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.