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Thursday, January 9, 2014

CUSO days in South America

The Rupununi Rebellion in Guyana SA is ancient history now and what happened has long since been recorded and analysed. This account by a Canadian CUSO volunteer may well be but a sidebar to that history, What it is though, is an account of two very young people who arrived, ran a hostel for a few busy months, fell in love with the land and its peoples and then were removed in the aftermath of the failed revolution. A sort of 'we were there
 ( briefly)' story.


Canoeing down the Amazon

Guiding the canoe through the snags


Moonlight sparkles on the Amazon River, the high banks and overhanging trees are inky black and the current sighs and ruffles the smooth surface. All is silent in the perfumed air as our long dugout canoe drifts sideways downstream very close to the high river bank. Lovely, yes, but oh so dangerous!

Two days earlier we had arrived in Iquitos by plane from the coast of Peru only to find that the only flight further down river to make connections with Manaus had just left. That was it for a week, and we needed to begin teaching in Guyana and my wife Heather’s mother, Ruth, travelling with us on a holiday trip around South America, had a ticket for her flight home to Canada. We found an English speaking person who arranged for this long canoe ride down river to Leticia where we could catch a flight on to Manaus. Two Amerindian men, a canoe with a big Swedish outboard engine perched on the stern and a banana leaf covered shelter amidships were to get us there in time. We paid some money to our fixer and negotiated how much to pay at the end of the trip. We roared down river all day, stopped for lunch at an Amerindian house for smoked Peccary and carried on.




Occasionally the engine stopped for a while, but eventually started again. Ruth also desperately needed 'rest stops' as she had picked up an intestinal bug. 'Es necessario', I would beg as our crew showed great reluctance to stop their outboard engine yet again.

Into the night we rushed and then the engine stopped; on purpose this time. SHHH, our crew said and pushed us gently down under the shelter. We drifted silently through a riverside town; barking dogs, but no calls to HALT, no flying bullets, as we slipped past the military check point. Again we rushed down river, and then another break down. Another day passed, pretty much a repetition of the first. Another night!

The crew came forward to ask me about the MONEY. The river was dark, wide and lonely, we were very vulnerable here. My Spanish was of the sort that comes from failing it miserably in University, but I was able to explain that yes they would be paid at Leticia, and that we were CUSO volunteers who would be teaching at a school for 'los Indios' in Guyana, far to the north. Phew, back to working on the engine.

This latest breakdown however has us drifting towards a newly slumped section of the river bank, leaving branches and tree tops sticking up out of the swiftly flowing water. The crew, heads down over the engine on the stern, seem oblivious to the danger so I pick up a paddle in the bow, take a few strokes to turn us stern foremost and begin to weave us through the labyrinth of snags. The men glance back, nod and resume work. Paddling a canoe is a skill I learned as a child. Who knew that it would come in so handy! We edge back out into the wide river and eventually the engine roars back to life. This would be a high point in most adventures, but by now it is just another moment of adjustment to the needs of the day in what is turning out to seem an eternity.

The next morning is our date with Leticia and the scheduled flight downriver to Manaus. At each bend the crew smile and call “Leticia”, but of course it is just another jungle covered bank of vegetation. We are all very tired, mosquito bitten and feverish. “Yeah, right!” we think even as we smile back. Eventually though, it does appear and quickly we pay off our crew with many thanks and hurry into town. We change our money ( we are now in Columbia), take a taxi to the dirt airstrip and immediately jump on board our DC3. A near thing, but with a roar we are off. We spend all that day hopping in and out of jungle clearings all the way to Manaus.

The next morning it turns out that the scheduled weekly flight direct to Guyana is full of tropical fish, - no room for us. Another problem to solve. We are sick from a tropical fever that will remain our weekly companion for the next few years. We do not have enough money for the long way around via Belem at the mouth of the Amazon and then the Pan Am flight north along the coast to Guyana. The Brazilian currency devalues that day! The banks are closed! Prices remain fixed at the old rate. We exchange our last US travellers cheques on the black market! Now we can just pay for our flight!

We do eventually get to Guyana on time and in one piece and see Ruth off on her plane home to Canada. We then rush about making plans and buying groceries for our next teaching assignment in the Rupununi District of the remote interior. Looking back to those years in our early twenties it is interesting how experience played such an important part. After a year teaching on the coast of Guyana we were well acclimatised to tropical conditions and to living in a 'developing' country. We could get along using lots of smiles and good will with people of all stripes. We had our camping and adventuring background from Canada. We had visited our next assignment twice already. Now we had our travels around South America, including our trip by canoe down the Amazon to add to our portfolio. We were not really prepared for the responsibilities we would face but were confidently ignorant. We were ready as possible to begin our next assignment.

Perhaps ignorance would turn out to be our best defence in the turbulent months that lay ahead.



Arriving in the Rupununi: learning the ropes.

A fellow teacher from our last school assignment at Covent Garden village, called Sherlock Pahalan, drives us to Atkinson field and we board yet another DC3. We have flown this route before but even so we feel that 'Flying' is more of an achievement in this aircraft. We see the throttle controls strapped back with elastic bands as we prepare for take off, our seats are temporary ones that can be removed for the usual cargo runs and the windows have gaps around them that leak water when we enter our first cloud.

We fly over an endless roll of tropical forest and winding arteries of rivers and streams. The Pacaraima mountains we rumble over are within a thousand feet but most have never been mapped, possibly never even been visited by any human at all. Finally we are over the wide tropical savannah; red laterite soils, bunch grass and ite palms beside the wetter areas. At last the administrative settlement of Lethem appears under our wing and then we are bumping down the dirt airstrip.

We are here to take over the management of the hostel that is attached to the all-age and secondary schools in the village just across the Moko Moko creek from Lethem. The previous volunteers have returned to Canada and we have agreed to take up where they left off. We pick up the Fargo van ( yellow, 'Gift of Canada' painted on its side) from the District Commissioner’s office ( D.C.), load our supplies and belongings, including our small motorcycle, into the van and drive across the ford, through the scattered mud brick and palm-roofed houses of St. Ignatius village to the hostel building which is part of a larger school compound backing onto the creek with the blue Kanuku mountains in the background. What a place! what a setting! Arriving has been easy, now the work is about to begin.

It is a real help that the previous CUSO volunteers, the Dextrases ( Gene and Elaine), have been well established before us and that we have visited for a two week Christmas holiday almost a year ago and then arrived again a couple of months ago to do the hand-over and learn as much as possible before we departed down the Takutu River into Brazil by river boat to begin our South American holiday. We have a few days to prepare, get to know our neighbours and figure out where to get food supplies for our students, before they start arriving from across the wide landscape that is the Rupununi.

The Hardys live across the creek, Bill Dunn, a Peace Corps volunteer, lives nearby, and the Jesuit Father Maxwell has a mission across by the river and we will meet Father Keane later way down south and Father Mckenna at Sand Creek. Lethem itself has a police contingent and the DC ,Mr. Persaud, and his assistant, Martin Junor. The abattoir is beside the airstrip, there is a manager for the airline ,Mr.Walter Li, that carries passengers like us, general cargo and the local beef to the coast. A grocery store which has a radio ( “Georgetown, Georgetown, Moko Moko XX”) if we wish to speak to our CUSO country chief, Father Gardiner, in Georgetown, and Edwina Melville runs a hotel near the ford over Moko Moko Creek. There is a Mr. Hawkins who has an evangelical mission based in Lethem and there is still much more, like the hospital and staff, the experimental farm, and, most importantly, the majority population of Amerindian and ranching peoples. We will find that what seems the back of beyond, romantic even, is business as usual for the diverse peoples who have lived here for many years.

If this seems a lot of outsiders to service a wide open Savannah land so far from the coast; I would agree. The Amerindian tribes ,Wapashana, Makushi, Wai Wai, are not so interested in becoming part of the economic development plans of the newly independent government of Guyana and outside Aid agencies but we all arrive never-the-less to push education, a variety of Christian religions, agricultural schemes, policing and governance. Just as at home in Canada among the Indian and Inuit peoples, we really cannot refrain from knowing best and peddling our cultural agendas. We have our doubts about all this, but never-the-less are willing to do a job for Guyana in return for a tremendous opportunity to learn about this world from the people on the ground. And the ground this time is red, the sandpaper and cashew trees green and the distant mountains an interesting blue that speaks of adventure.

St, Ignatius village and the school compound in the distance


Adjustments: learning on the job.

Our students begin to arrive in land rovers, mini-mokes and on foot from all corners of the Rupununi, delivered by the ranch families and Jesuit Fathers who have been running elementary schools for many years. Why education, what form of education are not questions to be asked and we will teach to the British external exams as is done all over the Caribbean and just as we have done for a year on the coast. Not having been trained under this system ourselves, it seems doubly bizarre to be teaching Wordsworth’s 'Michael', precis writing and geography and history that are extremely foreign in this setting. But then, those certificates are the road to advancement and who are we to make judgements as to suitability? Certainly, some in these broad savannahs must get an education if they are to deal with all this bureaucracy. Welcome to the fuzzy world of international development.

Some of our students are from the big ranching families of the Rupununi - the Melville and Hart clans -, but most are the Amerindian students that have attended all-age schools in the mission villages. Here at least they can get a secondary school education without travelling to the coast. This school, for all its artificiality, is part of the land and its students remain part of it too. After homework at night the boys can whoop and holler down at the creek as they bathe among the alligators, silencing the red howler monkeys for a while that wait high in the trees overhead for their chance to roar. We have close to forty students staying in the hostel and Heather and I share the work there and also the teaching in the secondary school. We have staff; two cooks, Rosie and Esmeralda, a groundsmen, Basil, and a maid for us as well, Edith. This help is our very important interface with what is a foreign culture and we value their friendship greatly. It is a residential job: everyday, every night and all seven days a week. We are in our early twenties and have a large family to care for, food which must be found somehow, health concerns, education certainly, and a responsibility to help this large family function as a happy unit.

We set up a volleyball team, the 'Hostel Hammers' and play the Hawkin`s Missionary team. We use the van to go for swimming trips in the Takutu river and other places further afield. We get to know our students as personalities. I make daily trips in the van to Lethem, taking the long way around in the rainy season on the higher ground or across the ford through Moco moco creek during the dry season, while Heather teaches some classes. I may visit the government store for UN food, the DCs office to talk to Mr. Junor about my shoddy gas records for the van, a visit to the hospital with some students, buy county food - vegetables, fruit, cassava.... from local people who have come in from their mountain farms in wooden wheeled, oxen drawn carts. Heather and the cooks make meals from what we find.

A ranch ( Manari ) has agreed to supply us with a free cow whenever we need meat and the first time I go to the abattoir is a reminder of how tentative is my adjustment to this world. I walk in to make arrangements for a small cow, just as a big beautiful Zebu is prodded up the ramp, shot, dumped kicking down on the concrete floor and immediately cut up by a crew. I look away and control my heaving stomach. This is very real and a far cry from the neatly wrapped anonymous packages we buy in the hygienic stores at home in Canada. This country feels at home though for a Canadian, it is not so long ago that butchering buffalo was equally bloody and Red River carts wound squeaking across the prairie. Back at the hostel, Heather and the cooks will chop up the carcase and stuff it all into the freezer to feed our children.

In the evening before the generator cuts off at nine we sit and mark our student’s work under a fluorescent light that attracts hoards of bugs. We brush them off and read little bits from the essays to each other. There are so many insights to be gained into our student's lives from these writing assignments.

The next morning after a disturbed night, (I chased a herd of loudly munching horses away from our little zinnia flower garden and listened for a while as their hooves rattled off into the distance) , there are large turds and puddles on the concrete floor of our quarters. We have toads living under the fridge and they have gorged themselves overnight as usual on the dead insects. Edith cleans all this up before making our breakfast. The sun is up, it is still cool, time to rise and shine!


Dying from despair

It is after lights out when we are called to the boy’s dormitory. A student is having real difficulty breathing and something must be done right now! Out into the night we rush, a fast van trip to the hospital and a suggestion to the nurse that oxygen would be a good idea as I run next door to the doctor’s residence only to find he is having supper and is not to be rushed. A new Korean doctor, he is as much a stranger here as I am and we both have our cultural agendas. He, a doctor, is not about to be pushed around by a teacher, a white guy, and I am perhaps too rushed at this moment to consider that ever-present need for respectful relationships. But really, do we have to be working out social and race relations when a boy is gasping for every breath? “ I hope he is not dead by the time you get there!”I leave him eating and rush back to the hospital to find that the student is breathing properly under his oxygen mask. What was that all about?

A few days later his father arrives and takes him back to his village. How happy he is! Father Maxwell fills us in on the back story of this boy. He and his brother had a gun, he accidentally pulled the trigger and killed his brother. He was banished from his family and sent to the hostel. He most likely was having what we would call a panic attack and the oxygen was the magic that calmed him down. On the surface that explanation works for us, but we know that we are working cross-culturally here too and can only guess at the mental anguish that student of ours must have been experiencing in his exile when all we saw was a quiet, well behaved Amerindian boy. We really have only a superficial grasp on what is going on in the Rupununi.


“Making like a woman with the boys”.

Our head cook, Rosie, tells Heather that Basil, our gardener and keeper of the chickens, is”Making like a woman with the boys, miss.” We have inherited Basil who was originally employed by previous COSO volunteers, the Dextraces, and know nothing about his background either or how homosexuality is viewed within local tribal societies. But we can hear Rosie telling us that this is not acceptable here in the hostel so I have the job of cornering Basil in the chicken house and telling him that the boys and the inside of the hostel building are out of bounds. And why! I do not fire him, perhaps I should have, but we are so new here and are still finding our way. What would the Jesuit fathers have said? Things get complicated very quickly.

A week later two of our students ask if they can go to visit Basil at his home in the village and I decidedly say no, not because I am one hundred percent sure of my moral stance but because this is the necessary follow up on my previous pronouncement. The boys look relieved as though I have provided them with a cast iron reason for resisting the pressure. Or is it Basil that the boys have been taking advantage of? All is not clear, but I have stepped a little more firmly into my position and made a decision. I am not a substitute Dextrace any longer but a leader in my own right. Now to exercise that power ever so thoughtfully.

Whenever Basil comes near the boys we hear them making low chicken noises, “baaak, baak, baak” and wonder about our eggs that we had for breakfast. Humour is a great tension releaser, and it is just as well I have that in my personal bag of tools.




Exploring: driving cross country

Driving across the savannah is interesting. Roads around Lethem have been built and maintained by the Government, gravelled and in one long piece, but elsewhere they become braided, as one worn track is abandoned to form another beside it and so on. Rivers are crossed in shallow spots and the river levels go up and down in synch with the rains in the mountains. Driving across country takes another whole set of skills that are not taught back in city-Canada. We have 4-wheel drive of course on our 'Travel-all' yellow van and it has good clearance from the ground, but I need practice.

We arrive at a major river crossing, make all passengers walk across, up to their waists, disconnect the fan belt so as not to spray water onto the engine, spray everything electrical with WD-40 oil and slowly drive down the bank into the water, deeper and deeper, bumping and rearing, with water up to the headlights. This is hair raising, we could be swept off the 'shallow' ford and into deeper water. Out and up the opposite rutted river bank at last, streaming water, reload, fix the fan belt and off again. A lot of luck, but also one must be a focused and fast learner in this country.

Vehicles here are either Land-rovers or Mini-Mokes ( a sort of safari mini minor) that can be brought in in pieces and reassembled or slid in sideways through the cargo door of a DC-3. Our North American van has no parts available if it should break down so we treat it very carefully. A 'Gift from Canada' as is emblazoned on the door, it is an example of the narrow focus that our foreign aid has in places far away. 'From Canada', means everything must be sourced from Canadian companies whether that is typewriters for Jamaica or this odd vehicle in the back of beyond of the Amazon Basin. This one apparently was delivered by the Canadian Air force direct to the Lethem airstrip! Cheap at the price?

This country makes me think of the Red River settlements and cart tracks on the prairies of Canada of a hundred years ago. Around the time of the North-west Rebellion and Louis Riel. We see herds of Zebu cattle being herded by vacheros beside the road, the big squeaking wooden wheeled carts drawn by oxen, the DC in his shiny land rover doing a tour of his domain. ( “You crossed the river?” giving a hard look at his driver, Mr. Singh, “Then I could have too!”) We meet Mini-Mokes driven by ranchers, (the great advantage beside fuel cost is that a car load of passengers can carry one out of the mud), or the occasional priest bucketing along at top speed, but mostly we have the landscape to ourselves. I stop and give a lift ( 'drop', in Guyana) to women carrying heavy warichies ( woven back packs) full of vegetables home from their gardens in the mountains. This is a great country and we feel so lucky to be here and part of it.


Edith, Heather and Rosie


Edith: our medicine woman

We have girls as well as boys, carefully dormitoried at the other end of the hostel and we worry about them of course. Heather consults with Rosie the cook and Edith our maid and finds that she is not to worry. Edith, it turns out is the medicine woman of her tribe and has made sure that all the girls have taken herbs that will stop them menstruating while they are at school. Who knew? It would seem that Edith showing up to be our maid was really something more like Edith fronting as our maid while she took care of things at the hostel. We are immensely grateful and grow to love her very much.
From Edith’s point of view we need looking after too if the hostel is to be a success. We are so young and inexperienced to be doing this job!

We have a visit from a CUSO nurse from the coast and her boyfriend, a British Psychiatrist. He wants to know about the pharmacology of the Amerindians so we tell him about Edith and how our girls are on natural birth control medication. He is terribly anxious to find out so we ask Edith carefully if she would share her knowledge with the doctor, but, no miss, she would not. End of story and truly we are just as glad. There is something akin to the highwayman in our white culture. “Stand and deliver!”We are so desirous to get our hands on the essence of other people’s lives and put it to economic use.

Rodin, one of our students has fallen while riding a bike on the sharp gravel of the road. Road rash. Scratches. Some blood. He is terrified! What is this all about? A Canadian child would take this as a matter of course and go on to break a leg, an arm perhaps, get his appendix removed in the course of his childhood. Things were different here where any injury could kill from infection and a swollen appendix would kill for sure. Our students were very careful for a reason. Even here, close to a hospital, they were careful and for another good reason. Really the hospital was not very good because it relied on the doctor and a good doctor was hard to get in isolated places like this. Just as teachers are, which is why we are here.

Phyllis Brash, from a ranching family some hours away by road and a live-in student along with her brother Denis, had an appendix operation around Christmas time. We saw her very wan and pale at the hospital and wondered if she survived that operation by the Korean doctor given by local anaesthetic.

On weekends we would take a van load of children across to the Takutu River that formed the border with Brazil to go swimming. A lot of fun for all, but one day no one wanted to come. The rainy season had begun, the river was higher perhaps, but why not? It took some digging to discover that politely, so as not to offend us, they were really trying to convey what was obvious to them. The electric rays were there now and it was dangerous! We grow to appreciate that gentle reticence that is actually pretty common around the world and will later find the directness of westerners to be pushy and offensive. Just as we ourselves must have seemed to the people of the Rupununi.



All creatures.

The hostel is perched on the top of the bank of Moko moko Creek and we look out the backdoor into the tree tops above which are strung the blue peaks of the Kanuku mountains. At night the world comes awake and the red howler monkeys roar, sounding to our ears like a great wind rushing through the trees. Fruit bats wander into the hostel and are cheerfully chased out again by the students. We sleep at night under a mosquito net: not only is the Rupununi just recently cleared of malarial mosquitoes but vampire bats might come to nibble a sore on our toes and lap up our blood. Being in a building designed for the tropics with louvred windows and dividing walls that did not reach to the roof there is a delicious sense of oneness with the outdoors.

A great excitement one night as a greater anteater rushes through the garden with the whole hostel racing after it, is a reminder that larger creatures use the creek-side forest as a natural travelling corridor into the village and across the savannah. That roar might be a jaguar! I follow big blue butterflies down to the creek, try to catch a glimpse of an alligator and wonder if there are Piranha ( pirai) here, as in some of the other creeks.


Rupununi Ranchers and the rebellion's beginnings.

There will soon be a great fuss made about the Rupununi`s 'white ranchers' by the coastal press but we go on oblivious, heads down and focused on our new assignment. We do not know that politically things are coming to a head and that a great change is in the air. I am taken aside and offered a drink by the rancher father of one of our students but I think he quickly realizes that I am not my predecessor with sympathetic stories to tell about the history of Lois Riel, Gabriel Dumont and the North-West rebellion, when the Metis peoples of the Prairies rebelled against their newly and unwillingly acquired government of Canada. We have been told by CUSO not to get involved in local politics and discourage any talk in that direction. Perhaps he is relieved to hear that we will be away over the winter holidays and not be in the way when things heat up!

The ranchers of the Rupununi are the descendents of white adventurers who married into local Indian families and are no more 'white' than some of the mixed race peoples of the coast. They held their land under long term lease from the government and now in the new post-colonial reality that has recently been reduced to one year at a time and even that is expected to terminate. They have been a part of this land and its original peoples for a long time. They live hard working, simple lives. They are not a wealthy, privileged aristocracy as they will soon be painted by the coastal press and politicians. There is anger and desperation in the air. Our students will soon be involved in a rebellion. Death is just over the time horizon.

Heather and I have delivered those of our students who live to the south of Lethem with the van and all the others have dispersed back to their home villages for the Christmas holidays. We jump on the plane to Atkinson Field and onto another bound for the Caribbean. Three weeks of island adventure ahead with no responsibilities! We really need this holiday, we have tropical sores, itches and tender guts to be treated and are very tired. Still, we look forward to getting back to our students and our new life in the Rupununi. That is not going to happen exactly as planned.


What happened? The rebellion.

We have a lovely holiday in Barbados, Grenada and Cariacou and arrive back in Georgetown with a few days left before we must be at the hostel to welcome our students back. We still have medical issues so now is a good time to deal with them. As we walk down the road someone tells us we are wanted urgently at the Canadian High Commission, our embassy. We are told that it is not safe to return, that there has been a revolution in an attempt to seceded and that the army is flying into the Rupununi. We are to stay put. Emotions are high. Even in Georgetown, we notice that our white skins are drawing negative comments. “We gaan kill you all!” says one old man as we walk past him on the street.

Two days later we are back at Atkinson field boarding our flight home with our return tickets. We have decided that we do not want our children caught in mid- transit or back at the hostel with armed soldiers on the ground and that is that: the disadvantage with sending people like ourselves to handle big responsibilities is that we actually learn to think and take action on our own. The airport staff should have turned us away but we walked confidently onto the plane as though we had everything organized. Soon we were over the savannahs and looking down on smoke rising from burning ranch buildings. At Lethem there are coastal soldiers and of course no van. It has been commandeered and lies broken or bogged down somewhere down south. We wade across the ford, trading light chat with the machine gun crew who are set up in front of Edwina’s hotel, and ride borrowed bikes back to the hostel. Our belongings have been ransacked and some food supplies stolen but here is Rosie coming back from the village and we begin to get a picture of the last weeks events.

Rosie has found the villagers carrying off everything portable from the hostel and forced them to bring most of it back. Only one little girl ( Imelda) came back to the hostel and she is safe with relatives in the village. We hope everyone else is still at home. We bike across to the Mission where we meet Father Keane and Bill Dunn and catch some more information. Some policemen and the hospital dispenser who rushed to help the wounded have been killed by an Amerindian, who had just been beaten by the police for three days. The Police Inspector, ( Mr, Braithwaite ?) was shot in the road and died in Father Keane`s arms.

Everyone, including the DC and his wife, who might raise the alarm were rounded up and held prisoner in the Abattoir. That, if we had been there,would have been us too. The plan was to capture all of the country’s DC3s on this day when they were scheduled to fly into the Rupununi so that the coastal authorities could not transport the army into the isolated savannahs. It almost worked. Mr. Hawkins the missionary had begged to be released for some emergency or other and once free had driven to Manari and radioed a warning to the plane over Lethem, just as Walter Li was, at gunpoint, talking the aircraft into a normal landing. Back it went to the coast with the news. Although every attempt was made to stop any aircraft from landing once the news was out, it was not possible to properly guard all airstrips. A student and his elder brother ( Melvilles) were captured at Manari manning a machine gun, which they had not been able to use, when the first load of troops arrived by air. Ranchers retreated and began driving their herds of cattle across the Kanuku River into Brazil or to Venezuela. They had made their play and it had not worked. People had been killed and even though the police were heartily disliked for their heavy handed methods, killing them achieved nothing in the end.

And yet, the parallels with our North-west Rebellion of a hundred years before are striking and even-though the Canadian Government brought in troops and crushed it then, we know that the conditions that prompted the Metis (Mixed race of Indian and French/Scottish) to take up arms were very bad. If you take away a people’s land and their way of life, if you leave them with no honourable alternative as they see it, then you can expect them to bite back. Bad management or careful planning on part of the government? That is the background behind the European settlement of our Prairie Provinces and of many other parts of the world.

From the point of view of populations near the centre of a culture, those areas out towards the fringes, the frontier, are just fallow ground being prepared to receive the expansion that is to come. A blank space for future settlement. A matter of legal ownership. From the point of view of those living in the 'frontier' they are not a blank spot but a community with its own background and history and dreams of remaining that way and growing through time. Reasonable, if you are they, utterly ridiculous from the point of view of the leaders of the more powerful central population. It is ironic that so often it is the victims of discrimination themselves,- the new post-colonial government-, who will ,when given the opportunity, pass on the same pain to others. That is the pattern they have grown up with.




Living in limbo for a week at the hostel.

We are back at the Hostel but the land has changed. We see it in the columns of distant smoke and in the circling vultures. We hear it in an unfamiliar silence punctuated by the night noises of hurtling military jeeps. The people we meet are excited and full of dread at the same time. We feel our outsider status here too as in Georgetown and know that we have brazened our way back in against the tide that the government has ordained. All foreigners, all outside observers must be cleared out. We wait, we obstruct officialdom, and while we wait we look around us at the village and decide that as the Guyanese teachers have not returned to open the all-age school that we would begin it ourselves so that a sense of normalcy can return. It is not good for the families and children to be left in limbo like this.


Brazilian air force overflies Lethem
 Unfamiliar aircraft are circling over Lethem, round and round. We feel like some observers of a war, perched on the fringes and realize that these are Brazilian military planes that are sending a message. “Don’t even think of pursuing the rebels across the river into Brazil. Stay on your own side of the Takutu River border or else.”

We are teaching at the all-age school when the truck arrives for us. Grab your belongings right now, there is a place for you on the next plane for the coast. We have used up all of our delaying tactics and our time is up. At the plane we are told there is no room for our belongings, the plane is overloaded, and we are seated amid troops returning to the coast. At the last second, as the cargo door is closing the Amerindian loaders throw our luggage aboard. Our aircraft roars down the runway kicking up dust and performs a seesaw motion across the mountains and forests all the way to the coast. That must be the extra weight of our luggage in the back! Goodby Rupununi, and good luck!



You don’t want us? Then we are out of here!

Back in Georgetown, with still a few months to go in our two year contract, our new country CUSO leader, Father Gardiner, begins to look for another short term teaching assignment on the coast for us, but we have had it. He has no understanding of what we have experienced in the forced dissolution of our hostel assignment and has as yet a poor grasp of how long it really takes to be accepted by a new community. And in truth we are fed up with being the subject of 'We gaan kill you all' type remarks and being pushed around after all we have done for our Guyanese students. We have a realistic view of the “rancher’s” rebellion, they were a precipitous and angry bunch of men, but we have also emotionally adjusted to the Rupununi and understand their motivation and last ditch actions even if we do not approve. All avoidable if the government had been thinking of the welfare of all its peoples and not just its own narrow political agenda. Soon we are on our way back to Canada.

We will agonize over our decision to leave even as we deal with unfamiliar winter at home and that repeating fever left over from our journey down the Amazon almost two years before. We will have difficulty fitting into Canadian society, - reverse culture shock - everyone seems so shallow, so wrapped up in pleasure seeking and the pursuit of the almighty dollar. We have been privileged to live life close to the bone and that experience cannot be understood by those who have not been there. Neither do they wish to hear about it.


We will become teachers in Canada but will always be looking for some way of experiencing that sense of reality we had in Guyana. We will quit teaching to do our back-to-the-land adventure on Saltspring Island and will go on sailing adventures in the Bahamas and the Pacific. We say we are adrenalin junkies, and there is some truth to that, but what we actually seek is that feeling we had in the Rupununi, that sense of being fully alive and part of a real world.


Here are some images I took at the time. Perhaps someone in the Rupununi today will remember some names of the people shown here and taken some forty-five or so years ago. Feel free to update me in the comments section on what happened and who is who.









The Peace Corps director comes for a visit. What a nice guy.


A student, I wish I remembered your name!

Working in the hostel garden


Father McKenna

Mission school

Our handyman, 'Sleepy' watches us prepare to depart.

Packed, and ready to leave the hostel

The High school


Being loaded on to the DC3 for our final trip to the coast

Flying into the Rupununi after the revolution. Burning ranch buildings below.

Landing at Lethem after the Revolution. Military planes parked beside the abattoir

_Ian (?) Melville and Bill Dunn

Loading ite palm roofing material into the van

'Sleepy's children

Building a new house near the hostel

Hammocks are the very best thing!


A mini Moke

At the sports day

Bill Dunn, the peace Corps volunteer, helps with the sports day
On can 'overfly' the Rupununi, Lethem and the hostel buildings on Google Earth.

7 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing your story..I was in the Rupununi at that time spending Christmas with my sister in law's family (Melville)..I so loved this part of the country and spent many holidays up there... You have taken me back to cherished memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life..

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  2. My mother use to live in st.igunatuis just behind the hostel her name is Maria Socorro Pereira her mum is Sebastianna Guy she was married to a French man by the name Marcelo Guy she had a brother who was invalid gr8 use to creep to school.ir they would have to take turns to fetch him.name was George Guy.

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  3. From the pictures I recognized Mr and Mrs Franklyn standing next to a land rover.

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  4. From one of the pictures i recognized miss Rosei, the cook at the hostel. And mrs. Edwine MivillMi, Cholo Milville mom, i meet her, Edwina a Very lovely person.

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