Saturday, 19 December 2009

Instead of another success-stuffed Christmas Circular...

... it seems fitting to celebrate the end of this blog with an enormous, intermittently attractive, unwieldy patchwork quilt of the new experiences that have made this year so-

vivid. Remarkable. Four-dimensional. Engrossing. If it’s true that a change is as good as a rest, I must now be the most relaxed person ever to grace their hammock.

The year has held many haunting moments. Standing in the moonlight outside Sand Creek’s termite-infested church, being bitten by ants, while the ladies sang “Silent Night” to me in Wapishana and I sang it for them in German, our voices soft and unreverberant in all that thick air. Chewing, disbelieving, on my first redolent taunting Bacchic spice mango. Sitting on the balcony at the presbytery, holding B’s hand and watching his heart leak out his eyes on that strange, wrong, incomprehensible day in March. Panning for gold in the meandering and rubble-strewn rivers of my students’ remarkable Literature papers. Listening to little Ashley’s brother Hank performing ‘Wind beneath my Wings’ on Teacher’s Day, hearing the sparseness of his breath, wondering if he will need heart surgery next year, hoping so much that he won’t. Opening my mouth at the music school to explain the lyrics of “And Can it Be” and hearing my father speak. The different burn of each of this year’s four deaths. Realising I was wrong. Realising I was right. Realising I was scared. Realising I was enough.

On a sillier note, here is an offering for the list-fetishists! I’ve included the good, the bad and the ugly, but each is memorable (!) or important in some way.

• I pitied a lizard (poor iguana, condemned to steaks for nicking the haricot beans)
• Rode a hundred miles (on unsurfaced road, without stopping) in the flatbed of a truck
• Ate an egg still hot from a chicken’s butt (cooked, I hasten to add)
• Killed lots of scorpions (I didn’t pity them at all!)
• Bought fourteen pairs of pinking shears
• Lived under a thatch
• Slept overnight in a hammock in various bizarre mud buildings
• Awoke from a nightmare of a cockroach in my armpit biting me- to find a cockroach in my armpit, biting me
• Sang and danced in the Amazonian rain
• Baked proper cake in a pan
• Threw bricks at cows (slobbery washing-mascerating gits)
• Taught music, giant stave and all
• Developed a profound and affectionate admiration for a sixty-eight year old nun
• Shared a latrine with three bats
• Fell in love with mosquito nets
• Got pulled into a Wapishana dance in public and didn’t completely disgrace myself
• Got gum disease from poor nutrition
• Got an article published in a Swedish journal (random, I know)
• Awoke to find myself being stung by a scorpion IN MY OWN BED. I’m sure that’s against the rules.
• Finally acquired the art of reading slowly! Me!
• Smelt pungently of powdered black pepper and cassava, for weeks on end
• Hated horses (WHY must they scream all night?)
• Started learning an Amerindian language
• Valued my Chinese fan at its true worth
• Had my computer pooed on deliberately by a gecko. MANY times.
• Had to present my Yellow Fever Certificate at a border
• Facilitated a whole-village plan for the future
• Found a live bird-eating spider in my house (the Broscombe Court promptly condemned it to death, with Mr Broscombe as executioner)
• Failed utterly to get bored of water spice mangoes
• Gazed my fill at an equatorial sky-full of stars
• Kept a blog (never say never)
• Had my shower hut squatted in by a stubborn small snake and had to shower in the laundry bucket in my house with all the shutters closed for privacy for a few days
• Killed my first snake (the day we left). Right back atcha!
• Set up Aishalton’s first school choir
• Machet├ęd a coconut open and drank the milk straight from it
• Lost my irreplaceable friend and mother-in-law Sue

What strikes me as I write that is how creature-filled the year has been. I never realised before quite how unpopulated my life has always been by anyone except people. ‘Close to nature’ (a phrase redolent with eco-tourist mystique) smells, hurts and keeps you awake.

Has it been a ‘good’ year? Depends on your gauges. Valuable, certainly: I have gained so much- stamina, patience, exactitude. It has had some treasure moments. But I have lost some things I can’t afford too, most notably health and fitness, and a person very precious to me. A year like this tends to suffer from too much measurement. Taking stock can become a bit of a jostling stock-take when too many people join in! It’s sufficient to say that I am grateful for it, amused and bemused by how much there is still to learn. Next year I will laugh more, say ‘No’ more, fear less, pay more attention to our wellbeing. Thank you so much to everyone who has stayed with this journal: your comments were the thread that stitched the patchwork together. Without them there would be no cohering. Merry Christmas!


Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Stitching up the Sewing Project

When I last wrote about this on 12th October, the project was in its early stages. Now it is nearly complete. It's been a perfect equilibrium between intriguing, heartening, frustrating and infuriating.

All of our final visits went fairly well because I warned them in advance through handwritten notes (delivered via the usual fluidities of the Rupununi Cowboy Express) with individual’s names on them.

Some of the complications of the project were never solved. Sand Creek is still utterly innocent of any plans to build the long-awaited sewing centre. They are also the only village that complained that they did not get their fair share. ‘Fair share’, that is, of a free gift for which they had done nothing, with no strings attached. My child-id is very tempted to rush back there and rip the carefully selected supplies out of their ungrateful and petulant hands. My adult-ego recognises that it takes a lot of high-handed outside interventions, a lot of white parachutists, to create an atmosphere like that. (Still want to slap something, though!)

I have written into the final report a collaborative workshop next Spring, when two women from each village would have transport paid to come together for two days and discuss how best to run their sewing centres. I hope the funders agree to it. The village women will do a better job together than I could, going round running 'group management training'.
Village One, who passionately wanted everything, got it.

Village Two (The Privileged) got only dregs but remain positive.

Village Three got most things and will get their requested training too.

Village Four got parts to repair the existing machine instead of a new one.

Village Five got several new machines to help them create their new generation of seamstresses.

And Village Six got quite a lot and then complained.

Dependency culture is a massive curse here. In the Pakaraima mountains apparently it is even worse. Don’t get me wrong. Money is good. Donors are generous and to be applauded. But I am SO glad that I do not spend most of my time implementing funding projects! I WOULD eventually slap someone!

Monday, 14 December 2009

Invisible Privileges

Margaret Thatcher believed she had pulled herself up by her own bootlaces and she owed none of her success to anyone else. Arrant nonsense. Pull hard on cheap bootlaces and they snap. It’s one of the most pernicious threads that you can find woven into the fabric of every self-justifying perspective- the idea of the meritocracy which starts at birth, and which makes all the world’s injustices fair and reasonable to some smug git somewhere. We in a Western democracy may not be born on to a level playing field, but at least we’re on the pitch at all.

Why do we tend to believe that we deserve our blessings when we have them, but never our sufferings?

I think it’s when our privileges are invisible to us that we find it so hard to be grateful. One of the invisible privileges of life in Aishalton, for example, is that I am not ‘a woman’, I’m me, Sarah the development worker. I don’t get any hassle except the occasional smiley catcall up at Burning Hills. I didn’t even notice that as a privilege until I went to Georgetown last month.

Here are a few of the privileges that I have understood retrospectively about being a Westerner.
In Britain, I never had to perform tasks I was bad at. I missed out on the humility (humiliation?!) of playing the guitar in concerts (playing?!- imagine a cockroach running up and down a badminton racquet. 'Scritch sss- scritch sss- scritch scritch'). Of running training in fields about which I know little.

Throughout our time here, we know that we can always leave. I remember a British politician living on the minimum wage for the seven weeks of Lent, and proudly discovering that, whilst it was not easy, he could manage fine. I wonder if he kept accounts in the weeks before and after? I wonder did he buy any clothes, any furniture, any trips to the dentist? I wonder about his social calendar before and after too. I would bet that he went to at least one big public entertainment (play, opera or football match depending on proclivity) within a week of finishing that. He seemed blind to the stamina that comes with temporariness. Poverty is not primarily about limited money- it’s about insecurity and fragility, the tedium, powerlessness, debt, and most of all, a sense that it will never ever get better. I am anxious when the well runs dry, but not despairing anxious. It’s novelty anxiety.

Cheap groceries. It’s such a shock to live in a country of low salaries, in a village where hardly anyone has any formal employment, and pay AT LEAST double for every single item. 'Tesco value'-quality pop for £1.50. Rubbish shampoo that makes your hair squeak for £3. A can of tomatoes for over £1. In a way I knew this, but it’s so blatant. We watch the film “Amazing Grace” with pride, thrilled at the abolition of slavery, as though we don’t have slaves, because all of the people who make our lives cheap and simple are invisible to us.

Perhaps the greatest invisible privilege of all is that we don’t accept other peoples’ prejudices about us. Paolo Freire says that oppression survives because the oppressed collude. So did Robert Tressell in ‘The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist’. If I ever doubted it, I would no longer. Coastal Guyanese believe Amerindians to be passive, lazy, over-indulged, dependent, unmotivated and bad at everything. ‘Backward’. Many Amerindians return from Georgetown with a disdain for their culture from which they will never recover. The rest don’t return at all. But the sight of Wapishana young adults aping black DJs and tarty Brazilian dancers makes me cringe with a deeply embarrassed pity. People despise you because of your race. So you accept their superiority and copy them. So now they despise you even more. But it’s a rare person who starts down that road and ever turns back.

What do we do with this knowledge? Because it is not our fault, and we cannot fix it.

For me, the provisional answer is this. I suspect that most people are a seagull perched on the iceberg of their own lives, observing its exterior and drawing conclusions with great confidence but a minimum of information. Only the wise can be a diving penguin, seeing the iceberg’s looming hidden bulk, knowing the seen and the unseen intimately, and predicting their impact on each other. And the rarest, rarest ARE the iceberg, feeling its mutability from far inside. And maybe that’s why we in the West are not happy despite all our privilege. We even boast about being miserable. In a highly developed society, one of the great lost gifts of being human is the sheer, simple, wordless joy of not being uncomfortable, or in any pain, or there being any big thing wrong; the state of being that equates ‘nothing is wrong’ exactly with ‘everything is right’. Finding ways to be penguins or icebergs, to remind ourselves of our privileges, to learn contentment, is an obligation. You cannot have this, you cannot feel it, in a state of permanent ease. Maybe that’s why an easy life is not easy to live well.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The well has run dry

- an expression I have always used metaphorically, up to now. Our well has no water, and the rains continue to tease and flutter in the edges of our vision. But they do not come.

Today I collected shower water from the largely disused public well. It smells and tastes rusty but flows clear. My skin itches, but maybe that’s psychological. The taste remains with me, sour iron- I can smell it on my skin. It reminds me of when I was on blood thinners and had a perpetual slight scent and taste of blood from the frequent nose bleeds.

And so today I find myself preoccupied with water. Will I come out in a rash? What will I cook with, wash up with? There is no real cause for worry: I will collect drinking water from the Sisters. If necessary, I will ask the Jesuits for a daily shower at Fortress Jesuiticus up the hill. But it’s the awareness that is striking me. How many more things do I take for granted, as I have always taken water for granted? Because they aren’t really visible until I don’t have them. Is it into the thousands?

I think, properly for once, of what it is like to live without water security. Because the rusty well water I am trying to avoid is the upper aspiration for many millions of people (but how real can that be to us? Just as mortgage anxiety isn’t really imaginable to them). How will it feel to me when the ‘inferior’ well dries up? Will I be better equipped to imagine watching my children drinking filthy water, scooping out dollops of excrement before washing, swimming in a sewer? And then to imagine them feverish and ill, and knowing it’s the water that is causing it, and having NOWHERE to go to wash them clean, to rinse out their insides? It reminds me once again that Aishalton is not really poor. The other users of my well are going to collect from relatives: it’s a slightly longer walk, but they are not worried for the short term. (Water conservation for the long term is becoming a pressing issue for the South Rupununi now, though). But for those people in hundreds of places suffering from chronic water shortage, what GRACE they have, not to hate us all for our mindless privilege. How understandable when they do.

If you can have a glass of tap water that isn’t disgusting- not chilled, not filtered, not cordialled- right now, please drink one and give thanks for it.