It is quite an adventure just traveling to Guyana. First, we boarded a flight from Miami to Trinidad, having a layover in “Trini” of about seven hours. A late-night flight from there brought us to Georgetown, the capital of Guyana – a little after 11:00 PM. Then, after an hour’s drive from the airport, we finally arrived at our hotel accommodations.
Our layover in Trinidad was used to good end as we visited our friends and partners at “Living Water Community.” We work closely with this organization in Trinidad to distribute goods we send for the poor of this country and also to oversee any projects that we may realize there. My old friend, Rhonda Maingot, is the leader of this organization. After a tour of the warehouse with Bronia, Rhonda took our group (Mike Anton, Projects Director, Susan James, Country Manager for Jamaica/Guyana/Trinidad and me) to dinner and some lively conversation. Another old friend, Lailas, joined us at the restaurant and afterwards, with Rhonda, they dropped us off at the airport outside of Port of Spain.
After arriving in Georgetown, checking in and getting organized at the Pegasus Hotel, I realized that we would be going to bed at 1:30 AM and getting up only 3 hours later for a 6:00 AM departure – with a beautiful but strenuous day ahead. Amazingly, we were punctual in leaving the hotel where we met with our generous donor, Joe Roetheli, who was there with two friends, J.G. and Russell, all the way from Kansas, Missouri. This was a very special trip for the purpose of inaugurating Joe’s third village built in Guyana, which is located in the Amerindian region called Mainstay/Whyaka.
In order to reach this area, it was necessary to take a fairly long ride by bus and then cross the bridge to traverse the Demerara River. Later, we arrived at a dock on the east bank of the voluminous Essequibo River, close to where it flows out to sea. We then boarded a boat and headed west across the river to the other bank – approximately a 25 minute ride.
By car, we then drove to the NOC, a remand center for boys and girls who have exhibited delinquent behaviors, ranging from 12 to 18 years of age. We had breakfast there and planned to return the next day, as I had been invited to give a motivational talk to the young people residing there.
After a rather long drive, we finally entered the Lil’ Red Village area with 65 brand-new, freshly painted homes on stilts, with bright red roofs, a community center, water project and community grocery store. The Guyanese staff had done a wonderful job organizing a truly memorable inauguration ceremony, attended by the Minister of Amerindian Affairs, and the “Toshao” (chief) of that group, a very eloquent, dedicated woman who has represented the Amerindian community both nationally and at the UN. The leadership of FFP (Guyana) was well represented by both the Chairman of the Board (Paul Chan-A-Sue) and the Executive Director (Leon Davis). A very talented, local steel-drum band and many cultural acts (dances and songs)added much to the proceedings. Cricket matches, food, drink and dancing all made the afternoon very festive and enjoyable. There were many speakers, including yours truly, and we all expressed gratitude to our big-hearted donors, Joe and Judy Roetheli, whose generosity and love of the poor made the entire event possible.
Fr. Javier, a missionary priest from Argentina, began the formal part of the ceremony by invoking God’s blessings on all present, but particularly on this new community. Two Evangelical pastors wrapped up the event with prayers of praise and thanksgiving.
At 3:00 PM, the weight of sleeplessness, excessive heat and the activities of this long day took quite a toll on everyone. Our small group took a fairly challenging walk to our nearby accommodations. I then gave in to the exhaustion and took a three-hour nap under my mosquito net – a totally uncharacteristic action on my part. Getting old…
After dinner that evening, I returned to my room to write my journal for the day, determined not to allow myself to fall behind. The local TV (with one channel available) started out with US music videos and ended up with Bollywood-style East Indian music videos. By nearly 11:00 PM, I was watching Cricket as I wrote my journal. I am sorry to say that, despite the fanatical affection for this sport in the British Commonwealth, I find it just as boring as I did while growing up in Jamaica. Tomorrow would be another challenging day – I crawled under my mosquito net to get some zzzzzzs!
Seven hours of sleep! I felt great. Against the advice of my elders, I brushed my teeth with tap water, and prepared for a cold shower. In the middle of my shower, I noticed that the water became completely orange. I hurried to get off the soap and shampoo and scrubbed hard with the two white towels, observing them slowly become orange. Probably my imagination, but I felt that I had an orange glow about me – free tanning! (Hope it’s not radioactive…)
We headed out again to the Pomeroon River to take a 20-minute boat ride to the area of Siriki to visit the second village previously built by the Roetheli’s, which they named “New Haven.” A curious part of this journey is that we could travel there only during high tide. The canal that leads us there (as a tributary to the river) is much too shallow for our boat during low tide. The waters begin to subside in the early afternoon, so we had to be certain to accomplish everything we needed to do in less than three hours. Otherwise, we would have to remain there for the entire night.
The rains would not ease and time was of the essence. We decided to brave the elements and proceed. However, we lost three members of our group at this time who decided that dry was more comfortable than wet! We boarded the boat wearing our rain ponchos. The Pomeroon River is not anywhere near the size of the Essequibo River, but the banks are beautifully green and lush. The boat picked up speed and raindrops pelted our faces. Suddenly, we turned off into a narrow canal and I realized that this is where the problem lies regarding low tide. It was like going from a river into a rain forest in just a few seconds. It was breathtakingly beautiful, with the present rain adding to the splendor of the moment – I felt bad for those who stayed behind as they missed a magical experience.
The boat docked on the side of the canal, dropping us off as far inland as it could go, leaving us to walk a few hundred feet to “New Haven.” As we cleared some bushes, the community appeared. Eighty-five colorful houses, raised on stilts. From a distance, they looked more like vacation chalets than homes for the very poor. The members of the community were very warm and welcoming. They thanked us and asked us to introduce ourselves, which we did. The children presented us with a special welcome and the adults gave us beautiful hand-made gifts of crafts. I got a great covered basket, very neatly weaved from the fronds of a special palm tree. It has five or six colors and it looks like a tortilla warmer (or in this case a “roti” warmer).
We took a walk around the village, speaking with many of the residents, some of whom invited us into their homes that were impeccably kept. We watched a bit of a cricket match, took a tour of their library and clinic, and then they invited us to share a snack with them in the community center. By this time the rain had stopped and the sun was dropping fire upon us.
We said goodbye to all and hurried to the boat – before the beginning of low tide. The ride back in the sunshine offered us another stunning view of nature, albeit different than the one we enjoyed on the way there. We travelled back to the NOC for lunch and my talk with the young people there – looking forward to it.
We arrived at the NOC late and I was forced to rush through a delicious lunch of local cuisine. I didn’t want to sacrifice any of my time with the young people that I would be addressing. I was led to a large hall where the young people were waiting for me. The assistant director of the center introduced me and he reminded them, as if to assure their good behavior, that FFP was their organization’s best friend.
My message, elaborated with many examples from my own life and the lives of my past students, was simple: God loves us all perfectly. There is nothing we can do, good or bad, that can make Him love us more or less. When we do good things we place ourselves closer to God, and when we do bad things, He is still there, but we distance ourselves from Him. I also shared my view that there is nothing that we can do that God is not capable of forgiving. His mercy is stronger than His justice. I explained that we are all His children and that God is only capable of creating good. At times, however, circumstances lead good people to do bad things. I told them that God being all-knowing made it easier for Him to be much more forgiving than man, who cannot know all the motivations and circumstances behind certain actions. I clarified that this did not take away the responsibility for their actions, but it helped them to understand why God’s mercy is perfect and eternal. I closed with the thought that they are not alone in the world with the wrong they have done. None of us are perfect and we all do things that distance us from God. So, although some have the right to make us responsible for our actions, none have the right to “cast the first stone.” I hoped that they found some comfort and hope in these words.
Then it was the long journey into night – crossing two rivers and arriving in the capital near nightfall. The days seem to go so quickly and there’s so much to do, but as Scarlet O’Hara said in GWTW, “Tomorrow is another day.”
Déjà vu… the hot water from the shower is coming out orange, this time at one of the best hotels in G/town. The cold water is clear… ah, so refreshing!
For breakfast, a delicious omelet, and then we are off to visit the Georgetown Penitentiary. This is a facility built for 600 inmates and, at present, it’s housing 1,100 prisoners. We were introduced to the prison officials and the Corporal, who is the Deputy Director, invited us to his office to thank us for all the help afforded to the institution by FFP.
The Prison Chaplain, a woman who just last week lost her own mother, joined him. She had lived in Florida for 20 years, where she worked in the aviation industry. Many years ago, she had a dream where she saw prisoners shackled and she was ministering to them. She decided to study theology at Barry University and also volunteered with prison ministries in the US. After becoming a minister, she felt led to return to work in her native country of Guyana. She was offered a job at G/town Penitentiary and when she visited she accepted the position immediately. She actually cried for a period of three months, because the faces she saw at the prison were those that she had seen in her dream 17 years before. She knew that this was exactly where God wanted her to be. She’s doing a great job there of ministry and rehabilitation with very few resources at her disposal.
The Deputy Director turned out to be quite a visionary, as his emphasis was consistently on rehabilitation rather than punishment (not altogether common in some of the third world countries we serve). He focused on prisoners being returned to the larger society being better prepared to handle life than when they entered the prison.
The Deputy Director then led us through quite an extensive tour of the facilities. As we started, he told us that some years back five prisoners had escaped. During that effort, they had stabbed one of the officers to death and left another paralyzed and to live his life as a vegetable to this day. I could see the influence of the new philosophy in the prison, as it was obvious that the general population was not unhappy or hostile. The inmates responded kindly to greetings and were all polite, if not downright pleasant, to the group of visitors. Those who were working, some under the most horrible conditions, were friendly and apparently enjoying the tasks at hand.
Our first visit was to the kitchen. It was truly hell. The heat was unbearable. The roof was black from smoke stains, which made the dimly lit room very dismal. There were six very large pots cooking over a wooden fire. The smoke was everywhere – no exhaust, no fresh air. Joe offered to provide them with a commercial exhaust fan. Some of us were really feeling affected by the smoke after being there for only a few minutes.
We were taken by the area for young offenders (17+). It was so pitiful to see 80 of these young men aimlessly walking around the area where they were kept separate from the general population. The Deputy Director asked if it would be possible to get them all the same T-shirts and basketball shorts, which would identify them easily as young offenders and this would give them a self-esteem boost to have something age appropriate to wear that they might actually like other than uniforms.
They also took us to the old print shop, where they had three obsolete printing presses that looked more than 50 years old, for which they no longer make parts. They expressed the desire to re-open the shop with newer machines, as the government would give them jobs to do with an opportunity to provide income for the prison and also give the inmates the feeling of pride of earning a stipend for working there. We then visited their appliance repair workshop, where they had fixed some televisions and were happily watching the World Cup. They would like to expand this area in the future to include welding. The tailoring/sewing room was very productive, as they were making uniforms for the guards and for the inmates. However, they only had a couple of machines.
We visited their library, their infirmary and their chapel. All were in need of help. FFP (GUY) was going to give them some new books and furniture for the library and some new mattresses much needed in the infirmary/clinic. The reverend had done a great job of adding a woman’s touch to the chapel, by bringing plants from home to decorate the area.
For me, the most impressive visit was the one to the woodshop. Not only was it in good stead, well kept, with a fair amount of raw materials for work, but also that is where I met the most impressive young man in the prison. He was the teacher for those who wanted to learn the skill of wood-working and cabinet making. His name was Lloyd and, as his family had been cabinetmakers, he had started working with wood when he was 8 years old. He was a pleasant, positive, philosophical young man who looked to be in his early twenties. As it happened he was 33.
I asked him how long he had been an inmate and he told me he had been there for 16 years. I wondered how much longer before he completed his sentence. Apparently reading my mind, he said that he would be released in two years (2012). I was embarrassed to ask him why he was there, so I didn’t, but there was absolutely no bitterness or resentment in his voice or attitude. Quite the opposite, he told me how much more he has learned about woodwork while in prison and how he is now ready to work in the outside world. I said that he would have a few years on which to catch up after his release. He replied, “I don’t want to catch up, I just want to move forward.” Very wise…
At the end of our visit, we were invited to the very modest officers’ club across the street from the prison, where the officials once again pleaded with us for help. I told them the priorities in my mind were the kitchen situation and the printing room, as that would create income for the prison and the inmates. Personally, I would love to see how I could get some help from my family and friends to get the uniforms for the young offenders. I told them that there were no promises made, that everything depended on our donors and that their patience would be needed while we try to help. They understood and thanked us repeatedly for our visit and our interest.
We didn’t realize how long we had spent at G/town Penitentiary, and we rushed to visit one of our supported orphanages in the capital. We only were able to visit there for a short time and then moved on to the offices of FFP (GUY).
At our offices, they had prepared a delicious meal, which we enjoyed heartily. After the late lunch, the entire staff was assembled in the large boardroom and I had an opportunity to address them. I spoke about the solidarity between the four FFP offices (USA, Jamaica, Haiti and Guyana) and how we were all necessary for the success of the other. I spoke about our triple mission – to the poor, to our donors and to our staff – and how important it was for us to work together, to love one another and to take ownership of our work, no matter what it is we do in the office.
The next morning, we headed back to the United States. It was a great four days. I’ll miss some of the members of our Guyana staff that we have gotten to know better on this trip. I hope to be back soon.
Good-bye, beautiful Guyana!