We visit Shea briefly. It is about three hours from Aishalton, the end of the north-east ‘road’. We have left behind the relative prosperity of Maruranau here. The walls of the houses are cracked. Gaps between mudbricks ventilate friably. The tracks are overgrown. Rubbish scars the grass, turning wildflowers into weeds. Nevertheless it is beautiful. Shea rock broods, shadowed by the slanting evening sun. Its gigantic black mass is articulated against the distant mountains. Unexpected friendly faces pop up everywhere- “Miss Sarah” recognised from school, Father Amar known and loved by local Catholics.
Headteacher Pernambuco’s house is one of the smartest. We park the jeep and pick our way through cow bones and long weeds to the front door. The house is concrete, painted green, hemmed in by thick clusters of banana palm and cassava. We sit outside, in the shadow of the house. The chairs are all full; I choose to sit on the gas bottle. The headmaster is an imposing man. He looks massive (my eyes judge height in context now, so I see a 5ft 6” man as tall). I’d guess he’s 5ft 7”. Confident, unsmiling, with the hook nose and lidded eyes of the smaller falcons. He tells us a bit about the school, which teaches years one to nine (5 to 15 years old). Many parents do not want to send their children all the way to Aishalton for secondary. Children are important for farming and housework, but perhaps most of all for childcare of the younger offspring. Parents will walk three hours to their farm and stay for a week, leaving the babies with a ten or eleven year old. A nine-year old boy who cannot cook at least something is the butt of jokes. A nine-year old girl who cannot look after a baby independently is unimaginable.
We hear a sudden animal whine. Headteacher Pernambuco looks uncomfortable. “My father had a child outside” he says. “She’s disabled. I didn’t know her till he died. Now she lives with us”. I wonder at the maths- his father still sowing wild, damaged oats in his fifties. We comment that it is good of him to look after her. I ask if she is physically disabled or learning-disabled. “No, she’s mental, you would say, mental illness, I mean she’s mad. I’m trying to send her to Georgetown. I can’t take care of her here. If she was just mad, I would keep her. But she’s awful violent. You can’t leave the little ones with her. It’s not safe.” I ask what age she is, expecting an epileptic child. “23 or so. No-one knows. And she messes all over. If she could use the toilet...”. Round the corner she comes, pushing through the crowding banana palms. Skinny, short hair, nimble. Her eyes dart. She sees us and begins to approach. He rises and tells her to go back. She is chewing something. She puts a hand over her mouth, extends the other boldly, like a forceful panhandler. Her skin is pale brown and perfectly smooth. Short curly hair, no expression at all, except perhaps a trace of wariness. He moves towards her, implacable and large. She backs away, then turns and darts off. Somehow she gives the impression of controlling the situation. He returns to his chair. “She eats the banana leaves just so. The plants, she rips them out. And she’s very violent.” I find the dark allotment oppressive, the air somehow depleted. I want to leave. We talk for a while about places that she could be sent- Guyana is not rich in institutions for people who are in good physical health but tear at children, defecate everywhere and eat gardens. Father Amar promises to contact the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s sisters, who may be able to look after her.
Shortly after this we take our leave. They press on us vegetables from the garden, a huge pumpkin and a long marrow. They are generous people, heavy laden, matter of fact about their one burden too many. As we drive away, we do not talk. I cannot get them out of my mind- the big family, already weighted with responsibilities in a poor village, bequeathed a violent and mysterious young stranger. Someone is securely locked in that slim curly head, fighting, no-one knows whether to get out or from some implacable malcontent of another kind. Who is to care about her when they cannot know who she is?