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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?

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51 things to do in Georgetown

 

There’s nothing to do in Georgetown? Think again. Here are 51 ideas to get you started – one for every year of independence in Guyana.

  1. Lime on the seawall on a Sunday afternoon with friends, beers and hotdogs.
  2. Take your photo with Gandhi at the Promenade Gardens.
  3. Buy cassava bread and casareep for pepperpot at Guyana Shop on Robb Street.
  4. Watch a blockbuster at Giftland Mall Caribbean Cinemas.
  5. Feed grass to the manatees in the pond at the National Park.
  6. Go birdwatching before dawn on a Feather Friends tour.
  7. Buy Amerindian crafts at the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs on Quamina/Thomas Streets.
  8. See the work of top local artists at Castellani House on Vlissengen Road/Homestretch Avenue.
  9. Go for an early morning or evening swim (5am-6am or 7pm-9pm, according to last check) at the National Aquatic Centre (near Giftland). [Update: See reader’s correction in comments box]
  10. Look at the back of the 1763 Monument, aka Cuffy’s statue, in Independence Square to see Philip Moore’s handiwork in 360 degrees.
  11. Ride Guyana’s first-ever escalator at City Mall on Regent Street. Then eat at the food court.
  12. Have a saltfish & bakes breakfast at Oasis Cafe (cheaper than some coffees, believe it or not).
  13. Explore the history and culture of Guyana’s nine indigenous peoples at the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology on Main Street.
  14. Cower in the shadow of the giant sloth at the National Museum on North Road.
  15. See indigenous, no-nails construction at the Umana Yana benab on High Street.
  16. Count the missing body parts on the statue of Queen Victoria outside Georgetown’s High Court.
  17. Place bets now at the casino inside Ramada Georgetown Princess Hotel – or venture upstairs to the games arcade.
  18. Make a splash at HJ Water World located behind the National Stadium.
  19. Croon a classic at The Vintage on Lamaha Street where every Thursday is karaoke night.
  20. Watch go-kart racing at the Guyana Motor Racing & Sports Club track on Albert Street.
  21. Climb the walls (literally) at Universal PlayPark directly next to Giftland Mall.
  22. Learn about Guyana’s slave rebellion leaders and see African arts and crafts at the Museum of African Heritage on Barima Avenue, off Vlissengen Road.
  23. Experiment with cheese meets plantain at Cheeze Pleaze on David Street, Kitty.
  24. Read a Caribbean classic at the National Library on Church Street.
  25. Organise a Sunday brunch at the Backyard Barbecue & Grill (a corner away from Cool Square on the back road) – or alternatively Antonio’s Grille on Sheriff Street or Hermanston Lodge on Lamaha/Peter Rose Streets.
  26. Take five in the peace and quiet of St George’s Cathedral on Church Street – one of the tallest wooden churches in the world.
  27. Learn another language. There are Portuguese classes at the Brazil-Guyana Cultural Centre on Church Street, Spanish classes at the Venezuelan Embassy, Mandarin classes at the Confucious Institute at UG, to name just three.
  28. Practice yoga (and perfect your ommmm) at the Indian Cultural Centre in Prashad Nagar ($3,000 for three classes a week for four months – thats $62.5 a class). Other classes available include Kathak dance, harmonium, tabla and vocals.
  29. Learn how to play guitar, piano, drums, bass or sing at Music Unlimited on Durban Street.
  30. Buy local art and craft from the Main Street Art Group located on, er, Main Street.
  31. Eat a Trini ‘doubles’ at Layla’s Doubles outside JR Burgers on Sandy Babb Street.
  32. Kick back to live music at the Pegasus on Friday and Saturday nights, and Cara Lodge on Saturday nights.
  33. Take a trip up the Georgetown Lighthouse – advance tickets available from the nearby Maritime Administration Department (don’t think on the day is an option). [Update: See reader’s correction in comments box]
  34. Buy a book written by a local author at the well-stocked Austin’s Book Store on Church Street.
  35. Create your own piece of art (while drinking wine) at a Red Entertainment Art Glass class.
  36. Feast for $440 (large portion) at House of Flavours on Charlotte Street. Other Ital favourites include Steppers on Thomas Street.
  37. Buy a natural nemwa-husk body loofah at Bourda Market and scrub your troubles (or old skin, at least) away.
  38. Go on a tour of Diamond Distillery Limited (DDL) – the home of Guyana’s world-famous El Dorado Rum, including a visit to the Demerara Rum Heritage Centre.
  39. Splash out on Sunday dim sum lunch at New Thriving on Main Street (or pick up some treats at the downstairs bakery).
  40. Wiggle your hips at a Latin Heat dance class in Kitty. Cuban Salsa, Bachata, cha cha, advanced waltz…
  41. Take inspiration from neighbouring Brazil and enjoy a caipirinha cocktail at the Brasil Churrascaria & Pizzaria on Alexander Street – or the Brazilian bar at Status Hotel on Croal Street.
  42. Sample wild meat, pepperpot and other Amerindian dishes – washed down with fresh juice or piwari – at Tocuma restaurant on Waterloo Street.
  43. Catch a show at the National Cultural Centre on Mandela/Home Stretch Avenues or Theatre Guild on Parade Street.
  44. Kiss on the Kissing Bridge in the Botanical Gardens. (You can stand on it right?)
  45. Shop in the shadow of Stabroek Market‘s famous iron-and-steel structure. Don’t set your watch by the clock, though – although that is due to be fixed.
  46. Spot the curled serpent atop the Radha Krishna Mandir (see main picture) on Camp/Quamina Streets.
  47. Pay a visit to the 1823 Monument along the seawall in Kitty, commemorating those who died in the Demerara slave revolt of that year.
  48. Buy a leather handbag, wallet or sandals – handmade in Guyana (hopefully) – at the craft stalls outside the National Museum.
  49. Order a health-boosting fresh, local juice from Juice Power on Middle Street, or Nicky’s on Albert and Robb Streets.
  50. See a cricket match at the National Stadium in Providence – if no matches are scheduled, cheer on Guyana’s blind and partially sighted cricket team in practice there every Sunday morning.
  51. Take a walk through the Walter Rodney Monument on Hadfield Street – and note down all the titles of his books you need to read.
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Holding it together

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Things weren’t going well. Halfway to the Indian Cultural Centre, my bicycle chain snapped. It could have been worse, but the sudden loss of drive in the middle of the intersection between Sheriff Street and the line wasn’t ideal. I pushed the bike over the road, thinking I’d continue on foot. But a few drops of rain convinced me otherwise. I was also coming up towards the washbay where a few days previously I’d stood in the rain, clutching a tray of still-warm chocolate cake, lost and looking for my friend’s house. I didn’t need to give the washbay guys another episode of the Crazy Brit drama.

I began walking back, down David Street and onto Middleton. But, as I’ve come to realise in Guyana, people’s eyes are sharp. I’m frequently told by friends, “Oh I saw you in the street”, and have to apologise for failing to spot their numberplate or respond to their toot. “I don’t respond to chirps or tweets. You have to call my name.” Back in London, it’s as if everyone walks wearing blinkers. Me included. You rarely make eye contact or notice what other passersby are doing. If someone calls out to you it’s probably a Jehovah’s Witness with a flyer, a geezer telling you to “Cheer up, love”, or someone asking for a charity donation (or begging as it’s called for those not wielding clipboards).

Not so in Georgetown. Walking with my bike down the roadside, a steady stream of commentary followed me. “Rider!” “You get a puncture?” “Why you not riding?” “That bike is soon going to ride you”, “You can’t ride without a chain, girl”.

Just then the front wheel started playing up. The basket, I realised, had lost its second screw and was now rubbing onto the tyre. I tried to hold it up with two fingers, while gripping the handlebar with the remaining three. I walked along awkwardly for a few steps. It wasn’t going to work. I tried using the bike lock to hoist the basket up but it was too thick. As I struggled, a man approached. He’d hailed “Good afternoon” when I passed him further up the road and now came over to see what the trouble was. He peered under his baseball cap at the basket. “No worries, baby”, he said. “I g’on find something to tie it up.” He scoured the ground, then – not finding anything – reached into his rucksack and took out a piece of wire wool. He tore off a section and began weaving it between the basket and the bike frame. “Hold the basket, is fixed?” After a few moments, he tucked in the lose threads and sent me off with a smile.

At the national level there’s much that needs fixing. I hear of government employees not paid for months. Of important legal reforms left gathering cobwebs and land grabbed. Of millions wasted on projects executed badly – or not at all. I hear of petty rivalries and race baiting. I see big people made small and silent by the fear of losing face, their job, or money. I pass hobbled bridges left in disrepair, where every crossing is a game of Jenga. And there is so, so much more that I miss. Some problems are big, some are small. Some are being tackled, others are forgotten in some in-tray. It’s the same worldwide, yet in Guyana you’d think it’s the only place on Earth with problems.

When I speak to expats living here many talk of being frustrated. It’s always ‘frustrated’. If only Guyana did this… If only people stopped doing this… If only… And I get frustrated myself. Because as much as I agree certain things need fixing and just aren’t acceptable, the negativity drains me. I’m grateful for their desire to progress forward, but I wonder if they look back and remember how Western countries – including my own – once stamped on freedom of thought, freedom to govern, and freedom itself here – in order to have progress there.  And continue to do so. “This is Guyana” is the shrugged conclusion. As if the country is set in stone, unable to move. They’re not alone. Many Guyanese constantly rip apart their own country. I’ve spoken to Guyanese who tell me their people are stupid, lazy, have no vision. Who ask me, “Why are you here?” As if it’s inconceivable their country has anything to offer. Who call their own language, Creolese, “broken English” – ignoring the rich, multicultural identity it speaks to and the struggle of the people who gave birth to it.

The world of self-help books is full of talk of visualisation, affirmations, calling on the universe, turning negative thoughts into positive ones. Why don’t we do the same?

That afternoon when I was lost by the washbay, a young man came out with an umbrella to shield me from the rain and ask if everything was ok. Later, after I finally reached my friend on the phone and started on my way again, he stopped as he drove past to check I got through. When I explained where I was going, he realised I was going in the wrong direction and offered a drop. I wonder at times if I get extra favours for being young(ish), foreign(ish) or female. But I don’t think so, at least I hope not… When I visited NAREI yesterday and got there too late, the two women at security chorused in disappointment, ‘Your foot too short!” Before telling me – unasked – how much the bus would cost, or how much for a car drop to the top of the road, so I didn’t get ripped off.

Amid all the frustration, a friend from England tells me her reason for staying: “Guyana makes me a better person.”

Last year I wrote about Small Acts of Kindness in Guyana and got a positive response. People liked hearing something good about Guyana, and seeing that it didn’t take money or a massive effort to do a good deed. It wasn’t because of some UNICEF-funded programme, or an EU-directive, or a US think tank laying down the rules. After all, when does that really change anything? Sure, the funding helps but if the idea is not homegrown, organic, nothing grows. Any shoots just wither away, because why bother nurturing a seed you didn’t plant – when it’s either not what you wanted, or someone else will come in and do it.

Sturdy as it feels for now, the wire on my bike is a sticking plaster. Yesterday I went to the shop to get a new chain fitted and the basket re-attached, but the place was closed up and the person not to be seen. What should I do, say I tried and leave the bike to rust up in my yard? No, I have to go back. And it will break again. But I’ll keep going back. Because that’s what life is about. Fixing. Breaking. Mending. Fixing again. There will always be something else to do. We’ll never reach a stage when everything is working perfectly. But with little bits of wire and hope, we can steady our lives – and keep trying for the big fixes.

A final note…

Some people may remember, a while back I posted a photo of Gandhi’s statue at the Promenade Gardens and joked, ‘You know things are bad when someone’s teefed Gandhi’s specs’. Well, looks like someone’s taken their own little piece of wire and fashioned him some snazzy new ones (see photo below). Maybe things aren’t so bad after all…

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Firing the canon at Bocas Lit Fest 2017

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Trinidad’s Kaiso Blues Cafe was packed. Elbows poked ribs. Waitresses squeezed through tight spaces with loaded plates. And ears strained to hear the poets unfold their words on the small stage. This was Bocas Lit Fest on the road. Most of ‘Trinidad and Tobago’s annual celebration of books, writing and writers’ took place at the national library (NALIS) and adjacent Old Fire Station. But a few evening events, like this, had been organised to take the book beyond the four institutional walls of the library.

As well as poetry readings and music, the night included a lively conversation between two writers – Jamaican poet Kei Miller (winner of this year’s 2017 OCM Bocas Prize for fiction) and Trinidad’s own Vahni Capildeo – chaired by the UK’s Susannah Herbert, director of the Forward Arts Foundation. Herbert began by saying that coming from the UK to Bocas felt like moving from the ‘periphery’ of Caribbean writing to the centre. She asked about the next “literary canon”. Who would be in it? Where would it be centred?

It’s a tempting idea: a literary canon made up of writers from across the Caribbean, influencing education, debate and thought around the world. And, it seems, not inconceivable. Already the publishing world is opening up. “This is a really good time to look for US representation” enthused American literary agent Barry Goldblatt. “Diversity is not a trend”. This shift, this widening, is no flash in the pan – and Bocas knows it. Little wonder there was a certain optimism and excitement in the air.

But like the colonial governors who were replaced by a new, local elite across much of the Caribbean, is putting a new face on existing structures, terminology and norms the way to go? Answering Herbert’s question, Capildeo cooly answered: no, we don’t need a new literary canon. A new empire. (I wish I had a recording of this exchange to get the wording exactly but hopefully this is coming). Rather than a pyramid, Bocas offers a web of literary connections, one that the spider writers lightly navigate – collecting juicy titbits from other places, spinning new connections and bending the rules.

In a discussion with Jennifer Rahim about her new book Curfew Chronicles, on the state of emergency declared in Trinidad in 2011, Peepal Tree Press founder and managing editor Jeremy Poynting recalled a discussion the two had had during the editing process. The question: should certain words, cultural references and other details unfamiliar to, say, a UK audience be explained? The answer, in the end, was no. Perhaps times are changing. Where once Caribbean readers had to sit and imagine snowy landscapes, ripe peaches and pebbled beaches, European readers now must discover what it means to see a scarlet ibis fly overhead, bite into a double, and ‘gah lang’. 

As the focus shifts, perhaps Caribbean writers will no longer need to be compared to their Western equivalent, be it Chaucer, James Joyce, William Wordsworth or Shakespeare. As was done by some moderators at Bocas. Instead writers from all nations will be allowed to step across borders, borrow other languages, cultures, words, influences and perspectives. In his conversation with the American essayist Eliot Weinberger, Bocas programmer director Nicholas Laughlin asked about Weinberger’s term ‘post-national writer’. Despite being coined some 12 years ago, the concept remains fresh today. Questions about identity and nationalism pervaded many Bocas discussions and debates.

There’s a current desire among not only post-colonial nations but also former colonising nations to create a ‘national identity’. What does it mean to be English/American/Algerian/South African/Jamaican/Guyanese? “Our consistent desire to manifest as this one monolithic identity doesn’t make sense,” said the Kenyan journalist and writer Peter Kimani in his session. And yet, ironically, it is also that literature helps construct identity – and power. A writer reflects, distorts, challenges and lays bare a country, a people, a community. Through their words we come to understand ourselves, see where we’ve been, and where we might go next. And the stronger a country’s literary heritage, the greater its cultural reach.

When Weinberger commented, “I was a little surprised that people here still look at England as a place of valuation”, it wasn’t an easy stab to take. A member of the audience quickly stood up to say that England simply offered more of a market than the US, in her opinion. That the UK had given more platforms to Caribbean writers. To reduce this reliance, there’s a need to build up the literary infrastructure in the Caribbean. Publishing houses, editors, copy editors, production staff, publicists… “Writing is really the only thing you can do by yourself,” noted writer/editor/book developer Malaika Adero in a talk on publishing. “Everything else requires a village.”

 

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The soundtrack of Guyana

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You can’t escape birdsong in Guyana. From the caw caw of the wild parrot and macaw to the omnipresent kis-ka-dee, kis-ka-dee. For Guyanese flautist Keith Waithe, these are not just background sounds – but inspiration. Now ‘The Flute Man’ is planning on creating what he calls a birdsong symphony, taking his cue from Guyana’s dawn chorus.

Normally based in London, Waithe is in Guyana as the University of Guyana’s artist-in-residence – the first person to hold that post since Martin Carter. At a workshop, held yesterday at UG, he hosted an Improvisation Workshop – to introduce music fans and performers to his repertoire and research.

“I have over two hundred flutes!” he said, and proceeded to demonstrate a few. The alto flute, the Irish penny whistle, the clay ocarina… swooping from bird sounds to classical music to masquerade to a kind of mouth percussion mirroring the sound of Indian dhol drums.

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From India, we were taken to Africa and some Guyanese kwe kwe rhythms, performed with the help of a guest drummer and an impromptu performance from National School of Dance director Linda Griffith. Then, after a brief stop in China and the world of classical music, it was on to Guyanese folk as Feed The Flames frontman Gavin Mendonca performed ‘Small Days’ and a steel pannist was called up from the audience to join in.

“Show us a conversation between the flute and steel pan,” requested one participant, “this is an improvisation workshop after all!” Waithe and the pannist duly obliged, and ended the workshop with a lively jam session.

Having a musician as an artist-in-residence is an interesting step for the university, which offers three music programmes: Associate of Arts (Music/Creative Arts), Certificate in Education – Music Education, and Diploma in Music (none are on the 2017/2018 course list but that seems to be an omission).

Yet music isn’t an island. At the workshop, students from the art department were invited to paint while the session was in progress. The experiment drew some great results, including this piece (see below) – inspired, said the artist, by Waithe’s reference to his many flutes.

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Students and interested folk in Berbice can enjoy the workshop when it’s repeated next Wednesday (29 March) at UG’s Tain Campus (10am-12pm). Other upcoming events to look out for include a concert at the Theatre Guild in Georgetown on Friday March 31st, and a Public Lecture, also at the Theatre Guild, on Thursday 6 April.

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What UG’s new publishing imprint means for Guyana

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Ian Randle hands Vice Chancellor Ivelaw Griffith one of over one of 200 books his publishing company is donating to the University of Guyana library

Last night, the University of Guyana and Ian Randle Publishers signed an agreement to create a University of Guyana imprint – meaning UG will be able to publish books and journals under the name ‘University of Guyana Press’.

There are a lot of details to work out. Will only academic texts be published? Will it be run for profit? Will e-texts be available? How will access be ensured through affordability and distribution? What steps will be taken to tackle infringement of copyright (or even to establish copyright guidelines – are there any in Guyana?)

But these will be worked through in time. And Ian Randle, founder of the eponymous Jamaica-based publishing company, said he hopes to see the first UG publication roll off the presses by the end of 2017.

This means that finally researchers and lecturers at UG will have the opportunity to publish their works, without looking beyond their own institution or country. And old papers, theses and monographs (my new word for the day, meaning a detailed specialist study on a particular subject), consigned to the archives, will finally see the light of day.

After all, as various people pointed out at the launch, what’s the point of research if no one reads it?

Publishing is having a rough time of late. But still, books continue to hold their own against e-book readers and the internet. As Mr Randle quoted, “They’re portable, high resolution, and have a long battery life.”

Academic writing, too, is facing its own crises. As well as debates concerning open-access publishing and peer reviewing, the very role of academia is under debate.

This excellent article from The Conversation, entitled Academics can change the world – if they stop talking only to their peers  highlights the exclusivity of many researchers’ work:

…their work is largely sitting in academic journals that are read almost exclusively by their peers. Biswas and Kirchherr estimate that an average journal article is “read completely by no more than ten people”.

The article goes on to report that some academics don’t want to feel like they’re “dumbing down” complex thinking and arguments. Since when is writing with clarity, sensitivity to your readers and energy ‘dumbing down’?

Perhaps they really mean, “I want to use big words”. Go ahead, no one is stopping you. We have dictionaries.

While he has made his name across the Caribbean publishing scholarly works, Mr Randle acknowledged that their second (I believe) bestselling book is a cookbook: Tastes Like Home by Guyanese foodie Cynthia Nelson.

I believe thinking commercially is essential. Not just to reduce the financial burden on the university and make the imprint sustainable in the long term, but to re-establish Guyana as a leading literary force.

Guyana is renowned worldwide for its fantastic writers. Edgar Mittleholzer, Jan Carew, Gaiutra Bahadur, Mark McWatt, Pauline Melville, ER Braithwaite, Sharon Maas, David Dabydeen, Grace Nichols, John Agard, Wilson Harris, Martin Carter, Wordsworth McAndrew… I could go on.

And there is a whole swathe of writers who don’t achieve international fame or become household names, but quietly plug away – just for the joy of writing. Since I’ve been in Guyana I’ve met poets, short story writers, playwrights, novelists… where do they turn when they want to publish?

Some do get publishing deals, while others decide to self publish. This democratisation of publishing is welcome, but care has to be taken. Without the critical and promotional input of editors, proof-readers, production managers, marketing experts etc, quality can be jeopardised and the potential reach of works dramatically reduced.

It’s an oft-repeated adage that until the lion learns to write, stories will always glorify the hunter. In Guyana, people talk often of the search for national unity – a uniquely Guyanese identity. Is it a coincidence that the local publishing industry is so lacking? That schoolrooms and libraries are dominated by Western books glorifying the hunter?

Yes, you can go to Austin’s Bookshop and buy great contemporary and classic Guyanese books but they’re not cheap. Which gives rise to cash-strapped teachers and parents photocopying texts for their children. And in turn, takes away potential royalties for authors – making writing not a feasible career choice, except for those wealthy enough to support themselves through another means.

Imagine a Guyana where children of all backgrounds read books about Guyanese children who look and sound like them. Where students learn from textbooks written by Guyanese experts. Where data and research about Guyana is widely accessible. Where the National Library is a hive of activity every day of the week. Where Guyanese authors in the diaspora come to publish their books ‘back home’. Where critical theory is standard in the curriculum. And where books come stamped with the proud label, ‘University of Guyana Press’.

This doesn’t have to be fiction.

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One love: Could marijuana unite Guyana and build a green economy?

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A Sadhu in Varanasi, India. By Pierre-Emmanuel Boiton (Creative Commons)

“How many of us know that the largest contingent of coolies* were brought to Jamaica, not to Guyana, Trinidad or Suriname. And they brought the ganga with them … And maybe, maybe, that is why you have complete assimilation of the races, which we don’t have in Guyana.”

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The flyer for the event

It was a jump, and the speaker knew it. Hence the double maybe. But Dr Turhane Doerga, founder of the Guyana Hemp Association, was making a point. When did marijuana – which evolved in central Asia some 12,000 years ago and has been used medically, religiously and socially by people around the world for millenia  – become criminalised, stigmatised and associated negatively with black people wearing dreadlocks?

That was just one of the questions asked at Global Marijuana Decriminalization And Guyana’s Indifference, a talk organised by the Guyana Rastafari Council and the University of Guyana Student Society – the final event in a four-part series entitled The Caribbean Revolution of the 21st Century.

Dr Doerga is far from the first to note the links between Rastafarism, ganga and India, but this history only now seems to be coming into mainstream public consciousness. In a recent New York Review of Books article entitled ‘The True Story of Rastafarism‘, Lucy McKeon writes about the origins of the Rastafari movement and its beliefs:

“Ganja” (an Indo-Aryan word) had originally reached Jamaica in the mid-nineteenth century by way of East Indian indentured laborers, who used the herb in their spiritual ceremonies and were brought to Jamaica to fill the labor demand created by emancipation. Howell’s Rastafari spirituality amalgamated East Indian and African customs and beliefs—an approach that incorporated ceremonial ganja-smoking with the drumming, singing, and chanting of Kumina, an Afro-Jamaican religion developed by central Africans brought to the island enslaved or, like the East Indians, indentured.

Then there’s the new documentary Dreadlocks Story, which explores between the spirituality of Jamaican Rastafarians and the Indian Hindu Sadhus.

Indentured Indians also brought ganga to British Guiana, but their usage and cultivation was tempered by colonial policies such as the 1913 Indian Hemp Ordinance. Furthermore, as Ramesh Gampat relates in his book Guyana: From Slavery to the Present: Vol. 2 Major Diseases, the British also used carefully constructed stereotypes of ganga users to demean them and dismiss their protests, beliefs and way of life as “violence” and “idle”. Sound familiar?

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That attitude continues today. Although marijuana is used across the social, economic and racial divide in Guyana – even by some of our politicians, as we heard last night (no names mentioned) – the stereotype of the troublesome, criminal, lazy, black addict persists.

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Sister Woziero Esther Gittens of the National Reparations Committee

In her speech at the University of Guyana event, Sister Woziero Esther Gittens, secretary of the National Reparations Committee, shared stories of Rasta brothers and sisters hounded by police for their marijuana use. She recalled being arrested and imprisoned herself, and how she nearly had her locks cut off by overzealous prison guards, who did not know that this is prohibited in Guyana (a fact Sister Gittens said she was aware of having campaigned on this very issue). “Twenty years of cultivating my life would have gone” she said, noting that others have not been so lucky.

For her and others in the Rastafari movement, this – and the criminalisation of ganga – amounts to an attack on their religious freedom. “We should seek reparations from the government for the persecution of our culture,” urged Sister Gittens in her speech.

As well as being a religious and cultural matter, it’s also a medical one. Last month, a Paramakatoi farmer was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $40,500 for being in possession of almost one pound of cannabis, which he said was to make medicinal tea for his sick niece.” True or not, the medicinal properties of ganga are well documented – from easing pain and nausea to greater muscle control for those with MS.

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Dr Droega of the Guyana Hemp Association

And then there’s the economic aspect. “Metropolitan countries are making billions off it, why can’t we?” asked Sister Gittens? “You can’t talk of green economy and not plant marijuana, hemp.”

It was a point expanded on by Dr Droega, who cited the case of Colorado, which collected $88.2m in taxes from Cannabis sales in 2015. Restricted de-crimininalisation (usually of small amounts for personal use) is swiftly catching on around the world. The Netherlands, Uruguay, Spain, Portugal, and various US states to name just a few. Incredibly it was only in 2015 that Jamaica (the home of Rastafarism) finally decriminalised the possession of small amounts of ganga and the use of the herb for religious purposes. “The Babylon police used to abuse the Rastaman for smoking the herb. But the times are changing and the agitation has to stop,” a local supporter was quoted as saying in a news report.

As well as smoking or ingesting marijuana, many products can be made using hemp – which is differentiated from marijuana for various reasons, including its reduced amount of THC and a different genetic structure. Hemp can be used to make many things, from clothes and food, to paper, textiles, plastics and biofuel. It also grows quickly and, according to the Guyana Hemp Association‘s website, requires half as much water, and no pesticides, compared to cotton. Just last week, farmers from the Region 10 Industrial Hemp and Agricultural Farmers Corporation made a call for the legalisation of industrial hemp – in line with the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which permits the growth of Cannabis for exclusively industrial or horticultural purposes.

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So why is Guyana so ‘indifferent’ to the changes happening around the world, as the title of the talk suggested? Speaking from the audience, Gerald Perreira, leader of the Organisation for the Victory of the People (OVP), suggested that the government was waiting for the “nod” from “The ABC countries – American, Britain and Canada.” Dr Droega made a similar point, saying “Don’t wait for them to tell you it’s ok, while they’re making money”, calling on the audience to “vote in your own people.”

AFC Chairman Nigel Hughes (who was due to appear at the talk but was not present) did compile a draft Narcotics Drug and Psychotropic Substances (Control) (Amendment) Bill in 2015, which seeks to soften the penalties for marijuana possession. However this “has been languishing on the Order Paper”, according to chartered accountants Ram & McRae, and still hasn’t made it to Parliament. Despite President David Grainger reportedly telling TV programme The Public Interest in August 2016: “I would say, even running the risk of talking out of school, that it is likely that the private use of marijuana would be given consideration in months to come.”

In her article The True History of Rastafarism, Ms McKeon notes: “…the greatest menace to the colonial order was [‘The First Rasta’ Leonard Percival] Howell’s founding of Pinnacle as an autonomous economic community financed by the cultivation of marijuana … By the late 1940s and early 1950s, at Pinnacle’s height, Howell was the biggest ganja planter in modern Jamaican history.”

If Guyana is indeed waiting for a nod of approval from its former colonial masters in Britain or its capitalist/cultural colonisers in the United States and Canada, it may be waiting a while. And by then, the hemp/marijuana industry will be established and Guyana will have to play catch up.

“The 2020 elections must be a marijuana election,” declared one audience member. Given politics in Guyana is a notoriously racially divisive matter, perhaps a pipe of peace is the way forward.


[*’coolie’ is a term used widely to refer to those of Indian descent in the Caribbean, though is considered offensive by some]

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Your TV or your life

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Defective by Design/Free Software Foundation

Talking to a friend on the phone the other day, we were comparing notes on procrastination viewing. “I keep watching Location, Location, Location,” she admitted. Hopes of moving and neighbour troubles have been on her mind of late, so obsessively watching a property show in which people are helped to find their dream home makes sense.

For me, it’s recently been Gilmore Girls, I confessed sheepishly. After she finished laughing, she asked, “So what do you get out of it?” In other words, what was missing in my life that I found in a show about a over-caffeinated mother and her journalist-wannabe daughter; their scarily close relationship in suburban America; and the men they fall in love with. And then out of love with. And then in love with again. (You get the picture.)

I hadn’t thought of it like that – that what we don’t have in reality we seek in fiction. But it makes sense.

We watch detective shows and CSI dramas not because we want to commit a crime or like seeing someone hurt (I would hope) but because eventually the perpetrator is caught, loose ends are tied up, goodness prevails. And perhaps that makes us feel safer, reassured, because real life is a lot more uncertain. Injustice happens on a daily basis, criminals are not caught, there’s rarely a neat resolution.

Romantic dramas and romcoms give us hope that we will find someone extraordinary, who finds us extraordinary and we’ll live happily ever after. There are declarations of love, long-thwarted kisses, passion, certainty… all the things which seem a long way away from the mundanities of dividing up household chores, waiting for someone to text back, scrolling through profiles on a dating app, or the indecisive falling in and out of love that Alicia Keys sang about more than ten years ago.

Fantasies and sci-fi take us far away from our everyday worlds to lands where magic happens, fortunes change and destinies are found. There we forget the earth as we know it even exists.

Action films fool us for a second that we’re living in exciting times, and we go on car chases, fight, run like the wind, jump, swim, attack – all while safely sat on our cinema seats and sofas. We may seek danger because our lives are a boring cycle of wake, work, watch – or because we identify with living on the edge, we experience it daily – just without the comfort of a stop, rewind or fast-forward button.

But it’s not a solution. How many times have you finished a programme or series and felt a sense of anti-climax? Felt like you were regaining consciousness as if from a coma? Or thought, ‘Well that was a waste of time’? Because it often is. We can fool ourselves into thinking we’re learning valuable life lessons. That it’s relaxation time that we deserve. But do we really need a screen to do that?

I often wonder what I could achieve without YouTube, Netflix et al. I imagine myself spending evenings writing novels, cooking delicious meals for friends, learning to play an instrument, cleaning the house, reading… but instead I press play and zone out. For an hour and a half, two hours, three if it involves Orcs, Italian godfathers 0r doomed ships… I am elsewhere. But time doesn’t stop, it carries on. And life does too. I can’t get back that time. I know all those other things would make me more happy but sometimes deadening the mind seems easier.

Doing the luddite thing and smashing up my laptop would be a bit counterproductive. So, as with everything in life, it’s all about balance and moderation. I’ll re-download that SelfControl app which has mysteriously disappeared from my computer. I’ll continue to not live with a TV. I’ll avoid walking close to DVD sellers. I’ll switch off after one show.

As Gil Scott Heron said, the revolution will not be televised. And, unless you’re Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, your life won’t be either – so unless you want to miss it, we better start switching off from time to time. And realising that we hold the power to do whatever we want.

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Mind the (wealth) gap

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“Good evening everyone… I’m urgently seeking a 2 bedroom house to rent for a family of 5. Two adults & 3 children. Within the price range of $25,000 – $35,000. Preferably in Georgetown.”

I saw the post on Facebook while flat hunting. For my own place. For double that price.

From 2017, the private sector minimum wage in Guyana will be Gy$44,200 a month (an increase of 25% on the current £35,000). That’s about US$213, or £171. Every day I wonder how people manage. Those costs quickly add up: Gy$60 for a short bus ride; Gy$2,000 for about 50Kwh of electricity; Gy$280 for a loaf of bread…

Yesterday I went into town to run a few errands. I topped up my GPL meter, which has been eating money like it’s Pringles. Bought locally produced honey, dried sorrel and spices at Guyana Stores. Pine, tomatoes, lettuce, carrots, cabbage, sugar, eggs at Bourda Market. Then went to my landlord’s office to pay my rent.

By the time I left, I was laden with heavy bags and my purse was light. I looked inside. Gy$80 in notes and about Gy$30 in change. Shit. I calculated quickly. If I took a bus from where I was, at the top of Regent Street, I could reach the bank in a few minutes. But what if the ATM wasn’t working? I’d be stuck. A cab? I wasn’t 100% sure I had enough cash at home to pay the driver. So I set about the long walk down Regent Street, bags biting into my fingers, sweat running down my back.

How many decisions like this must those minimum-wage earners make everyday? People perhaps without the comfort of a bank to fall back on. The constant questions. Shall I walk so I can buy some lunch? Shall I buy credit or hope this person will call me back? Can I justify getting a bottle of water or should I just wait till I get home? What can I buy that will feed all the family? Should I get school shoes that fit properly or ones they will (eventually) grow into?

It’s a world away from the ‘other’ Guyana. The Guyana where Gy$2,000 for lunch and Gy$4,000 for dinner was touted as a bargain in the recent Restaurant Week. Where US$390.7million in gold was exported in the first half of this year (according to Bank of Guyana figures). Where people (like me) jet back and forth from overseas. Where houses like this apparently exist:

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With Christmas fast approaching, the whole of Georgetown is becoming Festival City. The shops are bursting with imported Chinese decorations, trees, gifts, garlands and ingredients for Guyanese Christmas favourites like pepperpot, garlic pork and black cake. But amid the excitement, I feel a sense of dread. Imagining the desperation of people spending beyond their means. The pressures of meeting impossible standards. The Boxing Day anxiety of paying January bills.

Be careful, warns a friend, robberies are more common at this time of year. People are being forced to take desperate measures, says another. Facebook followers debate the new budget, wondering what impact it will have, how tight their purse strings will have to become. While visiting the Red Cross office the other day, a woman came in asking if they had any Christmas gifts she could give her children. The next day, two children turn up at my gate, “Auntie, can we have two mangos?”, gesturing to the fruitful tree in my yard. A man carrying a beer crate peers beside the rubbish bin looking for empties, and is happy when I offload some Banks bottles that have been gathering dust.

Money struggles are not limited to Christmas. But the twinkling fairy lights seem to illuminate dark corners and make certain issues harder to ignore.

In the UK, it’s even bleaker because of the biting winter weather and reduced daylight hours. When I used to work at The Pavement, a magazine for homeless people, this was the time of year when we would share information about Emergency Cold Weather Shelters, which open when the temperature drops below zero for three nights in a row. We’d warn readers about the dangers of sleeping in bins, and tell them about charities putting on Christmas lunches and parties for homeless service users.

The thought of people freezing on the streets terrified the public and charities into action.

In Guyana, there’s no sudden cold snap. Just the first showers of the new rainy season. But people still feel that festive pull to help someone in need. This week, countless Christmas lunches and parties have been held, presents distributed, money raised. It’s heartwarming but it’s not enough. And it will never be enough until we act ethically and with compassion in every aspect of our lives, 365 days of the year – from how much we pay our staff, to how much we extract from the earth. Until no one has to go without those fundamental basics: shelter, food, water, education and good sanitation. Until we put charities out of work, because people can afford to buy presents for their own children, cook their own Christmas lunch and hold their own party. We can’t just pat ourselves on the back and ignore the issue for another year.

In 2013, British MP Helen Goodman challenged herself to live on the minimum wage – as many of her constituents do. It wasn’t easy. “I had a headache for five days … and I was completely lethargic and exhausted by 4pm,” she wrote afterwards in the New Statesman. It didn’t change the system but it meant that someone in government really understood what people at the bottom of the heap are dealing with and could potentially advocate on their behalf. Could we do the same in Guyana? Challenge private-sector CEOs, MPs, even the president, to live on £44,200. Or at least have someone who is on the minimum wage record their experiences and the daily struggles they go through.

The gap is getting wider. We need to mind it.

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Dear Prince Harry…

Prince Harry driving through the City of London during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, 5 June 2012. By Carfax2, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Dear Prince Harry,

So, this time tomorrow you’ll be here in Guyana. The final stop on your tour of “Her Majesty’s Realms where The Queen is Sovereign, in addition to Guyana”. Please note the ‘in addition to’. Granny’s shiny crown may as well be made of tin foil here for all the power it has.

As you lay your wreath at the Independence Monument (item two on your agenda, keep up), do remember that becoming a sovereign nation was a moment of celebration for Guyanese people. People lay wreaths at funerals. Couldn’t you swap it for something more Christmassy? Like a big sack of sugar – a reminder of all the sweet stuff Britain carted off during slavery times.

Or, even better, a big sack of money as reparations for the descendants of the Guyanese forced to work for England under slavery and then indentureship. You know, the kind of compensation that British slave owners were given after abolition (they’re all in the University College London’s handy database. Go on, do a search, see if you recognise anyone).

This isn’t a personal attack. Except it is. You’re here as a representative of the Queen, who personally served as the unelected sovereign leader of this country, and so you’re the one this letter is addressed to. Sorry. I know you’re just doing your job (btw, well done on getting through the interview process).

Fun fact: Did you know that as well as being Guyana’s Golden Jubilee, 2016 also marks 220 years since Britain took control of the three Dutch colonies (Essequibo, Berbice and Demerara) it went on to rename ‘British Guiana’. That’s 170 years of squatting in someone else’s land. Followed by just 50 years of independence. Maybe if we had £20million in compensation (£20billion in today’s money), like those slave owners, things would be a bit further on here and we too might have a £55bn budget deficit, a divisive referendum result and cream tea.

And while you may find it quaint that remnants of colonialism persist. Perspiring workers stuffed into suits to meet dress codes described even by the president as “archaic”. Familiar-sounding towns named after former plantations, like Windsor Forest, Anna Regina and Blenheim. And of course English, the official language (ignoring the nine different indigenous languages and Guyanese Creolese). Remember, there’s a reason the bootprint is still visible – it wasn’t a step, it was a stamp.

While the British High Commission may lay out some Union Jack bunting for you, not everyone will welcome your visit with such pomp and circumstance. My dad, like many of his generation, was born into a country called British Guiana. As a British subject, he was able to travel to the UK as a twenty-something and build a life there. I’ve now come to Guyana and feel home enough to (very tentatively) say “we” not “they”.

I guess, as a British subject myself, I should be one of the ones waving a flag when your plane touches down tomorrow. But I’m not proud of what the Royal Family represents here. Or anywhere. Superiority. Privilege. Exploitation. It’s the textbook case of wealth gap, the model of inequality, the epitomy of birthright.

(Ironically I have a smidgen of respect for you since you called out the press on its treatment of your mixed race girlfriend – or issued a statement doing so through the press office. I’m sure Martin Luther King would’ve done the same if email had been around at that time, you know when he was having quite a few dreams.

That doesn’t quite make up for the Royal Family’s years of racism and imperial bulldozing. Not to mention your reported comment to comedian Stephen K Amos that “you don’t sound like a black chap”. Or calling a member of your platoon your “little Paki friend”. But it’s a step in the right direction, and hopefully a signal of an increased awareness of what it’s like to not grow up in the belly of wealthy, white privilege.)

I’m well aware that I’ve benefited from and been damaged by Britain’s imperialism and wealth too. That I am as abhorrent as you to many people here in Guyana. That I represent colonial privilege and wealth and superiority. I write this blog as if this is my battle, but who am I to do so? I’ve only been here ten months. There are plenty of other Guyanese writers who could do it – and far better. But I’m going to say my two cents anyway. And so should you. Tell people to invest in Guyana. Tell people to visit Guyana. Tell people what Guyana gave to the UK, not the other way around.

And when you get home, tell granny to hand in her notice won’t you?

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Nine things I discovered at the Guyana Coconut Festival

Popping into the inaugural Guyana Coconut Festival – even just for a few hours – proved an enlightening experience. Here are just nine things I discovered along the way.

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1. Quinches

During a break from the festival talks, delegates were offered a bottle of coconut water and a taste of a quinch. These sweet snacks are made from two circles of cassava bread, filled with shredded coconut and sugar – died purple like the mixture in the more ubiquitous coconut rolls. More please.

2. Discarded husks are a health risk

The husk makes up about 70% of coconut waste, according to Dr Maria Urbana Correa Nunes from Brazilian agricultural research organisation Embrapa. But it breaks down right? Yes, but that takes a long time. Years in fact. In the meantime, the husks have a habit of encouraging infestations – bugs, flies, scorpions, you name it. Dr Urbana showed us a photo of a discarded husk full of mosquito larvae. Suddenly having piles of husks at the side of the road doesn’t seem like such a good idea – in Brazil, apparently, it’s forbidden.

3. Coconut waste is not rubbish

Rather than throwing away used husks, leaves and fibres once you’ve extracted the water or jelly, use them. There are all sorts of things you can make: stuffing for chairs, pointer brooms, bowls and hats (see pic above), carpets, insulation, fertiliser, fuel… One tonne of residue can generate at least 400kg of organic fertiliser according to Embrapa. This was a revelation for me, but in Guyana I think people are already on the case and could show the rest of the world a thing or two about what to do with your coconut materials – without even needing fancy machinery and processing treatments.

4. Mechanisation is coming 

At one booth, visitors were enticed to stop by two shiny, Brazilian-made machines (see above). One had a mounted blade used to cut coconuts – with a funnel for collecting the water inside the nut. Street vendors in Guyana seem to make do perfectly well with a cutlass, strong arm and sharp eye – but who knows, we could start seeing these pop up in the future. With the used shells, vendors could employ the second piece of machinery: a CocoShredder, used for processing coconut shells for use as fuel, fertiliser, packing and soundproofing and landfilling.

5. You can do a coconut tour in Guyana

Dagron Tours, I learned, offers one-day and extended trips to coconut plantations in Pomeroon, Berbice and Linden. According to the blurb ‘the tour is geared to provide the visitor with a first-hand look at the farming technique, processing and extraction of this vital agricultural resource.’ If that sounds a bit technical for your tastes, there’s also the Coco Loco Tour of Sloth Island Nature Resort and the Sunset Coco Cruise along the Demerara – both offering coconut-infused drinks and dishes to sample on your way.

6. India is the largest producer of coconuts in the world

…and they are not just exporting the stuff. A stall of India’s Coconut Development Board was packed with all sorts of slickly packaged coconut treats. Coconut water, coconut milk powder, sweet treats made from Neera (a type of sap extracted from coconut palms), even coconut vinegar.

7. Guyana is getting its own Coconut Development Board

With 1,454 coconut farmers in Guyana (according to the Ministry of Agriculture), there is a need for best practice to be shared and greater cooperation. And so steps are under way to create a Guyana Coconut Development Board in the next three months. Mr Willett (?) spoke of the need to get cross-party approval (presumably so it doesn’t get shut down if the opposition gets in at the next election) and how the body would be funded (initially a MOA stipend but the plan is to become self sufficient within a few years through, for example, the sale of seedlings, a coconut store similar to the one in Jamaica etc)

8. The Dominican Republic imports 80% of the coconuts Guyana exports

Good news. But what happens when the DR starts stepping up its production and no longer needs Guyana’s stocks? It only takes four years for trees to start bearing…

9. Coconut fuel is HOT

Ok, this wasn’t from the festival itself but came out of a subsequent conversation with a friend and taxi driver from “the country”. Coconut as fuel, he said, was great – it doesn’t blacken the pot and cooks fast, with a blue and red flame that would burn you like a blowtorch if it caught you.

It’s clear there’s plenty of local expertise already in Guyana – but also lots of people who want practical, clear advice on how to manage, sustain and develop their coconut crops (whether big or small). Hopefully the next Guyana Coconut Festival and the imminent Guyana Coconut Development Board will take note of that and make good use of the knowledge that exists here, particularly in country areas, and involve both small-scale coconut farmers – as well as international organisations and mass producers.

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Know thy enemy

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Copyright Eckhard Pecher/CreativeCommons

“I’m a spiritual person,” the man on the bicycle declared. He’d stopped me on the road to ask a question I didn’t catch, and proceeded to offer an unsolicited character profile. “You got potential, and if you focus you gonna go far. But you have trouble with friends and man. You got enemies.” The smile faded on my face. “I don’t think I do,” I said warily. “Yes man, you got enemies,” he insisted.

He’s right, of course. As unpleasant as it is to think about it, we all have enemies. You may know them. You may not. Perhaps they just took a disliking to you for no reason. I’ve done the same. The other day I was irrationally irritated by an American man chatting at a cafe, talking loudly and being disingenuously friendly, I felt, to all around him. I’ve never spoken to the man and couldn’t really catch everything he was saying. But I projected onto him some sinister mix of money, power, influence, superiority.

Knowing (grudgingly) the street psychic’s words to be true, I spent the rest of the day feeling uncomfortable, sure that every passerby was looking at me with barely veiled hatred. One lady narrowed her eyes. Another ignored my greeting. One man threw his arms up in disgust and muttered something after I smiled while walking past.

Accepting that not everyone will like you in life isn’t easy. But why do we assume or hope they will? With so many different value systems, outlooks, tastes, cultural backgrounds, chemical reactions… it’s inevitable that you will clash with some people you meet in life. You’ll say the wrong thing in their eyes. Laugh in an irritating way. Wear clothes they hate. Annoy them just by being you.

And so trying to adapt to make everyone like you is a recipe for disaster. It involves too many compromises. So many, in fact, that you could end up forgetting who you are – and just being a mirror for people to project themselves onto. Imagine what that funeral would be like. Everyone wandering around puzzled, asking: ‘Are we talking about the same person?’

While doing things for other people is a real joy, when you start doing it just to be liked or make yourself out to be a martyr – the milk and honey has a tendency to curdle. In your head you may be close to saintly, but others could find your behaviour cloying and sickly or disingenuous. I’ve experienced both sides.

“A man with no enemies has no character,” Paul Newman is quoted as saying. Maybe we should stop being afraid of having enemies. Maybe we should be more afraid of having no enemies, because doesn’t that mean we’re either deceiving ourselves or surrounding ourselves with only people who think and behave like us?

Perhaps it’s the ferocity of the word that scares us. Enemy. Unless it involves violence, really we’re just talking about the devil to our angel. The thorn to our rose. The fire to our wood. The challenger to our cheerleader. We shouldn’t run away from our enemies, but run too them – and come away either understanding them more, or knowing ourselves better.

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Review: The Knife of Dawn at the Roundhouse

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Eric Greene as Martin Carter in The Knife of Dawn (Photo courtesy FT)

On a makeshift prison bed, a figure lay curled in pain. His shirt rumpled. His body bruised. Ever so slowly, he moved – shifting uncomfortably into a sitting position. But as he began to speak (or rather sing), all bodily constraints seemed to melt away – leaving us with only the voice and essence of the man.

Martin Carter lives on in Guyana and around the world through his poems. They leap off the page, lash out from the tongue. But a new one-man opera by British-Guyanese composer Hannah Kendall, based on the works of Guyana’s poet of resistance, brings his words crashing into your consciousness in a whole new way.

Set in 1953, when Carter was imprisoned by the British on the charge of “spreading dissension”, The Knife of Dawn is a taut, tense and uncomfortable watch.

Performed by a small chamber orchestra, the music is discordant, dark, repetitive, unsettling – much like, I imagine, being in prison. I yearned for a break. For a change of scenery. For a bit of light relief. But even familiar touches of everyday Guyanese life – pepperpot, cassava etc – in Canadian-Guyanese writer Tessa McWatt‘s libretto brought no comfort.

As the main (and only) lead, baritone Eric Greene had to grab and hold our attention throughout. And his physical, nuanced performance was up to the job. Wincing and flinching with pain at the outset, his transformation was all the more powerful when – empowered and healed by his own words – he stood like a giant on the bed where he had once cowered.

Greene may not physically resemble Martin Carter, but as the human embodiment of the poet’s words, his tall, muscled form is fitting. Sometimes having those words sung added new layers and depths, other times I felt they took the power and meaning away. “This is the dark time, my love” always sends chills through me when reading, but I didn’t feel that fear in Greene’s voice.

Like reading Carter’s poetry, though, it’s inevitable that you bring to the work different expectations and interpretations. And I think I missed various nods or references. A friend was reminded of a discordant European musical trend of the 1960s. While in an interview with Caribbean Beat, Kendall herself spoke of weaving in a traditional lullaby she remembered from her Guyanese (I presume) grandmother.

In that same interview, Kendall talks about her hopes of bringing the show to Guyana. Chatting to a friend in the street back in Georgetown yesterday, they asked what the show was like and how it would go down here. I thought back to one (Guyanese) friend’s post-show analysis, half-jokingly saying how she wanted to call out “Just eat the damn food!” every time Carter reluctantly but defiantly returned away his full plate.

Given the lively response of many Guyanese audiences – where comments, heckles and jokes are often greeted with as much laughter and interest as the show – I’d like to see what people here make of The Knife of Dawn. Will the performance work on Guyanese soil? Will it get the same positive reception (a standing ovation, no less) as it met at London’s Roundhouse – and in subsequent reviews in the Financial Times and Guardian.

It would be interesting to explore how the show could adapt to its surroundings here: for example losing some of the historic explanations in the lyrics and involving local musicians and singers. If not Greene, then perhaps the two backing sopranos and alto (whose pure, very English voices as Carter’s conscious or internal voice somehow jarred with me slightly) or the musicians – in this production one harp, one violin, one viola and one violoncello.

Whatever happens next, the potential and boldness of this opera – Kendall’s first – is huge and I’m glad I was able to support it through my attendance. Next stop… Guyana? New York? Toronto? Let’s get this Guyanese cultural circuit rolling.

Watch a sample of the opera 

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Home from home

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“When are you going home?” asked a friend. They meant Guyana not London. I was temporarily back in the UK after six months in South America. Up until I’d left in February – apart from holidays and a few longer stays – I’d lived my whole life in the UK. So how is this now home? But I got what they meant.

Growing up with a parent from overseas, especially when that country is foremost in their mind, a part of you is forever somewhere else.

For some people, that’s somewhere else is concrete and real. They regularly travel there (and not just for funerals). They speak the language (or can at least understand when they’re being bad-mouthed). They know the landscape (or as far as their protective family will allow). They can describe their favourite local dishes (and maybe even make them).

For others, like me, it’s a bit more abstract. I first came to Guyana at the ripe old age of 26. And then it was just for a week or so – part of a wider trip through Suriname and French Guiana to Brazil, then briefly back to GT.

My knowledge of Guyana had been cobbled together from stories my dad and aunts used to tell; rare visits to Queen’s College alumni events; discovering the works of Martin Carter, Edgar Mittleholzer, Grace Nichols et al; the occasional titbit at a Guyanese food stall in Brixton or a ‘cultural’ festival (ginips, sugar cane and watery shave ice, usually).

When someone asked: “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” (i.e. You’re clearly not white. Explain) I would say, “My father is Guyanese and my mother is English”. But beyond explaining where Guyana is (or correcting them when they suddenly started talking about West Africa) there wasn’t much I could add.

So coming to Guyana for an indefinite period was daunting. What was I letting myself in for? Would I just feel out of place? Would I be the weird oddball for choosing a freelance, nomadic existence over being married with children by 30? Would I miss the hectic London pace of life? Would I feel lonely? Would people ask, why are you here?

Yes, at times. But I’ve also been able to discover Guyana on my own terms, in my own way. And having moved so many times in my life, ‘home’ is quite a fluid concept for me. Throw a few pictures on the wall, put on some music, brew a pot of coffee, and it feels like home.

When my sister came to visit, she said: “I couldn’t picture where you were before, now I can… and I understand why you stayed”. Some people assume it’s the sun (and rum) that draws me back. Others (far too many) assume it’s a mystery man. I tell them, ‘It’s true, I’ve fallen in love… with Guyana.” [Cue eye roll from any Guyanese readers who’ve made it this far].

On the plane back to GT, I watched the film Brooklyn, which is about an Irish girl relocating to New York in the 1920s. I picked it purely because I’d read somewhere that Saoirse Ronan, as well as having an amazing name, is fantastic in the lead role. But it turned out to be the perfect choice.

Within about five minutes I had tears running down my cheeks, as Eilis (Ronan) stood on a ship bound for America, waving goodbye to her sister and mum. I couldn’t help but think about the day before: waving goodbye to my parents as their bus left the stop. Giving my nephew one last hug before dropping him at school. Seeing my sisters and friends and brightly saying, “See you next year!” It’s not quite the same as waving goodbye forever, like in Brooklyn, but parting is always bittersweet. Even when you have WhatsApp.

So now I’m back ‘home’. This other home. I don’t know if this ting I’ve got going with Guyana is a fling. Are we dating? Are we in a relationship? Where is this going?

STOP!

Enough with the over analysing. Guyana is not a man – thank goodness. But right now, it’s where I lay my hat. So I guess it must be home.

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‘Yuh think it easy?’ Finding Godfrey Chin

 

godfrey-chin-prize Today, somewhere in New York, my name will be called out as the winner of the Godfrey Chin Prize for Heritage Journalism. I got the news a couple of weeks ago and was so thrilled to have been nominated, let alone won first prize.

I started this blog as a way of documenting interesting things I learned or came across in Guyana. I thought: well, my mum might read it. I didn’t forsee it would grow roots. My most recent blog, Five Ways To Do Iwokrama On A (Kind Of) Budget, has had 510 views already. OK it’s not exactly the 140,000 my BBC piece on Guyana’s blind cricket team apparently got, but it’s not bad going for a little, unpromoted site with a random name.

On winning the prize, I thought I should really read up about Godfrey Chin, who I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of before. I find a “social history icon and culture enthusiast”, a man of memories, an author, and an artist. In fact, all the things I aspire to be. Well, apart from the man part obviously.

If I met him today I think I’d badger him to let me interview him for my Guyana50 oral-history project – particularly for his memories of growing up in Georgetown to parents of Chinese heritage. I might ask him for tips on being an artist, how to find the discipline to be creative. And I’d listen. Just listen.

His Nostalgias writings and books in particular seem to have struck a chord with their readers, both those who remember those days and the younger generation who grew up hearing similar stories from their own parents. If I can achieve just 10% of that with the Guyana50 project – with audio rather than words – I’ll be overjoyed.

Sadly I’m unable to make the award ceremony in New York, and I understand there won’t be an opportunity for speeches. But I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you all for reading this blog, commenting, sharing, encouraging… it means a lot, and keeps my eyes open and pen ready.

I’d also like to thank Dr Vibert Cambridge, Claire-Ann Goring and all the other talented and dedicated people from the Guyana Cultural Association of New York who organised this prize giving – and continue to celebrate, promote and develop Guyanese culture around the world.

And a final word of thanks to Alysia Simone of the blog Rewind & Come Again for agreeing to accept the award on my behalf – and for bringing the amazing Timehri Film Festival to Guyana earlier this year. I can’t wait for next year’s programme…

In his obituary in Stabroek News, there’s a lovely quote from Mr Chin about growing up in Georgetown. “In our neighbourhood,” he says, “each of us in this challenging environment was a small acorn, which grew into a huge oak tree – our branches making waves – providing comfort and shade in the enclaves where we live today.”

I hope to be able to do the same – or at least pour water and light on others, and enjoy the fruits of their labours.

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Five ways to do Iwokrama on a (kind of) budget

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Located right in the heart of Guyana’s vast rainforest, Iwokrama River Lodge is not a cheap holiday destination. In fact ‘Your prices seem expensive’ even makes the Frequently Asked Questions list on the resort/scientific research centre’s website.

Recently I heard of someone being quoted US$2,000 for a visit, which is far, far more than what I paid on a recent visit with my sister. So how can you do Iwokrama on a budget? Here are a few money-saving tips:

      1. Go by bus. You can get to Iwokrama by plane (then car), private vehicle or bus. Unsurprisingly the latter is the cheapest option. Single minibus trips from Georgetown to Lethem cost in the region of Gy$10,000, but if you shop around you may be able to find cheaper. Try to bargain the price down too on the grounds you’re only going as far as the Iwokrama Ranger Station, just over the Kurupukari Crossing. (Read more in my other blog on taking the bus to Lethem.)

 

  • Don’t stay in a cabin. Unless you read the blurb carefully, you may not realise that Iwokrama’s cute but pricey riverside cabins are not the only accommodation on offer. There’s also the Research Building and Training Rooms. And the prices are considerably less:

 

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So what is the cheaper accommodation like? My sister and I stayed in the Training Rooms, and found them to be basic but comfortable and clean – with mosquito netting on the windows. See my very poor camera pics below for a rough idea:

3. Pick and choose your meals carefully…
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all available at Iwokrama – but as they’re charged for separately you don’t have to have them all. Breakfast is $12, which seems a bit steep for what we had: some slightly chewy toast and egg. What I’d recommend is coming with some fruit, a bag of tennis rolls and a jar of peanut butter, having this for your breakfast (and maybe lunch too, which is $18) and enjoying the much more satisfying $20 dinner.

4. …and your activities
As with your meals, you can ‘order’ whatever tour activities you like, from a boat ride on the rapids to a walk up Turtle Mountain. Note: the prices are based on two people taking part in the activity, so if you’re going on your own you’ll end up paying more (unless you can find another traveller to buddy up with and share the cost).

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Because you can design your own schedule, you can choose the activities that fit within your budget. One thing to consider is the time of year you’re visiting and if the price will be value for money. If it’s rainy season, for example, the river will be high so you may not see the petroglyphs. Or if you’re arriving at Iwokrama on the bus from Lethem at 6am, once you’ve offloaded your stuff and driven the 1.5 hour journey it may be too late to do the Canopy Walkway – dawn or dusk seems to be the optimum time to catch the birds, monkeys and other wildlife. Also be warned: the Canopy Walkway rate in the table above doesn’t include transportation to the site, which is hefty $125.

5. Ask about special offers
Iwokrama’s explanation of its high prices (follow link at top of blog) mentions different offers available to visitors: discounted rates for Guyanese nationals and a “30% off season discount to all guests”. So make sure you ask about these discounts before confirming your booking.

One final (and slightly contradictory) point to make is: if you can afford it, pay it. Don’t be cheap just for the sake of it. Iwokrama is a unique, vital project that is increasing the world’s knowledge of rainforest biodiversity, and seems to be proving that you can manage a rainforest, converse wildlife and support local people in a sustainable way. Your visit (and dough) is keeping that going. How many holidays are that rewarding for everyone concerned? Plus it’s not everyday you get to hang out in the middle of a rainforest, so try to fit in as much as your time and pocket allows while you’re there.

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What to know before you take the bus to Lethem

 

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When you’re planning a trip into the interior of Guyana, the number one question is often: bus or plane? Money plays a big part – but there’s the whole ‘experience’ factor to think about too. And time.

In a bid to show off the jewels of Guyana’s interior to my visiting sister, I took her last week to Lethem and Iwokrama – by bus.

Telling people of our plans, a few asked: what’s the bus journey actually like? So I thought I’d share my experiences and tips. Because, as I found out during the trip: if you don’t ask, no one is going to tell you.

Think about what season you’re going in

When I went to Lethem in March for the Rupununi Rodeo, the journey was long and bumpy but not unbearably so. Travelling last week, in early August, the road was a nightmare – covered in potholes, ditches of water and muddy red clay. The drivers had to skilfully weave their way around these obstacles, so we were swerving and bumping the entire journey (well, from the second we came off the smooth asphalt road in Linden). At one point the driver actually got out and waded through a puddle to see if it was passable.

So, if you have a choice about when to visit the interior, think about whether you want to go in wet or dry season. And not just in terms of the bus journey. For example, during the dry season the waterfalls of Lethem (Moca Moca etc) may well be dried out. While during the wet season many animals and birds may prefer sheltering from the rain than parading round for you to admire and photograph them.

The Easter-time rodeo is definitely worth a visit – either the main Rupununi Rodeo or the lesser-known one in Sand Creek, which apparently is smaller but a bit wilder. September is also a good month to venture into the interior as it’s Amerindian Heritage Month in Guyana, so there should be lots of activities going on and more opportunities to visit Amerindian villages. September is also fruiting month (or something like that) according to one of the staff at Iwokrama, so a popular time for hardcore birders to visit.

Don’t expect to stick to your schedule

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When I went into the interior in March, we left Georgetown around 6.30pm and were in Lethem by about 8am – if memory serves correctly. A journey of about 13.5 hours – including a bit of waiting time at Kurupukari (the pontoon river crossing by Iwokrama River Lodge). But when we went to Lethem last week, it took 18 hours to get to Lethem – this time with two hours before the Kurupukari crossing. This was mostly due to the state of the roads (see video above), made almost impassable by rain, buses, logging lorries and poor maintenance.

There are various other factors that can affect your journey time too: when you leave Georgetown (there might be traffic, late passengers, lots of bags to pack onto the bus); how fast the driver goes (one girl on the bus was complaining about a slow driver who she now avoids going with); how long you stay at the rest stops; and if anything happens to the bus (on the way back we had a puncture and another stop when a tree branch got caught under the bus).

The Kurupukari crossing is also a bit of a scheduling roadblock. Because it doesn’t open till 6am, you have to wait on the other side of the river until the pontoon is in action. The crossing also caught us out on the way back from Lethem. My plan was to leave Lethem on Wednesday late afternoon and arrive at Iwokrama by nightfall. I told this plan to the booking agent at Iwokrama. I repeated it to the bus agents. No one mentioned anything was wrong with it.

Then on the night before we were due to leave, we invited our GT-Lethem bus driver for a drink and he happened to mention that our plan wasn’t going to work. Huh? Turns out, because the bus leaves at 5pm it doesn’t make it to the Kurupukari crossing before the 6pm closure. So everyone has to spend the night at a roadside bus stopping near to Surama, where you can hire a hammock for Gy$500 and hang it up next to some heavily snoring men for a few hours of restless sleep (I think rooms are available too, but we were trying to be cheap).

I don’t know if other bus companies leave before 5pm (we went with P&A on Church Street), but it could be worth checking if you’re planning on going from Lethem to Iwokrama by bus.

Check the cost of travel carefully

A flight from Ogle to Lethem is Gy$25,000 (one way). Going by bus is generally $10,000 – more than half the cost, making it the cheapest option. Although do factor in the cost of all those snack stops, hammock rentals… it can add up. Though not quite to the Gy$15,000 difference between plane and bus, obviously.

I thought P&A’s Gy$10,000 one-way fare was standard, but en route I saw two other companies advertising cheaper return fares. There was Carly’s Bus Service, whose poster boasted ‘Lethem to G/Town cost low as $18,000 return. And BD Express (apologies for the poor photo), which topped that: offering return trips for Gy$17,000 – including ‘free refreshment at Kurupukari’. Lovely.

Another thing to mention here is the cost of going the shorter distance from Lethem to Iwokrama. We were given a bus ticket ‘from Lethem to Georgetown’ and assumed we could jump off the bus at Iwokrama, then resume the journey on another bus a few days later. Not so. This is where the: ‘if you don’t ask, we’re not going to tell you’ bit comes in. So apparently because we didn’t ask, we had to pay Gy$10,000 to go from Lethem to Iwokrama and then the same again to go from Iwokrama to GT. The bus service rep was unapologetic on the phone: the money we’d paid had gone to the first driver, now we had to pay the second driver. And what could we do? We were stuck in the middle of the rainforest. We had no choice but to pay.

Talking to some other drivers on the way back, I figured out that we could have bargained a lower price. One suggested Gy$7,000 from Lethem to Iwokrama – which might have been an overestimate estimate, but was still considerably cheaper. From Iwokrama to Georgetown, you could again try to negotiate a price in advance – or just turn up at the Iwokrama police checkpoint at 6am when the buses arrive, ready to cross on the pontoon, and see if any of the buses have a spare seat.

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Pack wisely

I don’t know if there’s an added cost for extra baggage on the bus, but some people travel with a lot. I saw suitcases, a bicycle, trays of chirping chicks, cardboard boxes… Most belongings can be stored behind the last row of seats at the back of the bus, with the bulkier items going on top of the bus, with the spare gas and tyres. A tarpaulin is put over everything in case it should rain.

In terms of your carry-on bag, you just need the basics:

  1. Passport/ID card: You’ll need it handy for the police checks en route.
  2. Water + snacks: There are stop-offs on the way, but it’s cheaper, easier and more environmentally friendly to bring your own re-useable bottle and pre-made/bought food. It’s also quite nice to bring something like sweets or biscuits to share with your fellow passengers. I’ve found Brazilian travellers in particular like to hand round whatever they have, so you might want to bring something to offer in return.
  3. Sweater/cardigan: The minibuses to Lethem rely on open windows for fresh-air and coolness – though there was a promise of AC on my bus to Lethem in March (in the end it didn’t really work). I found myself feeling a little chilly at one point, so it might be worth keeping a warmer layer handy.
  4. Neck support: On the journey to Lethem, my sister later told me she was in hysterics watching my head jerk and flop around as I attempted to sleep through the minibus road aerobics. Waking up at one point with a start, I thought I’d given myself whiplash for a second. I’ve never actually tried an airplane-style neck support but Ir reckon it’s worth a try. If you try to lean your head on the side of the bus you’ll probably get concussion. And accidentally resting your head on your neighbours shoulder may not always get the polite shove I got from my new Brazilian friend in March.

Choose a good seat

In preparation for this blog, which I started thinking about doing en route, I tried to make a theatre-seating-style assessment of the best seats in the house. I didn’t try all seats so this is a bit unscientific, but just my preference of where to settle your behind for the long ride ahead:

First prize goes to… the front seat. There are lots of reasons why it’s good to ride shotgun. You’re next to the driver, so have plenty of time to gaff – as well as the potential of being able to influence his music choice (I say ‘his’ as I didn’t see one female GT-Lethem driver, but could be wrong…). You’re also in prime position to see the forest as you ride through, and are likely to spot birds, the odd agouti, maybe even an ant-eater or (if you’re really lucky) a jaguar. You’re not squashed by anyone next to you (unless it’s a three-seat row) and have relatively good leg room.

Second prize goes to… The far-left seat, two rows back from the front. Why? Three reasons: You’re not in the middle seat; you have a bit of extra leg room because of the way the floor drops by the door; and you can control how open the window is (unlike with the ‘conductor’ seat in front)

Third prize goes to… The far-right seat, two rows back from the front. For the same reasons above – apart from the extra leg room bit.

In my opinion the middle seat doesn’t give you enough support and leaves you open to the risk of sleeping on your neighbour’s shoulder. Front front-row seats have that weird high and low flooring, which kind of gives you different options to put your feet but can be a bit annoying. I didn’t try the back seats but they look cramped and claustrophobic.

The worst seat in the house goes to… the middle seat in the front row. As well as being a middle seat, there’s a bit annoying lump on the floor, which means you have very little leg room.

So all in all, taking the bus from Georgetown into the interior is something of an endurance feat, and definitely worth doing – if only for the stories. If you can afford to, you might want to take the bus in and fly back, in case you’re too traumatised on the way down. But really, it’s not that bad. And as they say about life, it’s all about the journey – not the destination.

Do you have any tips from your GT-Lethem journey? Or know of any other companies running this bus route? Feel free to add your comments in the box below.

blog · Misc · Uncategorized

Guyana, the drama of the small country with the highest suicide rate in the world

 

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(English version of article published by the BBC in Spanish and Portuguese)

In a tiny corner of GuyExpo, Guyana’s leading trade fair, the Pesticides and Toxic Chemicals Control Board is trying to entice passersby to its stall. A display of glass beakers containing bubbling liquids in the country’s national colours – red, black, green, white and yellow – proves eye-catching. Some stop to take a closer look or pick up one of the leaflets urging ‘Remember! Pesticide stored wise – save lives’. Amid the excitement and optimism of the event, part of Guyana’s 50th Anniversary of Independence celebrations, it’s a stark reminder of the many lives that have been ended here by people ingesting readily available poisons, herbicides and pesticides.

Perched on the northern coast of South America, Guyana has a small but diverse population numbering just over 750,000. But it also has the highest rate of suicide in the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 44.2 people in every 100,000 commit suicide – compared to just 6.2 in the UK.

“It’s a statistical way of computing the rate, because nobody knows the true number,” admits Dr William Adu-Krow, country representative for the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) and WHO. “And the fact that we have some institutions reporting suicides does not mean that’s the true number. Someone may drink poison but when they go to hospital, because of the stigma, they only say they’re feeling sick or cannot breathe.” Without a toxicological centre, getting accurate data is made even harder.

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“Suicide is very taboo here in Guyana,” says Bibi Ahamad, Vice President for the Guyana branch of New York-based NGO The Caribbean Voice (TCV), who uses social media such as WhatsApp to keep in touch with people who contact her for advice and support. “The number of attempts is very, very high. I spoke with a teen who attempted suicide six times, and no one sought help for her, no one paid any attention to her.”

With little research available, pinpointing the reasons behind the high rate is difficult. A survey of suicide survivors by the Georgetown Public Hospital found key driving factors to be family discord, couple problems and domestic violence. Others cite peer pressure, attitudes towards the LGBT community, poverty, unequal access to education and healthcare, even the glorification of suicide in Indian films and soap operas – or “the Bollywood effect” (reportedly more than 65% of cases are from the East Indian community). “Last year our focus [at TCV] was primarily on raising awareness of the warning signs, myths, the misinformation,” says Ms Ahamad, “but also we decided to focus on issues like drug and alcohol abuse, rape and incest, and teen pregnancy.”

Unfortunately Guyana’s mental health system is, according to a WHO report from 2008, “fragmented, poorly resourced, and not integrated into the general health-care system”. The country has just five psychiatrists and one psychiatric hospital, located in East Berbice-Corentyne – the region with the highest rate of suicide in Guyana. Established by the British in 1867 as the ‘Lunatic Asylum’, the renamed National Psychiatric Hospital is in serious need of attention – with the Minister of Public Health, Dr George Norton, describing its current state as “disgraceful”, following a visit last year. A smaller psychiatric unit also exists at Georgetown Public Hospital.

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The scale of the crisis is significant, particularly among Guyana’s youth. According to the Ministry of Health, between 2006 and 2008, suicide was the major cause of death for 15 to 24 year olds in Guyana. “I think one of the reasons is because they don’t have many people to talk to,” says Daniel Ali, a medical student who last month started coordinating in-school suicide prevention workshops for both teachers and students through Give Foundation Guyana. “They find great difficulty in trusting someone. Because they’re afraid the first response they would get is, ‘Why are you trying to do this to yourself?’ They’re really afraid of the stigma and discrimination against them. The other thing is the issue with confidentiality. They’re afraid that their personal lives or whatever they say might get out in public.”

Guyana’s media is frequently accused of being overdramatic and insensitive in its coverage of suicide and mental health. “Every day, suicides are reported, how they did it, what they did before…” criticises Dr Jorge Balseiro, consultant psychiatrist at Georgetown Public Hospital. In November, when the bodies of two young people were found in an apparent suicide pact, a number of outlets published photos of the pair, laying near the sea wall. Dr Balseiro hopes that a Media and Suicide Prevention Workshop held by PAHO last month may encourage more responsible reporting.

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Engaging with the media is just one of the interventions proposed in Guyana’s National Mental Health Strategy 2015-2020 and National Suicide Prevention Plan. “The idea is to move mental health from a central institution into the community and primary health care,” says Leslyn Holder, Public Education and Training Coordinator in the new mental health secretariat, set up just last month. Plans include opening a new Mental Health Institute and turning the psychiatric hub at Georgetown Public Hospital into a dedicated inpatient unit. There are also efforts being made to introduce training for NGOs; a Masters in psychiatry for doctors; and additional mental health training for clinical doctors and nurses – with a pilot programme already underway on the island of Bartica. “We’re starting from scratch,” says Ms Holder, “which might not necessarily be a bad thing.”

But the government will have to work hard to convince the population that these steps will be implemented, properly funded and have an impact. “For too long,” wrote mental health rights advocate and lawyer Anthony Autar in a recent blog, “our silence has created an environment where the powers that be feel comfortable making lofty public proclamations about plans to address the mental health crisis in Guyana, but follow-up with sloth or inaction.”

One practical step forward has been the creation of a suicide hotline. The 24-hour service was launched last year by the National Police Force, which claims it has had a “100% success rate” in terms of response and referrals. “Attempted suicide is considered a criminal offence in Guyana,” acknowledges Police Sergeant Sherry Mason, “but because it was on the rise we’re not going to charge them any more, because we realise that if someone tries to commit suicide that person is in a crisis. We’re trying to extend our hand to them.”

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Current Miss Guyana World and suicide prevention campaigner Lisa Punch, who set up Prevention of Teenage Suicide (POTS) in 2012, is also calling for more school counsellors. “The new government are getting counsellors to various schools but it’s not enough … let every school have their own counsellor and not have them rotate. They need someone to confide in, to talk to, to let them know that everything is ok – this is part of growing up, because they feel like they’re the only ones going through what they’re going through.”

“I think the best person that can identity with a situation and be able to express it is a person who went through the ordeal,” adds comedian Kirk ‘Chow Pow’ Jardine, who has been breaking through the taboo to share his story of surviving suicide. “I was an active drug addict for 21 years and in those 21 years I started giving up on life … I thought all my problems were more than me.” But after seeking help through rehab, Mr Jardine was able to turn his life around. “Now I am the number one stand-up comedian in Guyana. And instead of bringing tears to people’s eyes, I bring laughter and smiles.”

Carinya Sharples

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A view on Britain’s Independence Day (from a former colony)

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On 26 May I joined in Guyana’s Jubilee celebrations, marking 50 years of independence from British colonial rule. A month later, I find that while I’ve been away Britain has gone and had its own independence day. At least that’s what UKIP leader Nigel Farage crowed after the results of the Brexit referendum were announced.

The irony is not lost on many. After centuries of empire building, the nation made rich off the back of slavery, exploitation and mass theft of resources has thrown off the yoke of European autocracy and is free. “Britons never will be slaves”, as flag-waving attendees of The Last Night of the Proms lustily sing every summer. Forgive me if I don’t bring out the Union Jack bunting just yet.

Viewing Brexit from Guyana has been an interesting experience. First of all I have to guiltily admit I didn’t vote – for the first time in my life – due to a combination of bureaucracy, laziness and complacency, which meant I didn’t get my proxy voting application in on time. Perhaps I have no grounds to discuss the referendum, but I’m going to anyway.

Speaking to friends here and back in the UK, Brexit is the talking point. Though I sense that people here in Guyana are asking more out of politeness and vague curiosity than any real fascination in the geopolitical affairs of the country they were once forced to call ‘the motherland’. There is some coverage in the local newspapers though, including editorials on what Britain’s departure will mean in terms of the EPA (Economic Partnership Agreement), trade (Guyana exported €192m to the EU in 2013, and imported about €122m) and EU funding streams for the Caribbean.

“It is most unlikely that the 27 EU countries, which had no historical relationship with, or colonial responsibility for, the English-speaking Caribbean, will want to maintain the level of official aid and investment that now exists,” wrote Sir Ronald Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador, in Kaieteur News. Investment, I’m guessing, like the Gy$2.2bn in budget support that Guyana received from the EU on Monday.

But does Guyana really benefit from this assistance? Have things changed in this country because of foreign aid and investment, or because of local entrepreneurship and partnerships not involving the EU at all?

The British High Commissioner to Guyana, Greg Quinn, promised in a recent Facebook video message, “We will stay a close friend of Guyana and we will stay committed to Guyana”. I’m not sure Guyana is that bothered. When people want to emigrate it seems to be for the US and Canada, these days, not the UK. Minibus drivers hang small stars n stripes on their rearview mirrors, not Union Jacks. Just 11% of Guyana’s exports are bound for the UK, compared to 28% for Canada and 17% to the United States.

The days of the British empire are mercifully numbered. And everyone’s starting to adjust to the new world order. And ask, hang on, why does this small island get a bigger say than us? The UK senses this, but can’t quite face up to its waning power. By voting to leave the EU, the ‘Out’ camp has seized on that last, desperate battle tactic: batten up the hatches, raise the drawbridge and try to pretend you’re safe behind those big stone walls. While the Remainers said, I don’t want to live life that. Let’s talk to our neighbours and see what we can work out.

It seems foolish to leave an institution then spend the next however many years trying to build up the same relationship from outside. Like breaking up with someone, screaming ‘I HATE YOU!’ and expecting they’ll still cook you dinner, lend you stuff and have you over anytime you like – but, you know, just as friends. Yeah sure, that’s gonna happen.

In Guyana, there is anger at foreigners coming in to steal resources and wealth from Guyanese hands, but this is mostly reserved for big business from China, America and Europe. Not struggling individuals seeking a better life for themselves and their families, as with EU migrants coming to the UK.

I’m proud of my UK brothers and sisters who fight against racial prejudice, stereotypes and misinformation. And I try to remain tolerant with those who talk about the country being ‘taken over’ – while still challenging them – because (like with every wave of xenophobia the UK has seen) they’ve been told that our problems lie at the feet of migrants, not our own self-serving political and economic elite.

No wonder they seek comfort in the extreme right. They are ignored by Labour, the Conservatives and other mainstream parties who dismiss them as bigots, without listening. As much as I detest the British National Party, would you get David Cameron or Jeremy Corbyn talking to people on a level like the BNP man in the video below? No. They’d sneer and mock them. And we ask ourselves why so many folks used the referendum as a protest vote.

But I’m embarrassed too. By the worrying signs of increased racism on the streets. By the people who represent us on the world stage, like Farage and Boris Johnson. I can imagine now what it feels like to be American and have Donald Trump as your presidential candidate. The global impression of the UK right now is a bratty little kid jumping up and down saying ‘Stop telling me what to do. I’m a big boy now. I don’t need you’ – forgetting that he still lives at home and gets his pocket money from his parents.

When you’re a hero to nationalistic, far-right groups with a hazy dream of going ‘back’ to some monocultural paradise that never existed, you know you’re not doing something right.

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Gay times in Guyana

Photo courtesy of Michael A Leonard — at St. George's Cathedral. Guyana. Via SASOD - Guyana.
Photo courtesy of Michael A Leonard — at St. George’s Cathedral. Guyana. (Via SASOD – Guyana)

Since I’ve been in Guyana, I’ve heard one, two… a dozen homophobic comments. I’ve taken them as individual cases, but the shootings in Orlando seem to have brought everything together in one big sticky mess.

I don’t know what to do when I hear homophobic comments. I’ve never really faced it close up before. I live in this bubble where I just assume people are cool with homosexuality – until they say otherwise – because in my experience they mostly are.

I’m used to hearing stories of homophobia in the Caribbean though. That’s part of the Western narrative: sun, beaches, crime and homophobic music. So when I arrived in Guyana and made some friends who were openly gay, I was kind of surprised.

There’s a LGBT film festival? (It’s on right now as a matter of fact). Gay rights groups? A Gay Pride Guyana Facebook page? It sounds so naive now.

Then I started hearing the comments. They were offered casually, by people of all ages. “It’s disgusting”, “It’s wrong”, “Why do they have to push it in your face?” I heard the appalling terminology for a gay male – “an anti-man”.

I’m not gay, but these people didn’t know that. If I had been, how would I have felt? What would I have done? Kept quiet, I guess. Or made some tentative attempt at challenging their views, as I’ve done – cautious about being too critical of someone I’ve just been introduced to.

I’m sure there are many people with similar views in the UK. In London. Amongst my friendship group even. Is it only because we’re never discussed it that this issue hasn’t come up before?

Encountering these views is strange to me. I just can’t see it. I can’t see what’s wrong. It may not be common to see same-sex couples holding hands in the street or kissing, so I can understand people being surprised or even uncomfortable initially… but, as the public ads from gay charity Stonewall say in the UK, get over it.

Homosexuality is not some recent discovery. There have been gay people for thousands of years. It may just seem new because finally LGBT people and those of us who support them are finding a voice and platform. Why does it have to be done so publicly? Because that’s the only way we’ll reach all those who cite religion, nature or whatever other excuse they have for their homophobia. And because there’s strength in numbers. And safety.

I understand that my views may have been the total opposite simply if I was born in a different time or place. But this is comforting in a way, because it just shows this prejudice is learned – and can be unlearned. We just need to have patience and persistence to get the message across and to share some truths.

Like supporting LGBT rights doesn’t mean you are gay. Like being gay doesn’t mean you cannot be homophobic. Like sexuality is not as black and white as some would like. Like being gay is not ‘infectious’.

We all have our own perspective and deeply engrained beliefs, but can we not agree on one thing?  To love and respect the decisions of our fellow man or woman. The slogan and hashtag for the protests and tweets that have poured out since Orlando is #lovewins. It’s the perfect response. Who can argue against love?

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Staging a celebration: Guyana’s Jubilee Theatre Festival

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Cheating husbands, quintuplet births, romance, murder… the Jubilee Theatre Festival, part of Guyana’s 50th independence celebrations, had it all.

The festival began in May, when the Theatre Guild staged Playing Chess With A Blind Man by Rae Wiltshire; Come Back to Melda by John Campbell; Some Other Nights by Nicholas Singh; Obeah Koksen by Professor Kenn Dance; Guilty Pleasures by Nicola Moonsammy; Til Death by Tashandra Inniss; Summer Breeze by Linden Isles and White House on Black Street by Clinton Duncan.

I only got my act together for the June programme. And even then, I was sorry to have missed Sauda, written by Mosa Telford, which I heard was excellent. Also The Colour of Rage by Sonia Yarde and A Green Card Marriage by Harold Bascom. But I managed to catch four productions.

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The first, Till Ah Find A Place by Ronald Hollingsworth, was a cracking comedy of infidelity, deception and unwelcome guests. Directed by Sheron Cadogan-Taylor, the play was classic soap-opera territory – man and woman happily married, woman invites friend to stay, man is furious, wife goes away for work, man and friend fight… and end up in bed, chaos ensues. But the sharp writing and energetic performances brought fresh energy to a familiar story, keeping it lively and funny throughout.

The packed audience were delighted; roaring with laughter, tutting with disapproval at some new sign of duplicity, nodding in recognition at familiar scenes. The two leads were excellent. Leslyn BobbSemple, as the homeless friend Donna, moved seemlessly from pitiful victim to bold seductress to scheming chancer. While Mark Kazim put in a brilliant performance as the frustrated husband, Linden, torn between his jet-set wife and live-in lover. The two had great chemistry and rapport, managing to communicate expressively even when reduced to just wildly gesticulating at each other when Linden’s wife’s back was turned. Donna’s boyfriend (played, I believe, by Sean Thompson) also made a well-received cameo, with his low-slung pants and whiney attitude.

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Benjie Darling had a hard act to follow. But the play, written by Paloma Mohammed and directed by Rae Wiltshire, held its own. Colleen Humphrey and Simone Dowding played the two unmarried sisters: one romantic and yearning for children, the other hard-nosed and seemingly with a heart of ice. The best lines, however, were reserved for the Benjie of the title, played by Clinton Duncan. With his tufted beard, sprightly frame and gardener’s vest, Benji was alternately thoughtful and intelligent, and greedy and opportunistic. Whether he was eavesdropping at the side of the house, swaggering importantly around the house or counselling his wife-to-be, Benji always seemed to steal the scene.

Some of the climactic moments, such as when it’s discovered that the meanspirited sister blocked her sibling’s one chance for marriage when she was younger, somehow didn’t feel as dramatic as they could have. Either because they were drowned by the music, delivery, or script. And it felt like the play could have been edited down, to clarify the dialogue in parts and pick up the pace moving. But I enjoyed it – and think it was a remarkable achievement considering that due to rehearsal space, the cast and crew apparently only had a week to prepare the show. With a bit more time and work, this play could really bring the house down.

13350326_241216516252098_7732083654894605317_oThe next night (no rest for the avid theatre goer) saw the return of Frank Pilgrim’s Miriamy – first performed at the Theatre Guild in 1962. But despite the references to telephone operators and gentlemen’s clubs for white visitors (who knows, maybe these still exist in GT…), the play was as fresh as ever. The story centres around the news that a woman on the fictional island of St Midas is due to give birth to quintuplets – but brilliantly this woman, the Miriamy of the title, is never actually seen. Instead we view everything through those around her – the gossips, the lovers, the family and the press.

Directed by Ron Robinson, the production had a wonderful cast. Lloyda Nicholas-Garrett was excellent as the poised, pert and glory-seeking doctor’s wife, Stella Singer. Nikose Layne neatly captured the inquisitive reporter, never without his notepad and always with a nose for a story. While Leon Cummings was superb as the village clerk Desmond, an overly dramatic, self-aggrandising meddler. His expressive eyes and flamboyant gestures, of a cunning man determined to find fame and fortune by any means possible, were comic gold and I found myself throwing my head back in laughter.

All the cast were great in fact, from the lead roles to the smaller parts. particularly the sullen maid Dulcibelle; the brilliantly long-winded village clerk (played by Henry Rodney); and drunken rum-maker Garcia – a brief but memorable appearance from Mark Kazim, again demonstrating his talent for well-timed, physical comedy.

13323618_241225446251205_9057216485885366123_oThe theatre festival ended yesterday with a production of Francis Quamina Farrier’s Journey to Freedom, directed by Godfrey Naughton. Very admirably, the show was free and I hoped the crowds would flock to the National Cultural Centre to see it. Unfortunately the auditorium was only about a third full. Nevertheless, I was hopeful of a good night, having read some of Mr Farrier’s excellent online work.

Part play, part musical, Journey to Freedom was an ambitious undertaking. The aim seemed to be to celebrate and unite Guyanese of all races and backgrounds. There was a kwe kwe ceremony with live drumming, two operatic performances, blasts of Indian music, acoustic Creole Rock from the very talented Gavin Mendonca, contemporary dance, big all-cast music numbers, a solo singing performance… all interspersed with a series of mini dramas set in one close-knit neighbourhood: the reformed boy turned bad; the bush man and his vaqueiro friend; the love-struck sister and the local lothario… there was so much going on that at times it became too much.

The writer clearly had a great deal to say, but this meant some of the characters began to feel a bit like mere instruments to express a particular moral lesson or idea to improve life after independence: start a housing cooperative, join the national service, believe in Guyana’s potential, don’t look to the colonisers… This is all fine – if this is a musical not a play. But I felt it wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. I could see it as a high-kicking, big energy musical. It would be fantastic – a real celebration of Guyana and showcase of its talents. But for this to happen I think the dialogue needs to be chopped down, the music and dance numbers polished till they shine, and the time reduced from what I think was about three hours to a more manageable two.

Critiquing theatre is always hard, especially when you know or have met some of those involved – and you’re aware that the theatre being produced has most likely been made on a shoestring budget with love, dedication and sacrifice. “Go easy on community theatre productions,” is the rule of thumb. But this isn’t amateurish work. I’ve been astounded by the energy and effort put into the festival by the organisers – and by the quality of some of the writing and performances. I’d love to see plays and musicals staged regularly in GT, resources given to support the creatives who make it happen, and theatre promoted as an inclusive form of entertainment.

Speaking of which, I noticed The National Cultural Centre didn’t enforce its strict dress code last night. (At least, I spotted some sleeveless tops in the crowd). I was glad for this. And also for the affordable pricing of the shows throughout the season – $1,000 and above – although I’m sure that’s still prohibitive for some. From this small introduction to Georgetown’s lively and very homegrown theatre scene, I think it’s going in the right direction – and long may that continue.

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Highlights of the first Timehri Film Festival

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Still from Poetry is an Island

Guyana’s inaugural Timehri Film Festival ended on Friday, wrapping up three days of screenings showcasing films from around the Caribbean.

This excellent (and free) showcase of short and feature films had some great offerings, pulled together by the festival’s Caribbean-American team – comprising Romola Lucas and Justen Blaize (founders of the Caribbean Film Academy) and Alysia Simone, editor of blog Rewind N Come Again – with sponsorship from SASOD Guyana and Blossoms of Guyana.

My highlight was the beautiful ode to St Lucian poet and Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott, ‘Poetry is an Island‘ – a moving, inspiring and visually stunning homage to a man, an island and a people.

At one point in the film, someone (Walcott himself I think) says “The time has come for us to be ourselves”. And the film is definitely ‘we own’. Sure we have the waving palm trees and beautiful beaches of every Caribbean stereotype, but we also have the imposing Pitons (the island’s famous volcanic mountains), the sadly neglected Derek Walcott Theatre, the enterprising Rastafarian decorator turning Walcott’s childhood home into a museum, and the a stunning painting by Dunstan St Omer (see below) that Walcott proudly shows to Irish poet Seamus Heaney and his other literary guests.

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Appropriately the film is the work of a director born in Suriname and of French, Chinese, and Dutch-Creole descent. Ida Does beautifully mixes lingering landscape shots with talking heads, snatches of traditional ceremonies and heartfelt readings. One of the most touching moments of the film is when Walcott reads his own poem for his late mother, and breaks down. “This is wicked”.

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Still from Ti Coq

 

Other feature films at the festival included Sensei Redenshon from Curacao. This taut martial arts drama featured a wonderful understated performance from Raul de Windt as Sandro, the prodigal father and reluctant street fighter. There was also a sneak peek at the upcoming US-Guyana collaboration A Bitter Lime, which I’m reluctant to comment on as we only saw the first 20 minutes or so. But hopefully the final cut is closer to the trailer in terms of pace; with a few more lines for the female lead; and a few less giraffes grazing Georgetown. (Artistic license?) Anyway kudos to the director for coming to Guyana and hopefully it will inspire others to do the same, and bring jobs and new opportunities with them.

There were some excellent Guyanese short films. I particularly enjoyed the loving grandmother in The Seawall, in which Georgetown was vividly brought to life; the colourful and touching Antiman about a young boy feeling his way along the uncertain first steps towards homosexuality; the eye-opening Diaries of an Immigrant about a Guyanese girl struggling to stay afloat in Barbados and earn money for her daughter back home; Painting the Spectrum  was an engaging glimpse behind the scenes of the LGBT film festival organised by Guyanese campaigning organisation SASOD; and also Martinique-based short Ti Coq, another bittersweet portrayal of a grandmother-grandson household (like The Seawall), where the return of the mother is not the longed-for event you might expect.

There were many more films that I missed too – as well as a series of workshops for aspiring or existing film producers and promoters. Of course not everything was perfect. Most people I spoke to seemed unaware the festival was going on, or only found out at the last minute. And I got the impression that Moray House is seen by some as a place where a ‘certain crowd’ goes. But this is only year one, and the team were working from New York.

Next year I hope to see more of the same. Perhaps with some newer, unknown Guyanese films; a variety of venues; and more promotion beforehand. But it’s a fantastic vision and a wonderful platform for Guyanese filmmakers, producers and other creatives. Keep it coming!

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Selma James in Guyana: “We as women have much in common”

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“What happened here tonight was the class struggle.”

The Woodbine Room at Cara Lodge was in some disarray. One person had stormed out, another came close to it. A third of the audience were eating brownies and pastries at the back of the room, immersed in heated discussions. While standing behind a tabletop bouquet of flowers, acclaimed international women’s rights activist Selma James was attempting to wrap up the evening. And decipher what had just happened.

It had all begun so differently. Selma James was in Georgetown to speak about her global campaign for fair wages for women – whether they work in the home or outside. As well as being the founder of the International Wages for Housework Campaign, Ms James co-authored ‘The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community’, wrote ‘Sex, Race, and Class – the Perspective of Winning’ and contributed an introduction to ‘Ujamaa – The hidden story of Tanzania’s socialist village’.

She was joined by her colleague and partner Nina Lopez, founder of Legal Action for Women and joint co-ordinator (with Ms James) of the Global Women’s Strike. In the chair was Jocelyn Dow, with Vanda Radzik supporting on the floor with a roving mic.

The two guest speakers covered a lot of ground in their presentations to the room, which was – Ms Dow noted at the outset – encouragingly full. Ms James immediately put forward her reasons for why “every worker deserves a living wage – including mothers and carers”. She pulled up women who when they “have reached the top … have ceased to pay attention to what women need because they feel, and in fact they’re right, they’ve escaped what women on the whole face. They have often, more or less, equal pay with the men; they usually have servants…”.

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She called on those present – which included members of Guyanese women’s rights group Red Thread (which organised the event), party political representatives, activists, students, academics and journalists – to recognise the need to be part of something wider. To, as the slogan goes, act local and think global. “You cannot really function in the modern world, you cannot really organise struggles; strengthen your network and resolve; and feel confident in what you are doing, if you are not trying to build an international network.”

She even managed to fit in a bit of US politics, showing her support for Bernie Sanders as the Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States:

“Bernie Sanders is exactly from the background that I come from … when I lived in Brooklyn in the 30s and the 40s, everybody around me was a Socialist. I come from that community. From the same kind of community he comes from – and he’s running for President of the United States. Now that is a change! Whatever happens with that election of the presidential candidate, the United States will never be the same. There’s a movement for change, a movement against the military sucking up … taking all the wealth of society and putting [it] into weapons of mass destruction, which kill people. This is not what we want our money to go to. We want it to go first of all to mothers.”

As a former resident of Trinidad (where she lived with her then-husband CLR James, the late cultural historian and renowned social activist), Ms James is obviously familiar with discourses around racial, social and economic inequality in the Caribbean context. While many white, Western feminists are accused of excluding black women from the global feminist movement by not addressing the issues that are pertinent to them, Ms James put them in the spotlight. She cited the work of Bajan-American activist Margaret Precod, who (to quote the The Grio) “founded the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Killers in the mid-1980s after dozens of women were found dead in alleyways, parks and dumpsters in Los Angeles”. She recognised the role of Guyana’s own prominent women’s right campaigner Andaiye in pushing the UN and national governments to agree to measure and value unwaged work. She noted that “The Black Lives Matter movement is only now acknowledging that the women who were murdered are part of the movement, because somehow Black Lives Matter has been fundamentally translated as ‘black men’s lives matter’.”

“So ‘All black women’s lives matter’, ‘All native American lives matter’, ‘All Indian lives matter’, Chinese lives matter, English lives matter, Egyptian lives matter, African lives matter, all lives matter – and they will only matter if we spell it out and make sure that it happens.”

Ms Lopez added more details about the Crossroads Women’s Centre in London. She spoke about custody of children (asking about the situation in Guyana, to which one lawyer in the audience responded: “The court would usually take into consideration the best interests of the child”). She cited the case of Layla Ibrahim, who was jailed after reporting a sexual assault. And she spoke with optimism about Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of the Labour Party in the UK and an advocate of the legalisation of prostitution.

When the time came for audience questions, no hands were raised. Were there really no questions? The awkward silence didn’t last long. One person challenged Ms James on the very idea of ‘costing’ women’s work in the home – as if you can quantify and categorise levels of caring and housework. Some supported the point, others disagreed. Ms James questioned whether any woman would turn down the wage if offered. One of the two men in the sea of women pointed out the difficulties or inappropriateness of trying to affect changes within the same “Babylon” system that Caribbean people are trying to escape from. Two women highlighted the Married Persons Property Act, which women can claim “but they will get a much lower percentage if they have not worked outside of the home … it’s not recognised as equal value.”

An attending parliamentarian made a lengthy speech about everything from the migrant crisis to poverty in Guyana to the way the UN’s goals have become “sanitised”. Other audience members started getting restless and one or two called on her to let others have their say. When she left, the air became increasingly charged. One of the activists present spoke heatedly about female politicians talking about lifting people out of poverty in Guyana while not knowing what was happening at the grassroots level. The remaining parliamentarian took offence at being “embarrassed”, insisted she too had come from “grassroots” and eventually walked out in disgust. The activist made as if to follow but was convinced to stay, with some urging more “decorous” language and others insisting the remarks were not personal and that the politician should listen to views from the grassroots, which they are meant to represent.

Ms James, far from seeming intimidated, scandalised or sidelined by the lively exchanges, took it in her stride. Acknowledging this was a “class struggle”, she aligned herself as a grassroots person and called once again for women at the top to not forget the women at the bottom. Eventually she was given a hearty round of applause and allowed to explore the enticing snack table, before signing some books.

The Battle of Cara Lodge was a small one, but somehow a microcosm of the bigger fight raging outside. Racial tension, class warfare, cultural differences… One night and a 50-something crowd of (mostly) women cannot solve everything. But, Ms James noted, you can’t hope to have success in the wider world until you can achieve it in one room, with women from all levels of society coming together:

“In a lot of countries, the grassroots have got together and faced the government and said: ‘You have been stealing, you have been pimping, you have been enjoying the life that we are denied’. That’s happening in country after country … We as women have much in common. It is we as women who should be the first to overcome that problem or at least to address it. You cannot ignore it.”

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On small acts of kindness in Guyana

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The middle-aged Indian man sitting behind me on the minibus taps my shoulder as I count out the fare in preparation. He shakes his head and tells me, he’s got this.

A young black taxi driver takes me to a relative’s house, patiently re-routing after I get the address wrong. Ten minutes after dropping me off he’s back. I’d forgotten my travel water bottle in the back of his car. “No problem,” he shrugs with a smile.

A new friend brings me Golden Apples from her garden. Another cake, sweet balls of mettai and crunchy plantain. I’m loaned a bicycle and told “keep it until you have finished”. Given lifts out of people’s way.

I’m invited to special occasions, or just to hang out. A dig dutty, a launch, a birthday, a quiz night, an exhibition, a lime on the sea wall. Told, “Come round whenever, don’t wait for an invite”.

In the morning my phone buzzes. “Good morning”, “What are you up to today?”, “How are you?” As I get ready for bed, “Good night”, “How was your day?”, “Have a good sleep”. An email pops up, subject line is ‘Worried’. “I haven’t heard from you in a long while. Are you ok?”

I read about a Chinese man who hands out boxes to homeless people on religious holidays. “A big box a food with loud fry fish pon top and a bottle of sealed water, not pipe water or dutty water, so listen good, is dem new $100 bottle. Every man jack get he big box and he water and he feeling important, bless up and thing.”

I see a minibus driver stop diagonally across the road, so a school girl can cross safely. I see conductors lift small children and heavy bags from buses so passengers don’t stumble with their heavy load. I see a market trader give a dishevelled man $20.

I hear how at weddings and other celebrations, it’s fine to just show up. How there’s always a welcome and plate of food, even for an invited stranger. I hear of fundraising drives, outreach projects and enthusiastic volunteers. I hear of sacrifices made and dreams put on hold so others can achieve theirs.

It’s not radical. It’s not unique. It’s just humanity. And kindness. And love.

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11 Things to Know Before Coming to Guyana for the Golden Jubilee

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2016 Republic Day celebrations (image courtesy Government of Guyana)

Dear impending visitor to Guyana,

Congratulations!

You have been accepted to be one of the thousands… hundreds… tens… (who knows) of people touching down in Guyana for our Golden Jubilee celebrations. This joyous occasion marks 50 years since we kicked the colonisers out with a flea in their ear (and potfuls of gold and sugar in their pockets. Probably).

But there are a few things you should know before you disembark at Cheddi Jagan International Airport (and not just that bids are open for a restaurant/bar at the terminal. Personally I’m hoping for a gourmet egg ball and pine tart stand, with rum on tap).

1. Not everyone is as excited about the celebrations as you are: You’re thrilled to be in Guyana for its historic 50th anniversary. The bunting! The flag raising! The lengthy speeches! You can’t wait. But remember everyone in Guyana has been hearing all about the ‘Jubilee Celebrations’ for months and months, and while many are looking forward to the party – a lot are sick of the whole damn thing. One journalist is even advocating boycotting the whole thing. Market traders are pissed off at being shunted around at short notice for the big clean up, so it all looks pretty for when you arrive. Budgets have been diverted from other much-needed projects. And, according to one outraged minibus conductor, “chineyman now charging $300 for a flag”. So if you see someone rolling their eyes as you rave about this historic occasion, don’t take it personally.

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Improvement works at Stabroek Market last week

2. Everyone’s banking on a Jubilee bonus – from you: Whether it’s buying a $500,000 bottle of 50-year El Dorado from DDL Diamond Distillers or a Golden Arrowhead hat from a souvenir stand, a lot of business people are hoping you’ll be feeling in a spending mood on this visit. And your contributions matter. So patronise local shops, restaurants and bars; buy locally produced produce and crafts; stock up on gifts for your family back home (Guyana-themed Christmas anyone?), go to shows and other events on the official calendar, and put a few smiles on people’s faces (and dollars in their pockets).

3. Be safe, not sorry: You don’t need to be warned twice about security in Guyana… but you will be. Many, many times. Crime is the number one topic of conversation for Guyanese in the diaspora and here in Guyana. Be sensible and heed the warnings. Book your cab rather than flag one down; don’t wear expensive or flashy jewellery; put your wallet away before leaving the shop or bank; don’t wave your phone or gadgets around in public; don’t walk alone at night; wipe the top of your bottle of beer before downing it… you know the drill. But don’t be so paralysed by fear you don’t do anything. Leave the valuables at home, walk confidently and explore. Otherwise you may as well have stayed at home and watched it on TV.

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4. Know what NOT to wear: If you’re not very familiar with Guyana, you may think: South America + coast + sunshine = flipflops, shorts and vests. That’s fine, but be prepared to be turned away if that’s all you pack. Because Georgetown likes nothing better than a dress code. No short sleeves, no shorts, no short skirts… The first time I visited Guyana I was turned away from the National Library twice – once for inappropriately short sleeves, another time for wearing shorts. I’ve been known to walk with a cardigan and leggings to whip on, just in case… At least those trousers and long-sleeved tops will come in handy of an evening when mosquitoes are in full attack mode.

5. No one has change: You’ve been the the ATM, have a wallet of crisp $5,000 notes, and voila you’re sorted for the rest of your stay. Except you won’t get far. Few people, in my experience, have change for such a sum – from taxi drivers to market traders. So whenever you’re in a supermarket, restaurant or bar, take the opportunity to get some smaller $20, $100, $500 and $1000 bills.

6. Guyana does not end at Georgetown: If you have the time and money, do yourself a favour and bugger off. Guyana is not GT. There are so many other places to discover and things to do: lime on Parika beach, watch the boats on Bartica, spot caiman at Irokrama, encounter real-life cowboys in Lethem, fly over Kaiteur Falls, practise your Portuguese at the Brazil-Guyana border, speed up the Essenquibo… see the beauty of Guyana. Then go home and tell everyone about it.

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On the way to the blue lake in Linden

7. Photography is a privilege not a right: Visitors taking photos is a bit of a thorny issue for some Guyanese attractions – the National Museum, for example – in that they don’t let you snap a thing. Maybe there’s something to be said for visiting a museum of gallery and engaging with the works instead of just snapping them, but sometimes there’s an image or detail you really want to remember – or would love to share with others – but can’t. I’m not sure what the thinking is behind it. There are endless photos of most of the world’s biggest tourist destinations, but you don’t see anyone saying, “Well, I’m not going to the Taj Mahal/London Eye/Louvre because I’ve seen a photo of it.”

8. Sometimes it’s best to listen and nod: In Guyana, one of the main things people like to talk about is race. About their racial heritage. About yours. About the differences between the races in Guyana. “You’ll find Afro-Guyanese are more friendly,” a taxi driver told me on my last visit, the instant we drove away from the airport. “Indians are more likely to save their money.” “Light-skinned is seen as beautiful.” (I’m selecting the milder comments). But don’t be too offended or shocked. Despite this racial consciousness and stereotyping, Guyanese people also seem proud to call themselves the land of six peoples, and look into many people’s family albums here and you’ll probably find a mixture of Indian, African, European and Amerindian ancestors.

9. The sun is hot: No kidding, I hear you say. But I’m serious. This is no average summer’s day in London or New York, the sun will scorch you if you insist in wandering around in a vest top and shorts. And this is not just for the white visitors prone to going red quicker than you can say ‘lobster’. I’ve done it myself: exploring on foot, under the blazing sun. I still do sometimes. But now I bring an umbrella, try to remember to slap on some sunscreen, or just don’t venture out in the high sun. Keep hydrated (you’re never far from a water vendor or a coconut stall). And remember, it’s rainy season now too so that umbrella has a dual purpose.

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10. Zika is more common than you think: “There have been seven confirmed cases of Zika,” I heard a TV news anchor announce the other night. And then the rest, I thought. Guyana doesn’t actually have the facilities to check for Zika, so samples must be sent to Trinidad and Tobago – and I hear there’s a serious backlog. I know a handful of people who’ve probably had Zika – myself included – and just did the recommended thing: rest, drink a lot of water and wait for the symptoms to pass. Maybe this is being far too blasé about it, but when you’re in Zika-territory somehow it seems less of a scary monster (unless you’re pregnant, I can imagine). And I think with Dengue, Chikungunya, Malaria and more all up for grabs, Zika is the least of your worries. So pack your mosquito spray and hope for the best. Sorry.

11. Don’t tell a single story: “You think everything about Guyana is nice!” I’m probably the only person who’s been accused of this. Everyone loves to put Guyana down. Especially Guyanese people themselves, I’ve found. It’s true, there’s a lot to fix. But focusing only on the bad parts isn’t motivating. So for every bad thing you tell your friends back home about Guyana, try to say one positive thing too. “The crime is out of control… but there’s now 4G so we can upload photos of our robbed house so much faster.” Then maybe more people will want to invest in Guyana, trade with Guyana, come live in Guyana and help Guyana. Be the change you want to see, as they say. Donate to a charity doing good works. Raise money to buy equipment for Guyana’s hospitals. Fund a student through university. Send books. Start companies to employ people. Import Guyanese-made products.  Support sustainable projects to protect Guyana’s rainforests. Adopt a jaguar. Whatever. Just do something, so at least you can say: well, I tried.

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Open-air cinema showcases Guyanese short films

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Last night, there were dramatic scenes at D’urban Park, where Guyana’s official Golden Jubilee celebrations are set to take place in just a few weeks. But this time it wasn’t the rushed preparations, dodgy wooden seating or bendy flag pole in the spotlight. All eyes were fixed on the two projector screens set up by CineGuyana to showcase a series of locally produced and shot short films.

The eight films in the CineGuyana’ set – Luck Beat Handsome, The Bottle, Beached, The Encounter, Three Cards, Backyard, Hope and Tradition – are not new. They were, according to Stabroek News, produced in 2011 under the President’s Film Endowment Project, established by the previous president Bharrat Jagdeo. [NB: I arrived late so can’t confirm all were screened last night, but I know the programme also included the short To The Night.]

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The films have travelled overseas too – to Guyana’s diaspora communities in New York, Washington and the UK. Tradition and Hope have also been shown at the Caribbean Tales Film Festival in Barbados, while Backyard and Three Cards were selected for the AFRIFF International Film Festival in 2011.

But CineGuyana’s ambitious project to take the films to eight of Guyana’s ten regions, and screen them for free, is admirable. At d’Urban park, a crowd of about 40 gathered under the white tent, but there were at least the same again scattered around the tent – watching from their cars, the roadside, or perched on the edge of the fountain surrounding Cuffy’s statue.

The audience seemed to enjoy the show. When the geeky star of Backyard made another pratfall in front of the beautiful popstar living next door, they laughed at his foolishness. When the wayward teenage daughter of To The Night shouted ‘whore!’ at her prostitute mother there were grumblings of disapproval. When The Encounter showed a man writhing around in the bath, apparently while being screwed by a ghost of a dead woman haunting his hotel room, the temperature (and laughter) rose up few notches.

The stories, I was glad to see, were undeniably Guyanese. The cinemas at Giftland Mall and Ramada Georgetown Princess Hotel churn out Hollywood blockbusters and the odd Indian movie. So the difference was refreshing. The Bottle and The Encounter reminded me of the kind of films you find in Nollywood, though instead of witchcraft we had the Guyanese folkloric spirit, the ‘bacoo’, in the form of an evil, wish-granting genie; and the aforementioned lascivious ghost looking for revenge and a passage out of limbo (plus a bit of action).

Backyard was classic nerdy-boy-gets-the-girl territory, but the physical comedy of the main character, whose expressive eyes bulged behind his glasses, brought a freshness to a familiar theme. Some people in the audience laughed scornfully at the desperate antics of the father in Three Cards, gambling away his last GUY$300 to pay for medicine, but as he clutched his weak daughter to his chest you really felt for him – and the Guyanese people who right now are in the same situation, hoping for a miracle to see them through.

To The Night was my favourite, with its sensitive portrayal of a prostitute doing her best for her family and battling against useless fathers, condescending clients and teenage rebellion – torn between socially respectable but back-breaking housework for a critical mistress that paid a pittance, and lucrative sex work that paid the bills but potentially was going to push her daughter into the same life. The arguments between mother and daughter felt authentic, the dilemma real, the tone not too heavy, the frustration palpable, and the ending believable.

What more delights does the Guyanese cinema ouvre hold? What productions have sprung up since 2011? I’d like to find out.

I got a small glimpse of the dynamism and DIY efforts out there among the youth yesterday, before the CineGuyana screening, when a teenage girl introduced me to the Berbice comedy trio CoolBoyz she had just been watching on YouTube through fits of laughter.

Any more recommendations? And if anyone knows where I can see the CineGuyana films I missed (particularly ‘Tradition’), please let me know.

Also, I saw a post on Facebook about a Guyanese make-up artist competing to win a place at a professional make-up school in Hollywood. I thought his dedication and artistry was pretty inspiring, so worth checking out (and voting). If only to see how on earth he created this crazy Medusa lizard-woman. Freaky.

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Do you speak foreigner?

Foreigner English ˈfȯr-ə-nər ˈiŋ-glish

n. When an English person mimics the accent or grammatical structure of another language to help them connect with its native speakers (or to hide the fact that they don’t know the language).

Case in point: footballer Joey Barton and manager Steve McLaren (yes, they are both English – not French and Dutch):

Listening to the recording of one of the interviews for my oral-history project, Guyana50.org, I heard myself asking the interviewee: ‘So yuh mudda would sell tings [at the market]?” The lady in question was struggling to understand me, so I subconsciously shifted my way of speaking in an attempt to make myself better understood.

It’s not the first time I’ve done it. After a while dating a guy from Spain, my good friend informed me that I appeared to be speaking “Foreigner English“. At the extreme, saying things like “We go shop?” – or just adding “no?” to the end of sentences. Ironically it was only when I went away to Brazil for a month and was speaking Portuguese most of the time that I regained my fluency in my mother tongue. I forgot all about Foreigner English and reverted to plain old English. When I got back, they were both amazed that I was so chatty. “You’re like a different person!”

Thinking about it now, I’d attribute this rediscovery of my own voice to the fact that in Brazil I was distinguishing between English and Portuguese, two very different languages – whereas at home it was between English and English-as-a-Spanish-language. My Foreigner English has come back in Guyana because once again the languages (Guyanese Creole and Standard English) have many words in common and so are harder to compartmentalise.

There is, I learned in an interesting seminar at the University of Guyana (UG) the other day, a sliding scale between the basiltect (the rural, ‘deep’ version of Guyanese Creolese) and the acrolect (the urban, version of Creolese – more aligned to Standard English).

Some researchers have even mapped this scale. Below is the phrase ‘I gave him one‘ (UK readers, please get your minds out of the gutter) rendered in 18 different variations (from Bell 1976, via Wikipedia). I don’t really understand phonetic spelling but it’s pretty interesting.

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Anyhow, point is, instead of switching between two distinct languages, people move across the scale depending on who they’re talking to and where. So when people in Guyana are talking to me, someone from England, they will move as close as they can to the acrolect. For some people this is no problem at all – perhaps those who grew up in a Standard English-speaking home or who have studied overseas. For others it’s unnatural and something they have to do consciously, even with serious concentration.

The other day, I heard a Guyanese academic recounting the difficulties of making small talk in England. The effort to not speak Creolese made the conversation feel unnatural. Another friend recently spoke apologetically of “mixing up my Creolese” when speaking to me. Even the President, before giving his speech at a press conference the other day, apologised in advance for his pedantic language: “I learned that medium is singular and media is plural, so excuse me when I say ‘The media are’ rather than ‘the media is’.” (I paraphrase, didn’t note his exact words). Was he trying to show off his grasp of the intricacies of Standard English or pre-emptively quash any sense that he’s being a linguistic snob and grammar Nazi?

As far as I know, Guyanese people don’t expect English visitors to speak Creole, because we both speak ‘English’ right? So why does the Guyanese speaker not understand everything the English speaker says, and visa versa? Because they’re not necessarily both speaking Standard English – the Guyanese person may actually be speaking Creolese.

Guyana, we’re told, is an English-speaking country – the only one on the continent. Yet, depending on their social or family background, someone in Guyana may easily have grown up speaking only Creolese at home, with friends and even in the classroom. They may rarely have heard or engaged in speaking Standard English while growing up (beyond films, music etc). Yet they’re expected to suddenly talk Standard English when they meet a speaker of that language, and to the same proficiency? I’ve been speaking Standard English my whole life, but who expects me to suddenly speak Creole on entering the country?

I’d like to be able to. Put me in the middle of a conversation with two people speaking Creolese and I won’t understand everything. Sometimes anything. So I’m missing out on a huge part of the Guyanese experience and conversation. It’s a definite loss, both for me and for the Guyanese people who don’t speak Creolese either (they exist). Because the language seems so expressive and lively.

So for now, until I am more familiar with Creolese, I find myself trying to make myself understood in certain situations by changing my accent slightly, adopting new Guyanese words like ‘gaff’ (a great word meaning to chat, gossip, catch jokes with someone) or ‘high’ (instead of drunk), and sometimes shifting the order of my words. My sisters have also noticed Guyanese noises of assent and agreement creeping in my voice when I speak on the phone. I say ‘morning’ with an exaggerated ‘r’. When I call out a bus stop, I try to change how I speak to sound less conspicuous. “NEXT CORNER!” I shout. I tried it out on some friends. “You sound Jamaican” they chuckled. Goodness knows what the other passengers think. I imagine them collapsing into fits of laughter the minute the minibus drives off. Should I stop trying to meet people halfway? Is it more authentic to speak in your own voice or in a way that people around you understand?

When you hear someone changing their way of speaking to match another’s, I have to admit it comes across as a bit patronising. But I think chameleoning (I’ve just make that up) and switching between languages shows sensitivity. You just have to be careful to distinguish between the different languages you’re using, or you could end up losing or colouring your natural speech or mother tongue.

At the same UG seminar, one participant reflected on hearing a teacher in Jamaica switch between Jamaican Creole and Standard English. “It was beautiful to see,” he said, several times, in awe of the woman’s ability to seemlessly slide between the languages as the occasion or situation demanded.

I think that’s a pretty good goal. Who wants to see Creolese die out and be replaced by Standard English alone? Maybe some Guyanese do. But I don’t think you have to kill one to preserve and elevate the other. No?

[Featured image: Roland Tanglao, via Flickr/Creative Commons]

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Bridging life and death

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My heart went out this week to the young Guyanese woman who was rescued by two passing motorists after jumping off the Demerara Harbour Bridge in an apparent suicide attempt.

She is not the first to do so. In recent years, several people have taken their own lives by jumping off this bridge, reported the Guyana Chronicle. At that’s just one river crossing. Zoom out of this sad scene and you discover that Guyana has the highest suicide rate in the world. According to Demerara Waves, roughly every day and a half there is a suicide – and for every suicide there are around 20-25 attempts.

What lies behind these stark figures, I don’t know. And given I’ve only been here two months I wouldn’t attempt to hazard a guess. But there is something unique about the way suicide seems entwined in Guyanese life, culture and history. Never before have I seen it spoken about so freely and frequently.

Almost every time I read the newspaper here, there’s a story about suicide. Suicide pacts. Murder-suicides. Double suicides. Then there was the suicide march along the seafront. The poem about suicide delivered by a sparky schoolgirl at the National Library’s World Poetry Day event. The spoken word event themed around suicide. Francis Quamina Farrier’s ‘Makonaima Sacrifice’, about the two women who jumped off Kaieteur Falls last year. The minibus driver who called out to a sad-looking girl sitting on a wall nearby, joking that she looked like she wanted to kill herself.

Suicide even pervades Guyana’s national myths and legends. The country’s famous single-drop waterfall is named after old man Kai who (the story goes) sailed his canoe over the top of the precipice in an act of sacrifice to save his people. It inspired AJ Seymour’s famous poem The Legend of Kaieteur, which was later adapted into an orchestral piece.

Then there’s Cuffy, the ex-slave and hero of the 1763 Berbice Slave Rebellion, who committed suicide within a year of the revolt’s beginning. And, of course, not forgetting the mass suicide of more than 900 people in the Jonestown Massacre (although perhaps mass-murder is more appropriate). A connection that Guyana is still trying to shake off 38 years on.

In the UK, I find, we skirt the issue and avoid the word. When you say ‘suicide’, the air becomes charged, awkward and uncomfortable, so you change the conversation. It’s a conversation stopper. ‘We need to talk more about suicide,’ is a frequent plea from mental-health charities, but we bury our heads in the sand and hope it will go away.

But in Guyana perhaps there’s too much talk about suicide. According to Mindframe, an initiative run by the Australian government, “Research from more than 100 international studies suggests that reporting about suicide deaths has been associated with increased rates of suicide and suicide attempts following reporting.”

It seems we just need to strike the right balance. We need to talk about suicide, but not mythologise or revere it as a brave ‘sacrifice’. We need to talk about death, but also about life. What drives people to attempt suicide: depression, mental illness, feelings of being trapped, poverty, abuse… We need to make mental health something we discuss as freely as physical health. Like, “My back is really painful at the moment”, “I’ve been feeling really anxious lately,” “I’ve been diagnosed with diabetes” or “I don’t think I can go on much longer like this.”

We need to stop deluding ourselves that we should be happy and optimistic all the time, that everyone is as content or successful as they appear on their Facebook page. There will always be highs and lows in life. But on the sunny days we should remind ourselves how lucky we are and help those who are in the darkness, and on the dark days we should seek sunshine in whatever form we can find it. A hug from a friend, a long talk with a good listener, a potter in the garden, a walk somewhere beautiful, a heart-pumping run, a cooking session, a burst of singing, a scribbling session to put all our thoughts on paper, a good book…

In Guyana there are signs of a more balanced approach being implemented. Last year, the police introduced a suicide hotline. The pesticide board is handing out storage cabinets so farmers can lock away the poisonous agro-chemicals which are used in many rural suicides. Certain viewing platforms at Kaieteur Falls, I hear, are closed to the public. There’s an anti-suicide campaign in schools. But more is always needed. Are there enough psychiatrists and trained counsellors, for example? Enough doctors to administer medication? Enough training sessions for journalists on how to not report suicides? Because a drip feed of articles glorifying, dramatising or normalising suicide and death is not healthy. We need stories of survival. Of hope. Of struggling though. Of doing our best, not just the best.

We need to change the narrative, change the ending – like the two motorists did on the Demerara Harbour Bridge. We may not always be able to pull someone out of depression as easily as those two pulled the woman from the water. But if not a hand, we can at least offer a listening, non-judgemental ear. So when you next ask someone ‘How are you?’, hear what they’re not saying as well as what they are.

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The only white person for miles

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At the blue lake in Linden, Guyana

You’ve probably heard it. You may have even said it yourself, breathless with excitement after a trip to an ‘exotic’ travel destination: “I was the only white person for miles!” It’s always niggled for me because I think:

  1. Why is that an achievement?
  2. Do you really mean to say: you were the only foreigner?
  3. If it’s number 2, how do you know? Maybe there was someone from the same town as you back home but they just happen to look like a local.

I thought about this again when travelling to Lethem for the Rupununi Rodeo. A friendly (white, European) couchsurfer invited me to join her and her friends. “Just look for two pickups full of white people!” she joked in her text. I laughed. And it was true – that’s exactly what I found. But once I joined them, what were they then? Two pickups full of white people – and one brown girl? Later one of the group joked about how the “whiteys” should take on the locals in a game of tug-of-war, and I guessed they’d either forgotten I was there, or white was being used interchangeably to mean foreigner.

It’s a curious phenomenon to observe. When a white, European traveller lands into a place where he/she is no longer in the majority, and is suddenly confronted by and super-aware of their colour – something they probably take for granted as the norm most of the time. And it is. In the UK, for instance, 87.2% of the population is White British.

It always makes me think back to the time I went to a club in the UK and my group of friends wanted to leave because they felt out of place, being the only white people is a crowd of black and Asian faces. Never mind that I was one of those non-white faces, or that I frequently found myself in the reverse situation.

Of course being non-white is the norm elsewhere. I once met a poet from Botswana who remembered being stopped at an airport with a friend from the US. This friend was fuming, assuming they’d been pulled over for being black. The poet was amused because she’d assumed it was because they were cute and the security guard was hitting on them. Being black wasn’t her first identifier, because it was the norm in her country.

For me, being of mixed English-Guyanese heritage, identification is often taken out of my hands and is open to interpretation depending on where I am. “Red woman” called a random man in the street in Guyana the other day (I discovered later this means a mix of African and European heritage). “Obruni!” (or ‘white person’) some children used to shout in greeting in Ghana. In Brazil, Spain and countless other places I’ve taken to be a local. Yet in England (even London) I’m assumed to be foreign and constantly asked ‘Where are you from?’

To be honest, I’m over this foreigner/local distinction. The world is not that black-and-white any more. We travel prodigiously, live abroad, eat food from around the globe, watch films in other languages… So I’m always uncomfortable when I run into signs of the old divisions and hierachies. Like when people in Guyana tell me, “You’ll be ok because you’re a foreigner”, “I think so-and-so was trying to show you off as their English friend!” Or when I see young, white travellers decked (non-ironically) in khaki shorts, white shirt and panama hat – looking for all the world like new-age colonialists and all-too quickly slipping into the old dynamic as they unquestioningly lap up the deference and privileges they’re still given in some countries.

And, as much as I protest, I guess I enjoy the benefits too. Probably without even realising it a lot of the time. The other day I walked into a hotel here in Georgetown, asked to use the wifi and was directed to the business centre area where I proceeded to get on with some work in peace. Would I have been welcomed so readily if I didn’t have a British accent? Or was it more to do with what I was wearing? My skin colour? The ‘right’ attitude?

I was discussing these issues recently with friend from the UK who is living elsewhere in the Caribbean. She told me how people there still haven’t quite got their head around the fact that she’s there to stay. “You’re from London? Why would you come here?!” As if, she said, there’s nothing valuable here, nothing that might attract someone with no ties. I can imagine I’d get a similar response from some quarters if I decided to stay on in Guyana: That’s nice, but why?!

The other day I was kindly given a copy of poet Fred d’Aguiar’s 1998 speech ‘Made in Guyana’, and finally got round to reading it today. In it, he highlights the efforts of Guyanese writers such as Edgar Mittleholzer to “answer back” the colonisers and define their world. But in order to do so, says d’Aguiar: “The outside world, the surroundings had to be claimed before there could be the luxury of an inward glance and the self-purging of a centuries-old implanted ideology of inferiority.”

I would expand on this and say that people of coloniser regions, such as myself, must now go on the same journey. Not to claim the world as our own once more, we’ve already had that luxury, but to open that inward eye and gradually self-purge that centuries-old propogated ideology of superiority.

 

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“Good morning, miss” – getting to grips with greetings in Guyana

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Photo: Ethiopia greeting by Rod Waddington, Flickr, Creative Commons

Walking down the street. On the bus. In a shop. I’m constantly greeted by ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good afternoon’ in Guyana. I like it, but as a Londoner, I’m quite disconcerted at being so visible. Are we not meant to pretend we can’t see each other?

I’ve tried it out. Calling ‘good morning’ when I step on the minibus. Nodding and greeting people strolling in my neighbourhood. But I’m still awkward. The words come out too fast, or too quietly. I feel I’m going through the motions if I say it stony faced, but disingenuous if I smile – like I know the person. So instead, I imagine, my face contorts into some kind of grimace.

This is only the half of it. I still have to try to figure out the system of addressing new people. “Call us Auntie and Uncle,” one Guyanese couple I met in London insisted. “That is Miss Sheila,” pointed out an acquaintance over here. “It’s ‘Miss’ not ‘Mrs’ – I’m not married,” corrected another.

Should I call everyone Mr, Mrs, Ms or Miss? Or just if they’re older? And how much older? I don’t want to cause offence (like I did referring to folks as ‘old’, before realising Guyanese people use the term ‘big’). And what if they start using their first name, is that a sign for me to switch or should I persevere?

So, once again, I rush and mumble and hope no one notices.  At least we’re talking English here and I don’t have to think about formal conjugations like ‘usted’ in Spanish or ‘vous’ in French.

Of course we do use titles in the UK – in the classroom, in media reports, in certain work situations, when writing complaint letters… I also remember calling certain family friends ‘Auntie’ or ‘Uncle’ growing up, even though we weren’t related. And if you venture outside London, you will still find people saying ‘Good morning’ – sometimes even inside the capital, though usually only if you’ve got a dog or are out at the crack of dawn.

Formal addressing as a sign of respect is something I only really became aware of when I went to Ghana back in 2005. My colleagues would call our boss ‘Editor’. Mr, Mrs and Miss were frequently employed in greetings. As were ‘sir’ and ‘madam’. Then there were the elaborate and quite satisfying ‘clicking finger’ handshakes.

I was reminded of those days when I started working at BBC Africa a year or so ago. If you failed to say hello to a colleague and ask how they were, they would most probably pull you up on it later. “Well, you didn’t greet me earlier…”

Coming in, flopping at your desk and logging on without a word was not the way to do it. But being an anxious freelancer, always convinced I’m never working fast or hard enough, I worried about spending too much time talking. (‘It’s been minutes now, surely I should get back to work? Someone is probably watching me, thinking I’m skiving’).

So, is greeting etiquette really necessary? Is it outdated? Overly formal? I’m not so sure. As awkward as it is learning the ropes, especially as an outsider, maybe there’s something in it that we miss in London in our rush to treat everyone equally – and in our rush, fullstop. A recognition of the wisdom that comes with age. A nod of thanks to those who have paved the way for us. A gesture that says we can spare two minutes for you.

And if we start greeting strangers in the street and recognising them as people worthy of our time and respect – even as our brothers and sisters – perhaps that might filter into other areas of our lives. And that’s no bad thing.

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Why Rhianna’s ‘Work’ is a human-rights anthem

“Work work work work work work
He said me haffi
Work work work work work work!
He see me do mi
Dirt dirt dirt dirt dirt dirt!
And so me put in work work work work work work!

[courtesy Metro Lyrics]

So probably you’re familiar with the controversy surrounding Rihanna’s hot, new(ish) single ‘Work’. You know, the one Music Week critics called “gibberish“, provoking a fierce backlash – “It’s patois!” stupid, jeered The Voice. This was all back in February. I found out about it last week. At an academic lecture at the University of Guyana (UG). Never let it be said I’m not right on the button when it comes to the world of entertainment and gossip.

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Having enjoyed the previous workshop on writing Guyanese Creolese just a few weeks ago, I was keen to attend – but not entirely sure what to expect from this ‘lunchtime lecture and discussion’, mysteriously titled Caribbean Languages as International Language of Popular Music?

It turned out to be an excellent talk, from which I gathered all sorts of nuggets of information.

For a start, I had no idea that – according to guest speaker Professor Hubert Devonish of UWI – Surinamese creole (or Sranan Tongo) is closer to English creole than Dutch. That the deportation of Maroons (descendants of escaped slaves) to Sierra Leone, combined with expansionist colonial insurgencies, brought Caribbean creole to West Africa – influencing, for example, the English pidgin you find in Nigeria today. Or that Bob Marley was instructed by record producer Chris Blackwell to sing only the choruses of his songs in patois, and ensure the verses could be easily understood by audiences in, say, the UK – where Blackwell was from.

Which brings us back to Rihanna, who is ignoring that advice and singing, well, it’s not exactly clear what – Professor Devonish suggested a blend of Bajan and Jamaican, the latter tending to dominate when it comes to Caribbean culture abroad. (I’ll also add a Guyanese twist to the mix, purely because I also discovered Rihanna’s mother is Guyanese and so I’m claiming her as one of our own. Until she does something truly shaming in my eyes. Like accepting Bob Geldof’s invitation to join the third outing of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ Don’t think it’s over yet…)

Anyway Rihanna’s choice of lyrics, Professor Devonish argued, signifies her wish to reconnect with and show her pride in her Caribbean roots (just check out that Bajan flag). She says, he noted, ‘Him ah go act like he nuh like it” (the lyrics linked to earlier mistakenly record, ‘Him ah go act like him nuh like it”) – with the mix of ‘him’ and ‘he’ reflecting her own bilingualism in patois and  English. Of course, ‘work’ is a sexual reference, but you knew that right? “Even a child would know that,” laughed someone in the class. Ahem.

So is music the way forward for forging a new pride in speaking creolese? It could be, said Professor Devonish. And I thought back to all the afrobeats artists I’d encountered while working on the sadly defunct ARISE Magazine (whose Facebook page still clings on for dear life) and the resurgence in African pride this engendered among young people of African descent in London and on the continent itself, particularly in Nigeria – home of both afrobeats and the afrobeat well from whence it sprang.dashiki.jpg

African identity wasn’t always something you shouted about when I grew up in London. To be Caribbean was cool. To be African was often to be the butt of some very old and tired jokes. “When I grew up you kept that shit on the down low,” joked comedian Fumbi on ‘You Got Jokes’ (a quick clip here, worth getting your hands on the whole DVD). Now, you can hardly move in London for dashikis (see right), kente-trimmed shirts and headwraps.

Is ‘Caribbean’ going to be the next trend? Will the catwalks be awash with statement t-shirts declaring ‘I love Soca’? Will the charts be full of Chutney? Will Londoners start eating jerk chicken more than once a year (at Notting Hill Carnival, washed down with a can of Red Stripe). Will David Starkey crawl out from under his rock and adopt a Jamaican twang instead of name-checking Enoch Powell and bemoaning that “the whites have become black”? (Just re-watching this makes me angry all over again).

Or maybe, just maybe, the world will cease to see the Caribbean in those simplistic, sometimes reductive stereotypes and instead let each country, each individual, represent themselves and speak their mother tongue without guilt, shame or self-deprecation. And music could be what helps kickstarts that change.

Just don’t let Rihanna be the official spokesperson for it – Bajan Ambassador for Culture and Youth or not – if this video is anything to go by. Although these cringe-making presenters have a lot to answer for too… “Can you teach us some words in your language?… some pretty words”.

Or maybe the girl has hidden layers. After all, one of the dancers in her video is wearing a headpiece that looks suspiciously like the disguise worn by pioneering Ghanaian investigative reporter Anas Aremeyaw Anas. Coincidence?

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Tweet nothings

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In South London, from whence I hail, ‘chirpsing‘ is slang for chatting up or making a move. (Or at least it was in my day.) I don’t know the origin of the verb, but here in Guyana it seems a suitable turn of phrase – given the chorus of kissing sounds that accompanies women and girls as they walk down the street – almost drowning out the insistent calls of the noisy local birdlife.

Every country seems to have their own variation on the theme. When I was in Ghana, for example, it was a ‘sssss’ sound, accompanied by a palm-down beckoning hand. In Brazil, perhaps a long, satisfied ‘Eyyy’ or ‘Oiiii lindaaa’. In London, it’s mostly stone-cold silence and furtive side looks – from the British men anyway.

Comparing notes with girl friends on WhatsApp, one said she had taken to using the middle finger as a response to the snake sounds she was hearing in Kenya. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but how should you respond?

I usually feign deafness and walk on. But words are harder to ignore – and my irritation levels vary according to the language, context and man. “Sexy” generally makes me bristle and feel uncomfortable, as do any comments relating to body parts – although the random “PALE LEGS!” shouted from a passing car in Georgetown the other day did make me chuckle. And someone hailing you “Queen of queens, good morning” – as a friendly man did last week – kind of puts a regal step in your stride. But on the whole, such comments just make you aware that you’re being looked at and assessed like a piece of juicy meat.

You start to notice the correlation between the explicitness of the comments and what you’re wearing. So maybe you dress down, wear something more covered than the nice summer dress you were planning on, walk with your head down to avoid eye contact and make yourself more invisible. Because if you walk proud and tall, and wear what you like, that might be seen as an invitation to approach.

One thing that has always puzzled me is: do men ever actually get a response? Do some women stop, turn around (it’s usually said to your back) and enthuse, “You think I’m a ‘sexy gyal’? OK, here’s my number!” If not, what is the point? To show appreciation? Wield their manly power? Intimidate?

Some people advocate a complete end to what is, essentially, sexual harrassment. Leaving the bathrooms at the Oasis Cafe in GT, I spotted the poster above – under the headline ‘It’s Not a Compliment‘ – showing there’s an appetite for change in the air here. (More on the project behind that poster here).

Some people would disagree and say that’s being over-sensitive. This includes women as well as men. But I think that’s just because we’ve become accustomed to it, and don’t think about how wrong it is till we watch videos like this:

Wouldn’t it be pleasant to walk down the street in peace, instead of on edge? To not have to worry about getting the balance right between not encouraging them and being rude by ignoring them? To not be hassled for just being a woman.

Until that day comes, here are a few suggestions for men who insist on catcalling:

  1. Avoid saying anything related to sex or her body.
  2. Keep it public and daytime – don’t make a woman walking home alone feel even more afraid than she is already.
  3. Be respectful in your approach and choice of language.
  4. Don’t pursue the matter if the woman doesn’t respond – it’s her choice. None of this calling her a bitch, rude or running after her.
  5. If she is offended, humbly apologise.

Or you could, you know, just smile; look the woman in the eye; greet her politely; and let her get on with her day.

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Is wah yuh sayin’?

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“Yu wahn i hot up?” asked the woman behind the till when I returned my cold dhal and roti to the counter at Giftland Mall. I paused for a second, deciphering, then agreed. Yes I wanted it heated up, please.

Guyana’s official language is English. A hangover from its days as a British colony. But sit on the bus, walk down the street, go into a shop and what you’ll hear is something richer, more melodic than anything the Queen could come up with.

“It’s bad English,” Adam Harris, Editor-in-Chief of Kaieteur News, put it when I went to record him for my oral-history project, Guyana 50: Memories of Life in British Guiana.

I wanted to argue back, all fired up as I was from a workshop I went to earlier in the week at the University of Guyana: Writing Creolese the Creolese Way. The session was led by the fiesty and funny Charlene Wilkinson, a lecturer in the Department of Languages and Cultural Studies, who took no time to pull me up on my quiet, mumbling voice. “The British don’t like to open their mouths when they talk!”

The workshop was part lecture, part practical exercise. We took dictation in creolese, read aloud from the transcript of an interview with a Guyanese rice farmer, and shared our reasons for being there. One participant was a poet already using her own version of written creolese. Another was a US aid worker wanting to learn to speak the lingo. There were teachers, lecturers and representatives from the education ministry, one who was somewhat rounded on at the end when she attempted to defend the lack of specific ‘English’ lessons on the curriculum.

It’s a strange situation. A country where the mother tongue of most of the population is not the official language. Where some children learn English for the first time at school. Where teachers (depending on the school) speak to their pupils in creolese, but demand they write their essays and reports in British English. Where a room full of mostly Guyanese people, some of whom grew up speaking only creole, struggle to read a line of written ‘Guyanese’.

Why? Because the creole they know is oral. Some prestigious Guyanese writers, as was noted in the workshop, use the language to good effect – and are complimented for the authenticity and vibrancy this adds. Like Wordsworth McAndrew’s classic poem Ol’ Higue:

Ol’ woman wid de wrinkled skin,

 Leh de ol’ higue wuk begin.

Put on you fiery disguise,

Ol’ woman wid de weary eyes

Shed you swizzly skin.

But should creolese remain a preserve of academia or fiction? In a letter in the Stabroek News earlier this year, Ms Wilkinson put a convincing argument forward for “bilingual and multilingual education” – where speakers of Guyanese are given the right (and respect) to speak their first language, as well as English.

The many responses in the comments box below her letter give some sense of the heatedness of this long-running debate. One that I am only newly aware of. Perhaps Ms Wilkinson should have responded by giving out the questionnaire we were asked to fill in during the workshop, asking us to honestly assess how we would view an English speaker vs a Guyanese speaker: Which do you think is most friendly? Which do you think is most intelligent? Which is more honest? Which is more helpful? Which is better educated? Which has more money? When you start to examine your own prejudices and pre-conceptions, that’s when you realise change is needed.

Or at least a Creole School for Small-Mouthed Brits. Any offers?

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Roots + revolution at Guyana’s Museum of African Heritage

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Dropping me off outside Guyana’s Museum of African Heritage on Barima Avenue, my friend hung around to see if it was actually open. “I’ve never actually been here,” she said, peering at the sign. The closed gates didn’t look promising.

I had only discovered the museum existed a few days earlier, after walking up the wrong road (something that happens often to me). But being within walking distance of the National Zoo, Botanical Gardens and Castellani House, it’s actually well placed for the enterprising visitors who track it down.

Luckily, it turned out, the museum was open – and I wasn’t the first visitor that day. “We had a tour earlier,” said the friendly guide optimistically (admitting later that before starting work there, even she hadn’t heard of it). More promotion was needed, we agreed.

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Painting outside the Museum of African Heritage, Guyana

Until 2011, the museum was known as the Museum of African Art and Ethnology. According to the tourism board, it was renamed to “open their doors to a wider audience and begin to fully address the African experience in Guyana”. Most of the museum is still given up to artefacts from (predominantly) the West Coast of Africa and neighbouring Suriname, but there are artworks by local artists too.

On entering the top floor, you’re immediately met by a small replica of Guyana’s famous moment to Cuffy (more in this post)– an African slave who led the great slave revolt of 1763 in what was then the Dutch colony of Berbice. Most of the lower floor of the museum is dedicated to Cuffy and his men, too.

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The Dutch began bringing Africans to the colony as early as the mid-17th century. Over the following years, thousands of slaves were captured and transported over the seas in appalling conditions, for a life of back-breaking work, oppression and abuse.

Today, Guyanese of African ancestry make up around 30.2% of the population – according to the 2002 census. (There was a census in 2012, but the preliminary report makes no mention of ethnicity and I cannot find anywhere the final version, which was ‘due soon’ last May.)

The connection between Africa and the Guyana of today is made by the contemporary art itself, which tackles themes including slavery, unification and revolution. Like this striking piece by artist Ras Iah entitled ‘Escape Mental Slavery’:

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There’s also a great painting that imagines the pioneering group of former African slaves who clubbed together to buy their own plantation village and make it their home of freedom. But I’ll save that one for you to discover in person.

Museum of African History, Barima Avenue, Bel Air Park, Georgetown Guyana. Entry: Free. Getting there: Take the number 40 bus and get off near Popeye’s.

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The wobbly flag pole + a national hero

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On a visit to D’Urban Park in Georgetown yesterday in search of the giant Guyana flag unveiled on Republic Day (23 February), I encountered the 1763 Monument (better known as ‘Cuffy’).

This striking statue was built in remembrance of the African slave rebellion which took place at a plantation in Berbice that same year. Created by Guyanese artist Philip Alphonso, it was unveiled on 23 May 1976.

According to local arts venue Castellani House (via Stabroek News), the figure’s pouting mouth is a sign of defiance and resistance. While in his hands he throttles a pig and dog – the pig representing ignorance; the dog covetousness, lust and greed. “This image … is inspired by a quotation from the Holy Scripture: ‘Cast not your pearls before swine nor give what is sacred to the dog.'”

Beyond the powerful figure of Cuffy, the super-size Golden Arrow flag was still nowhere to be seen. Surely a 65 × 35ft piece of patriotism isn’t lost so easily? Fear not, a friendly security guard told me, the 180ft flagpole has been taken down for extra reinforcement. “But don’t worry, it’ll be back in time for Independence Day!”

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Flag image credit: Ministry of the President, Guyana

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Fogging zika

Venturing into Zika territory, you suddenly feel like a teenager enduring the pre-date parental lecture: cover up, take precautions and whatever you do: don’t get pregnant.

Guyana is not exactly a hotbed of Zika panic, from what I’ve seen so far anyway. A piece in the Kaieteur Times two days ago noted three more cases: one woman in Timehri – who also tested positive for Dengue Fever – and two doctors at Diamond Regional Hospital.

Cue a mass fogging exercise in Diamond, which I happened to catch last night with this (rather poor) shot:

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A truck slowly passed through the streets, puffing out clouds of chemicals that will apparently kill adult mosquitoes. There wasn’t any residual smell immediately afterwards and a reduction in itching among residents remains to be seen.