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 รก 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.


  1. I think this kind of hopelessness can be found all over the world, expressed in different ways but all equally upsetting. Where do you begin to change things? I have no idea.

  2. Is there anything to be done to help? Seeing this and being powerless to change it must be one of the greatest sadnessess of living there.

  3. AnonymousJune 29, 2010

    It is so easy to get lost in the hopelessness that is presented by people like this. The truly sad part is that with just a little education or a little guidance or even a little money he and so many others like him would not have to be "lost".

    In my experience, people like him tend to be no less intelligent than any other person, but they are crushed from so early in life by poverty and lack of opportunity.

    For every story you hear about a person making a success of themselves from out of crushing poverty you have a thousand like him.

    I'd never suggest that we not celebrate the success stories, but how can you possibly overlook the fact that those successes are the exceptions that proves the rule. The rule that the greatest hindrance to upliftment of our society as a whole all are those people who cannot, through no fault of theirs, escape the poverty of their beginnings.

    It is too often convenient to forget the majority simply because we are satisfied to celebrate the few who succeed, while patting ourselves on the back for being enlightened enough to recognise the achievements of those few.

    The saddest part is, even the few who do make it out and often so beaten down by the way we patronise them that they end up simply aping our prejudices and looking down on their own origin.