Friday, 13 September 2013

Spirits in the Guianas: a journey and alignment part III

Revering the River in Suriname

(Please refer to Parts I and II of this Shout to follow)

Mall Mania – signs of corruption

Along with the taint of racism, my niece and I also sought to get to Suriname for some respite from the levels of corruption we felt around us, which the locals were ever eager to relay. The strange sort of illogical fuel pumping through the Guyanese politicians’ veins meant for the most part that my niece and I were struggling to understand how exactly the country was being run. We concluded that cowboy politics and gangsterism were at work. And whenever we were met with some bizarre experience, the locals’ response, now replacing our other refrain was that “this is Guyana.” By that they meant that any kind of crazy could take place there – just like we would expect from armed cowboys criminally empowered to run a recently developed town.

In a country of less than 800, 000 people, it seemed incomprehensible that Malls were being built in every inch of the compressed city. Guyana’s land mass is about the size as the UK; you might understand the significance of this when you realise that in London alone the population is over eight million. So Guyana is seriously underpopulated. Its tourist industry weak, though some say it is on the rise. But how is this being measured? My understanding is that Guyana’s tourism primarily extends to those seeking to explore the interior, not so much to City prowlers or beach bathers. So why is there such a push for all these Malls (and hotels)? The City Mall was the first of its kind in Guyana with our first escalator. There are a few tightly packed boutiques and restaurants, a sort of extension of the congested homes and traffic in the oppressive city. You breeze through the boutiques, full of cheap clothes, shoes and goods made in China that are outrageously overpriced. The development of Malls and their expensive cheap products of course mimic what we expect of tourism in other places. But we hardly saw tourists at the City Mall, but locals, some amusingly venturing to try out the new escalator, yet unable or afraid to brave the elevator.

Reaching for the stars - more malls the merrier?

Most of these so called Malls, predominantly owned by Indo-Guyanese are big, three, four, five storey stores which, along with the increasing developments in hotels are thought to be fronts for drug activity (money laundering). I am merely citing the local perception of them. Some are owned by Chinese (not Chinese with historical connections with Guyana, one of our six peoples – these are referred to as “new Chinese”) who are also rummaging through the interior and illegally shipping out gold and other minerals, while the cowboy politicians sleep. Or, as the locals would say, take their share. I observed the same pernicious infiltration by Chinese in Ghana. In Guyana, as with Ghana these illegal mining activities are resulting in violence and increased crime in the interior, as recently reported by Kaieteur News (26th August). Only a government lacking the kind of vision necessary to uplift its entire nation would encourage this kind of activity, then to be forced to plaster over it. I say “plaster” because I’m yet to be convinced of any bold strategy by the government to ensure the sovereignty of Guyana is protected from Chinese or any other foreign “investors.” There always seems to be some kind of desperate signing of agreements that ultimately do not benefit the people but gives the false impression that the government knows how to play on the “big stage” of international finance capital. China and India for example are the greatest benefactors of illegal export of Guyanese timber, made possible through the dubious “agreements” with foreign logging groups that are never staged in the interest of the people. As I saw in Ghana, Chinese construction companies are everywhere in Guyana, building these Malls, employing fellow Chinese workers, and which disenfranchises the local Guyanese who could otherwise contribute to production in this way. The same was the case in Suriname, where we were told there was fear of infiltration by “Chinese Mafia” into a society trying to tackle its own levels of corruption. But we were also told that the Surinamese government, mindful of their small population, compared to China’s, had restricted Chinese involvement in politics and businesses.

These two images are from the Guyanese Building Expo - they represent plans for Chinese Construction in Guyana




Where there were few examples of Africans setting up something “big” this was also considered suspicious. In other words, it was accepted that corruption was responsible for any apparent economic boom, whether the development enriched the country (through “deals” made by the government) or a “private” investor. The number of Malls (along with other clearly unprofitable businesses), given the population and level of poverty experienced by the mass of Guyanese have led to investigation into money laundering. But since cowboys are inherently lawless it is inevitable that Guyana will be black listed and alone in a region striving for social progress. Whilst Suriname has been approved as a “permanent guest member” of the ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of America) group, championed by Venezuela’s late President, Hugo Chavez, Guyana’s participation is far from the table.

Prevalent scourges

Police bandits: drivers complained that they were often and randomly taxed by police who used this as a means to fund their daily, weekly or monthly “box” (“pardners” or “susu”). It is believed that the only reason to become a police is for the privilege of robbing the public under the guise of representing the law. There was a potent sense of fear for the police.
Gangster laws: a few years ago the government was making it policy that all taxis be painted yellow. Until the yellow paint that some affiliate to the government (so it’s believed) ran out! Then it was no longer necessary to impose this “law.” This was same with the Seat Belts (Buckle-Up) initiative/law. Some government affiliate had a large shipment of seatbelts that needed to be “shifted”, a new law was passed, people were fined for not wearing the belts, even when they were faulty and had caused death because they could not be undone in the midst of accidents. The seatbelts ran out, the law is now irrelevant.
Anti-Money laundering Bill: this is a dance between the government and members of the oppositions (APNU and AFC). The Bill is floating, with the government accusing oppositions of deliberately failing to meet deadlines, and the oppositions accusing the government of failing to include the entire allegations of abuses in the Bill. At stake is Guyana’s reputation; now considered an emerging drugs capital of the “Caribbean” and regressing to the stigma of drug cartels in South America. Guyana was asked to “comply with the Caribbean Financial Action Taskforce (CFATF) recommendations to amend its Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism Laws” (reading 2 below) or risk being black listed. The probable outcome of the “dance” is that Guyana will be black listed.


Police Parade: apparently a yearly event, we happened upon. They show the might of the force, human resources, weapons, vehicles, horses etc. Notice the dominance of African women.


Land Titles long ting: 16 years ago my brother and I bought adjoining plots of land. I was a student at the time, and thought this was sensible thing to do since I might one day decide to return to the country where I was born. I have spent years, and money, trying to “pay off” for the infrastructural works (electricity, water etc.) that buying land incurs. Each time I tried to make these payments (when I visited) I was told they (the Linden Regional Office) were not “taking monies” as yet. This dragged on. Though all the monies had finally been paid, I had a complication of not being able to sign for papers to process the title because my name had changed. My brother has yet to receive his “transport” (title) for the land, although no such complication exists for him. In this same area, the government has severely increased the infrastructural development fee and is asking residents to pay it or lose the lands they have had for nearly two decades, and which they have independently (of the government) cleared away for development. It’s important to understand that this is taking place in Linden, a predominantly African-Guyanese area, scene of the recent protest and killings over the hike in electricity prices by the government.
Championing a dirty City: I’m ashamed to expose this, but it is not changing. There is no strategy on a national level to inspire pride in the population to keep the country tidy. Instead, gutters are blocked, an infrastructural nightmare exacerbated by the Chinese made plastics/polystyrene boxes, wildly disposed in the gutters and streets. It is believed that the government gives City Hall (electorally headed by Mayor Hamilton Green) inadequate funds to implement measures to clean up the city because it (the government) wants to “impose” its own unelected representative to the post. There is no adequate waste system, no sense of environmentalism, no collective willingness to clean up, especially along the coast and the famous Sea Wall, which would otherwise render a cool, tranquil early morning or late afternoon walk. When taking photos, I had to zoom in to get a picture of the sea without the assault of piled rubbish in the shot. Though it sickened me, I also took shots of the abused sea shore where polystyrene boxes floated up. The Atlantic that should have spiritual, ancestral as well as natural resonance pukes back the rubbish that is so callously thrust in her as though she does not sustain us with her waters, does not provide the fishes that feed us. What will it take for Guyanese to become/feel collectively environmentally conscientious? Ironically, former President Jagdeo won the United Nations Environment Programme Champion of the Earth Award in 2010. The man must be laughing at the absurdity. The UNEP administrators could never have visited Georgetown, or the country’s coast to see how concerned Jagdeo really was about environmentalism before making their decision.

Sickening city - amidst the mess a colonial style old building



Dawn at the border: zoomed in

Zoom out and the wider picture depresses the dawn











Violence: it seems to be taken for granted that some act of violence will be reported in the newspaper on a daily basis. One such took place in the next street from where my cousin lives in Georgetown. A fire destroyed the homes (two wooden houses) of about 17 people (eight of them children). Business developers had wanted to buy the houses from the owner but they refused and tactics typical of gangsterism resulted in the near deaths of the residents, including the elderly owner who was in one of the houses at the time. We were able to get close the burning houses (all of us “spectators”) as we watched “fire fighters” struggle to set up hoses for water that for the most part is scarce (the government controls water supply by switching off pipes during the day). Thankfully no one died, but the same homes were targeted (set on fire) a few years ago.


Arson attack on two homes that property developers had been trying to "purchase" from their owners








Suriname: dress code and going backtrack
The visibility of corruption, regular reports of violence, filthiness and compression of the city, along with the incomprehensible development of more “malls” were frustrating signs blighting the possible paradise of Guyana. Was this the Guyana I had brought my niece to; to fulfil her ancestral ties and for my spiritual alignment? I felt pressured to make the situation better somehow, and found myself constantly trying to rethink our next step, so that the “trip” (largely to be spent in Guyana) would be a memorable experience and not the nightmare it seemed to be turning into. So we would go to Suriname, across the border; this would realise a long time aspiration of mine and surely provide some solace for my niece, somewhere perhaps more relaxing and uplifting. We had planned to go with a mini-bus that would take us all the way into Paramaribo (the capital) and collect us for the return trip. We would arrange our own accommodation. I tried to make contact with Surinamese friends and acquaintances with whom we could stay or link up once there.

The night before the morning we had planned to leave, we learnt that as we had British passports, we needed a tourist “card” to go. Interestingly, there is a tendency to think that this document (our British Passport) is a pass to anywhere in the world; we forgot that this Guyana was a former British Colony, not Dutch. We therefore had to cancel the trip because we didn’t have the tourist card.

Dressed in our holiday “garmes” – my niece wearing a cute boob tube top and mini skirt, I was sporting a cap, leggings and t-shirt with sandals –were abruptly told we could not enter the Surinamese embassy. The “jobsworthiness” of the security woman was pitiful to see, as she irritatingly pointed to a notice of the dress code that would allow us entry. Everything we had on, except my t-shirt contravened the code. We would learn that this code existed in Guyana for entry to any government building – where one had to wear clothes fit for office or church, and not necessarily the tropical climate. Not only is the code stupid it’s also sexist - men are allowed to wear jeans, women are not. Who is responsible for this madness, which no one appreciates not understands?
The maddening Code
A sign outside the Housing Department (and inside) in Linden, where entry is permitted by following the above code


I asked the security woman (behind the closed gate to the embassy) if I needed a tourist card even though I had a UK passport. The instructions (pasted to the gate) for the card were referring only to USA nationals. Here’s what she said: “is not the same ting? UK is not part of the USA?” As with the filthiness of the city, shameful to record, I don’t have space to write in this Shout about the serious levels of illiteracy we observed in Guyana. All this code and instructions, sending us back and forth, so that we were now trying to find fitting clothing (we borrowed my cousins’), impressing on us the need to return with new US notes (they took nothing else) and we made it (another day later) to the outside box in the embassy yard. We entered no office building, but the “tourist card” was given to us from a cubicle, as we stood, my niece and I like two miserable oversized children (in our churchy/officey clothes) in a small box collecting our passports with the card.

To our understanding, we could get to Suriname “back track” (the term speaks for itself) with the tourist card. I thought it was curious that the card wasn’t stamped in our passports like other visas would be. But it was a tourist card, not quite a visa so it seemed justifiably different. We arranged our own transport from town to Skeldon, where we would pick up the speedboat to take us across the river that separated the two Guianas. I should mention here that to get to the border, we had to pass my ancestral village in Berbice, where my grandparents were from.

We decided to travel on Sunday because apparently it was quiet in Suriname on Sunday; we’d been told it would take practically the whole day to travel to Paramaribo from the border. Some people warned us, but others assured us that going “back track” was not as it used to be – that is rough and dangerous. We were up for the adventure in any case, albeit with a weighty of desperation in trying to get out. This was another area of Guyana dominated by East Indians. We waited about an hour before the boat came to take us across the border. We tried to ignore the fact that there were no life jackets offered or visible to us, as we sat silently enduring the bumps in the rough water. We were on the other side in less than 20 minutes.

It’s the same territory really, but somehow landing on this side of the Guianas felt good, the air wistfully cleaner. We had to negotiate transportation to Paramaribo. An African woman, with whom we had exchanged smiles at the landing on the other side and who said she was experienced in travelling to Suriname, shared a taxi with us. It would take four hours to get to Paramaribo. But at last we were on our way. When the taxi stopped at the police checkpoint at Coronie, we didn’t think there was anything to worry about. We had our “tourist card.” The first policeman, called the other to verify what he was seeing after scrutinising both passports. There was no sign that my niece and I were inhaling as we were asked to step out of the taxi by the police.
“Is this all you have in your passport” one asked, a little less clearly in English than I’m writing it.
“Yes” we said.
“Then you are entering the country illegally.” Most people understand what a sinking heart feels like - your heart feels like something is trying to dislodge it from the pericardium. I did not dare to glance at my niece, whose face had been contorted for days. It was now about 3.30 in the afternoon. The taxi driver attempted to bribe the officers (with money he perceived we had as well as our approval) into letting us go through but they refused. He had said it to them in Surinamese/Dutch, and then translated to us that they didn’t bite, thus showing they were incorruptible, and that he was foolish for even trying to bribe them. I mention the time because we had driven 2 hours thus far and it would take up the same time to travel back to the boat landing, meaning we would be travelling on the river at dusk. I had experienced night travel on water in Guyana before, and I didn’t like it.
But this was now unavoidable. We were asked by the checkpoint police to go back to Guyana, return with an actual visa since the card was not that. Only then could we enter the country “back track” as many times as we wanted in the six months period for which the visa would be issued. In other words, we had to enter the country legitimately first, on a ferry, where we would receive the visa, stamped in our passports (read 5 below).


Ferry route to Suriname: not back track!

Calling on the Guides
There were scavengers at the boat landing, one of them tried to get us to buy our visa from someone who could (illegitimately) stamp it in our passport. At this point we are again feeling as though we were in Mumbai, for there were very few Africans around us. We met an East Indian lady who was also waiting for a boat to go back to Guyana. She spoke softly, but carefully warning us not to listen to any of the Surinamese touts, whom she said were trying to rob us. She was Guyanese but had lived in Suriname for over 30 years. She had been travelling “back track” all this time. I explained what had happened and she was sympathetic. She told us (all this time straining my concentration for she spoke with a strong Indo-Guyanese country accent) that when we got to the other side, we must find a hotel (lock our room – since some of the border hotels doubled as whore houses), wake up early the next morning, head to the ferry and come back.

A boat eventually arrived (Sunday was actually not a good time for travelling because of the infrequency of boats). We would indeed be travelling on the water in the evening. It had been hired by a large Indian family (about 18 of them) who had presumably been shopping in Nikerie. We would have to tag along on the boat. The East Indian lady, who we later called “aunty” (for we never learnt her name), and who was ultimately a guide asked us to follow her, take off our shoes, roll up trousers to get into the water and boat. I can’t truly relate the tyranny of the water on the way back. My niece held onto the side of the boat, praying silently through the contortion of her face. Somehow I had ended up between her and “aunty.” The boat rocked and bounced, the river seemed angry – no one, not even I had paid her anything – she lashed water in on us at every heave and drop; the family, stacked behind us and still jubilant from their shopping spree laughed and jeered like they were on a big wheel or waltzer ride at an amusement park. “Aunty” kept still, her beautiful bright orange tracksuit top bearing the water but like our clothes was drenched by the end of the ride. I shall never forget the richness of her complexion, the blackness of her hair (though I don’t know if it was naturally so); there was something serene about her. Thankfully the ride was abrupt as on the way there. Our sighs were suppressed. Our lady kept us close, beckoning us to follow her. She found a young boy and asked him where there was a good hotel. She walked us to the hotel and hugged us deeply, her eyes tender with concern as though we were her children whose safety she feared. She asked us to look after ourselves, to lock the door after we had found something to eat. And we thanked her, for she had made us feel safer.

Connecting: along the wall of faces representing different peoples of Suriname

It’s true that only when faced with certain calamities do we remember simple things. I told my niece I was sorry it was going so terribly and so we needed to pray. It wasn’t the first time of course, for it was that same communing that alleviated our anxieties about accommodation and acquainted us with dear Billy. So huddled in the hotel room, where we didn’t fail to observe that they were asking us to pay them before we had even seen our room, I called on our ancestors and our guides to direct us, to help our understanding of what we were doing there, why we had come to Guyana since it seemed we had not properly prepared and what were our true reasons for trying to get to Suriname. If we had been disobedient and reluctant to hear the voice of spirit we were truly sorry for we were alert now and needed their assistance. If we were to reach Suriname, we implored them to show us the way without further obstacles. And we thanked them for hearing us, locked the room and went to sleep, the sweet fragrance of Florida Water scenting the bed, took us to the dream of a better tomorrow.

To be continued.

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