Aug 10, 2010 News
The Guyana Government yesterday neglected to honour the country’s Amerindians as the world observed International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
The government issued no statement on the occasion and there were no ceremonies.
In contrast, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the world to step up efforts to improve living conditions of the planet’s indigenous communities and to protect them, saying they continued to suffer discrimination and poverty despite a United Nations declaration that aims to promote their rights.
The European Union [EU] was in the forefront locally in commemorating the significant day. In a statement issued for the celebration, the EU highlighted the fact that indigenous people hold a very special place in every society and it has been estimated by the United Nations that indigenous people represent about 300 million people, in 70 different countries around the world, including Guyana.
“The European Union is engaged and committed towards protecting and promoting the rights of indigenous people, within the context of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (2007).”
According to the High Representative of the EU, Baroness Catherine Ashton, “the International Day provides an opportunity for European Union to renew its commitment to promoting and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples across the world, as set out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” She further pledged the European Union’s efforts to put an end to discrimination and unequal treatment – not only in principle, but most importantly in practice.
In addition it was noted in the statement that having recognised the Guyana’s Government commitment to the development of Indigenous people in Guyana, the European Union is currently running a call for proposals for projects aimed at strengthening and working with Amerindian communities.
In 2008 and 2009, two rounds of the call for proposals were organised and four grants were awarded to organisations targeting the strengthening and development of Amerindian communities across Guyana.
Indigenous issues are also consistently mainstreamed in EC development cooperation strategies. In addition, the Commission gives direct support to civil society organisations working on indigenous issues, in particular through the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR).
The Delegation of the European Union to Guyana is currently finalising the new round of calls for proposals, following which it is expected that six more grants will be awarded to Amerindian communities.
Meanwhile, down at the Umana Yana, Amerindians were not even aware of the day designated to honour them. And this is despite the fact that the Wai Wais who took two weeks to travel to Georgetown are engaged in the restoration of the Umana Yana, the most significant landmark of the country’s indigenous people in Georgetown.
Chief Paul Chekema of the Wai Wai community of Konashen in Deep South Guyana is overseeing the reconstruction of the Umana Yana. Thirty-eight years after the first Wai Wais built the Umana Yana in Georgetown, another set of Wai Wais spent International Day for Indigenous Peoples doing the same thing and they included men and boys, well at least one boy, Natrum.
The Wai Wais were awarded a $16M contract to rehabilitate the historic site. Mr. Chekema, in an interview with this newspaper, revealed that the former rehabilitative work that was done to the Umana Yana was done by the Arawaks, who used two Dalibana leaves per horizontal strip, which in itself burned out rapidly. However, this time, five Dalibana leaves are being used per horizontal strip which will reduce the effect of burning and increase the longevity of the repairs by 7 to 10 years.
One of the main supporting pillars of the benab had to be replaced at a cost $108,000.
The Wai Wais travelled to Georgetown from Konashen, which has a population of a little over 220 people. Paul Chekema has been serving as chief for the past 10 years.
The journey from Konashen to Georgetown lasted for about two weeks. They travelled across the Kuyuwini and Kassikaityu rivers for three days before taking a truck to Lethem.
The leaves for reconstructing the roof of the benab had to be transported from St. Cuthbert’s Mission to Georgetown.
Approximately, 35 workers from Konashen, including two women cooks, are employed in rehabilitating the benab.
The Umana Yana was first constructed in 1972 when members of the Non-Aligned Movement and Third World Nations chose Guyana as host of the first meeting of the Non-Aligned Nations. This was the first meeting of its kind to be held in the hemisphere. Hosts of previous meetings had staged their affairs in buildings, which can only be described as ‘glittering showcases.’
A committee of government officials was assembled to identify a building to accommodate the conference. Guyana as host to the prestigious event was unable to afford the construction of a brick or concrete building and time would not permit the erection of a new wooden building. In light of these constraints the idea of an Amerindian benab found favour with the committee.
The lawns of the former Mariners’ Club, at the northeastern end of High Street where it met with Battery Road, was selected as the ideal location for the benab, that was to be constructed in the classic pattern of the benab built at Konashen by the Wai Wai people.
The materials and workforce were to be secured from the interior. Wai Wai Chief Elka and sixty-odd Amerindians were recruited for the execution of this task.
A circular area of the lawn, about 26.8 metres in diameter was cleared of grass and excavated, the soil leveled and compacted to a smooth hard finish by the Wai-Wais who ‘stomped the ground, feet unshod, moving rhythmically forward, backward and round and round as in a sort of tribal dance’.
Sand was then placed over the area and a concrete foundation slab – complete with holes for the insertion of the poles – was laid to protect the structure from dampness, given the nature of the shallow water table of the coastal soils.
Poles straight as arrows, round wood saplings, vines and lush green troolie fronds culled from palm trees growing in profusion in swamp lands upriver were used by the Wai Wai.
They climbed the smooth poles with remarkable agility, sat astride the round wood grids, or hung bat- like with stocky legs high above the ground to secure the materials utilising the techniques used by their countless generations in the construction of buildings. Unlike the traditional Amerindian building, nails were used to secure the roof against wind pressures given its location.
After only eighty days, the Umana Yana was completed at a modest cost of $26,000. On 8 August 1972, the flags of more than 80 nations fluttered proudly along the eastern edge of the Umana Yana’s compound as the meeting of the Non – Aligned Nations commenced.
“Like sands of the time, the Umana Yana is an eloquent reminder of the diversity of our culture, a reflection of the lifestyles between the indigenous peoples and the western-oriented dwellers of the city,” the National Trust says.
Sadly, the people responsible for building this prized part of the country’s heritage went unnoticed on a day designated to honour them.
The Wai Wais restoring the roof would have spent last evening in a dorm in Sophia after a hard day’s work, humbled and undisturbed by the fact that they were ignored on International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
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