: mine compresses in sympathy, one vertebra shorter at the end of the six-hour journey than it was at the beginning. I remember on a previous juddery journey, trying to explain to a local lady about Slendertone. She wasn’t even amused: paying for excess vibration is the last word in absurd.

A family hitch a ride with us. (I think Percy only picks up people he knows, but he knows everyone in the Deep South so that doesn’t cut it down much). The three of them sit in the spare tyre: father heavy and pugnacious, mother slim and pert in her ‘No more autographs, I’m far too busy’ t-shirt, daughter ravishing with her perfect skin and first lost tooth gap, hat carefully aligned. I warm to the dad when he places his fat leg carefully along the tyre’s rim to hold his lovely ladies comfortably in place as we crash and bump along. The last time I rode in this flatbed was on the way to the August Games, with all four sisters. They truly ride in style: a double thickness bench cushion, a huge picnic and a set of wooden steps for climbing in and out, which would be a bit of an Everest for their short legs.

On the way to the Deep South Games

Pure white shocks the eye in two places. Great egrets perch ridiculously in the tiny sandpaper trees, dwarfing them, like an eagle roosting in your tomato plants. A massive, perfectly white cumulus cloud bulges over half the sky. This cloud was certainly not washed in a Guyanese machine. The grubby scuds in the foreground look more in place; the shoddy and mungo of the cloud world. Shortly after this I relish my glimpse of a peccary in a puddle, a hairy-hog waller.

Ironic that you’re all driving around good roads with your fantastic lumbar support, and here, where it would be most useful, we don’t even get a seat, and crash around in the back of an open flatbed, if we’re lucky enough to get a ride at all. The nearest thing I have to a cushion is my ipod, my tiny time machine that rescues me from too much reality and fills the engine roar with stories of other journeys, other cowboys and horses, other lives being lived differently.

He couldn't photograph the butterflies so took a cheeky zoom of me watching them!

Beauty assaults us twice more. At each creek is a swarm of small yellow butterflies, plain and blunt like cabbage whites. They flutter up in shoals as we drive through. And once, near the end of the journey, a raucous stag party of macaws rises up to flaunt and roister at the top of the tallest ite tree. B is tortured by the juxtaposing of suspense and a complete lack of suspension. The camera cannot cope with the truck’s tremolando. Photos blur, the view blurs, the hours blur until all that is left is the road’s spine and mine, and the miles still to go.

The disastrous macaw picture- there's a limit to what even Nikon's vibration reduction can do!

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Fruit Anxiety

This is my name for a psychological condition I and several others suffer from in Aishalton. It applies equally to vegetables, but I think ‘Fruit Anxiety’ has a better ring.

The anxiety begins the moment you arrive home from the market with fruit or veg. Shall I put them in a plastic box? The cockroaches won’t get them, and there won’t be a haze of tiny flies infesting my kitchen. But soon the box begins to sweat. Condensation forms and begins to flow. The fruit begins to rot, and then collect moulds of every colour except the expected one. Marrow?- red, with a damp grey and white beard. Bananas?- hoarfrost with green edging. Onions?- a treacle-like substance with red tidemarks. Potatoes?- blisters, oozing, with a foul smell. Papaya?- boils (you don’t want to know). Tomatoes?- grey and exploding. Pumpkin?- blue, fading to white and bushy. Mangoes?- first speckled like a leopard, then oozing, then white. All of these occur at an improbable time-lapse speed.

Hmmm. Maybe not the plastic box. Cardboard?- can’t get cardboard here. Out on the table in a bowl? Covered in cockroach bites in the morning. Hanging in bag from the kitchen shelf? A haze of tiny flies grows and grows until you dread entering the kitchen. So I go back to the plastic box, drying it out twice a day (sometimes washing and drying the fruit and veg as well). This means that I become a rot, mould and pest policeman. And if I let my attention slip for half a day, it’s too late. Either the fruit or the kitchen is festering. It is hard to find time to work amongst my foodstuff-policing responsibilities.

The anxiety level is roughly double if the fruit or veg in question is a gift. Fruit Anxiety means that the gift is greeted with a mixture of joy and dread. Added to the frustration of waste is the guilt of scorning generosity: literally throwing juicy pearls before swine, gifts gone to the dogs. I do get some tiny satisfaction from seeing the Infuriating Sleep-Destroying Cows munching vile slimy marrow beard, and a kinder consolation from feeding chickens lovely fruit that is too over-ripe for me but ambrosia to them.

Thus fruit and vegetables become our masters. Their presence demands activity and military planning. Fruit Anxiety is clearly a disorder of many facets: obsessive-compulsiveness, single-issue fixation, ingratitude, and a disordered attention to food.

There are two ways to protect yourself from Fruit Anxiety. The first is to have trees or vegetables in your yard, and only pick things minutes before eating. The second is far more popular among Amerindians- live on meat and farine. It may not be a balanced diet, but at least you retain some mental equilibrium!

Monday, 24 August 2009

Lambent moments

There’s a wonderful scene at the beginning of the film “Before Sunset”. The hero is sitting in a bookshop in Paris, the final stop on his book tour, deflecting critics intent on plundering his secrets. “What really happened?” they ask. He tells them instead of his next book, a book enclosed within the infinitely expandable bubble of one single moment. The moment is something like this: a man watches his young daughter dancing on top of a table, torn between loving admiration and protectiveness- wanting to tell her to take care, to get down. Simultaneously he relives a moment in his past with his first love: she is on top of a car, dancing, and the air is heavy with possibility. We, the knowing audience, see the moment he is embroidering, or even remember it from “Before Sunrise”- there is no car; she is dancing in the street in the dawn half-light to the music of a basement harpsichord. It’s hard to tell who the fiction is for- himself, the critics, or the love of his life hovering unbeknownst outside the window, waiting to be rediscovered. What ‘really’ happens?

Lambent moments. Where you can’t tell if it’s poetry, art or life that is so beautiful. Where time abolishes sequence in favour of serendipity. Where ‘no’ and ‘maybe’ are powerless and a moment holds you in thrall to ‘yes’.

Preparing to start teaching a literature course at Aishalton Secondary, I read poems all afternoon. It has been a long time since I did this. The poems have a strong Caribbean bias. Some are good, many not. At 5pm, sated with issues clumsily disguised as art, I transgress and traverse off-route to Derek Walcott. It’s a poem about his father’s death and the power of words. Beginning slowly, his pellucid perfections seep into my mind, follow the heart’s arteries to the brain. I can hardly bear to continue reading, because if I do, it must end. As I finish I stumble out into the evening sun, stunned with perfection. All is quiet. A cow rips grass, an old friend of mine, sunlight gilding its ear hair. It provided the iconic image in November that I sent to all my friends announcing our move here. Curled horns, white hide, huge almond eyes. Even now, when Aishalton is unremarkable ordinary home, this beautiful cow is exotic. Everything coexists for a long breath- the hopes I had then, Derek Walcott, my father’s vividity, the beauty of equatorial evening light, the cow’s breathing, the purpose of our presence here, poetry and love, stupefaction- and then I exhale. Return to the house, dazzled, needing to cook dinner before the light fails.

Lambent moments. I guess we all have them. I guess they expire if we are too busy to notice. They might be treasure. We might be paupers without them.