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Life on Stilts

Staying Afloat in Guyana

by Carinya Sharples
16 July 2020

On my last night in Guyana I meet some friends at the seawall, where more than 60 years before my dad would come to listen to music at the bandstand, promenade and, on Easter Sunday, fly homemade box kites.

As the sun sets, we buy cold beers for GYD$300 from the vendors with their chipped, white coolers; think about ordering a hot dog or arepa from the bustling Venezuelan stand; and perch on the wall that wraps this too-low coastline like crumbling roti round wet curry.

We know the warnings. That sea levels are rising. That Georgetown, the capital city where we live, could be inundated. Yet this is how water is in Guyana, we say. It comes in floods or evaporates in droughts – there are no half measures.

When the rains come, it’s usually a case of too much rather than too little. Between 1951 and 1979, Guyana saw a mean sea-level rise five times the global average. If the oceans continue to rise at the current rate, predicts NASA, global sea levels will rise by an average of 65cm by 2100. What will Georgetown look like then?

That the name Guyana means ‘Land of Many Waters’ has become a cliché of every international article you read about the country, yet to omit it feels like an oversight. Guyana’s coastal plain stretches from Venezuela in the west to Suriname in the east and varies in width between 10 and 40 miles. Depending on where you are, the land is around 0.5 to one metre below mean sea level.

Georgetown is where some 90% of the population live today. We shouldn’t really be here. But in the 1700s, Dutch colonisers, bringing technology from their own low-lying country, decided to drain the swampy coast and install a ‘polder’ system of canals, sluice gates (known locally as kokers) and dams to cultivate sugar and other crops on the fertile land. Historian Dr Walter Rodney estimated that, in doing so, enslaved Africans were required to move 100 million tonnes of soil by hand. Ever since then, the sea has been trying to reclaim the land that was taken from it.

When I first arrived in Guyana in February 2016, I was fascinated by stories of the ‘Great Flood’ of 2005 when Georgetown, and the wider coastal region, was underwater for weeks on end. Stranded, enterprising residents used whatever they could find to move around in: boats, barrels, rafts, old fridges. A friend told me how her father lathered his legs in petroleum jelly to wade through the waters in search of provisions – a precaution against Leptospirosis. Animal carcases floated by. Thirty-four lives were lost and many, many livelihoods.

Floods are nothing new in Guyana. Back in the early 19th century, as documented by Dr Odeen Ishmael in The Guyana Story, residents complained that the area around the West India Regiment barracks in Eve Leary – now the location of the Guyana Police Force – frequently flooded. Then the population was around 127,695; it currently stands at 746,955, according to the last census in 2012 (it is likely to have grown significantly since).

In a 2014 presentation at Georgetown’s cultural centre Moray House, veteran civil engineer Bert Carter showed slides of beautiful wide, open canals in the heart of Georgetown back in 1891. ‘After 100-something years, we ‘ent build another inch, not another inch,’ he joked wryly.

Yet capacity is not the only problem. There’s the rubbish that blocks many trenches and canals: discarded plastic bags, bottles and food wrappers. Rubbish makes its way into the rivers too. Last year, I took a public boat over the Demerara River to visit a squatting community known as Plastic City. On the top step of a wooden house, perched on stilts, I met Cassie, sitting with a small pen of chicks. Well, it had been a pen of chicks, once upon a time, but a rat stole four, she told me ruefully. Her husband had named the survivor Jerry.

‘Yeah, people does call it plastic city,’ she said. ‘You see, people from all over, when they got garbage, they throw it inside the river. And then by the wall down there, every year the water does come in…and sometimes when you get the high tide, all the garbage that be inside the river come towards you.’

Cassie and her husband had been living there for four years. Her sisters-in-law, brother-in-law and mother-in-law live nearby too. ‘People just try fuh make a living at the back here,’ she said. ‘Most people, they don’t really got land because you put in for land and you ain’t getting through, how much year.’

The authorities are building a wall, she added hopefully. ‘They say then the area won’t flood any more’.

Walls aren’t enough, though. Even the sea wall, which stretches 280 miles along the coast, has had its day. Built under the British colonial regime, which officially took over from the Dutch in 1814, it has since been Guyana’s defence against the brown, encroaching Atlantic. This time round, convicts from what is now the Mazaruni Prison, located in the middle of the Mazaruni River, did the hard labour. The wall was completed in 1882.

In front of the wall, riprap – looking like giant concrete playing blocks – have been scattered at occasional intervals as an added buffer. Efforts have been also made to restore the mangrove forests that naturally give the coast protection from battering waves. On assignment for the environmental and conservation website Mongabay in 2017, I caught the 44 minibus along the East Coast, from my own house on stilts in Plaisance – an area famous as the childhood home of Guyanese music legend Eddy Grant – to Cove and John where I met ranger Raymond Hinds.

I asked him about the state of sea wall. ‘Some of the concrete foundation has been broken because the salt water get into the ground and start to break it,’ he explained. He’s part of a team working to revive the mangrove trees – many of which, he said, were chopped down for firewood during a fuel crisis in the 1970s.

‘What mangrove do, it trap the sediment of the soil and build up the land,’ relayed Hinds as we walked along the wall, looking out over the green mangrove forest with its angular roots visible over the water. In 1990 the forest covered 91,000 hectares, but by 2009 it had shrunk to 22,632 hectares.

There are many other ideas, and possible solutions too, to keep the water at bay: from better waste management and improved infrastructure to relocating the capital city to Linden, further inland from the coast. But it feels like Guyana right now is at the mercy of the waves – and the world’s inactivity on climate change.

In 2009 Guyana signed a US$250m deal with Norway to protect its rainforests from deforestation and, despite threats from illegal gold mining, it has kept up its end of the bargain. However, things are changing. Guyana is now pinning its economic hopes on the oil that lies beneath the sea. Late last year, Exxon Mobil and partners began deep-sea drilling – promising riches for Guyana in return for its black gold.

Yet, already, the bid to make Guyana the next Dubai seems to be turning sour. In early March, Guyana held its general election – a tense time that, as usual, revived political and racial divisions in the country. Months later, the re-counted results are yet to be announced. Initially, protests began spilling onto the streets, only to be fizzled out by the damp cloth of Covid-19, which silenced angry mouths with masks and sent everyone back home.

Poverty and resilience have long made Guyanese resourceful. The same market forces that have led many to extract and sell the rich minerals that lie beneath their land and waters, have also given rise to a propensity for recycling, fixing rather than throwing away, and working with what you have. Most backyards have huge, black water tanks that are open at the top to allow rainwater to collect. Many citizens rely on the network of private minibuses that zoom between towns, while a donkey or horse pulling a long cart of wooden planks or furniture is still an unremarkable sight. Free-range cows and goats roam some streets, and you can still buy unpackaged fresh fruits and vegetables, cupfuls of rice and beans, and coconut palm pointer brooms from markets like Bourda, Stabroek, La Penitance, Plaisance and Mon Repos. Trucks drive around the streets to refill the five-gallon water bottles everyone uses – unless you want to take a chance with the piped, or rain, water.

In the course of my work, I interviewed a scientist at the University of Guyana, Dr Dawn Fox, who told me of her research into how indigenous plants like okra and aloe vera could be used to absorb oil and other dirty materials from water. I talked to experienced biologists and naturalists who are monitoring sea birds and mammals to see what impact the arrival of big oil might have. I recorded a radio package about entrepreneurs making use of solar dryers and reusable materials, and ate takeaway food from government-approved biodegradable cartons.

But I also visited indigenous villages where the solar-powered batteries have died; saw the pits and craters left by gold, bauxite and chalk mining; saw men walking to the seafront each morning to turn the koker, knowing it’s not enough to stop the floods coming. I waded in plastic slippers through the water-logged street where I lived to get to the bus stop. I saw colleagues from the University of Guyana muster together funds to buy water to send to Wakapoa, where the wells had run dry. I rose early to meet returning fishermen by the wharf and hear their worries about how oil will affect their haul. I saw traditional wooden homes knocked down to build concrete houses with AC.

The other day, I watched a new film from REEL Guyana, ‘Coast Land’, in which filmmaker Alex Arjoon captures the waves crashing fiercely over the seawall at Mahaicony. He visits communities where people have lost fields of rice, poultry, cattle and crops to the water; and he takes his drone camera high over the receding Shell Beach in Guyana’s North West region where leather-backed turtles come to breed. I came across writer Ryhaan Shah’s poem ‘Sweet Veins of Greed’ and thought of all those who have pulled, wrenched and clawed wealth from this land – and continue to do so:

Those that clamped the chains, those that cracked the whips
To brutish laughter and are risen yet again
To entrap with new stories of gluttony and greed
Wearing their thin disguise, wearing their blackened sheen
That drills down through layers and layers of time
To claim sweet veins of oil that rest unworried in the core beneath

What does progress look like in Guyana? How will it ride out the growing storm of climate change? Opinions seem divided, with some looking for a Little USA on Guyanese land, while others just want what they have – but better. Less worry, less hardship, better healthcare, better education, no more blackouts.

At a global level, the Covid-19 pandemic is causing people to re-evaluate their lives. Ideas that once seemed unthinkable – grounding airplanes, asking people to work from home, shops closing en masse – have became reality. Sharing my vision for a green Guyana, free of capitalist complicity and the ever-watching eye and hand of the ABC countries (America, Britain and Canada), an eco-warrior friend asks, ‘But would you wash your own clothes?’ I remember my pitiful attempts at handwashing, and how quickly I accepted my neighbour’s offer to do them for me for a small sum. What was I really willing to change to stop Guyana going under?

In a piece for Stabroek News, writer Godfrey Chin once wrote a love letter of sorts to the seawall. ‘By adulthood as hormones raged, the Sea Wall was a romantic trysting place – a public bedroom – a private parking promenade for lovers,’ he wrote. ‘During the Banlon years of the seventies, choke and rob reared its ugly head in our once peaceful society, and the Sea Wall become less popular as a local oasis. Today’s Sea Wall Sunday lime opposite the Subryanville residences, east of the former D’Aguiar and later Russian Embassy Turn is the popular attraction.’

Without action, these memories may sink further – along with the life that we knew. Of the five houses I lived in while in Guyana, the last two were set high off the ground on stilts. Visiting friends and neighbours would call ‘Inside!’ or ‘Upstairs!’ to get my attention, as is the custom. Up here felt safe. Let the water try and catch me. But we can’t just sit and wait for it to rise.

Bar the indigenous peoples who have lived here for thousands of years, these salty waves brought all of Guyana’s people to its shores: from Africa, Asia and Europe. Although we love a cool dip in the creek, eating the fruits of the sea and rivers, and the rains that make this land so fertile, it is surprising how few people can swim. There’s still a fear of the water that surrounds us. And we are right to be afraid.

About the Author

Carinya Sharples

Carinya Sharples is a freelance writer, editor and teacher of Anglo-Guyanese heritage. She is currently studying for a MA in Creative Writing & Education at Goldsmiths, University of London. She has previous produced radio packages and worked as a fixer in Guyana for BBC World Service, taught communications part-time at the University of Guyana, and […]

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