Kwakwani Park Workers Club was an institution. This was a place which had a large hall which doubled as a cinema with a stage at one end. It had a long veranda in the front on both sides of the entrance on which were placed tables at short intervals where people played dominos with great passion and noise. Inside was the bar, the place for many a meeting, fight and romance. The level of noise in it can only be experienced, not described. The Workers Club could be heard before it was seen. And its smell was never to be forgotten. Playing dominos in the Kwakwani Workers Club seemed to consist of smashing the domino on the table with all your might and shouting at the top of your voice. I can vouch for the fact that going by this criterion the people who played dominos in Kwakwani Workers Club must have been world champions. If the game is more than this, then I must beg forgiveness for my ignorance. The Workers Club was also remarkable for its smell. Imagine a combination of stale sweat, beer, and rum floating on heavy humid air in an invisible cloud that came at you as soon as you were within reach. Then it clung to you and entered every exposed pore and remained with you and your clothes through several baths and washes. But this did not seem to bother anyone to the best of my knowledge.
The people of Kwakwani were mostly of African descent. This, however, is a generalization because in Guyana the racial mixture is so rich that most people seem to be a combination of many different races – Amerindian, Chinese, Indian, African, and European. Demographically, Guyana had at that time about sixty percent people of Indian descent who mostly lived on the coast. They used to work on the sugar plantations, having been brought in by the British as indentured labor from India. Another main occupation of theirs was small time trade. Twenty percent of African descent who were the descendants of African slaves and also worked on the sugar plantations. When the emancipation of slaves happened, they walked off the plantations and settled in the hinterland, engaged in timber extraction and whatever else they could do. The timber and mining industries are dominated by them, as are also the Army and the Police. The last twenty percent consists of the indigenous Amerindian tribes, originally hunter, gatherers who have been exploited mercilessly by everyone else. They still live in the forests, though many now live and work on the fringes of whichever town or village that happens to be nearby. They have the least paying jobs and live mostly by selling wild meat, fish, honey, balata (wild rubber), and sometimes by working as guides for others.
In this final section of the population are also the descendants of the Chinese laborers who were brought by the British to work on the railway, most of which has fallen into disuse and is rotting away. There was and continues to be a free mixing of the races though the Indians seem to keep to themselves and away especially from people of African origin. Indians everywhere seem to be oriented towards fair-skinned people and practice their own brand of ‘apartheid’, wherever they live in appreciable numbers, including in India. The best example of this can be seen if you read the matrimonial advertisement page in the Sunday papers in India. Almost every matrimonial ad will ask for a bride who above all else is ‘Fair,’ which has nothing to do with her love for justice, believe me. A very sad practice that harms Indians more than anyone else, but they have yet to learn this lesson.
Guyana had become independent less than 10 years before I got there. So, ideology, in this case communist, was still very strong. As I mentioned earlier, people called each other ‘Comrade,’ which depending on the tone of voice could be given any kind of connotation from the most warmly cordial to the positively hostile. As in many such cases, not everyone was a ‘believer,’ but to appear to believe was required. Since ideological alignment was more important than everything else, efficiency suffered and people who claimed to be loyalists of the ruling party, the PNC, had personal power far in excess of their official position.
On Sundays a film would be screened in the Club. Most of the spectators apparently believed that they could influence the outcome of whatever was happening on the screen if they shouted at the actors. So they proceeded to do so with great gusto. But strangely nothing seemed to change. The actors continued to do whatever they had intended to do in the first place. Much like foreign policy in our so-called democracies, which seems to be independent of the screaming and shouting of their poor enslaved populations who have not realized the fact that the script has been written by someone else and will not change with their screaming. Little did I realize while attempting to watch a film in Kwakwani, I would live to see a real-life version of this behavior, thirty years later.
About a kilometer away from Kwakwani Park, up a small hill was the Officers colony called Staff Hill. In typical British colonial style, the rulers were separated from the ruled. Even ten years after independence, Staff Hill was informally out of bounds for ordinary people. It was meant for Officers, in this case, all black West Indian or East Indian (people of Indian origin) and though it no longer had a fence and guards as used to be there in the past, nobody from Kwakwani Park actually came up the hill except to bring some visiting relative for a short drive to show them how the other half lived. White and black is not about color; it’s about social status and attitude.
Staff Hill had two kinds of houses. Bungalow type houses with 3 bedrooms and a veranda all around them for most of us. And big wooden houses on stilts with parking underneath them for the really big bosses. The houses were arranged around a quadrangle with an orange orchard all around them. There was a swimming pool to cool off. There were tennis courts, the Staff Club with a bar, guest rooms, dining room (excellent cooks to boot) with proper dinner service, uniformed waiters, table tennis table, and a library.
The rules of this Club were very different. The barman wore a uniform and gloves. You could not play dominos here. And you could not come to the Staff Club in your shorts and nothing else. You could not shout at the top of your voice and you could not curse. And no matter that the British were long gone – as in the case of India, their ways had been adopted by their erstwhile slaves and upheld as a sign of their own ‘superiority’ over their own brethren. I am not saying that there is something intrinsically good about cursing and yelling and unwashed shirts. I am merely pointing at the reasons we do some things and how we use certain norms to demonstrate our own superiority over others.
In Kwakwani Park was the hospital where for a year my father was the resident doctor, Nurse Liverpool the Head Nurse, and MacFarlane the Compounder. All wonderful people who ran a very good hospital indeed. Kwakwani was a lovely small town where you knew everyone, and everyone knew you. There were no strangers in Kwakwani. Everyone knew what was happening in your life and had an interest in it. And you in theirs. People had the time to stop whatever they were doing to chat with you when you came past. Nobody passed anyone on the street without saying, “Aye! Aye! Maan!! Ow ya doo’in!!” Remember to end on a high note as you say that, to know how it sounded.
They may add, “Ow de Ol Maan?” (Could mean your father or your husband, depending on who you were). “Ow de Ol Lady?” (wife or mother). “Ow de Picknee?” (Believe it or not, that means children). And remember that had nothing to do with whether you were married or not, as I learned to my own embarrassment one day when I went to the Income Tax office to file my tax return. The lady at the counter offered to help me fill out the form, which I gladly agreed to have her do. She asked me at the appropriate column, “Married?” I said, “No.” She then asked, “Any children?” I said, “I already told you I am not married.” She looked up at me and said, “Wad de hell dat ga fa do wid anytin Maan!!” To end this line of discussion, I immediately accepted defeat and said, “No children.”
The language of the Guyanese is called Creolese. It is an English Patois and as distinct with its own flavor as French Patois is from French. Creolese has the taste of Cookup, the sound of the Steel band and the aroma of the rain forest. It is a language of the people and reflects their culture. I used to speak it so fluently that new locals I met wouldn’t believe that I was not a native.
They would ask me, ‘Weya fraam?’
‘Ah-no-dat bai, A-mean weya from in Giyana?’
‘Me-na from Giyana, me from India.’
‘Ah! (That is said as an exclamation in a high rising tone) – Ya tak jus laka-we’
And that was a great compliment. It is really impossible to render Creolese into text because it is spoken with so much emotion and voice modulation that without those sounds, it’s not done justice. It is a language that comes straight from the heart. Creolese has many proverbs and funny stories with morals that are typical of the language and the people.
For example, there is a famous proverb: Han wash han mak han com clean (When two people help one another, they help themselves).
Another one: He taak caz he ga mouth (He talks nonsense).
As for stories, there are several. And in them, the people of color may appear lazy, but are smart and the White man is the butt of the joke. Here’s one:
One day a black man (Blak-maan) be ga-in about lookin for sometin ta eat when he com upon dis garden in de bush. Dey he saw dis great big bunch of ripe bananas. De man! He very appy! He put he arms around the bunch of bananas an sey, ‘De Lord is my shepherd and I shall not want.’ He hear a voice saying, ‘If you don tak ya hands off dem bananas, I gon lay ya down in green pastures.’
Dey bin the owner of the garden watchin over he garden when dis man go dey.
And knowing the Guyanese, once this happened, I am sure the owner would have given some bananas to the hungry man to eat. I don’t know of any Guyanese who would chase a hungry man away. Guyanese have big hearts.
Another one involves an Amerindian guide and his white employer. They are walking through the rain forest. The Vyte-maan (White man) sees that the Amerindian is walking barefoot, carrying his boots on a string over his shoulder. So, he laughs at him and says, ‘You ignorant Amerindians are so stupid. Why are you carrying your boots?’
The Buck-maan (Amerindian), he na say nothn.
Then they come to a stream. The Vyte-maan tak off he shoe and the Bok-maan, he put on he shoe.
The Vyte-maan laugh at he again and seh, ‘This is really stupid. Now that we have to wade through the water you put on your shoes? The shoes will get spoilt.’
The Buck-man, he na say nothn.
As they wade through the stream the Vyte-maan get hit by a stingray. He scream in pain and fall down. The Buck-maan drag he out onto the other bank and seh, ‘Now who stupid? When me eye cyan see, me na need no shoe. But when me eye cyant see, is weh I need de shoe maan. So, who stupid, me ah you?’
Another brilliant one is about this Blak-maan who goes looking for work. In Guyana, the custom is that the employer feeds the worker. If the worker works for the full day then the employer gives him a lunch break and lunch. So, this Blak-maan comes to the mansion of a Vyte-maan. The Vyte-maan says to him, ‘I have a big tree in the back garden that fell last night. You must saw it. But you guys are lazy. You take too long to eat lunch. So, what I’m going to do is to give you food now. You eat first then you work through till the evening without a lunch break.’
The Blak-maan agrees. The Vyte-maan gives him banana and cassava and beef and tea and the Black-maan, he eat like it is his last meal. When he done, the Vyte-maan tell he, ‘Come over to the back and I will show you the tree you have to saw.’ The Blak-maan goes around the house and there is this huge tree that has fallen. The Vyte-maan say to he, ‘Alright, you see that tree over there, you have to saw it.’
The Blak-maan he look carefully and seh, ‘Me na see no tree.’
The Vyte-maan can’t believe his ears. ‘What do you mean you can’t see the tree? It is that great big tree over there!’
The Blak-maan ben down and look heah and deh and seh again, ‘Me na see no tree.’
Now the Vyte-maan is really angry. So he shouts at him, ‘You stupid man, can’t you see that great big tree over there?’
The Blak-maan seh again, ‘Me na see no tree.’
The Vyte-maan is in a rage and yells, ‘What do you mean you can’t see the tree? I saw you see the tree.’
The Blak-maan seh, ‘You saw me see the tree? But you aint go see me saw it.’
I can still hear the voice of my dear friend and first boss, Nick Adams telling me this joke and both of us laughing our heads off. You have to listen to a Guyanese tell these stories with the sing-song tone of their voice and their actions illustrating what is supposed to be happening in the story. I can’t put that into this narrative here. But if we meet one day, remind me and I will tell you the stories in Creolese as they should be told.
Mail took an average of one month to get to Guyana from India. That it arrived is a marvel of the system which in today’s email world we seem to have forgotten. But it did come and in the 5 years that I spent in Guyana, I never had a letter that was lost. As postage depended on weight, I used to write on very thin, semi-transparent tracing paper with a very fine nibbed pen to try to get as much matter into it as possible. And since Mr. Gates had not yet created Windows and laptops were not for machines and notebooks had 100 pages of 15 lines each, you could not cut & paste or delete or drag & drop. So, you needed to write after due thought if you wanted to save yourself the trouble of writing what you had written, all over again. This is how I learnt to express myself in writing.
In Kwakwani, I was the youngest member of the Management, sometimes by more than two decades. As the Assistant Administrative Manager, it was my responsibility to look after the logistics in the entire mining town. There were department heads over whom I had no formal authority, but whose cooperation I needed to get anything done. Some were twice my age and Guyanese and members of the PNC, while I was a young foreigner. I learnt, very practically, that the best way to make progress was to develop friendships as that would be the only thing that you could count on, especially in the hard times. I remember how my manager Nick Adams used to put it. He’d say, “A relationship is like a bank account. You only have in it, what you put in. And when you need to draw on it, you only have as much as you put in.” That is one of the lessons I learnt in my life and which has stayed with me all these years. Much that I owe to Nick.
One of the areas of my responsibility was the Commissary. This was the company owned department store from where you got your weekly supply of food and practically everything else you needed. It had a small frozen foods section, rough wooden shelves with rice, flour, lentils, and other groceries stacked on them, farming tools, alcohol and beverages, tea, sugar, condiments and flavors, seeds, and fertilizer for the vegetable gardens that most people had. There was a small display of regular shirts, pants, and Dishikis. Basic needs for everyday life in the mining town. Since this was the only store in town, it did good business. All the stuff came across the Berbice River by the bus or up the river by barge. The object of the Commissary was not to make profit and some things were even subsidized by the company. It was more a social obligation as well as a necessity if you wanted to run a mining town in the middle of the rain forest.
One day, thanks to one of the periodic economic crises that we used to go through, there was no rice in the store for several weeks. Things got pretty bad as rice is a staple of the Guyanese people. Kwakwani being a mining town in the forest had the advantage that most people had vegetable gardens where they grew cassava, bananas and tapioca, so nobody was starving but tempers were high. Their anger was really against the government of President Forbes Burnham, who was Head of the PNC (People’s National Congress), but in a communist (called socialist, but really communist) dictatorship the first thing you learn is to keep your mouth shut about the Party and the President. But anger must be vented. So, the most convenient target was the Company and its Management; though everyone was fully aware that the Company was as helpless as they were individually both in creating the financial crisis as well as in resolving it. Actually, come to think of it, a shortage of rice in Guyana was like a shortage of coal in New Castle. It was more a matter of distribution than of production. The two major agricultural exports of Guyana were rice and sugar and so not having rice in the country was ridiculous. But that is exactly what happened on this occasion. So, people were frustrated and furious.
Then one day, rice came. The storekeeper, Griffith, unloaded it and packed it into 2 kilo bags, stacked them on the shelves and was ready to open the store. A crowd had collected in front of the store and like most such situations, a combination of old resentment, misplaced anger, and short tempers, things had started to get a little hairy. Griffith phoned the Office and I took his call. He said, “Yawar, things are bad here. Looks like there will be a riot and they will break into the store and loot it. They are calling for Nick. Is he there?” Nick had gone to Linden that day for a meeting and hadn’t returned. So, I said, “Nick is not here, but I will be with you in five minutes.” Griffith sounded very doubtful. He said, “Man!! These guys are sounding nasty. I ain’t know if you can handle it.” Now say that kind of thing to a 24-year-old with red blood in his veins and what do you get?? Off I went to the store. The store was about a kilometer down the hill from the Admin. Office and so I was there in less than the five minutes that I promised Griffith.
The store was built on a concrete platform with steps on either side which you had to climb up to get to the door. I parked my Land Rover to one side and walked up to the crowd. They let me through, and I climbed up the stairs and stood on the platform and what do I see? A huge crowd of men and some women, all shouting and cursing (and boy, could those Kwakwani people curse!!) …. many men with guns slung on their shoulders and cutlasses in their hands. Now these guns and cutlasses really meant no harm in themselves as that was the way the men went to their farms in the jungle. As it was evening, they were all headed there and had stopped by the store. But the mood was ugly, and the guns and cutlasses were there.
I raised my hand and the noise died down. I said, “The rice is here. We are sorry for the shortage, but you know this is not in our hands. But it is here now. Please form a line and come and get it in an orderly manner.” There was a moment’s silence as I said this. Then the shouting started again. “Ya rass coolie man wanna come and tell a’we Guyanese how to live?? Who the rass is you to tell a’we anytin?” I realized that this was not the normal Kwakwani Guyanese I was listening to. Somebody had started this ‘we versus the foreigner’ thing and it was catching on. This was the beast of the mob, which has a mind of its own. At times like this, I believe that if you face the situation with courage you are taught what to say. Later you can analyze it and wonder why you said what you did. But at that time, it is spontaneous and right. I let them shout for a few seconds and then yelled at them, “You wanna come and loot this store, you gotta kill me first.”
My worry was never about my life but that I would fail in my task. I could not believe that Kwakwani people would harm me; that is the normal Kwakwani person. But this was a mob. It was entirely likely that they would call my bluff and I would die. They would regret it later, but I would be dead. All it needed was for someone to fire from the crowd or throw a cutlass and the deed would be done. Mobs give their members the immunity of invisibility and people can do strange things in such circumstances. The situation was definitely getting out of my control and I was wondering what to do, when suddenly Morris Mitchell (called Chinee because thanks to the Chinese mix in his ancestry, he had a round flat face with slightly slanty eyes) jumped up onto the platform. He was also on the way to his farm, so he was wearing a much-used shirt, jeans, his cap backwards on his head, cutlass in his hand. Chinee was a big man. He was probably six feet six inches tall and weighed more than 250 pounds, all muscle. His wrists were a foot wide (or at least they looked like they were) and his hands were like shovels. I remember one day he was sitting in my office and lazily squeezed a tack (nail) into a piece of hard green-heart wood that I used to keep as a paper weight. Squeezed it into the wood. Not hammered—squeezed. Get it??
Well, he jumped up onto the platform and in a voice that was used to being heard over the roar of truck and bulldozer engines shouted, “A’yo raas lisen and lisen good. You wanna kill dis baay? You gotta kill me fus. And a’yo raas know, I ain’t gonna die alone. So, who ready??” As in any mob situation, there is a critical incident that changes the mood. This was the one here. Suddenly someone started laughing and said, “Man Chinee. Yawar a’we baay man!! Nobody ain’t gonna do nothn to he! A’we just mad at the company man!! Anyway, the rice dey ere an so leh we go’n get it. Stand in a line folks. We ain’t ga all night!!” And that was that. All that camaraderie apart, the reality is that if Morris Mitchel had not stood by my side, there is no saying what would have happened. Seeing him with a cutlass in his hand had a sobering effect and broke the mood of the mob and people came to their senses. As I say, Guyana is beloved to me because of its people. Amazing people who would cheerfully put their own lives on the line for a friend.
The incident did not end there for me. When Nick got back, instead of a pat on the back, I got my ear burned off for being a hero. Nick was angry at me for putting my life in danger for no good reason. He wouldn’t believe that the Kwakwani people wouldn’t have harmed me. He said he knew mobs and that they had a life and will of their own. People did things in the mob frenzy which they may well regret later, but the damage would be done. He was angry, but said he respected my courage and standing on principle and that he would personally ‘fry my butt’ if I ever did such a thing again. It was said with so much love and concern for me that I only grew to respect and love the man even more. He said to me, “Your father told me to look after you when he left you here and I gave him my word. If you had died today what would I tell Dr. Baig? Never do this kind of thing again. You hear me?” “Yessah! I hear you.” I heard you that day and I hear you every time I think of you. I hear your words, I hear the tone, I hear the love, the responsibility, and the honor. I hear it and I bless you and thank AllahY that He gave me you as my first boss so that I could learn from you how to be a man. And He is witness that you taught me very well. Nick was a father to me in a strange land where I was alone, and I loved him like my own father.