Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Interior is a Foreign Country: They Do Things Differently There

Not long out of Georgetown, we are stopped by an Afro-Guyanese policeman whose Creole leads to instant misunderstandings with Amar’s heavily accented Indian English. But the eye-opener is with Percy, our Amerindian driver, who is viewed with great suspicion. “You Guyanese?” he snaps, checking his I.D. card again disbelievingly. Percy does not respond in kind, despite his superlative claim to that identity, at least if centuries count for anything.

Guyana’s indigenous Amerindian population is only 7% of the total, but they occupy 95% of its land, and have done, archaeologists reckon, for approximately 11,000 years. 90% of the population lives in the remaining 5%, the coastal strip. For many of them, that 95% is one place, ‘the interior’. Ten years ago, a Guyanese could not travel freely in their own country. They needed a separate pass for each place in the interior to be visited. And it’s prohibitively expensive. And it is neither comfortable nor convenient to get ‘there’, or to move around once you have. Amerindians, except some groups nearby, face equivalent barriers to visiting the coast. The physical gap compounds the information gap which compounds an imagination gap that keeps the two worlds apart.

On our return to Guyana, we had been catapulted straight into the Jesuit Regional Meeting. It’s a delicate privilege to sit in on parts of an insiders’ meeting when you are an outsider yourself. But over the two days we are there, the generalizations being made stand less and less up to scrutiny, because in so many senses we are discussing two different countries. The key child protection issues are completely different between coast and interior. Demographics- different. Work roles- unrecognizably different. Constraints, problems, rewards, relationships- all different.

I have misquoted L. P. Hartley’s opening sentence in "The Go-Between" because there is a time-gap between the coast and the interior as surely as there is a cultural gap. We in the interior live in a deluvian world, drenched with nature red in tooth, claw and my blood (in the case of the mosquitoes). We live in constant awareness of food, water shortage, death, birth, jaguar attacks, huge dinosaur-like birds, cow slaughtering- what Garrison Keillor calls “living between the ground and God”. On the coast most people live a life more akin to the one I was born to: cars and phones and running water and street violence and sassy children and fashion and abysmal radio adverts for small businesses and junk food and jobs. We inhabit different centuries of social interaction, of opportunities and of possessions- different belongings and different belonging.

Aishalton is a self-absorbed world by necessity, since we have no commonly available media at all. No news. No transport. Most difficult of all, no communication. I remember chuckling at an attendance list being passed by a visiting NGO round one of our village meetings with “Name” and “Telephone” as the two columns, in a place with no landlines and not even a mobile signal. Villagers may understand all the words in a Georgetown newspaper but unless they’ve worked there, been educated there or lived there they cannot visualize any of it. I recall my student last term: “Miss Sarah, what’s a pavement?” Clearly, the Georgetown people running the meeting suffered the same imagination gap- “How can there be no telephones?” I’m told that in the 1960’s, students used to do exchange visits to the interior. Maybe it’s time to relaunch this. Because with voting increasingly following racial lines, and with the steady increase in the rich-poor gap between coast and interior, an alienation slowly breeding from all those gaps could rip holes in Guyana’s skin through which its unity bleeds away.


  1. Very thought provoking. x

  2. makes british politics sound almost sane!

  3. thank you for writing this..

  4. Neesa, thanks for commenting! I am glad you liked it. I think it's difficult for Georgetown people to imagine what it feels like for Amerindians from the huge interior of Guyana to be perceived as 'marginal' in their own country...