Tuesday, August 04, 2009


There is the interior of Guyana, explored by Evelyn Waugh, and then there is the coastal strip that stretches from the capital, Georgetown, to the Suriname border. The former is, even now, a vast swathe of jungle and savannah thinly populated by indigenous groups and the occasional ranch. There is some logging, some mineral and gold extraction, and increasing amounts of ecotourism, but essentially it is wilderness with just the one unmade road leading to Lethem and the Brazilian border.

The coast, however, has a reasonably well-made road to Corriverton and Moleson Creek in the East, and even a brand-new bridge spanning the Berbice river that means that you can now drive the whole way without taking a ferry. Moreover, strung out along the road are an endless succession of small settlements; indeed, it might be better to say that the entire road is one long, thin, ribbony settlement that stretches for well over a hundred miles.

Taxis and minibuses zip along the road at surprising speed, though drivers have always to be alert to avoid potholes, stray dogs, cows, or other livestock. Guyana is an untidy country (the contrast with neighbouring Suriname is noticeable) and nothing quite stays in its place. The route is also marked, especially in the straggling suburbs of Georgetown, by a profusion of mosques and temples, a reminder that up to two thirds of the population (the highest proportion in the Caribbean) is of East Indian descent.

Indeed, the country's politics (and to some extent also its culture) are inflected by a simmering tension between black and East Indian that has to be almost unique (though perhaps nearby Trinidad is somewhat similar). Political parties are organized on racial lines and, during election periods at least, exacerbate the differences between the two communities to the point of encouraging sporadic intercommunal violence. At other times the tension is much more muted, though apparently when the Indian cricket team comes to town they are not without supporters among the local South Asian population even though some of the most prominent current West Indies players (such as Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan) are also of East Indian origin.

It is unique because I can't think of another example (though I'm willing to be corrected) of a postcolonial society so structured by a tension not between colonizer and colonized but between two groups imported into the colonial situation by the colonizers--the blacks as slaves, and the East Indians as indentured labor. Of course, colonialism and more generally capital has often thrived on playing off the differences between immigrant groups, such as between the Italians and Irish in the Northeastern United States. But here, with the indigenous a tiny minority in the interior and the whites effectively absent, this has now become the primary political and social difference.

Guyana wants to present itself as a model multicultural postcolonial society. Its capital features an "Umana Yana," a huge indigenous hut built for the 1972 Non-Aligned Foreign Ministers Conference, as well as a monument to the Non-Aligned Movement itself, with busts of its founders Nasser, Nkrumah, Nehru, and Tito. No doubt for the most part the messy, sprawling community that stretches along the coastal road is a good instance of everyday cooperation and exuberant hybridization between the various communities that make up the country. But there are plenty of reminders that colonialism's "divide and rule" policies run deep, even once the rulers have packed up and gone home.

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