Sunday, 22 September 2013
Continued from Parts I, II and III below
Spiritual “mestizo” and the motley
I was awake well before dawn. This was partly because I can’t sleep late when I’m in the tropics but also because I hadn’t reset my phone’s time when it changed during the brief visit to Suriname. I think it was due also to the power of our communion with spirit. I felt uplifted, and confident that this would be a brighter day.
Our “guides” came in these forms:
• the African “caretaker” at the Indian owned hotel. He explained that taxis or buses stopped right outside the hotel that would take us to Moleson Creek where we had to pick up the Ferry. The night before, he had told me where I could find us food.
• the squatty African who arranged our transportation from the hotel all the way to Suriname (to Paramaribo), and changed our money (that he told us was his job/rather a “hustle” but a legitimate one). He had explained exactly what we needed to do to go to Suriname, the Ferry process, how much it would cost and so on. I would say he was the most lucid person we had met at this time and therefore a good ambassador of Guyana.
• the Amerindian (Raymond) who sat quietly at the back of the taxi, exuding calm and love for everyone, noting that “god made everyone beautiful” and during one of our many philosophical discussions bracing his arm beside my niece’s to emphasise that there was no difference between the two.
• the East Indian taxi driver – “sugar” –well travelled through Suriname, who played love melodies all the way to nurture his broken heart and delight ours in the singing– and who cracked us up with his myriad tales about love, hurt and take on women.
• the East Indian passenger - who laced himself with rum, beer and cigarettes as though the spirits were compelling him to consume all on our behalf. Before every sip and puff he raised the plastic cup in salutation. He had recently finished a prison sentence for (I think) beating up or stabbing a policeman! He had been repeatedly bullied by the (“corrupt”) police, who had broken into his house; so one day he simply snapped.
• the African crooner who sang every word of all the tracks on the CDs “Sugar” played. He joined the Indian passenger in consuming lots of alcohol. His scarred face held signs of a rough life through work in the interior but he was a “puppy”.
• the sister/lover – frequenter of Karaoke clubs in Suriname and Guyana - who helped to balance the male heavy contingent and mopped her lover’s (the crooner’s) brow when he cried whilst singing a tune that reminded him of his mother (“If tomorrow never comes…”).
From the moment we stepped off the ferry when we reached Suriname and into the taxi we never stopped laughing. All the passengers (the driver too) were Guyanese but they lived in Suriname. “Sugar” was a heavy bellied, full of life character. He considered himself a “sweet boy” having experienced sexual freedom “early.” It fascinates me how one can learn so much about people in a short time, how freely they share. But I appreciate that the sharing is as much for the listener’s learning (intricate wisdoms released along the journey) as for the speaker’s self-reflection. The same with “Rickey” who was sharing so much about himself that “Sugar,” his elder said “baie talk aaf lef’ aaf.” There was a lot of love in that car, on that journey and in those hearts. The Amerindian, sitting coolly at the back with my niece, revealed himself slowly, with a degree of intelligence as he took time and sussed everyone out. The other men referred to him by all the derogatory sounding names with which Amerindians are considered in Guyana – notably “buck” or “apache” (irrepressible enemy of the Hollywood cowboy). He laughed it off and told us he was “Waro” not just Amerindian, or “buck”, “uncle Buck” or “big baie” (boy). He shared a photo with my niece and I of his wife. She was a young African woman; which was why when Rickey (the chain-smoking heavy drinker) wanted to swap seats with him to try to sweet talk my niece, Raymond said “I deh good here.”
“Sugar” also shared photos of his children, his comfortable home and previous lover - she was of mixed African and Indian heritage - and much younger than him. Now scorned because she had left him, he was often negative about women. “What you think of love,” he asked us about 10 minutes into our journey; making us marvel at the unexpected philosophic posture. We didn’t have time to respond before he gave his: “love is a xxxxxxx piece of poison!” (I know that writing doesn’t adequately convey the amusing oracular inflections and the pitch of his delivery which bent us up with laughter.) He later changed this to “woman” being a piece of poison. Raymond corrected him, gently schooling him by saying he shouldn’t think that way about women. But when he later asked this other: “what can a woman do to a man?” and answered again himself thus, “fxxx up he lungs and destroy he kidney,” everybody waan dead wid laugh! Though the laughter flowed with a special kind of spirited sweetness, I didn’t fail to notice the beautiful, orderly and clean roads and landscape as we drove towards Coronie. The policeman who had turned us back, looked surprised then pleased to see us again. He told us we would have no trouble now that our passports were correctly stamped. I noticed too that whenever we stopped to stock up on supplies (of beer and rum and snacks) the supermarkets were all Chinese owned (this would be the case throughout our time in Suriname).
The wall of diverse faces in Suriname
My extended note about the people we travelled with is to highlight something that is key to understanding Guyanese Comfa and by extension Guyana’s cultural identity. Comfa is an aspect of spirituality rooted in Africa but translated in the Guyanese cultural context. When the drum is knocked, spirits manifest. They manifest by “possessing” (“mounting” if it was in Santeria) any one or many of the participants at a given ceremony. These spirits might be identified as “Congo” (meaning African), “Buck” (Amerindian), “Indian” (East Indian), “English” (or white), “Dutch” (connected with Ndjukas of Suriname), “Chiney” (Chinese) etc, all of these ethnicities have historical, cultural and political ties with Guyana. Possession might also be by an ancestral spirit that would require special interpretation and consultation with the participant who has gone into trance to find out who that ancestor is. In our taxi, there was no Chinese, or “white” passengers, but the signs of what I should like to call “spiritual mestizo” were present. I know that “mestizo” has certain connotations related to European colonialism particularly mix between Spanish and African/Indigenous groups of the “Americas”, but I’m using the term to refer generally to multiple racial/ethnic mixtures that are the consequence of slavery and colonialism. I think the basic premise of a “mixture” of racial/cultural identities makes it fit for use here.
The “symbol” of “English” (European) was present in my niece and I – for she had expressed into physical being in “England” and my life journey (and Path) had taken me there (to Scotland also, where the “Gordon” surname, as I mentioned in Part I comes from). And we were after all in Suriname, symbolic of the Dutch and carrying the powerful history of the maroons who freed themselves and established territories that enabled them to retain their African cultural practices, including that of their spirituality. Racial identity, ethnicity, physical body and appearances start to mix and blend in this context. There was an unwritten understanding and respect for our differences and mixture between the motley passengers in the taxi to Paramaribo. And for this reason I saw the moment as a spiritual one, as one of the notable signs. For unlike the geographical and racial boundaries set by European imperialists and perpetuated in the after math of colonised spaces, spirits do not have nor care for such boundaries.
We are many
Kwaku monument in Paramaribo
The heaviness of racism in Guyana was no longer in our face in Suriname, though multiple mixes of ethnicities prevailed. Indeed, in Comfa, though I am African, I can “ketch comfa” (go into trance) having been “taken” (or “jumped”) by a spirit of any other ethnicity. For example, an Amerindian spirit might be one of my guides (specifically working towards aligning me with my purpose). My chief (or lead/head) spirit may be an English man, who again is trying to align me with my purpose and for which reason I have (re)journeyed to England, as though trying to (re)trace my steps. Each spirit will have a different need from me, and mean different things to me (one a healer, one an artist, another educationalist and one an entrepreneur, for example) but all are tasked with guiding me to fulfil my purpose – that is to remember what I returned this time to pursue and fulfil. Some of us freely embrace the idea that we chose our parents prior to conception. Few contemplate that we might also have chosen the place we wanted to return to, as though something incomplete remained there. I’ve often wondered about my decision to adopt the ancestral name of “Yaa Asantewa”, who having fought with the British (England) was exiled for the rest of her life in Seychelles. I say this because names carry energy, hence the significance of ancestral/traditional naming ceremonies in Africa. Did I by adopting Yaa Asantewa also choose where my life’s journey would take me, as though somehow trying to reconcile the spiritual loss (destabilisation) I experienced in that past manifestation? The speculation is obviously indulgent, but I don’t censor myself from contemplating it in this way. Of course, the only reason I’d be contemplating this is to better understand who I am, what motivates me (for example to change my name and choose that particular one), what guides/drives me, what weakens or strengthens me and what forces I can use for my spiritual alignment. So if we express in a particular part of the world (like England) there must be a spiritual connection with that place, however we choose to interpret it.
Congo and Obia - spirits in Suriname
Suriname was better than I had thought it would be. The ethnic mix seemed more evenly spread in the society. (I am aware that this is only from our brief and therefore superficial survey.) Many of the businesses were owned by Asians, it’s true, but Africans and Amerindians were visible, and sometimes in positions of esteem (museums, hotels, warehouses, markets); in tourist areas like the Heritage site, restaurants and bars. We were told that anyone could have their own TV stations to appeal to their cultural/ethnic community (as did the Javanese, East Indians and Africans). The City was cleaner, with less people, it didn’t seem as busy as Georgetown and we felt safe (aside from the rough drivers who did not easily give way to pedestrians). I saw some litter vomited back by the Suriname River but generally the streets and neighbourhoods were clean, with dustbins strategically placed around the City. The friend we were staying with told us, it was not so a few years ago, but the government had made considerable efforts to change this and she felt pleased it seemed to be working. Litter was collected every day; people piled garbage sacks outside their houses in these square makeshift bins, visibly ready for clearing. Though they seemed to take pride they would also be fined for littering.
Calling the spirits
Sites like Independence Square, Fort Zeelandia and the heritage museums were impressive. There was a marvellous wall of faces along the square that reflected the different ethnic groups of Suriname. Old colonial buildings and the Fort where our ancestors were brought in those inhumane ships to this side of the world were kept in pristine conditions; now turned into museums. Just like the bitterly haunting experience of walking around Elmina and Cape Coast castles in Ghana, I felt my skin crawling as I walked through the enslavers palace and the cruel holding docks wherein my ancestors were shackled before some Dutch prospector sullied his/her hands by purchasing them. My heart was trembling, my gut retching at the faint but unmistakable smell (I’d smelt the same in Ghana) of, urine, faeces, and (menstrual) blood that lingered in the concrete walls (imported to the Guianas during this time by the Dutch). I was surprised at how beautiful and well maintained the place was. Guyana too has its own Fort Zeelander (at Fort Island) but it is a ruin worth visiting but not so impressive. We were told that the Dutch regularly maintained the site because for them there was some pride in memorialising this wicked part of their history. I emphasise “memorialising” in consideration of those Africans (especially Christians) who still struggle with the concept of honouring our ancestors, citing it as “ancestral worship” as though this is heinous and something worse than the misery of enslavement and colonisation which led us thus to this twisted perception of our progressive traditions.
Homage is paid to Hitler every time some new film/documentary is made about his life or the European (World) Wars. I don’t know any African who does not empathise with the “Jews”, but some of us struggle with the reality that the enslavement and genocide of millions (and much more than 6) was a “haulocaust” too. And the genocide in Africa is not over: though not alone, take Congo where more than 6 million innocent people have been killed since 1996 in a “geo-strategic” nightmare “war” over its resources. Whilst we struggle to memorialise or ancestors and to remember that our collective oppression is not over, British/American (European) war veterans are honoured (ancestrally) every year on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. The Europeans have their private and public shrines that mark a tribute to their ancestors. And they tried to whip the drums and drumming and the manifestation of spirits out of Africans and told us to “forsake” our traditional practices - demonising our Vodou, our Obia and our “different ways of knowing.” But we are not physically under those whips anymore and we should try every means to destroy the mental shackles that burden us with fear about our spirituality. For it is this ultimate source of empowerment, which our ancestors used as strategies for liberation that the European sought to deny us.
Here in Suriname, as it was in Haiti, Africans understood their spiritual power and they used it for liberation. And they have retained this power as a sign of continuity with their ancestral practices. Unlike in Guyana (with the exception of spiritualists/cultural practitioners) and some places in the Caribbean, Obia (or obeah) is not scorned or feared but wholeheartedly embraced in Suriname. Obia men and women are respected as spiritualists capable of interpreting complex signs. My niece and I were delighted to be invited to a ritual on the plantation of the friend we were staying with. I had met her in London; though she was born in Suriname she had lived most of her life in Holland. We had shared spiritual experiences and her cousin had helped me with my research on Comfa. We were told to wear something red and blue as all the family, belonging to the same plantation would be. When the Dutch eventually gave up the lands to the enslaved Africans (not those that fought for their own) they left families with enormous plantations, the size of several villages in Guyana. Every member of that family owned a piece of the land and from time to time my friend’s family came together at the heart of the (Oniribo) plantation to honour the spirits.
The reason we wore red was because the ceremony would open by honouring the Amerindian spirits (red is their colour) since prior to colonisation the lands had been theirs. Music was played by the band that invited the manifestation of the Amerindian spirits. Participants danced in a circle to the music until someone or several people went into trance. When they went into trance, an Obia man (with help from others) would anoint the spirit with some alcohol at the nape of their necks; give them water from a calabash; friends and family who knew the “vessel” (or “host” to the spirit) now in trance would embrace them, a beautiful gentle gesture, welcoming the spirit to the ritual. And they would dance and dance until the “host” came out of the trance. The pictures I took in this pitch of night and scant light do not fully express the beautiful men, women and children proudly participating in the ritual. I loved the gorgeous and varied creole head ties adorning the women’s heads. Young women and elderly, men too respected the moment with seriousness and responded to the call of the music. After they played for and roused the Amerindian spirits to satisfaction, the band changed tune and called for the Congo.
Very soon all around us a magnetic power emerged. The Congo came with a force that might be considered terrifying. It walked stealthily, heavy feet planted deeply into the ground, fists tightly folded as though preparing to deliver a fierce blow at something. Embracing a Congo spirit meant enduring a hefty thumping on the back; but the spirits sought one another, squeezing and thumping and performing what seemed like slow, deliberate marching steps around the ritual space. It seemed that everyone with a Congo spirit went into trance (but I know it wasn’t so for all). Some screamed when the spirit took, when the music hit some special note and roused the spirit; some marched off into the heart of the dark plantation and had to be brought back to the centre; some danced in front of the band, saluting or basking in the energy of the music. The Obia man was busy, anointing and calming, and “powdering” (“safo safo” he would tell the spirit coming with too much force – meaning go softly with your “host/vessel” the one experiencing trance). It’s my understanding that many of the practitioners who go into trance know something about their single or multiple spirits, the Congo being one of the strongest. So there was no fear of the spirit, instead when they manifested, they were welcomed for this was a sign of alignment that reinforced the connection between spirit and host. The spirit would continue to do “work” for its “host” if that “host” continued to welcome, honour and seek to be aligned with it.
On our way back from Suriname we made a worthwhile visit to my grandparents’ village in Berbice, though it was regrettably brief. It allowed my niece the chance to alight on the specific part of the earth where her (paternal) great grandparents expressed into being. To me this part of Berbice has lost its vigour; but it holds the richest memories of my childhood experiences. And though we were determined to be less “uptight” about Guyana, I couldn’t help feeling heart broken by the depression of Linden when we visited. The killing of three young men by the police on June 18th 2012 following protests over the hiked electricity prices left an eerie feeling of desolation in the town, where I lived before migrating to London. My return to Guyana always includes a visit to Linden. There never seems to be any movement, the town feels like it’s in a perpetual state of stagnation. Everything moves slowly in the hazy, dusty air from the bauxite and fierce heat. When we spoke to some of the locals they gave us the impression that it was a matter of time before the “quiet” after the previous protests was disturbed; the need for more TV channels that were more culturally inclusive was a probable trigger. With the “lock down” of the area fresh in their memories, which had further depressed an already disenfranchised local economy (scarcity of provisions, and jobs, social and cultural outlets) there was a reluctance to revisit this scene of protest.
It was unspoken but there was a sense that nothing in Guyana could disturb or shock us as it did prior to the trip to Suriname. Yes, we didn’t appreciate the absurdities but found some way to accept that “this was Guyana.” It was at once beautiful and messed up; the biliousness of racism and corruption tampered with the beautiful sea breeze, and wistful clustering of the coconut trees, the sumptuousness of fruits and abundance of food; the wonderful, hilarious energy of the street hustlers and artists; the passion of ordinary people who tolerated but were not uncritical about the state of their country. We found time for some respite as we enjoyed the black waters at Slashmins Resort. We danced at the Soiree (“evening”) historically/traditionally held in Hopetown before the Emancipation celebrations on 1st August. The streets in Hopetown were packed with people, most of them young (limers) who didn’t have much understanding of the cultural significance of the Soiree.
We found a spot where there was a semblance of what we saw in Suriname insofar as participants danced in a circle before eventually someone “ketch comfa” (went into trance). On occasion when this happened the person (“vessel/host”) was watched but it seemed the spirit was left thirsty since no water was offered by those who appeared to be ordering the event (as would be the Obia man in Suriname); no one had Florida Water (I always walked with some so used mine) to daub on the spirit; no one gently hugged the spirit who was manifesting, though no one was surprised or shocked by what was happening – for this too was Guyana. When I brought some water to offer to the “host” (in trance) it was taken from me and roughly thrust at them. This was different to the way I observed the Surinamese offering the spirit water; which was done with gentleness, love and a kind of sacredness. The musicians played music that had similar instruments as those in Suriname; there was no dress code per se, but obviously this was a ritual to honour/welcome African spirits and some people wore African clothes. In Suriname the musicians were given time to rest, after playing at least one song. In Guyana, the musicians seemed to work hard, playing for hours before a break. Some degree of shame seemed linked to the ritual, but I was glad for the chance to witness it.
My niece and I planned to be back in Guyana for Emancipation. It was wonderful to see the array of African outfits as everyone embraced the ancestral occasion. There were a few Amerindians and East Indians participating but it was clear that this was a time for Africans to “come out.” The National Park was not packed but people from all over Guyana and the diaspora had made the effort to be there and this was joyful to see. It differs from London’s Carnival where that ancestral cord seems to be eroding. People took pride in preparing for Emancipation and it’s customary to cook “creole food” (which I didn’t fully appreciate before). I want to believe, indeed would like to hope that the “African dress up” was not for one day only. I hope, would like to believe that Africans are not solely reliant on the government (through the Ministry of Culture) to encourage their consistent respect and expression of their identity; which has a powerful part to play in the weaving of Guyana’s diverse social and cultural history.
Interpreting the signs by some way of concluding
After seeing so many people willingly (consciously) going into trance in Suriname I returned to Guyana and later London aware that I needed to be true to my spirit. In Guyana, some people are reluctant to “dance” to the beat of drums because this is a signal that the spirits are circling and likely to manifest. The drums were calling my niece and I from the moment we reached Barbados. And we never failed to dance when we heard them. I have learnt not to fear the drums, nor spirit. After all, embracing my spirit/s enables me to interpret simple and challenging signs around me. They empower me by shaping and directing my journey along the Path. A false sense of purpose (“unconscious trance”), almost being a prey to superficial forces occurs when I succumb to the varied distractions (including that of racism) that have nothing to do with spiritual fulfilment, or the building of a community of diverse human beings. The endemic, consuming racism of Guyana had the potential to divert me from the Path and my purpose – which is to love and understand all human beings. It is also to know who or what the true enemy is, whether I interpret this spiritually or physically. Spiritually my enemy is disobedience to my spirit when I embrace that which is false and distracting; it is when I fear my spirit/s, when I am unwilling to do the work of spirit. Physically, it is anyone or thing that hinders my expression of love toward humanity – it is anything or system that is anti-human, it is that which denies all human beings their right to progress.
Sadly, I know some pan-Africanists who think it’s possible and desirable to reverse racism. The Pan-Africanist who makes a pseudo suggestion of annihilating “Arabs” (invaders like Europeans), or who shun all other ethnicities does not adequately respect the complexity of our identities (the plural is deliberate). My best friend is Mauritian, a visibly light skinned Indian. She has complained repeatedly about the way some Africans treat her when I invite her some of our events. She has the feeling of being “in the wrong place,” feeling treated the way (as she tells me) “white people” treat black people. She often refers to herself as “Indian African!” because her father’s ancestors were enslaved Africans shipped to Mauritius just as ours were shipped to the Caribbean. The Pan-Africanist who overlooks this level of complexity when assigning what constitutes or embodies an “African” attempts the anti-human characteristics of racism mastered by European imperialists to justify slavery and their capitalist expansion. If I was so adamant about seeking out only Africans along my Way, I would have rejected (and thought suspect) the East Indian (“aunty”) who took the form of a guide that miserable day we were turned back from Suriname. My contention and struggle is not with “racists” but that which fosters (parents) it – capitalism and imperialism – and which ultimately blights the progress towards a better humanity. I wonder how the Shout would have looked had we made it to Venezuela where a different model (system) is in place. Socialism appeals to revolutionary Pan-Africanists because it does not exhibit “anti-human” characteristics; for its cardinal principle is humanism. To allow myself to be forever soaked in the foulness of the racism and corruption and re-enact (for that’s all it would ever be –mimicry) this against others is to lose sight of this basic principle with which I expressed beautifully into the world.
There is always a come down after the journey to and return from the source. The sunshine seems so far flung from the heart; the drums morbidly silent. But there are rivers everywhere that carry the force of Oshun, where I can commune and keep aligning. The summer sunshine that blessed England this year stayed long enough for us to feel as though we were still on holiday. My niece has her own way of expressing what the experience has meant for her. But I saw how she blossomed, how she struggled with then slowly opened to “herself” in a difficult moment of experiencing. She glows differently now, though she might not realise it. She radiated as a colourful macaw (one of Guyana’s many birds) at the London carnival; loving and accepting herself and the variations of light in everything she experiences. And I keep reading the signs for they are myriad and made complex only when I deny who I am. I accept that I am a medley of many experiences but this does not “contain” me. I have a single duty and that is to remember why I returned in this lifetime. I do not believe in whimsical existence but a purposeful one. So I listen to the rhythm of my dreams. I take my turn to dance; for the djembe knows all my tunes and awakens dormant memories. The mediations are lonely yet I am not alone. Amidst my tears the spirits comfort; the ancestors seem pleased with my meagre but heartfelt offerings. The Temple is not far so I find time to “go there.” "Unconscious trance" restricts me but calling the guides, invocations to spirit – conscious trance – liberates me. And all those wayward (distracting) experiences are consumed by the fearless trampling of my Congo spirit.
My radiating niece at London Carnival
Fernández Olmos M and Paravisini-Gebert, L, eds., Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo, New York University Press, New York/London, 2003.
- Healing Cultures – Art and Religion as Curative Practices in the Caribbean and Its Diaspora, Palgrave, New York, 2001.
Sacred Possessions: Vodou, Santería, Obeah and the Caribbean, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick/New Jersey, 1997.
Gibson, Kean, Comfa Religion and Creole Language in A Caribbean Community, New York, State University of New York Press, 2001
Hall, Stuart, ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora,’ in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory - A Reader, Williams, Patrick and Chrisman, Laura eds., Harvester Wheatsheaf, UK: 1993, pp. 392-403.
Lall, GHK, Guyana: A National Cesspool of Greed, Duplicity and Corruption (A remigrant’s Story), 2012. (self-published)
Somé, Malidoma, Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose Through Nature, Ritual, and Community Jeremy P Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 1998
Friday, 13 September 2013
(Please refer to Parts I and II of this Shout to follow)
Mall Mania – signs of corruption
Along with the taint of racism, my niece and I also sought to get to Suriname for some respite from the levels of corruption we felt around us, which the locals were ever eager to relay. The strange sort of illogical fuel pumping through the Guyanese politicians’ veins meant for the most part that my niece and I were struggling to understand how exactly the country was being run. We concluded that cowboy politics and gangsterism were at work. And whenever we were met with some bizarre experience, the locals’ response, now replacing our other refrain was that “this is Guyana.” By that they meant that any kind of crazy could take place there – just like we would expect from armed cowboys criminally empowered to run a recently developed town.
In a country of less than 800, 000 people, it seemed incomprehensible that Malls were being built in every inch of the compressed city. Guyana’s land mass is about the size as the UK; you might understand the significance of this when you realise that in London alone the population is over eight million. So Guyana is seriously underpopulated. Its tourist industry weak, though some say it is on the rise. But how is this being measured? My understanding is that Guyana’s tourism primarily extends to those seeking to explore the interior, not so much to City prowlers or beach bathers. So why is there such a push for all these Malls (and hotels)? The City Mall was the first of its kind in Guyana with our first escalator. There are a few tightly packed boutiques and restaurants, a sort of extension of the congested homes and traffic in the oppressive city. You breeze through the boutiques, full of cheap clothes, shoes and goods made in China that are outrageously overpriced. The development of Malls and their expensive cheap products of course mimic what we expect of tourism in other places. But we hardly saw tourists at the City Mall, but locals, some amusingly venturing to try out the new escalator, yet unable or afraid to brave the elevator.
Reaching for the stars - more malls the merrier?
Most of these so called Malls, predominantly owned by Indo-Guyanese are big, three, four, five storey stores which, along with the increasing developments in hotels are thought to be fronts for drug activity (money laundering). I am merely citing the local perception of them. Some are owned by Chinese (not Chinese with historical connections with Guyana, one of our six peoples – these are referred to as “new Chinese”) who are also rummaging through the interior and illegally shipping out gold and other minerals, while the cowboy politicians sleep. Or, as the locals would say, take their share. I observed the same pernicious infiltration by Chinese in Ghana. In Guyana, as with Ghana these illegal mining activities are resulting in violence and increased crime in the interior, as recently reported by Kaieteur News (26th August). Only a government lacking the kind of vision necessary to uplift its entire nation would encourage this kind of activity, then to be forced to plaster over it. I say “plaster” because I’m yet to be convinced of any bold strategy by the government to ensure the sovereignty of Guyana is protected from Chinese or any other foreign “investors.” There always seems to be some kind of desperate signing of agreements that ultimately do not benefit the people but gives the false impression that the government knows how to play on the “big stage” of international finance capital. China and India for example are the greatest benefactors of illegal export of Guyanese timber, made possible through the dubious “agreements” with foreign logging groups that are never staged in the interest of the people. As I saw in Ghana, Chinese construction companies are everywhere in Guyana, building these Malls, employing fellow Chinese workers, and which disenfranchises the local Guyanese who could otherwise contribute to production in this way. The same was the case in Suriname, where we were told there was fear of infiltration by “Chinese Mafia” into a society trying to tackle its own levels of corruption. But we were also told that the Surinamese government, mindful of their small population, compared to China’s, had restricted Chinese involvement in politics and businesses.
These two images are from the Guyanese Building Expo - they represent plans for Chinese Construction in Guyana
Where there were few examples of Africans setting up something “big” this was also considered suspicious. In other words, it was accepted that corruption was responsible for any apparent economic boom, whether the development enriched the country (through “deals” made by the government) or a “private” investor. The number of Malls (along with other clearly unprofitable businesses), given the population and level of poverty experienced by the mass of Guyanese have led to investigation into money laundering. But since cowboys are inherently lawless it is inevitable that Guyana will be black listed and alone in a region striving for social progress. Whilst Suriname has been approved as a “permanent guest member” of the ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of America) group, championed by Venezuela’s late President, Hugo Chavez, Guyana’s participation is far from the table.
• Police bandits: drivers complained that they were often and randomly taxed by police who used this as a means to fund their daily, weekly or monthly “box” (“pardners” or “susu”). It is believed that the only reason to become a police is for the privilege of robbing the public under the guise of representing the law. There was a potent sense of fear for the police.
• Gangster laws: a few years ago the government was making it policy that all taxis be painted yellow. Until the yellow paint that some affiliate to the government (so it’s believed) ran out! Then it was no longer necessary to impose this “law.” This was same with the Seat Belts (Buckle-Up) initiative/law. Some government affiliate had a large shipment of seatbelts that needed to be “shifted”, a new law was passed, people were fined for not wearing the belts, even when they were faulty and had caused death because they could not be undone in the midst of accidents. The seatbelts ran out, the law is now irrelevant.
• Anti-Money laundering Bill: this is a dance between the government and members of the oppositions (APNU and AFC). The Bill is floating, with the government accusing oppositions of deliberately failing to meet deadlines, and the oppositions accusing the government of failing to include the entire allegations of abuses in the Bill. At stake is Guyana’s reputation; now considered an emerging drugs capital of the “Caribbean” and regressing to the stigma of drug cartels in South America. Guyana was asked to “comply with the Caribbean Financial Action Taskforce (CFATF) recommendations to amend its Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism Laws” (reading 2 below) or risk being black listed. The probable outcome of the “dance” is that Guyana will be black listed.
Police Parade: apparently a yearly event, we happened upon. They show the might of the force, human resources, weapons, vehicles, horses etc. Notice the dominance of African women.
• Land Titles long ting: 16 years ago my brother and I bought adjoining plots of land. I was a student at the time, and thought this was sensible thing to do since I might one day decide to return to the country where I was born. I have spent years, and money, trying to “pay off” for the infrastructural works (electricity, water etc.) that buying land incurs. Each time I tried to make these payments (when I visited) I was told they (the Linden Regional Office) were not “taking monies” as yet. This dragged on. Though all the monies had finally been paid, I had a complication of not being able to sign for papers to process the title because my name had changed. My brother has yet to receive his “transport” (title) for the land, although no such complication exists for him. In this same area, the government has severely increased the infrastructural development fee and is asking residents to pay it or lose the lands they have had for nearly two decades, and which they have independently (of the government) cleared away for development. It’s important to understand that this is taking place in Linden, a predominantly African-Guyanese area, scene of the recent protest and killings over the hike in electricity prices by the government.
• Championing a dirty City: I’m ashamed to expose this, but it is not changing. There is no strategy on a national level to inspire pride in the population to keep the country tidy. Instead, gutters are blocked, an infrastructural nightmare exacerbated by the Chinese made plastics/polystyrene boxes, wildly disposed in the gutters and streets. It is believed that the government gives City Hall (electorally headed by Mayor Hamilton Green) inadequate funds to implement measures to clean up the city because it (the government) wants to “impose” its own unelected representative to the post. There is no adequate waste system, no sense of environmentalism, no collective willingness to clean up, especially along the coast and the famous Sea Wall, which would otherwise render a cool, tranquil early morning or late afternoon walk. When taking photos, I had to zoom in to get a picture of the sea without the assault of piled rubbish in the shot. Though it sickened me, I also took shots of the abused sea shore where polystyrene boxes floated up. The Atlantic that should have spiritual, ancestral as well as natural resonance pukes back the rubbish that is so callously thrust in her as though she does not sustain us with her waters, does not provide the fishes that feed us. What will it take for Guyanese to become/feel collectively environmentally conscientious? Ironically, former President Jagdeo won the United Nations Environment Programme Champion of the Earth Award in 2010. The man must be laughing at the absurdity. The UNEP administrators could never have visited Georgetown, or the country’s coast to see how concerned Jagdeo really was about environmentalism before making their decision.
Sickening city - amidst the mess a colonial style old building
Dawn at the border: zoomed in
Zoom out and the wider picture depresses the dawn
• Violence: it seems to be taken for granted that some act of violence will be reported in the newspaper on a daily basis. One such took place in the next street from where my cousin lives in Georgetown. A fire destroyed the homes (two wooden houses) of about 17 people (eight of them children). Business developers had wanted to buy the houses from the owner but they refused and tactics typical of gangsterism resulted in the near deaths of the residents, including the elderly owner who was in one of the houses at the time. We were able to get close the burning houses (all of us “spectators”) as we watched “fire fighters” struggle to set up hoses for water that for the most part is scarce (the government controls water supply by switching off pipes during the day). Thankfully no one died, but the same homes were targeted (set on fire) a few years ago.
Suriname: dress code and going backtrack
The visibility of corruption, regular reports of violence, filthiness and compression of the city, along with the incomprehensible development of more “malls” were frustrating signs blighting the possible paradise of Guyana. Was this the Guyana I had brought my niece to; to fulfil her ancestral ties and for my spiritual alignment? I felt pressured to make the situation better somehow, and found myself constantly trying to rethink our next step, so that the “trip” (largely to be spent in Guyana) would be a memorable experience and not the nightmare it seemed to be turning into. So we would go to Suriname, across the border; this would realise a long time aspiration of mine and surely provide some solace for my niece, somewhere perhaps more relaxing and uplifting. We had planned to go with a mini-bus that would take us all the way into Paramaribo (the capital) and collect us for the return trip. We would arrange our own accommodation. I tried to make contact with Surinamese friends and acquaintances with whom we could stay or link up once there.
The night before the morning we had planned to leave, we learnt that as we had British passports, we needed a tourist “card” to go. Interestingly, there is a tendency to think that this document (our British Passport) is a pass to anywhere in the world; we forgot that this Guyana was a former British Colony, not Dutch. We therefore had to cancel the trip because we didn’t have the tourist card.
Dressed in our holiday “garmes” – my niece wearing a cute boob tube top and mini skirt, I was sporting a cap, leggings and t-shirt with sandals –were abruptly told we could not enter the Surinamese embassy. The “jobsworthiness” of the security woman was pitiful to see, as she irritatingly pointed to a notice of the dress code that would allow us entry. Everything we had on, except my t-shirt contravened the code. We would learn that this code existed in Guyana for entry to any government building – where one had to wear clothes fit for office or church, and not necessarily the tropical climate. Not only is the code stupid it’s also sexist - men are allowed to wear jeans, women are not. Who is responsible for this madness, which no one appreciates not understands?
I asked the security woman (behind the closed gate to the embassy) if I needed a tourist card even though I had a UK passport. The instructions (pasted to the gate) for the card were referring only to USA nationals. Here’s what she said: “is not the same ting? UK is not part of the USA?” As with the filthiness of the city, shameful to record, I don’t have space to write in this Shout about the serious levels of illiteracy we observed in Guyana. All this code and instructions, sending us back and forth, so that we were now trying to find fitting clothing (we borrowed my cousins’), impressing on us the need to return with new US notes (they took nothing else) and we made it (another day later) to the outside box in the embassy yard. We entered no office building, but the “tourist card” was given to us from a cubicle, as we stood, my niece and I like two miserable oversized children (in our churchy/officey clothes) in a small box collecting our passports with the card.
To our understanding, we could get to Suriname “back track” (the term speaks for itself) with the tourist card. I thought it was curious that the card wasn’t stamped in our passports like other visas would be. But it was a tourist card, not quite a visa so it seemed justifiably different. We arranged our own transport from town to Skeldon, where we would pick up the speedboat to take us across the river that separated the two Guianas. I should mention here that to get to the border, we had to pass my ancestral village in Berbice, where my grandparents were from.
We decided to travel on Sunday because apparently it was quiet in Suriname on Sunday; we’d been told it would take practically the whole day to travel to Paramaribo from the border. Some people warned us, but others assured us that going “back track” was not as it used to be – that is rough and dangerous. We were up for the adventure in any case, albeit with a weighty of desperation in trying to get out. This was another area of Guyana dominated by East Indians. We waited about an hour before the boat came to take us across the border. We tried to ignore the fact that there were no life jackets offered or visible to us, as we sat silently enduring the bumps in the rough water. We were on the other side in less than 20 minutes.
It’s the same territory really, but somehow landing on this side of the Guianas felt good, the air wistfully cleaner. We had to negotiate transportation to Paramaribo. An African woman, with whom we had exchanged smiles at the landing on the other side and who said she was experienced in travelling to Suriname, shared a taxi with us. It would take four hours to get to Paramaribo. But at last we were on our way. When the taxi stopped at the police checkpoint at Coronie, we didn’t think there was anything to worry about. We had our “tourist card.” The first policeman, called the other to verify what he was seeing after scrutinising both passports. There was no sign that my niece and I were inhaling as we were asked to step out of the taxi by the police.
“Is this all you have in your passport” one asked, a little less clearly in English than I’m writing it.
“Yes” we said.
“Then you are entering the country illegally.” Most people understand what a sinking heart feels like - your heart feels like something is trying to dislodge it from the pericardium. I did not dare to glance at my niece, whose face had been contorted for days. It was now about 3.30 in the afternoon. The taxi driver attempted to bribe the officers (with money he perceived we had as well as our approval) into letting us go through but they refused. He had said it to them in Surinamese/Dutch, and then translated to us that they didn’t bite, thus showing they were incorruptible, and that he was foolish for even trying to bribe them. I mention the time because we had driven 2 hours thus far and it would take up the same time to travel back to the boat landing, meaning we would be travelling on the river at dusk. I had experienced night travel on water in Guyana before, and I didn’t like it.
But this was now unavoidable. We were asked by the checkpoint police to go back to Guyana, return with an actual visa since the card was not that. Only then could we enter the country “back track” as many times as we wanted in the six months period for which the visa would be issued. In other words, we had to enter the country legitimately first, on a ferry, where we would receive the visa, stamped in our passports (read 5 below).
Ferry route to Suriname: not back track!
Calling on the Guides
There were scavengers at the boat landing, one of them tried to get us to buy our visa from someone who could (illegitimately) stamp it in our passport. At this point we are again feeling as though we were in Mumbai, for there were very few Africans around us. We met an East Indian lady who was also waiting for a boat to go back to Guyana. She spoke softly, but carefully warning us not to listen to any of the Surinamese touts, whom she said were trying to rob us. She was Guyanese but had lived in Suriname for over 30 years. She had been travelling “back track” all this time. I explained what had happened and she was sympathetic. She told us (all this time straining my concentration for she spoke with a strong Indo-Guyanese country accent) that when we got to the other side, we must find a hotel (lock our room – since some of the border hotels doubled as whore houses), wake up early the next morning, head to the ferry and come back.
A boat eventually arrived (Sunday was actually not a good time for travelling because of the infrequency of boats). We would indeed be travelling on the water in the evening. It had been hired by a large Indian family (about 18 of them) who had presumably been shopping in Nikerie. We would have to tag along on the boat. The East Indian lady, who we later called “aunty” (for we never learnt her name), and who was ultimately a guide asked us to follow her, take off our shoes, roll up trousers to get into the water and boat. I can’t truly relate the tyranny of the water on the way back. My niece held onto the side of the boat, praying silently through the contortion of her face. Somehow I had ended up between her and “aunty.” The boat rocked and bounced, the river seemed angry – no one, not even I had paid her anything – she lashed water in on us at every heave and drop; the family, stacked behind us and still jubilant from their shopping spree laughed and jeered like they were on a big wheel or waltzer ride at an amusement park. “Aunty” kept still, her beautiful bright orange tracksuit top bearing the water but like our clothes was drenched by the end of the ride. I shall never forget the richness of her complexion, the blackness of her hair (though I don’t know if it was naturally so); there was something serene about her. Thankfully the ride was abrupt as on the way there. Our sighs were suppressed. Our lady kept us close, beckoning us to follow her. She found a young boy and asked him where there was a good hotel. She walked us to the hotel and hugged us deeply, her eyes tender with concern as though we were her children whose safety she feared. She asked us to look after ourselves, to lock the door after we had found something to eat. And we thanked her, for she had made us feel safer.
Connecting: along the wall of faces representing different peoples of Suriname
It’s true that only when faced with certain calamities do we remember simple things. I told my niece I was sorry it was going so terribly and so we needed to pray. It wasn’t the first time of course, for it was that same communing that alleviated our anxieties about accommodation and acquainted us with dear Billy. So huddled in the hotel room, where we didn’t fail to observe that they were asking us to pay them before we had even seen our room, I called on our ancestors and our guides to direct us, to help our understanding of what we were doing there, why we had come to Guyana since it seemed we had not properly prepared and what were our true reasons for trying to get to Suriname. If we had been disobedient and reluctant to hear the voice of spirit we were truly sorry for we were alert now and needed their assistance. If we were to reach Suriname, we implored them to show us the way without further obstacles. And we thanked them for hearing us, locked the room and went to sleep, the sweet fragrance of Florida Water scenting the bed, took us to the dream of a better tomorrow.
To be continued.
Saturday, 7 September 2013
“This is Guyana”: racism and culture
What does “respite” mean in the context of Guyana? If it is a search for relief, rest and relaxation, it is indeed possible to have these. The weather is wonderful, the sun gloriously energising, and even when it rains, you feel rejuvenated, renewed and soothed by the heavenly showers lashing against windows and zinc roof tops. Every night you can party and drink quality alcohol that’s cheap, even for the locals (Banks Beer, El Dorado, XM Rum etc); you can eat succulent fruits like mangoes, pre- peeled and bagged sweet pineapples, papayas that fall lustfully into your mouth like the impassioned kiss of a lover; and what of the food you’ve not laboured over stove to prepare (cook-up rice, pouri, roti and pastries, curried something, chow mein, any sort of vegetable/Ital stew or soup) – you feel your waist expanding, but when you return to London, you’ll be right back on the treadmill. So don’t simply eat – say yes to every offer of something and gorge.
You can stroll through the pretty promenade garden, and if there’s time, the botanical gardens near the zoo (we never made it to the latter).
Street vendors competing with the resonance of soca, reggae, “oldies” and the pre-eminence of 90s pop tunes that never seem to get old in the Caribbean (croonings like “How do I…” by LeAnne Rimes – and anything by Celine Dion) lend a vibrancy that we didn’t hear in the streets of Barbados. And chants like “rat pieson, rat pieson (poison), “tas’e and buy, guinnip, guinnip, tas’e and buy,” “check yoh baddy weight,” “chips, chips, plantain chips” clamour, almost comically round the city as hustlers try any means to improve their lives. Ladies nearing retirement trying to sell us chocolate biscuits or chewing gums were particularly persistent in what seemed to us a sad, desperate endeavour. We pitied the desperation straining their eyes and wondered at this gruelling hustle so late in their lives.
But in truth our eagerness to make it to Suriname (Venezuela now seeming more remote and impossible to get to) stemmed from a sense of disappointment. Unlike the relaxation in Barbados, “respite” as we experienced it in Guyana felt somewhat tainted. In Barbados, as a tourist you embrace the quietness, the ease of the island – the tag of relaxation works. Of course, it’s difficult to call oneself a “tourist” in the country of your birth no matter how long you’ve been away. We would naturally see Guyana in different light, and be more critical of what we saw. It’s rather like comparing your house to someone else’s; especially if that someone is ruthlessly organised and tidy – and you’re not! You rush home and wish you had the ability to put yours in the same order. For you cannot understand why yours is always messy. So it took some time before we admitted it, but no time at all to observe that Guyana is “tainted” by racism, corruption and lack of vision by the government (and opposition) that would enable the country to have its own saleable tag. That lack of vision is insidious, affecting the entire society. Whilst there are different peoples in Guyana (six the tourist brochures and history books proudly promote) there is the sense that there are really only two. The bridge between African and Indian Guyanese is ever expanding. And it was disgusting to feel it in the air, competing with the blocked gutters and reflecting their foulness. The stench in Georgetown is symbolic of the corruption and racism that is pervasive in a country that could otherwise feed and inspire the Caribbean with its abundant resources, including that of its cultural diversity.
If culture is the essence or “spirit” of a place and the fullest expression of its people, their shared values, traditions/customs, respect for – actually pride in their country and themselves then it’s not clear how this is collectively embraced in Guyana. This is despite the various festivals like, Emancipation (1st August), Linden Town/Amerindian weeks, Mashramani and Phagwah. Rather racism seems to be an artificial cultural construct that replaces a sense of collective spirit and pride. This ultimately limits the capacity to be creative. When a country is being perpetually moulded in anti-human practices such as racism, (as well as violence and corruption), collective vision is naturally impaired. Spiritually, there is confusion – misalignment – as opposed to the precision (order) that comes when everyone shares the same cultural objective, the same aspiration for their country. In The Healing Wisdom of Africa, Malidoma Somé is more forthright: “it is an illness of the collective psyche when different cultures don’t understand one another. The history of humankind is plagued by this psychic disease that has caused much pain and disappointments in the world” (1998, 30). I’ve emphasised the words “illness” and “psychic disease” to highlight the deep psychosis of a racist society, how it fragments, stagnates and blights development, individually and collectively. This deep psychosis is a sign of the unconscious trance from which I sought to escape in the UK. After all, my first experience of racism was when I migrated to London in 1980. I was not blind to it in Guyana, just too young to recognise it. Racism is alienating, adding to a feeling of being in constant exile and spiritually unstable.
A kind of Apartheid: some examples
• At Lenora Market (on the West Bank not far from Den Amstel) about 90% of the stalls are run by East Indians. The village itself is dominated by East Indians, just as Buxton has been historically dominated by Africans; its neighbour, Annandale by East Indians. A friend and Buxtonian told us that he grew up in this kind of Apartheid system in Guyana (in the 50s/60s) which most people took for granted. During colonialism there were places (like in Mackenzie) restricted only to Europeans (British).
• In the local Banks, the majority of employees are East Indians. Head/ supervisory roles are held by East Indians. Where an African is put in charge or operating a till (or dealing with money) an East Indian is put beside them (overseeing the process) signalling that they (Africans) cannot be trusted with money.
• At the African Heritage Museum we were unable to support the pitiful “tourist shop” or make a donation to keep the museum going, because there was no cashier. We were told that if we wanted to make a donation that we should write a cheque which would be taken to the Ministry of Culture under which the museum falls to be processed. This is obviously absurd. Africans working at the Heritage Museum were careful with their words - at once condemning then hauling back their complaints - suspicious that we might be spies secretly working for the government. The depressed, sickening sadness in their eyes spoke of the kind of society they’re living in, and the fear they had of losing their jobs for speaking out.
• Security work and police force are dominated by Africans. African women are especially used as the front face for security, because we were told this was the most accessible opportunity for work.
• At Slashmins Resort – East Indians are “inside” in numbers – Africans in the main spill into their own “lime” on the “outside.” This is understood to be because those outside, including one and two East Indians and Amerindians do not want to pay to go in. But for us it spoke of a racial and class divide. The outside lime was pumping with music and had a different liveliness that attracted many more people. I believe there are now charges to take part in the lime, mainly to use the car park.
And so it went on, all around us. Whether we were consciously seeking it or not, we were soaked in this foul air of racism. We longed for it to reveal its deeper expression but sadly culture in this context was mostly hidden and seemingly superficial. I found myself deliberately supporting the few African stalls, or shops; getting into taxis when I could see the driver was African. In this context of racism, self-preservation became necessary and “race-first”, the Pan-Africanist mantra a practical reality. That more worthy principle of humanism lurked in the shadows of my tormented spirit. Reader, I hope you’re still with me because the signs I mentioned at the beginning of this Shout are still relevant. At this time in the journey they are bearing heavily on my spirit.