I rarely visit the Stabroek Market and its environs by choice. The camaraderie among ordinary Guyanese mostly earning an honest living is good to witness but there is also often the risk of being confronted by belligerence and harassment. Those few who choose to steal instead of toil are nuisances I would rather not encounter. Of course, one can also become a victim of thieves even in the safest of neighbourhoods, but if we can, most of us would not walk into a lion’s den knowing the possibility of being mauled.
Nevertheless, I respect and admire the businessmen and women who toil at the market day in and day out. Families are fed by those vendors settled under umbrellas, those standing along the streets or pushing carts as they announce their items for sale and the stalls offer the opportunity to fulfill dreams.
When entering Stabroek Market, one often pretends to not notice those selling illicit substances, such as cannabis. One is also often accosted by men looking to purchase gold. Curiosity has never tempted me to feign interest in selling just to see what bargains they offer.
One can also deliberate on other unpleasant facts about the Stabroek Market area, such as the stench. The pungent smell of urine incessantly hangs in the air. It is not uncommon to see a man relieving himself in a corner (but then again one can be walking anywhere in Guyana and witness that). One might also be amused by a ‘cuss-out’ or quicken one’s footsteps when a fight occurs.
By choice, I chose to visit the area earlier this week, thinking I might happen on some interesting occurrence I could write about. Instantaneously, I was reminded why I do not frequent the area. Besides the usual market culture, the stench and eyes of men who seem to possess neither charm nor intellect, one of the first things I observed were the mini-buses. Children were on their way to school; over 20 were crammed in some buses where they bounced to the loud music from the gods of dancehall. Obnoxious conductors shouted and tried squeeze more children into already overloaded buses. As usual, many of the bus drivers seemed to be strangers to patience – horns were honking as they were anxious to accelerate. They were a vexation to the spirit. I am sure there are conductors and drivers who are intelligent, but I often wonder if those who engage in the behaviours I witnessed possess even a smidgen of common sense.
But the overloading of mini-buses is not a new issue. In the 90s, when I attended school, many students engaged in bus riding, often in overcrowded buses, while drivers and conductors were “charming” underage girls who were not mature enough to tell them no. But what has changed? A few months ago, I was informed of a case where a mini-bus conductor impregnated a school girl and was refusing to help support the child. How parents fail their girl children so that they end up in the arms of such mini-bus drivers and conductors is another baffling, sad Guyanese reality. In some cases, the girls are perhaps looking for love because it is missing at home or looking for someone to take care of them. There are parents who toil in Stabroek Market to feed, clothe and send their children to school; some perhaps too busy to notice drivers and conductors, who especially prey on the young girls. Of course, all bus conductors and drivers do not operate in such a manner, but those guilty seemed to be left to carry on as they please with little or no consequence.
There were no police present as I observed the mini-bus madness. Passersby seemed unbothered. ‘Is it me who is totally removed from the realities of the everyday ordinary man?’ I thought at one point. Am I a snob for thinking that the uncouth and abrasive attitudes of some mini-bus operators are unacceptable? Is it too ambitious to have expectations of them that rise above the dingy concrete ground of the Stabroek Market?
The enforcers of the traffic laws are aware of what happens. Sometimes when buses are caught breaking the law, they would face charges. But though the fares were recently increased, what I witnessed with the overloading of the buses and the too loud music signals that nothing has changed.
Many parents are perhaps unaware of the dangers their children are exposed to daily by allowing themselves to be crammed into mini-buses. The music is also another factor that attracts some school children to the popular buses. The dancehall music that is usually played is most often lewd and void of any message of substance, but this also has many young people captivated. For many of them, those dancehall artistes are their heroes because they may be missing other role models. Constantly bombarded by sex and violence and even colourism in recent years—as artistes such as Vybz Kartel and Alkaline who bleached their skin—can we be surprised when they mimic the behaviour?
Around Stabroek one is sure to see someone pink, orange or red in the face, blotchy and dark at the knuckles. Around Stabroek some wayward youth may wait to grab a purse, or snatch a wallet, obsessed with the want and need for money, but too impatient and lazy to work honestly for it. Around Stabroek a citizen may make an appeal for better bus services, praying for other options for citizens who must solely depend on the buses, but someone may accuse him or her of trying to end the careers of people honestly earning their money. But while it is not untrue that the drivers and conductors must also be able to feed and clothe themselves and their families, should they carry on being reckless while endangering the lives of their passengers? For a long time, many Guyanese have been calling for a modern bus service. It is hopeful that there are plans to have one next year.
However, in the meantime, I think that the mini-bus parks should be patrolled by the police. And along the routes. The police are not unaware of what is happening around Stabroek and other places, where mini-buses frequent, but is there any serious effort to curb the actions of those drivers and conductors who break the law every day? Why are they still allowed to play loud music while they operate, endanger the lives of school children by cramming them into small spaces, endanger the lives of all when they speed and insult the citizens who dare to speak up?
The sad answer is bribery. The fact that bribes are often accepted by the police, which enables the mini-bus culture, is sad. Perhaps if they were paid better salaries there wouldn’t be an issue. Perhaps it would be less chaotic around Stabroek. The vendors might conduct business with no fear of a man waving a gun demanding their day’s earnings, a woman would not have to clutch her bag and walk speedily through the area and citizens would be decent enough to not relieve themselves wherever is convenient around Stabroek. How else does one explain that stench?