Sunday, 10 May 2009

“I can see what B's been doing- fantastic photo journal, but you Sarah, an awful lot of linguistic doodling going on- where's the bloody work!?”

Thus Cath (for any of you who haven’t met her, think one part Lamborghini, one part caterpillar tank a la James Bond driving through Leningrad in Goldeneye) gently reminded me that I have not said much about work. Since her message I have started teaching full-time- You might have read about my first day of school already- but I'm only filling in between Jesuits-in-training: another should arrive in time for next term.

Rather than trying to describe the hallucinogenic patchwork quilt that is my evolving job, I shall let events tell their own story, and just describe three meetings that have taken place so far.

Meeting 1: planning group for the school fair

“I’d like you all to meet Sarah and James, who have kindly agreed to come along and help us plan the fair”. We went on to assess how many cartloads of firewood would be sufficient for the catering, who had the contacts to hire a tractor, and whether enough warishis and matepis would be on the craft stall. None of these are exactly our strong suit. There were already twenty games in preparation. The ladies had worked out how much profit they would make out of the foodstuffs they could transform into snacks (38,755 dollars out of the 70,600 total value).

The fair went on to make $220,000, up on $150,000 the previous year. Our sole contributions were B's raffle suggestion, and my abject begging for prizes from Georgetown friends. We were about as much use as the berries on the Whitey tree!

Meeting 2: inauguration of the new Toshao

We arrive at the old community centre at 10:05, hot (both) and flustered (just me). The meeting had started on the dot. The old Toshao, in a striped football shirt and trousers he made himself, is handing over leadership of the village to the new Toshao, in his Ralph Lauren chinos and polo shirt.

They have begun by introducing the Peace Corps volunteers who arrived a few days previously. We missed it. We arrive just in time to ‘say a few words’- about what I still don’t know, but I wibbled and B smiled and no-one booed, so that’s good enough. Next we’re on to the main business of the meeting: handing over. I expected ceremony, but in fact it’s inventory. We start with plant- one village council office, containing the records, library, insecticide sprayer, 2 large cooking pots, one chainsaw and 6 machetes. One library, containing guttering, 20 bags cement, 4 large water tanks, 1 plane, 2 hacksaws and 5 chisels. One large zinc-roofed community centre, unfinished (to be completed with the fittings in the library). One small thatched community centre, in which we are holding this meeting. One women’s centre with gas stove. One community kitchen without. We then move on to other assets. The village cow man was asked to bring the herd for the outgoing Toshao to count this morning- 47 of the village’s 52 cows were present. (We know from a previous meeting that the village’s herd of pigs was driven out because they were making a nuisance of themselves, eating people’s vegetables and getting drunk and disorderly on the rotting mangoes. Unfortunately, they have either been pig-rustled, eaten or sought better prospects, so none remain to speak of). Three cooking pots, of which one has been borrowed and not returned- a plea is made. Two cassava graters, currently on Beverley Winter’s farm. A tractor with broken arms which belongs to the whole region.

[Sorry, I just have to interject at this point. I am watching in horrified fascination as a moribunta over an inch long grooms itself fastidiously on the end of my bed. I can see its leg markings, the gradation of thickness on the wings, all its MANY joints. Eugh. It looks like it could take me down in hand-to-hand combat without batting a well-groomed eyelash. I could write a whole new Gulliver’s Travels, entitled ‘Pygmy in the Giant Zoo’ or something. Let’s have the Lilliputians’ perspective for a change. Life here is a constant swap between ends of the microscope.]

After a few more intriguing items are listed, we have the treasurer’s report. He lists all assets, starting from the smallest (a fund of $12,000- about £40). As each is listed, it is produced, either in a plastic bag, an envelope or a rubber band. The largest is the recent government grant of $1,446,950. (It cost the outgoing Toshao $53,050 to collect it). Even in thousand notes, that makes a large block. The village decides that the new Toshao should count it on the spot, along with the second-largest chunk, a fund of $120,000. The large sum is right. The smaller is not. Discussion ensues. The matter of the discrepancy is left to the council, the treasurer persuades the Toshao to keep the large sum in his (concrete) house, as the treasurer (in his wooden house) fears for its security, and a strong consensus emerges to get access to a safe to deposit the money. The nearest bank is 5 hours away in good weather, and often completely inaccessible in the rainy season. Someone stands to say that the government office just opposite the village council has space in their safe.

At this point everyone’s bum is completely numb from nearly three hours on low hardwood plank benches, and some of our brains are numb from all that Wapishana, so the meeting proceeds around town to check the assets visually before the new Toshao takes over. The day ends with a cook-up for the whole village provided (and paid for) by the new Toshao. It runs from 5pm till the wee hours, and we see everyone we know there except the priests.

Meeting 3: Bid-writing for the Nursery School

Nursery Schooling is compulsory in Guyana. Primary schools receive money to provide a hot meal to the children each day, but nurseries do not. So the Nursery PTFA (parents, teachers and friends- I love that!) is taking matters into its own hands and seeking external funding. We spend two and a half hours together filling in a loooooooooooong form with narrative and broken down costings. James and I meander, charmed, round the school.

I find myself strangely moved by the Big Books, many of which are hand-drawn. B is particularly taken with the alphabet- ‘A is for armadillo’- that classic way of mapping the ordinary which is such good shorthand for cultural difference. I type, while May, the headteacher, answers the question ‘Why is the project necessary?’ as follows:

“The children at this nursery school live as far as 6 and 7 kilometres away. All the children walk to school. Many have eaten their snack before they arrive. They currently have nothing to eat between arriving at school and reaching home at the end of the day. Very few of their parents have formal jobs, and therefore cannot provide more food for their children. This project would ensure that the facilities exist to give them a more balanced diet, and enough nutrition to perform better in their schoolwork."

Her tone is matter-of-fact. The big books had already softened me up- my eyes fill with tears.

So there’s the bloody work. Sorry this entry is so long, but I wanted to answer Cath’s question to her rather exacting standards! We’ve spent 20 days in Aishalton so far, and I haven’t told you half of the work we’ve done. I’ve just written a term’s scheme of work and planned all of next week’s lessons, so the Smugness of the Swot is Settling upon my Supercilious Bonce. My pre-arrival question, ‘is there a role for us here’, feels farcical now.


  1. Cath is very cheeky!! You are incapable of doing anything other than hard work!!

  2. Sounds like extremely hard work, especially in the heat. The Amerindian group I visited in Brazil was called the Tuxa (pronounced Tusha). I wonder if there's a linguistic connection? Is your Wapushana really up to meetings? I'm impressed!

    I'm not sure cheeky is the word for Cath, is it? I like the caterpillar tank comparison!

    A is for Armadillo! Brilliant!