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!