Thursday, 30 September 2010

Culture Revitalisation and Amerindian Heritage

Amerindian Heritage Month draws to a close with some banquets, a few sports days, lots of culture shows and an upsurge in Amerindian issues in the press. All of them aspire to a positive future for Amerindians. What that positive future might be is moot. The government want economic development. Most of the Amerindian communities have never articulated what they want. Up until last year, the motto of Aishalton’s Village Council was ‘Together We Will’. Together we will what? Now, with the Community Development Plan, at least the sentence is complete: the community decided by consensus that ‘together we will build strong healthy families, develop leadership and responsibility, sustain and strengthen cultural activities and develop skills and create opportunities’. The implementation is hard, but at least the plan is there, and came from within, and points in a clear direction.

I received an email from an Aishalton friend the other day, about an essay he is trying to help a student write on how to promote economic development that will protect sustainable livelihoods and traditional culture. This is the question that everyone is asking. It is rare to see the question itself interrogated. In 1969, describing the Orkney Islands, George Mackay Brown wrote: “The notion of progress is not easy to take root in an elemental community; the people are conservative, cling hard to tradition which is their only sure foothold and the ground of all their folk wisdom and art and of the precarious crafts by which they lived... The notion of progress is a cancer that makes an elemental community look better, and induces a false euphoria, while it drains the life out of it remorselessly”. I believe that he is on to something profoundly true here, and that Aishalton must do everything to protect itself against such cancerous ‘progress’. What ‘progress’ are they being offered from the capital? My two best friends in Georgetown, locals completely attuned to life here, were beaten and robbed at gunpoint this week, in daylight in a public place. There is little temptation for Aishalton to replicate Georgetown’s model of development, but what they put in its place is a burgeoning challenge.

Amerindian Heritage Month has been a positive recognition of the place of Amerindians in Guyanese society since its inception in 1995 by President Cheddi Jagan. But how do children learn what is of value in their culture? Certainly not from UN documents about cultural diversity. Not from school, either, or special events in Amerindian Heritage Month, despite the helpful influence all of these may provide. We accrete our identity from daily life, not special occasions. If the most powerful people I see regularly, and the gorgeous vehicle I once got a ride in the pick-up of, and every book, and all my schooling, and all of the people and the things that I admire and envy, and all of the people and things that my parents praise and ponder and aspire to for me, are associated with English and with the outside, I as a child will draw my own conclusions. I am not stupid. And I already know that what adults preach is not what they practice, and I as a child am very perceptive about where their heart really lies.

Economic development cannot pre-empt personal development in Amerindian communities. If you are not proud to be Wapishana or Macushi or Patamona, ‘progress’ will simply entice you to leave. If the education you receive in Georgetown teaches you to leave behind your ‘backward’ self and embrace a ‘real’ 21st century persona, the identity you dump will take some of your soul with it.

The Wapishana are lucky. With a sizeable population of about 7000, and several formidable, well-educated and articulate spokespersons, there is a potential for both the language and the culture to thrive. Adrian Gomes, graduate of Guyana and Leeds Universities, and headteacher of Aishalton Secondary School for eleven years, leaves his job today in order to devote himself fulltime to the revitalisation and strengthening of the Wapishana language. He intends to run literacy classes and tutor training, foster cultural preservation and creative writing, and establish new forms of Wapishana media throughout all seventeen communities of the South Rupununi. I think he might be just in time; for the last decade, many people tell me that Wapishana language and culture have been under grave threat, on the cusp of disappearing as a way of life and becoming a glamour item at special events. You know as well as I that culture is not what we wear or what we do: it is the bedrock of who and what we are. Once it dies, it is unresurrectable. And most languages die not with a bang but a whimper. This century, the world is losing an endangered language every two weeks. They simply fade dingily away, unwept, unhonoured and unsung, taking their worldview with them. Wapishana must not join the corpses.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Georgetown Newsflashes

Until moving to Geneva in 1995, I had always ignored current affairs with a combination of cynicism and village idiot insouciance. (Maybe it’s also a byproduct of growing up in Belfast during the Troubles, knowing how absurdly the events we were living were being misrepresented by the paper news). Whatever the reason, ever since my brief Economist-reading phase I have felt a trickle of responsibility to keep up with current affairs if I can.

You can therefore imagine my glee when, through no fault of my own, I can’t. Aishalton has no media except the internet, and the Chicken Shed Endurance Test would not encourage anyone to spend longer online than they absolutely have to. However, now I’m in Georgetown my social conscience is developing the familiar nervous twitch. On previous visits I have mainly ignored the papers because I find them so depressing. Not exactly a mature approach. So I decided that each day for a week I would pick one headline from the front page of one of the Guyana dailies. The only criterion of choice is that it must be the first thing that catches my eye. I will, however, also keep track of murders on the same front page, so that I don’t appear to be choosing only the worst.

This is not an analysis; just a snapshot, from a very British perspective.

Sunday September 19th (KAITEUR NEWS)


Garfield Skeete borrowed his neighbour’s horse for $40,000 (that’s two-thirds of a teacher’s monthly salary, or one off-road tyre for a jeep). When he had finished with it, he reneged on the agreement and instead chopped the neighbour with a machete. This gets six column inches: a small-fry story.

Charge- unlawful wounding. (What is ‘lawful wounding’?) Sentence- 6 months. Murders on front page: 2

Monday September 20th (KAITEUR NEWS)


Kaiteur News is probably not one of Guyana’s finer papers; I do find the poor baby in the latrine all the more poignant for the inattentiveness of this headline. There is something missing metaphorically as well as orthographically. The article itself is a more thoughtful piece on child protection and community responsibility.

Murders on front page: 2

Tuesday September 21st (STABROEK NEWS)


Seven armed, masked robbers broke into a businessman’s shop and home, severely assaulted his wife and son and threatened several more people with “big guns”. They escaped on foot with $100,000 (around £350) and some jewellery. The police arrived a few minutes later but were unable to trace them. Seven of them, masked, on foot, vanished without a trace in minutes.

Murders on front page: 2

Wednesday September 22nd (STABROEK NEWS)


The government has rejected calls by Canada and the UK for independent investigation into reported human rights abuses, including murders by members of the armed forces. In response to the UNHRC’s call, the government’s official response was “Guyana considers these recommendations... one-sided, misinformed and prejudicial”. This story gets almost a full page.

Murders on front page: 0.

Thursday September 23nd (STABROEK NEWS)


Police were responding to a domestic violence call when they recognised two “known characters” on one bicycle and ordered them to stop. When they did not, a policeman kicked the bicycle, and all three officers attempted to apprehend the suspects on the ground. One escaped completely, with HIS bag of guns: the other savagely bit two policemen before being brought under control. At first I thought ‘nab’ a strange word for a headline, but on reflection, full marks to the leader writer for choosing a verb smacking of luck and farce. Not an incident I would have selected to illustrate a triumph of policing.

Murders on front page: 0.

Friday September 24th (STABROEK NEWS)


Sandra Alli died on 13th September. Her friend Sharon is accusing Sandra’s mother and brothers with whom she lived of persistent physical abuse. The first half of the article is vague and alleges nothing, until suddenly this quotation appears: “I did not observe a dark red blotch on her right arm”, says the officer investigating Sharon’s allegations, “but noticed that her left arm appeared to be broken, as well as her neck appeared to be broken”. Only at this point do we discover that the dead woman also made extensive allegations of abuse. She died in hospital three days later. The certificate shows cause of death as “terminal cancer”.

Autopsy: today. Murders on front page: 1

Saturday September 25th (STABROEK NEWS)


Several headlines that I swithered over this week have focussed on a wealthy Georgetown business couple who have had a series of Amerindian maids. Interestingly, the entire furore has blown up around their racist remarks, not their actions. The occasion for these remarks was having their Amerindian maid removed from their home by officials responding to reports that she was imprisoned. Earlier this week the Singhs complained about the support being given to their maid by the Ministries of Labour and Amerindian Affairs (“they should not be paying her they should be locking her up”, said Cynthia). Within the week, a previous allegation against the couple of what appears to qualify technically as human trafficking has come to light. No prosecution is in train.

Murders on front page: 0

Three days out of seven with no headline murders is, in my limited experience, a good week (although sadly there are plenty on the inner pages). There are so many factors at play here, not least the acquired tone of the press, and more generally, the scurrilous sensationalism of newspapers. I’ve had this conversation with friends on three continents, and all bemoan the fact that ugly news sells papers. I can’t find any solidly based research that draws correlations between reportage and crime rates, and I’m not sure I’d trust it if I could. But the atmosphere in which we nurture a nation is surely not immune to the noxious gases released into it by the daily press? Every nation’s papers declare “This is our normality- this is real- this is what matters in the world”. Even if they’re wrong, are we sure that we are immune?

My Penarth friend used to sigh despairingly about the classic big banner headline in the Penarth Times- “GOAT EATS WASHING”. But reading the papers here for a week has left me feeling as though I am precariously balanced on a tectonic fault line. It is not the individual crimes so much as the missing framework of response. It is only in comparison that I can understand how ordered life in Britain is for most people (not all): our relatively high trust in the police, the outcry if social services fail a vulnerable individual, the accountability of politicians and public figures, and the unconscious substructure of regulations, safety nets, structure, order. It makes Britain look like a gleaming super-health-and-safety-conscious fairground in comparison to Guyana’s Jurassic Park. Please don’t think I am saying that Britain has a low crime rate (which it doesn’t), and that our social services or police always succeed (which they don’t). But it is a matter of degree, and nothing makes me as conscious of it as reading Georgetown’s newspapers.

What does this do to Georgetown society’s morale? What does it do to the capital city’s self-identity? Is it better to avoid the newspapers and risk missing the pulse of your city? Or reading from the bitter beginning to the bitter end and fighting the tug between despair, anger, blame and even shame as you try and get on with your busy life? Maybe your skin thickens as a sort of social evolution. I have noticed here in Georgetown a recurring abnegation of responsibility that strikes me forcibly in all kinds of conversations and I wonder if this news-vomit, this violent regurgitation, contributes to it. A kind of ‘disassociate or migrate’? I used to get frustrated with the recurring phrase “this is Guyana”- it sounds so defeatist. But maybe it’s a survival tactic, a refusal to inhale. The ability of Georgetowners to remain positive, creative and resilient in the face of all this strikes me as extremely impressive.

Monday, 27 September 2010


My first encounter with Godfrey was the morning after reaching Aishalton. We arrived in the middle of huge centenary celebrations commemorating Father Cary Elwes’ arrival in the Deep South Rupununi. There was Culture Show mania in the air, and where Culture Shows are, there Godfrey will be also. He had written several songs (music, and lyrics in both English and Wapishana) celebrating the occasion. These songs follow the zeitgeist of Rupununi roads- they flow with the contours, get caught up abruptly crossing a creek here and there, and meander off-road whenever it feels easier or more pleasant to do so. He has a strikingly good ear for a melody, and isn’t in the least confined by musical conventions such as a fixed time signature. He isn’t even restricted to singing a song with exactly the same tune or rhythm each time through. Which works perfectly well for a soloist, but is a little challenging for the choir, whose rehearsals take on a kind of chewing-gum bewilderment. He plays the guitar well, and the keyboard uniquely. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard ‘Amazing Grace’ played in 3/4 on the ‘auto tunes’ setting, and simultaneously in 4/4 in generous fistfuls of chords over the top? It’s a memorable experience.

Godfrey was also my first Wapishana teacher. He follows the old and trusty pedagogical method of drilling (endless repetition), but offset with startlingly complex digressions. We might learn words for fruit, for example, giving us ‘suzu’ (banana), and then Godfrey would teach us ‘suzu suzu’, literally ‘banana banana’ but actually the fork-tailed flycatcher... although Godfrey does not know the English for fork-tailed flycatcher, so a considerable portion of the lesson is spent in a describe-the-bird guessing game. We then get caught up in an exhaustive list of small brown Rupununi birds for which we now know the Wapishana but not the English. Or what the bird looks like precisely. Or what it sounds like. Let’s hope they’re mostly onomatopoeic. We never did get further than three fruits.

Both of these incarnations could be profoundly annoying, but in practice they are rather loveable because they so clearly spring from enthusiasm and the desire to create. Godfrey does everything with all of himself. It’s physically perceptible. He holds his head at a permanently engaged angle- tilted slightly to the side and back, like a walking sunbather or an expectant baby bird. Everything is wide open; his eyes, his smile, the gap between his teeth. He cannot sing or play quietly. There is a sparking and a glitter about him. If he were a Viking, he’d be called ‘Godfrey the Vigorous’.

Godfrey is not reliable in the normal usage of the word. This affects his character as a teacher; after sitting sweltering in the community centre for a few hazy afternoons, the Wapishana classes drifted off to nothing. He has recently left his stable job at the hospital, after decades, only three years before he would have qualified for a full pension. Most people scoff at that, accuse him of having no foresight, of being injudicious. I suspect that the opposite is true: I think he has taken a hard look at the future and made some big changes. He has been ill lately, and perhaps that has sharpened his focus on how he wants to spend the years he has left, and it’s not at work. I have always rated reliability highly, probably because I myself am reliable to a fault, but with Godfrey, what is reliable is his verve, his creative flux. Sure, he’d be a terrible manager, but so what? If we lose the odd beat per bar and a few words for fruit in the sparky eclectic hotpotch of a Godfrey creation, it’s probably worth the sacrifice.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Liar liar pants on fire

The other day, a lawyer called me a liar. Of course it was a joke (in self-defence at my casting nasturtiums at the integrity of the law profession), but it echoed an ongoing writing struggle that I don’t think I’ve talked about.

In choosing four Amerindians to write about for each week of Amerindian heritage month, I have begun and aborted many descriptions. First, take out the people who might read it and mind. Next, take out the venal, the drunk and the corrupt. Last, take out anyone about whom I have negative impressions on a slim acquaintance because, in my experience, it’s extremely easy to be unfair about people you don’t admire.

I slightly fear the resultant Dharma bunny accumulation. I do not want to glorify Amerindians in the way that so many people idolise Tibetans. Having lived in a 97% Tibetan town for a year, I will vouch for it that people are just people, and I believe that every city, town and village on the planet has its fair spectrum of inspiration, aspiration, ugliness and violence.

However, this is only the first, and easier, portion of the conundrum. The second is political. Guyana is, yes, a small society. On the coast everyone knows everyone, and even legitimate or verifiable criticism tends to go down like a chilli sandwich at an acid reflux convention. Double it if you’re a foreigner. Innocent of this at first, in the interior, on the one instance where I spoke unguardedly it blew up in my face like a blunderbuss stuffed with broken glass and rusty nails. I’m still picking the bits out. This limits not just freedom of speech but trust. And I can’t tell you about it.

So how can I sharpen the focus on what it is I’m not telling? I’ll give an illustration from that year on the Tibetan Plateau. The college president there is a grease of a man, who keeps his eyes half-shut to prevent their barrenness leaking into his permanent half-smile. A heavy gambler with a beautiful, silent, forbearing, unmanned wife. A heavy drinker whose favourite food is the gristly tendons from a goat’s back hock. A man who allegedly stole the whole of the college’s caterpillar fungus crop- he certainly rebuilt his house on the proceeds of something. One does not have altercations with this man; seabirds don’t have altercations with oilspills. The nearest I came was when I found a notice on a lamp-post downtown proclaiming that I would be staying for the whole of the summer vacation to give lessons in Business English to anyone who could pay (him, naturally, not me). As a VSO I was forbidden (and would also have refused) to give lessons for profit, even had I been lunatic enough to sacrifice my six weeks of hard-earned oxygen-rich air down in Xi’an. So VSO, bless them, had the altercation on my behalf. He was a significant player in that experience. My sister Ruth once accidentally made a cake with no flour in it: that’s pretty much what you’d get if I described that year without him in it.

But to a certain extent that is what I have been doing in Guyana. I have four people-descriptions tucked away that I would dearly love to load but know I never will. Cathartic to write, but Guyana will not forgive me if I make them public. Of course the contrast is partly due to the fact that almost no-one from the Tibet year can read English. But it is more than that. I think Guyana is extremely touchy about its dirty linen. Coming from a Britain where we practically compete with slagging each other off as a nation, it’s easy to fall foul of a sensitivity that is uncustomary to us. And I suspect there’s a kind of inverted disingenuous snobbery in the way a powerful country denigrates itself. I think I’ve learnt my lesson (a year ago I would have told you the Tibetan college president’s name!).
So self-censorship has run through the whole of 2009 and 2010. At one point, I actually started keeping a record of ‘the stories I didn’t write’. I look back through it now, and wonder with some amazement whether I have given any kind of genuinely evocative representation at all when I see the giant characters, the extraordinary frustrations, the pertinent and unnecessary obstructions that I have never described. It’s like expecting you to understand the dynamics of the Cinderella story with no ugly sisters and a curfew.

What is left? The truth, two-fifths of the truth and nothing but the truth.

Monday, 20 September 2010


Immaculata is 15 years old, middle daughter in a family of five children. You’ll have guessed from the name that the family is Catholic. She does not speak. This is not the result of any throat injury or vocal disability- she laughs when she is happy and giggles when she is unsure. I think it is her choice never to make loud noises, only soft ones. The restraints seem to be mental rather than physical, but no-one knows the cause.

This is a warm and close-knit family. They have developed a rudimentary sign language, but it is a blunt instrument. No-one communicates with her in any detail. This means that whilst she can read and write, it is impossible to tell how well. Whilst she understands some Wapishana, of course she does not speak it. (I asked the thoughtless question “Can you speak Wapishana?” and suddenly realised it should have been rather “Do you understand Wapishana?”, or “If you spoke, would you speak it?”). In the time that I have known her she has never volunteered communication to anyone, although she seems willingly responsive, either by signs or occasionally by writing. Does communication really exist if one never frames the question, never chooses the topic? Which leads me to wonder whether Immaculata is unreachable by choice, and if so, why.

Throughout primary school, her mother tells me, the other children were not gentle. So she decided to take her out of schooling at 12. Since then, she has lived at home and helped with the housework and the tending of children. The CRS course is her first engagement with a world wider than family and church since finishing primary school. My sister is a teaching assistant in the UK, and expectations are heavy upon them to observe and understand each child’s learning style and find ways to support them. Here there are no learning disability specialists, so no-one has ever looked into Immaculata’s situation. I do not even know if it is a “condition”. She is clearly intelligent; she keeps up easily with her fellow trainees, all of whom are secondary graduates. Her attention span is very good. She seems happy and quite untroubled. If it is a refusal to speak, refusal itself seems out of character. She has a subtle but distinct aura of openness, interest, of something like hope.

At first she is very wary of me. This manifests itself both audibly (her giggles increase and rise in pitch) and physically (if I come closer she moves behind someone). Before entering the training course she has never touched a computer. She learns at a similar pace to everyone else, faster than some because her concentration is better. Her weaving and shooting also improve more quickly than average. I think as a teacher I have an intuition for whether a person is extending themselves: I get the impression that she is not. By the end she is much more comfortable in the group environment, giggles rarely, and is completely relaxed around me.

I hope that her parents are very proud to see her running a powerpoint presentation at the closing ceremony, and to see her receive her completion certificate. She takes it very much in her stride. I wonder if another person will ever really know her. I wonder whether that is an impoverishment, or whether her solitude is a gift from herself to herself. Her whole being is a smiling secret.

Monday, 13 September 2010


Eustace is not a noticeable man. That is the first impression. I must have seen him around before last July, but the first time I really noticed him was when he slaughtered James in a bike race. It was the heats for the Deep South Games 2009. James is six foot two, was riding a titanium mountain bike, and had done the extraordinary Raid Pyrenean (a time-limited monster ride that overlaps with the Tour de France route over 21 mountain passes, not least the two most famous killers, Tourmalet and Aubisque) the previous summer. Eustace is five foot one and was riding a heavy Brazilian road bike in welly boots. He rode quietly across the finish line without a glimmer of triumph, leaving the competition considerably in his wake and whomphing like manatees.

If Leonie’s most striking feature is that smile that wells out of the centre of herself, Eustace’s most striking attribute is his spectroscopic capability. The kind of skills testosterone-ridden young men gain on expensive SAS-run survival courses are the quotidian ground of his life. At Deep South Games time we can all marvel at how fast he climbs the bare trunk of an ité tree, how quickly he lights fire from cotton, how beautifully he weaves a basket at speed, how perfectly forms an arrow from discarded scraps. For the rest of the year these are his daily occupations, not competition skills. The long bike rides in the breathless furnace of a savannah dry season afternoon, shooting fish with an arrow made on the creek bank, finding unexpected pawpaws and quickly weaving a basket to carry them home in, shinning up a coconut palm using a ripped palm leave twisted into a figure of eight round his feet, with a sharpened machete shoved in the back of his trousers. Confident that he will not fall.

It is not that Eustace is unusually quiet, or bad with words. But I have rarely met someone to whom words are so dispensable. He uses them competently, like a foreigner who is pretty good with chopsticks, but the effect is of a skill learnt, not an integral part of his personality. If he thought about it, I guess he would judge words as a pretty poor medium of communication. But I don’t think he’d find that train of thought interesting. Eustace teaches weaving and archery on our young adult training course. Some of the students complain that he does not explain. I do not want to interfere with his equilibrium by articulating the scope of what he is teaching. Besides, it cannot be pinned down like that. He is bringing himself into the course; other people can bring explanations. He is also one of the community development plan team, where he listens and judges and intervenes only at need. He is on the village council, where I suspect he is equally laconic and equally valued.

There is a quietness in his face that would be easy to mistake for gentleness. I don’t think it is. I think it is peace. I think that he has chosen a life in which there are no ambitions, and few nagging worries, tugs of loyalty or twisted feelings, and is enjoying the fruit of that choice without vanity and without drama. Eustace is one of the most impressive men I have ever met, but I suspect he would be astonished and baffled to hear that, and I’m not sure it would be welcome. He neither knows nor cares whether he impresses. That is the taproot of his dignity.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Social gyaffs and social gaffes

I have had the great good fortune to make friends by accident. Two Georgetown photographers who found James’ blog tripped across mine too, and gradually through comments and chats we became friends- rather like the imaginary friends children have. Mind you, I was never 100% sure that they weren’t actually Greek girls or Canadian schoolboys or Kyrgyz herdsmen taking the piss out of me.

Strange, then, to arrange to meet up in Georgetown. I was curiously nervous, because I am very open in my blog and I had never realised until it came to the crunch how much that is a product of being so far from everyone who reads it. I suddenly observe, planning to meet these two, that I have rather laid my life out like cold cuts on a platter, and it’s very out of character for me to profligate my privacy so.

I needn’t have worried. Their balance of warmth and decorum is unimpeachable - Mr Roast Pork almost steps backwards as he shakes my hand. In Guyana, they tell me, if a married man is seen out with another woman, murmuring indubitably follows. But surely the three of us out together acts as a kind of mutual chaperone? No, it’s just as bad, because I’m out without my husband. The fact that he is 500 miles away does not excuse me. This makes me rather uncomfortable- I’m not used to being forward, rash and risqué simply by stepping out of the door with Other Men, especially not in my usual Guyana nunny bag-lady clothes. It’s funny but inhibiting. I find myself taking shallower breaths. My personality is testing the confines of a corset.

I knew already that Georgetown is a small and therefore self-absorbed (gossipy) society. But it had not crossed my mind that adults in Guyana might be less free than they are in the UK. It’s not a visible constraint- you wouldn’t know it unless someone tells you. I am fascinated and puzzled. I mean, one man, one woman, dodgy nightclub and lots of booze, yes- that might raise a few eyebrows. But three people aged 29 or over having a beer in daylight in full public view? My sister used to laugh at my gaucheness when I came to London and stiffened over kissing people on the cheek, but I feel positively touchy-feely in this context. We went out to gyaff- I spent the first half-hour fretting that I would gaffe.

I soon forgot my self-consciousness, though. I never thought when I was gradually, carefully building trust and friendships with Amerindians in the interior, that it would simultaneously deepen friendships with people reading my venting, ranting and pontificating too. Long-term friends far away email to say they feel they know me much better now. And I would never have met Mr Cult Leader and Mr Roast Pork if it weren’t for my blog: that seems very clear. Here, it isn’t really on for a husband and wife to have separate friends. Mr Cult Leader was saying that he and his wife do, but it was stated as a matter of pride, of distinctiveness, not the matter of course it would be among my UK friends. I think we would see only having the same friends as a danger for a couple, not a positive. Here it’s ever so slightly radical.

Which gets me to wondering if this causes society to polarise- between respectable people who carry an Edith Wharton constraint with them, and lairy men who shout the most explicit ‘compliments’/ insults / suggestions at me on the street. Does the one feed the other? I asked if that means that men have mainly male friends, then, and women mainly female. On the whole that seems to be true. And there is an expectation that your parents will know your friends. It suddenly strikes me how very vulgar expats must appear here- what coarse social manners they must display, and how sleazy they must seem. But I, insanely decorous all my life, would hate to have sex restricting my choice of friends. I’m not very good at the girly girl stuff. And doing everything as a couple would be stifling. I think James and I feel enriched by our souls’ very different feeding troughs.

We talk about the brain drain, possibly the only strong kinship between Guyana and Northern Ireland where I grew up. Both men state very positively that the drivers of migration are women. Considering the discussion we had had already about Georgetown’s goldfish bowl of gossip, and noting that it is the husbands and not the wives I am meeting, I can imagine myself finding this self-absorbed society restrictive: perhaps that is a motivating factor for Guyanese women too. Well-paid jobs are not plentiful, and I don’t know what the statistics say on equity in the workplace but with Guyana’s birth rates and motherhood demographics (high expectation to start popping early, girls), it can’t be a feminist’s paradise. Roast Pork and Cult Leader say that they would not leave Guyana, although only time will tell whether their wives take the same view...

Those are the things they say. Then, of course, there are all the things they don’t say. They inhabit a complex multicultural cocktail of an atmosphere profoundly unlike the rarefied monocultural clarity of the Aishalton oxygen I am used to. There are no references to gaffes in my blog. They don’t fish for compliments on their generosity in sticking their necks out to entertain me. They don’t elucidate how extraordinarily ignorant I am of the country I’ve spent the past two years in, although they do introduce me to Dave Martins’ weekly column so that I can discover this for myself. I have since learnt that the correct expression for my cultural numptyhood is that “I don’t know all the fine fine”- I don’t understand the myriad nuances of Georgetown culture, and by extension (since this is the bulk of the population) Guyana, at all. And there is the whole different ambience in which we talk. I hear a definitiveness, a crispness, a kind of vaunting and hyperbole and fizz in their speech that is partly capital city and partly distinctively Guyanese. It’s a friendly and enjoyably baffling evening. The fact that I am tantalised rather than humiliated by my ignorance is a testament to something- Guyanese hospitality? Online friendships? Or just that they are goodhearted guys?

There’s a distancing pleasure in watching old friends gyaff. They comment crisply and with aspersion on each other’s increasingly elaborate retelling of old anecdotes. They scoff and mock and laugh like an old married couple, with some deliberate irony and some less deliberate. I think the fact that marriages are different in this culture means that the line of friendship falls differently too. There’s an almost deliberate play on yin-yang that I haven’t experienced since my early twenties. Gyaffing isn’t just a different word for chatting; it is actually a perceptibly different activity. Great fun, but like any new language, it would take time to absorb into oneself. I’ve been wondering lately what this blog is for. Maybe it’s the nearest I’ve ever got to a proper gyaff.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Climate Control

Through the bars on my window I stare for hours at a mango tree. My Aishalton eyes know this to be a mangy city tree, but it is visually pleasing notwithstanding. Its bark is brownish grey, coated with a flakey undercoat of moss the colour of a furry, diseased tongue. By craning my neck at a creaky breaky angle, I can see a fat, split knot identical to one of the gargoyles on New College’s south wall. It hefts its ugly chin at me, squab and swarthy. Its expression is part grumpy comedian, part dungeonmaster.

As counterpoint to my solid ailments I’m also getting variations on the vapours. It makes me feel rather Victorian. For example, I’m allergic to insect bites, so I over-use the air conditioning. Thus my toes are frozen, and my brain bemused by the indoor British climate, complete with gargoyles, absurdly vying with a gleaming mango tree framed against a deep tropical sky four feet away.

Every half hour or so, a new creature will sample the tree’s hospitality. First, a slim green lizard slides silkily upward, pulsing. He too cranes his neck, flaunting a flexibility unavailable to the larger species. Second, a hummingbird thrills its few assessing seconds before rejecting the mango tree’s paucity and passing by. The next visitor is a gecko, darting distinctively, bulgy-eyed, ungraceful but charming. And finally a kiskadee stomps over, raucous and extrovert, chewing its beaky cud.

It feels so like an airlock that I struggle to believe in the ever-present heat awaiting me out there. I struggle to believe that I am free to leave. I feel like a junior Chinese philosopher who is in trouble with his Master for squandering this mango tree’s existential potential by wasting time casting aspersions at ugly gargoyles and whinging about his unrepentantly crumbling physiology. I wish I could draw.

Monday, 6 September 2010


I have never seen a smile suffuse a person so radiantly as Leonie’s does.

The first time I met Leonie, I had been in Aishalton for about three weeks. We were still living in the Village Guesthouse (Mosquito Optimum Breeding Biohazard Zone of the Western Hemisphere). I was two weeks into fulltime secondary school teaching, jumping straight in with no preparation a month into term. It was hot- PLEEENTY plenty hot. I was sweaty, stressy and smelly. I had not smiled, myself, for some days.

I was invited along to observe the women’s sewing and leadership training. Twelve women were learning to use Singer 974s, Leonie among them. Back then I struggled to distinguish faces. Every woman is a similar height, all have dark brown eyes, all have long black hair, almost always worn up. Most are between 4ft 7 and 5ft, and most women over thirty are comfortably girthed with huggable rolls. Distinguishing features are subtle, compounded by the fact that everyone over sixty relinquishes their name to the ubiquitous, affectionate ‘ko’oko’- ‘Granny’.

They were learning about empowerment and the Johari window that day (that’s a self-analysis tool invented, I’m sorry to say, by two Americans called Joe and Harry who thought “Johari” sounded classier). Intending only to observe, I was startled to be called up to the blackboard and asked (told!) to “present something”. Now that I know how inured Aishaltoners are to outsiders coming in to talk, and never to listen, I can understand the reasoning behind this. At the time I was caught unprepared. So I said something about different kinds of power, gave some examples, and then set them a task to do in pairs. I can look back and freeze-frame their faces in my memory’s eye: Alison looking terrified, Gloria shellshocked, Anastasia shutter-faced. How lovely it would be to replay that scene now, friends and neighbours! How much laughter and banter there would be. I think some confidences shared, too.

Anyway, nervous and tense, I looked round and round again, seeking a chink in the armadillo armour separating me from these women. I can be an intimidating person, I know it to my cost, and worst of all when I’m nervous. I looked for a way in, for a break in the clouds, for a pair I could call upon to speak first. And I caught Leonie’s eye, and she smiled all over her round, pretty, well-used face, and her eyes gleamed like water catching sunlight. She quenched everything else in the room. I completely forgot to be nervous, she and her partner kicked us off and the rest was plain sailing.

Leonie bakes for a living. She runs a little mud booth called ‘Fingers’, where on Sundays (and Wednesdays and Fridays if you’re lucky) you can buy fresh bread, salara (kind of bread-swiss-roll stuffed with sweet dyed coconut), burgers, buns, and sometimes meat-and-farine or a portion of curry. On Fingers days she is usually up by 3am cooking in her homemade wood-fired oven. She is also a seamstress and makes uniforms and other clothes, mainly for family. She farms on her small plot, a few hour’s walk away, several days each week. Her youngest child is now 11, and I suspect she has been bringing up children for about twenty-five years.

I try to introduce a little grit to my description- I search for a moment in our eighteen-month acquaintance which shows Leonie in a less sunny light. She talks little. Fingers is not always open when she says it will be. That is all the grit I can find. Fairy godmothers are all very well: Leonie is the real thing. SHE makes the dress, then prepares the wonderful meal, creates the carriage and dazzles the handsome prince into being in the right place at the right time. She smiles like the sun coming up, and lo and behold, it does.

It is Leonie’s birthday next week. I know this because, last year, we arrived at the shop unbeknownst and were given a free meal because it was her birthday. I expostulated ineffectually with my mouth full- and later asked did she ALWAYS make her own birthday cake? She smiled her amazing smile and said yes, of course, as if the question was a joke. I asked further, has she NEVER been given a birthday cake? No. One of my saddest specific regrets about leaving early was being foiled in my plan of arriving at Leonie’s on 18th September with a home-baked cake and a balloon. But the cake, of course, would be very temporary. The smile is perennial.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Amerindian Heritage Month

How can you generalise about humans? I am often staggered by how unfeasibly different even family members can be. Generalisations about races went out with the Ark (as did all races- except the Chosen People, and a few lucky bestial couples, along with of course a lot of very smug fish who have harked back to it ever since as the Great Piscine Renaissance).

Nevertheless, there are some things I’ve noticed about ‘Amerindians’ as a group which fascinate me. To celebrate Amerindian Heritage Month, which starts today, I should like to start by mentioning some of those observations. Then each Monday I will attempt a ‘portrait’ of one of the Wapishana people I have got to know in Aishalton.

When I arrived in Guyana, I was told that Amerindians are shy. I believe this impression comes from two things: in my experience, Amerindians talk less than Guyana’s other populations, and I have found them to be reticent with strangers. The first Amerindian I met completed most of a seven-hour jeep journey without speaking to me, and would not make eye contact, let alone return my smiles. I thought I must have either gaffed horribly, or repulsed her with some malodorous foulness or other. The following day she came up beaming and threw her arms round me. I don’t believe it’s shyness so much as an instinctive, uncalculated caution. The vast majority of the Amerindians I have met have been both very friendly and very private. It’s a warm yet respectful combination.

Sorry, I know it’s a cliché, but they are happier. This might be due to the fact (from my experience, I believe it to be fact) that people in developing countries, especially in rural areas (I suspect it isn’t true in the capitals), are brilliant at getting enjoyment out of a life whenever nothing is going actively wrong, where many of us developed country people seem to be expecting something to be going actively right in order to be happy. Maybe that is part of the reason why they are also widely perceived as passive: maybe their passivity is connected to their skill at contentment, and to sacrifice the one is to threaten the other.

We are formed by our language: of course the Wapishana language has shaped the consciousness of people in Aishalton. My teacher told me that the word “wapichan” means “slow and methodical” and the word “macushi” means quick, so a Wapishana will do a slow, laborious, thorough job where a Macushi will finish faster but less finely. All those gorgeous details, such as the word for face meaning literally ‘the savannah of the eyes’ and solar eclipse being rendered as ‘sun death’, create a mind-map uniquely contoured to suit life here. Having a small vocabulary also affects the way you view the world: grouping things differently, relying on words less. It makes it difficult to teach here, and to write up group documents with any kind of consensus.

Wapishanas have an immediacy of the mind which is lost to those of us who have learned detachment. They are either out or in. When they read a novel or a poem, the writer IS the protagonist. My trainees could not detach themselves to do a task purely as an example: at the Training Centre we did an exercise to teach spreadsheets, where the trainees called out scores for themselves in various personality traits. The spreadsheet training was swept away as people got thoroughly enthralled by the content. I’ve seen it in all sorts of fields, that incapacity to think in the abstract. In a way, I think it’s really good that we Westerners are able to look at ourselves as consumers, as audience, as targets for an advertising campaign- can see how the writer is trying to manipulate us at the same time as we read his message. But it sucks away our spontaneity. Our capacity for enthralment is stunted.

How much of this is cultural and how much socialisation cannot be disentangled. These are my impressions; I wouldn’t claim them to be diagnoses.

Amerindians are one of the great romanticised ethnic groups in the modern world, along with Tibetans and a few others. In a way, they are blessed by their isolation, and the fact that an outsider cannot “become” an Amerindian. The Dalai Lama does not encourage converts to Tibetan Buddhism. He points out that we are born into a culture and religion or world view and it’s probably as well to stay there. But he gets stuck with a lot of post-modernist Tibetan Buddhists (memorably termed “dharma bunnies” by a rather scurrilous friend of mine in Xining) who shop for the peace and harmony and try to ignore the sky burial, the occasional fat-cat Rimpoches and the status quo feudalism that come with it.

Perhaps because outsiders cannot buy in, perhaps simply from isolation, most Amerindians (unless they have lived on the coast) are unused to presenting themselves; either to impress, or to be understood. Ask a villager “what do you do?” and you will probably get a blank stare in return. The 1001 questions that determine job, status, abilities, social level and background are utterly meaningless here. I and most of my British friends probably don’t consider ourselves vain, but we have been packaging ourselves in increasingly sophisticated wrappings since our eleven plus or first SATs, or whenever the world first held up its yardstick and raised a sardonic eyebrow. Amerindians in the interior don’t do this. The outcome is that the careless or biassed bystander will confirm their prejudice that Amerindians are unimpressive, and will entirely misunderstand them. And I’m not entirely sure that anyone cares. I sincerely hope that they continue not to give a tinker’s cuss. What happens when Amerindians move to the coast, though?- that’s when the misunderstandings become dangerous.