Category Archives: North Rupununi

Rupununi Red Road: Intersection of Art + Research

Art came to find me in every aspect of my research in the Rupununi of Guyana. I studied the impact of Wildlife Clubs on the young members as well as on their communities. In my fieldwork, soaking in their exuberant drawings, songs, dances, and skits was a delightful way to understand the impact of the Clubs. My own artistic expression through songs and poetry was a way for me to cope with what I summarize as my experience with “blood, pus, pain, and death”, especially the death of 3-year-old Alianna.

Then when I returned to Ottawa to analyze my data, I made it into a ceremony: I’d smudge first, including hiawa resin I was given in Yupukari, transcribe, code, reflect on each interview, and then, as my reward, write two lines of song lyrics. These lines will be woven together as a Song based on all the interviews I did. It will be one part of the creative, engaging, and collaborative projects I’ll do to disseminate the research findings back to the communities I had the privilege to work with.

I spoke about this at uOttawa’s Creativity and Aesthetic Enrichment Symposium on Friday 26 Oct. And opened with one of my songs based on my time on the one red Road we all travel – and WAIT – on in the Rupununi. The last verse is wisdom from Elder Sydney Allicock of Surama about the imminent paving of this red dirt Road.

Rupununi Red Road

In the deep south of Guyana
Through rainforest and savannah
Winds the Red Road of destiny
Linking jewel-like communities

Strong happy people can shine
Work balanced with kari and mango wine
Its beautiful, so easy to be content
but change comes quickly with pavement

Chorus, 2x: Rupununi Red Road
Sun drenched dusty road
rain drenched washed out road
the toughest love you’ll know

They want to pave this red artery
But when we look back on history
Asphalt brings trade and medical care
But also trafficking and poaching, so beware

Will you decide with asphalt heat
or with cool rainforest Earth under your feet?
The Elders’ advice rings true
Use the road, don’t let road use you

Chorus, 2x

For Alianna: Part 2 – A Child’s Funeral Flowers

4 July 2011 (continued from Part 1 – Well of Sorrow)

The background sound to most of the next morning is the relentless hammering and sawing to make Alianna’s coffin. Like the day before, Mira won’t eat or drink and at times blacks out. Veronica, a Peace Corps volunteer who has lived with Marc’s family for the past year, has been caring for Mira. Mira gets more upset when she’s near Alianna’s body, yet some people let her go there. I find out from Veronica later that some people said things to Mira like “its your fault your baby died.” I cannot understand why now of all times people would choose to attack a grieving mother. There does seem to be a dark side of humans that finds it easier to blame people for their misfortune, maybe to make us feel less likely it could happen to us?  This accident could have happened to anyone in the Village.  No one has a secure well, and most people leave their kids “unattended” (with the eldest child in charge).

I feel quite useless waiting, but then Marc’s wife, Jana, mentions she’d like to make a crown of flowers for Alianna. I leap at the chance to do something useful and volunteer to go pick flowers. A teen girl is sent with me to go to a nearby household with lots of flowers. I take off on my borrowed bike, thrilled to use my muscles for something. We come back loaded with flowers, and I ask what is Mira’s favourite colour. Pink. So I help Jana weave a crown from pink, yellow, & orange flowers. There are lots of flowers left, so I imagine they can be handed to people at the funeral service to hold. A fitting visual for a funeral for a sweet little girl.

Finally just before noon the funeral starts. And a friend of the family is already handing out the flowers, mostly orange and yellow ones that remind me of marigolds. I hold three, for past, present, & future. It looks so sad and lovely to see almost everyone holding the flowers, many already wilting, as fragile and ephemeral as all Life is.

I’m underwhelmed by the Service, the preacher seems to take this as an opportunity to drill in the message that this must have happened because the parents and community did not repent enough. And so better repent now. I wish he would save that for his Sunday sermons. Why not celebrate this little girl’s Life, and try to offer her family words of wisdom and love to help them heal? For example, a good time to talk about stones and glass houses.  Its another jarring moment for me… does anyone else feel this way, too, or is it just that I’m not from here?

The small coffin is carried to the above ground Cement tomb, similar to how it is done in Georgetown. One of the teachers has organized the children, and they start to sing “Jesus Loves the Little Children”. The savannah spins and shifts on me as tears well into my eyes. The song causes my heart and mind to ricochet back to 2009, when My Edna died. She was my Guyanese Nanny, a key member of my family, and “Jesus Loves the Little Children” was the lullaby she sang to me and my brother when we were little. My favourite lullaby. I am overwhelmed again by the pain and grief of her loss, for the woman who loved me unconditionally.  It was surreal for me to kiss her goodbye three times, when they opened the casket, the still form inside so unrecognizable as My Edna, but the softness of her skin when I kissed her forehead meant there was no mistake. Then I grieved for a parent. Here, now, the parents grieve for a child. I can barely fathom what it would be like to kiss a child goodbye.

To kiss a beautiful little girl with a crown of flowers goodbye. A hinge on the casket allows people one last look or kiss before she is put in the tomb.

Mira cannot stand as they seal the tomb with wet cement. So Marc sits with her on the ground, holding his sister. The other two sisters are close by. He murmurs to her to remember she has three other children who need her, that she cannot follow Alianna but has to stay and care for them. This brotherly love is one of my strongest memories of this sad time.

We are hurt terribly when we lose the one we Love. But Love is also the key to how we heal from the loss.

For Alianna: Part 1 – Well of Sorrow

A little girl with a crown of pink, yellow, and orange flowers haunts my unguarded moments.  She looks like she is sleeping, but there is water seeping from her nose.   Three years old, her beautiful light brown face framed by long black hair loose in the white sheet wrapped around her small body.

*** (names changed to protect identities) ***

It’s sunny on Sunday July 3, a welcome respite from the frequent rain of the Rainy Season in the North Rupununi of Guyana, S.A.  The puddles on every red-mud path glint in the noon sun, the intense light washes out the tawny greens of the savannah and deeper green of the forested hills.

My community collaborator, Dana, and I are getting ready for the men’s focus group on the Village’s environmental Club.  The consent forms are waiting, we’ve discussed the women’s focus group from the previous week, and the pots are bubbling away in the Community Centre’s makeshift kitchen.

A motorbike passes by, horn blaring, but I don’t think much of it.  Later Dana tells me it was my friend and host, Marc.  Eventually, the news filters to us, as we wait for the focus group at 2pm.  At first it sounds like one of Marc’s sisters has fallen into a water hole, then a niece…. I’m worried, but don’t know what to think.  Then we get the full story from Daniel, who has come for the focus group: Marc’s 3 year old niece, Alianna, fell into a well. Sitting on the steps of the Community Center, we get more news from people passing by.  I feel I should be doing something to help, but I’m so crippled with my burnt feet I’m not even sure how to get over to Marc’s sister’s place since my bike has been borrowed. I ask what is going on, is she being rescued?  Can we help?

Dana looks at me quizzically. “She’s dead, Julie,” she says, gently.

I’m shocked.  All this time I thought she was being rescued.  I come to understand that the parents went to church (an hour walk away) and left the children, the eldest is 13 years old. This is quite common here. It’s not clear what happened but it sounds like Alliana tried to get some water and there was a rotten plank over the well and so she fell in. It wasn’t deep but she couldn’t swim and so she drowned. Now that I know what happened I just want to get over there.  It sounds like most of the people from the village are gathering at the parents’ home.  Of course I cancel the focus group. The issues of unsecured wells and unattended children are discussed by a few people on the steps of the Community Center as I wait for the bike to come back so I can go over.  Finally Dana decides to tow me on the back of her bike. We meet Auntie Elfina on the way, with the Salara and the Malaca fruits ordered for the focus group.  I carry them over to the family’s house.  I find Marc sitting on the ground outside the house, red eyed. “I’m so sorry Marc…” I feel I have no words in the face of such a tragedy.  The family is in one room in the house together all crying. Alianna’s small body is wrapped in a white sheet, lying in the other room.  People are milling around inside and outside of the house. I tell Marc about the food for the focus group and that I would like the family have it.  A motorbike is sent to fetch it. Medex and a police officer come to take statements and investigate Alianna’s death.

There have been many times here when I’m not sure what I should do, but I know I don’t have the luxury to do nothing.  So I try to help others with their tasks.  While waiting for the other food, I suggest sharing around the Malaca fruit, I figure it offers nutrition and some hydration in this heat.  I wander around, despite the pain of my feet, to offer pieces of Malaca.  I ask if I should go to the parents, anxious not to disturb them.  I’m told to go, but am still hesitant on the threshold of that door into the room of grief.  But there are many children inside who light up, and the father accepts some, but Alianna’s mother will not take food or water, and is starting to black out sometimes.  She is too deep in her grief for the small kindness of fruit.  I wish I could somehow help.  Dana starts helping with her, and with serving the food from the cancelled focus group.  Auntie Charlotte, Marc’s mother, the child’s grandmother, talks with me a bit says her husband is vexed with the parents for leaving the children unattended.

I watch as the food is slowly distributed, since there aren’t enough plates and spoons to go around.  I’m trying to guess the “rules” for distribution, it seemed like those considered to be working get the food first, then Elders, and then the order is less clear to me.

Here, people are usually buried on their family’s land.  Alianna’s family decides to bury her at Marc’s place because it would be too difficult for her mother to see her grave every day.  They will already have enough to deal with seeing their well every day.  The Village’s tractor takes Alianna’s body and many people over to Marc’s.  Dana’s daughter Cantina wants to come with me, while the rest of her family will come the next morning for the funeral.  There is no embalming here, so people are buried within a day, with a Wake the night before.

We bike to Marc’s, and I’m not sure what to do.  There are people in groups chatting outside Marc’s house, and in the common room where family and friends gather to talk and eat.  Since only a few weeks ago, there is a giant flat screen TV powered by a generator, and many more people now come to watch DVDs.   At the other end of the room is the kitchen.  Alianna’s small body lies on a pillow to the right of the TV.  The sheet is wrapped so that anyone can open it to see Alianna’s face.

As with the Wake for a colleague’s 5 week old baby son the week before, I don’t know how to feel about the Wake.   I can feel the collective sadness and pain of everyone there.  The contrast of that with what is playing on the TV is jarring.   At the baby’s wake, there was a Christmas comedy playing, the plot: a rich family has to deal with the father not getting his Christmas bonus.  The frivolousness of this “difficulty” compared to day-to-day life in the Rupununi!

I cannot escape into busyness, there is nothing I need to Do.  I could read or write, but would still hear the TV that is now on.  So I don’t resist.  I fiddle with mosquito coils that I light off the gas stove.  There are no matches, no one can find the family’s lighter, but I have mastered the art of lighting the gas stove with the sparks off my empty lighter.  I sit on the floor with many of the other mourners, my legs outstretched, the most comfortable position for my burnt feet.  Marc puts on Wild Guyana, which seems geared towards potential ecotourists to Guyana, and then Barney.  I haven’t been subjected to Barney before, it is as saccharine as I’d feared, but does seem to promote decent values.

It feels surreal to watch TV while Alliana lies there.  Does anyone else feel this way? I wonder what Wakes were like before TVs came here.  Would people talk more?  Everyone, myself included, seems so mesmerized by the TV.  It may numb the pain and grief at the moment, but I wonder if it slows the healing process.  Gathering like this is a chance to find comfort in other people, and also to try to process what happened by talking with each other.  With the TV on, there is barely any interaction, though there’s a constellation of smaller groups far enough away to talk amongst themselves.  Many of them are drinking, too. When football is put on, I escape to the room I’ll be sleeping in. I tell Marc’s family I’m going to bed, I have a headache, very rare for me, and am tired and sick and hurting from burnt feet and abscesses.  I don’t find out until morning that you are really supposed to stay up all night for a Wake.  It’s a long time before I find sleep.  I try to write a bit on the laptop, but its hard to concentrate with the loud TV.

Then its 9:34pm and I am listening to Alliana’s heartbroken mother, Mira, cry for her dead child in the room next to me.  “Mommy, Mommy I want Alianna back, I want my Anna… don’t leave me Anna, I’ll follow behind you…” It’s horrible to be right next to such agony and not be able to do anything.  I send healing energy to her.   Eventually I fall asleep.

Continued: Part 2 – A Child’s Funeral Flowers

goodbye cathy

i offer her food


even El Dorado & honey

she won’t take anything,

slight tick of her head like a gentle no

cathy resting on the day she died

she is emaciated,

can barely move

i see in her eyes

she has decided.

i will leave the next day,

don’t want her to suffer

try to get the vet assistant to come to kill her, but

he doesn’t come.

* * *

i don’t see her the next day.

i think “she must have gone off on her own to die”

i feel bad i couldn’t give her a gentle death

hope she didn’t suffer.

* * *

stuck at Bina Hill an extra day

we go to a friend’s wedding

when i come back, Gilly’s voice in the dark

“your dog is dead.”

it hurts, but i already knew in my heart, “i thought so.”

” i found the body.”

“where is she?”

“by the tourism office.”

and there is her body, stretched out on her left side

light mist of raindrops on her fur.

* * *

i want to bury her.

find wheelbarrow, struggle with gate

then the surprising weight and difficulty

to get her body into wheelbarrow

i nearly vomit twice from the putrid stench

she probably died the night before

its dark, i’m tired, the ground is too hard

don’t have it in me to bury her

so i find a young tree

lay her out, running, head thrown back

howling to the moon.

i wish i could have done better for her in life and now in death

but it is peaceful

i thank her for coming briefly into my life,

and to know, just before i leave,

that she is beyond pain, hunger, and fear

her timing is impeccable.


on the morning i’m leaving Yupukari

for now

just a typical shower


catch breath

orange & pink beautiful moth perched

on blue shower curtain

another perfect gift

so many gifts here

can i possibly give enough back?

return to Bina Hill in minibus

i love road trips

burnt patches of savannah

grass clings, springs, from little islands of soil,

gives green shock

rest washed away?

through Kwaimatta

snag cassava bread that wil need another day

to dry in sun.

in Massara we pause at store

two birds in separate tiny cages

i ask abou them, wish i could set them free

want to interefere but it would probably sow ill will

better to just ask my questions now and dream of future


either bird free or cage bigger with birds together

i tread balance between learning and influencing

but they are inseparable anyway

heizenberg uncertainty principle

we impact what we observe

brown capuchin hesitates on road

then near head on collision with truck

the bollywood music plays on

then an environmental song about Guyana

gotta get it!

now honking to move herd of cattle off road

they don’t hurry.

into back country

some kids still swimming so won’t join us now.

tape back to Akon’s “wish i could keep you much longer”

keep me longer where?

i wonder as we pull up to Bina Hill,

and familiar smiles.

Karanambu, motorbike, gold

in 2006, first heard of Diane McTurk and the giant river otters

        at Karanambu

longed to meet them

Sunday morn at Caiman House

the toshao stops by

he’s going there

i invite myself along

only my third ride ever

                on the back of a motorbike

scary and exhilarating to fly across savannah

on eroded rocky uneven red road

i try to move with bike

while thinking about risk


compared to in Canada

                where i would always wear a helmet

how much should i adapt to way things are here?

question for a bike ride or what i eat or what i say…

for now, just grip tighter

but love wind whipping hair, shrub whipping bare calves, ducking under lianas,

                beautiful view of green & tawny gold textures and PEI red and eyes streaming even behind glasses

its so wonderful to be alive and see & feel this

                 life can be taken at any moment,

                                                so enjoy

                                                balance risk & safety

at Karanmbu

watch giant river otters

blinded Buddy down at river plays with fish

gives wet sandy sniff & hug

                smooth silky soft fur

                no trace of fish

                just smells like pure river

though blind, he hops up stairs

                and follows the volunteers back to the Otter House

where the two loud babies

                yell for fish

Karanambu with rum punch  & mangoes & hammocks & good company

                no one leaves on time

                time slips by

                lovely & leisurely

the quick morning visit

                extends to lunch

expat returning Guyanese asks about my proposed research

                cautious, then we realize we agree:

                                no parachuting-in research

                                and lets build local capacity

                                to inquire & share learning


conversation turns to mining,

the new legislation will prevent small & medium sized gold mining operations

                                on rivers

larger companies tend to do less damage

                but what of livelihoods of miners?

i remark on violence it takes

                to wrench gold out of the land

the big machines and mercury poison

                harm done to satisfy a want, not a need

“go meet the miners”

                judge lest ye be judged

but again, we all agree more than disagree: mining is bad,

                                but need alternative livelihoods

then Ash calls me on the gold ladybug necklace i wear

                it hurts too much to explain properly

                this defensible hypocrisy

that when I arrived for Edna’s funeral

                August 2009

the first thing when i came into her daughter’s living room

i saw she was wearing Edna’s favourite necklace

                the gold ladybug

she asked her daughter

                to take it and put it around my neck

i haven’t taken it off since.

                it hurts & comforts me.

awkward to explain why i wear something i didn’t choose

                am i a hypocrite?

i wonder as i cling to the motorbike

                back to Yupukari over red road and green savannah textures

                tears not only from whipping wind.

teaching duties dissolve

return from Surama to breezy Bina Hill

still no teacher

i accidentally teach a class, mostly just review of past work

                they test me a bit, seem tired

then sit with powers that be

to discuss how to keep teaching & yet get my own work done

                this elusive Thesis Proposal

the plan for my research

                another gate

the young toshao understands

he is trying to balance his own graduate studies with many duties at home

                like being the Principal here

together with Bina Hill’s manager we agree to a plan

                hours later the AWOL teacher comes back

                                our plan means nothing now

because the power is not held by the job title one expects here

the Principal of the school did not appoint this teacher

now has to accept her back as if the past 2 monhts of no teaching

               never happened.

the political situation is usually the missing piece for me

who really exerts power here?

trying to figure this out is exhausting and enlightening

to this confused outsider

                it seems so much unnecessary struggle and effort

due to petty politics.

vibrant connections used to divide rather than attain a common goal.

Surama: rainbow land

Bird watchin’ at 6am

“Wanna climb Surama mountain to a look-out?”


“Who would like to climb the mountain with Miss Julie?”

pause, then one hand goes up, then all

a few mangoes later,

a rabble of children and us three adults set off

through green forest web

chased by spider monkeys tossing down branches

to look out over charming Surama

and many surrounding mountains

steep descent back onto savannah

then to misguided wildlife sanctuary

where the puma paces

hope he is released soon

capuchin monkey presses his back to the mesh to be petted

clivlin, the young tapir, & me hang out

we rub his itchy spots and make sure

he keeps his teeth to himself, sharp below dexterous nose

a few token paddles on the farine parching

i do battle with coconuts for lunch, inefficient deliciousness

i leave a brief check-in with The Net

to be greeted by a rainbow

it crystallizes into a full ark partially doubled, slightly lighter the sky above the forest under the rainbow

rain hits, but low sun still shines through leaves

all sparkles,

light & water, sun & rain.

tree tunnel of light to Surama

off to Surama

in old pickup with a dozen others

and buckets and bags

watching savannah grow to rainforest

the temperature drop when we reach tall trees

the road to Surama a tree tunnel

golden sunset held so gently

                so briefly

                                so tenderly

in translucent green leaves

the tree-tunnel opens to mountain vistas

i can no longer resist the camera


to capture a shot over the beaten tin pickup roof

 of sunset glow behind mountains

walk on PEI-red dirt to Emily’s

                brimming with her family

                                and mangoes

steady drone of generator competes with rasta

i spin green glow poi under full full moon.