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Paralysed with fear in Guyana

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Much of my time in Guyana is spent trying to not be afraid – as much as some people would like me to be. Fear is often seen as a positive rather than a negative sentiment. To be fearless is to be careless, to invite trouble on yourself.

Fear can be a necessary emotion, like pain. It tells us something is wrong, and that we need to do something about it. But while pain ends as soon as the treatment begins working, fear doesn’t. It sticks around long after the danger has passed – knotting itself into your guts like a cancer so you can no longer tell if it’s your instinct or fear talking.

Don’t leave your bike there. Don’t walk there. Don’t take the bus. Don’t go there alone. Don’t trust them. Don’t trust anyone. Watch what you say to who. Don’t tell them you’ve gone away. Get extra grills. Don’t go to Guyana, fullstop. 

Sometimes the advice is wise, sometimes it’s necessary, sometimes it’s not. Deciding which is which is not always easy. And before you know find yourself being ‘safe rather than sorry’ about everything. Just stepping out of the house feels reckless.

One of the first things that fear destroys is trust. That’s why receipts are stamped by someone who’s not the cashier, why there are bag bays in superstores, why you need your ID to pay by card at a supermarket, why people are reluctant to advertise their prices, why the customs inspector at Guyana Post Office bore holes through the soap I was sending to a friend – testing, presumably, for drugs.

It seems unnecessarily suspicious, but then I haven’t experienced what happens when these trusts are betrayed.

I haven’t lived through times when the possessions I broke my back to buy were stolen from under my nose. Or when family and friends deceived me for their own gain. I haven’t had someone pull a knife or gun on me. I haven’t had someone threaten my life for just speaking my mind. I haven’t had my front door beaten down (well, a couple of thieves tried to kick my door down once years ago in the UK but they didn’t get through).

Perhaps if that had happened to me again and again I would not be able to dismiss the fear so quickly.

The problem with living in fear, though, is that while you may stop the bad things happening – you also stop the good. How many innovative ideas have never been realised because someone was worried a rival would steal or copy them? How many films or albums sit on hard drives, safe from pirates but unseen? How many frightened people spend sleepless nights or nervous days, waiting for what they see as the inevitable? How many beautiful relationships have never begun because of a fear of what could go wrong? How many leaders have never taken the lead because it was less risky or scary to continue with the status quo?

Growing up, my dad often quoted President Roosevelt as saying, ‘The only thing to fear is fear itself’. It was part of Roosevelt’s inaugural address on being elected in 1933 – at a time when America was in the grip of the Great Depression. Fear was something he tried to banish from the minds of his electorate. Today, leaders fan the flames of fear to get into power – and then to maintain their grip on it.

Speaking to my Communications students about ethics in the media, I showed them an Al-Jazeera video analysing media manipulation in Kenya, which is due to go to the polls – like Guyana – in 2020. Like Guyana, Kenyan elections are often beset by ethnic tensions and fierce political rivalry. The video showed a campaign ad that played on its viewers’ worst fears, imagining a future Kenya where communities are removed from their homes, where there is no money for clean water, and where women are giving birth in the streets.

What fear-mongering can Guyanese expect in the coming few years from all political parties? Are we ready to withstand it, to question it? Are we willing to criticise parties for using fear tactics? As internet connectivity spreads across the country and sensationalist ‘news’ websites mushroom, how will GECOM or the GPA guard against the spreading of fake, malicious and prejudicial coverage without trampling on press freedoms?

Guyana is a scary place for many people, especially those Guyanese living overseas who wrap themselves in a nostalgic, rose-tinted view of Guyana – while being terrified to actually step foot in the country they rhapsodise about. Yet is it really the worst place in the world? Sometimes you would think so.

A neighbour stops me almost every day to share a new fear. An errant relative. An unknown figure on the street. A particular corner where you could get mugged around 1pm. “Girl, I frighten”. She tries to pass on her fears, and seems almost disappointed if I don’t share in them or immediately pledge to change my habits.

There are some fears that are justified and real. But when every decision we make is an act of fear, we become paralysed by it.

[Main image: Image from page 130 of “Natural history of Selborne and observations on nature [microform]” (1904), via Flickr]

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All the things that were not said

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The worst country in the world, Untitled, Untitled, The oil man cometh, Things I would like to get rid of in Guyana, Which Guyana do you want to live in?, Guyana on screen, Where’s the music at?, One year in Guyana, Black, gold + green, Things to do in a blackout, How to be a foreigner in Guyana, How to be a foreigner, Aborted words, Garlic is an aphrodisiac… and other things I learned at the Ayurveric cookery class, Making a disgraceful Brexit, Coming from foreign, Looking the wrong way on Independence Day, GuyExpo 2016, I am the midnight mosquito killer, How do you pick your battles?, On being overwhelmed, The man who designed Guyana’s Golden Arrow flag, Flower power: The school girl fighting mosquitoes with curry plant, In pictures: A snapshot of Linden Guyana, First local elections in 22 years, A poem fuh women’s day.

Looking in the draft folder of this blog, I find 27 unpublished pieces. Blogs I began and decided against finishing or sharing.

Sometimes it was because I was tired of my own voice. I found that blogs quickly turned into advice columns with me saying how things should be in Guyana. And who needs another foreigner doing that? (Didn’t stop me the other times though, clearly.)

Sometimes I just got distracted by life. It happens and I’m increasingly making peace with that. As a freelancer I’m used to putting pressure on myself to get things done, but I’m learning to say: if you don’t do it, is it really the end of the world? Which is both good and bad.

Sometimes I find what seemed so articulate in my head seems trite on the page. Cycling home from the screening of a film I was hit with a rush of inspiration to talk about the need to value artists. But what came out on the page felt unoriginal and lecturing.

Finding your voice on the page is a challenge. Finding your spoken voice is another thing. I’ve never been so conscious of my accent as since being in Guyana. I feel powerless over how it is perceived: ‘posh’, ‘proper’, valuable, incomprehensible, strange, funny.

Fairly soon after arriving Guyana, I found my accent was a joke for the moderators at two separate events. One dismissed my raised hand and that of another British person, saying: “Can we have a question from someone’s who’s not British?” Another compared my quiet, mumbling, British style of speaking in comparison to clearer American diction.

I was partly delighted to have the British accent disparaged, after the privilege it has demanded and enforced for so many years – often at the expense of other languages and accents. But, of course, I felt somewhat self-conscious too. I still rarely speak up at public events, where a ‘different’ accent usually causes people to spin around in their seats.

The sad thing is that ‘different’ voice could include a Guyanese one. How often, after all, is Creolese the language of debates, talks, Q&A sessions, and presentations in Guyana? How many Guyanese also feel reluctant to speak up because they’re worried about someone laughing at a Creolese term or a ‘wrong’ pronunciation?

But I’m also trying to stop overthinking. Twice recently I’ve queried my ability to do something because of my accent and whether or not I’d be understood. The second time I stopped and said, ‘Maybe I’m being too sensitive’. ‘Just a bit,’ was a friend’s diplomatic response.

Like my writing, my accent is fluid and changeable. I don’t know if that makes me inauthentic and false or flexible and considerate. And it isn’t just a Guyana thing. I hear myself become more cockney with certain people back in London. When I lived in Ghana for three months, I picked up expressions, like ‘Ehen’ – that satisfying note of agreement. Travelling in Brazil for six weeks gave me ‘Oopa!’ and, briefly, an exclamation something like ‘Oosh’. Perhaps it’s inevitable that we adjust our language and try out new words, like clothing, as we try find our way in unfamiliar places.

One of Guyana’s most famous poets, Grace Nichols, once wrote: “I have crossed an ocean, I have lost my tongue. From the root of the old one, a new one has sprung”.

I’m not sure that I have lost my old tongue, or grown a fresh one. Perhaps instead it has split, serpent like – not with venom or lies but to speak more than one truth, more than one experience, more than one perspective. A snake apparently uses its tongue to ‘smell’ or test out its environment. And interestingly, I discover, a hummingbird also has a forked tongue, to help it draw nectar from a plant.

So too will I continue to explore my environment in the hope of finding words that are sensitive to the world around them, nourishing and bring sweetness.

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Moving Circle of Artists take a spin to Rewa

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In Pakuri (St Cuthbert’s Mission) in the early 1990s, Guyanese artist and archaeologist George Simon began a movement to promote and encourage indigenous art and artists. Its name was the Moving Circle of Artists. It led to various outreach projects, including fellow artist Ozzie Hussein spending a year volunteering at Surama and around Rockview Lodge – training artists and creating totum poles.

One of the artists Hussein discovered during his travels was Surama-based Victor Captain, who has since exhibited his work widely – including at Guyana’s national gallery, Castellani House. Earlier this year, Simon’s dream came full circle as Captain joined a group of young artists and other volunteers on a similar expedition: to bring art to Rewa village in the North Rupununi.

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The new Rewa Eco-Lodge sign carved by the team. Photo courtesy Andrew Campbell

The group of seven included Captain, artist and designer Nigel Butler, archaeologist and historian Andrew Campbell, environmentalist and team coordinator Hadeyyah Asgar, and artists Wilkie George, Ransford Simon and Jerry Marco. Support and guidance was provided by George Simon, as well as Anna Iles, Rtd Major General Joe Singh and David Yhann – owner of The Courtyard on Robb Street, where the Onhare festival of indigenous art took place in September 2017.

But the project was propelled along and ultimately brought to fruition by the enterprising young group – as their presentation as Moray House last night demonstrated.

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The Moving Circle of Artists (minus one) present their work at Moray House

After an introduction by Laureen Pierre, Asgar took to the podium to talk about environmental concerns that had come to her attention during the team’s two-week visit to Rewa – which included an epic two/three days’ travelling up the river there and back. She spoke of illegal hunting and fishing, and concerns around fish/hunting stocks due to this and also the increase in the population of Rewa (which currently numbers 309).

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Andrew Campbell with the catch of the day. Photo courtesy Andrew Campbell

Fake permission letters, sport fishing participants not catching and releasing, mercury deposits from mining leaking into rivers in the region were just three areas she highlighted, suggesting possible avenues for action or discussion for each – from increasing or introducing patrols to involving the Environmental Protection Agency.

Despite such environmental concerns, Rewa remains an area of extraordinary natural beauty and is lucky to have easy access to fish, so the team were well fed in the village by all accounts. Even when conducting a tour of Corona Falls on Rewa River, they were able to simply catch and cook their meals.

While sadly not a natural spring of the popular Mexican beer, Corona Falls does lay claim to an impressive number of petrolyphs – or rock carvings. With the help of a GPS and camera, Campbell was able to log and photograph many examples.

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Petroglyph and tool sharpening marks at Corona Falls. Photo courtesy Andrew Campbell

After giving a short history of Rewa, which was first settled as recently as 1959 by Nicholas Edwards and family, Campbell went on to explain the techniques behind dating the petroglyphs. The rock carvings themselves, it seems, are unreliable indicators of age so what they do, he explained, so to look for archeological remains from previous eras – for example pottery.

Digging and archeology takes time and tools, so given the short time available to them, Campbell explained how they would “let nature do the digging for us” – and seek out pottery shards in the upturned earth around uprooted trees.

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Photo courtesy Andrew Campbell

Butler then took over to explain the role of the artists, who carried out art workshops in Rewa village – as well as updating Rewa Eco-Lodge with some stunning cabin-wall paintings, interior carvings, and a new welcome sign. Art materials are notoriously expensive in Guyana – and not easy to transport on long journeys through the interior – so Butler explained how the artists led the participants on a scavenging walk to collect natural painting tools and equipment.

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Natural palette. Photo courtesy Andrew Campbell

The first week involved guided classes, but by the second week the new artists of Rewa were left to their own devices. What emerged was an inventive array of works, including ‘canvases’ made by stretching cloth between the ‘V’ of a tree branch (an idea shared by Butler), painted coconut-tree ‘spathes’ (the curved bit shown in the photo above!), and even decorated skulls and turtle shells. Some of these works were on sale at Moray House, with many snapped up quickly – though a few pieces may still be available.

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Work by Rewa artist. Photo courtesy Andrew Campbell

Before the concluding Q&A session, the toshao of Rewa added his thanks to the team and called on those present to come and see the works for themselves. Rewa Eco-Lodge is a community-run enterprise, which helps sustain the community. It’s also now the proud owner of an array of work by some of Guyana’s youngest and most talented indigenous artists.

Yhann ended the proceedings by talking of the future of the Moving Circle of Artists project, emphasising the importance of funding but also adding “communities will grow their own communities”. It seems by investing in the Moving Circle of Artists, Rewa is doing just that.

Photo courtesy Andrew Campbell

For more photos and updates on the Moving Circle of Artists’ trip to Rewa, follow Andrew Campbell on Facebook

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Into the Rupununi Music & Arts Festival 2018

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This blog is for the forthcoming Guyana Annual.

It’s late afternoon at Manari Ranch and the sun is just setting over the savannah. On the stage, a group of Brazilian dancers lead a forró lesson – arms twisting, feet bouncing rhythmically. Off stage, performers for tonight’s show gather instruments, poetry pages and courage for their soundcheck. While around the main space, stallholders fire up drum barbeques and swimmers splash in same the cool creek where that morning someone spotted an otter. This is the Rupununi Music & Arts Festival 2018.

Although launched in 2014, this year marked the festival’s third outing in the Rupununi – after 2017’s event was cancelled and replaced with a special ‘Georgetown edition’ to drum up interest. The festival began, so the story goes, when London-based Guyanese flautist Keith Waithe met Rockview Lodge owner Colin Edwards in Annai. They invited Trinidad-born arts promoter Bob Ramdhanie to meet with them in London. The rest is history. Today the team has grown to include Georgetown coordinator Denis D’Agrella, volunteer coordinator and travel specialist Luke Johnson, and Gavin Mendonca – in charge of social media and PR.

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Having started out at Rockview, the festival is now planting roots at its new home: Manari Ranch, just outside Lethem. A sprawling open space, dotted with mango and lemon trees, a winding creek and the ranch itself, it’s the ideal spot for a rustic and relaxed festival weekend. There’s no rushing here. The festival’s nightly programme tends to begin an hour later than scheduled; music and dance classes seem to happen spontaneously; and apart from restrictions on entering the camping area, there are no borders. Artists and festivalgoers mingle, and no one seems to bother with the VIP tent.

“We try to get away from this thing we call structure,” says freewheeling festival director Ramdhanie. “The idea is that we kind of get people together and as more and more gather, we start something … [you] come out into an open space, have some fun, listen to the music, try some workshops – but it’s all very informal.”

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What emerges is a very organic, collaborative event. When we arrive after a long but entertaining bus journey from Georgetown, there’s already a hive of activity as the team of volunteers busily put the finishing touches to the decorations. There’s the tall look-out post made from wood and topped with a Scouts’ flag, the campfire that will be set alight that night, the bowl of mangos gathered from one of the many surrounding trees, heavy with fruit.

The volunteers are a lively team, made up of members of the Moving Circle of Artists, which includes former students of E. R. Burrowes School of Art; the St. Stanislaus College Scout Group; and those looking for a free and more involved experience of the festival. They stop to help we sleepy arrivals put up our tents, stamping pegs in the ground and navigating complex structures with practised ease.

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Meanwhile, two Venezuelan artists wield paint cans and brushes to complete signs directing people to the festival and to not swim in the creek (oops, too late). Their handiwork already evident on the brightly coloured boards that surround the individual pit latrines and creek-water showers. It’s not the Marriott by any means, but can you look at the stars while bathing in a hotel room?

During the day, our time is spent in the creek, relaxing, doing workshops in everything from capoeira and yoga to wood carving, and going on trips to local sights like Kumu Falls, Lethem and Bonfim – just over the border into Brazil. Then it’s time to eat and dance. There are four or five food stalls selling everything from pepperpot, eggs and bake ‘n’ saltfish in the morning to tuma fish, grilled meat skewers and hot dogs for dinner. A Banks bar and caipirinha stall, decorated with hanging fruits, run throughout the evenings too.

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The main event though is, of course, the music. Mendonca switches hats to perform folk favourites with Buxton Arts drummer Chucky, before rocking out with his Georgetown metal band Feed The Flames – featuring special guest singer Josi. There are also lively performances from Georgetown singer-songwriters including Jackie Jaxx, Ruquyyah Boyer, Abel Stokes, Trevaun Selman; as well as appearances by Charlie DeFreitas, Lynden Cupidore, Nachgana Academy of Dance, spoken word collective Jazz and Poetry On A Stool, and comedian Chow Pow as MC.

Despite being billed as the Rupununi Music Festival, there are surprisingly few performers from the region – beyond the Surama Culture Group, which opened proceedings on the first night. But in the spirit of leading world music festivals like WOMAD, an international flavour is added by Los Goliardos, a big band from Venezuela; dancers Wilkinson Oliveira and Bruna Lima from Brazil, and reggae group The Virtuosics who were flown in from Jamaica.

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Walking around the camp you can hear a mixture of languages being spoken, while the nightly campfire is usually dominated by the Venezuelan musicians – reaching out to their neighbours with offerings of familiar Latin songs and Bob Marley.

And as the tents came down on Monday morning, photos were snapped, contacts exchanged and promises made to return next year. The feeling was, this is just the beginning…

 

 

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Indian indentureship exhibition at Guyana’s National Archives

“It took them about four months,” said Karen Budhram, Senior Assistant Archivist at the Walter Rodney Archives. She was standing in front of a row of amazingly well-preserved emigration forms of her relatives who had come from India to what was then British Guiana. One of the brown pages had no official seals and was otherwise blank apart from a few scribbled details. “She was born on the boat,” explained Karen. So a form had to be improvised.

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Original emigration documents. Photos by Carinya Sharples, copyright Karen Budhram

At four months, the journey of indentured labourers from India was longer than that of slaves forcibly brought from Africa – with their ships actually going around Africa to get to British Guiana, explained Karen. And the wooden ‘logie’ houses they lived in had previously been inhabited by slaves. But this wasn’t said to compare their situations, just to join the dots. For some women, Karen added, leaving India represented an escape from family or certain customs – though obviously for others freedom was the last thing they found.

The fascinating thing was these records were all of Karen’s ancestors. She could trace her family back right to different regions of India – and had created a huge family tree.

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As well as painting a picture of Indian indentureship more generally, the exhibition also told a very personal story. Alongside examples of cane-cutter clothing, Indian musical instruments and the type of house overseers would have lived in, there were black-and-white photos of Karen’s great-great grandparents, a ‘sil and lorha’ stone grinder from her mother’s kitchen, and her own beautiful painting of her daughter.

Coming into the exhibition, there were already two children exploring the room’s contents. They were, they said, mixed Indian and African – like my daughter, said Karen, pointing out her daughter’s curly hair in the painting. The exhibition, she hopes, is a way for more people to learn more about and embrace their Indian heritage.

We were encouraged to ask questions about anything we saw.  The young duo took Karen up on her word and asked, ‘What’s this? What’s that?’ Sharing what they knew when something familiar came up. A star-shaped wooden masher was like one in their mum’s kitchen, the girl said. It was used in making dhal, added Karen – something they labourers may have had to eat day in and day out (with rice).

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That kitchenware, jewellery and other objects of daily life have been preserved is wonderful, but that such intact paper records still exist is incredible. Looking at the registers of births, deaths and estate arrivals, you could still make out the tiny details that made each person stand out – a distinguishing mark perhaps or how they died. Pneumonia, bronchitis, dysentery.

The exhibition ends tomorrow, 3 November 2017 [Update: Karen Budhram says the exhibition will officially close early next week, so will actually be open Saturday 4 November and perhaps into next week]. But the services of the National Archives remain open. And some records are already online – particularly relating to Indian arrivals – so enter your surname into the search box on the home page of the archives website and see what comes up…

 

National Archives of Guyana, Homestretch Avenue, D’Urban Park, Georgetown, Guyana. 

Archivist – (592) 227-7687
Senior Assistant Archivist- (592) 225-6783
General Office – (592) 226-3852

General Office email: narchivesguyana@gmail.com

Opening Hours:
Mondays-Thursdays: 8.30 hrs-16.00 hrs
Fridays: 8.30 hrs-15.00 hrs
Saturday: 9:00 hrs–2:00 hrs

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Guyana’s social media party seeks youth followers

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The launch of the UMA in Georgetown, Guyana, on 4 June 2017. NB: This photo is not entirely representative of the 30-or-so people in attendance, many of whom were sitting behind or on another bank of chairs to the left.

“My friends, if I have rats in my house, I would need a cat to take out the rat. I wouldn’t care if the cat is a white cat, a brown cat, or a black cat. I want the mouse die … If we want betterment in Guyana, we want good things for Guyana, I don’t care if it’s a black, white or brown person – if you can do the job, then Guyana is yours – Guyana is all of our own, to develop and to work towards making a better country.”

The speaker was a young UG graduate and the co-founder of the United Movement Alliance (UMA), a new youth-focused party in Guyana. Rodley Mathoo and his fellow ‘executive members’ were there to hold their first public meeting – shifting the debate from a social media platform to a real one, located on the shiny top floor of the Kalyan Mall on Lamaha Street (a space, Mathoo later explained, he had been able to get a good price for hiring).

The co-founder of the party, according to a Newsroom Guyana piece, is
“25-year-old Ubraj Narine, who is a graduate Hindu priest from the International Vedanta University and is currently a priest at several temples across the country.” Mathoo was also joined on the podium by his sister (I realise now, I didn’t hear her introduced), who spoke of some of the challenges facing young people in Guyana:

“We know the struggle of having to work and go to classes. Coming home at 10, 11[pm] – just to graduate … We’re going to make education a little more affordable [so] we won’t need to be spending our whole paycheck at the end of the month to better ourselves … We’ll be putting youth first. We have suffered enough due to politicians putting them first and us last.”

In Guyanese politics, split for many years down racial lines, people are quick to judge we were told. Mr Mathoo said some people have accused the party of being an offshoot of the PPP. Yet, he claimed, no one in the fledgling party has any political affiliations. And he was pretty unimpressed in his analysis of both the two main parties: “You all expected change in 2015. I did. But we’re still waiting for it … We would have sat down for 23 years and we would have allowed a political dictatorship to take away our resources and give to their own friends and family.”

There was a clear attempt to position the party as multi-ethnic. The other two guest speakers were a young afro-Guyanese student at UG and Ras Leon, the publisher of a newspaper called ‘Unite’ that he was selling as the small audience trickled in. “I’m fully in support of the initiative you have taken,” the elder man enthused. “Simply because life is like a relay race and right now my generation ought to be turning the baton over to yours. But a lot of us are holding on … and that ought not to be.”

Referring to the half empty hall, attended by some 30 persons, he reassured the organisers: “Do not be dismayed by the fact that there are more empty chairs here than filled seats. No. Because in those chairs are spirits of our ancestors who are here with us, because you young people are really ancestors who have come again and, trust me, you walk with older folks around you.”

In terms of policies, the group (unsurprisingly) focuses on issues affecting young people. In their hands, the VAT on education would be scrapped, and education standards improved. Youth unemployment would be tackled, and there seemed to be much hope pinned on the gas and oil industry – although mention was made of other industries. “80% of UG graduates leave this country every single year,” claimed Mr Mathoo, “Why? Because the environment has not been created to sustain themselves and to sustain their families.”

The focus was on growth, independence and Guyana first (“Aren’t Guyanese capable enough of dictating their own policies?”). Topics under attack ranged from large gold mining companies suffocating small miners and not paying duties, to the lack of processing for aluminium in Guyana’s booming Bauxite era – and the misconception that Guyana needs to bring in foreign experts. “If you go in any part of the world, in every sector there is a Guyanese there. Why can’t Guyanese work towards the development of their own country?”

With no leader yet appointed, and little or no political experience (the UMA Facebook page and fundraising seem to be their main achievements so far), the group might be expected to aim for lower-hanging fruit – local elections, building support in Guyana’s ten regions as they ambitiously plan to etc. But although they say they’re not reaching for presidency or government, their aim for 2020 is to get five to seven seats in the national assembly, from which to advocate on youth issues, corruption and nepotism.

“In this day and age…to get a job or to get something done at GRA, you have to get a little line,” said an exasperated Ms Mathoo. “If you don’t, you’ll get nowhere. and we have to stop that … you can’t get things done on your own. You have to know either know somebody or you’ve got to be high up there.” Whether the group is really drawing a new line, or just tracing an old one, time will tell. But to see young people engaged and leading the debate is welcome – even if it’s in smart shirts and suites.

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Why we need critics

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A Guyana Restaurant Week review inspires fury from an apparent staff member. “Ur full fo shit!”

People talk of being slighted or blacklisted for having criticised institutions or individuals.

“Guyanese don’t do criticism”, say some. Others complain, “People always knock you down here”.

There’s a difference between a critic and a hater. To criticise you care, you want it to be better. But people mistake this love for hate.

Criticism doesn’t come naturally. It is a muscle honed, a skill developed with time and practice. We may feel it in our gut, our bodies may respond unconsciously, but unless we can articulate why we like or dislike something it is of little help to the artist.

There’s a skill to both giving and receiving criticism.

The praise sandwich is the most popular technique when giving: say something you like, then something you don’t like, followed by another layer of sugar. Soften the blow. Instead of saying, ‘I don’t like…’ or ‘It was just bad‘, say ‘I didn’t understand why…?’ or ‘Have you thought about…?’

How to get constructive criticism is another matter. But producers of creative works or public services can encourage this through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TripAdvisor, comment cards, email requests/surveys, Q&A sessions, focus groups… At the recent Timehri Film Festival, feedback forms were offered, asking three basic questions: What did you enjoy, what didn’t you enjoy, what could we improve?

Accepting criticism is just as tricky. But if you find yourself agreeing with the criticism or notice that what they pointed out has niggled with you too, then you should probably listen carefully. And if you disagree, well… you should listen carefully anyway, and be prepared to defend your decisions or work.

Criticism challenges us and often leads to better outcomes. When I was writing a BBC article on Guyana’s high suicide rate, I sent a draft to a friend whose honest opinion I value, who made me realise that my original opening paragraph was a bit invasive and overly dramatic. I knew something wasn’t right but needed someone else to vocalise it.

Criticism is also about resolving misunderstandings. That same article was translated into Spanish and Portuguese for BBC Mundo. Only recently I realised that the editors had captioned my photo of Georgetown Hospital’s psychiatric unit as “como uma prisão” (“like a prison”) in reference to the grilled drugs dispensary – not understanding that such grills are commonplace in Georgetown. I wasn’t happy with the choice of words – or the stock photo that had been used of a stoned-looking white man clutching his head. Which said nothing about Guyanese people, or the realities of mental health.

How many people also baulked at the words – like the friend who tentatively mentioned the caption just a few days ago in a discussion about tone and writing about Guyana as a foreigner?

Since coming to Guyana I can think of only two occasions where I’ve received direct public criticism for my writing. Once was for my (on pause, don’t ask) oral history project, which was summarised as “life under the whiteman is god reflectioneerin shizzle” on Mark Jacobs’ slicing blog. I angrily wrote some earnest and offended comment, but actually it helped me think about who I was doing the project for. In writing ‘Nearly 50 years on, we wonder: what was life like in those pre-independence years?’, who was the ‘we’?

The second time was in response to my open letter to Prince Harry. Two readers criticised me for writing apparently on behalf of Guyana. “Leave the prince alone. What the hell does he have to do with the past? And what the hell are you doing in Guyana,” said ‘Anna maria’. ‘Printmeink’ added: “You sounded like a trouble maker acting on behalf of the Guyanese people when you addressed the reparations. This was very offensive as you have no authority to even go back into time not yours.” Again I defended myself, but again I used the criticism as an opportunity for self-reflection. Was I actually being offensive by saying ‘we’? Which ‘we’ do I belong to? Do I have a right to join the #notmyprince debate and other issues surrounding colonialism when I’ve lived in the UK most of my life?

Far from driving a wedge between us, conscious and well-meaning criticism brings us together and promotes progress, self-improvement and quality. Why do artists, musicians, chefs, writers, directors, actors… all of us anxiously await reviews? Partly because the feedback could help or hinder our careers, but also because artists need knowledgable people to analyse, question and understand their work. It shows them that their message has or hasn’t got through, it makes them reflect on and develop their practices, and it points out holes they need to fix. You don’t get that from fans.

Obviously a review is just one person’s opinion, but if the person writing or saying it is someone whose views and analysis you respect, you should listen to what they have to say. The most talented creatives I’ve met are not the ones who belittle others, boast of their own genius and dismiss criticism, but the ones who invite discussion, collaboration and debate. Who see the creative process as a never-ending journey. Who would never presume themselves to be the greatest, because they have too much respect for their peers.

Reading Media Diversified this morning, I came across this review of Vasco Araújo’s Decolonial Desire exhibition. The reviewer was knowingly “emotional” and highly critical of Araújo’s intentions and lack of self-reflectiveness: “I wonder if underneath his self-assuredness Araújo is aware that he has, in this room, recreated the human zoos he is trying to critique.” I understood her dismay and disappointment. Yet I also felt curious about seeing the exhibition myself, finding out more about people and places cited – like Ota Benga, the Congolese rubber workers and transgender Black actress Jenny Larrue – and making my own judgement. And isn’t that what a review should do?