When a newspaper arrives in Kurutuku, on the sporadic occasions it does, Solomon Lewis reads and explains to villagers eager to learn about anything that catches their eye.
He has replaced the miners to whom villagers turned in the past for assistance in reading any correspondence. In this remote Amerindian village in the upper reaches of the Cuyuni River in Region Seven, Lewis is one of the very few persons who can read and write. “The majority of the people in the village illiterate,” he said.
Like independent Guyana, Kurutuku is 45 years old: the village was established in 1966 by Lewis’ father, Edwin Lewis, an Anglican priest who helped convince the scattered Amerindians – most of whom were from the Carib tribe – that they would gain better services if they lived in an established village.
But it was only last year that the village of 154 persons got a school teacher. The last time one taught in the community was in 1977, Lewis, 45, said in an interview with Stabroek News. Lewis is in his third year of being the Toshao of Kurutuku and he recalled that after the village was established, church volunteers came to teach. When the government took over the school in 1974, three teachers were sent to the community but they stayed for only a year. They did not return and one of the old teachers from the village taught for two years until 1977. “From then there was no schooling until last year October,” said Lewis.
A wooden school building was constructed in 1991 but was unused because there was no teacher. A health post, constructed the same year was also left empty. Last May, a community health worker returned to the village. Lewis, the health worker and the school teacher were educated in Region Two, where the family originated.
Since October, 34 children were registered at the school, with their ages ranging from four to 16. All sit in one class since the oldest are only now starting their education. There is no library and children stay away from school because they do not have uniforms, Lewis said. Government programmes like the school-feeding project and the uniform assistance programme have not reached his community, he stated. “We seem to be totally neglected,” said Lewis. “Many of these things are strange things to us. We only hear about it.”
The closest community to Kurutuku is San Martin in Venezuela, about 80 miles away. It is from there that the villagers get supplies. They also sought medical care as well as sent their children to school in the Venezuelan community but for most, the cost was prohibitive. “Really, you don’t get any items from Guyana. When you land in the upper Cuyuni, everything is from Venezuela,” said Lewis.
The village leader said that he engaged the Regional Administration for some time, trying to get a teacher. He said that he was told by the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs that it was a matter for the regional authorities.
Last year, John Lewis, 50, applied for the position and was sent to Bartica for some training. Since assuming duties last October, he has not been paid. “I was very glad for him to start the school,” said the Toshao. “The thing is, they have many young people who pass the age (16 years), they were still interested. They had asked me if they couldn’t be permitted to attend classes to get some kind of education.”
Lewis said that his response was that he would have to speak to the educational authorities in Bartica but he was told that the cut-off age was 16 years. “I still feel like the Ministry of Education could probably plan some type of programme where the [older residents] could probably get some type of schooling outside of school,” he said.
Lewis left school in 1981, when he was 16 years old, and said it was difficult to get a job “because I had no idea of anything.” He signed up for the Guyana National Service and spent five years there.
He joined his family in Kurutuku in 1987 and began mining. He has five children, three of whom are now going to school. His eldest son, 19 years, is able to read and write a little since he gave some lessons, Lewis said. But most of the time, he was in the mines, working to support the family, so there was little time for this, he said.
In Kurutuku, the villagers are involved in mining and farming and while their traditional way of life continues, most have acquired items like generators for lights.
The village has encountered problems with land and mining and Lewis said that the Upper Cuyuni is “probably one of the most lawless areas in Guyana.” He said that, as a representative of local government, he has received threats after he reported unlawful activities in the past and so he is fearful now. “Any illegal activity you could think of, it happens there,” he said. “I can’t get any assurance from the government if I make a report my name would be confidential,” he said.
Mail service to the village is non-existent and Lewis recalled going to the Bartica Post Office last week and collecting letters that were posted months ago. The village, however, now has two radio sets. The village is only accessible by boat, which takes between four to five hours from Bartica, when water levels are high and double this period in the dry season. There are many rapids and the passenger boat service stops at Devil Hole Island, about an hour from Kurutuku.
The village is neglected, Lewis said. “Kurutuku is a village…it seems that people don’t know about us. We don’t get any help from anywhere.”