A visitor’s impression of Guyana

Written by Dr PETER FLAHERTY, Faculty of Education, York University, Toronto, Canada
Sunday, 06 January 2013 21:28

ON New Year’s Day, 2010, I shared a first-time visitor’s impression of Guyana with the readers of this newspaper. My comments then were mostly positive, since my very pleasant experiences here had contrasted so sharply with the negative feedback I was given prior to my departure from Canada, some of it coming from expatriate Guyanese. Three years and two visits later, I would like to
offer some further observations from an informed and sympathetic outsider’s perspective. However, this time around there will be some negatives mixed in with the positives.

Three positives
1. The natural beauty of this country is truly breathtaking. I have been able to travel to many parts of Guyana, outside of Georgetown, where my Guyanese-born wife and I have a winter residence. My visits to Kaieteur Falls, The Rupununi, Berbice, and the Pomeroon region have all been fascinating, and there are still many more areas I look forward to exploring in the future. As someone who has had the opportunity to see quite a bit of the world, I would say that Guyana compares favourably with many other better-known nations in terms of its appeal to visitors. This country is richly endowed with a variety of natural environments, including rainforests, savannahs, and seacoasts that with some more development and promotion could make Guyana a global tourist magnet, and an international model for managed, sustainable tourism. To cite just one example – my guidebook to Guyana pointed out that if the Iwokrama Centre were located in any other Caribbean or South American country, it would be an internationally-renowned destination, but since it is in Guyana it is practically unknown. I hope that this situation will be remedied soon, and Guyana can start to attract more foreign visitors who will delight in its natural beauty and contribute to the country’s economic growth.

2. The warmth and friendliness of the Guyanese people is always a tonic for me on my visits here. Everywhere I go, I am greeted cordially, especially during the Christmas season. Despite some comments in the press about the decline of manners and civility here, I have not experienced a single instance of rudeness or intimidation, even though I can obviously be recognized as an outsider. When I travel to other countries, I prefer not to insulate myself inside a “tourist bubble,” but instead blend as much as possible into the local milieu. Here in Guyana, this means travelling on the minibuses, shopping at the Stabroek or Bourda markets, and sharing a coconut water (with jelly, of course) with my wife at a roadside vendor’s cart. Every time I became a little exasperated with the heat, crowds, mosquitoes, traffic, etc, it only took one smile or friendly “hello” from a resident for my bad mood to evaporate like a drop of rain in the hot tropical sun. On my return to the chilly Canadian winter, I plan to take a little of this Guyanese warmth home with me.

3. Guyana’s cultural diversity is intriguing to me. I grew up in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world, but for such a small country, Guyana is a rich mosaic of different nationalities, all of which have contributed to the country’s cultural vitality. The Amerindians, Afro-Guyanese, East Indians, Portuguese, Chinese and others have all left their mark on Guyana’s culture in so many ways, including music, dance, traditions, proverbs, religion, food, sport, art, music and literature. I have marvelled at the Umana Yana, savoured garlic pork at Christmas, moved by the beauty of mosques, mandhirs, and churches across the country, laughed at the jokes, and listened to my share of soca and other musical styles that flourish here. More than once I have expressed my astonishment to my wife that such a small country could produce and nurture such a vast variety of cultural expressions, many of which have enriched the world outside of Guyana. This should truly be a matter of great national pride, and something worth preserving and fostering.
Three Negatives

1. The garbage and drainage situation, especially in Georgetown, should be a national disgrace. My heart frequently sank when I saw (and smelled) the unsightly mounds of rotting garbage that dot so many parts of a place that was once renowned as the “garden” of the Caribbean. While reading an article about Georgetown in the 1940s, accompanied by period photos, I could scarcely imagine that the city had appeared so clean and well-managed in the past. I am aware that many Guyanese are also seriously disturbed by this garbage and drainage crisis, and want it redressed. But as with so many of this country’s problems, it is my impression that actions speak much louder than words or good intentions. All parts of Guyanese society, including political and business leaders, church and community groups, and most of all ordinary householders and shopkeepers, must take on their share of responsibility if this blight on the otherwise fair face of Guyana is ever to be removed. This is not just a matter of aesthetics –it is a clear and present health hazard for both residents and visitors alike. Guyana will never be the appealing destination for travellers that it deserves to be unless this matter is addressed once and for all, and sooner rather than later.

2. The gap between rich and poor is huge and appears to be widening. Although I have read many articles lamenting the crime wave, lack of manners, and crass materialism that pervade Guyanese society, I have seen very few that deal with what to me seems to be the root of many of this country’s difficulties. I refer to the huge income disparity between the “haves” and the “have-nots.’” My wife and I attended a very enjoyable Old Year’s Night party at the Pegasus Hotel, in the company of many local residents who I would characterize as the privileged “one percent” of Guyanese society. The cost of two tickets to the event would account for more than the total monthly salary of someone earning the minimum wage here, which I was informed was about $200 (US) per month. This example helps me to put into perspective the patent unfairness and injustice of this situation, especially since the other “ninety-nine” percent can read all about the “lifestyles of the rich and famous,” including the country’s political elite, in the pages of the three daily papers, accompanied by glamorous photos of the goings-on. I know that it is very difficult if not impossible for any country, including my Canadian homeland, to achieve perfect economic and social equality. But the situation here in Guyana appears to me to be reaching a breaking point. I wonder how much longer the disadvantaged and marginalized majority will tolerate this iniquitous state of affairs without resorting to violence and widespread civil disorder. This is an issue that clearly should be at the top of the agenda for Guyana’s political leaders, which leads me to my last negative point.

3. The ongoing bickering among the various political factions here seems to prevent any serious action to address Guyana’s many problems. I know that it is risky for an outsider to venture his opinions on the politics of another country, especially one where it has enflamed and continues to provoke serious clashes, but I would like to offer these comments for what they may be worth. The unprecedented minority government situation resulting from the 2011 elections would have seemed to me to be a golden opportunity for political parties of all stripes to put aside their partisan differences in the interests of the country. This has happened many times in Canada, which shares with Guyana the British Westminster parliamentary system inherited from our colonial days. Instead, from my observations and readings of all three daily papers, it appears to have resulted in a continuous and tiresome round of finger-pointing and “blame-gaming,” with no side willing to admit to any failings or shortcomings on its part. Yes the current PPP/C Government has much to be proud of in terms of the legacy of Dr. Cheddi Jagan and its return to power in a free election in 1992 after decades of being unfairly shut out. But after twenty years, like all parties long in power, it is beginning to show signs of being out of touch, complacent, arrogant, and if I may dare say, perhaps, a little corrupt. It needs a thorough housecleaning, from top to bottom, which I understand some party insiders have already called for. For its part, the APNU is clearly a recognized and legitimate political force with much to contribute, but it would seem to me that its credibility with at least one segment of Guyanese society would be vastly enhanced if it would unequivocally dissociate itself from the darker aspects of the Burnham-Hoyte PNC years, and commit itself to respecting the rights of all of Guyana’s citizens should it one day find itself again holding power.

Finally, the AFC, as a party that seeks to bridge the racial divide that has for so long poisoned the politics of post-independence Guyana, could in my view play a much more positive and mediating role, using its king-maker position in the National Assembly to compel both of the larger parties to turn from confrontation to cooperation. I recognize that this is a very tall order, and may be a bitter pill for the political factions to swallow, but surely there must come a time when patriotic Guyanese leaders of all parties recognize that their number one duty as public servants is to strive towards the goal so movingly expressed in this country’s motto –that is, “One People, One nation, one destiny.” From my outsider’s perspective that time is now.

I recognise that these opinions, especially the negative ones, come from the point of view of a visitor who did not grow up or live for a long period of time here in Guyana, and run the risk of being unfavourably received despite being well meant. But as my wife and I are seriously considering making this country our place of residence, at least for the colder months of the Canadian year, and as someone with a degree of knowledge and background in the fields of history, politics, and society, I believe that my perspective may have some value.

In closing, I would like to wish all the people of Guyana a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year. I hope that when I return in a year’s time I may see the positives accentuated and the negatives diminished. On that occasion, I will be happy to provide a third and more positive installment of a visitor’s impressions of this fine country.