Every now and then one is faced with local stories that leave one questioning the purpose of life. They are nightmarish tales about people who seem to be stuck in a hopeless existence, sometimes only with a vision of betterment after the end of this life or their belief in a life to come. You question how they survive, what led to the circumstances of their existence, why the cycle seems to continue, and what can be done to help them see that life can be more than the dysfunction they have been conditioned to accept; that it is okay to dream and that is not impossible to go after those dreams and accomplish them. With words like ‘tales’ and ‘stories,’ many of the harsh realities of Guyana’s less fortunate may seem unreal like some fiction put together by someone looking for attention, for sympathy, for hand-outs or to shock others. But these are not fairy tales.
A visit to Port Mourant this week, originally to gain insight on the incidence of suicide, especially among the young people in the area, reminded me not only about the anguish when it comes to that issue, but the many other issues that plague the lives of many residents within that community and other parts of Region 6.
Pandit Suresh Sugrim, of the Humanitarian Mission of New Jersey Arya Samaj Mandir Inc., which began its works in Berbice in 2005 originally with a charity outreach programme for orphans in Corentyne, along with a few young people gave a glimpse of what life is like for some of the residents in Port Mourant and its environs. A grim picture emerged. However, the issues in Region 6 are issues that touch Guyanese in every other region. Some who are sheltered or oblivious, can never fathom the battles those who are less fortunate face. Can never imagine the look on a child’s face who has never seen his/her parents read a book. The children who also have never entered the classrooms of schools because their parents or guardians cannot afford it. The despair on the faces of children forced to abandon school because parents separated, migrated or died.
Currently there is a debate going on that is mainly centered in and around Georgetown about the benefits of private versus public education. While many have criticised some parents for paying substantial amounts in school fees, the response in many instances has been that some of the public schools are failing the children. There have been protests, letters to the newspapers and heated debates on social media about the unfairness of parents having to pay VAT on private education. But whether children attend private or public schools, they are fortunate when compared to those children who do not know either.
The fundamental right to know how to read and write, which many of us take for granted, is a privilege that some of Guyana’s children have never known and in many instances it is because their parents have also never known it. A cycle of illiteracy passes from one generation to the next. The dream for many is not to go to university or master a trade, but to find a partner, get married and reproduce. Quality of life for the offspring is most often not taken into consideration. Some of the men may learn a trade, such as farming or fishing, to help sustain them and their families. This is a familiar story in the Port Mourant area.
And even some of the children who come from stable families, who are in school and who have dreams beyond marriage or children, do not escape some of the social ills.
In an area like Port Mourant and much of Region 6, where there is little to no recreational activities, alcohol abuse is prevalent. It was related that there is little to no regulation of the distribution of alcohol. Children in their school uniforms can buy alcohol. Alcohol is circulated in schools and sometimes it is disguised in soda or water bottles. But this is not only a Berbice problem as cases of alcohol in schools are seen elsewhere throughout Guyana. Drug abuse is also an issue.
Generally, there seems to be a breakdown in the family structure in the community. The fact that many parents are unequipped with the life skills needed to raise children in a healthy and productive environment is not surprising. It is not uncommon for parents and children to drink together. It is not uncommon for young women, scolded by parents for being in relationships too young, to pack their bags and move in with their partners. It is not uncommon for a parent to put his or her needs before their children’s needs for want of material possessions, like mobile phones and clothing. The suicide epidemic in the area is under-reported. Many young people are cutting themselves, which can ultimately lead to suicide. I had to ask myself why it seems so easy for some of the young people to mutilate themselves. Is it because pain is mostly what they have known all their lives and in some unhealthy way it keeps them grounded?
Early introduction to sex is not uncommon. There is silence on the issue in many families because it is taboo to discuss issues relating to sexuality. But teenage pregnancies are occurring.
There is also disengagement when it comes to spirituality, with many simply going through religious rituals or completely abandoning them.
It was reported that government ministers have gone into the area and promised to help; however, little has been done so far. Letters have been written to ministries and many phone calls have been made, but there has been little success. There is desperate need for intervention.
The situation in Port Mourant and in many other communities around the country is not beyond help. There is no one bandage that can solve poverty, illiteracy, the unpreparedness for parenthood, drugs and alcohol abuse or suicide, but there is a place to start addressing the issues. It starts with caring and being serious about making a change for the betterment of the people. Those in power have a responsibility to do what they can to help the people. In 2017, when there is an eight-year-old boy who has never gone to school and many others like him, drastic measures are needed.
The people do not need a saviour or to be promised a saviour, they need the skills and knowledge to help them lift themselves out of a life of poverty that too often ends in unfortunate events like suicide. They need the motivation to live. They need to know that life can be more enlightening. They need to know that they are not forgotten.