West Watooka is situated in Wismar, Linden and is home to a warm bunch of people about 500 in total of mostly African Guyanese and Amerindian descent.
It is directly opposite Watooka Village, which is on the eastern side; the villages are separated by the Demerara River.
After arriving at the bus stop in Linden, one takes a taxi which can cost from $500 up to $1,000 depending on the destination in West Watooka.
On the day I visited, black clouds hung over Linden; rain was in the forecast. The trees in the village were bright, like the villagers’ spirits. It was a Sunday and they were attending their respective churches, running errands, working, or playing outdoor games with friends. One group sat under a shed playing a game of dominoes.
Raymond Paul was called over by his brother who was busy working on his car.
“Demba [the Demerara Bauxite Company] wanted to carry out their bauxite work here but the place was swampy, and they gave it to the Amerindians. It began as a settlement but eventually became a housing scheme,” Paul said of the village’s origins.
The main economic activity is farming, mainly of ground provision and cash crops. Paul is a farmer himself and sells wholesale at the Linden Market twice a week. The man is upset with the current administration saying that since they came into office, nothing much has been done for farmers. “We don’t even know who the Agriculture Minister is…,” he lamented.
The man added that West Watooka is a beautiful community. He said that the only time there is “strife” among the villagers is during election time. Otherwise he finds it to be one of the most trusting communities around. “You can leave your home open and go and come back and everything is fine.”
His best memories were those he made as a child. Today two of his children attend the Mackenzie High School; it is considered the best high school in Linden.
The villagers, the man noted, benefit from electricity, potable water, telephone and internet services. However, he said there was need for improvement on them all.
Deeper in the village where the road becomes red clay and farms grow on both sides, lives Edgar Rockcliffe. He is 90 years old and originally hailed from Perth, Mahaicony. Early in his life, he would often pass through the mining town on his way to work in the “gold bush”. Eventually, he moved to Half Mile in Wismar and began working at Demba.
While he lived at Half Mile, he kept a farm in West Watooka and went there every day; this began in 1964. He planted mainly ground provision and greens. During the sixties, when the workers of Demba went on strike, Rockcliffe had his farm to maintain himself and his family. After the strike he returned to work with the company and retired in 1987. Six years prior to his retirement, Rockcliffe moved to live in West Watooka to be closer to his farm. Rockcliffe and all 12 of his children worked on the farm. At the time he moved, he and his family were the only ones living in that section of his street, his two other neighbours lived further up.
Most of what was shared of Rockcliffe’s life was related by his daughter Denise. Because of the condition of the muddy track they lived through at the time, she said, she and her siblings who were attending the Wismar Hill Primary School, which is on the same side of the river as their home, were forced to take a boat across the river to Watooka then walk over the Mackenzie/Wismar Bridge to get to school. Although Watooka had a primary school as well, it was reserved for the children of the Demba staff. The Mackenzie/Wismar Bridge was said to have opened in 1966; prior to it being opened, people used boats.
West Watooka has developed a lot, Denise said. However, not everyone has benefited; the Rockcliffes are still without potable water although their neighbours further up the street are benefiting. The family still uses water from the river for washing and bathing and rain water for cooking and drinking.
Along with potable water, the area needs better roads and telephone service, she said.
“My mother was born in the Mazaruni River and came to live with her parents when she was ten. When she was 13, she lost both her parents; she was an only child. She moved to West Watooka in 1948,” Clayton Vanhersel said.
Vanhersel said he was raised in the era of flambeaux and when creek water was drinking water.
He attended St Aiden’s Primary. There are some things that occurred back then that he wishes he could block from his memory; things a boy of six should never have seen. It was the beginning of the 1964 disturbance, he recalled, and his teacher locked the classroom door, because there were children of East Indian descent in his class. A relative picked him up to take him home, but his friends were kept back for the sake of their safety. Even today he does not know what became of them. On his way home, he saw the businesses of a few of the prominent Indian Guyanese in Linden on fire.
“I don’t like to talk about these things, but I can’t forget them or un-see them. Afterwards, the queen sent soldiers here. We had a curfew here until things quieted down. Lots of people had to go away and leave their belongings,” he recalled.
For some time after this, children stayed home from school until it was safe to go again.
The Vanhersels and the Forsythes were the first two families to live in the front part of West Watooka.
During the 80-day strike, he learnt of a new food made from sweet potato leaves cooked like callaloo, with fish on the side. He had too much of this to eat, but it was what sustained him, his siblings and his parents. Later, when he was a grown man, he joined Demba. Today Vanhersel is a farmer.
He wishes for more employment for the people living in West Watooka and for their roads to be upgraded.