Murray Watson: Early Days report from Guyana

Murray Watson lets us know how he’s getting teaching maths and science in Sand Creek, Guyana. To say he’s working with limited resources is an understatement, but he (and the rest of the school) are doing a fantastic job regardless.

Fast forward to Day 40

Day 40, no money, no ATMs work and we’re skipping meals.  All to ensure we have enough funding to make it back to the school in time for Monday. I currently sit in the Takatu hotel, Lethem, making the most of the WiFi were entitled to as part of our stay in the benab out back. A room was too costly, thus were sleeping in our hammocks which now accompany us everywhere as waiting is inevitable in the land of many waters.

Back to the beginning

The past month in recollection has flown by but has been dense with previously alien experiences, new faces and places. My journey to Guyana consisted of 3 day of uneventful flying as I transitioned from Budapest on the 14th of August to end up in Georgetown early morning on the 16th.

I arrived a day later than the other volunteers with Carina (a fellow Project Trust Volunteer) as we had both been on holiday and couldn’t make the original departure date. At the PT flat we were welcomed in by the snoring of our evidently shattered peers from their own midnight arrival.

Georgetown provided a pleasant two weeks of volunteering at a local primary school, training at the ministry of education and plenty of bed bugs. We were worn out by the humid climate as we slowly adapted to this foreign environment. With 12 boys largely confined to “the yard” surrounding our 2 bedroom flat, we were all eager to leave and get to our projects.

Finally En Route, Guyana-style

The journey to Sand Creek first required a bus journey to Lethem. It was quoted as taking from 14 to 24 hours depending on the driver and road conditions. The journey began with a heartfelt good bye to our peers at the flat before packing into the minibus and setting off on our way south. The travel was as expected. Bumpy, sleepless but fantastically picturesque as we drove through rainforest at night to emerge suddenly into sunlit savannah.

We arrived in Lethem to find our arrival unexpected by the Ministry of Education. We were put up in a local hotel and told not to expect to leave for another 5 days.

Venturing out the following morning, after some brief phone contact with home, we somehow found ourselves walking down the local airstrip after following a footpath. We did not originally know it was a runway admittedly, that was until a plane landed perhaps 30 meters from us after we had run perpendicular to its path.

Minutes later we received a call from the hotel informing us that we were to leave in 45 minutes for the true savannah which we would call home for the year.

The last leg to Sand Creek

Again we all banded into our vehicle, this time a monster 4×4 with all of our baggage strapped to the roof or placed atop our knees. 4 hours later Ben and I were dropped of beside a rather spectacular river with a comparatively tiny boat on its way across to collect our sweaty British behinds. We traveled across the river precariously, with all our boxes of supplies and bags, our shipmaster being one of our new colleagues Sir Franz.

On the other side of the river we were greeted by a our Head Master for the year, Sir Kit Spencer, and the school warden uncle Joe. We strapped our boxes to an ATV and sped off with nightfall now upon us, myself and Ben now perched on either front wheel arch (I vow to never complain about road conditions or public transport again back in Britain).

Our accommodation was yet to be prepared (we later found out there was none planned at that time) thus we slept in the dorms with our to be students. I awoke the following morning to peer out the nearest window to see Sand Creek in its true form. The view was jaw dropping, a sunny Savannah valley rich with the green and orange of mango and palm trees, with houses and cattle placed throughout as if painted, or on a Polaroid. Sand Creek may be one of the most beautiful places on earth, and I count myself blessed that I shall spend a year waking up to such scenery.

Quad bike transport

Transport Guyana-style

A cultured start to teaching life

Ben and I’s first day the 1st of September conveniently coincided with the launching of Amerindian heritage month nationally and in the village. We made the most of this opportunity by attending the opening ceremony where we met our village Toshou (chief), introduced ourselves to the 50 attendants on stage and were welcomed to the village by all we met. We were also presented with our Amerindian names mine being Tibar Nikine, meaning big heart, and Ben Dawau Kidip, long foot. Needless to say I was happier than Ben (who’s feet are actually somewhat shorter than my own).

On the 10th however the true celebrations for Amerindian Heritage began as the village hosted its day of Amerindian living and night of Amerindian partying. By midday Sand Creek had collectively managed to dress up its two newest teachers in coconut leaf skirts, woven headdresses of the same leaf adorned with feathers, and drown us in their local drink of par karri (made from fermented cassava). We tried our hand at archery with other similarly clad Amerindians. Ben ended up being the only man to hit the bullseye much to the surprise of all, myself included. At night an enjoyable disco of sorts was held with cultural acts of local and dance scattered throughout.

celebrations for Amerindian Heritage

Joining the celebrations for Amerindian Heritage

A word on local cuisine

Everything here is made of cassava, from the local alcohol to the infamous farine. I’d never heard of farine let alone tried it before my arrival in region 9 but now I find myself unable to go a day without it. It resembles orange gravel in both texture and, at first glance, appearance. It’s used to bulk up any meal whether unprepared, fried or ideally soaked in a gravy or sauce.

The locals also have an impeccable skill in making any fruit, nut or vegetable into an alcoholic beverage. So far, I’ve been given banana wine, (sugar) cane wine, cassava wine, cashew wine, cyril wine, mango wine, rice wine, pineapple wine and potato wine.  I’ve been promised that there is more to sample when the season peaks.

A serious teaching job – aiming high

Okay, down to business. I have been appointed to teach Grade 11 integrated science (I’m responsible for all 44 pupils exam results…) and Grade 10 mathematics. The government recommends teaching 24 periods a week but due to understaffing I find myself doing 32 which does make things a lil’ busy I’ll  admit.

At the school the only trained teacher is the HM who teaches one class. The other 7 members of staff, excluding Ben and I, have no qualification higher than CXC (equivalent to national 5 or GCSE). Therefore Ben and I have been given all grade 10 and 11 maths and science classes as this is where the grades really do need improving.

Last year only 18 pupils sat CXC, and the school achieved an overall pass rate of 22%. This may sound less than satisfactory but Sand Creek actually had the best pass rate by percentage in the whole of region 9. Our aim this year is to surpass last years results.  This however will be a momentous task as there are almost 3 times as many Grade 11s this year meaning bigger classes and less one-on-one time.

Improvisation is the key

Another serious restriction on our teaching is the lack of resources to do any practical science. The experiments we’ve been able to do thus far have been reliant on Ben and I buying the resources. They are pretty difficult to source not gonna lie. We’ve improvised on most things like using cut up Coke bottles for beakers and begging the health clinic for iodine. Fortunately we’re both up for the challenge as the end reward is more than worth it for both the kids and ourselves.

The teaching itself has proved (this far anyway) to have been largely stress free and very enjoyable. Somehow despite my greatest efforts I find myself truly looking forward to teaching my maths lessons.  For this, I must curse Mr Russell my most notable mentor in the subject. We are also coaching our school’s debating team who are currently in the quarter finals of a nation wide competition.

A day in the life

Our days in Sand Creek begin at 5 o clock due to the rising sun and lack of blinds. And a God-awful bell that goes off telling the students to rise. We then don our shorts and vest to take all the students for an hour of running and general exercise. Due to previous coaching and captaining on the rugby pitch I have been appointed as the schools head coach for its upcoming athletics season. This means I have to lead the mornings exercises regardless of how tired and moody I am.

We proceed to break our fast then get to school for half 7 for lesson preparation. The school day begins an hour later and finishes at half past 2.  Except it doesn’t as Ben and I are doing extra lessons 4 days a week! This takes us to half 3, giving us a half hour rest before I take our athletes to the creek for an hour of swimming.

We finish with dinner and lesson prep until 7, after which time we are finally free to crash in the hammock. Or perhaps go to the village for a cold Coke and lights as we have none in our accommodation.

The school and dorms are totally without electricity save for the single room computer lab. Both the school and dorms both have solar panels installed. However, due to the contractors’ (almost definitely profit driven) poor choice of batteries there is not sufficient power for the dormitory to have lights on even in the bathrooms at nights. This is an even bigger is issue when you consider nightfall is at half 5/6 leaving only an hour for all the dorms students to study before they have no light.

Back to Lethem

In the Creek du Sand there is no internet or phone signal (which I’m loving to be honest) which makes researching difficult. We’re not helped by a school library which is near empty and a village library full only of biblical texts. This is the reason for our current visit to Lethem as our HM has entrusted Ben and I do the research for the schools next debate.

We were given maybe 5 minutes warning that we were to leave, as seems to be the way in Guyana, before being thrown into the back of a pickup alongside spare wheels and extra gasoline for a 3 hour off roading extravaganza. In our haste we did not pick up our passports which are needed to take money out the bank.  A real pain as we have next to no money and won’t get paid for another 2 months.

No regrets

But hey, we’re here and we’ll get the job done, somehow. Yes there are struggles. Yes there are bouts with homesickness and yes there are days when the heat is too much and there’s no clean water but that’s just what it is. I have no regrets whatsoever about signing up for this year and I urge others to do the same both for themselves and for those less fortunate.

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