I have many wonderful memories of the fourteen months my husband Dennis and I lived in Guyana, and a few hair-raising ones, too. There was only one highway along the coast in 1967, and for the most part, it was rather flat and straight. Whenever we travelled to the capital city of Georgetown (a five hour trip, which in Canada would have taken an hour), we first had to go to New Amsterdam to catch the ferry across the Berbice River. Then on the other side, we would board a train to take us the rest of the way. This meant that we would have to be standing across the road from our house at 4:30 a.m. in order to flag down a passing “hire car”. Fortunately, we never had to wait long before one came along.
Now for the hair-raising part! Considering the speed at which some of the drivers drove, it was as if they were taking part in a qualifying heat for the Grand Prix; the dangerous risks they sometimes took in passing each other on the road sent our blood-pressures soaring. While a wild ride was in progress, the stories of our fellow passengers, though somewhat entertaining, would often add to my angst. (Sometimes there would be as many as nine of us crammed into a Morris Minor: three in the front, and six in the back, where even strangers were forced to double up by sitting on someone’s lap.) We would be perched on the edges of our seats, white-knuckled, listening to snatches of conversation not unlike the following: “Hey, mon! Mistress L…dead…machete. Husband do it. Why he do it? Me nah know…”; or, “…on way to school…accident. Truck driver, he drunk. He kill ‘im…” ; or, “Mr. Singh, he robbed…hit t’ief hard, with cricket bat.”
Thankfully, the joy we experienced in getting to know our students, all eager to learn, meant much more to us than the few “hair-raising” events we remember. Although we were preparing them for the Cambridge University Entrance Exams, O Levels (I was teaching English Literature and Language; Dennis taught Science and Math), I tried to find extra books for them that were outside the strictly British-based curriculum, and in particular, novels and stories written by West Indian authors–ones that they could relate to in their day to day lives.
The enthusiasm of the kids for the books that I found on a shopping expedition to Georgetown made the trip there worthwhile. These included several anthologies of literature written by Caribbean authors that were appropriate for Forms I-V, and novels, too, by such well-known authors as V.S. Naipaul (originally from Trinidad; winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature), George Lamming (Barbados) and Andrew Salkey (Jamaica). On a trip to Mackenzie (now Linden) by speed boat up the Demerara River, we were thrilled to meet the Guyanese poet A.J. Seymour (1914-1990) while touring the Demerara Bauxite Mine where he had been working as Public Relations Officer. (The company is now the Linden Mining Enterprise)
Seymour’s Name Poem may be found in the book Selected Poems / A.J. Seymour, and is a wonderful example of his appreciation for the origins of place names. Among those he mentions in his poem, are representatives of Amerindian (Kwebanna on the Waini); Dutch (Kykoveral, Stabroek); French (Le Ressouvenir and Le Repentir); English (Hid in Adventure, Bee Hive, Friendship); and Spanish (Santa Rosa). He ends his Name Poem with these words: “Beauty about us in the breathe of names,/ If but a wind blows, all their beauty wakes.” (38-39)
At that time, my favourite collection for kids in the 13-15 year old age range was entitled The Sun’s Eye: West Indian Writing for Young Readers compiled by Anne Walmsley (London : Longmans, Green and Co Ltd, 1968.) Occasionally I will pull it off my bookshelf and reread some of the stories and poems. Today I realize how dated the following poem by the late, Jamaican poet A.L. Hendriks may seem, yet I love the soft cadences of the lines within each verse:
An Old Jamaican Woman thinks about the Hereafter
by A.L. Hendriks
“What would I do forever in a big place, who
have lived all my life in a small island?
The same parish holds the cottage I was born in, all
my family, and the cool churchyard.
I have looked
up at stars from my front verandah and have been afraid
of their pathless distances. I have never flown
in the loud aircraft nor have I seen palaces,
so I would prefer not to be taken up high nor
rewarded with a large mansion.
I would like
to remain half-drowsing through an evening light
watching bamboo trees sway and ruffle for a valley-wind,
to remember old times, but not to live them again;
occasionally to have a good meal with no milk
nor honey for I don’t like them, and now and then to walk
by the grey sea-beach with two old dogs and watch
men bring up their boats from the water.
For all this,
for my hope of heaven, I am willing to forgive my debtors
and to love my neighbour…
although the wretch throws stones
at my white rooster and makes too much noise in her damn
backyard.” (Lines 1-24)