Disclaimer: I’ve been here three weeks, and I could be completely wrong about all of this.
With that in mind, here’s my take on what I’ve seen so far of Guyanese culture.
On the surface, society here is exactly as Britain would still be if the 60s, Punk, Metal, Hip Hop, LSD, Hippies and Acid House had never happened.
You must always say ‘good morning’, ‘good afternoon’ and ‘good night’. You should be deferential to the person above you in work or society, and slightly condescending to the one below. You pray to god and say the national pledge at the start of every meeting, and sing the national anthem at the end. Children stand up and say as one ‘Good afternoon sir, welcome to class 6B’ when you enter the classroom, wearing perfectly pressed school uniforms that are colour coordinated right down to the ribbons in their hair. Every government building has a sign outside informing you in no uncertain terms of all the things that you are not allowed to wear if you want to come in. Every speech, even if this is your second one of the event and will only last a minute, must begin ‘Mr Chairman, Head of the board of governors, pastor Bob, (HINDU PRIEST, MOSLEM CLERIC) Steve, Representative from the Ministry of Health, Head Teachers, Teachers, Parents, VSOs and other volunteers, Friends, Helpers, Children, Giraffes, Ants, Cockroaches, Lizards and any beings from outer space that may secretly be present and disguised as cardboard boxes . . .’.
A sure fire way of defusing any potential comments from a group of rowdy looking lads coming your way in the street is to give out a polite ‘good afternoon’ as you approach. This initiates a deep seated reflex in the brain of each and every member of the group, and they reply in kind automatically. Any quip that might have been heading from brain to mouth at the time is swallowed without a second thought.
Scratch this veneer of respectability and politeness, however, and you quickly discover another side straining at the seams. There is an incredibly fun, dramatic, expressive, cheeky and downright filthy side to everybody you meet, and it is just waiting for the chance to burst free.
During the same event where I experienced the full formal protocol for speeches, there was also a ‘skit’ by some of the head teachers, in which they improvised, with great style and aplomb, a comical scene of a teacher being chastised for lateness. This scene, which was sprinkled with good natured digs at various colleagues and education officers, was met with raucous laughter and comments from the crowd.
There are lots of different opportunities for people to let this side of them escape. Some people love blasting their music out for all the street to enjoy, or going out and dancing in ways that would make a stripper not just blush, but do an embarrassed little cough, pretend they hadn’t noticed it, and hurriedly change the subject. For others it could be through the banter in the market, the rum shop and on the minibuses. And many people seem to find their release in church – this is a major social occasion and a chance to gossip, laugh, shout, sing and dance.
The baffling thing for me as an outsider is trying to understand which aspect to expect in a given situation, and to be able to react accordingly. Getting this wrong is something that has tripped me up and landed me flat on my face at least once already, and I am sure will continue to do so for some time.