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.
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.