COUNTRYMAN – Stories about life, in and out of Guyana, from a Guyanese perspective
By Dennis Nichols
There is a huge difference between living in Guyana and living in a country like the United States of America,
especially if you like the finer (and fatter) things in life, like a solid bank account, a well-stocked refrigerator and an extra chin or two – one version of the American dream.
That’s it, and even here in Guyana you can find it if you know how to be manipulative and make ‘the system’ work for you. But the faces of too many Guyanese are pinched and peaked; eyes clouded, confused, reflecting fatalistic hopelessness and resignation, while yearning for a piece of American pie that may later prove to be rather indigestible.
It’s been like that for a long time; we look for change in the proverbial greener pastures, where we think we may find it. Many searches end in Brooklyn and Queens, New York, or in a handful of other American cities, and even in a place like Bonn, Germany, where I came across a Guyanese DJ in a disco steeped in Western European ambience. But it is the US of A that I am most familiar with, having visited the country seven times, including an overstay that lasted two years. And unlike the majority of Guyanese I guess, I never wanted to remain there even if I could have hooked or crooked the coveted Green Card that some people live and die for.
Many years ago I told members of my family, in a simplified way, that living in America ‘changes you’ sometimes for the better, but often for the worse. I cannot fully explain or prove this because it’s more subjective feeling and observation than fact, and it has to do more with harder-to-define values and a philosophy of life and death, than with materialism.
I’ve lived long enough, and suffered from lack of material wealth long enough, to commiserate with ancient King Solomon, that basically ‘all is vanity and vexation of spirit’. I feel that there are many people (including Guyanese of course) who hold this view, but struggle with it, because of the need to conform to the more widely-held and accepted ideas of what success in life is.
An anecdote is told about a chance encounter between two men, one a rich investment banker on holiday and the other a fisherman, in a Mexican village. The tycoon sought to enlighten the fisherman on how he could advance his lot in life. He advised him on how to improve his catch, buy a bigger boat, sell directly to the processor, acquire a fleet of boats, open a cannery, move to the United States, become very rich and retire. As the tycoon was carrying on, the fisherman asked repeatedly, ‘Then what?’ and after the last one the tycoon had to admit that the man would end up doing exactly what he was then doing, that is, move to a small coastal village, sleep late, fish a little, play with the kids, take siesta with the wife, sip some wine, and play his guitar with his amigos.
I know several American-Guyanese who have flourished and expanded financially over there but who have confided in me that they suffer continuous physical and emotional health turmoil. They’d like to return home, but will not forsake perceived material wealth and success, nor the appearance of a superior lifestyle, nor the idea of having had the good sense to leave impoverished Guyana and take advantage of the wonderful opportunities the United States offers. I also know many who struggle financially, but desperately try to convince themselves that it will be worth it in the end. But in the end many die still struggling financially, or falling victim to illnesses and accidents associated with a stressful and sedentary lifestyle, or with eating foods inimical to good health.
I remember back in the early nineties meeting, and hearing about, Guyanese in the US living and working under conditions they would hardly have tolerated back home. These included two university lecturers, one who operated a taxicab and the other, a social worker, visiting shut-ins and mentally unstable residents in depressed Brooklyn communities.
A former government minister was involved in a questionable multi-level marketing scheme while a former meteorologist, now a security guard, was becoming a virtual alcoholic, forever promising to ‘send for’ his wife and children back in GT. I have seen three relatives riddled with bullets and two close friends done in by alcohol, one dead and the other confined to a sanatorium. Two of my sisters died traumatically from diseases I suspect they would not have contracted here. And there are many, many more tragic stories, including Guyanese becoming the victims of several brutal crimes often related to the illegal drugs and gang culture, especially in New York.
Now it’s not that these things don’t happen here; obviously they do. But the expectation of an enhanced standard of living and the reality of not achieving it, or finding out that it’s a mammoth illusion, can devastate a person, especially after placing so much hope and investing so much energy in it.
So Guyana is no bed of roses, but neither is America. Maybe, if you attempt to emulate what philosopher and naturalist Henry David Thoreau did more than 150 years ago. He rejected much of what even then was the socially-accepted pursuit of happiness through material gain, and embraced a lifestyle of austere living in the wilderness of Concord, Massachusetts. He famously said, “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind”
Thoreau was also an expounder of the philosophy of civil disobedience later adopted by Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. These great men would have no doubt also been familiar with Thoreau’s rejection of luxury and his naturalistic bent. To me, the simple life isn’t something that is difficult to understand. Maybe somewhat impractical, but necessary for the soul’s peace and its repose. Read, for example, about the life of billionaire Howard Hughes, who spent the last years of that life in darkened rooms, terrified of germs, yet rarely bathing or brushing his teeth, taking massive doses of painkillers and eventually dying a malnourished recluse.
For people like me (and there are quite a few of us) a piece of land in the Guyana countryside or hinterland with a cottage, a kitchen garden, a nearby fishing hole, a camera, and a few other necessities, is enough. Neighbours would be optional, and crime, hopefully minimal. And, if someone can reinvent the internet without pornography, maybe a laptop computer. Life will become less stressful, more spiritual, and those twin demons, success and failure, almost irrelevant.
Oh, and the laptop may come in handy for staying in touch with my plethora of relatives and friends living ‘outside’, and for sending the occasional picture of me canoeing on a creek as the setting tropical sun cuts a kaleidoscopic swath across the western horizon.
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