Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Kaieteur Falls and its Impact on the Patamona Race

Summary

This report investigates the ways in which the existence of Kaieteur Falls, Guyana’s most treasured natural wonder, has shaped the history, the beliefs, and the lifestyle of the people who found it first. It is based on discussions and observations in the village of Chenapou, where I lived from September 2013 to August 2014. As my primary school teaching project in the village progressed, it became apparent that the most strongly debated issues in the community were in some way linked to Kaieteur.


The fates of the people and the waterfall are inexorably entwined in a story of survival: of the old against the new; the powerful against the poor; and the ancestral, spiritual bond that links person to place.



As part of their commitment to project trust, every volunteer is asked to write a 'community study' on a topic of their choice. If you are interested in reading my full report, click the link below.


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Home Again

Chenapou is a place without seconds or minutes, a place without appointments or deadlines. In Chenapou each day on the calendar is identical to the one before it- a question mark, a dawn bringing along any piece of work that happens to crop up, any trip that comes to mind.

The seasons pass and silently dictate the patterns of cutting, burning, planting and reaping out at the farms. The rains come and go, playing with the river, trying to catch the people out, but they’re always ready to go, when the time is right for fishing. Around them, the forest creeps up, wrapping itself around the village, but they’re always ready to cut it back and defend their land. When food runs short, they’re always ready to bake cassava bread and boil fresh buckets of cassiri. When they need a little money, they’re always ready to head into the mines and find some gold or diamond. And when everything is just fine, when food is plentiful, crafts are finished and farms are growing… they are ready to do absolutely nothing. Once their work is done, the days can drift by casually and contentedly.

Life in Chenapou has a purpose- survival.

I am now back in a world of distractions. I am back in a world where survival is no longer the goal, and we have to make up artificial aims in life, create problems for ourselves where there were none to begin with. Here, excess is more of a problem than shortage, and choosing what to do is more of a challenge than finding something to do.

Every second of our lives, if we are not working or asleep, we must be occupied somehow, watching this, listening to that, browsing those or chatting to them. There is no down-time, no empty space.
We are so busy being productive, but what are we producing? It all seems ridiculous to me now, the things we find to worry about and fill our time with, simply because surviving is far too easy a target. But I know this is my world, I couldn’t escape it forever.


After feeling the nip of a cold Scottish breeze on my face, closing the front door and finding myself back at home, it almost seemed like I had never left. Chenapou felt very, very far away.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Backdam

“No, of course I won’t bother taking my raincoat” I knew I was wrong the moment the first drop of rain landed on my shoulder. Ben was probably cursing me already for changing his mind about his own raincoat (But we never need raincoats when we do bring them!). The next thing I knew I was hunched awkwardly to the side in an attempt to keep as much of myself as possible under a little piece of tarpaulin, that covered our bags and a 4 year-old boy. Through the darkness our boat swept, black trees towering above us but giving no shelter from the hammering tropical rain that stung our faces, soaked our skin, made our teeth chatter, and kept the bailer-man busy. Thunder rumbled across the forest above the drone of the boat’s engine, as the last drops of colour drained from the sky and the six of us braced ourselves against the cold wind.

It was hard to believe that just an hour or so earlier I had been comfortably lazing in a rocking chair, soaking up the day’s last rays of golden sunshine, when a call and footsteps on the stairs snapped my attention away from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In less than two minutes, we had been recruited as workers for three days in the gold mines, and had started packing frantically to catch the ‘Just Now’ boat. Nothing like short-notice. Just before we left, out went the raincoat- “won’t be needing that”.

Eddie, the man who had invited us, kept the cold away by keeping up the chat throughout the journey. It was still a relief to pull in at the camp by the glowing embers of a fire and warm our insides with hot, spicy ‘tuma’, freshly caught fish and some cassava bread, before climbing into dry hammocks and sleeping bags.

A mining camp is quite a simple affair. Firstly there is the kitchen- where an old piece of oil drum acts as a wood burning stove and a picnic bench is put together with a few boards. Outside the kitchen is the washing-up table where the plates, spoons and mugs are kept with soap and containers of water. The camp cook’s only job is to havehot meals ready for the workers three times a day- to fuel the man power in the mines with rice or bakes, porridge or cassava bread. Then there is the worker’s camp-  a frame made from straight, sturdy branches and sheltered by a big tarpaulin. Some camps have extras, like kerosene stoves or even a generator, but this one here was lit at night only by flickering orange petrol lamps. All around, the forest, thick and wild, encircles the little camp, apart from at the landing where the Potaro rushes past, deep and black.

The backdam. We were finally going to the fabled backdam, the place where fortunes are won or lost, the place where men spend their lives scouring the land for sparkling diamonds and gold dust, the place where sweat and diesel is exchanged for those precious minerals that so many families now depend on for their little money. To the boss, the owner of an operation, working the backdam is gambling. It is investment on a huge scale- the camps, the engines, the pipes, the workers, the fuel and the food- it all comes out of their pocket, before the first grain of gold can be found. They might double their money, they might multiply it tenfold. Or they might lose every penny of it. The taste of success always keeps them at it though- who knows where the next $8m diamond is? Some have the option of settling down to a regular job with monthly wages, but the possibility of making millions in a few days’ work in the backdam always draws them back. It is almost an addiction.

Let’s face it; I’m never going to be a miner. I’m useless at using my hands, I care too much about my hearing, I’m weak and feeble I don’t understand engines, and I’m too much of a pessimist to believe  that there is any gold to be found.

To me, the backdam had no glamour, it had no thrill. It was simply brutality. What was another patch of untouched rainforest, teeming with life and lush vegetation, became a battlefield, where clanking diesel engines, men with axes and a power-hose waged war against nature. Tons of earth and sand were blasted to oblivion with the water jet, undermining roots, sending mighty trees down to their deaths. Cutlasses hacked away from above, slashing vines, slicing the soil and sending ants and centipedes and worms scurrying for their lives. The calls of the birds and the beetles were drowned by the deafening, machine-gun din echoing through the forest from the two old engines. All day long, filthy brown water, mixed with fuel, was pumped round in an endless circuit from pool to pit and back by hungry, sucking pipes. The result of the battle was an ugly mess of discarded roots, fallen trees, gaping holes and swathes of white sand.

Back in that rocking chair, a few days later, I sat examining my earnings. With the mercury burned off, my half-pennyweight of gold looked a little more attractive, and I found myself pondering over a mixture of feelings- satisfaction, wonder, guilt, and greed. Hidden away in those mountains of dirt and sand, these grains of wealth had been lying, all along. But was it ever mine to take? What was the true cost of extracting the gold from its home? And, despite all my criticisms, why do I feel the urge to go back for more?




Below are some pictures of a backdam that we visited a few days before the work I have described. 


Checking for diamonds
Beating the gold from the mat
A few hard days' work
Trying out the jet for the first time

A more experienced 'jetter'

Saturday, 24 May 2014

To Karisparau, And Back

To Karisaparau, And Back

A team of just three
Set off in the rain
To reach Karisparau
And reach back again.

Stumbled over trees
That fell in their way,
Went up to their knees
In mud, sand and clay,

Treaded carefully on
Moss covered logs,
Marched up the steep hills,
Trudged through the bogs,

Ducked under branches,
Slashed through the vines,
Walked on the big road,
And old narrow lines.

A trio of times
They stopped, as if dead-
A snake for each man
Directly ahead.

One brown, one red,
The black one the longest,
All slithered like spirits,
Melted into the forest.

A bad omen,
The forest people say,
To meet so much evil
All in one day.

But at last they arrived
After hours of sweat.
With sunshine and grasslands
They were warmly met.

With a view to the hills,
Their hammocks were hung,
Their freshly washed clothes
Placed out in the sun.

Before they had departed
They were told to expect
Silence and emptiness which was
Completely correct;

Barely a soul passed by 
For the visitors to meet
In the so-called village centre,
Whilst they rested their tired feet.

Time passed by,
And they could not forget
That their long journey
Was not over yet
(In search of that rarity,
A spot of internet)!

Ninety minutes more
They were on the road,
Behind great green mountains,
The orange sunset glowed.

Crossing the savannah
On a dry, sandy track,
With thirst longing to be quenched
In a creek cool and black.

If it was water they wished for,
Their dreams came full true,
Once at Karisparau airstrip,
In that fateful storm blew.

A deafening roar on the 
Roof of the shop,
Whilst they sat glumly inside
And prayed it would stop.

A pack of sweet biscuits
Was all they would get,
And there was no hope now
Of that internet.

Weary and drained,
They thought of the spot,
Where before it had rained,
They had hung their hammocks.

And when the storm passed,
Into the dark night
The three men dragged
Their feet by torchlight.

Each step was a struggle-
In the soft sand they sank.
They were up to their knees,
In a creek burst its banks...

When a voice in the darkness
Like an angel in the gloom,
Called them to return
And sleep sound in a room.

Perhaps this kindess
Saved those men from the worst-
Whatever apon them,
Those three snakes had cursed,

For not long after,
Raged a second fierce storm,
But by a stranger's sympathy
They were safe, dry and warm.

And when a clear day dawned
There was toast and sweet tea,
Even the internet worked
(For one of the three).

With all the gratitude
They could find,
They paid their hosts
And made up their mind

To stretch their stiff legs,
Move their heavy bones,
Pack up their bags,
And head for their home.

Stumbled over those trees,
That lay in their way,
Tried to avoid
All that mud sand and clay,

Balanced again on those 
Moss-covered logs,
Marched down the steep hills
And trudged through more bogs,

Ducked under branches,
Slashed through the vines,
Walked on the big road
And old narrow lines.

A team of just three,
Arrived home in the rain.
They'd reached Karisparau
And reached back again.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

An "Ordinary Day"

This is the most boring blog post ever. At least from my point of view- it's just everyday life. But perhaps to you the little differences might be of some interest.

To be specific, this was Thursday 20th March, 2014.

6am- Recall my alarm clock that went off at 5.15. At least in Chenapou it doesn't usually matter what time I get up. I get out of my hammock and put on long trousers and a jumper- to keep the last of the mozzies off and because 22 degrees is cold. I sit down to take down measurements of old toilet rolls and cut out coloured paper, in preparation for an art lesson involving rockets. When Ben gets up rain is falling hard, and he has the genius idea of showering under the gutter. It is the perfect, quick, power-shower without having to get cold walking to the river.

7am- Haven't made any breakfast yet because I can't stomach rice this morning, and we don't have any baking powder. At last Claude comes to open the little co-op shop next door and I buy a pack and begin mixing some monkey ears (quick fried bakes). Whilst baking I sip some tea- made with just 2 teabags between us instead of the usual 3- we're getting low and Sandra still isn't back from town with our new box.

8am- Finish off the day's lesson plans in my big pink book. Pack the things I need, swallow a doxy capsule and a vitamin supplement (when's the last time I had a piece of fruit?). Completely forget to shave before school for the first time all year.

9am- Nursery building is pleasantly quiet this morning as I say Guten Morgen to Grade 2 (Germany is this week's country of the week). I play guitar for their rendition of the Wheels on the Bus. For a change, we start the day with some science. I show them the cooled wax and butter that we melted in an experiment yesterday afternoon, to the fascination of the children, who happily get to work drawing diagrams to show the results. After most are finished and some pinned up on a display chart, we move on to English. To practise rhyming words, I set them the task of collecting sets of rhyming word cards in teams. The tricky bit is then using our knowledge of phonics to read properly all of the words, but we seem to be getting better at that before break time.

10.40am- Maths. A large set of cardboard 10s and 1s are coming in very useful these days, and today I just focus on the tens (or boxes of marbles if you prefer). We count in tens, and practise reading 10, 20... 90. I then give them their 1-100 number charts and in teams they race to place coins on the numbers I dictate. Everybody starts to get a bit excited after this so I hand out their books for them to do some exercises involving 10s, 1s, addition, and telling the time.

12 noon- I am getting very bored of my diet at the moment. Carbs, carbs, and more carbs... and it just got even more depressing because lunch is bare rice, with not even a bean or lentil to cheer it up. I might've lost hope if Ben hadn't arrived with some Bananas he had been gifted. Fruit at last!

1pm- Without really meaning to, I end up teaching Grade 2 to sing a German song about ducklings (from that book that Granny sent at Christmas) before we go outside for story time. We are now onto George's Marvellous Medicine, which hasn't quite caught the kids' imaginations as much as Fantastic Mr Fox, as they don't have a clue what half the things that George puts into his medicine are. I think they'll enjoy it more once Granny grows through the roof at least. After story time we practice writing 't's and 'p's in handwriting.

2pm- At last time for those rockets! Grade 2 happily get busy cutting and sticking and designing. Thank you to Viewlands Primary- it was the money you raised that allowed me to get the materials to do things like this. We run over time a bit but what does that matter when they're having fun? And still they insist they want to practise their spelling words before home time! I say Guten Tag and dismiss the class apart from those who's turn it is on the rota to help clean up the classroom.

3pm- I finish my marking then head over to Miss Bev's house to ask for some string. She isn't in so I wait near by and get fed some rice and cassiri. Once I have the string I go back to school to string up the rockets and suspend them above the classroom. On my way back I pass Ben with a couple of boys showing him how to shoot birds.

5pm- After that rice and cassiri I don't need any dinner, and I just sit down to write some of this blogpost before the mosquitos come out. Ben makes some quick noodles when he comes in.

6pm- Before it gets dark I head down to the river for a freshen up. I take some washing but in the drizzle and the breeze I'm feeling too cold to stand around. It's just a case of in, out, soap, in, out. Back home for a cup of lemongrass tea and a leftover monkey ear.

7pm- Head to my hammock for an early night, as there's not much else to do in our dark house, apart from cockroach hunting. During the night the chigger in my foot throbs and I curse myself for forgetting to remove it.

So there it is, another day over.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Kayik Tuak- Part 4, Fishing

For the tourists that fly in from Georgetown, walking the trails around Kaieteur Falls probably feels like quite the jungle experience.  There are few sign posts, the trails are quite uneven and to get to one of the viewpoints you even have to walk under some giant boulders where all manner of snakes could be lurking. They should try fishing with the locals.

Ben and I thought we were going to be fishing from a canoe, so we just went out in our flip-flops. What actually happened was that we drove down river from Menzie's Landing towards the falls, and turned off at a creek with some rapids at its mouth. We then stumbled and tripped our way along an invisible 'path' along the creek's edge that consisted of thick vegetation, roots, fallen trees, spiky plants, razor grass, slippery moss, rotten logs, swamps, creeks, sinking piles of dry leaves, muddy banks, hanging vines, and the possibility of snakes around every corner. Indeed, one member of the party spotted a metre long snake sliding into the water.

So the two of us amateurs would just about battle our way to a spot by the creek and get our lines in the water, only to look up and find that everybody else had caught another three fish and gracefully disappeared into the bush ahead of us. What little time we did spend fishing, instead of just keeping up, was only 50% successful as both of us dropped half our catch back into the water whilst trying to get it off the hook.

In the end, Ben took 3 fish and I took 2. Fazal, the 10 year old boy, had taken 18 from the creek in the same time. Looks like we'll need a bit of practice, and to remember our boots next time somebody suggests a fishing trip.

For our last morning at Kaieteur, it was necessary to have some kind of grand finale. This time, when we made the walk from Menzie's Landing, we took our hammocks. After a refreshing bathe in the water above the falls, taking care not to go too deep, and an atmospheric walk around the jungle in the mist, unsuccesfully looking for the cock of the rock (google image that), the hammocks were slung between two trees, right on a viewpoint, a few paces from the cliff edge. From here we could at last lie back in extreme comfort, one with an unobstructed view of the waterfall, the other with the endless green valley in front of him. Snacks were bough from the visitor centre, the sun came out, and even some of the swifts came out to play. I don't believe there is a better 'hammock spot' anywhere in the world.

6 hours later, I found myself in a familiar position. Curled over, back aching, under a blue tarpaulin that now smelled of fish as well as smoke. Damp, cold, and hungry. By the time the 15 HP engine coughed and spluttered and simply ran out of fuel, Ben and I said "thank you very much, we'll walk from here".

As we trudged through the dripping wet rainforest all I could thinkabout was being warm, dry, and inside a hammock. Spag-bol would have to wait, but hot chocolate and a bowl of farine would do the job.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Kayik Tuak- Part 3, Home of the Great Spirit

...Lying flat on your front, sprawled out over an overhaning rock with your head cautiously peering over the edge, you can watch the waterfall from top to bottom, at a distance of perhaps 10m from the water. It is impossible to retain any sense of scale or distance, gazing down to the rumbling chaos below. The water, that so innocently curves over the lip of the cliff, calming accepting its fate, gradually, as if in slow motion, stretches out and cascades into the nothingness of thin air. Jets of water seem to race each other past half-way, before finally shattering into a million shards of white and entering the stormy pool below, where waves crash into boulders, and swirling winds sweep spray into the the sky. 

A strange world exists around the plunge pool, of rocks that are vivid green, and plants that look tiny but are perhaps as tall as trees. And then, beyond the mighty, overhanging cavern, past the cliffs, a rainbow in the spray hangs in front of the valley. The valley stretches far into the distance, the Potaro snaking its way through the bottom, recovered from it's rough journey down the mountain. Everything else is solid green, up to the horizon, trees, trees, trees.

In order to spend as little time as possible at Menzie's Landing, and as much time as possible at one of the most beautiful natural wonders of the world, I made the half hour walk to Kaieteur, and then back, no less than 7 times over the course of the weekend. By the airstrip (a magnificent piece of engineering twice as wide as Chenapou's, and smoother than Paramakatoi's) there was an arrival centre for the tourists, that came in small batches for a couple of hours each day.

The centre was a good place to visit because a) you could buy snacks there, b) there was a telephone to call home from and c) there was a toilet, and toilet paper. On top of this, it gave us a chance to ogle at tourists; strange creatures with American accents, fancy clothes, watches and cameras. They sprayed each other with insect repellent and drank bottled water. With our long boots on and a cutlass strapped to my bag, we felt magnificently un-touristy, especially when we chatted to the guides like friends, as they were mostly from Chenapou.

Then the tourists would grab their new Kaiteur National Park caps and t-shirts and mugs, climb back into their planes, and a few minutes later peace and quiet and emptiness would return to the jungle. That was what made Kaieteur so special. For the remaining 22 hours of the day, one of the largest waterfalls in the world was entirely ours.

I thought it couldn't get any better, sitting in this untouched piece of paradise in the evening, with nothing to do but contemplate life, waterfalls, and how marvellous nature is. Then the swifts arrived, in their thousands. They flocked high in the sky, soaring gracefully and swerving around and flowing like water, then, as the reached the lip of the falls, they too dropped and cascaded down into the gorge, diving with terrific speed. But then they would turn, and duck through the spray, behing the wall of water, into the cavern that had been hollowed out of the mountain for them. No wonder, I thought, that the Patamona people once regarded this as the home of the 'Great Spirit'. I know where I would choose to live if I were 'Makanaima'.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Kayik Tuak- Part 2, Menzie's Landing

...After what felt like an awfuly long time- partly due to Fazal Junior's commentary ("We are reaching now sir! Oh no, sir, it is far still, but not so far far far") but mostly due to the cold and the wet and the pain in my back- all but one of my wishes had been fulfilled. It turned out that large plates of spaghetti bolognaise don't materialise out of thin air.

We awoke as daylight began to peep through the cracks in the wooden walls of a small house, full of dust and bat droppings, at Menzie's Landing. It was still raining. Having dropped off the rest of the family at a campsite with the tarpaulin last night, it was just Fazal, Fazal, Ben and I. The senior of the two Fazals disappeared somewhere or other and it was quickly realised the some mis-communication had lead to us believing we would be somewhat better catered for. We hadn't taken any food with us, so over to the shop we went. The three of us ate an entire pound of dry, tasteless biscuits for breakfast. Thankfully the shopkeeper took pity on us and served a little hot chocolate too.

It didn't take long to get the feel of Menzie's Landing. It certainly wasn't the bustling little village I had expected to see right next to the country's premier tourist attraction. It was quite the opposite. By midday we had met all the inhabitants (and counted them on two hands). The place was the ghost of an abandoned mining village, most of the houses silent and empty, some missing their roofs and gradually being reclaimed by nature. What little was left was made out of rusting old oil drums. It was a miracle the shop sold anything, but it was clear what his main business was. The shelves were stacked with rum and vodka, and in the corner there was a cardboard box full to the brim with empty high wine bottles. High wine is 69% alcohol. On this grey, drizzling day, Menzie's Landing was the perfect place to be lonely, miserable and drunk.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Kayik Tuak- Part 1, The Journey

I wonder what my old friends are up to right now. In the UK, it's around 10pm and it's a Friday night. Perhaps they are still in front of the mirror, checking themselves in their best dress, or they are already on a bus, watching the streets go slide by with their shops and bars and restaurants, on their way into town to find somewhere with bright lights and loud music.

I often have little moments of reflection like this at the more surreal point of my experiences in Guyana. At this particular moment I am bent over double underneath an old blue tarpaulin that smells of the smoke of many years of campfires. Under the tarp everything has turned to black and white in the fading light of evening, but I can still make out the shape of the boy next to me on the cold aluminium bench. He is cold too, he is hungry too. Before the weather turned he was his usual excited self, loading his slingshot at the sight of any bird worth catching, point out to us the parrots and the macaws flying over the treetops in the evening sunlight and providing a running commentary to the journey. Now the rain has subdued the ten year old a little, but at times Fazal Junior still pokes his head out from the tarpaulin and makes his best guess as to where we are. "Not so far now, sir. Well, a reasonable distance, yes, but not so far far far. Oh no, sir, we are not there at all, still far to go sir, but not so far far far."

The sound of the rain on the tarpaulin grows a little, and I am sure that there is just as much water on our side of it as on the other, but at least it keeps the breeze off. I feel a sense of admiration for Fazal's father, Fazal Senior, who has no shelter at the helm of the boat, and mut stay alert through the night, on the lookout for branches and rocks, keeping track of where we are by the creeks and bends in the river.

As the night grows darker the driver sweeps a thin, powerful beam of torchlight from bank to bank, spotting out pairs of eyes. From the colour of the reflection he can instantly say if it is a labba or a tapir, a deer or an alligator. At one point we pass by an alligator in the water, close enough to see the jagged outline of its back.

We are on the Potaro River in the wobbly aluminium village boat. A whining, 15 HP engine has pushed us all - granny, dad, mum, daughter, daughter, son, Harry and Ben (plus fishing rods, nets, hammocks, rope, sugar cane, bags, pales, containers of fuel, knives, bowls, pots, cutlasses...) - at a modest pace down the river from Chenapou. We had left there in the hot sunshine after school, with things like jumpers and raincoats far from our minds. Despite the bowl of fresh cassiri I downed while I had the chance, I am hungry, Ben must be ravenous. My back aches from the bent position under the tarp, and I all I can think about now is being dry, warm, and inside a hammock, preferably with a large plate of spaghetti bolognaise in my stomach. Never mind that stupid waterfall.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Happy Easter

This time around, time is very precious in Georgetown! I regret that I won't be able to upload very much on the blog, and it will probably be full of spelling mistakes.

Just after one day here in the capital, Ben and I need to roll out to the interior for term 3. It's been a great holiday down in the savannah's of region 9. Horses, cowboys and beef sums it up!

Thank you so much for reading the blogs over the last few months, its great to see there have been some views. 

1 hour 45 minutes before the internet cafe closes. Time to get typing...

ps. forgot the camera cable so no photos ):

Project Report, Term 2

Dear Sponsors, friends and family,

I am writing from the remote Amerindian village of Chenapou, Guyana, to update you on the progress in my placement here as a Project Trust volunteer teacher. This has been my second term in the rainforest, in charge of a class of 22 children aged 6-7.

You may recall that at the time of my last report, work had been severely disrupted by the absence of a roof on my school building. I was neither overjoyed nor terribly surprised to find it in exactly the same state when I returned from the Christmas holidays! As a result, Grade 2 were accommodated in the other school building with the higher classes, whilst we waited patiently for the roof to be finished.

After the holiday in Georgetown, where contact home had been so easy, readjusting to the remoteness and quietness of the jungle was surprisingly difficult. The distance between myself and home never felt quite so far as it did during those first couple of weeks back in Chenapou. On the other hand, at least I had in my control a group of children who I knew, and who knew me, and discipline was gained without all the hair tearing and despairing of last September. We settled down in our restored classroom with its fresh lick of bright paint, tried to make do with the inadequate furniture and got down to business.

The classroom itself became one of things I took most pride in- spending many afternoons creating posters, display boards for pupils’ work and filling every corner with something colourful and pleasing to the 6-year-old eye. It was certainly a world apart from the dark, dingy place I had found myself in last term. Along with the classroom came the new class routines, such as a permanent seating arrangement with table groups named after animals. Each afternoon the rota would dictate whether the Lions, Bears, Tigers, Alligators or Jaguars were to help me clean the classroom.

I would like to specifically thank Viewlands Primary School for their donations towards this teaching project, as I made use of the funds at Christmas to buy a variety of school supplies. These included paper, pencils, rubbers, sharpeners, rulers, crayons, scissors, glue, a calendar, a clock, a jigsaw puzzle and some modelling clay. These things may sound quite basic but they made an immeasurable difference to what we could do in class. I have seen with my own eyes how much more likely a child is to learn if he/she is pasting colourful words and not staring at a blackboard.

It had been a promise of mine to make science lessons more interactive, and I believe I have kept my word. Grade two have made parachutes out of old plastic bags, sailing boats from old cans, rockets from toilet paper tubes and a rain gauge from an old plastic bottle. We have also planted seeds, pulled out plants, watched a windsock, boiled water, melted wax and butter, fried an egg and tested all sorts of things to see if they sink or float.

Last term’s report also mentioned a severe issue with reading ability. My response this term was to go right back to basics and fill every morning with phonics- teaching letter sounds one by one with the immensely useful Jolly Phonics song booklet. Games such as I-spy and bingo were popular with the kids and did a lot to reinforce sounds. It was a joy to see children who I had almost given up on, at least identifying and writing the initial sounds of words. I may have neglected to push the top pupils beyond their comfort zone by doing this, but it felt essential to me, at this early age, that I at least give the whole class some chance of learning to read properly.

Possibly the things that stood out most of all from this term’s teaching for me were the readings of Fantastic Mr Fox and George’s Marvellous Medicine. To see the children’s imaginations open wide in those great worlds of Roald Dahl’s was a special thing.

Towards the last third of the term the idea struck me to begin a study of ‘Country of the Week’ in an attempt to convey something of the outside world to a group of children who have mostly only as far as Georgetown and back, if that. This was a success, partly due to a wonderful book of children’s songs from around the world- Australia may still be a distant concept to anyone in Chenapou, but at least singing Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree… seems to bring it to life.

The children of grade two have inspired me greatly this term. Their curiosity, their energy and their little moments of genius have provided all the reward I could wish for as a teacher.

Once again this letter is running beyond its proper length, but I cannot conclude without showing off some of the little adventures Ben, my partner, and I have been on during our free time.

We have seen Chenapou’s own Potaro River plunge over a 741 foot drop, at the most secret, untouched wonder of the world imaginable. We have experienced culture shock just going as far as a neighbouring village, with scary things like fences, concrete, and wide open spaces. Our jungle trekking abilities have been put to the test and we have had the joy of patrolling the river in our own dugout canoe. In the village itself we have run the lines for football matches and held early morning fitness sessions, whilst still finding plenty of time to lie in hammocks and enjoy the slow pace of life here.

I will finish again with one of my overriding thoughts for the term- what on earth did I need all of that stuff for back in the UK? By my old standards, I now live with so very little, and the people around me even less, but aren’t we all perfectly happy? I haven’t yet worked out what life is about, but at least I’ve managed to eliminate stuff.

Thank you for reading this letter, I look forward to hearing any questions or comments you may have. You will at the latest hear from me again sometime in August.

Best wishes,

Harry Carstairs

Saturday, 29 March 2014

That's all for now...

It's the 29th of March, and I'm in Chenapou, approaching the end of the 2nd term. I wonder what I'm doing?

Well, actually its 2nd of January, and I'm sitting in an internet cafe in Georgetown. This time delay thing can be a bit confusing.

Whatever date it is, that's the end of my blog posts from term 1. Hopefully, when it comes to the Easter holidays, I'll get the chance to visit somewhere with internet and upload a few more posts.

For now I'll leave you with one of my favourite photos from the first term.


This is Junior Marco, son of Gregory Marco. Gregory has a farm at the bottom of the rapids, a good hour's paddle upstream from the school, depending on how fast the river is flowing against you. It is an amazingly remote place to live, surrounded for miles in every direction by wild, forested mountains. This boy is in grade 6 at school, but he is not going to be an academic- he is a true Amerindian. His talent lies in being able to catch five times as many fish as we could, in being able to run, barefoot and bareback, with perfect balance and without snapping a twig, through the thickest forest. He will undoubtedly make a great hunter when he grows up, as he already knows most of the tricks to living in the bush. This photo was taken early in the morning, perhaps around 6 o'clock, after Ben and I had spent the night camping at Gregory's farm. Junior seems quite pleased with the gigantic leap he just made from boulder to boulder, over the fierce white water.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Canaima

The Canaima. A man, but no only a man. Shifting freely between the skins of any animals, the Canaima has one purpose only. To kill. He is the evil that lurks in the forest, hiding in the shadows, choosing his next victim. But even in your own home you are not safe, for Canaima will simply step into the skin of a bat and fly in to see what you are up to. Nobody know who the Canaima will choose next- it could be a little child or a big man, it be one person or three.

When you walk alone in the bush, he will shake the trees to frighten you, and your fear will soon grow into a sickness. If you meet the Canaima, your only hope is to kill Him fast. But no ordinary arrow, no ordinary bullet will take Him down. You can only stand a chance if you walk with your special wax tipped arrow, ready at all times.

Few people have seen the Canaima, and lived to tell the tale. His shape-shifting form has been murdering the Amerindians, bringing suffering to them, for as long as they can remember. His exact nature is obscure, why He kills is a mystery, but one thing is certain. Everyone will meet the Canaima one day, it is only a matter of time before He catches you.

The details of the following story have been lost in translation from Patamona to Creole, Creole to English, but the basic plot remains to tell us a little more about the sinister being known as Canaima.

Once upon a time, a man was married to a woman and they went to build a house for themselves in the forest. On hearing of their plans, the man's new brother in law warned him of the Canaima, who walked in that part of the forest. Nevertheless, the warning was shrugged off and the couple settled down in their new home together. 

On their first night there, they got into their hammock and were starting to drift off to sleep when the rasping bark of the Canaima echoed through the forest and jerked them awake. The man tried to stay calm and said to his wife "we must snore gently, so that the Canaima knows we are sleeping". The wife began to snore while the man came up with a plan. Again the bark of the Canaima, this time, closer. The man slipped out of the hammock silently and tied a string to it, holding the other end of the string himself. He picked up his knife and edged forward cautiously.

The Canaima's bark came again, this time loud and clear. He was coming straight for them. The man's heart was pounding, but he was brave. He came right to the door of his house, and tugged on the string, signalling for his wife to snore more loudly, so that the Canaima would be sure that they were asleep. The footsteps of the Canaima drew up to the door, paused for a moment there. The man could hear the deep breathing of his worst enemy, inches away. But this was his only chance to take him by surprise. Reaching round the door, he grabbed for the Canaima's hand, pulling it inside up chopping it clean off. The hand was his, but the Canaima escaped into the night. At least the couple could now get back into their hamomck and sleep in peace for the night.

The next day the man decided to go and see his brother in law to tell him about his encounter. He took the hand in his pocket to show him. It was a good distance away, perhaps a mile, and when he reached the place he called for his brother but there was no reply. The brother's wife came out looking weary. The man asked what had happened to his brother in law.

"He was out fishing last night and an alligator bit off his hand. He is dead now, look, his body is under that warishi."

"No" replied the man, "he was not out fishing last night. It was I who took off his hand. Look, here is the evidence. Your husband was the Canaima."

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Iatuk

The huntman steps swiftly and silently through the trees. Over his shoulder he carries a gun, at his belt he has his knife, and that is all he walks with. Picking his path carefully up the mountain, he breaks a small branch every few paces to mark out the way he came.

To the two white boys panting and stumbling along behind, every patch of forest looks the same, every tree is just another tree. But the huntman sees everything. He sees every plant, what you can make out of it, what ailment it can cure. He sees every species of tree and knows which are good for burning or building, how to cut them and what kind of birds you could find in their canopies. He sees every pawprint, he sees what kind of animal was going where and when. And of course his eyes are constantly alert, ready to pick out a snake, lurking in the branches ahead. The snake is the huntman's only enemy in this forest.

The forest floor is damp and gloomy, only the odd ray of light from above making it down to the soft, thick bed of fallen leaves underfoot. During the day it is quieter, in the heat the bird calls and insect noises don't penetrate so far, and many of the jungle creatures are hidden away, waiting for nightfall.

Without map or compass, he navigates by the contours of the slope, the angle of the sun, the faint sound of the river. All of a sudden he stops. "Let's take a look down here". We descend a little past some huge boulders, and the sound of rushing water grows louder. After hacking away some thick vegetation, we climb carefully into the sunlight. We have reached the edge of the river. But it is not only the edge of a river, it is the edge of a waterfall. First time, after hours of walking, our guide has taken us straight to the exact spot where the Potaro river plunges over a huge clifface, turning to white spray before it hits the rocks below, on its way down towards Chenapou village. I am reminded of Fantastic Mr Fox, tunnelling underground and coming up directly underneath Boggis' farmhouse first time.

The most spectacular thing, is the way this wonder of nature is hidden away, deep in a jungle, with not even a trail to it, no spot to land a helicopter, no passage to it by boat. There is no viewing platform, no barrier, not the slightest clearing away of the rainforest. This is a place very few people in the world have been, a place left beautifully undisturbed.

I laugh out loud with joy, applauding, stripping off to take a shower in one of the small stages that come before the main drop. Perhaps the most scenic shower of my life. The dark clouds above begin to open, the air becomes thick with heavy tropical rain. I realise now that I really am surrounded by water in every direction. This is the Land of Many Waters alright.

Later attempting to look up the waterfall on the internet proved to be fruitless. It is marked as Iatuk Falls on my map, but the only information on it that I could find was on a list of waterfalls in Guyana, that vaguely stated that its height is "over 60m". Clearly nothing in comparison to Kaiteur, but pretty big all the same.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

How to Make Buns...

How to Make Buns... in the UK

1. Pop down to Tesco in the car to pick up your ingredients.

2. Turn a knob to preheat the oven.

3. Mix the ingredients with the electric whisk and put the dough in the oven.

4. When the timer beeps, take out the finished buns.

5. Stick the dishes in the dishwasher and sit down to enjoy your buns in front of the telly.


How to Make Buns... in Chenapou

1. The week leading up to the baking day must be spent walking around the village, asking around until you find somebody who has a couple of dry coconuts that have fallen from their tree. Don't forget to save up enough money to buy flour and margarine. If you are very lucky the shop might have eggs too, but otherwise you will need to do more asking around to find someone with a hen who is laying eggs.

2. The night before, take your cutlass and hack your way through the tough outer shells of the coconuts.

3. Early on the morning of the bake, set off into the bush with an axe, cutlass and warishi (hand crafted Amerindian backpack). Find some nice pieces of wood and get chopping until your back aches, the sweat is pouring down your face and your hands are beginning to blister. Pack the wood into the warishi and make the punishing journey home with it on your back, the straps digging into your shoulders and forehead, taking care not to let the long pieces of wood snag on branches or bushes.

4.Crack open the coconut shells with the back of your cutlass and begin grating the insides, using an opened out milk tin with holes punched in it.

5. Combine the ingredients by hand, stirring vigorously until your hands are starting to get cramp. Grease the pan and put out the buns to rise.

6. Meanwhile, gather some kindling and small twigs to start the fire. When the fire grows big enough, get somebody to help you arrange some heavy rocks and balance a large empty oil drum on top of them above the fire. Now place a metal sheet on top of the drum and move some burning sticks there to heat the oven from above. From now on these two fires will need constant attention to ensure they have enough fuel and are spread out so as to heat the oven evenly. Use a hand crafted wicker mat to fan the fire when it is getting low.

7. It will now be early afternoon, and the heat of the tropical sun combined with that of the fire is stifling. The smoke drifts into your eyes making them sting, no matter which side of the fire you stand. Nevertheless, crouch down to slide your tray of buns into the oven, then, using an old cloth as an oven glove, replace the lid, securing it with a stick dug into the floor. Stop the hot air from escaping by sealing any gaps with old clothing- be sure to soak them first though.

8. Every now and again, brave the heat and the smoke to open the oven and see how your buns are looking. When you think they are done, use a wooden canoe paddle to slide out the baking tray. Take your buns inside quickly- if you leave them unattended the dogs or chickens or some other creature will be sure to help themselves. (Yes, speaking from experience).

9. Walk down to the river to fetch some water, with which to do the washing up. Scrub hard with a wire brush to get the burnt bits off.

10. It is starting to get late now, so pack up your buns and make sure you give one to everybody who helped you along the way.

11. At last, as the stars come out, sit down in your hammock with a cup of lemongrass tea and enjoy your bun.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Hunting for Treasure

I hadn't traveled this fast in almost two months. Whizzing down the familiar stretch of river that we have swum many times, I relished the cool breeze and waved at people on the shore washing their clothes, from my perch on the side of Mervin's leaky boat, propelled by a whining 15 horsepower engine. The sun was starting to lower in the sky, leaving us in the shadows of the towering trees that line the steep, muddy banks. As we swerved around the skeletons of old branches, fallen into the river, sweet little birds would skim across in front of us. They would glide effortlessly and catch the same little insects that the fish were jumping for from below, sending little ripples across the glassy surface of the water.

Past Creek Mouth we went, watching the mountain above the village disappear around the corner, along the straight stretch to Karisparau Landing- the limit of our knowledge of Chenapou. From there on we were in unknown territory. For every previous set of Project Trust volunteers, I thought, this would have been their passageway into Chenapou- coming the opposite direction from Kaiteur- but for us this was a journey into uncharted waters.

The river always brings surprises; after long stretches of seemingly undisturbed wilderness, you will come across a little landing or a dugout canoe hidden away in the shallows, a narrow pathway cut up the bank, even a clearing and a glimpse of a house. Chenapou gets bigger and bigger the harder you look. The real surprises for us this time, though, were the mining camps (tarpaulins stretched out among the trees, surrounded by curious looking machinery and big empty oil drums) and the miners themselves, out working the river on the bizarre looking water dredges.

We came around a bend about ten minutes after Karisparau Landing, to discover a small fleet of these dredges, like a flotilla of drifting little houses in the middle of the river. They were churning out water behind them as if they were being propelled by little paddle steamers. Off the side of the wooden platforms, kept afloat on top of old oil drums, sat topless men, surrounded by tools, engines, buckets, containers of fuel, hammocks, ropes and pieces of wood.

As we drew closer, the steady hum of the boat's outboard was gradually drowned out by the jerking rhythm of old, rickety engines. Metal on metal, metal on wood, coughing and spluttering, shuddering and shaking, the dredges were churning out music like that of the orc mines in a Lord of the Rings movie. On top this the gush of water, being sucked from the depths of the river, through a pipe and over a series of sloping mats, filled what little room was left in the ears. The din was painful to me as we climbed aboard the dredge, but I know the workers, who sit there all day long with no ear protection, could no longer have enough hearing for it to bother them.

Eventually, the platform ceased to vibrate with the force of a small earthquake and a blissful silence filled the air as the engines wound down to a halt. I noticed a man who had not been there before. I also noticed it was raining. The sound of the rain on the tarpaulin, usually deafening in itself, had been completely overpowered. The extracted himself from half of his neoprene suit, took off his diving goggles. His job for the fast few hours had been 20 feet down in the murky depths, clearing away the sand to get at the precious gravel beneath, with the hungry, sucking end of the pipe. A tough, dangerous job. His only link to the world above- a little hose blowing air for him to breathe. The sand above him could have closed in and burieds him at any time.

Watch this video on repeat to discover what it is like on a water dredge (put the sound up as high as possible for a more realistic experience).

The belt connecting the motor to the air pump was not running smoothly. Out came the hammer, to take out the nails holding down the pump, they inched it into place, but a hook was in the way. Out came the cutlass to hack off a piece of wood. They started nailing back the pump, but it was at an angle. Out came the cutlass again to quickly fashion a wedge. Then a piece of rope was tied to help secure it from shaking, with a branch cleverly being used to twist the rope and make it taut. I admired the instinctive way the workers improvised with the materials they had, creating a makeshift factory out of pieces of tree and nails.

The rain came down heavily and started making puddles along the edge of the tarpaulin. Emptying the puddles splashed water all over the deck, but it was mostly wet already from the splashing of water from the dredge.


Darkness was beginning to close in, but on the dredges worked as we sped back up towards the village. They continued to chug away hopefully, in their endless search for the precious treasure buried away in the murky depths of the Potaro.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Photo Tour of School

The School Bell sits on the grade 6 teacher's desk, with the stage behind it. 


An overview of the main school building, taken from the stage. This is its standard layout, with Ben's grade 5 classroom on the near right, and the grade 6 classroom to the left of that. At the back of the room grades 3 and 4 are taught.

Inside the nursery building now, looking at my blackboard, which, having no legs of its own, leans precariously against a wooden post. Once a grade one child pushed it from the other side and it came over, thankfully not injuring any small children on this side.

The teacher's are supplied with a few large sheets of paper to make teaching resources and posters with. Here is one I drew to help us in maths.

Even for those children who can't read any of the rules, a physical reminder is better than nothing. Notice the cardboard box to the left of the desk, this is the classroom bin. Every now and again the waste is taken to a pit to be burned.

The front row in my classroom. The kids have to sit on the benches on the right, and write on the ever-so-slightly higher benches on the left. In practice this is impossible and when writing, they need to kneel down on the floor. There are usually 3 children to each of these benches, crushed shoulder to shoulder.

There are about 5 of these padded chairs in the school, and they are the only furniture in the entire village not made from wood. The bucket underneath my desk has some water and a sponge in it for wiping the blackboard.

The blackboard after an afternoon of drawing shapes in their art books.

Another home-made poster, backed with cardboard. I spent the whole term working on capital letters and punctuation marks.

A view of all the desks and benches- here we need to sit 22 children. When they are all packed in it is practically impossible for somebody in the middle to get out without climbing over the top or crawling under the desks. No wonder the ones at the back would prefer to jump out the window when break time comes.

A hanging number line I drew to help the pupils who still struggle to recognise or write any numerals. Many put them back to front and some simply haven't learnt them.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Going Fishing

An eventful morning, paddling upstream to go fishing. Actually happened on 20th October.

By the light of the full moon, we step carefully down the steep muddy bank, to the river’s edge where our canoe lies waiting. We load her up with rods, a cutlass, longboots, food and water. Then we pick up our wooden paddles and we are off, gliding through the night across the glassy water, in which the stars are reflected. The river is lined by the black silhouettes of towering trees. Behind us Chenapou village is sleeping, but all around us the forest is alive with the sounds of insects and frogs.

As we paddle deeper into the mountains, the sky turns slowly but surely from night to day, accompanied by the chirping of the ‘sun beetle’ and the cries of the village cockerels, which echo for miles along the river in the cool, early morning air. Not that we have really left the village behind- still we spot more landings, more dugout canoes lurking in the shallows, and realise yet again that the boundaries of Chenapou are far beyond where we imagined them to be, and we understand more fully what it means to live in isolation.  

“Left! Left! No, right!” cries Ben from the bow as we collide into trees, branches and rocks that jump out from the gloom. The boat rocks each time we crash, threatening to turn over and spill us into the Potaro. After a short break I take a turn of paddling at the bow, whilst Ben takes my place in the middle and Miss Bev, the grade 6 teacher at school, continues steering from behind.

We reach a set of rapids, and find we need to cross over from one bank to the other in order to get to a creek where we can dig for worms to use as bait. As we approach the creek mouth, however, the current, pushing against the long side of the canoe, jams us against a rock just below the surface. No matter how hard we paddle, the flow of water is too strong and always swings us back around. The upstream side of the boat is dangerously close to being flooded, the edge just sticking millimetres above the water level. Bev gets out onto the rock to try pushing the boat around, but still the current prevails.

I decide I’m going to have to get out too and help. I stand up and swiftly strip off my trousers, pull my shirt over my head. It is at this precise moment of imbalance, with my shirt over my face and my arms raised up, that the canoe wobbles. The next thing I know, the torrent of cool water is surrounding me, I’ve come up to breathe, and see the distance between myself and the canoe increasing rapidly. I can’t stop laughing at the ridiculous leap into the river I just made, but manage to battle against the rapids, swimming clumsily with my sodden shirt still in my hand until I reach the rock where our canoe is still jammed. After throwing my shirt to the bank I’m able to help bring the canoe into the shallows.

Above us the sunrise is starting to burn the mist off the steep mountainside. I check my watch. 6 am. About time for my morning bathe anyway.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

When the Tarantula Came to Tea

Written on 21st October.

We were having a quiet day last Saturday, washing, playing guitar and reading. Ben and I had just settled down for a lunch of lentil and rice cook-up. Thud. Ben noticed a dark shape fall through the air, just inches away from his face. I’m not one to be scared of spiders, but the sight alone of this monster, with its fat body, hairy legs and bulging fangs was enough to send a shot of adrenaline through my veins. The first, wild attempt to obliterate it with a slipper, caused the beast to rear up, pointing two long, sharp looking legs straight up in the air and baring its fangs as prominently as possible. You should have seen how fast Ben and I ran; he scuttled into his room whilst I darted right out the door of the house. For all we knew one bite could be the end of us.

Several Baygon attacks (insect-killing spray) did nothing to penetrate the spider’s bristling armour, and another failed attempt with a slipper left us puzzled as to how we should go about eradicating our unwelcome visitor. Eventually Ben came up with a plan. We took our last remaining ammunition (another slipper) and duct taped it securely on the end of a long broomstick. I stepped cautiously into the battle-zone with my rubber long boots on for protection, crouched down and carefully lined up the weapon. Gently so as not to frighten the enemy, I raised the broomstick until it was vertical, where it hung for a long second, swaying indecisively as the weight of this cold blooded murder started to bear down on my conscience. It had to be done. I clenches my teeth and channelled all my fear through the broom, letting gravity help me splat the slipper down to the floor in one swift, unstoppable motion. The poor creature beneath could not even be saved by its lightening-fast reactions, its fate had been sealed the moment I began to swing.
 


Tarantula blood and organs oozed onto the floor spectacularly, not a single twitch came from those hairy legs. At least it was a quick, painless death. After disposing of the dead body and cleaning the floor a little, we settled back down to finish our lunch in peace, feeling a little shaken, but victorious.

It turned out that the spider was pretty much harmless, its bite is nothing worse than a wasp sting. At least we were on the safe side, we told ourselves...

Saturday, 1 February 2014

A Word About Water

After just over a month in Chenapou, I am starting to see water in a very different way.

I had always imagined that in the rainforest it would rain every single day. I was very wrong- when they talk about the 'dry' season they really mean it. Although when it does rain it rains heavily, these downpours are now few and far between. Most  days we watch the clouds drift by overhead, taking their moisture away over the hills, whilst our water tank gradually drains away its supplies.

Never before have I really considered the value of fresh water, in a country like Scotland where the precious liquid simply appears like magic from the taps. Never before have I had to filter the water I drink, or manually flush the toilet by filling up a bucket, or consider how I can use the same water twice. I certainly haven't ever needed to go down to the river to fetch water, feel the weight of it on my shoulder as I walk back up the steep banks.

Although the rain hasn't been falling, Chenapou is still blessed with water from the river. The level has indeed dropped dramatically, exposing muddy banks, rocks and old fallen trees, but there is still a plentiful supply of fresh, cooling water coming straight from the Pakaraima Mountains. As I have settled into Chenapou life, this river has become more and more a part of it.


On arrival, the Potaro seemed only to be a place to go for leisure- to swim and refresh yourself when feeling hot, or to float on your back, admiring the sky and contemplating. The river is like the vein of the forest, and I found going there was the best way to truly understand that I was in the middle of a jungle, when it all still didn't feel quite real. It soon also became a highway- at the weekends Ben and I would explore the village by swimming down the river with dry bags until we came across new landings to explore.

The river became a bath too. Rather than awkwardly washing in a little bathroom with a bucket, it is much easier and nicer to take your soap down to the landing and take a bath. After a while we realised it also made sense to take down our washing with us when we went to bathe, saving us a lot of water and making it much easier to rinse them out.

A river may sound incredibly basic compared to the fancy sinks and showers we are used to in the UK, but I have come to realise that in Chenapou it is perfect. The river is free, a gift for every person in Chenapou to use whenever they want. It is their tap, their bath, their main road, their fishing grounds, their washing machine, their life.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Things You Wouldn't Hear in a British Classroom...

"You can have your hunting knife back at the end of the day, but it is too big for sharpening your pencil."


"I'm tired of sweeping up bat faeces from the floor every morning."


"Thank you for the chicken, but please take it out of the classroom now."


"Stop eating fruit in class!"


"Put your blowpipes away in your bags."


"Children please carry your cutlass to school tomorrow."


"Tomorrow is sports day, please do not forget to bring your canoes and paddles."



"Sir, me pencil fall down through the crack in the floor."


"Rain again, please move your desks to avoid the leaks in the roof."


"Please leave the classroom by the door and not the window."


"We are having a celebration tomorrow children; tell your parents to bring at least half a pale of cassiri."




"Lunch will be late today because the kitchen has ran out of water."


"How did your books get all wet, boy?"
"We capsized on the way to school sir."


"Children, stay well clear of the blackboard in case the wind blows it over again."

Saturday, 18 January 2014

A Day in the Life of...

Written on 5th October. Think I'll have to do another one of these sometime- the routine looks very different now!

5 am - The first hints of dawn are appearing in the sky, and filtering through my window. My watch beeps but the morning chorus of cockerels has already half-woken me. I stretch out in my hammock and wriggle out of my sleeping bag.



5.15 am - Start the day with a few exercises- it's the only time when it is cool enough to exercise without sweat pouring down your face.

5.30 am - It is now light enough to walk easily outside. I take a couple of buckets with me down to a large flat rock by the river. In one bucket is my dirty washing, soaking in soapy water, in the other is my towel, some shampoo, soap and a nailbrush. As I wash and bathe the forest becomes alive with the sound of insects. Sometimes I can also hear the haunting calls of baboons echoing through the hills. The water is cool but not cold, perfect, refreshing way to set myself up for the day.

6 am - On my way back the glow of sunrise begins to redden the sky. I say good morning to a few people who are getting up and busying themselves- fetching water or lighting up fires to bake their cassava bread over. I leave my flip flops- caked in orange mud from the river bank- outside and begin hanging out the washing.

6.15 am - Time to start preparing breakfast. During the week it is usually rice. The first step is to stoop down at the low tap to filter some water, then see how long it takes me to light the fiddly kerosene stove. My current record is 28 seconds but on average it's more like 2 minutes. Condensation on the match boxes makes it extra tricky in the morning. Whilst the rice boils I get a broom and sweep out the kitchen.

7 am - Breakfast. Ben is up now and we sit ouside to eat and wave good morning to passers by.

7.30 am - Get ready for work. Shave, change into a shirt and trousers, look over the plan for today's lessons. Stoop back at the tap to filter more water into my bottle.

8.15 am - Strap on my sandals and make the arduous, ten second journey next door to the school to sign in and set up the classroom. Not only am I a teacher, I am also the janitor and the cleaner. A family of bats live up in the roof of my classroom, and every morning I have to sweep out the scattering of bat faeces that litters the floor, along with pencil sharpenings, scraps of paper and sweetie wrappers that never made it as far as the cardboard box we use as a bin.

9 am - About half of my class are sitting in their seats, another quarter will turn up over the next ten minutes, but it is unheard of to see the full 22 in one go. Those that are here, with good uniforms and clean nails are awarded one gold star. The person with the most stars at the end of the week will recieve a small prize. "Stand up please grade  2" I say, and maybe four people stand up. After a few more attempts I have their attention. We say a morning prayer and sing a nursery rhyme.

9.15 am - Every day we start with English- it is the most important subject, and the one they furthest behind in because their creole is so far from standard English. It doesn't help that there are barely any books I can give them to read, and I have no textbook or guide to teaching English.

10.25 am - Those children that have finished their work, and haven't been misbehaving, go outside for a break. There is no boundary to the school compound so they always wander too far and don't make it back to school on time.

10.45 am - We leave our spot in the nursery building and take our books up to the grade 3 classroom in the 'big' school. Grade 3 have about 10 pupils compared to my 22, and even though I always carry a couple of benches up with me, there is a barely enough space for us. We are here to listen to an Interactive maths lesson on CD, as there is electricity in the big school. If it is raining or noise is coming from another class, it is very difficult to hear the CD player. Although it ought to take just 27 minutes, the amount of pausing required to keep the class focussed and give them time to answer questions means that we don't even finish on lesson before lunch at 11.35.

12 noon - After marking some books, I go up to the school kitchen with Ben for a plate of rice or chow mein. I much prefer the school lunches here to what were given in Britain, although perhaps they lack vegetables. I miss vegetables more than any other kind of food.

1 pm - "Grade two inside!" I get somebody to call out to the field, at the pavillion and under my house. Usually there are a few children who have simply disappeared, decided they would take a half day. The heat makes it difficult to concentrate as we go through some social studies of science. Lost and broken pencils always cause lessons to take twice as long as they should.

2.30 pm - Home time for grade 2. I usually hold back a couple, either to talk sternly about their behavior or to let them finish their work that they have not done because they were to busy climbing out the window  and crawling under the desk.

3.30 pm - I finish off marking the pupil's work and carry my things back home. Anything left in the school will be fiddled with or stolen as the nursery building has no lock. Ben and I change into swimming trunks and dive into the river to cool off and rinse away the day's sweat.

4 pm - Find some time to visit a friend for a chat, play my penny whistle for a while, or read from my kindle in the afternoon heat.

5 pm - Start work on dinner. We have the option of pulling some edoes from the ground outside our house to make a soup, or attempting to make roti. Usually though it's lentils or beans with more rice. If we are lucky somebody will have gifted us some vegetables from their farm, or a kid might have climbed a tree to pick a few ripe fruits for us.

6 pm - Sit at my little desk to plan lessons for tomorrow. Thte light begins to fade from the sky and we switch on our solar powered lights on to work by. The mosquitos also come out to irritate us, and the cockroaches start to invade the house. We slap them with our flip flops and keep a tally of how many we kill. In about a month so far we have squished 66 of them.

7 pm - Continue working with a cup of tea of some sort. Lemongrass grows locally and makes a delicious hot drink, or if we feel indulgent we use some cocoa powder to make hot  chocolate.


8 pm - After brushing my teeth outside to see the endlessly starry sky or watch distant lightening storms light up the horizon, I climb into my hammock, in the safety of my mosquito net, and listen to some music as I drift of to sleep.