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.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting read. Guyana is very insular country as you would have seen. Guyanese men are like men you would find in the USA, UK, Canada and any other country on earth. Some of them are chancers but unlike men in the west there is nuance and sublety about how some of them interface with women. I am a Guyanese who has lived in the UK for some time.