Setting the scene - The Republic of Guyana 2008

With thanks to Wikipedia

The Republic of Guyana (left) is a country of exceptional beauty, perched on the north-east corner of South America. It lies between Suriname to the east, Brazil to the south, Venezuela to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the north and is the only English speaking country in the continent. Culturally, Guyana is Caribbean and is part of the West Indies. The Amerindians are the original inhabitants.

‘Guyana’ is an Amerindian word meaning ‘Land of Many Waters’ - very appropriate for a country with lakes, wetlands and mighty rivers. In the rainforests and jungles of the interior, humankind has had little impact. Jaguars still roam the forests and the cries of howler monkeys echo eerily. Flashes of scarlet, yellow and blue burst through the forest’s intense green as macaws fly like arrows across a clearing. Toucans and awesome Harpy Eagles are but two of the 700 species of indigenous birds. Dense rainforests and tumbling rivers display extraordinary beauty such as the Kaieteur Falls (shown below) - where the 140 metres wide Potaro River plunges majestically 250 metres downward.

Georgetown, the capital city, has a vibrant character and graceful beauty reflecting its exceptional cultural history and diversity. Designed by the Dutch, Guyana’s capital has wide tree-lined avenues, lily-covered canals and many fine examples of colonial buildings.

Geography

Guyana is not affected by hurricanes, tornadoes or earthquakes, but flooding occurs during the rainy season. The country covers 216,000 square kilometres (183,000 square miles) and has four distinct ecological zones: The Coastal Land is a low, narrow plain about 25 kilometres (15 miles) wide and is partly below sea level. The coastline is dissected by rivers and many smaller creeks and canals. This plain remains one of the country’s most productive sugar and rice plantation areas.

The Sand Belt lies south of the coastal plain and occupies about 25% of the country. The soil is suitable mainly for valuable timber, and bauxite (aluminium ore) mines are found here.

The Highlands contain the country’s mountain ranges where the richest gold and diamond mining fields are to be found. There is heavy rainfall and constant heat. The population is sparse except for loggers, miners and balatableeders. (Balata is the familiar name for a bully tree whose gum is used in golf balls and machinery belts).

The Interior Savannahs comprise 5.5% of the country and are made up of dry, gently rolling grassland, with clumps of trees and several small villages.


 

History

Between 1616 and 1746, the Dutch established three colonies in Guyana. The British assumed control in the late 18th century and, in 1814, the three colonies became a single British colony known as British Guiana. The Dutch and British transported enslaved Africans to work on the sugar plantations. At the abolition of slavery in 1834, most of the former slaves established free villages. This led to the introduction of new ethnic groups into the country through indentureship, primarily from Portugal, India and China. Gradually, a class of black professionals developed and sought a role in the political life. A cosmopolitan population developed, comprising Amerindians, Africans, Chinese, Europeans, Indians, Portuguese and a variety of mixed ethnic groups.

Government and Economy

Guyana gained political independence from the United Kingdom in May 1966 but was still a constitutional monarchy within the British Commonwealth. Four years later, on 23 February 1970, it was granted republican status and renamed ‘The Cooperative Republic of Guyana’. It remains within the Commonwealth and has diplomatic relations and associations with a wide range of nations and international organisations including the European Union, the United Nations and the Organisation of American States.

Guyana’s Constitution provides for the holding of national and regional elections every five years. Every citizen of Guyana or any Commonwealth citizen domiciled and resident in Guyana is entitled to vote from the age of 18. On the basis of this Constitution, the President became both Head-of-State and Head of Government. The current President, Bharrat Jagdeo, was elected in 1999. The economy benefits from the country’s natural resources including fertile agricultural lands, a range of diversified mineral deposits and significant acreage of tropical forests. Sugar and rice, bauxite, gold, and timber are the primary products exported. The sugar industry accounts for 28% of all export earnings. After the country gained independence in 1966, the economy enjoyed substantial growth, with consistent internal and external balances. However, in the late 1970s, Guyana experienced severe economic imbalances stemming mainly from global shocks and the economy’s serious internal weaknesses.

By 1989 inflation had reached 120%. The implementation of a rescue package from the International Monetary Fund resulted in a reversal of these trends and a continuous growth and development in the country. Guyana qualified as a Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC), making it eligible for substantial debt relief, resulting in lower and more sustainable debt levels and reduced poverty. The second major source of foreign exchange for the country is the money sent home from the large migrant population that emerged in the 1970s. It is estimated that 500,000 Guyanese live and work in the USA and Canada (the total population of Guyana is approximately 750,000). The shortage of skilled labour and a deficient infrastructure are chronic problems for the economy.

Education

Guyana’s education system, which at one time was considered to be among the best in the Caribbean, deteriorated in the 1980s due to the emigration of highly educated people and lack of funding. Although it showed a remarkable recovery in the 1990s, it still does not produce the quality of students necessary for the country to modernise its workforce. There is a lack of trained teachers at every level. The mission statement for education is: ‘To illuminate illiteracy; to modernise education; to strengthen tolerance.’ Education to secondary school level is free and is modelled on the former British system. Government scholarships are available for undergraduate study at the University of Guyana, as well as other institutions and overseas universities. These are designed to channel students into fields vital to the country’s development. Women have continued to perform well at university level. At secondary level, although more females enrolled than males, their drop-out rates caused concerns. Government supported agencies launched special programs to provide school drop-outs training in non-traditional skills. In 2001 more than 100 women graduated from the first cycle and secured jobs with private companies. Another group, mainly from secondary schools, benefited from a programme funded by the Inter-American Development Bank which has equipped them with new skills to enter the world of work.

Health

Guyana has a comprehensive health care system accessible in all 10 administrative regions of the country. There are five levels of care: health post, health centre and district, regional and referral hospitals. Emphasis is placed on primary health care and complemented with curative medicine. Private institutions, the municipality and non-governmental organisations also contribute to the health care system. Included in the major concerns of the health care system are maternal and child health, environmental health, health education, food and nutrition and rehabilitation. Herbalists are also involved in the health care system.

The maternal mortality rate during childbirth is 124 for every 100,000 births. Comparable figures for other Caribbean countries are 50 for Barbados, 75 for Trinidad and 100 for Jamaica. Guyana is very much involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS and there is growing concern about the increase in the proportion of women infected. A number of nationwide programs highlight measures such as awareness raising, dissemination of information, sensitisation and the change of attitudes towards testing for HIV/AIDS. A Presidential Committee coupled with the implementation of a National Strategic Plan has resulted in positive developments.

Churches in Guyana

The population is 52% Christian (of which 65% are Protestant and 35% Catholic), 34% Hindu, 9% Muslim and 5% other ethnic religions. During the European colonisation of the New World, each nation took its church to the colonies it owned and British Guiana and Dutch Guiana became the only Protestant countries on the South American continent.

The first Europeans were the Dutch who, in 1616, brought with them the Dutch Reformed Church, the Dutch Lutheran Churches and German Moravian Missions. They built the first Protestant churches in South America. In 1803, the English gained possession of the colonies of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice, and brought the Anglican Church and Scots Presbyterian Church. In 1889, the foundation stone for the landmark St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Georgetown was laid in British Guiana. It is now known worldwide as the tallest wooden building in the world.

The Methodist Church, the Congregational Church, the Church of the Brethren, The Salvation Army and other English churches came as free churches. In the 19th century the Catholic Church came as a free church and it became the church of the indentured Portuguese people.

In 1815, the Methodists were given permission to enter British Guiana and work among the slaves. After emancipation they took their place among other churches which were assisting in the building of schools and churches. Before and after World War II, United States missionary organisations began establishing their churches in the Guianas - the Pilgrim Holiness (now renamed Wesleyan Church), the Church of the Nazarene, the Assembly of God Pentecostal Church and the Southern Baptist Church. Some Carib-speaking tribes of the Amerindians have created a new Guyanese religion – the Hallelujah – heavily based on Christianity but incorporating elements from the original Amerindian systems of belief and ritual.

Women

Women in Guyana today are the beneficiaries of those courageous women who dared to challenge customs, practices and negative and inhuman structures which had hindered their growth and development. These women participated in slave rebellions - struggling for freedom in their own way against colonialism and discrimination, recognising that these struggles were bound up with their quest for the rights of women.

In 1945, the first women’s political, social and economic organisation was established. This marked a new era in the status of women in Guyana. Its mission was to lobby for the improvement of women socially and economically. Adult suffrage was finally achieved in 1953 and the first three women parliamentarians were elected.

In 1976 the foundation for further legislative procedures was laid, aiming to remove all forms of discriminatory practices against Guyanese women. In 1996, the first female Prime Minister was elected, followed by the first female President one year later. There was also a female Chief Justice and a female Director General of Foreign Affairs, with an increased representation of women in Parliament and Local Government. For the first time, a woman of Amerindian background held Ministerial Office with the portfolio of Amerindian Affairs; the position of Chancellor of the Judiciary was held by a woman who has the honour of being the first woman judge to be appointed to the Caribbean Court of Justice. Guyanese women are represented at high levels at the United Nations and other international meetings.

Guyana faces a great challenge with respect to domestic violence against women and to a lesser degree against men. This critical issue is now in the open, allowing for a more realistic assessment of the situation. Legislation and different agencies are now in place to respond to and manage this serious problem. Domestic violence has been linked with human trafficking and this is being addressed through education and other measures.

Culture

Two aspects strongly influence Guyanese culture: the proximity to, and affinity with, the Caribbean islands and their peoples, and the large, diverse ethnic population. So you will frequently hear reggae, steel bands and calypso music in a carnival atmosphere.

Festivals, both religious and secular, abound. Mashramani, is the big, annual secular event - a blend of music, art and spectacular pageantry in which all Guyanese celebrate their national independence. For Christians there is the traditional celebration of peace and goodwill at Christmas, and Easter is celebrated with nationwide kite flying. Hindus celebrate Deepawali, when the triumph of good over evil is symbolised by the lighting of thousands of small lights and the singing of tuneful religious songs. For Muslims, the celebration of Youman Nabi is the observance of the birth of the Prophet, while Eid-Ul-Fitr is a festival celebrating triumph after a period of fasting, when gifts of food are shared with the poor.

The crafts and folklore of the Amerindians still remain. Crafts such as pottery, painting, jewellery and basket work - all in traditional styles - are widely available. Rich in folklore, their stories are not for the faint-hearted. They often feature the Jumbee, a terrifyingly grotesque spirit said to eat people unlucky enough to make contact with them!

The Amerindians are generally not very well assimilated into Guyanese society. Their thatched houses, often built on stilts, form small communities each with its own Chief. The headdress the Chief will wear is of feathers and is known as 'the Cacique Crown'. (More............here). Popular sports are cricket and football, and the West Indies cricket team has Guyanese players. There is a good, varied cuisine from the contributions of many ethnic groups, enhanced by the addition of spices and high quality local produce. With all the diversity of their background and ethnic groups, the people of Guyana are fulfilling their national motto – ‘One people, one nation, one destiny.’

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The mural depicts eight figures of importance in Guyana’s development, each drawn from various areas such as exploration, the slave era, those associated with it from Government, religion, etc. Each figure has its own legend of explanation and is presented in a semi-cubist form. They surround a central figure, Makanaima, the great ancestral spirit of the Amerindians – the indigenous people of Guyana, looking down from the centre of the turning world of history. The idea not only suited the method of installation but was chosen because the people of Guyana as a whole were demanding to know more about their past history and it was felt that the presence of these figures would provide food for thought, matter for debate and conjecture.

MAKANAIMA

The great ancestral spirit of the Amerindians, and so of us all, the symbol of the land and its power, its beauty and its mysteries and of a people whose history is their response to the rhythms of nature.

 

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