Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Guyanese Christmas

When your body clock is trained by a grey and rainy England, time seems to stand still in the tropics. There are two seasons here - sunny and rainy.  A slight difference in temperature and frequency of showers are your only cues that the year is passing, other than that it's always hot all year round, it's sweaty all year round, and the sun rises at six and sets at six all year round.  Christmas therefore comes as a shock each year, and passes without you ever really feeling like it is actually there.

Christmas in Guyana comes with it's own set of traditions.  In the run up to the big day it is all about cleaning, changing your curtains, and putting up the decorations - which include all the tinsel, santas and fake trees that we know and love back home, with the addition of plenty of big, bright fake flowers.

Next up come the office parties.  These run pretty much the same as back home; a mountain of food gets eaten, the quiet one has a few too many drinks and shows their wild side, and at some point there will be a conga line.

And then Christmas Eve. You might expect this to be a quiet time for family, church and contemplation.  It isn't.  Chrismas Eve is one of the biggest and messiest nights out of the year.  Early in the evening it is all about shopping, liming, and getting your photo taken with Santa and Elmo in front of a Hannah Montana backdrop. As the evening progresses, the street gets busier, the soundsystems get louder and louder and everybody gets drunker.  There is a seamless transition from shopping with the family to wining, drinking and discharging your home-made aerosol flamethrowers. We wind up watching a spontaneous breakdance competition on the street, backed by a soundsystem made up of a car with a laptop sat on the bonnet and a pile of speakers on the roof, and accompanied by the sounds of bottles exploding under car wheels as they unwisely try to reverse out of their spots.

By Christmas morning my house is still shaking to the bass from the bar over the road, and Main Street is a wasteland of broken bottles. Christmas day traditions are food based - Pepperpot, Black Cake, Ginger Beer, Garlic Pork, apples, grapes and walnuts. Black cake is a heavy dark fruitcake and Pepperpot is a delicious Amerindian beef stew, made from casreep, which is similar to molasses but is one of the amazing variety of foods that can be created from Cassava, a starchy root vegetable that is the staple diet for Amerindians living in the interior (explaining life in Guyana sometimes leads to a neverending chain of smaller explanations; the role of Cassava is a long post in itself).

Boxing day in Georgetown is another big party day, with the Big Main Lime bringing people and sound systems from all across Guyana.  In Berbice it is a choice between sleeping off your christmas indulgences and going to the races.  I'll follow up with a bit more on the races in a future post...

Happy new year everyone!

Friday, 3 December 2010

Pointless Guyana related lists

Clearing up half-written blog posts from a while back - here's some pointless Guyana related lists.

Noteworthy facts I was told about Berbice (my region of Guyana) before coming here:
  1. There's lots of farming
  2. It's the hippy region of Guyana
  3. There's a relatively nice beach
Noteworthy facts I wasn't told about Berbice (my region of Guyana) before coming here:
  1. It has the biggest number of mosquitos
  2. It has the most vicious mosquitos
  3. It gets the most blackouts
Most impressive types of roadkill
  1. Caiman (alligator)
  2. Plagues of frogs that have apparently fallen from the sky carpeting the road for miles
  3. Cows 
Things ants love to eat
  1. Honey
  2. Jam
  3. Flour
  4. Biscuits
  5. Bread
  6. Sink Plugs
  7. etc
Things ants won't go eat even if you leave them open on the worktop all day with a sign saying 'free and food, come and get it' and hot lady ants employed to entice passers by
  1. Marmite

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Good old days

On a roll today, one proper post, one 'this thought popped in to my head' one.  The thought?

You know when people look back to 'the good old days' - where there was no health and safety, no speed traps, you could give a child a clip around the ear, when men were men and women were women?

I live there. (Disclaimer: This is an exaggeration. Many attitudes are changing rapidly in Guyana. I would love to give VSO and similar organizations some credit for this, but probably pirated TV showing Oprah every day is what we should thank. But in essence, this is the situation.)

There is definitely another side to the rose-tinted silver-lined sepia-tinged memory.

  • No health and safety - Lots of people die and get horrifically injured at work. Lots of them. Frequently. Really badly.
  • No speed traps/traffic calming/speed bumps - Seriously, I will never complain about this again. Traffic here is deadly.  For a tiny country, the number of people being killed in road accidents is terrifying.
  • You can give a child a clip round the ear - I'll be (a little too) honest here. Corporal punishment works. Kids here are better behaved and more polite than you could hope to find in England. But, and this is a big but, they grow up learning that strength gives you the right to beat someone who doesn't agree with you. So men beat their wives, wives beat their men, parents beat their kids and sometimes their parents, and nothing gets discussed.
  • And men are men and women are women - so women are expected to cook, clean, take care of the babies, do everything to care for and treat their men, and men are expected to drink rum and come home late.  Gender equality has allowed many women to go to work now, but they still have to do all the housework, put up with infidelity and raise the children at the same time.
But some of the 'good old days' stuff is true.  People look after each other.  There is a real sense of community.  And children respect their elders.

Or at least they pretend to, for fear of licks...

Day in the life...

OK, getting back on the blogging wagon here. I'm going to change my attitude a bit to what i do here, so future posts may be a bit rough around the edges... I have decided to go for more posts, less trying to get them exactly right.

so ...

A few people have asked what exactly my work days are like here. That's a difficult question to answer - to take this week as an example, I've had:
  • a day and a half spent planning, marking and organising in the office
  • an impromptu speech to open a disability advocate for kids training
  • a day facilitating a couple of sessions (including a completely impromptu STI awareness bit complete with very graphic photographs) for a parent conference at a primary school
  • a day visiting teachers in schools
You may notice the word impromptu comes up quite a lot.  The best thing about the impromptu STI session is that I didn't even consider that this was a funny situation at the time.  Myself and another, newer volunteer were put in the position of having to give a talk about STIs, with no warning whatsoever, to thirty shell-shocked mothers, and I only realised this was out of the ordinary once my colleague pointed it out.  Guyana has made me un-surprisable.

Anyway, my day today was visiting schools.  I am working at the moment together with a Peace Corps volunteer who is mainly based in New Amsterdam Special Needs School.  Together we are running a series of workshops for primary school teachers, one from each school, looking at strategies to make schools more inclusive.  A combination of chalk-and-talk teaching, an overambitious curriculum, too many tests at a young age, and teachers with either little training, no training, or inappropriate training leads to a majority of pupils getting left behind, and leaving school with very limited basic skills. We are aiming to train one teacher in each primary school in the region with some strategies to involve more pupils. These teachers then in theory can train the other staff in their schools.  Today was a follow up visit to see a couple of those teachers in their own classrooms.

Both schools were over an hour from where I live on a minibus 'up the Corentyne' - towards the Corentyne river on the border with Suriname.  This takes you from the more urban areas of New Amsterdam and Rose Hall Town into more rural farming areas, where the main road is both a road and an area to graze cattle, dry rice, store piles of mud, and mix cement.  None of this road furniture stops the minibuses tearing along at ridiculous speeds on the wrong side of the road with Vybz Kartel blasting out of the speakers.

Both of the schools I visited today were a real breath of fresh air.  In each, the head teachers were working incredibly hard, and incredibly effectively, to make calm, structured learning environments and to give their teachers ideas to engage more pupils.  At one school, they were working to develop a Resource Centre in a building that had clearly been put up years ago with development money, but never staffed or made use of.

The teacher I saw in the next school had worked with a previous VSO volunteer, and had a wonderful attitude towards the children.  She believed, and showed through her teaching, that engaging the children positively through activities, games, stories and songs is the best way to get them to learn and behave well.  I saw a revision session where pupils were reading and answering questions together in pairs, and a phonics session punctuated by songs and silly actions. The fourty pupils, a previously struggling group with some challenging children with very disadvantaged backgrounds, were having fun and learning without realising it. And she was even using a couple of ideas from our workshops amongst plenty of her own!

I came away from today feeling terrified that we were about to run into a bull much more positive than I have for a while about the value and impact that VSO volunteers can have here.  Sometimes the challenges and obstacles, particularly at the level of policy and beauracracy, can make you wonder how big an impact we can really make. It is really heartening to see real evidence of ideas getting passed on, filtering in to everyday teaching and making a real difference.

Song of the moment: Beenie Man - I'm OK/Rum and Redbull

Postscript - therefore, please donate to VSO!  A re-adjustment of foreign aid policy has decreased their share of the British funding pie, so they do need support.  In my experience in Guyana, VSO are certainly one of the most effective organisations for helping people to help themselves without becoming dependent on outside aid.