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Holding it together


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…