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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.