Thursday, 22 July 2010

The Six Joys of Rainy Season

A cowpat that got perfectly imprinted by a chicken’s foot, then melted into batter consistency by a rainstorm, and finally dried out again. Now it’s a perfect fossilised artefact to admire on the way to the latrine hut.

The absence of our most hated house guests: scorpions and poisonous centipedes. My nerves are soothed by the parade of days without their evil poised pincers.

Flowering grasses effervescing into life, thriving on what everyone else resents.

Resentful horses bringing their beautiful foal to my back door for shelter. I mistook it for a big dog in the cool wet morning light. It tries to gambol with four left hooves. It is covered in erratic fur, and its tail flares out like fluff from a giant thistle, already expert at fly-frustrating.

Being cool. To my delight, it drops to 21 degrees in the middle of the night.

A certain calm. As the rains fall and the creeks rise, weeks go by with no vehicles able to cross the Rupununi. The well-connected who can arrange a pick-up on the other side can cross by boat. But it’s complex and wet, and the mud is yuckily toe-sucky as you squelch and wade to board. The outcome for the Deep South is far less traffic. Villages look inwards. A peaceful languor prevails, with the odd frantic burst of farming when the time and rain is right. The peace rises with the lack of miners, and multiplies with the outflux of minors when school closes. There’s a quietude in the air that isn’t normally there.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010


Since I came of age, I have not been good at belonging to anything except my family. I think that might be why I have twice chosen to live in places where I can never blend in. It’s an ambivalent experience. I never sympathised with celebrities until I went to live in rural China, and discovered first-hand the cold, comprehensive, dissective intensity of the public eye. The notion of a private life pretty much disappeared. Aishalton is much gentler than that, and we feel quite at home, but acceptance does not mean absorption.

What is different here is that I sometimes suffer from delusions of belonging. This taunts me. I am in Aishalton but not of it, in the Catholic community but not of it. Last year I worked on an article about paid development workers that I wanted to call “In the (third) world but not of it” (the editor changed the title). I wrote about the smugness of the Poverty Expert, the outsider whose sense of self-worth is profoundly enhanced by their own ‘heroism’ in giving up the comforts of home and living in ‘solidarity’ with the poor. Never mind that their take on solidarity bears a closer resemblance to a crusade than a cuddle, and that they crash and crunch dynamically through the eggshells in their full suit of armour, gloriously sure of the rightness of their cause, unaware of all the imperceptible cracks and rips shooting outwards from their inexorable passage. In some cases their gaze is so devoutly fixed on Development that they lose sight of people altogether.

I recently received a brilliant comment by Nikhil Ramkarran on “The Glamour of GlacĂ© Cherries”, which I shall quote here in case you missed it:

I would argue (in our defence) that the attitude towards foreigners, while not necessarily justifiable, is understandable.It is all too regular for us to be sold on some spectacular plan towards which we invest much, not necessarily financially but in other ways, only to be disappointed when midway through, political expediency in the home country causes said promissors to regretfully, and with much effusive apologies, disappear leaving us investors bereft.
Then there are the myriad "consultants" who show up from home country as beneficiaries of huge "grants" which home country annnounce in their press, to great fanfare, that they are giving to us poor nations.The consultants tell us how to solve a particular problem, collect their cheque (which are, of course, available to consultants from home country and not locals) and then disappear leaving yet another unimplemented plan. Little or none of the grant money is, of course, made available to locals.I do apologise for the rant on your blog. I am not trying to justify the attitude foreigners working in Georgetown experience, but too often it seems that while the word "colonial" may have been taken out of the vernacular the attitude remains.

I’ve included it in full both because I could not hope to express it better, and because it is a completely authentic, Guyanese response. Unsurprisingly, it takes me back very strongly to writing ‘Expatriology’ [] last summer.

I am white, British, descendant of the Imperialists who milked Guyana and many other countries dry in the past, and keep whole nations imprisoned in a deeply unjust and self-perpetuating structure now and for the foreseeable future. Is my presence here anomalous? Should I simply go away and leave Aishalton to it? That’s a cop-out of course; a child’s pendulum swing of self-righteous dudgeon.

What I would love to see, and what I hear with relish in the capital, is Guyana adopting the BOALUDODO Principle- Bog Off And Let Us Do Our Development Ourselves. That would be the best outcome for the whole country, without a doubt. But who will go and live in Aishalton, to build up skills, education and livelihoods there? (The flipside of that question is “why am I not in Accrington?”!)

My worst days are the days when I am convinced that it is all useless. I suppose this is an occupational hazard of ‘meaningful’ jobs. If the answer to ‘why am I here?’ is ‘to pay the mortgage’, an existential crisis isn’t really called for every time doubt creeps, strolls or bulldozes in.

Back in Aishalton I have slipped back into manifestly worthwhile work: training young adults in computers, helping the Nursery School implement their hot meal programme, and supporting the ongoing activities of the community development plan in whatever ways I can. I am a member of a lot of teams, and we treat each other not as equals (our experiences and skills are wildly, almost comically different) so much as valued partners. There is no grandioseness about it.

I had a lot of faith in this kind of development when I came out to Guyana. Now I am coming closer and closer to the belief that the whole Development Project is morally bankrupt. Few thinking people in developed countries labour under the delusion that their governments give aid out of real concern. However, most of us have quite a lot of faith in the work done by big NGOs like Oxfam (who have recently moved out of Guyana and I would be most intrigued to know why). But when you come to Georgetown from the interior and happen upon an event like the World Cup in a fairly expat cafĂ© and look round the room at the well-fed faces, the lovely clothes, the posh sunglasses and sleek laptops and nice watches, and walk past the long row of wide-bottomed air-conditioned four wheel drives bulging into the roadway outside, thoughts of the colonial period swell like bubbles, and inside those iridescent walls the whole development phenomenon looks rounded and complete, a self-perpetuating cosy world of postings and projects and prestige and protection, like a child’s snowstorm that returns to exactly the same state however hard you shake it.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Recuperation from what?

The drudgery of illness ate up May. A sluggardly recovery ate up June. Now I find myself lurching unbeknownst into July. I have just finished a month of medical care and recuperation in Georgetown. That sounds soothing. But my body is stuffed with medicines and food and drink and vitamins. My head is stuffed with books, TV, experiences: freak shows and gangsters and hospitals and Ayn Rand and ghosts and terrible R&B on huge flatscreens and Guyanese murders and development cynicism and Series Five of ‘24’, all gulped down half-digested. I know this is the standard variety and layeredness of distractions available to most people for every waking moment of their lives, but it comes as a rude shock after five months of solid Aishalton. World Cup matches and palaver, ever-intensifying thriller cliffhangers, wikipedia to answer every idle query, novels laying out their inventions end on end, enough to reach the moon and make it back before bedtime. How is one to survive it? I am bursting, exploding, ripping at the seams with too much stimulation.

Salesmen in all their guises (peddlers of dreams or discontent or tat) would be delighted with me, stuffing myself with diversions until I am utterly distracted. They get to us young so that we can’t conceive of any other reality (half an hour of pre-Christmas advertising proves that); so that we can’t even fall asleep without accessories. To quote the Grinch, “And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the noise! noise! Noise! NOISE!” I understand afresh what it means to say that I cannot hear myself think. My head feels like a computer that has been set to process too many commands at once. It doesn’t shut down: it suspends, and stays stuck. Where is the open space to live in the midst of it all? And how many of us can avoid being enticed away from the search? I wonder if that is what Kierkegaard means when he says that purity of heart is to will one thing.