Home to Guyana
After 20 years away, Canadian author RAYWAT DEONANDAN returns to receive one of Guyana’s top literary prizes. Despite his reservations, he is surprised by what he learns, about his homeland, and himself
By Raywat Deonandan
March 14, 2001
This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail , Wednesday, March 14, 2001. A slightly expanded version was then published in India Currents Magazine in June of 2001 under the title, “Guyana.” The latter version is available here. The author retains copyrights to both versions.
GEORGETOWN, GUYANA — ‘Born in the land of the mighty Roraima / Land of great rivers and far stretching sea . . . ” are words sung in drunken glee by relatives of my parents’ generation. The song tells of the land of my birth, Guyana, a place called “back home” by my elders, but which to me has always been merely a source of relatives’ funny accents and the occasional bawdy provincial story — a place lost entirely in the immaturity of infantile memory, and remade incompletely through the borrowed memories of others.
But that all changes as I return to Guyana, unexpectedly and unprepared, 31 years after leaving as a baby. “Born in the land where men sought El Dorado / Land of the diamond and bright shining gold,” the song goes, boasting of the land’s natural wealth, and hinting at the plight of those who had sought that wealth. I return as a recipient of one of Guyana’s national arts awards, undeserving because I still have no connection to the ancestral land which now honours me. That changes as the assault of sights and scents, and the camaraderie of locals, conspire to force me to acknowledge that buried organic thread of belonging.
Despite the song’s promises, I see no gold or diamonds, nor do I find the time to explore the great rivers or far-stretching sea.
But I do taste the sweetness of Guyana’s fruit, remark on the comeliness of her women, the brightness of her tropical sun and the seeming timelessness of her stitch within the fabric of colonial history. This is a place beaten by its history, existing at the rare conflux of a dozen trading nations, yet striving to pull itself from the status of Third World indigent to modern Caribbean power broker.
Guyana (pron. guy-anna) is a frequently misplaced and mispronounced nation in the Canadian travel vocabulary. Formerly called British Guiana, it is nestled between Brazil, the Caribbean ocean, Venezuela and Suriname (formerly Dutch Guyana). A democracy, she remains the only officially English-speaking country in South America, and one of Canada’s most effusive sources of Caribbean emigration.
Guyana’s history parallels most Caribbean nations. At the time of Columbus, the region was inhabited by the Arawak and Carib aboriginal tribes whose legacy is the word guiana. When the aboriginal tribes were pushed back into the rain forest, African slaves were brought in to work the sugar plantations.
The transition to British rule in 1786 and the abolition of slavery in the British empire 21 years later led to indentured servants, mostly East Indian and some Chinese, being shipped in to work on a supposedly contractual basis. Trade, the rationale behind both slavery and indentured service, remains Guyana’s mantra.
With the dissolution of British rule in favour of a fractious parliamentary system, Guyana’s population consists mostly of two races: African and Indian. This racial duality occasionally sinks to riotous violence, and sometimes rises to philosophical elegance, as in the establishment of the multiracial socialist government of the late President Cheddi Jagan, Guyana’s most beloved fallen hero.
Institutes, organizations and even the airport bear Jagan’s name. He is often called the father of the modern Guyanese nation. His 80-year-old widow Janet, also a former president, remains an honoured national figure who hearkens to a bygone era of Gandhi/Mandela styled social protest and political sacrifice. Even their 1943 interracial marriage (he was Indian, she a Jew from Illinois) was a daring feat, a template for a coming age.
Despite the Jagans’ heroism, Guyana’s story in the 20th century is one of corruption and lost opportunity. As the song describes so proudly, it is a nation rich in mineral and biological wealth, devoid of the population pressures of other developing nations (there are fewer than a million permanent residents). Its rugged beauty inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel The Lost World.
As an English-speaking literate nation whose expatriate vim offers access to the resources of the West, Guyana should have been propelled into the role of Southern leader. Yet the nation has languished economically by virtue of recent dictatorial corruption and mismanagement. High inflation, elevated rates of maternal and child morbidity, increased street crime and official corruption, and residents’ poor access to infrastructure — the textbook signatures of Third World status — have been typical of Guyana up to and including the 1980s. Corruption is perhaps the most insidious problem. One young entrepreneur, the owner of a rice mill, was keeping his enterprise off-line until after the coming national election. When asked what difference it makes which party wins, he answers, “I need to know whether they prefer their bribe as a percentage or as a lump sum.”
This was the ominous data I had weighed while considering whether to undertake the visit to the land of my birth. My family and I emigrated from Guyana when I was two years old, returning once more for a summer visit 20 years ago. I had joined the great soup of immigrants in Toronto, multicoloured, multicultured and undeniably Canadian; I had no conscious desire to return to my motherland.
However, my book of short stories titled Sweet Like Saltwater, ostensibly about the Indo-Caribbean diaspora, surprisingly won the 2000 Guyana Prize for Best First Book. Just like that, I found myself returning to this lonely tropical waystation.
Arriving in the capital city, Georgetown, I am filled with trepidation. One guidebook describes the place as “the second most violent capital city in South America, after Bogota.” It further warns: “under no circumstances go out at night, and avoid doing so in the daytime, too.” Wariness of violent street crime was the mantra preached to me by friends and relatives in North America, none of whom had been to Georgetown in many years.
But the city is surprisingly pleasant. Nestled against the Atlantic shore, it considers itself a Caribbean metropolis, yet its official population of 200,000 would make it merely a large town by North American standards. It was once a colonial gem, still proudly bearing its traditional monicker of “the garden city,” though decades of infrastructure neglect have tarnished its floral vigour. Whitewashed wooden buildings with thatched muticoloured roofs still provide a fair amount of charm and elegance, and rebuilt roads encourage the recent inundation of American sports cars and utility vehicles. All about, the signs of an economic renaissance abound.
When wandering the streets, one is struck by a distinct odour that is ubiquitous across all tropical domains: the scent of damp fabrics, unseen fungal growths and hot, wet sea air. Not necessarily unpleasant, it is womb-like in its familiarity. The odour and the greenery seem complementary, and one is made less aware of the urban concrete, and more sensitive to the nearby ocean and strategically planted foliage.
The streets and highways are cluttered with autos, muscular and loud. The car is a symbol of machismo here, and owners have taken to emblazoning their vehicles with personalized names. My driver has named his for the Backstreet Boys, and gestures to the photo of the covergirl on his dashboard: “That’s the backstreet girl,” he jokes. Minibuses plow by.
Lynn Mangru, a local sitcom actress and my guide for the morning, tells me that the buses are privately owned with fares set by the government.
“People choose which bus to ride by the music the driver is playing,” she says. I decide that my favourite bus is one named “Sweetness” driven by a sloppy, big-bellied, very un-sweet man. On the bus’s back, the driver has written the explanation: “Your sweetness is my weakness.”
Crowds of people gather in every public locale in Georgetown. The roars of rancorous creole, English-based and similar to Jamaican patois but spiced with elements of French, Dutch, Senegalese, Hindi, Spanish and Portuguese, assault the ear in torrents of musical speech, sometimes joyous and sometimes angry. The creole of Guyana was the language of my youth, usually summoned from my subconscious only with the aid of alcohol or family prodding, embarrassing for its foreignness and inapplicability to Canadian life. Here it is refreshingly familiar, heard at last as a living language for an entire people.
Irony befalls me as I check into the Hotel Tower, supposedly one of Georgetown’s top hotels. Half a century ago, my father worked here as a waiter and had alerted the industry minister to the hotel’s unfair treatment of workers; the pro-labour socialist sentiment runs strong in Guyanese of his generation, those touched by the crusades of Cheddi and Janet Jagan. Today, after decades of decline, the Hotel Tower has remade itself into a gateway for adventure tourism, offering “romantic” rain-forest tours” to mostly foreign couples.
The city’s centre is dominated by the clocktower-crowned Stabroek market, a grand old Dutch structure whose contents today can be compared to rural flea markets in Canada. It is probably the oldest building in the country, and an enduring democratic structure in which everyone, rich or poor, shops.
Tourists are ill-advised to wander about the market unescorted, so I was pleased to find, manning some of the vending stalls, relatives whom I had never before met in person: an aunt, a great uncle and several cousins. The place had evolved since my family’s exodus, I was informed. No longer the refuge of impoverished rural farmers trying to hawk their goods, it is now a locus for high commerce. A vegetable stall like that owned by my aunt would be sold for the equivalent of tens of thousands of American dollars.
That night is the televised ceremony for conferring the Guyana Prizes for Literature; my reason for being in the country. David Dabydeen of England takes top honours for his novel A Harlot’s Progress: the trend of rewarding expatriates continues. While I nervously wait to make my acceptance speech for my Best First Book prize, an elderly woman strikes up an innocent conversation with me about her grandchildren in Canada. It takes a few minutes for me to recognize Janet Jagan, former president and figure of lore. It is surreal to be making disposable small talk with a woman whose name is spoken with quiet reverence in most Guyanese households, my parents’ included. I decide that this is indicative of the informality of the place.
It is therefore not surprising that the sitting president of the country, Bharrat Jagdeo, proves eminently approachable. His mind is understandably elsewhere as a national election — slated for March 19 — looms close. But his popularity almost assures a victory for his People’s Progressive Party, the political party founded by the Jagans. Government stability is an encouraging sign for sustained development and wealth production.
This may explain why, despite its rural poverty and tiny population, this is a nation with, astonishingly, 23 television stations.
“Anyone can put up a TV transmitter from their front porch,” says John Mair, a BBC producer who moonlights in Guyana as an election consultant for Jagdeo, and who also writes a popular political satire column for a national newspaper under the pen name of Bill Cotton. The television medium tends to be so unregulated and unprofessional, Mair says, that “if you watch the Berbice news, you can hear the dogs barking on the broadcaster’s front lawn!”
The chorus of that inescapable Guyanese folk song seems particularly poignant to me then — testament to a people’s penchant for adaptation and renewal: “Onward, upward, may we ever go / Day by day in strength and beauty grow / Till at length we each of us may show / What Guyana’s sons and daughters can be.”
When writing Sweet Like Saltwater, it had not been my intent to forge a reconnection with the land of my birth. Yet, by virtue of the travel opportunity wrought by the book, that is what happened. I cannot deny the comfort of finding an entire country of familiarity, a land whose rural and urban scents and ancestral tones resonate with frequencies long buried in my memories. I cannot help but make idle plans for an eventual return, to one day experience the primal forested Guyana beyond the city, to travel even further back in time.