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.