The wretched of the Guyanese earth
“Wife of murdered Mercy Wings guard struggles to make ends meet” (SN, October 10). The torments of Eileen Exley provoked passing interest, sparse commentary, and no outrage. It is the chronicle of the needy and impoverished in Guyana. This is the lot of those locked in exhausting misery; for them there is no champion, only those looking the other way.
In a land where there is an overabundance of talk about millions – millions for roads, millions for laptops, and millions for forests – there is neither thought nor regard for $100 a day. A beggarly $100 a day – and the attached people – is of no significance and merits little moment in the majestic matters of the day and state. But for the countless many who know only the ceiling of $100 (or a thousand) on any given day, it is holding on to life itself with the weakest of grips.
How many $100-a-day single parents – multi offspring, unskilled, undereducated, and un-propertied – are present in this metropolis of progress and development? How many families go hungry daily in this oasis of political splendour? How many children of promise are condemned to the barren wayside of a future already lost, and of what could have been?
In a thinly peopled land clogged with 80,000 vehicles and bristling with possibly 80,000 guns, there is the likelihood of more than twice that combined number of suffering and inconsequential citizens; just like this widow eking out a brittle existence from meal to subsistence meal. Whatever the number, what can $100 a day buy? What can this sum buy in Guyana, where a loaf of bread is over twice that amount? What survival can it offer when – as this mother, this sole breadwinner said – a roll of toilet paper costs more than she had made by that point in the day?
This is the harrowing “extreme poverty” spoken of so daringly by one presidential aspirant; the starving obscured body of the iceberg that stretches not for a basic cell phone, but the manna of tennis rolls and the nutrition of ‘shine’ rice. It is what singes a vast unknown multitude of compatriots who labour for a meal – or the thought of one. Forget about school lessons and light bills and protein content; this is an existence limited and damned by the anguish of gathering the pickings, the barebones components for the next meal. It might be the only one for the day for those trapped in the bleak domain below the poverty line – however the latter is defined.
This is the dark national underbelly handled like a national secret, or a national shame. There will be no discussion of this; only silence and safe distance. Neither leader nor party – high flying and cock crowing – spare the time to be sufficiently concerned at the awful wretchedness that tears apart the vitals of those without strength, without voice, and without recourse.
The ruling prefer to not venture into the maw of what squeezes at the vitality of the wretched of the Guyanese earth, and wrings the very life out of them. But there can be no denying the want and meagreness present.
Pause by the real eating houses – cake-shops are what Guyanese call them. Watch the struggling men and women of this country, as they scratch for sustenance. Listen as they seek the prices of simple, well-known fare: puri and ball; fishcake and bread; saltfish and bake; and the luxury of an accompanying drink. Listen to them as they come and go, and reach deep for scarce bills and change to make a purchase. Listen as they go from item to item in a descending price search until a blessed harmony of flour and dollar occurs. Too many times, there is no such harmony. Who among us that cares and is concerned can look away and pretend not to notice this poverty that is relived and etched across the myriad of cake-shops and streets and villages? Or to argue from comfortable elevations that it is a rarity? How do we stand unmoved when a child counts his thin supply of coins for an ice cream dream, yet falls short of a soft drink? This is the composite, haunting in intensity, which also graces the groceries and markets, and savages the senses and what is left of the soul. It is all too real.
This is the bottom of the Guyanese food chain: sizable and crowded; the gritty economic ghettos riddled with physical hardship and psychological terror. Here there is none to comfort the afflicted, and few willing to afflict the comfortable.
This is not condemnation; no criticism is intended. Rather, the objective is to stir the passion and humanity that courses through all. No words of rebuttal, no numbers are required. Just feel the ache; identify with the distress. And if this is believed wrong, or ignorant, or capricious, then there is only so much more regret and failure to share amongst those who have been more blessed, or who lead. None can be exempted; none must be excused.
Yet no one listens to the poor crying, or beat the drums of their yearnings. None has stood before to make their travails a cause, and do something – anything – on a meaningful basis to make a difference, to introduce hope. In a society rank with official statistics, agog with hustlers and hustling, and flush with the glow of political self-congratulation, this poverty in the extreme, so plaintively echoed by this widow, is what no one cares to discuss, to address, or even to recognize.
It is a terrible echo, filled with desperation and fear, and overflowing with a desolation of the spirit. It is the other Guyana: seen but unwelcome; known but dismissed. It is one that weeps privately and lives in agony. This is the naked truth of the real Guyana; it knows no colour, no community, no politics; only the gnawing fear of needing and not having; of the helpless indignity of ends never meeting; and of a cruel void lived in the forlorn appeal of – ‘Brother, can you spare a twenty?’