Monday, 12 April 2010

Watominap Wapichan Da'u

Time is divided into past, present and future, yes?

If you could divide time however you liked, how would you split it? BC and AD is an ideological slant on history, not a fact of time. A mother can see her life in epochs: before children and after children. Losing a person precious to us can rush us out the other side of the looking glass. But all of these examples are linear.

The Wapishana language divides time into real (naa) and unreal (nii). When you hear ‘naa’ you can be sure it’s about the present. When you hear ‘nii’ it can refer to any other time, past or future. This grammatical fact socks me between the eyes. It’s my babelfish, illuminating various incidents in my time here with a sudden startling clarity. (Feel free to accuse me of over-interpretation- that’s what happens when you trust philosophy to an imaginary fish from a geek book).

Why did the village council not begin preparing our house while we were back in England for Sue’s funeral- why did they wait till we came back? Because in March we were ‘naa’, but the moment we left we became ‘nii’- “they are coming back nii”. Written history is an illusion, because all history is ‘nii’- unreal. Maybe that’s why Wapishanas are not rushing around busily capturing everything in living memory on paper. History is a slippery fish, make no mistake about that. Most Wapishana can’t write or read their mother tongue, and very few seem to mind.

We have crossed the Brazilian border to attend a language course in Boa Vista. We travel there by a surfaced road that appears out of the ether at the border. The abrupt contrast is very, very weird. It is peculiar to see ité-thatched houses by a tarmac road beneath power lines. A cultural joke that doesn’t translate.

Ten of us come together to study Wapishana- priests (Father Horie is from Japan, Paul from South India, Varghese from North India, Eddy from Nicaragua, André from South Brazil, Vanildo and Sergio from the North), a Brazilian nun and two Brazilian laywomen who work in Amazonia, and me. The course is run by a Canadian priest called Ronald McDonell (not surprisingly he calls himself Ronaldo!), with three Wapishanas for speaking practice.

Over these days I am constantly reminded of trying to learn Tibetan in Yushu a decade ago. The Wapishana language barely exists in written form. The first answer from native speakers to most of my ‘why’ questions is “That’s just the way it is”. If I keep pressing, the native speakers will rack their brains for an answer, and if they still can’t decide why, they will make something up. The really refreshing thing about having a foreigner running the Boa Vista course is that he structures it so it resembles language learning as I understand it. There are dialogues to practice. We learn all the pronouns systematically. We write vocab cards. We don’t spend an entire afternoon, as we did in Aishalton, learning the Wapishana for numerous small brown birds, none of which can be translated. Add in an extra complication: our native speaker teachers are Portuguese Wapishana, so can’t explain in English. Their writing conventions are also different, with quite big spelling changes, and two different letters to the alphabet. One of my fellow participants says to me ‘They should have agreed spelling rules on both sides of the border’. Who is ‘they’? The Academie Wapishanaise?

Wapishana is fragile. There is a striking disparity between the fluency of people my age (i.e grandparents), and school-age children. Ronaldo gives out a language questionnaire to indigenous teachers to use in their communities for assessing linguistic robustness: most of them are so incongruous for Aishalton that they sound facetious. Is the language used for education? (Caribbean-wide exams guarantee that it never will be). Are public documents and roadsigns in it? (Roadsigns? We might need roads first!) Are there media in it? (No electricity, no reliable access to paper or ink, no salaries for DJs!) Is the Wapishana population small or large? (Small) Do they have economic power? (Don’t make me laugh. They barely have cassava power).
At first I feel quite panicky, but then I wonder, does this matter? If something is valuable, I think generally we Westerners immediately start working out how to preserve it. Video the wedding. Bury the ashes. Pass on the Patek Philippe watch. Frame, memorise, dry, varnish, freeze, collect, pickle, distil, and most of all, write it down.

Ronaldo says that language is important because it is the key to a group’s heart. But what if they voluntarily have a change of heart, and swap their language for a bigger, shinier one? My instinct is to start frantically scribbling down folk stories, get out the Dictaphone and run around the village elders preserving their memories. But who is to say that my instinct is useful? When we pride ourselves on ‘preserving’, what if we are actually dessicating? I suppose there is a place for frogs in formaldehyde, but they certainly have none of their charm left.

So in the end, I accept that we are learning Wapishana because we want to say to our communities, “What a great language! How proud you must be of it! Listen to how stilted and comic I sound compared with your expertise!”. And because we believe that understanding the forms in which people express themselves helps us to understand more deeply what they mean. Any grander claims, of preservation and future generations blah blah blah, run the risk of neo-colonialism of a particularly British (or perhaps I should say English?) intellectual character. Languages are chasm-builders at least as much as they are bridges. We’re choosing to have a go at bridge-building, that’s all.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Dastardly and Muttley

People pay hundreds of pounds for an off-road course like this one.

The journey from Aishalton to Lethem is 100 miles. They call it a road, but for most of the journey it is a collection of winding tracks, out of which you choose by guesswork. The first 40 miles to Dadanawa are mainly deep in sand, with a few short rubbly stretches and a few even shorter hard-packed. The next sixty miles vary more: rocky stretches, stream and river crossings, deep deep sand, narrow tracks through scrub. The fastest I have ever done it in a jeep is 4 hours, the slowest 6 hours by truck. A tractor takes more than 12. Motorbikes vary more than any other form: a confident (rash?) biker can do it quicker than the fastest jeep. We take seven and a half hours. B has Dastardly’s helmet and Muttley’s evil chuckle. I have the adrenalin slime of half-naked fear.
I guess being the rider is like an egg and spoon race, with the added complication that the egg is behind you. You must balance speed and stability with safety. Wife, camera and laptop all depend on your equilibrium. The responsibility messes with your head whilst the wife’s not insubstantial girth messes with your steering.
Riding it pillion is like the catatonia in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”. You can watch it coming but you are utterly helpless. You hold your mouth open after the first few tooth-clashes and tongue-bites. That's a dusty thirsty old business. For stability you stay centre, so hours are spent gazing at the fetching soft back of the husband’s neck. All you can see over the shoulder is a vortex 6 inches square of treacherous sand or rocks; much the same view you get in the airborne seconds it takes you to hit the ground falling from a mountain bike.

Intense, concentrated tension every moment for seven hours. You cannot afford to get the balance wrong as there are long, long stretches between villages. No guarantee that anyone will pass. No AA or RAC. No phones or mobile reception. It’s all very committing.

Dastardly and Muttley save the day. In contrast, I am Scooby Doo at his most cowardly, his most saggy-jowly, his most slobbery slobby doggy.

Friday, 2 April 2010


His face is smooth but there is a deep frown line etched between his eyebrows. He is short, stocky, and looks strong. The sideways-but-backwards baseball cap á la Puff Daddy gives his face a vulnerable, yearning look.

We meet in an Aishalton bar during a birthday party. (When I say ‘bar’, they have no beer left, or coke, or fruit juice, so it’s Guyanese vodka with the Brazilian version of Tesco value cola, or nothing. We are sitting outside on the concrete-floor-under-zinc that passes for a veranda- it would pass rather more successfully for a veranda in dim light, without the dangling fluorescent light-bulb). He asks me what age I am. When I say 38 he tells me I look well for it. There isn’t the slightest come-on emanating. I guess he is younger than me by several years, but when he says 18 I cannot even begin to mask my incredulity.

He tells his story in circles; just a few facts, related over and over again. He talks for nearly an hour, with mainly nods and smiles from me. The occasional directive question elicits that he is from Achiwib, his mother Amerindian and his father “a- like him (pointing at a miner)- a nigger person”.

He tells me that the black guy he arrived with works with him at the mines. That he calls him D-man, not Damian, but that “I no vex with he” because he doesn’t mean any offence. He explains this so very often that I conclude that he is in fact ‘vexed’, but wants to be magnanimous. He is not really anything, he says- not Amerindian. “You a white, I a brown, not really Amerindian but not a nigger person”. Over and over again he tells me “I lef school at 12 to help my mum and dad”. He says that he is not religious- “I go to church one-one time” but that he believes in helping his family. About halfway through he begins to repeat that his problem is “I no have ID cyard”. He bewails this at length.

What is the problem really? It’s not the ID card- when I explore that, concerned, it emerges that he simply missed the closing date, and has been told to apply again next year. He has two interpretations for every event in his past: his own generosity, and misfortune. Over and over again he frowns and asks “Y’understan me?”, waiting for affirmation before speaking again. I give the affirmation whether I understand or not, because I sense he is pleading for something and I’m not sure what it is. Listening to his circular utterances is like trying to decipher a lost language from one crackly tape recording. Repeatedly he seeks my validation. I get a picture of the world inside his head that is tiny, bewildering, fogged, and beset by threats. We have very little shared language, but the impression is strong that he is not waving but drowning. It seems that mourning over his lost education has been disconnected from any realism about what qualifications he might have come out with. I think he feels so helpless and trapped that his only hope is to trust his sacrificed opportunities as proof of his worth.

D-man seems a good man. The ethic of helping his family to bring up his younger brothers and sisters drives him, or at least so he presents himself. He holds himself up to scrutiny to complete strangers, pleading “Here are the facts. Am I worth anything? Please tell me if I am worth anything.” Despite his slightly ridiculous cap and his hour of repeated sentences, he makes me want to cry. An hour with D-man is a more illuminating and nuanced introduction to poverty, disempowerment and marginalisation than any sociology textbook.