Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Learning Wapishana

In my life I have learnt one language (Mandarin Chinese), made an effort with three more (French, Spanish and Tibetan) and had a lovely time dilettanting about with another four (Italian, Welsh, Latin and Modern Greek). Learning a new language gets steadily more fascinating as I get older. It’s so intriguing to discover what people have no need to say, how they clump some sounds, split fine hairs of distinction with others and sift out fundamentals I can’t do without. My ears need to readjust, but so do my assumptions. A language embeds its culture, and perhaps none more so than a culture that is dying.

Eleven of us are coming to the thatched community centre for five hours a week to learn Wapishana. Two are native speakers and are coming to improve their reading and writing. The rest are beginners. The teacher is a fluent native speaker, but (like many TEFL teachers of my acquaintance) knows very little about his own grammar. The primer is written for native speakers working on literacy, so it doesn’t help him at all. I am rapidly turning into the next door neighbour’s five-year-old that you always wanted to slap, with my relentless “But why...?”s.

He tries to teach us the dead ‘u’ and ‘au’ sounds that remind me of North Wales ‘y’s. But he does not mention the tiny glottal stop before every consonant which gives the language its lovely heavy-on-the-clutch-bus-driver rhythm. He teaches us a bewilderingly random vocabulary. We know the noun ‘fork-tailed flycatcher’ long before we have learnt any nouns for household objects. The verb ‘to collect poisoned fish’ comes three lessons before ‘to hear’, and we still haven’t reached ‘to do’. When I asked for the verb ‘smells bad’ to complement our newly acquired ‘my armpit’, the teacher whooped with hilarity as if I was immensely witty. In fact I was trying to make use of ‘armpit’ in any context at all, and this was all I could think of. Do I REALLY need to word for armpit so early in my language development? We also do a fair bit of learning a noun for “a small brownish bird” or two different verb forms distinguished by “well, they’re more or less the same, but you can’t use them the same, but they’re the same really”. “Is this present or past tense?” (Pause). “Both”. (Pause). “Oh”.

My favourite thing so far is numbers. Wapishana only counts up to 400, because it counts by the body. In English we tend to talk about ‘... on the fingers of one hand’, but take away shoes, and it’s logical to use twenty rather than ten as your base unit. So twenty whole persons makes 400. Over that, you just say “enough/ plenty/ many”.

One is ‘its seed’. Two is ‘with a companion’. Three, possibly my favourite, is ‘according to the number of stones under a pot’. Four is ‘each with his companion’. Five is ‘one hand’, ten ‘both our hands’, eleven ‘one toe to our foot’. By the time you reach fifty and ‘two people’s bodies and both hands more’, the words are becoming seriously unpronounceable- “Dya’utam-pi’(d)yan-nannaa-baokooka’u-powa’a”. I have never spent a day trying to learn the numbers 1-5 in a language- and failing. I love the length of time it would take you to count anything. Imagine Wapishana accountancy classes. Or mental arithmetic- that’s not mental gymnastics, that’s contortionism!

So together we struggle onwards amidst a great deal of hilarity. It’s quite likely that we will come out at the end of the course only able to tell almost any person or combination of people that they have seen a deer. We are learning from the inside in a way that isn’t at all coherent or comprehensive. But as a result we’re gaining a few precious insights into this understated culture that has welcomed us. And we foreigners hope that our enjoyment of the language, and fascination with its particularities, might give some of the disenchanted young adults pause before they finish dumping the last vestiges of their ancestral culture into a nice shiny modern trashcan.

Monday, 23 November 2009

When the Bough Breaks

Amerindian communities are often said to have alcohol problems. Before we came, I imagined that this meant some hardcore drunkards. It’s a lot more disturbing than that. I have to rack my brains to think of men in our community (over six hundred adults) whom I have not seen paralytically drunk on numerous occasions. I don’t mean giggling. I mean staggering around bloodshot with vomit down their fronts, looking like a small weary moose that’s been back-ended by a pickup truck. I can think of men that I have not seen in this state. About eight, offhand.

Locals react to extreme intoxication with tolerant amusement. There is no shame in losing control of your bladder in public occasionally. No shame in being so drunk you cannot stand up by eleven a.m. on a market day morning. No shame in giving your wife another black eye because she nagged you when you were tanked up on sweet potato hooch.

I hate to state the obvious, but opium is the opium of the people. I often think of Homer’s lotos eaters here, lulled into oblivion by a consumption that ends up consuming them. Gentle, friendly personality absorbers that disguise their winding path to damage and eventually death.

Our friendly pesky drunk is Silvio. Silvio is early forties, and lives very close to us in the valley bottom. He warmed to me the very first time he met me. Of course, Silvio would have warmed to a lamp-post in his bemused and glowing state, as long as it stood still and listened. He is always friendly and almost always beyond coherence. He is also one of the main drivers of the village tractor. The village tractor does not go very fast. This is probably for the best. Silvio took B round to photograph his wife and children, who gave him short shrift and looked absolutely murderous. I only found out why yesterday- he has no wife. He manufactured a life, perhaps to impress his new foreign friends.
Silvio died last week in a mining accident. They sluice channels through forested areas and pan gold from the sluiced mud. The sluicing undermined some tree roots, and the tree fell and killed Silvio, and a young father of two infants from Karaudarnau, and maimed several others who are still undergoing medical treatment across the Brazilian border. I thought Silvio’s liver would carry him off in another ten years or so. The last time I saw him, about three weeks ago, he was carrying a bucket of plantain wine which he vainly tried to share with me. He lurched close in, talking softly on zephyrs of fermented plantain fume. I realised he was going in for a big lippysuction just in time, so averted my face and got a wet spongy smacker on the neck instead. I just smiled and said goodbye. I’m glad I didn’t shout at him now. As if it makes any difference. I think he was a pleasant man, but already it was hard to tell who was left in there.

Friday, 13 November 2009

How Bollywood Helped Me Buy an Amerindian Boy's School Shoes

"I'm looking for a boy's black lace-up boot that fits this DVD box". Not an auspicious start. The sales assistant responds to this quixotic opener with that special Georgetown bored quizzic. I explain the situation. Raul, the gorgeous Ashley's older brother, needs a pair of black lace-up shoes or boots for school. My sizing guideline and style remit is as follows:

That's all I have. And that is how I find myself swizzling school shoes repetitively over the face of Bollywood's smiling Top 50 Golden Melodies. We decide that Raul must be a size 2 (perhaps 3 in a narrow fitting). He tells me I only have seven days to bring the shoes back if they don't fit. (The journey to check size would take 6 days and cost approximately 17.7 times the price of the shoes). We break a broom straw to length to aid us in our deliberations. We poke the various shoe and boot options. Of course he doesn't have the one I want. I end up with what I hope is a happy compromise.
The shoes are plastic and not cheap: they cost two days of Alison's wages. Weep, all ye who purchase leather shoes cheaper than this at TK Maxx on a whim. Mourn, thou who who throwest away perfectly good footwear for no better reason than that thou art sick of it. I squirm uncomfortably as I think how I would feel if I had to give my hard-earned to a foreigner who knows nothing about children's feet so that she can bring back something that might be completely wrong, just because I have not the power to do my own shopping. Isn't it ironic that the same people who have all the money, and all the choices, also get everything cheaper than the poorest? Oh, yes, I remember, that's what made America and Britain great in the first place. But slavery is in the past. Colonialism is in the past.
Yeah, right.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Trepidation, contemplation, acculturation

A year ago today, I landed in Guyana, alone and bursting with trepidation. Would this be our next home? Did I have the right balance of work skills and gumption to be useful here?

Now I sit, once more alone, in a cafe fifty yards from St George's Cathedral, the tallest wooden building in the world (allegedly). I am in Georgetown getting my head cleared out with nose drops, antibiotics and dental implements. (My sinuses and gums seem to be attempting a mail merge without the approved software). B is back in Aishalton, being cooked for, cooking and as usual being cooked. I am here allowing my head to clear in several senses, unremarkably and without haste.

It is a rare treat in any life, and perhaps more than average in the Guyanese interior, where even a "day off" unavoidably includes the usual roadie-cum-domestic servant duties, to hit 'pause' and rest. The painkillers are working, kind Claire does my laundry, and this time round I am not bursting with anything.

Georgetown looks different now. The market is a beautiful scruffy cornucopia, spilling over with juicy largesse. Catcalls and being called "baby" seem dreamily absurd, like shouting out "hummingbird!" to a rhino, or calling a spade a flibbertigibert. I wander around too smelly and clearly spaced out to be worthy of a choke and rob. The shops are funny- half of the produce looks desirable, the other half comic. Designer handbag for a year's meat and rice price? Why?!?! Next year it will be shamefully out of date, and frankly a lot of them look like a skinned camel's arse with bicycle ballbearing races stitched into them anyway.

I like Guyana's eclectic exigencies of place. Set three of us down in the supermarket, with a trolley each, one shopping for the Pakaraima mountains, one for the Deep South savannahs and one for Georgetown, and you would not believe the three trolleyloads had come from the same shop (or possibly the same planet). I come away bemused by the shop's demand that I make choices, with two cans of fish spray (death to scorpions ha HAAAA!), biscuits containing roughage for B, packet soups that I would not consider stomaching in England but which I now fall upon with a beagling Aunt Dahlia whoop, the same soy sauce I buy in Leeds at three times the price, a bashed Betty Crocker box cake for a fifth of the Aishalton price, mosquito coils and powdered orange juice. Such extravagance. Of course, I only buy non-perishables: I can't buy anything that melts (soap, sweet biscuits, fruit...) or crushes (noodles, crisps, breakfast cereal) as the bus journey back is bumpy, dusty and hot beyond imagination.

Last year I was in portentous mode. Big decisions, marvelling at the exoticism of it all. This year I am mundane in my thrills. Aishalton is home, normality, and Georgetown in contrast feels so developed that I keep forgetting I'm not in England. Buying some bad novels is the limit of my ambitions. I wonder what the relationship is between mundanity and peace? Whatever it is, I like it. I need less. I desire less. I am content with less. Or perhaps it's the painkillers talking!