For almost three decades the Pigeon Island squatting area has attracted poverty-stricken Guyanese with its promise of rent-free dwelling. Over 100 Guyanese, the majority of whom are children and young adults, now live there in dilapidated shacks without access to potable water or electricity.
The squatting area stretches along the Pigeon Island Side Line Dam. Beyond the narrow mud dam there is a trench and then the sea wall which keeps the Atlantic Ocean at bay. On the southern side of the rows of small wooden and zinc structures there is another trench which serves as the main water source.
Over that trench is a narrow, rickety wooden bridge which leads to a short track and then the Pigeon Island Pump Road. It is the only way to access the area and is used by both adults and children. After school, children either fetch water from the trench or buy water from a nearby resident who sells potable water at $120 per five-gallon bucket.
“De person got to pay water bill and dem does show we de bill so we does pay dem for de water… yuh can’t expect to get things for free,” Liloutie Samaroo told Stabroek News.
Samaroo was one of the first persons to squat in the area and has lived the last two decades of her life trudging through slippery, muddy trails and paying by the bucket or begging for the water she uses to cook, clean, wash, drink and bathe.
Over the years, Samaroo recalled, several officials from the Ministry of Housing and Water visited the area and promised to help them acquire house lots. “Dem come, dem mek promise and dem lef and forget we,” the woman said.
While there are persons interested in getting house lots to move Samaroo is not one of them. The woman said that she has lived more than half her life in the area and would like to see it developed. She gave birth to five children and an 11-year-old daughter still lives with her in the Squatting Area.
On rainy days, she explain-ed, her daughter walks along a trail and then through the yard of a resident who lives in the housing scheme so she can get to the main road and then to school. Life in the area is hard, the woman said, but residents have learnt to deal with the challenges.
“But na because we dealing with de challenges it mean we want live like this all de time,” the woman said.
The woman further noted that water conservation is something that dominates her life. The commodity is very expensive and she and her family have to be conscious of how they use every drop.
No water, no school
Phoolmatie Ishmael and her family have lived in the squatting area for just over two decades. The woman is unemployed and unable to work because of a leg injury she suffered during an accident more than a decade ago.
Her life is simple and yet difficult. She must get up, cook, prepare the children for school and then see to the house. When her chores are done Ishmael has hours of free time to think. These hours of thinking, Ishmael said, form the most difficult part of her day.
She is always worried that her husband will not make enough money to feed their family and provide them with the barest necessities. Her eldest child, a 19-year-old son, left the family several years ago and is working at Port Kaituma in the North West District. Ishmael has not heard from him in months and said that he does not send home anything to assist with his younger siblings.
With a gesture to her small wooden house, Ishmael said that it is all she and her husband can afford. A bed takes up half the space inside and a table, pushed against the opposite wall marks her kitchen area. The remaining space on the floor is used as a sitting area in the day and her children sleep there at night.
Ishmael, her husband, four of their five children and a four-month-old grandchild live in the small wooden house. If it is not raining during daylight hours, Ishmael said, she and the children spend their time out in the yard. There is a bench at the side of the yard which is shaded by a cherry tree and on days when the children cannot attend school they spend most of their time there.
Her three sons, aged 12, 9 and 6 years old were all at home when Stabroek News visited the squatting area on Wednesday. Ishmael could not send the children to school because there was no water to wash their clothes or to bathe them.
“Me jus na feel like use de trench water on dem today and me na afford to pay to buy wata fuh dem bathe. Me na get fuh wash dem school clothes neither so me na bother send them to school. If it na got water then no school for dem,” Ishmael said.
The absence of potable water is often the reason the boys are unable to attend school for two to three days every week. Ishmael said she wants her boys to be educated and she understands that it is very important to their development but the conditions under which she and her family live often do not leave her much of a choice.
Even if she is given a house lot in a more developed area, Ishmael explained, she will not be able to afford to build. The woman said that she is hoping that the government will develop the area so that she can at least have access to potable water.
“Me live here so long and me na got nowhere to go from here. Me na mindful for light and road but at least me want de clean water,” she said.
Life before Pigeon Island
Ishmael said that before she and her husband moved to the squatting area they lived in Suriname. The woman explained that they were forced to return to Guyana because they did not have immigration rights to live there.
“Life over there de better. Me na de want come back and when we come back life de hard, times de hard, and things only get mo’ hard,” Ishmael said.
Pensioner Nazatoon Ali also lived in Suriname for 40 years before she returned home. Her first husband, the woman said, was Dutch and after he died she decided to return to Guyana. Ali said that she did not want to continue living in a strange land among people whom she did not consider her own.
After she returned to Guyana, Ali said, she remarried and moved to the squatting area with her second husband. They live alone and are both pensioners. However, Ali explained that her husband works two or three days a week at a slaughter house (abattoir) and she operates a small shop at their house.
“Since me come to this area me been buying water and fetching water and using trench water. One lady in de area get current [electricity] from GPL through de housing scheme but dem na giving nobody else current,” Ali said.
The woman said that when President Bharrat Jagdeo first took office he had visited the area. At the time of his visit, Ali recalled, the area which is now the Pigeon Island Housing Scheme was a squatting area as well. Ali said she was one of the persons who spoke up to the President telling him that the people in the area needed to see it developed and were suffering.
“It was after de meeting that dem make a move to turn that place into a housing scheme and dem get current and water but we at the back here still sufferin all these years after,” Ali stated. “All dem got to do is expand de development or help we move somewhere and build.”