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!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The point is not to change it, and other musings

My last post was basically a life summary, something I feel obliged to give. Trips, project progress, that kind of stuff. This one is different, introspective. Just a warning.

Peace Corps service has given me a lot of time to sit with myself, especially during holidays when I can't lose myself in schoolwork. Things aren't always sunny in sunny Guyana. In high school I had my busy routine to insulate me from loneliness; in college, with my awesome friends, there was no space to be lonely. Here in Guyana, there is nothing but space, time. I've battled with self-criticism and depression over the past few months, and it's been a tough fight, but I think I'm growing stronger for it.

Another thing: the title of this blog is a lie. The point is not to change it. Make change the prize and keep your eye on the prize, and you won't see anything else. Live to fix things, and everything will look broken. I did that for a while, and it was miserable. (Still do it, and often, but less than before.)

So what is the point? The point is to be here, to be as here as I can. And change is part of this, but so are good conversations, so is giving an honest hug, laughter, watching the sunset. I am here when I smile at the baby staring at the strange lady with white skin, forgive the men sipping me because they don't even realize it offends me, appreciate the teacher who showed up to substitute for my summer school class instead of berating the one who didn't.

Being here means that when I realize that I'm wrong about something, I stop focusing on covering my ass and instead look to see how this new information changes the way I'd been looking at a situation. It means turning off the problem-solving voice in my head for a minute or two to just listen. One cannot be a force for positive change without a commitment to deep understanding, and one cannot understand without being here.

I will never give up on wanting things to be better. The challenge is striking a balance between striving for progress and recognizing that the world, however flawed, is whole, not broken.

Yeah, that's the point. But all that would be way too long for a blog title, so we'll leave it as is.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Old news

(Wrote this post almost a month ago, before my trip home. Finally posting it!)

This happened last year, too...where did summer vacation go? It's the end of August, summer school's done, and in less than 24 hours I will be on American soil.

If you recall, my last post was pretty sunny, talking about all of the projects I had planned. A quick update: the girl's camp fell through but will hopefully be rescheduled. The art workshop was a roaring success, and my exercise buddy and I have been meeting sporadically. Summer school was...rough, but worth it. I've never taught kids that young before for any extended period of time. My students were wilder than I expected, and didn't learn their letters as quickly as I had hoped, but they did learn, and they had fun, and (most of the time!) I had fun, too. I'm definitely glad I did it.

My reading home visits have been going well, too...I've been able to conduct them more frequently with my easier schedule, and I found a new interested parent to work with. Part of me wishes I could keep with my half-day schedule during the school year so I could work more with parents! I love teaching, but the goal of Peace Corps is sustainable development, and when I see a parent help her child sound out a simple word (something that I've never seen a teacher do here), I know that's happening, even if it's in a small way.

As for finding a market for the ladies' baskets, some progress has been made, but we have a problem: no more internet in my village. (Long story.) We might get it back, but we might not...and I'm not sure how feasible it would be for the craft center ladies to communicate with a North American retailer without easy access to internet. At this point, I'm leaning towards ONWARDS!! and we'll cross the internet bridge when we come to it.

My visit to Barbados was AWESOME...snorkeled with sea turtles, ziplined, stuffed myself with delicious food, drank fancy cocktails, ran on the beach, got seasick on a fishing boat, and got to spend time with my family.

And then...Mom's visit to Guyana...slightly less awesome. Protests about increases in light bills in a town called Linden, about an hour from my village, turned violent when the police shot and killed three people. As a precaution, the US Embassy blocked the road my village is on for all American citizens. (My village wasn't actually affected at all—Linden is on the highway, we're in the bush!) Fortunately, I was allowed back home at the end of the week, but Mom didn't actually get to come to St. Cuthbert's, which was why she came to Guyana in the first place!

We did go on a day trip to Kaiture Falls, a gigantic and beautiful waterfall in the middle of the rainforest. You can walk right up to the edge—no guard rails or anything, just a sign saying to stay 8 feet from the edge which the guides don't even pretend to enforce. Pictures don't do it justice.

I have two more posts written, and they will post automatically on the next two Saturdays, so keep your eyes peeled!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Several volunteers who served before me told me that the first year is the hardest, and that work especially comes easier in the second year because you have more connections, you know your community better, and it's easier to find projects that will really work. Unbelievably, I'm already almost three months into my second year, and as far as I can tell there's some truth in that statement. My first year of Peace Corps service was rife with project ideas that went nowhere. They were good ideas in a vaccuum perhaps, but not in practice because I didn't have the necessary community support. Now, I'm in the midst of starting up a few projects that will hopefully see some success!

Peace Corps Guyana holds a girls' leadership camp called Camp GLOW every year, and last year my host mom's niece, Breonie, attended. She's a very intelligent, motivated and mature sixteen year old, and when I got the idea to hold a Camp GLOW in miniature in my village, I hoped that she could help me with the planning and execution. Well, I announced the camp at the secondary school today and Breonie, Wendy (my host mom) and I have had several planning sessions. If all goes well, up to 20 teenage girls from St. Cuthbert's Mission will be attending a two-day mini-camp the first weekend of August. I'm trying to get as many girls involved as possible and also recruiting a few more women from the village to act as counselors. It won't be anything too formal, but it should be fun, educational and motivational for the girls, and hopefully it's something that could continue next year even if I'm not in the picture. I'm psyched!

Another project—baskets. If we're facebook friends you may have heard about this one. The ladies in my village weave gorgeous baskets and other items out of natural straw, but they sell at low prices...$10 US for a medium-sized basket that could take a woman 2 days to make. ($10 is about the lowest a daily wage gets in Guyana—you know, unskilled labour, police, untrained teachers...) Anyway, I think that these women deserve a real wage for their work, considering that it is NOT unskilled labour and especially because there are very, very few job opportunities within the village. The idea is to aquire a market outside of the US, and I'm currently in the process of locating potential retailers and researching shipping options. I've got a few leads, but this project is barely off the ground. If any stores come to mind that you think might be interested in selling these baskets, please let me know! (Or place an order directly through me! I'm coming home in August and will definitely have room in my luggage for a few extra baskets.)

School's ending this week, and while I will miss my amazing Grade Four students to death, I have plans for remedial summer school for the incoming first graders! There's mandatory nursery school (no kindergarten) in Guyana, so the kids SHOULD know their letters and numbers coming into first grade, but many of them don't. The goal of my summer school, which will be 12 hours a week for five weeks, is to get these kids primed for grade one so they have the best possible chance for success once they start their primary school education.

I'm also doing home visits with interested parents and students to help them with phonics. Private lessons aren't really something that I feel comfortable committing myself to—that's not my role—but if a parent shows initiative and is willing to work with their student during the week, I make myself available to coach that parent in different phonics activities to use for practice. I have 2 parent/student pairs who I'm meeting with weekly, and another two who I visit occasionally. This is another “not too formal” thing—seems to be the best ways to make many projects work here is to not get too caught up in formalization. I like visiting with the families for the social aspect, and am seeing various degrees of progress with the different students—but progress all around for sure!

Running-related projects: the St. Cuthbert's “marathon” (which is actually 11.5 miles, go figure) was about two weeks ago, and I had a group of kids (mostly ages 11-15) who I was coaching for that. It was pretty awesome to have about a dozen “regulars” plus another 10 or so who came when they felt like it, so that on any given practiceday I'd have about 15 students running with me. There was a 3 mile race along with the marathon, and all of my runners were amazing! I was the most awed by the second-place female finisher (I was first place :-) ) who managed to finish the race only five minutes behind me...that's about 9 minute mile pace for almost 12 miles, in 90 degree equatorial heat in the direct sun...she was 11 years old. Girl's a beast. Keep an eye out on the Guyanese Olympic track team for that one. Since the marathon, running's taken a different turn: I have a friend, Lorena, a few years older than me who's run/walking with me at the ungodly hour of 5:30AM (her idea, not mine) to get in better shape. We're trying to get some other ladies involved, and if we can get the interest up high enough, we want to organize a Ladies' 3 Mile race sometimes in the fall, probably. Once again—a project I have an enthusiastic local to work with. Win!

Finally, I can't really take credit for this but a woman I met through a Peace Corps activity is coming to St. Cuthbert's to do an art workshop for a week, and I've been helping her with the logistics end of things. Not really my project but trying to help her get the word out and set up different aspects of it has been keeping me busy for the past week or so.

But busy is good! Typing all of this out makes me feel...I don't know...productive? Useful? Like I'm “making a difference”? At the very least, I feel like I'm doing a pretty good job of making the best of my time here.

I have LOTS of things to look forward to coming up soon: a trip to Barbados in 11 days (!!!), and then my mom comes to stay in my village for the week! After that is my girls' camp, and on August 22nd or thereabouts, I'll be coming home for my friend Ashley's wedding! I want to see as many people as I can, but I'm only home for 2 weeks so I can imagine how busy it will be, especially with wedding stuff going on. Then back to Guyana and it's September and I only have 7 months of Peace Corps service

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

In a nutshell

I have been in Guyana for one year, three months and three days.  I've been "adopted" by three different host families, spent innumerable hours laying in hammocks, and read something in the neighborhood of 45 books.  I've broken three computers and a phone, developed a love for Banks Beer, and filled a journal and a half with the overflowings of my brain.  I've befriended six Canadians, loved and lost six dogs, and learned to make a pretty damn good fried bake. I've eaten chicken feet, tecumah worm, gizzard, iguana, bush hog, and labba; I don't know how I will survive without pumpkin, roti, dhall puri, fig bananas and fresh pine. I've been within view of Surinam and Venezuela, become a better dancer, and grown a ridiculous amount of curly blonde hair.  I've gotten some crazy tan lines, made a pointer broom, and heard both hurtful and hilarious rumors and half-truths about myself.  I've come to enjoy washing clothes by hand, I've learned to wake up at 6:30 without an alarm, and I found a true friend in a housewife old enough to be my mother. I've discovered frogs, bats, lizards, a tarantula and a snake in my room.  (The snake was in my bed.) I've learned to play trump, been beaten at Bananagrams by people who didn't finish high school, and gone on barefoot runs down a sand road flanked by two dozen children.  I've cried a lot, but I've smiled more. I've taught children about planets and letter sounds and fractions and the continents, and I've taught adults about evolution and how to write a five-paragraph essay and that dinosaurs and humans did not, in fact, cohabitate the earth; but I've learned infinately more than that, about the importance of family, about how to relax and enjoy the present moment. I've learned that culture does, in fact, sculpt who we are, but that our cultural differences are not an end-all but rather a lens through which we can analyze who we are, what we can forgive, what we value and how open-minded we really are.

There are few products but many processes.  There have been many dead ends but other doors are still waiting to be opened, and I have 11 months to open them...I'm not done with you yet, Guyana!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mashin' it Up, and gender relationships in Guyana

Last Thursday was a much-needed holiday from school, Mashramani.  Mashramani is Guyana’s Republic Day, and the word means “celebration after hard work” in Arawak, which once was the native language of my village.  (Today, Arawak is only spoken fluently by old people.)  I had heard about Mash Day celebrations in Georgetown, stories of a parade, dancing and costumes.  I decided to go and see what all the fuss was about, if only for the “cultural experience.”

This story would be better told with pictures, but since I do not have a camera anymore, words will have to do.  I walked to meet the truck at 6:00 and was surprised to see that most of the 50 people waiting to go into town were secondary school students.  A day with a bunch of teenagers…this could prove interesting.  Our sleepy group piled into the back of Mackey’s giant army truck, and we began the two hour trip to town.

I had thought about trying to meet up with other Peace Corps volunteers in Georgetown, but when we arrived I decided to stay with mission people, so as to ensure I would catch my ride back to St. Cuthbert’s later that afternoon.  We were herded to the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs, and the feeling of being a sheep continued for a while...I followed people to a free breakfast, then realized that everyone else was joining the parade, so I would be, too.  We trailed upstairs to a room where we were given hideous, ill-fitting costumes that merged traditional Amerindian wear with Mardi Gras style, and I doled out the “sun cream” I had brought to even the darkest-skinned among the mission girls.  Even by 8:30, the sun was brutal, and we would be seeing much more of it later that day.

After another half an hour of scrambling around to get faces painted and towering headdresses stabilized, we were called to line up behind our float—the parade was about to begin.  Our group, representing the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs, included well over 100 people, only some of whom were actually Amerindian.  We were yelled at to stay in our lines and checked to ensure that our costumes were identical as our float and all of those behind it slowly started inching forward, music blaring.  Last year, the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs was the winning float, and I think they wanted us to make a good showing again, though I had trouble seeing how costumes as repulsive as ours could win anything.

At first, most of us were walking, though a few women were eager to dance and began “wining” as soon as we started moving.  Wining is the seductive way in which Guyanese people dance, and it’s impossible to explain. The ability to wine seems to be bred into Guyanese people, since I’ve encountered many four-year-olds who are better at it than I am, and I’ve been told I’m passable.  Wining is in the hips, but then, it’s in the legs and the waist too, and it can be done alone or with a partner.  That’s “wining up on” someone, and it’s basically grinding. Wining up on a guy can escalate into daggering, which is basically sex with clothes on.

When the parade really got going, and walking through the streets turned to dancing through the streets, something I had half-expected started happening: the males amonth the group began moving throughout the lines, squeezing into spots behind a girl they wanted to dance behind…first just the brave ones, but eventually every guy was dancing with (behind) a girl.  Call me prude or culturally insensitive, but I didn’t really want to be rubbing my butt into the crotch of some guy I barely knew while parading around the streets of Georgetown.  I set my boundaries, and they were challenged a few times, but fortunately the generous girl/guy ratio worked to my advantage and the sanctity of my personal space bubble was preserved as we danced through the streets of Georgetown

For hours.  Man, by the end my legs were tired.  I enjoyed people-watching from the inside, waving at people who grinned and pointed when they saw the white girl in the parade.  I got quite a few pictures taken of me, some guy yelled “White Amerindian!” in my face, and I even got interviewed.  (The next day some of my students said they saw me on the news.  All innocuous stuff, What do you think about the parade, that sort of thing.)  We reached a stadium at the end and circled in front of the judges as an announcer described the symbolism and significance in our costumes and floats.  A shame, I thought, that this was the first time almost all of us were hearing about what our costumes meant;  a shame, too, that in the group performing a choreographed dance in front of our float, there was not one Amerindian. 

When we got back to the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs, we were exhausted.  More free food, a bit of rest and gaffing, and then the party really started—free beer and liquor, more music, and we could dance without the constraint of lines.  Whatever reputation I had gained as a man-fearing white girl lessened, at least, because I’m much more open to dancing face-to-face with a guy than to “wining up” on one.  And, with a bit of drink and a lot of coaxing, I even opened up to that.  It took some time, but I had a turning point where I recognized that cultural differences of what’s lewd and what’s not do exist.  In Guyana people don’t swim in bathing suits—they swim in their clothes.  Bikinis are becoming more popular, especially among young people, but for the most part they aren’t socially acceptable, and they paint the wearer as lewd.  In Guyana, many people (granted, not everyone) will “wine up” on cousins, coworkers, anyone, and there’s not necessarily an assumption that it is anything more than dancing and having a good time.

I am reminded of a trip to a bar with my good friend Michelle a few months before I left the States. (Shout out to Michelle, if you’re reading!) Michelle and her family are Haitian, devout Christians—and they love to dance.  At one point, she and her brother were dancing in a way that was getting some sideways glances from others in this bar full of mostly white people.  I couldn’t resist but whisper to the guy I was dancing with, “That’s her brother!” I remember laughing as his eyes went wide.  No one would dance like that with their brother…no white person, at least.

I guess the moral of this story is, dancing is just that, dancing, unless someone wants it to mean more.  And I still have to be on my guard, since as the white girl I’m a hot commodity here.  (I watched as 4 different guys I danced with received thumbs ups or high fives from others dancing nearby.)  Obviously I don’t want to be taken advantage of.  Since I came to Guyana, upon the advice of Peace Corps I’ve been extremely cautious among guys, so much so that I’ve apparently earned the nickname “Little Miss Hard to Get” and have been accused of being sexist (neither of these to my face).  It’s hard not to snub men here when they often treat me in ways that I see as disrespectful, or ways that make me feel uncomfortable, like “sipping” (Guyanese version of a wolfwhistle, more or less), catcalling or commenting on my physical appearance in public.  I even had a guy I’d never met before tell me he loved me once (he was quite drunk).  I’ve come to realize, though, that it is the Guyanese way to be blunt about physical appearances, whether that means telling someone they got fat if it looks like they gained a few pounds, or making it known if you like the way a member of the opposite sex looks. 

I do not intend to lower my standards or respond positively to people who make me feel uncomfortable.  I am not entirely opposed to dating a Guyanese guy, but I would never date one who sipped at me, for reasons obvious to an American reader.  I am, however, trying to avoid automatically labeling a guy who sips at me as an asshole and a creep, and instead trying to view them as someone who was shaped by a different environment than I’m used to.  I’m also trying to appreciate the men I encounter who do treat me with respect, because it takes strength of character to adopt that sort of philosophy despite those around them doing otherwise.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Puppies and School

I came back to Guyana to bad news.  Like I mentioned in my last blog post, I was immensely looking forward to seeing my grandpuppies when I got back.  It was a little off-putting to see one of them sitting on the steps as my taxi pulled up to the house, because she was pretty scrawny looking.  No matter,  I thought, and greeted Wendy, my host mom, who had come to the car to give me a hug.  I couldn’t help but ask if they were all alive, and I got a worse answer than I could have imagined—“All but the mother.”
My Lady girl, born right around when I got to Guyana, my sole companion for my first tearful weeks as a volunteer, my running buddy, given up and reclaimed again because she just couldn’t stay away, was hit by a car on Christmas Eve.  She died a few hours later.  Her motherless puppies didn’t fare well after her death—they may have all been alive when I first returned, but the three scrawny ones all got sick and died within the week.  The final two, the handsome Lazarus and Harry, both have new homes and loving 10-year-old students for their new mothers.  For the first time in many months, I never return home to a wagging tail and never hear barking in my backyard at night.  Maybe one day I’ll have a dog again, but not in St. Cuthbert’s Mission.  Keeping a dog healthy and safe in the bush is not an easy task, and I have enough responsibility as it is as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Speaking of which, onto happier things: teaching!  Our school was extremely short-staffed at the beginning of the term, so I was assigned my own class full-time, the fourth graders.  I love ‘em.  They’re well-behaved, bright, and best of all, so enthusiastic about learning and eager to work.  Aside from the fact that I have to cater to reading levels that range between first-grade level and sixth-grade level, they’re easier to handle than any class I’ve ever worked with in the U.S.  They are constantly brightening my day by trying their best, doing extra work that I don’t tell them to do, working together in the groups I’ve placed them in even though groupwork is a foreign concept to them, and laughing at my dumb jokes.  During a writing exercise I told them to write for a minute about teachers and one girl wrote “I like Miss Kelly and she like me too.”  And, on Friday, we talked about what we had done during the week and two kids independently told me, “Miss, you teach we good!” (Heh…maybe not so much with the grammar…)
Despite that, teaching was rough for my first week or so, because of the aformenetioned staffing problems.  There were several days when our school only had 3 teachers for about 180 kids (and I was one of the three).  Behavioral issues are bound to pop up when the teacher-student ratio is that bad, and pop up they did…but life at St. Cuthbert’s Primary has gotten easier.  Our headmistress, Ms. Bev, deferred her leave because we’re short teachers, so she’s back.  She also talked to a woman who applied to teach a good six months ago whose paperwork still has not been processed by the ministry, and she agreed to start teaching even though she probably won’t get paid for a while.  And finally, a set of volunteers from Canada, four of them, will be living in the mission for the next ten weeks!  They just arrived a few days ago, so I haven’t gotten to know them too well yet, but they’re planning on helping out in the school.  Looks like 2012 is going to be a good year for St. Cuthbert’s Primary School.