…Anthropologist Dr. George Mentore is a ‘Special Person’
“Basically what I’m doing is trying to collect information about how they live, (in community) what we call ethnographic field research … and I’ve become a specialist on the Wai Wai. But I also try to develop a specialty on other Amerindian groups in the deep south, including the Wapisiana and the Macushi, so I’ve become a little bit more comparative in my work.”
By Dennis A. Nichols
Many Guyanese have heard of the work of the late artist, writer, and archaeologist Denis Williams. But how many know about the contributions of other contemporary Guyanese in a similar sphere of endeavour?
If you don’t, meet cultural anthropologist, Dr. George Mentore, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, U.S.A., editor-in-chief of the journal ‘Anthropology and Humanism’ and a contributor to the local Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology in the form of an ethnographic collection of the Wai Wai of southern Guyana.
For those of us who are not science-oriented or research-minded, anthropology is the study of humans – of their societies, cultures and development. An ethnographic collection is unpublished material gathered and organized by a cultural researcher documenting human life and traditions. This is Dr. Mentore’s forte, and it is a discipline he has been engaged in for the past 30 years, during which time he has authored several publications, and is in the process of completing his second book.
George Mentore was born at Stanleytown, New Amsterdam, to George and Shirley Mentore (nee Barnwell) ‘sometime in the fifties’. His father, George Mentore was a carpenter and a musician. Although he finds it somewhat difficult to recall his early childhood, he does remember going to school with ‘slate and pencil’, and figures he must have had a typical rural education, that is, until he and his mother migrated to the United Kingdom to join his father who had left for the European motherland earlier, in 1958.
Dr. Mentore disclosed that his education continued in London, England, where he attended high school before enrolling at the University of Sussex to study Visual Communication, and from which he obtained his first degree in 1973. It was about this time, he said, he started working, doing research and illustrations for publishers such as McMillan and Nelson, and came across historical information he had not been taught about in the British education system, relative to places like Africa and The Caribbean.
“So I became curious, and I found out that there is a whole body of literature on these different places, that, you know, the adult person was really interested in; and I had to do the research for these educational books, so from then I retooled myself, as they say, and went back to university, to the London School of Economics and Political Science, and there, in 1977, I got my M.A. in (Social) Anthropology. From there I went to do my PhD. In 1984, back at the University of Sussex,” Dr. Mentore revealed, adding that at that point he just was waiting for a chance to do his field research.
And where did he go for that research? Right here in Guyana, with the Wai Wai in the ‘deep south’ of the country at a place called Gunns Strip.
After the research, he returned to England to do his write-up and defend his dissertation. Following this exercise, Dr. Mentore latched on to his first ‘real paid’ job, working at a museum in Puerto Rico, during which time he was sent back to South America to work again with the Wai Wai, this time in both Guyana and in Brazil (which also had an indigenous population) as a post-doctorate researcher collecting material for the museum, in order to establish what the Tainos (Arawak) were like when Christopher Columbus first landed in the ‘New World’.
He explained that there was a vision of creating a museum that would reconstruct, or revitalize, the island at the time of its first contact with Europeans. After spending a year in Puerto Rico, he got in touch with a professor at the University of Virginia, U.S.A, who was looking for an anthropologist to teach Caribbean and Amazonian studies. Following an interview with the professor, he left Puerto Rico and ended up teaching at that central Atlantic coast university. He has been there ever since.
Over the years, Dr. Mentore has continued his work with the Wai Wai in Guyana; in fact he has returned almost annually to the country of his birth since his first research visit. He explained that as an anthropologist, he likes to keep in contact with the people he initially did research with. He added that this discipline has now expanded to include modern living (akin to sociology) and in this context, the anthropologist actually lives with the people he studies in order to glean data for analysis.
Dr. Mentore added that when he was working with the Wai Wai initially, he observed that they had very little contact with coastal Guyana; and even with their closest neighbours, the Wapisianas, at that time.
“So basically what I’m doing is trying to collect information about how they live, (in community) what we call ethnographic field research … and I’ve become a specialist on the Wai Wai. But I also try to develop a specialty on other Amerindian groups in the deep south, including the Wapisiana and the Macushi, so I’ve become a little bit more comparative in my work,” he remarked.
As his work in this area progressed, the ethnographic focus on the region and its people has broadened to include other parts of Amazonia (the drainage area of the Amazon basin; approximately 3,000,000 square miles) He intends to do comparative research between the three local tribes already mentioned and indigenous groups such as the Yanomami and the Panara among others, in a vast region that includes Suriname, Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
Explaining the process in more practical terms, Dr. Mentore asserted that what he and other anthropologists depend upon most, is known as participant observation. By this he means that he observes and participates in the expression of their culture.
“If they are going out hunting, you go hunting with them. If they’re planting, or grating cassava, you plant and grate cassava; and if men don’t do that … as a man I observe, and try and document them. So basically what you’re doing (in addition to observing and participating) is describing, in written text, the processes – what people are doing in their everyday lives,” he stated.
Dr. Mentore left Guyana two days ago, with his wife, Laura, also an anthropologist, and their two youngest children, Kamina and Ewka, along with two groups of undergraduate students from the University of Virginia and the University of Mary Washington where his wife teaches. They were in Guyana over the past five weeks and travelled to the North Rupununi village of Surama, where the students were taught to be ethnographers during the summer programme. He noted that in previous years they had done it with University of Guyana students also, but this year they didn’t have the capacity to include them.
Dr. Mentore observed that the summer course, which he has been involved in over the last eight years at Surama, is a life-changing opportunity for the students, some of whom have moved on to some of the top universities in the world, primarily because of it. He described it as ‘a highly-intensive academic course, teaching real life experiences outside of the classroom.’
He added “it’s really very practical; and it’s not about reading … it’s about collecting data. It’s about writing, describing the situation they’re in, so they are taught how to write very good ethnographic descriptions. They are taught how to carry out interviews without necessarily interrogating people; they’re encouraged to participate in everyday life, and for them it can be emotionally transformative, so that they go back with a whole different outlook on life.”
Dr. Mentore emphasized that the villagers in Surama have been very good to them, allowing the students to come into their homes, their community and their lives, so they would not see themselves as tourists. In fact they may be treated like family, he commented, noting that the locals have remembered every one of the students over the last eight years, and even communicate with some of them on Facebook.
Upon returning to the United States, students usually use the data gathered to produce theses for their degrees at the culmination of a four-year liberal arts programme. They also ensure that they send back to their Amerindian hosts in Guyana, copies of their work. Many of them, Dr. Mentore proudly stated, are very capable of getting into top-ranked universities to do their PhDs or ‘post-docs’ and there is a very high success rate for students who graduate from the course.
For his part, he said, he simply continues his research, to expand on his knowledge of Amerindian life – a culture that is not well-known outside of their communities. As if to emphasize how deeply he is involved with his vocation, and with Guyanese indigenous culture, the dreadlocked anthropologist declared that he has given each of his five children (two daughters and three sons) Wai Wai names. The girls are Kimiknu and Kamina, and the boys are Kaywe, Chakana and Ewka. Three are from a previous marriage.
He added that the two youngest ones, Kamina and Ewka, travel with him and his wife whenever they go to Surama, He commented, “That kind of relationship, moving together as a family, really does stamp you as a ‘real’ human being … the ability to share your life with someone in the immediate.” His closeness to his family, particularly his current wife and two youngest children, is evident in the quietly intense and deliberate way he speaks about them, and how intertwined their lives are, even in his scholarly work.
He asserts that what it really means to be alive in the world isn’t a professional career, making money, or being at the top, which ‘is a very American kind of thing’ even where family structure and child-nurturing are concerned, with parents relinquishing the care and authority of their children to ‘others’ in order to pursue success and wealth.
He notes that such practices are at odds with the kind of indigenous family relationships he admires, where family members participate in a kind of reciprocal ‘gift-giving’ of self, schooling in centres within the community (as at Surama) and external/government authority is filtered down via the head of the family, not through an institution. He obviously prefers that way and has patterned his own family life after it, (even to the growing of his hair) using knowledge drawn from local experiences.
One of the highlights of living life as an academic, he contended, is how to apply that very knowledge to everyday life, so that in his case, his wife and children remain the key elements in his life; and that knowledge, in part at least, has been distilled in his authorship of two books, the second of which will bear the intriguing title, ‘Killing, Eating and Compassion – Skeptical Anthropology’. The first, published in 2005 by the University of Nebraska press, is captioned ‘Of Passionate Curves and Desirable Cadences –Themes on Wai Wai Social Being.’
Dr. Mentore, as earlier indicated, left the country on Friday, but his work here in Guyana, and in this part of the world is hardly over. Come 2015, he and his ‘team’ will be back for another sojourn among the Wai Wai in Guyana, and further afield. And the world of anthropology will no doubt further benefit from an enhanced understanding of the contributions being made to humanity by the indigenous peoples of Amazonia.
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