A Trip to Remember
Intern at the Institute of Applied Science and Technology, in Georgetown, Guyana
Part of the Queen Elizabeth II scholarship Establishing Right Relations Program
Do you recall the burst of energy that erupted, and the sparks of curiosity that ignited when you heard the word “fieldtrip” when you were 12 years old? Those feelings don’t die, even at age 20.
The fieldtrip I went on a couple of weeks ago with two other Queen Elizabeth interns, however, was unlike any other. At Guyana’s capital Georgetown we boarded a small aircraft, with seats for no more than 13 people, and embarked on what would be perhaps the most memorable and academically enriching trip of our lives. We flew for three hours, which felt much longer as we looked around nervously to investigate where a mysterious breeze was entering the plane, eyeing the door as the primary suspect. At last, we arrived at Annai, a small village in the Upper Takutu-Upper Essequibo Region of Guyana, nestled in the foothills of the Pakaraima Mountains, and in close proximity to the Rupununi River. This region is about 600 kilometers inland from the north-east coast of South America, accessible to only the adventurous few, and distinct from the coastal regions where the majority of Guyanese live.
A ten minute drive from Annai brought us to the village of Bina Hill where we planned to work for the duration of our visit. As it turns out, a lot can happen in ten minutes—like getting caught in a torrential downpour in the back of a pickup truck racing 80 km/hour. That short trip made for an unforgettable bonding experience as we held on to each other for dear life.
Rockview lodge, the destination for the few foreign travellers who enter the region, provides luxuries familiar to westerners, such as hot showers, hibiscus flowers on beds, and fresh fruit and beverages in rooms. However, we opted for a more community-integrated stay, a decision that proved to be well worth any inconveniences, for it allowed us to form genuine connections with the local people, providing unsurpassed learning experiences. Staying in an Indigenous village in Guyana is usually off limits, but our research mission came with special permission.
Rupununi Essence is a line of cosmetic products resulting from the collaboration between the Institute of Applied Science and Technology—where we are interning—and two hinterland community groups: the Medicine from Trees Group and the Makushi Research Unit. We had the privilege of speaking with the Makushi face-to-face about sustainable energy, subsistence farming, and the Rupununi Essence project’s community effects.
We learned a great deal. During our conversations, I am embarrassed to say, I used the word “tribe” when speaking of the various Indigenous groups in the region; I was quickly informed that the word tribe is a distasteful reminder and remnant of Guyana’s period of British colonial rule. In one memorable encounter, we had the unanticipated privilege of sitting in on a community meeting with special guests Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo and Minister of Indigenous People’s Affairs, Sydney Allicock. The conversation provided excellent perspectives on the fundamental concerns of Amerindian communities. Conserving their natural surroundings trumps all prospects of development. The words of a villager resonate deeply with me: “our whole way of life depends on the forest. Our forest is our playground, our hunting ground, our supermarket, and our hospital.” And in the words of Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, Guyana constitutes the world’s green lungs.
We were very fortunate to experience something that most residents of Guyana won’t ever have the chance to experience—we are very grateful. Annai, the gateway to the Rupununi, is wonderfully rich both in traditional knowledge, and in natural beauty. We will never forget the Makushi, and the breathtaking rainforests, mountains, and savannahs
August 4, 2016