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.


  1. what an experience sarah!! and your writing is SO evocative - as always, I feel like I'm living it. don't see where i'm quoted (but that's DEFINITELY a good thing as your way with words leaves me frantically running to catch up.

    love keeping in touch with your adventures sarah. between your words and james' pictures it becomes an almost visceral experience. be well my friend and fend off the loneliness that always lurks in the shadows. you are both doing a wonderful thing

  2. Well I was just trying to catch up and feel like I have been on a refresher course in mythology and cultural history. As ever, a remarkable account Sarah. Winston

  3. I think Sarah's knowlege may well exceed that of the average blogger so here is some clarification.
    Leonidas was a 5th century B.C. Spartan military king who bravely led a small force of Greeks -- mostly Spartan (the famous 300), but also Thespians and Thebans -- against the much larger Persian army of Xerxes, at the pass of Thermopylae, in 480 B.C. during the Persian Wars. According to Herodotus, Leonidas had been warned by the Delphic oracle that either Sparta would be destroyed or their king would lose his life. Leonidas chose the second alternative.
    All the Spartans and Thespians died, including Leonidas, although Herodotus says the Thebans had never wanted to be there and surrendered when Leonidas was killed. The Persians mangled the corpse of Leonidas.
    Winston xxx