Aishalton dairy

In Guyana’s remote south Rupununi, the Wapishana village of Aishalton is rarely visited by outsiders. Liam Taylor spent a year teaching there, growing to love the rhythm of this place far from home

Giant termite mounds, a dozen feet tall, tower over the savannah. Photograph by Philip SanderOn the “road” to Aishalton. Photograph courtesy Vitus Antone/Conservation InternationalShea Rock is one of the south Rupununi’s best-known natural landmarks. Photograph courtesy Vitus Antone/Conservation International

It’s just another night out in Aishalton. The moon is high, providing enough light for the small gathering outside somebody’s house. There is no electricity to give further illumination, but that doesn’t matter; far better that the big solar battery be used to power the music, a ubiquitous CD of Brazilian forró star DJ Maloco.

The syncopated beat and lively accordion melodies are the soundtrack to life here, along with the nighttime throb of the cicada, the primitive baying of the cows, the polyphonic chatter of the birds. (And sometimes at dusk you can hear the distant, unearthly sound of the howler monkeys singing in the bush.) But if each creature in the savannah has a sound, then it is the forró that is the sound of man. If any of the other myriad creatures were to pause now from their nocturnal occupations, to steal a glance at this strange group of Homo sapiens, they might notice a toe tapping, a leg twitching, a slight impatience in the hips. They like to dance here. But not yet. Before that, there is time to drink and talk.

The drink of choice, inevitably, is parakarie. It is a local drink made from fermented cassava in a complicated process involving up to thirty different stages. The result is a thick, greyish-brown brew, widely varying in strength and quality. If it is sweet, it can be drunk almost like water; if it is bitter, then it is a sign that the sugars have been turned into alcohol, and the unsuspecting drinker should beware. It is commonly served out of a bucket, and traditionally drunk by the bowlful, though concession to modern livers permits the use of a cup. According to custom, the “sharer”, whose job it is to replenish empty vessels, should be returned a shot for every one he distributes. This practice, too, is now prudently neglected.

It’s not quite like the old times, people sometimes say, when their forefathers would go out into the bush for up to a year at a time, clearing the land for new farms — without the help of metal axes — by cutting thin grooves into the bark of trees and packing them with hot ash until the trunk slowly burned through. It was a hard life, and when the work was done, there would be a week-long celebration to dance and drink and feast on wild meat. To allow themselves to drink more, the men developed the art of projectile vomiting — it was considered terribly impolite to spew on your own feet.

But let us return to tonight’s gathering. An interested creature — a passing grasshopper, perhaps, or an insomniac cow — might care to steal more than a glance, to look a little longer at this gathering of humans. His eye might be drawn first to a small group of three men, made incongruous by the fact that two of them are noticeably fairer and taller than the others here. These alien figures are myself — a Project Trust volunteer teaching at the secondary school for one year — and my fellow volunteer Adam.

The other man is Anthony James, a teacher in the primary school. We talk about the recent arrival of the Internet in Aishalton, donated by a Canadian mining company with interests in the area. It is a transformation in communications. “We are very, very out of touch here,” says Anthony, describing a situation where there are no telephones, the post hasn’t come for six weeks, and the only way to make contact with the outside world is by radio. Aishalton, an Amerindian village with approximately a thousand inhabitants, is located in the deep south of the Rupununi savannah, far into the interior of Guyana. Most Guyanese will have seen it on a map, but few come here. Anthony has been to college in Georgetown, and knows the differences. “In Georgetown I can go to a bar and talk to people from all sorts of different places. I can go to a club or I can go to a cinema. Here we don’t have any of those entertainments.”

That, at least, is the perception of many outsiders. But it is only half the truth. What Aishalton lacks in terms of bright lights, it makes up for with a warm welcome, a generosity of spirit. Anthony speaks with feeling of the people here, of his pride at being Wapishana. He believes that the arrival of the Internet is a precious opportunity for Aishalton to speak to the world. In the long run, he says, the aim is to produce a website, with news and pictures of life in Aishalton. One of the main events he wants to advertise is the August Games, an annual festival now in its tenth year, where the six villages of the deep south come together to compete in football, softball cricket, and volleyball. On the last day of the games there is a range of activities, from cassava-grating to ant-stinging, to celebrate Wapishana customs and the Rupununi way of life. Anthony talks of a traditional dance they sometimes do on this day. “When I see that, it makes my skin grow with pride to be Wapishana.”

Anthony talks, too, of another idea he has for the website: to put the Wapishana dictionary online. This guides the conversation across to another group, where Adrian Gomes, headmaster of the secondary school and one of the most enthusiastic advocates of the Wapishana language, is leading the discussion. Wapishana is still widely spoken — indeed, some of the older people speak nothing else. But, like many indigenous dialects, its survival was increasingly threatened by the hegemony of English. It is now being strongly promoted, with projects to teach Wapichan in nursery schools. The language is still in the process of being written down and given a formalised system of spelling, work that was being led by an American couple, missionaries and expert linguists. Then, tragically, they were brutally and inexplicably murdered. Now Adrian explains the present dilemma. If more foreigners are to come in to continue the work, they will first have to learn the language from scratch; if, in an ideal situation, a native Wapichan speaker is to take on the role, he or she will first have to study linguistics to a sufficient level. The project, he says, is “at a standstill.” But genuine love of the language will surely guarantee its continuing popularity.

The conversation continues for a while, but there will be other times for such talk. Somebody has turned up the music, and the parakarie is beginning to have its effect. Now is the time to dance.

I offer this scene merely as a glimpse, seen from the perspective of an outsider, into life in Aishalton. What struck me on that evening, and on many other occasions, is the intense sense of belonging that people here feel, their love of their community and their identity, their desire to preserve the skills, language, and culture that is in danger of being lost. Tony James, Aishalton touchau and Chief of Chiefs of the Wapishana people (known universally as “Chief”), is a staunch defender of the Wapishana heritage. He once told me how, as the son of two teachers, he was brought up in a home where only English was spoken, and education was in books, not bushcraft. He learnt Wapishana from his grandmother, but was jealous of the other boys when they came back to school after the holidays with stories of life out in the forest. He went out to learn the skills of the bush — how to make a bow, how to make balls out of balata, a rubber-like plant found in the forest — because, in his words, “I wanted to know.” He told me that these things were important to him, that he felt it was his duty as a Wapishana man to keep this knowledge alive.

I have had people tell me, almost in passing, little bits of wisdom about the secrets of nature: when a certain bird nests, it means that the rainy season is drawing to a close; when a particular insect eats through the branches, it is time to make new farms. And, in many ways, life here is remarkably unchanged. People still live off the land, going out to the farms in July and August to tend to their crops. With little mechanisation, everything is done by hand. Even in school, the brooms are made by stripping palm leaves, and when the grass grows too long at the sports ground the whole school goes out with cutlasses and rakes to do the weeding.

Sometimes a piece of work will be too large for a single family to undertake, and they will manor; other villagers will come to help out, in a sort of co-operative work party, and in return for their labour they will be given food and parakarie at the end of the day. The manor is an indication of the strong spirit of community that exists here. In a small village, nobody is anonymous; walk about, and you will be greeted by everyone you meet with a friendly “good morning” or “kaiman” (the traditional Wapishana greeting).

The village itself, as a physical entity, is a place rooted in the savannah. This is not a settlement that has been imposed on the landscape, like the choking grey metropolises of urban modernity. Rather, the village seems to grow from the fertile ground. The houses, with their palm-thatched roofs and earth-coloured walls, appear as natural and organic as the abundant mango trees. Everywhere, there is a sense of the savannah forcing itself up from below; burn the ground black, and the tall green grasses will grow back in a fortnight. The cattle and horses roam freely, the village an extension of the ranch (you must be careful hanging your clothes out to dry, lest they become bovine breakfast). The people go out into the savannah, to farm — cattle for beef, cassava for farine and cassava bread — to fish, and to hunt for the wild meat — venison, labba, hog — that is treated as a special delicacy. On occasion, the wild hogs stray into the village, a mistake they have little time to regret before becoming the main ingredient in a spicy dish of pepperpot.

Of course, it is not a way of life that should be idealised. It can be a hard existence. There is no electricity or running water. The school is short of trained teachers. Outside of agriculture, there are few jobs. In the rainy season the trails become almost impassable, leading to high prices on many basic goods. Many of the children I taught this year will be drawn away from the village, to further their education or find jobs; many of them will not return. But there is a sense that things are getting better, that Aishalton is moving forward while keeping an eye on the past.

It’s about combining the old and the new — using the Internet to preserve the language, for example. With an abundance of wildlife, there’s also a huge potential for eco-tourism. Just a mile out of the village there are ancient rock carvings, pre-dating the Wapishana presence here, and Aishalton can be a base for wider exploration of the deep south.

But, wherever Aishalton is heading in the future, it will be a place I will return to. There is peacefulness here, and beauty in the natural world. There is a certain spirit of welcome, of hospitality. By day, there are cricket and football at the ground, or the simple pleasure of sitting and talking. And by night, of course, there is the parakarie, and that ubiquitous forró CD. And then Aishalton dances.