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)
“MAN CHOPS NEIGHBOUR AS PAYMENT FOR RENTED HORSE”
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)
“BABY DUMPED IN LARINE (sic)... COPS TO CHARGE MOTHER”
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)
“GUNMEN TERRORISE CORRIVERTON FAMILY DURING HOME INVASION”
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)
“GOV’T REJECTS INT’L CALLS FOR ‘PHANTOM SQUAD’ PROBE”
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)
“COPS NAB SUSPECT WITH BAG OF GUNS- SAVAGELY BITTEN IN THE PROCESS”
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)
“FAMILY FACES ABUSE ALLEGATIONS AFTER CANCER PATIENT’S DEATH- AUTOPSY ORDERED”
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)
“WE APOLOGISE- SINGHS SAY RACIST REMARKS MADE OUT OF FRUSTRATION”
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.