This article was written today and read at a Read My World 2014 event in Amsterdam which discussed Tourism as a new colonial power.
For Stefan. Though the time is dark, dark like Martin’s time, my love, there is still hope. There is always hope.
When I was 9 or 10 my primary school teacher gave us an assignment on eco-tourism. What was eco-tourism she asked us? And could we find pictures of eco-tourism in Guyana? It was the first time I really thought of how beautiful my country really is and it was the first time I understood that, if exploited in just the right way, beauty could mean money for my people. And so I sat for one week and cut out pretty little pictures of our Indigenous people and their villages and of our waterfalls and mountains. By the end of that week, I ceased to see the beauty of the people and of the place and all I saw were commodities to be exploited, to be used only as machines of profit.
Last week, I visited Mathew’s Ridge. It is located in the North-west District of Guyana. It is a beautiful place, with old, old trees, and mountains that have no doubt fueled many dreams. And of course, because it was beautiful this meant that it was also a place full of sorrow. In Mathew’s Ridge, the Indigenous people do not know who they are, they have forgotten their history and their languages are fading, dying, slowly journeying to a deep, dark place of no return.
Indigenous children walk barefoot to their only school where, even though they desperately want to, they will not understand a single word coming from the mouths of their gurus. They float like lost souls in a strange sea until they learn how to keep their heads above the water; until they learn to abandon their first language in favour of the word that is all powerful. Only when they have learnt to abandon who they are and how they see the world, only then can they begin to learn of a history that has othered their own history. In this cycle, ignorance has become the price they pay for education and education will estrange children forever from the plot of land that gave them life and from cultural currents that taught them how to see the world in a different way.
The artists and craftsmen of Mathew’s Ridge have become clothes and food vendors or they have abandoned their paradise all together. And in this barren paradise, oral traditions and rituals have been buried deep, deep beneath our beloved soil. And when the land is full of dead things then what will there be left? Or perhaps, what will be left is a beautiful burial ground of what a great people once was or what they couldn’t be if they meant to live?
When I left Mathew’s Ridge, I looked down and I did not see beauty. I saw a shadow land; a shadow land so faded that soon it would not even be a shadow of anything. All it would be is dead. Surely, it had escaped the fate of exploitation but in the absence of that threat of exploitation it was dying, our cultural commodities were dying, our people were dying, their souls were fading.
In the former Garden City, Georgetown, a different sort of shadow stalks the land. The new Marriot Hotel is almost done. It has caused some displacement but as our powerful men will tell you, it is for the greater good of our country. How can we not want that? How can we not want good? Even God seems to favour the Marriot because now he has blessed Main Street with a clear view of its splendor. God burnt down the one heritage site that dared to cast its thatch-roof shadow upon the shadow of the great Marriot.
The Marriot has taken birth to join her sisters, Princess Hotel and the Cacique . Both were born along with the National Stadium just before Guyana hosted a few Cricket World Cup matches that one time. Princess is now owned by some nice Turkish man and the Cacique, which remains in its virginal state, has passed into the hands of the children of China. As for the National Stadium it has become home to many, many kinds of things in its bid for survival.
Maybe one day, Guyana’s tourism industry will suddenly explode and Marriot and her sisters will give our nice Turkish and Chinese friends proper returns on their investments and they in turn, being our good, good friends, will perhaps give us some pretty little gifts of parking lots and roads. And maybe, just maybe, one day, one day the Stadium will not be a shadow of what it should be.
I learnt long ago that living in Guyana, that living in the Caribbean meant living on dreams. And so, I dream of a day when these shadows will leave the land and light will fill it and fill us. But while I wait, I sometimes read our tourism statistics. I read somewhere that Guyana is the least visited country in the world and that is when I knew just how brilliant our statistics people are. You see, when they generate tourist figures in Guyana they are very careful to count non-resident Guyanese as “visitors” and then this visitors’ figure is added to the grand figure that will come to represent the total number of tourists who dared to cast their shadows in a shadow land where shadows cannot be seen. I am so proud of our brilliant, brilliant statisticians.
But when I consider the truth of the numbers, after all mathematics is the truest truth, I also find a new kind of respect for the investors who have toiled long and hard to give us the Marriot, Princess and Cacique. Imagine, they have built white palaces at just the promise of conquest; they have set the stage and are perched, waiting, waiting for the big boom to happen.
And while they wait to drink our blood, we continue to celebrate our few local festivals with much spirit and we laugh and underpay our artists and our artists laugh and stretch out their hands. And we tell our writers that they cannot put books on display at a national festival of culture and arts and we kill our cultural heritage and our people’s identity and we burn our land with the worst fire there is. It is sad, that though tourism is only the shadow of a dream in my shadow land, the stage has already been set for conquest.