Saturday, 11 July 2009

A solidarity of small things

Once upon a previous lifetime, i.e. in Brazil six months ago, I wrote about solidarity. I wonder what you think about when you hear the word? I used to think rallies. Lobbying MPs. Sit-ins, protests, marches. They are all images of struggle. My subconscious thesaurus had solidarity firmly in the activist category- solidarity and oppression as obverse and reverse.

Here in Aishalton, we recently attended a consultation on the Guyanese government’s low-carbon development strategy ( After studying all that development theory, it was fascinating to see a ‘grassroots consultation’ from the small end of the microscope. It took place in the secondary school where I have been teaching. Two female government ministers, some environmentalists, Amerindian organisation representatives and facilitators flew in on a specially chartered plane. They proceeded to wilt and sigh their way through an exceedingly hot five hours on the town’s most comfortable chairs (carried up the hill from the Government Guesthouse on the heads of dormitory students), sipping Mount Roraima mineral water and garnering what breeze there was while the rest of us crammed into the body of the school on the children’s benches and regretted not bringing drinks. I wonder if they found themselves sympathising with the children who would sit exams here that same week in hotter weather, on harder chairs, with ‘papers’ written up on a blackboard fifty yards away. Perhaps I am being unfair to suspect they were too preoccupied with strategic thoughts or their own momentary discomfort to ponder the children’s daily reality. Our ‘consultation’ lasted five hours, of which all but twenty minutes was presentations from the front. Many of the local villagers, the bulk of whom left formal education at fourteen or younger, saw the discussion document (57 pages, including appendices, of fairly technical language) for the first time when they arrived that day. Heartfelt congratulations to those who managed to digest the gist, cogitate the debate and respond with aplomb. At four o’clock our Consultors dashed back to the airstrip in a regional government jeep, clutching smart handbags, face powder compacts, high heels and participatory legitimacy to their hot and smartly dressed bosoms. Those left behind variously smiled and chatted, talked positively about the message of the strategy and grumbled about tokenism, insufficient preparation and the authenticity of hasty and information-poor ‘informed consent’.

It’s a strange solidarity we feel here. The solidarity of wondering which battles to fight and which to concede in pragmatic powerlessness. Of walking off to the outside toilet in the rain at midnight. Of operating with a quarter of the information you need for every decision or discussion. Of smelling of pepper-sweat and mould and ripe socks. Of day after day after day of ordinary Aishalton life. Of laughing immoderately at mildly funny jokes. Of living on whatever you can find to cook, alternating between repetitive and experimentally weird. It isn’t grand or portentous. It expresses itself as much in the things you choose not to say (“In the UK a teacher would be sacked for doing that”, “Let’s get an NGO to send us lots of money!”, “how do you LIVE with all these biting insects!”, “No, I do not enjoy eating cassava every day”) as in the things you do say.

Tomorrow we have a meeting with the Toshao (village leader) to discuss the LCDS in preparation for the President’s meeting with all of Guyana’s 134 Toshaos on 20th July. Our Toshao wants to know which questions to ask. The old adage “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” springs to my mind. The Toshaos cannot meet beforehand, to discuss and then present a unified perspective. This is their biggest and best chance to be heard, and many Amerindians in Brazil or Peru would be astounded to be accorded such a moment, but it’s a hamstrung opportunity, circumscribed by so many things. It’s an Aishalton chance.


  1. Fascinating Sarah - the gap between reality and theory. SO glad you are there and it is wonderful to hear your thoughts on life as it really is on the edge of our consciousness. Tokenism and top down dictats, not so different to many parts of the world, including here, but somehow it seems much more raw in your conditions. Keep going. Mary

  2. Brilliant Sarah, this should be required reading for the Copenhagen summit thingumy in December, could it be printed out and sneak it with the travel brochures, catalogues and sick bags in the delgates' luxury jets?