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.