Murray Watson: Second Report from Guyana

Murray Watson reports on his volunteer year at Sand Creek Secondary, Guyana.

Map showing Guyana where Murray Watson volunteers

Time to write from Letham

Day 110, again I’m in Lethem – 3 hours from Sand Creek. This time meals and accommodation have been provided for by the ministry – thus the room is shared, the bed has no sheet or duvet and there’s no mossy nets but hey it’s free. Ben and I are here to represent Sand Creek Secondary at a mathematics workshop with the purpose of relaying information about the new curriculum back to base. We were informed the workshop was a one-day affair and we packed accordingly. This now day three and my one set of work clothes is certainly worse for wear.

Finding my stride at Sand Creek

I now feel well and truly settled in at Sand Creek. I know almost everyone in the village and most of the big names from several others. Life in Guyana may be a little absurd at times (the kids have started getting possessed) but it now feels day to day as I teach the students on the weekdays and venture out to the mountains or neighbouring villages at the weekends.

My early morning coaching came to great fruition with Sand Creek winning the south central three day Inter-school sports competition and sending a great many athletes to compete regionally and nationally.  The events revealed how involved I had become as the students I trained raced in the creek and at the track (at one point I was politely asked to shut up and leave the track as my shouting was overcoming the PA system…). Sand Creek was undoubtedly the loudest crowd in the stands as our HM and I shook bottles full of rocks while the collective staff rallied the students into chants and calls.

Inter schools also provided a meet up with the PTVs from Shulinab and Swariwaou, our neighbouring projects, both of which are a 4/5 hour drive. We spent the nights watching the sunset from atop a water tower whilst we all caught up on each other’s activities after a long day stewarding and coaching in the sun.  It was great to see our peers as even with the warm welcome we have received, it is still nice to speak to our fellows and enjoy being teenagers as well as teachers.

Weekend hospitality Guyana-style

Due to 2am awakening by Junior (my Amerindian best friend) I was even fortunate enough to travel the 150km north to Annai for inter-branch. Albeit the space was a seat strapped to the roof by a singular rope. This made for a particularly interesting journey and breakfast of fish and chips on the road as I was scared both for my life and the chips which I hadn’t tasted in over 3 months. These impromptu journeys have become a staple of weekends adding a far greater uncertainty to what a weekend can hold in store.

A quiet night in the village doing marking can easily turn into a party three villages over after being convinced our attendance is “a must”. Consequentially more friendships are forged over roast meat which can be anything from chicken to tapir with a backdrop of blaring music. Thus, the uncertainty of weekends grows exponentially as each new acquaintance will at some point stop by “the white sirs” and whisk us off to some event that might be 10 minutes or 10 hours away.

Getting from A to B (or Lethem in this case)

Traveling around the Rupununi is an adventure in its own right. To travel to Lethem you need to get lucky with one of the shop keepers and climb into a pickup bay alongside spare tires and oil drums. If that’s not possible a Savannah bus is the way to go. Savannah buses resemble the battered, generation old minivans that all scout groups and school sports teams will be well acquainted with. Only this is Guyana. The doors need to be kicked to open, 12 seater means 24 people with maybe a couple more on the roof and they are all eternally orange due to the dust. At home we get upset when a bus is two minutes late. Here the buses are dependent on variables such as whether the driver was drinking last night, is still drinking or has a new girlfriend. And as always Guyana time keeping means the 7 am bus leaves at 8 and the 3 pm return leaves at 5.

Okay the driver has turned up and everyone and their immediate family, plus a couple lambs and the occasional iguana are aboard and we finally set off. We stop 10 minutes later for the driver to buy some bread, some water and a couple beers (it’s past 8 in the morning by this point so it’s justifiable…). Again, we set off. We stop 30 minutes later, the driver throws his beer can out the window and greets his mother. He drops off the bread, eats the breakfast she lovingly prepared while we sardines are scared to leave the vehicle for fear of not being able to fit back in. A further 20 minutes later the journey actually begins as we brace ourselves for 3 hours of serious off-road driving, rock hard suspension, no seat belts and blaring calypso music. Any rainfall can have serious effects on the road which is a worn path through the Savannah, causing the route to change each time. Thankfully the views stay mesmerising throughout.

Debating success!

The work with the debating team was exhausting as Ben and I stayed in school from its close at half 2 until 11 daily fine tuning speeches and students’ delivery. Thankfully hard work pays off as Sand Creek Secondary School placed third out of all secondary schools in Guyana after our winning streak of 9 debates. This success made the long nights and arguments with the HM worth it as the village cheered and celebrated with each victory. I am proud to say this was region 9’s best performance to date in the competition also earning us a lot of praise from other villages and the education department for championing hinterland academia. Competitions such as these are always dominated by the coastal schools because of better funding and Internet access. We even received radio and newspaper attention making the event truly special for the students involved.

Finally some home-cooked meals

We have finally been paid (woohoo!) meaning we now cook for ourselves instead of eating with the dorm students. This has allowed me to unleash my inner cook as Ben was unable to fry an egg (no joke) and Theo, our housemate goes home to a neighbouring village often. The house favourite has been established as calabrese (Brazilian sausage) cooked in tomato paste and spiced as suits our mood served with fried rice, pumpkin and farine.

Teachers and Teaching

The staff have all become firm friends as we join to tackle the many challenges of running a school in Guyana. Ben and I currently reside in the teaching quarters alongside 7 other members of staff which is a constant hive of activity during all daylight hours. This creates a big family feel due to our closeness in age and mutual occupation. I am overjoyed to say that our staffing situation has improved with 13 teachers now on the payroll. None of the newcomers are qualified teachers but they make up for it with enthusiasm and commitment. My 32 period week has mercifully adjusted to 24 periods allowing me to spend more time with my classes and sanity.

The teaching is going well but it has now become very apparent how much work we really need to do. For integrated science the students must complete 18 School Based assessments (SBA’s) which has given me plenty of problems as I try and get my grade 11’s through the final 8 with no equipment or guidelines. SBA more like cba (“can’t be assed” for the older folk reading). Maths has been progressing nicely with my class 10A, whom I’m getting a soft spot for. Due to financial restrictions only every third student has a calculator as a basic scientific calculator costs as much a good hammock, and can only be bought in Lethem which costs $5000 for a return journey. Despite this their enthusiasm cannot be faulted and I have earned myself the title Sir “Shapes” for my geometry teachings.

Village life in Guyana

The villagers have proven to be incredibly welcoming and many have become firm friends from helping with firewood, supporting the village sport teams and gaffing at the two main shops. I have dined with much of the village exposing me to true Amerindian life in self made mud huts with coconut leaf roofs.

Gatherings and celebrations are an all age, and all village affair with booming soca (soul calypso) and fohon, plenty of food and some strictly abided courtesies for each occasion. Birthdays have a ritual cake cutting and five verse rendition of happy birthday (happy birthday to you, may the good lord bless you, how old are you now, may you live to see many more, happy birthday to you). The village has an approximate population of 800 meaning there is a birthday every second day or so giving ample opportunity for dancing two and three step while eating from a calabash bowl.

Making the most of my volunteer year

Putting this experience in Guyana into words is a task I will never be able to do sufficiently, though I shall endeavour as I enjoy writing them. Thanks to everyone who has made this possible and for all the support back home. When I’m feeling down looking at photos from home reminds me why I am here and that I owe it to other people to make the most of this year.

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