Walking around St Cuthbert’s Mission from the Mahaica-Berbice settlement right over to Demerara-Mahaica, through trails to the sandy river banks and the hilly village centre; I scouted the environment stopping to sit and chat with the village folk. That was the day I truly explored St Cuthbert’s Mission without the parties and the festivals, just me under the sun with the village around me.
Although I appreciated the physical landscape, my final day was dedicated to learning about the people, getting to know them and exploring their livelihood; speaking to them about community and customs, some of which I tried. I drank Piwari while bathing in a creek after eating labba and cassava bread. But there was one particular custom I stayed away from and for the life of me avoided – eating Tacoma worms – for obvious reasons (worms!).
The people of St Cuthbert’s are welcoming and peaceful and although shy are usually approachable. Initially, I was rejected by some of the men who were in their cups, but eventually they spoke as well. It seems they had loads of stuff locked in them with no outlet and I gave them a weight off; at least they seemed relaxed after a conversation.
Though there are basic amenities like water and electricity in some sections of the community, and there are generally good relationships among villagers, there are many problems, too many perhaps, since the population is just 1,000-odd.
Drug abuse among youth is rampant, a considerable number of people highlighted this. Security lies in the hands of the scant number of officers in the police station.
Some villagers see favouritism in the use of state resources. There is division in the village based on residents’ perception of leadership and accountability.
Few jobs are available to men who are confined to mining or lumbering in far off places. Women are mostly housewives.
Alcohol abuse, although not mentioned once by villagers, was observed. There is a sign at the entrance to St Cuthbert’s prohibiting ‘outsiders’ from selling alcohol in the settlement but there was no shortage of alcoholic beverages and I’m not talking about Piwari, Casiri and fly, but the beverages that can be had at any bar, including imported liquors.
A considerable number of teenagers could be seen staggering as they walked; men got into fights and I was warned by my guides to stay far from them. Women imbibed too but far fewer were seen drunk. There were rumours of a ‘Red Light district’ – if you knew just where to look.
The Arawak livelihood in the Amerindian settlement of Saint Cuthbert’s Mission seemed to be at war with itself. Modern advancements could be seen in the electrified houses, western clothing and so on. There were no thatched houses or buildings apart from the benab. But the traditional diet is embraced and there are villagers who are lobbying for the dying Arawak language and culture to be preserved, taught in schools alongside the national curriculum and a heritage museum built in remembrance of who Amerindians are and the history of what they represent in Guyana.
Progress is never a bad thing but who gets to define what progress is, is up for debate at St Cuthbert’s. One of the residents remarked, “People have come to us, changed our culture, now brand the little that remains and resell it to us in a package.”
Exploring the village was a beautiful experience. After a day of interviews and conversations with residents ranging from the chief to the little kid at the river bank, I felt like I belonged. I conclude that their culture is not as alien as I might have imagined. I am in awe still, having found that it is as much my own, or at least one sixth of who I think I am as a Guyanese.
It is a fact that we are one people and together we make up a nation. Our shared customs, though different, are respected and celebrated collectively in this beautiful state of ours.