Thursday, April 4, 2013

An Epilogue, of sorts

This will be my last post on this blog.  For those who don't know, I'm flying home on April 11 and returning to live with my family on Long Island for a few short weeks before grad school begins.  I'm enrolled in a Literacy Specialist master's program at Fordham University, and I'll be living in Brooklyn, so if you're in New York get in touch!

Admittedly, I haven't updated this blog that often, but I've realized that blogging is something I enjoy doing, and something that will be much easier to keep up in the, just to try it out, I'm going to continue blogging at   It'll still be a little bit of “look at these unique things I'm doing,” but a lot more of “this is what I think about stuff.”' If you've enjoyed reading my Peace Corps blog over the past two years, check it out!

Counting the Days

(Written March 9, 2013)

It's twenty minutes after ten at night, and the mission is silent save for the chirping of frogs and insects, the occasional barking dog.   The village generator has just cut off.  It's located scant yards from our house, and its loud, mechanical sound becomes white noise soon after it begins running at dusk.  Because of the noise, you watch TV a little louder than you would otherwise, but you're not really aware of it until it's gone.

Actually, that's wrong.  There are some drunk men walking by my house, so it's not silent anymore.  But they're not particularly rambunctious ones this time. I recognize the voice of a young man they call Dummy, who is deaf and almost mute.  He communicates primarily through an invented sign language that his friends seem to understand with little trouble.  I'm always impressed at how socially at ease he is despite his disability, and, despite his politically incorrect call name, how accepting the community is of him.

I climb into bed with my flashlight and tuck in my mosquito net, something I've done hundreds of times over the past few years.  It's something I'll only do a few dozen more before I leave Guyana. 

No more generator, no more mosquito nets, no more sitting in the dark after the current cuts out.  No more running with bare feet down a sandy road.  No more greeting everyone I pass with a “Good morning,” “Good afternoon,” or “Good night.”  No more phlourie, roti or cook-up rice.  No more outhouses, no more bucket baths. No more walks thorough the scheme with students shouting a chorus of “Miss Kelly!” “Miss Kelly!” out of the windows of brightly coloured houses.  (Oh, that reminds me, no more British spellings, either.)

I may be going home to warm running water and pizza, to a place where people respect my privacy, to schools with enough desks and books and teachers for all of their students, to the land of microwaves and electricity 24/7 and flushing toilets, and my family, and my friends...but more present in my mind at the moment are the people and things I'll leave behind.  I've built a life here.  Two years is an awfully long time to spend in one place, especially a place with people as warm and accepting as Guyana.  When people here ask me if I'll miss mission, I tell them of course I will—it's become my second home.  This has become a line for me, but it's true all the same.

My two years in Guyana have been the most emotionally tumultuous of my life, without a doubt.  I can't honestly say whether there's been more tears or laughter, but I can say there's been a lot of both.  And, fortunately, as the end draws near, I find it easier to appreciate the little joys of life in Guyana.  I find it easier to let things go, to forgive people for not living up to my expectations, to forgive myself for not living up to my expectations and to try just living, instead. 

So I will relish in Sharlene's infectious laughter, in the smile of baby Arielle, whose mother wasn't even pregnant yet when I came here but is now growing teeth, as she grips my finger with her tiny hand. I will be grateful that I can share my love of running with the myriad teenagers that join me now and again.   I will admire Benji's determination and Lorena's fierce dedication to her kids and her future. I will relax into the easy comfort of gaffing and laughing with Shabana. I will marvel at Wendy's gifts of empathy, and at my unbelievable luck for choosing her house to live in back when I barely even knew her.   I will visit those people in my community whose company makes my days brighter, and I will cherish the fact that I've been fortunate enough to live in a place where it's difficult to stay lonely—just go for a walk and see who says hello.

For this last week of school, I will not stress and I will not raise my voice.  I will read stories, sing songs, give and receive hugs, and do as much as I can to show these kids that I think they're awesome. I will give the teachers of St. Cuthbert's Primary School the credit they deserve for working pretty damn hard for those awesome kids, all things considered, because the system doesn't make that easy. 

I will swim in the blackwater as often as I can.  I will go for walks and breathe in the beauty of this still largely unspoiled place.   I will accept everything that is offered to me gracefully and gratefully.  And yes, I will count the days left until I fly back to New York, but not out of simple anticipation.   I will do this to remind myself to soak up the last sweet drops of this experience while I still can.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Christmas Holiday, Part II

After Christmas I travelled to Wakapao, a remote community made up of many small islands where a fellow Peace Corps volunteer works. Wakapao is arguably the most beautiful place I've visited in Guyana. After three bus rides and two boat rides, I reached Charity, a medium-sized town at the mouth of the Pomeroon river. A speedboat took me down the Pomeroon, which was uneventful until we turned abruptly at a small tributary. Zooming down a ten-foot-wide jungle creek overhung with branches was exhilarating, but nothing could have prepared me for the spacious beauty of Wakapao. Wide open grassland flooded with water lay ahead as far as I could see, but occasionally to our left and right we would see a small landing or the glimpse of a house, the only real clear that the area is inhabited.

Transportation in Wakapao is by water, whether in a motorboat or by paddling. My friend Leslie even has to paddle to and from her job at the health center! It seems as though everyone in Wakapao has a boat, and children begin learning to paddle dugout canoes as toddlers. Paddling is not as easy as you might think—these wooden canoes are not balanced, so most of your effort goes into keeping them straight, at least when you're learning! (I say this from experience—I was fortunate enough to get a paddling lesson from a friend of Leslie's. It's fun but hard to do!)

My stay in Wakapao was a fairly chill one. We had a pizza night with some other volunteers who were spending the holidays, walked through a swamp on precariously balanced planks of wood to get to a wedding, drank homemade ginger wine, played board games, and met a baby monkey.

Leslie has a really cool project starting up this month: her village has teamed up with Engineers beyond Borders to build two roads through the swamps that connect some of the major islands in Wakapao. Though the village's riveren location makes it beautiful and its transportation requirements are novel, it is in all honesty a huge pain in the ass to have to traipse through a swamp just to visit a neighbor, or to have to pay for gas for your motorboat so your kids can get to school. The roads will make travel in Wakapao much easier, and it's a project the village has been discussed for years. Kudos to Leslie for making it happen!

I was sad to leave Wakapao but had promised friends in my village that I'd come back for Old Year's Night, so I took the long and complicated trip back through Georgetown to St. Cuthbert's Mission on July 31st. Yes, you heard me right, Old Year's—it makes sense, doesn't it? You have to celebrate the last night of the old year before you can celebrate the first night of the New Year! I got all dolled up to go out in the mission, thanks to my coworkers—dress from the grade two teacher, shoes from the grade three teacher, makeup courtesy of the grade four teacher. Thanks ladies! At first I thought I got dressed up for nothing, because the village-council-sponsored party (held in the primary school) was pretty dead, even at 11:55...they were playing Christmas music. I was ashamed. But apparently the party doesn't start here until after midnight on Old Years, and once it got started it was a lot of fun! I stayed out dancing till 5am, which was a first for me, and thoroughly enjoyed spending the night with the people I'm closest with in the mission.

There was one more noteworthy event that occurred during my Christmas holiday. The “Biggest Loser” program that I started back in November concluded on January 31st.. I didn't run any sort of exercise class, just encouraged ladies to sign up and casually discussed healthy ways to lose weight. They paid a small fee to register and the three biggest losers won prize money. Of 11 registrants, 8 lost weight, with the top four losing over 5 lbs each in 6 weeks! Perhaps best of all, when I asked them if they wanted to run the program again, I heard enthusiastic yes's all around. They seemed to really like the cooperative/competitive atmosphere that this program brought to the daily struggle of trying to live a healthy lifestyle. Next weigh-in is in 2 weeks, and I'm wondering who will be the biggest loser this time around!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Christmas Holiday, Part I

In the Guyanese school system, the Christmas holiday is long...three weeks long, to be precise, and it was an eventful three weeks!

The holiday season was kicked off by the “school party,” which is a tradition in the schools here. Kids pay upwards of $7 U.S. each to come to school dressed up in fancy clothes, stuff themselves with food and get some sort of toy as a gift. (To put that in perspective, that's about a full day's pay for a teacher here. I was surprised that almost all of my class paid!) The teachers and students work together to decorate the classrooms and the chalkboard dividers are removed so the school functions as one big hall. The morning of the school party was a whirlwind spent gathering together the various dishes made by parents and making homemade pizza for my whole class. The party itself felt like it was over as soon as it began—none of the kids liked the pizza (thought the teachers did!) and my attempt at Pin the Nose on Rudolph was largely ignored as the kids clamored for their gifts, but I was pulled aside by several parents who wanted to photograph me with their children in front of the Christmas tree! Most importantly the kids seemed to have a good time, even though almost all of them ran away before the dance party started. (That was fun to watch, too, especially the grade 6 students who you could tell wanted to dance but stood around awkwardly for ages before they actually did. Brought back fond memories of middle school dances. Well, maybe less than fond.)

The very next day was a Christmas concert, and by concert I mean talent show. I rehearsed my third graders to sing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and 15 of them turned up to have their noses painted red and wear antlers that I spent far too many hours assembling. But it was worth it because they were adorable—wish I had a video but at least I was able to get a picture from a random guy in the audience. I don't think the audience appreciated them as much as I did, though—they preferred the second grade girl who danced “Bruk it Down” solo on stage. Maybe it's just me, but I think singing cute songs in costume is a more appropriate talent show activity for 7 year olds than humping the air on stage? Call it a cultural difference, I suppose.

After a few lazy days in St. Cuthbert's and a night of karaoke in a village near mine, I was off on my first trip, to Wakenam, a small island on the Essequibo River. It's less than two hours away from the capital, and one of my teacher friends is from there, so I decided to visit her for the holidays. Highlights from the trip: eating 3 Guyanese fruits I've never had before (coco, papoose and tamarind—Wakenam has tons of fruit trees!), eating custard made from fresh cows milk (the first time I've had fresh milk in Guyana—the norm here is powdered), meeting lots of Shabana's neighbors and her husband, and getting stung by a hairy worm while climbing a tree over the river (ok, maybe not a highlight but still noteworthy!) My stay in Wakenam was short, only a weekend, and I hope to go back before I leave Guyana!

I came back to St. Cuthbert's for Christmas, which was a pretty laid-back day. Guyanese clean their houses top to bottom for Christmas and some decorate with “fairy lights” or garlands, but overall Christmas is not nearly as huge in Guyana as it is in the U.S. Mainly it's about family and eating—fruitcake and pepperpot (a kind of stew) are the most common Christmas foods, and I got to sample lots of those two foods because I spent most of my day visiting neighbors who I'm close with. I tried to share my own traditional Christmas treat—cookies—but making them without an oven was...tricky. I also attended a wedding on Christmas day, believe it or not!

(to be continued...)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Now THIS is some freaky stuff.

There are many names for it: catching jumbie, antebanta, catching spirit...or, for the pseudo-intellectual who doesn't want to sound backwards, there are euphemisms like “sickness” or “the problem.” In American terms, teenagers at the high school in my village are believed to be possessed.

One girl jumped off a second-story balcony. (She was uninjured.) Others have tried to rip their clothes off, have said strange things, wriggled around on the floor like a snake, claimed to see or feel things that aren't there, or have become physically violent. Most withdraw, some into a completely nonresponsive state. Some cry or feel physically sick.

Bullshit, right? A Westerner might say that these students are simply faking it for attention. One case and it could be epilepsy, but with dozens of students affected, it must just be a ploy to get out of class.

Honestly, I don't know what to believe. The first girl to be affected, months ago, was a student I knew well, and I assumed that it was a psychological issue, perhaps the result of some trauma that no one knows about. When so many students were affected, part of me scoffed at the idea of a spirit controlling what a child does. I didn't take it very seriously. But then I was at the school when a student “got sick,” and I watched him as he laid down and gradually stopped responding to anything, finally arriving at a state where not even his eyes were moving. If he was acting, he needs to be nominated for an Academy Award, because it sure looked real to me.

I encountered it firsthand again today. The new thing now is “little people”...several children have claimed to see people a foot or two tall around the village. THAT I couldn't help but laugh at. Then today, two boys “saw a little man come out of the blackboard” (mind you, another teacher interrupted my class to bring this to my attention, because she didn't know what to do). Subsequently, the boys started acting strangely. They were sent home but came back after lunch, and one boy, about 11 years old, “relapsed.” The teacher came to me, exasperated and probably a little scared. She was supervising two classrooms, the boys' class teacher was absent, and she just didn't know what to do about it. I figured I couldn't just leave the kid freaking out, so I left my class and walked over to find him standing in the sand with tears running down his face while the rest of the class watched on. Uhhh. Peace Corps training didn't cover this.

So I shooed his classmates away, and, agnostic that I am, instructed the kid to bless himself and say the Our Father. I didn't really know what else to do. That's how the Ministry of Education handles it—they send in people to pray for the kids. (One woman suggested wiping the whole school down with garlic water. I'm not sure if that plan was actually executed.)

My proximity to this situation isn't making me believe in the supernatural. I wouldn't bet my life on the non-existence of spirits, but I think it's about a million times more likely that there's a scientific explanation for this phenomenon that we just don't understand. There's apparently something known as “teenage hysteria” that this completely fits into...unfortunately, psychologists aren't too sure about what exactly causes it. (Google for more information. It's pretty weird.)

Anyway, the one thing I am fairly certain about when it comes to kids catching jumbie is that it's all in their heads. So, to fix it, you need to work within their patterns of thought. If the kid believes he's possessed by a demon, make him pray. It worked, sort of—I couldn't get him to walk or talk before we prayed, but he whispered the prayer along with me and afterward I was able to walk him over to the side to sit down. Fifteen minutes later he was playing with his friends again. Kelly Cahill, Peace Corps Volunteer and Exorcist? I need to start carrying around a Bible and a vial of holy water.

It takes a lot of mental effort to not scream “I DON'T KNOW WHAT'S GOING ON AND IT'S WEIRD BUT IT'S NOT SPIRITS!” when people are talking about antebanta. I try my best to be culturally sensitive and only when asked do I share my opinion that it's baffling but, I'm certain, psychological. This afternoon the side of science/reason/logic got some points when the first set of boys who saw the little men (they weren't psychologically affected) were interrogated and admitted that they made the whole thing up. Almost makes me admire the 13-year-olds who managed to freak out a whole village full of adults. Hey, there's not much to do in the mission, they gotta get their laughs somehow...

Friday, October 12, 2012

Amerindians, speaking up!

As you probably know if you're reading this, I live in an Amerindian village in Guyana. Amerindians comprise something like 12% of Guyana's population and live mostly in the interior of the country. They are Guyana's indigenous people.

In the past 50 years modern development has significantly impacted the lives of Amerindians in villages like mine, those with relatively easy access to the more developed coastal areas. Here, houses are made of wood, cement, and zinc, no more roofs made of leaves. A few villagers follow the laborious process to make cassava bread and sell it around the community, but it's not a staple food for most families anymore. Arawak, the native language, is spoken fluently by only a few old people, although fly and bombali, the traditional alcoholic drinks, are still going relatively strong. The extent to which traditional ways of life have disappeared in Amerindian villages varies widely from community to community, and there are surely remote villages relatively untouched by modern development. There are Peace Corps volunteers in places like that, and their experiences in Guyana are vastly different from mine. But in St. Cuthbert's Mission , the idea of living in a “developing country” seems very literal, because I can see it all around me—this place is DEVELOPING, and often that means out with the old and in with the new.

The idea of a traditional culture fading away in the short span of a few generations has an unpleasant sound to it, though it's difficult to put your finger on exactly why. Culture should be preserved because...well, because it's in these people's history, it's part of their heritage, it's something to be proud of, and it's a travesty to see that slip away, isn't it? But if it's not useful anymore, is there really any reason to hold onto it, other than romanticism? The Arawak language may very well be dead in a few more generations, and a language dying sounds like such a bleak event, akin to a species becoming extinct. But if the people in question can still communicate, what's the loss, really?

Anyway, this is all a preface to a specific story I wanted to share...though I'm not there yet. More preface: Guyanese (Amerindian or otherwise) are not known for their political correctness, and for every ethnic group there exists a racial slur or three, often used in everyday conversation. Amerindians are buck people—buck man, buck girl, whatever—and supposedly the term came about because when Europeans first came to Guyana, Amerindians turned and ran like deer. Not the most inappropriate racial slur ever, and many Amerindians use it among themselves positively (as a volunteer, you know you're successfully integrated when an Amerindian calls you buck), but you can see how it could be used negatively, too.

***EDIT:  I had some wrong information!  A commenter informed me that "buck" actually comes from the Dutch word "bok," which means goat. It was a name given to Amerindians for their surefootedness and ability to live on any food and survive.  My apologies! ***
I bring up the term “buck” because, no matter how much the physical dressings of culture change, there are nuances that are more ingrained in the way people deal with the world around them. Associated with racial slurs are stereotypes, like buck people ignorant, buck people stupid, buck people timid. It's that last one I want to touch upon. Imagine the stereotypical Native American—reserved and stoic, doesn't talk much...there's some truth in that in what I see here, especially in people who haven't left the village much. Often you can tell who's lived out of the village for a few years and who hasn't by their demeanor. Once you crack the shell and start to get to know people, Amerindians are can be just as lively as anyone else, but in the public sphere there's a marked difference. For instance, at meetings, the vast majority of attendees come to sit and listen and nod. After the meeting is over, they'll talk and talk to someone they're close to, but at meetings they're like the kids in my class...they assume the role of passive audience, like the kids in my class often assume that their job is simply to copy whatever I write on the board into their exercise books.

The rabble rousers exist, though—and finally I arrive at my point! My school was redone over the summer. We were promised new paint, new floors, and overall a nicer-looking school. Sadly, the contractors, who were hired by our region's Ministry of Education office and came from outside of my village, did an astoundingly crappy job. Forget the messy paint and the doors that won't close cleanly (which means the school is now impossible to lock)--the cement cap on the floor was mixed wrong, and the whole floor is covered in a layer of cement dust that gets all over the kids' clothes and is probably quite unhealthy to be inhaling all day. It can't simply be swept away—new dust comes out of the floor as soon as you sweep.

The teachers complained to each other for a few weeks, and our HM complained to the regional office, whose response was “send a picture.” A picture...of dust? That wasn't going to get us anywhere, and at the rate that region gets stuff done, we were looking at a new floor in a year, maybe, if we went that route. So, as a staff, we decided to take a more drastic step. We sent home the kids one day, called in the parents and had a meeting to discuss the situation. The parents were pretty unhappy with how the school looked and it was discussed whether the parents should keep their kids home to avoid the health hazard and to make a point to region—as in, “You need to fix the school, now, because we can't go on like this.” Fortunately, all that was needed was a phone call to the ministry from an angry parent who threatened to “take the matter further” if something wasn't done immediately (i.e. contact the media)...and guess what? The contractor and someone from Region came in the very next day, with a promise to recap the floor, now! True, this means that for the next three weeks we have to deal with the inconvenience of holding classes in random buildings around the community. But the bigger point is this: outlying Amerindian communities often get screwed over, because they're out of the way and easy to ignore and the outside parties doing the screwing over assume that no Amerindian is going to complain to the higher authorities. But my village proved them wrong when they demanded a school that's not a health hazard—and they got it!

This isn't just an isolated incident. The village election that happened a few months ago was a close race, and the ballot counting happened publicly, which allowed community members to count ballots along with the officials. The official result was not in line with the number that the people were getting, and they caused a huge ruckus and demanded a recount, got it—and sure enough, turned out the people were right and the officials were wrong. There was even a small protest staged in the community concerning that election. Buck people timid, you sure about that?

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I'm not supposed to get involved in stuff like this, and despite my history with politics and my affinity for sticking it to the man, I try my best to comply. All I can do is sit on the sidelines and encourage people to stand up for themselves and what their village deserves, and share in the joy that they feel when they realize that a positive change is happening because, buck or not, they stood up together and demanded justice.   

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Ready, set, school!

After two whirlwind weeks home, including a drag show bachelorette party and Ashley's beautiful, fun and in every other way awesome wedding...I'm back in Guyana! Wonder of wonders, our school is actually OVERSTAFFED this year (can't they ever get their numbers right??) which works out OK because one teacher is on maternity leave. So from now till Christmas, I'm teaching grade 3. 32 8-year-olds sounds crazy, but they're a good class to work with, excited to learn and well-behaved, and I'm enjoying teaching them so far.
My village's Amerindian Heritage celebration is coming up soon, which means hundreds of people will visit, get drunk on fly and bombali (potato and cassava wine) and party till the sun comes up. Last year lots of Peace Corps volunteers came in, and some are coming this year, too...should be a good time.

After that, it's Sports Day, which is a cross between an elementary school track meet and a field day. We spend the last hour of school in practice, holding tryouts and marching in formation, three days a week for a month. I suppose it compensates for the fact that otherwise, we have no phys ed...? Kids throughout the school who are not on my team are already trash talking me when they pass me in school.
What else, what else...I'm starting up after-school lessons at the secondary school for kids who are really poor readers (i.e. second grade reading level or below) and the HM is going to work with me on it...she's really interested in learning about phonics, apparently. Win! I've been doing diagnostics this week, so the lessons should start next week. When I talk to the kids one-on-one, they seem pretty interested in improving their reading, which was a surprise but maybe shouldn't have been. I can't imagine how hard it must be for them to go through even just a day of high school with the reading skills of a first grader. I'm a bit nervous that the “cool” teenage mindset is going to take over when I have them in a group, and they'll just goof off and won't take it seriously. I'll make it as engaging and non-babyish as I can, and having the HM on my side should be a help, too.
Having no internet in my village...kinda sucks. I miss talking to people from home. I mean, I'm surviving, and I can handle it much better now than I would've been able to in the beginning, but it's still annoying. It's completely derailed this craft selling project, and also makes applying to grad school difficult. Fortunately I live close to the capital, and I can use the internet on my monthly trip in.
Six months left. Nuts. Now, dear reader, you're just about up-to-date on my life, although this post WAS written on September 20th. Stay tuned for more!