Monday, 28 June 2010

The Glamour of Glacé Cherries is upon me

Amongst the eclectic accretion of books gracing the walls of Georgetown’s Jesuit presbytery is a splendid junky paperback called “Don’t Stop the Carnival” by Herman Wouk. I wish I was called Herman (Hermione?) Wouk. It must be very freeing.

This paperback is fronted with a wonderful retro-glam 1970’s photograph of a cocktail (glacé cherries! with Fresh Slices of Orange! in a champagne glass! caressed by harlot-red long nails! who could resist the delicious frisson of sin?). It proclaims itself “spiced with sex and tragedy”. An author with a moniker like Herman Wouk can gleefully cast his pearls with éclat into a pigswill plot. Glittering mischievously, almost buried in the gleeful mêlée of characters and plot twists, are some imaginative and sensible social theories.

This one is my favourite: “The West Indian is not exactly hostile to change, but he [sic] is not much inclined to believe in it. This comes from a piece of wisdom that his climate of eternal summer teaches him. It is that, under all the parade of human effort and noise, today is like yesterday, and tomorrow will be like today; that existence is a wheel of recurring patterns from which no-one escapes; that all anybody does in this life is live for a while and then die for good, without finding out much; and that therefore the idea is to take things easy and enjoy the passing time under the sun”.

It’s thought-provoking. Once I have got over my 21st century post-feminist itch at the lordly, rather colonialist reverberation of it, I wonder if he’s right. I ponder its relevance to Guyana.

He goes on immediately to burst another bubble: “The white people charging hopefully around the island hammering up hotels, laying out marinas, opening new banks, night clubs and gift shops, are to him merely a passing plague. They have come before and gone before”.

Over the last couple of weeks I have talked to several friends doing development work in Georgetown. My envy at their communications and resources and networking opportunities was quickly superseded by sympathy. The dogs are in their mangers. Where cooperation could be increasing their impact, competitiveness and territorialism are building distrust instead. There is a whiff of hostility in the air. We white people may not be hammering up hotels and laying out marinas, but how different do our new, 'developmental' projects look to Guyanese? There are some excellent, professional, committed, sincere white people working in Georgetown, but to my surprise many of them envy me, living and working at ‘the grassroots’, far from the partitioned and thinly suspicious air of Georgetown. Not being treated as ‘merely a passing plague’. Not even, I dare to think, being viewed that way by my community.

How humbling, to have the rug tugged out from under the sensible shoes of Development by a cocktail-hour comic thriller! I admire and envy Herman Wouk’s disregard. I think he got a great deal of cheeky enjoyment out of writing an airport paperback with a stronger theoretical underpinning than the nihilistic dullities provided by many post-doctoral battery bantams. National curriculum designers all over the globe should be patting him on the back for writing a truly differentiated novel. He invites you to ponder, or not, because he doesn’t give a toss either way. He gets away with it because it’s utterly non-sanctimonious. What a refreshing challenge!

Saturday, 12 June 2010

To create your future, or let it create you?

I grew up in a TV-free house as a cultured cultural weirdo. Despite this, I absorbed a little bit of When You Wish Upon a Star-ness from a 70’s Britain of anomalies. How the universe manages to exhale Maggie Thatcher and Disney in the same breath without needing some kind of metaphysical Heimlich manoeuvre I’ll never know, but somehow it does. The future was a rosy series of beckoning successes, especially for swots. I would reach out and pluck the results I needed, a fabulous life partner, a good job and some satisfying avocations from the garden of life. ‘I can show you the world, shining, shimmering, splendid...’ I don’t think I was abnormally responsible in expecting to take quite a lot of control of my future, or abnormally lucky in expecting it to be pretty good on the whole.

Here attitudes to the future are a lot more tentative, for many good reasons. Last October, I wrote about a Community Development Plan I was hoping to work through with Aishalton Village Council ( Last Sunday we at last brought to birth a plan that has been a tidy nine months in gestation.

The pregnancy analogy is apt. The lack of control. The constant worry and anticipation. The effort needed at every stage. The careful adjustment of everything over a period of months, but combined with a sense of powerlessness about this creature that is forming itself out of nothing. And not least, the knowledge that the ‘end’ of the whole arduous process is not an end at all, but the beginning of a journey which will take on a life of its own, whilst still unapologetically taking over yours.

My own role in the planning process has oscillated wildly, from the ideal of detached benevolent facilitator through basic skills tutor to nagging Little Red Hen. I have been asked to intervene and keep out, train and facilitate and watch and stay away. Individuals on the steering group have ranged between conscientious, absent, brilliant, unreliable, dominant, baffled and drunk. I have made facilitation resources with fishing net, clothes pegs, backwards sticky tape, chopped-up clear pockets, scrubbed kebab spikes, old packing boxes and an overstretched imagination. I have felt excited, thrilled, frustrated, rejected, despairing, involved, implicated and alienated, sometimes several of them at once.

In the end, this is what happened. On 1st March we had a launch event. That was a riot. About 120 people turned up. I cannot be sure exactly how many came for the free snacks, but I have no qualms about bribery at an event that exists to capture attention and generate enthusiasm. What matters is that when they came in, they engaged with it all. The constituencies we identified right back in October were pegged on the wall, and B photographed people displaying which constituencies they belong to, creating a gorgeous poster. To our delight, someone from every single constituency was at the launch. We had to add an extra flipchart to the giant draw-it-yourself poster introducing the vision, to accommodate all the different ideas. The problem tree burgeoned with leaves.

Young and old alike crowded round the jigsaw puzzle, and listened to the beginner’s guide to chess and strategic thinking. The good things and opportunities represented by really yummy cakes, spicy doughballs and beef patties received their fair share of attention but no more. We ended late because the jigsaw group didn’t want to leave until they completed it!

The momentum carried through pretty well to the Vision day on 22nd March. Five different groups met, under trees and in benabs, at bars and shops and churches. All of them visualised the future they want for Aishalton five years from now, and through discussion came up with their most important elements. There were seven in total; better education for all, improved infrastructure and power, good health and prosperity, building positively on Wapishana culture, good and enjoyable new activities, better land use and taking advantage of local resources.

I knew the next stage would be the hardest, but I did not dare to expect such a reflective, self-critical outcome. In three larger groups this time, we met on 26th April to identify the obstacles that prevent Aishalton from reaching its best potential. Fourteen big obstacles were identified, and if an outsider came in and said those things they would get lynched! Out of the mouths of Aishalton’s villagers came the following insights. “Disrespect, negativity and selfishness are harming the way we work together. Disheartened by bad infrastructure, we don’t manage our skills and resources to the full. We neglect our elders. Leaders at all levels are not building trust through good example. We neglect community education, and undervalue schooling. Medical understaffing and our inadequate diet and hygiene are affecting health. We are not taking enough responsibility for our land, water and produce. We are not building pride in Wapishana culture. Abuse and neglect in the family is damaging individuals. Poverty is preventing some people from improving their opportunities. Alcohol abuse and drunkenness are damaging families, work and community. Bureaucracy and political channels block our progress. Negative influences and lack of opportunities are reducing young people’s interest. Religious disagreements hinder cooperation.” Coming from an NGO, a priest or a politician, this would be an unwelcome and devastating critique. Coming from the inside, I would say that this level of self-knowledge, and willingness to analyse, offer a lot of hope for the future.

After this marathon, our Solutions meeting on 31st May was a relief. One big group met in the Community Centre. Low brick walls and slim tree trunks support a neat ité thatch, providing a cool and semi-enclosed space for public meetings, and the rest of the time sheltering cows and horses with extremely poor bladder control- they retreat into the Community Centre from the wildest storms, and moo, poo and chew the night away. Then a couple of hours before each community event, a few middle-aged ladies are sent round with brooms to remove the evidence. Meetings always start with tidy benches, clean floors and air mysteriously full of dung-motes, a not unpleasant earthy ambience.

We used the problems generated a month earlier to seek out wider solutions that would apply to all of them, coming up with strategic directions which will act as a rudder for the Village Council over the coming five years. We chose four; developing skills & creating opportunities, building strong, healthy families, sustaining & strengthening cultural activities, and developing leadership & responsibility. At the end we invited anyone from this session to be involved with turning these into an Action Plan for the coming year.

And now at last we had reached the final hurdle. On 6th June, a group of about 20 of us, with plenty of Village Councillors and steering group members, met in the Council Office to decide where to start. Participants selected which of the four directions they felt most passionate about, and we divided into four groups accordingly. Each group had a large collection of ideas from the other stages, as well as their own new ideas generated on the spot. From these they picked eight do-able actions and chose a logical order in which to do them for the coming year. Some are simple but clearly necessary; establish responsibility for proper garbage disposal, organise workshops for people interested in kitchen gardening, establish a body to seek funds for needy students. Others are more visionary; run video shows dealing with domestic problems, focus group to develop cotton weaving in Aishalton, consult youth group about what leadership training they need. At the end of the meeting, each group went out clutching their A4 implementation plans for each action in the first quarter, looking apprehensive, worrying about buy-in and success, suddenly holding tangible responsibility in their hands. The following day, lying in my hammock, I could hear voices drifting over from the quarterly Public Meeting, Aishalton’s main democratic forum, explaining the CDP and reading out the strategic directions. No-one called me over to explain anything. It belongs to the Council now. Where it will take them is anyone’s guess. It might fail. It might vanish. It might get eroded into a series of ad hoc activities. Or it might bring about a gradual shift in villagers’ sense of control, a trickle of confidence when facing outsiders with opinions about Aishalton’s development, a greater engagement with their future, and determination to do what they can to make it better.

Launch, Vision, Obstacles, Strategy, Actions. All those months of work for a series of small planned activities, fragile and for the most part unresourced. Why is it worth it? I have to return to the pregnancy analogy. It’s worth it because there is nothing more important. It’s worth it because the independence of something you had a hand in creating has far more potential for greatness than it ever would have if it stayed in you. It’s worth it because there can be nothing more humbling, more thrilling, more demeaning, more infuriating and more glorious than conceiving of something alive, independent, and then letting it go and create a future in which you will be incidental. Let’s face it, all you parents, writers, inventors, Dr Frankensteins and erstwhile creators out there, we have to feel lucky that we were in at the beginning, that we generated something, because from the minute you let it go, and you must let it go, it’s you that is on your own.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Just another day in Paradise

My first sight every morning as I swing open the shutters is the timbers of the unfinished community centre. Its new occupant is a dog who thinks he’s a wolf. Every time the oxyacetylene cylinder that thinks it’s a church bell rings, he raises his snout and howls long and mournful. His pitch is high and not at all tuneful, but he definitely has illusions. Florence Foster-Jenkins in dog’s clothing.

Rainy season is entering the protein-breathing stage. Every inhalation is populated by tiny flies, especially in the kitchen. They gleam like dust motes in the sunshine, but dustmotes don’t itch when they land. Cooking is an increasing challenge as they multiply exponentially around fresh food. What with holding my breath for the flies, blocking my nose for the rubbish bag (which festers roisterously in rainy season) and closing my eyes for the onions, I’m heading for sensory blackout in there.

The okra are thriving in the sporadic rain. Sliced and sautéed as low as they will go with mountains of garlic, they are a good consolation prize for the scarcity of meat and fish. Unfortunately garlic has recently sold out in all the shops. How will I cope?

Most of the ground in central Aishalton is now spongy and porous, like walking in fresh tofu. Footwear is a difficult choice. Flipflops are the most practical but maximise the bites, and the claggiest slimiest mud between the toes is only pleasurable to the under tens, especially those who don’t do laundry. ‘Waterproof’ boots aren’t, except that when the water comes in over the top it can’t make its escape.

Every track is pooling in the ruts, so the grass on either side is getting steadily more and more worn. The frogs have endless evocative twilight moments to burp out their love songs. The cattle egrets are flocking here now that we are officially one big marsh. Watch their complex arabesques and you will be forgiven for believing the dance is for beauty, or for you. But look closer, shorten your focus a foot in front, and you will see that the dragonfly is leading the chase, and the egret is dancing for his dinner.

A storm in the west times itself at sundown. Sheet lightning as usual. Its heavy cumulonimbii crowd in to quench the sunset, which in defiance dyes the lightning instead. I watch and marvel at ten minutes of perfect pink sheet lightning, whilst in the foreground the fireflies shimmy and wink in the papaya tree.

My last sound at night is the cow trying to break in. She bashes on the door rhythmically with her horns, increasing in speed and anthropomorphic regularity as the lightning gets closer. It is almost impossible to believe that it isn’t a person knocking. Yesterday she made it in, through the three bolts. B staggered into the hall at 2:30am to find a massive brindled rump extending from dining table to front doorstep. It’s not restful, sleeping in a house so attractive to bovine keraunophobes. When I’m sleeping alone in the house, listening to the horses scream, and half the fauna of Aishalton trying to creep, bash, slide, fly, hammer or crawl their way into my home, I hardly sleep at all. In the morning I will go out to find horse hoofprints deeply embedded in the mat an inch from the door, cowpats under every window shutter, and the last of the lilies cropped short by the sheep.

The one thing I can never, ever hope to convey to you is this. The powerful, often unseductive ordinariness of all of these things. It isn’t romantic. It isn’t exotic. It’s as real and as boring and exactly as rich in potential as your morning commute to work. Which of course has all the possibilities of an Awfully Big Adventure, especially for the philosopher and the Pollyanna!