“My Story” Chapter 14

“My Story” – by Randall Butisingh.

(Reminiscences during my life beginning 1913)

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

I left teaching for the second time and returned to a life of unemployment; but I returned with a strong body, as during my stay in Port Mourant I did physical exercises and was with an acrobatic group that did trapeze exercises and pyramid building.  I also did some boxing and swimming.  I did not even have a net, which I usually keep, and as a boy, used to go out in the early mornings before I go to school to catch fish for lunch or dinner, neither did I have any acquired skill, thanks to the education system which neglected the training of the hands,.  So my idleness was a burden to my mother who used to go alone to work at the farm a good distance away, and bring home ground provisions and bunches of bananas.  So there came a time when she asked me not to touch anything she cooked.  So, even with intense hunger, I had some honesty and would refrain from eating her food, and whenever I could get a copper or two, I would give her so as to get something to eat.  I believe those periods of hunger in my life helped with my health, as the brief periods of fasting helped to cleanse the system, and as it is said “death stays away from a hungry man”.

Sometimes I got employment as a labourer at the sea defence works and would earn a few shillings to keep me for a while.  This state of affairs continued until I was approached by a contemporary to act for him at a one teacher school at Baracara, an Amerindian mission in the Mazaruni River for a few months at a salary of twelve dollars a month.  The idea appealed to me, not only because I was unemployed, but because I was young and adventurous.  This was in the interior of British Guiana, and I liked the idea of the river and forest and the nearness to Nature.  My mother was happy too, that I found something to do, so she packed some groceries in a box to last me for a few months.

I traveled from the village of Buxton to Parika at the mouth of the Essequibo, crossing the Demerara and the Bonisica.rivers, then took a steamer for the first time and traveled up the Essequibo River to Bartica..  It was a sunny day as we journeyed pass islands and islets, dense forests on both banks and the black water of the river opaque and sweet, a veritable source of fish and a means of transportation by steamers, launches and other small craft.  I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the water and the profusion of Nature surrounding us.  For the first time also, I saw  a family of Amerindians traveling  in their native garb.  They carried with them food which were large cassava cakes tied with a dirty cloth and showing signs of mildew.  They had these deposited on the bare deck of the steamer.  They also had a vessel with pepper pot.  When they were hungry, they would break off a piece from one of the cakes, dip it in the pepper pot and eat.  There was absolutely no regard for hygiene.

To me, it was quite amazing these primitive people, with good teachers were able to become teachers, nurses, one became a priest of the Anglican Church and another a minister in the Guyana government.  I was awe struck by a woman university graduate who displayed a command of the English language with the articulation that would abash an Englishwoman.  And these people were thought to be of inferior intellect.  I have experienced that the speech of the educated Ameridian was immaculate, untarnished by the creolese that sometimes seep into the expression of the urban and rustic African and Indian student.

I reached Bartica late that afternoon, having been traveling for many hours.  Bartica is the mining town at the junction where the Cuyuni and Mazaruni Rivers meet the larger Essequibo River.  It is the “entrepot”, or business centre through which the miners pass to go to the gold and diamond fields.  It is a small town with a mixed population, small businesses, a hotel and a hospital.

I went to Baracara from Bartica by boat and was taken to the building which would be both school and dwelling place.  It was a small building about thirty by twenty feet with a small attachment about sixteen by ten feet.  In this room there was a bed, the only furniture I can recall.  Adjacent to the back of the school was a narrow platform.  Here was a box filled with sand and two iron bars for resting the pot in which the cooking was done.  The school itself had a few backless benches to accommodate about twenty pupils who came from different areas in small boats, sometimes more than two miles away.  It was a one teacher school; I had to teach children of different attainments from infants to the age of twelve.  I found this difficult as an untrained teacher, but I did what I could.

There were no pure Amerindians in the school.  There were a few African children but most were Bovianders, a mixture of Amerindian and black.  During my stay, I made the acquaintance of two young men, one an African who was living near the school and Jim, a Boviander who lived some distance away.  I used to borrow a boat to visit Jim, in the evenings and weekends.  He would box with me and do physical exercises or he will take me up the hill where they have a farm and we would pick and eat young cucumbers, rind and all, or I would be invited to a dish of steamed pumpkins.  I did not relish the latter and could not eat much although I knew of the nutritional value of the vegetable.  Jim’s mother would supply me with cassava bread which I ate for breakfast.

One weekend, the family took me to the penal settlement where criminals who committed serious offences were sent.  I saw some of the prisoners who appeared well fed, for the land had abundant fruit trees and vegetables which were grown in a fertile soil, and the climate was healthy. The prisoners were well fed but restricted in freedom; no smoking, no alcohol.  The purpose of their visit was not to see any of the prisoners, but to take a bitch to be inseminated by a dog in the compound.  I was abashed how the girls spoke uninhibitedly of the copulation which they called “lining” and would witness.  The process completed, we returned.  I borrowed the boat and in the moonlight came back to the school.

The school was surrounded by dense bushes, except for the front which was open and sandy and was near to the river where I would go sometimes for a swim although I was intimidated by the story of a man who had his toe bitten off by the ferocious pirhana fish in shallow water. The pirhana is a small fish about seven to eight inches in length with a strong jaw and very sharp teeth.  They swim mostly in shoals and can reduce an animal to a mere skeleton in a short time. Its flesh is edible and tasty.  It is used as food whenever caught by the Amerindians or other forest workers.  I once tasted it, but I refrained from eating, knowing that it eats the carcasses of animals and humans.

There is always danger lurking in a forest environment – snakes, centipedes, scorpions, spiders and the like. One morning lying in bed, I heard a little squeak; it came from a pretty little blue bird.  Looking up through the window which was very near a lime tree, I saw the bird in the jaws of the poisonous parrot snake.  This snake is green in colour and can easily blend with the vegetation around.  I was sorry for the pretty thing and could not forget the incident and also the saying, “nature is red in tooth and claw”.

At the junction of the Cuyuni and Mazaruni , two large tributaries that flow into the Essequibo  is a little island where the Dutch had built a fort in the 1700’s.  They named it Kyk-over-al which means “Look over all”.  This fort commands the entrance to the three rivers.  Remains of the fort are still there until now.  I wanted to see the old fort, so I borrowed a small sailing boat to visit.  I did not know anything about sailing boats, but I took one of my pupils with me and ventured out.  We hoisted the sail and started out.  Halfway on our journey we encountered difficulties; I lost control of the oar and the vessel swerved with the wind and could have capsized.  I had to let down the sail quickly and paddle the boat to the island. This was one of the many frightening incidents that happened in my life from which I was saved.  We found the fort in total ruin, and for the first time I saw the parasol ants, each carrying a piece of green leaf above its head from the trees which they had denuded, marching in single file. I looked at this spectacle for a while and surveyed the tiny area which could not have accommodated many people, but chiefly the gunners who stood guard.  When we left we paddled to the mainland and saw a variety of plants and flowers on our way.  We arrived late in the evening to the consternation of the residents.

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