Empowering themselves and others: Women of the North Rupununi Makushi Research Unit

Seventeen years ago Leonie Edwards was a woman with many children, who was controlled by her husband and who could not read. A chance nomination in 2000 by her village to have her represent them regionally changed her life forever.

Now 55, Edwards can not only read but she is a fierce defender of women’s rights in the North Rupununi area, who would not think twice of barging into a home and challenging a man who is abusing his wife. In fact she has done so in the past and will do it again.

In the process of defending women Edwards has not only empowered them but herself as well, as she also fought many battles with her husband who felt her place was at home with their children and not travelling throughout the North Rupununi and beyond in her bid to not only give women a voice but to educate her people.

Edwards is one of the 13 women who make up the Makushi Research Unit of the North Rupununi District Development Board, a group that not only defends the rights of women and fights for gender equality, but importantly, also works to preserve the heritage, language and culture of the Indigenous peoples.

Leonie Edwards and Paulette Allicock

“Before I joined the unit I couldn’t read,” the Fair View, Region Eight, resident said candidly in a recent interview with the Sunday Stabroek. “I only had six years of education. My parents couldn’t afraid to give more education… I couldn’t really read much; it’s only when I joined the unit and started going to workshops and so that build my capacity… now I could read.”

Chairwoman of the unit Paulette Allicock has been a part of this fight from the inception over 20 years ago, and she also spoke about the struggles she had with a husband who initially felt she should be at home with their five children. But a determined Allicock, who was once denied the opportunity to be Surama’s Community Health Worker through her husband’s diktat, grabbed the opportunity with both hands and fought many non-physical battles with her husband until he came around and now gives her his blessing.

“When my village nominate me to be the health worker my husband stand up even before me and say, ‘No! My wife have to stay with my children who guh help look them after when she have to go for six-month training and then have to go all over,’” the now 53-year-old recalled in a recent interview with the Sunday Stabroek.

She was just 21 years old at the time and a mother of three. “When I went home I cry, yes. And when he see me crying he say, ‘wah you crying for? You guh get opportunity,’” Allicock recalled.

She did not allow that opportunity to pass her by several years later when she was nominated by her village to represent it on the unit, and she together with Edwards and 11 other women, has been working tirelessly to fight for women rights, preserve their culture and history and empower their villagers.

The unit also has two men who were nominated by their community following the resignation of two women because of age.

“We had one man before, but we find that men don’t go back to their village and tell the true things. And they feel like, uncomfortable to talk about certain things,” Allicock related adding that there are five other communities in the Rupununi that should be represented on the unit but persons have been declining the nomination.

“Women, because of their husbands, don’t want to take the nomination because sometimes you have to leave your family for two weeks and more sometimes,” Allicock continued.

“But I tell Paulette before coming to the unit I was like Brer Anancy [a character in folklore, which is a spider] in a black hole and now I come out,” Edwards said, explaining how significant the unit has been in her life.

The two women also bond on a different level also as they both lost adult children to cancer. For Edwards it has been harder as she lost two of her adult children within six months – one to cancer and the other to suspected suicide, although she believes it was more than suicide.

Traditional way dying

While the unit has been focusing on empowering women, Allicock recalled that the group started with nine women and one man to work along with the researchers of Iwokrama but the man later dropped out.

“Women can chat better, that is why the women stayed… and then in those days, in the 1990s, the women couldn’t like represent themselves for decision making and stuff like that and so that is how we were nominated by the villagers,” she explained.

Allicock, who has been with the unit since it started in 1995, said they started by collecting data on ethnobotany from the elders, which was done in two years after which a book was written. They did house-to-house visitation and were taken to the forest by the leaders who revealed the various medicines and how they are made.

“We had to climb trees to collects the plants, fruits and flowers, if the trees were too high we paid our husbands or children to climb and get it for us,” she said.

Information was also gathered on animals and birds and their importance to the way of life of the Indigenous peoples. In an effort to keep their culture alive, Allicock said they started to do performances in various villages as they learned from the elders and every month they visit a different community in the Rupununi.

“During our research, in the 30 communities, we gathered 124 varieties of bitter cassava and this was very useful for us and then for sweet cassava we gathered eight varieties,” she said. Cassava is a staple food item for Indigenous people.

Through the research, Allicock said, she learnt a lot about her people’s way of life; most striking for her was the belief of their connection to nature. She also learnt to speak fluid Makushi and this was very beneficial for her.

‘Never allowed’

Being a part of the unit, according to Allicock, has empowered her so much that she can now do public speaking “and this makes me proud” as she not only speaks in the communities but also nationally and even overseas.

“We were never allowed to go out, by our husbands, and so it was like a new thing, very challenging. The first time I started leaving my home was when my last child was four,” she said about her initial association with unit.

Surprisingly, her husband supported her when she was nominated. He told her, “Good for you. You learn and develop yourself. Our children are big now.” Previously, he had told her, “You are a wife, stay home and look after our children.”

Just back from a trip to California, Allicock said they would get paid when they are doing research and projects, but community outreach work is voluntary.

Edwards was nominated by Fair View Village and she said being part of the unit has really opened her eyes because even though she lived in the interior she never knew “the forest was so connected to us. We were just living. We know that the wildlife plant and so was medicine to us but we never know it was so useful. I mean like we could do a research and it could be benefiting us and even many more people…”

Edwards gave birth to 14 children, but two died when they were babies; up to last year she was a mother of 12 until tragedy struck and two of her sons died within six months of each other. Her eldest son was 32 and he died in a suspected suicide. A younger son who was 24 died of brain cancer.

“I feel a lot for the first boy because he died a sudden death,” she said. “But the second, he was sick for almost six months and he was in pain. Nights and nights he can’t sleep and it was so fatiguing because he can’t sleep and I can’t sleep.”

Since her children died, Edwards has not been doing much work with the unit, but instead remains at home giving support to her children, the youngest of whom is under 10 years old.

‘Some hell’

Edwards recalled that when she was first nominated she had “some hell to go through” for the months she was in training.

“Sometimes when I come back … you know men like to drink, my husband would buse and say I gone and get boyfriend and all kinds of things…but I go through because I was interested in the work because it was building my education. Things that I didn’t know I started to know,” the woman said. “It was like when your husband say you can’t go, you can’t go. But with this education I get now who will tell me I can’t go?”

She added that her husband eventually came around as the sensitization done by the unit made him realize what he was doing was wrong.

Both women said they felt empowered as they were financially contributing to the home through their work.

Allicock mentioned that she assisted her son in attending Guyana School of Agriculture and he performed excellently. “I am proud that all of my children are working because of the same little income I was getting I supported them. Their father was there but he was not really working permanently,” she said.

The unit also has a revolving fund which was started up with a $200,000 grant from an organization in Rome in 2011. It is used to assist women through small loans to be repaid with a small interest; the fund has grown to over a million. The interest is 10% and a defaulter’s fee of $20 and while there have been some bad experiences, Allicock said many women have benefited from the loan and some have started small businesses. A woman can borrow up to $100,000 and has four months to repay.

The women said that with the work that has been done they have seen a reduction in domestic violence and even a reduction in alcohol drinking. Whenever they are sensitizing the communities, the unit members speak about all aspects of domestic abuse and this message is not always readily accepted by the men in the communities. The men do not like the topic of gender equality either.

“We women are leaders in the community now. We are so proud that we are leaders in our communities and the men respect us now. Now some of them would say ‘Aunty Paulette, the gender equality woman’,” Allicock said with a small laugh.





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