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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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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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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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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.