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Archive for the ‘Guyana 2011’ Category

I was supposed to be working on my Thesis. But when Lissa Rankin’s newsletter sailed into my Inbox, I couldn’t resist reading her post. The ever-inspiring Lissa’s uber-inspiring post was about what she was going to do with Chris Guillebeau’s surprise $100 investment in each of the participants at his World Domination Summit (this is Good Domination, folks, not Dark Side Domination). He asked everyone in the audience to invest the $100 he gave them in changing the World.

Lissa decided she would pay it forward and invited everyone reading her blog post to share how they would use the $100. So I patted my Thesis on the head and told her I’d be back later, and posted how the $100 could be used to help spark one of my Dreams: to found Flourish Youth Centre in Georgetown, Guyana, for disadvantaged children and youth.

The idea is a youth centre that would provide a loving, inspiring, and enriching environment for youth. It will be a drop-in centre to offer supplemental programming to existing homes and orphanages in Georgetown (such as Joshua House, where I have volunteered).

Kids (& a puppy) at Joshua House who could benefit from Flourish Youth Centre. Sept 2011

There are so many kids out there who just don’t get a good start to life. Maybe they are AIDS orphans. Maybe they are abused at home. Maybe they live in grinding poverty.  Whatever the case, if they have a safe, loving, stimulating environment to go to, that can go a long way to helping them flourish, to become everything they can be. I want to be part of a place like that, in partnership with local friends who believe, like me, that things can be even better in Guyana.

Part of the mission of Flourish would be to help children and youth connect with the more-than-human-world, so with animals and plants. There is little infrastructure in Guyana to take care of unwanted animals, and I do not know of any therapeutic use of animals there (for example, caring for horses, dogs, and so many other species has been found beneficial to traumatized children and youth). There are so many possibilities to create an enriching environment for young people; I see especially animals, permaculture gardens, and lots of music and arts.

I see Flourish Youth Centre as part of a network with other similar organizations, projects and centres. For example, I am inspired by Projeto Sol and Boikarabelo (featured in documentary, Angels in the Dust), and the rural residence of the Dogo Dogo Centre I visited in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.

Today, I was supposed to be working on my Thesis. But when Lissa Rankin’s newsletter sailed into my Inbox, I couldn’t resist reading her post. And discovered Flourish Youth Centre will get one of the $100 investments generously donated by Lissa’s readers!!!

I cried. This is the first investment in Flourish. One more beautiful step towards the Dream becoming Real.

To Lissa and the generous donors inspired by her post, thank you with all my heart and soul!

Keep Shining,

Julie

Working horses in Georgetown, Guyana, could also benefit from linking youth with the more-than-human-world through Flourish Youth Centre.

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4 July 2011 (continued from part 1)

The background sound to most of the next morning is the relentless hammering and sawing to make Alianna’s coffin. Like the day before, Mira won’t eat or drink and at times blacks out. Veronica, a Peace Corps volunteer who has lived with Marc’s family for the past year, has been caring for Mira. Mira gets more upset when she’s near Alianna’s body, yet some people let her go there. I find out from Veronica later that some people said things to Mira like “its your fault your baby died.” I cannot understand why now of all times people would choose to attack a grieving mother. There does seem to be a dark side of humans that finds it easier to blame people for their misfortune, maybe to make us feel less likely it could happen to us?  This accident could have happened to anyone in the Village.  No one has a secure well, and most people leave their kids “unattended” (with the eldest child in charge).

I feel quite useless waiting, but then Marc’s wife, Jana, mentions she’d like to make a crown of flowers for Alianna. I leap at the chance to do something useful and volunteer to go pick flowers. A teen girl is sent with me to go to a nearby household with lots of flowers. I take off on my borrowed bike, thrilled to use my muscles for something. We come back loaded with flowers, and I ask what is Mira’s favourite colour. Pink. So I help Jana weave a crown from pink, yellow, & orange flowers. There are lots of flowers left, so I imagine they can be handed to people at the funeral service to hold. A fitting visual for a funeral for a sweet little girl.

Finally just before noon the funeral starts. And a friend of the family is already handing out the flowers, mostly orange and yellow ones that remind me of marigolds. I hold three, for past, present, & future. It looks so sad and lovely to see almost everyone holding the flowers, many already wilting, as fragile and ephemeral as all Life is.

I’m underwhelmed by the Service, the preacher seems to take this as an opportunity to drill in the message that this must have happened because the parents and community did not repent enough. And so better repent now. I wish he would save that for his Sunday sermons. Why not celebrate this little girl’s Life, and try to offer her family words of wisdom and love to help them heal? For example, a good time to talk about stones and glass houses.  Its another jarring moment for me… does anyone else feel this way, too, or is it just that “I’m not from here.”?

The small coffin is carried to the above ground Cement tomb, similar to how it is done in Georgetown. One of the teachers has organized the children, and they start to sing “Jesus Loves the Little Children”. The savannah spins and shifts on me as tears well into my eyes. The song causes my heart and mind ricochet back to 2009, when my Edna died. She was my Guyanese Nanny, a key member of my family, and “Jesus Loves the Little Children” was the lullaby she sang to me and my brother when we were little. My favourite lullaby. I am overwhelmed again by the pain and grief of her loss, for the woman who loved me unconditionally.  It was surreal for me to kiss her goodbye three times, when they opened the casket, the still form inside so unrecognizable as My Edna, but the softness of her skin when I kissed her forehead meant there was no mistake. Then I grieved for a parent. Here, now, the parents grieve for a child. I can barely fathom what it would be like to kiss a child goodbye.

To kiss a beautiful little girl with a crown of flowers goodbye.  A hinge on the casket allows people one last look or kiss before she is put in the tomb.

Mira cannot stand as they seal the tomb with wet cement. So Marc sits with her on the ground, holding his sister. The other two sisters are close by.  He murmurs to her to remember she has three other children who need her, that she cannot follow Alianna but has to stay and care for them. This brotherly love is one of my strongest memories.

We are hurt terribly when we lose the one we Love. But Love is also the key to how we heal from the loss.

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A little girl with a crown of pink, yellow, and orange flowers haunts my unguarded moments.  She looks like she is sleeping, but there is water seeping from her nose.   Three years old, her beautiful light brown face framed by long black hair loose in the white sheet wrapped around her small body.

*** (names changed to protect identities) ***

It’s sunny on Sunday July 3, a welcome respite from the frequent rain of the Rainy Season in the North Rupununi of Guyana, S.A.  The puddles on every red-mud path glint in the noon sun, the intense light washes out the tawny greens of the savannah and deeper green of the forested hills.

My community collaborator, Dana, and I are getting ready for the men’s focus group on the Village’s environmental Club.  The consent forms are waiting, we’ve discussed the women’s focus group from the previous week, and the pots are bubbling away in the Community Centre’s makeshift kitchen.

A motorbike passes by, horn blaring, but I don’t think much of it.  Later Dana tells me it was my friend and host, Marc.  Eventually, the news filters to us, as we wait for the focus group at 2pm.  At first it sounds like one of Marc’s sisters has fallen into a water hole, then a niece…. I’m worried, but don’t know what to think.  Then we get the full story from Daniel, who has come for the focus group: Marc’s 3 year old niece, Alianna, fell into a well. Sitting on the steps of the Community Center, we get more news from people passing by.  I feel I should be doing something to help, but I’m so crippled with my burnt feet I’m not even sure how to get over to Marc’s sister’s place since my bike has been borrowed. I ask what is going on, is she being rescued?  Can we help?

Dana looks at me quizzically. “She’s dead, Julie,” she says, gently.

I’m shocked.  All this time I thought she was being rescued.  I come to understand that the parents went to church (an hour walk away) and left the children, the eldest is 13 years old. This is quite common here. It’s not clear what happened but it sounds like Alliana tried to get some water and there was a rotten plank over the well and so she fell in. It wasn’t deep but she couldn’t swim and so she drowned. Now that I know what happened I just want to get over there.  It sounds like most of the people from the village are gathering at the parents’ home.  Of course I cancel the focus group. The issues of unsecured wells and unattended children are discussed by a few people on the steps of the Community Center as I wait for the bike to come back so I can go over.  Finally Dana decides to tow me on the back of her bike. We meet Auntie Elfina on the way, with the Salara and the Malaca fruits ordered for the focus group.  I carry them over to the family’s house.  I find Marc sitting on the ground outside the house, red eyed. “I’m so sorry Marc…” I feel I have no words in the face of such a tragedy.  The family is in one room in the house together all crying. Alianna’s small body is wrapped in a white sheet, lying in the other room.  People are milling around inside and outside of the house. I tell Marc about the food for the focus group and that I would like the family have it.  A motorbike is sent to fetch it. Medex and a police officer come to take statements and investigate Alianna’s death.

There have been many times here when I’m not sure what I should do, but I know I don’t have the luxury to do nothing.  So I try to help others with their tasks.  While waiting for the other food, I suggest sharing around the Malaca fruit, I figure it offers nutrition and some hydration in this heat.  I wander around, despite the pain of my feet, to offer pieces of Malaca.  I ask if I should go to the parents, anxious not to disturb them.  I’m told to go, but am still hesitant on the threshold of that door into the room of grief.  But there are many children inside who light up, and the father accepts some, but Alianna’s mother will not take food or water, and is starting to black out sometimes.  She is too deep in her grief for the small kindness of fruit.  I wish I could somehow help.  Dana starts helping with her, and with serving the food from the cancelled focus group.  Auntie Charlotte, Marc’s mother, the child’s grandmother, talks with me a bit says her husband is vexed with the parents for leaving the children unattended.

I watch as the food is slowly distributed, since there aren’t enough plates and spoons to go around.  I’m trying to guess the “rules” for distribution, it seemed like those considered to be working get the food first, then Elders, and then the order is less clear to me.

Here, people are usually buried on their family’s land.  Alianna’s family decides to bury her at Marc’s place because it would be too difficult for her mother to see her grave every day.  They will already have enough to deal with seeing their well every day.  The Village’s tractor takes Alianna’s body and many people over to Marc’s.  Dana’s daughter Cantina wants to come with me, while the rest of her family will come the next morning for the funeral.  There is no embalming here, so people are buried within a day, with a Wake the night before.

We bike to Marc’s, and I’m not sure what to do.  There are people in groups chatting outside Marc’s house, and in the common room where family and friends gather to talk and eat.  Since only a few weeks ago, there is a giant flat screen TV powered by a generator, and many more people now come to watch DVDs.   At the other end of the room is the kitchen.  Alianna’s small body lies on a pillow to the right of the TV.  The sheet is wrapped so that anyone can open it to see Alianna’s face.

As with the Wake for a colleague’s 5 week old baby son the week before, I don’t know how to feel about the Wake.   I can feel the collective sadness and pain of everyone there.  The contrast of that with what is playing on the TV is jarring.   At the baby’s wake, there was a Christmas comedy playing, the plot: a rich family has to deal with the father not getting his Christmas bonus.  The frivolousness of this “difficulty” compared to day-to-day life in the Rupununi!

I cannot escape into busyness, there is nothing I need to Do.  I could read or write, but would still hear the TV that is now on.  So I don’t resist.  I fiddle with mosquito coils that I light off the gas stove.  There are no matches, no one can find the family’s lighter, but I have mastered the art of lighting the gas stove with the sparks off my empty lighter.  I sit on the floor with many of the other mourners, my legs outstretched, the most comfortable position for my burnt feet.  Marc puts on Wild Guyana, which seems geared towards potential ecotourists to Guyana, and then Barney.  I haven’t been subjected to Barney before, it is as saccharine as I’d feared, but does seem to promote decent values.

It feels surreal to watch TV while Alliana lies there.  Does anyone else feel this way? I wonder what Wakes were like before TVs came here.  Would people talk more?  Everyone, myself included, seems so mesmerized by the TV.  It may numb the pain and grief at the moment, but I wonder if it slows the healing process.  Gathering like this is a chance to find comfort in other people, and also to try to process what happened by talking with each other.  With the TV on, there is barely any interaction, though there’s a constellation of smaller groups far enough away to talk amongst themselves.  Many of them are drinking, too. When football is put on, I escape to the room I’ll be sleeping in. I tell Marc’s family I’m going to bed, I have a headache, very rare for me, and am tired and sick and hurting from burnt feet and abscesses.  I don’t find out until morning that you are really supposed to stay up all night for a Wake.  It’s a long time before I find sleep.  I try to write a bit on the laptop, but its hard to concentrate with the loud TV.

Then its 9:34pm and I am listening to Alliana’s heartbroken mother, Mira, cry for her dead child in the room next to me.  “Mommy, Mommy I want Alianna back, I want my Anna… don’t leave me Anna, I’ll follow behind you…” It’s horrible to be right next to such agony and not be able to do anything.  I send healing energy to her.   Eventually I fall asleep.

continued: part 2

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Seventy three years ago up-river of the majestic Kaiteur Falls, a little girl named Edna was placed in a boat and travelled down the Potaro river, then down the Essequibo, to Georgetown (Guyana).  Edna never saw her Patamona mother again.

That little girl grew up, and her love of children lead her to help raise children within her family, and then work for Missionaries and Diplomats in Georgetown. The legacies of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism played out in this one life such that terrible wrongs were complemented by tremendous good.  But for her Afro-Guyanese father’s intervention, Edna would have grown up in the Patamona Village of Karisparu, not Georgetown.  But for the colonial system that brought Western Aid to Guyana, she would not have worked for Missionaries and Diplomats. But for the Capitalist system which makes it economically (though not morally) reasonable for women to work raising rich people’s children far away from their own children, Edna would not have ended up in Canada for the last 30 years of her life.

Thus the forces that have brought so much harm and suffering also meant that many children passed through Edna’s loving hands, and ended up all over the world.

I am one of those children who benefited so much from Edna’s presence in my life.  This is the story of how I try to decolonize myself, and try to find a way to share the benefits I received from her love, and yet fight the forces that brought me this undeserved privilege.  Though the main voyage to these goals is internal, the outer manifestation is my journey back to the village where Edna was born: Karisparu.

Edna died in 2009.  She never returned to Karisparu.

The idea to do this grew from my 2006 trip to Kaiteur falls.  A typical tourist day-trip experience, the hours were too brief.  It wasn’t just beautiful. I felt something special there.  Something that calls me back.  Then I heard more about Edna’s story, and realized I had been just a short ways from Edna’s birthplace.   I wondered what it had been like for Edna’s mother to never see her daughter again.  I wondered if there were any relatives still alive who remembered this, or if there were stories.  I wondered if people from Karisparu would be interested in hearing about Edna’s life.

I don’t know what will come of this.  Maybe nothing.  Maybe only some closure for myself.  Maybe something beautiful.

What I do know is I have to go.

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