“My Story” Chapter18

“My Story” – by Randall Butisingh.

(Reminiscences during my life beginning 1913)


I spent my time helping my father with his work, opening and closing the kokers.  It was good exercise for me.  I noted how our co-worker had strong arms and a well built chest.  I also spent much of my time in reading and physical exercises.  I did calisthenics, chinning, and dipping and tension exercises.  I was physically fit.  I felt elation in my well being so when three middle aged men, whom my father regularly lent money, came to equip themselves for pork knocking in the gold fields, I asked my father to let me go with them.  I was in search of adventure, but the men were reluctant; they thought that I would not be able to endure the harsh conditions in the interior. But I persuaded my father.  I told him I was not going for the money, he could have it.  I was going for the experience.  They finally agreed, so I packed a canister with two changes of working clothes, two cotton vests and a jute bag hammock and prepared for the adventure.

I left my father and the comfort of a home, however simple, one bright sunny morning with three strange African men, known to him but not to me. I was young and thirsting for adventure.  They were middle- aged, hardened pork knockers who had spent may years in the interior.  We had nothing in common.  We joined the ferry at Parika at the mouth of the Essequibo River and voyaged upstream until we reached Fort Nassau where I saw the remains of the old Dutch fort.   The steamer stopped for a while as residents brought basketfuls of fresh vegetables to be hawked among the passengers.  After that, we steamed away until we reached Bartica, the mining town at the junction of the Mazaruni and Cuyuni Rivers where they meet with the Essequibo.  It was evening and we spent the night in hammocks at a rude inn for a small fee, owned by a Buxtonian.  With her were her daughter and two grand children; one an attractive child about seven years old with large beautiful eyes and light brown skin.  Years later, this little girl was to be my pupil, and later, a teacher in the same school at Lusignan, where I was senior master.  We had a very good relationship so that when she was transferred, she wrote me a nice letter which I preserved, but lost during my peregrinations.

Early the next morning, we woke up, had a simple breakfast and got ready to join the lorry that would take us to our destination, a hundred and twelve miles to Caburi. The journey was rough.  The lorry had to run on a raw surface through the jungle, sometimes near a cliff where a little error of judgment or a distraction could have caused a tragedy.  We traveled for a long time vigorously jolted, and my bladder bursting to be relieved. At last halfway through the journey, the lorry stopped and we disembarked, stretched our limbs and ate lunch.  After a while we resumed our journey, jungle on both sides of us and no signs of animals as the noise of the lorry scared them away.  We reached our destination about 2.00 pm that afternoon.  We gathered our belongings:  I, my canister, the men, their canvas bags which were easier to carry, and we started for our campsite.

As soon as we reached, the men left me to take care of the baggage and went into the bush with cutlasses.  After a while they returned with hard wood posts, wattles and the leaves of the troolie palm.  They quickly set up a tent about sixteen feet by ten feet, without walls, very much like the benab of the  Amerindians, but not as neat,  Three of us slung our hammocks, each in a corner, while the other made a rude bed of wattles on which he spread jute bags..  I slept in my clean working clothes and a thick vest.  I did not have a blanket, so I wrapped myself with the thick, jute hammock.  This did not prevent the cold from penetrating the covers and reaching me.

I cannot remember if I slept because of the cold, but I was up at dawn with the others.  The men made a fire with some twigs over which, on a metal bar on two forked sticks, they boiled water for breakfast.  They made a brew with a weed, called wild maraan, which grew near the camp; this sweetened with condensed milk had a pleasant flavour. Not to waste time, they got out the victuals for the mid day meal.  This consisted  of rice, split peas, and salted beef and pork.  This would constitute our daily regimen, unless the men could catch a haimara, a fish resembling the houri found in Guyana, This they did with a hook baited with a piece of the many lizards which were found running around the camp.  On Sundays we had a variety, peas soup with potatoes an dumplings.  They made me the cook.

They set up the cooking in two pots; one to boil the rice and the other the peas and meat.  Then they started the fire and left me to finish the cooking before I go down to help them at the pit. Before I was a vegetarian, not strictly, because I would eat what is cooked with meat, but I removed the meat.  This I did for two years, during which time with exercise and temperate habits, I was in the peak of health.  I had resolved not to eat flesh again, so I would remove the meat before eating.  This went on for some time, but the rigours of the work and the demands it made on my strength opened my appetite, I never worked so hard before, so I craved for food.  So, one day I hid portions of the meat in the rice so that the men would not see me eating it. This went on for some time until one day I overtly displayed some of it on my rice and concealed some in it.

As the days went on, my appetite increased so that the equal rationing with the men did not suffice. So to augment my meal, I would put excess water in the rice to boil, strain off about a pint before it is fully cooked, pour condensed milk into it, and with a small loaf of bread which was prepared for our breakfast, enjoyed a pre-lunch snack before the men came up.

One day I was caught red- handed.  One of the men caught me diving into the basket and taking out a loaf.  He exclaimed, so that the others could hear; “you know the bai ah eat out dem bread !  I had to desist but I continued with my cup of rice water and condensed milk. The food as I mentioned before was monotonous throughout the week, except on Sundays when we had peas soup with potatoes and dumplings. The men did not work on Sundays. They left me to do the cooking while they went to the shop to sell gold, to drink and socialize.

Besides the cooking, I had to do the baking. One of the men would prepare the dough and get it ready for the improvised oven.  I would then go to collect firewood which was usually small logs which I had to split in lengths of about six feet, to be placed over four forked sticks over a crude oven of two round biscuit tins about two feet in diameter, and one and a half feet deep, turned on their sides so that the mouth face the outside.  The mouth was then covered and the fire lit over them.  The wood had to be replenished now and then.  When the oven grew hot, the bread was placed on tin sheets and pushed into the oven.   You could imagine the heat that emanated from the oven when it was opened.  It was a good thing that it was done in the open as the heat was alleviated by the air around.

An inexperienced person like me would have to open the oven time and again to see that the bread did not get burnt,  One day I waited a little too long and a few of the bread got a little burnt.  I knew the men would be annoyed when they discovered this, so I ate the few loaves, charcoal and all, as I was hungry, remembering my friend Albert Ogle’s father who was a dispenser telling me that charcoal from burnt food was good for the stomach.  The men did not discover the missing loaves.


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