Reminiscing boyhood in 1960s and 70s rural setting

I WAS born and raised in Ankerville, a very rural setting, before leaving in 1977 to advance my studies in America as was the fashion from the 1970s and after; Canada was an option for some. (Before that period, youngsters primarily headed the UK or Mother India to pursue post-secondary studies with some still choosing the UK as an option). Rural life instilled a degree of discipline and dedication to family settings among youngsters, preparing them for responsibilities and adulthood that one did not and would not get in an urban setting. One was part and parcel of every activity in the village – a jhandi, wedding, Ramayana, Bhagwat, Koran Sharief, Havan, Christian Service, Shave head, nine day, religious celebrations, public meetings, etc. And in spite of the many difficulties and lack of access to basic necessities, and an austere and frugal lifestyle, people lived a relatively good life helping each other for any event or illness and sharing their limited resources. Youngsters or anyone raised in an urban setting would never quite understand the difficulties and horrors of life in the villages.

Rural life was extremely harsh with so many limitations. One had to be creative to overcome the many challenges to attain basics for survival such as food and medicine and school supplies. Potable water and light were luxuries in Ankerville and other villages up through the 1980s. They were neglected and marginalized, causing visitors to feel that modernisation completely missed them. In fact, foreign visitors to Ankerville and neighboring villages during the 1970s thought they were in some underdeveloped areas of rural villages of India from whence the indentured labourers were recruited to enrich the plantation owners of Guiana. Although there were wires and pipes everywhere, there was no running water or electricity or flush toilets or phones. And although some people had gas stoves, gas ovens, and kerosene stoves, there was no cooking gas anywhere remotely close. And although there was a gas station in Port Mourant, and shops had kerosene tanks to supply fuel to homes, there was hardly any kero during the 1970s. Kero was always in shortage. Cooking was done primarily on the chula (or wood-burning fire side). The few people who had stoves had to resort back to the chula. In fact, in the 1970s the entire country was moving backward – from motorised cars, trucks, buses, and boats to donkey carts and paddle boats, from pipe-borne water to rain and trench water, and from electric-operated stereos to hand- winding juke boxes. Diesel was so scarce, that farmers had to abandon and burn their rice and cane crops at times. The Burnham dictatorship had reduced the country to regression rather than progression right after the British left the country. Dwellers used to get running water in the yard from pipes dug a few feet below the earth; water was collected in buckets a few feet down. The white man used to come with a truck with some kind of pump that blow out the village pipes of clogs and water would flow with the pressure, even shattering pipes. But after independence, the pipes were neglected, not blown, and eventually clogged up.  Water was available only at a few standpipes and at government-managed overhead tanks. Long lines would form for water fetched in buckets or barrels on carts. Ladies often have had to submit their bodies to get fresh with the manager, a non-Indian, to turn on the pipe for water to flow.

The day for a primary school-age youngster in a village is routine.  Both boys and girls had a lot of chores in the villages from morning till bedtime. The day began early with the girls or ladies up preparing the meals (breakfast and lunch in one set of cooking) for the adults (primarily males) to go to work (in the backdam on the rice and or canefields). The boys attended to the poultry and other livestock; in my case, the cows. This was followed by myself and sisters fetching water half to a mile away in buckets to water the plants in the kitchen garden and for washing clothes, as well as for cooking when rain water in drums ran out. Then the boys would take the cattle to the fields leaving them behind for grazing and collect wood for the chula. The trench or standpipe half a mile away from home was the place for bathing. After breakfast, comprising roti and a vegetable or dhal or curry, one got dressed for the journey to school, walking barefoot for almost a mile in my case.  I lived two streets from where Cheddi Jagan grew up and I went to St. Joseph Anglican primary, commonly known as English School, so named because it was founded by the English Anglo Saxon Whites who were Anglicans. (Nearby was the Roman School founded by the Roman Catholic Portuguese in an area called Portuguese Quarter. And a little farther down in Rose Hall was the famous Scots School, so named because it was founded by the Scottish Whites – each ethnic group had its own community, church, club, but not all ethnicities had their own schools. The Indians and Africans did not have their own recognised schools. So the Indians and Africans, both communities living separately, attended schools founded by the three white ethnicities).

Before the beginning of the school day, boys played cricket early in the morning in the school yard and the girls played various game such as ‘rounders’ and ‘kick seed’ played on the ground in drawn boxes. During the morning session, there was a break for snacks with students rushing to buy bara, gulgula, channa, sweetie, goat stone, pine drink, kool aid, crushed ice or some other snacks. Boys would play cricket and the girls hop scotch or some other games. At the end of morning lessons, students got together for lunch. There was no free lunch, although occasionally we got biscuits and powdered milk that were donated by the white countries in a nutrition-supplement programme. Some students would take food to school (rice, roti, curry, dhal in a sauce pan with compartments) or returned home during the lunch break. Some days I took lunch and other days, I rushed home (jogging that entire mile) with friends. Then we jogged back to school, raiding someone’s fruit trees along the way as (manished) youngsters did in those days. After a session of cricket during the lunch break, it was resumption of studies. (I did extremely well in school, topping the class from standards one to four). After school, one rushed home to fetch water for the plants and to play some cricket before getting to the backdam to bring home the cows. Grass was cut by my brothers and occasionally by me and brought home for the cattle. Then one takes a bath and went out for a brief social outing with friends or a card or domino game just before dusk or did other things that kids would do outdoors. There was also time for afternoon cricket ‘practice’.  In the evening, after dinner, one took to books – there was no TV until the mid-1980s. Electricity was not reliable and so one studied using hand or gas lamps or bottle lamps (flambeau) or flash lights. In the night, one had to keep the ears open for noises of bandits coming to steal cattle or ward against armed kick down door robbers who were sent by racist politicians to terrorize communities. Criminals were released from prison in the nights and instructed to carry out attacks in targeted homes thought to have cash or jewelry. Even some police officers were part of the kick down door gangs. Villagers swore that some of the kick down door bandits were policemen they saw at stations. President Desmond Hoyte put an end to the kick down banditry that was ‘operationalized’ by one of his racist colleagues since the Burnham days.

At dawn, the youngsters were up again to commence their daily routine. What a difficult life but also what fond memories I had with a lot of satisfaction of making a contribution to family development and village betterment in spite of government neglect.

Yours truly,
Vishnu Bisram

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It is estimated that over one million Guyanese, when counting their dependents, live outside of Guyana.  This exceeds the population of Guyana, which is now about 750,000.  Many left early in the 50’s and 60’s while others went with the next wave in the 70’s and 80’s.  The latest wave left over the last 20 years. This outflow of Guyanese, therefore, covers some three generations. This outflow still continues today, where over 80 % of U.G. graduates now leave after graduating.  We hope this changes, and soon.

Guyanese, like most others, try to keep their culture and pass it on to their children and grandchildren.  The problem has been that many Guyanese have not looked back, or if they did it was only fleetingly.  This means that the younger generations and those who left at an early age know very little about Guyana since many have not visited the country.  Also, if they do get information about Guyana, it is usually negative and thus the cycle of non-interest is cultivated.

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