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.


  1. Very poignant. I have no idea what the answer to the alcohol problem is, just as I have no idea what the answer to our social problems here are but am glad to have heard about Silvio.

  2. It is midnight here and again our worlds intertwine on the net. A sad tale this time Sarah. Sad that several are able to rise above this ha habit. You alude to the different alchoholic home brews. These must always have been available through the years? why are they being abused now? See you soonish Win. P.S. As always, you report is brilliant

  3. Yes, can you tell us if this has always been the case or if it is a post-colonial phenomenon? I would also have thought it was confined to a few hardened cases; to hear that it affects virtually everyone, and so severely, is a big shock. Web searches on Guyana generally mention gold mining and alcoholism as twin scourges, so I had wondered if this was true for your part of the world - and now I know Aishalton is not exempt. In a way though I'm almost glad you didn't write about this before; it shows that you have found so much else to write about other than the negative stereotypes of the community's problems, even if those are based on fact.