Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tobago Take Two

In the High Cost of Giving, we wrote about the village of Tobago and what a tough time they are having there. Things are still hard there, and its going to take a while and a lot of political will to get those people what they need, but I thought I’d counterpoint the picture of gloom we painted with a description of a day we spent there recently.

Sam had done a couple of clinics in Tobago before I managed to get over there with him – transport was difficult and scarce, and so taking me along for the ride just didn’t seem appropriate. Then one Sunday, we hitch hiked over there together – Sam had woken in the night worried about a little girl’s lung infection and wanted to check her before we went away for a week to Georgetown (what a hero). So we had a rainy day out there giving out worms tablets. Moved by the clear need for more effective healthcare, for health education, for nutritional education – we promised we’d go back, this time to give some health talks as well as run a clinic.

Than, in the gentle way of things here, the friends around us steadily began to get interested in our next trip. Bernice, a local retired teacher who lives nearby – wanted to come and do a storytelling session with the children (who get no education at all there). Jud, the pilot of the yellow plane, was interested in coming to see the situation there. His wife Karen is a dental hygienist – she’d like to come and give out some toothbrushes to the kids along with a dental chat.

Next came Godfrey Chan-a-Sue – he’s the local shopkeeper whose task it is to attempt to administer the gifts of Food for the Poor. He had sacks of Soya protein and also of back beans he could give us. There were two problems with this – getting it there and also getting people to eat it. Getting it there was solved after I paid a friendly visit to the local Regional Chairman (I wore make up for the first time in months – my equivalent of power dressing?). He agreed to provide transportation on the Sunday that we wanted to go. Next we had to get thinking about the food itself. Protein is exactly what is needed – protein malnutrition underlies the majority of the severely sick children’s cases that get admitted hospital, as testified by the swollen bellies and skinny arms of many of the children Sam sees there. The problem is that the soya protein flakes were completely unknown to the Tobagans, and we heard that there was something of a taboo around black foods. So the gifts of Food for the Poor were looking like a hard sell.

At this point we had out flash of inspiration. Somehow this trip was bringing together all aspects of our lives – we should give a cookery demonstration – cooking being an ever-growing obsession with us… We decided that the best person in the Mabaruma to give the demonstration (and it would be much more likely to be successful if it was a local – thinking of language and cultural barriers) was our friend Shaira. Shaira is by far the best cook in Mabaruma. She originally taught us all the Guyanese basics – pepperpot, cook-up rice, and just last night, local crab curry with blue crabs – more on that later. Shaira readily agreed, if she could bring along her lovely daughter Nureifa and her husband, David. At this point we were thinking – hell, yeah, the more the merrier….

As we drove out of town towards the village, we made an interesting gang. We had Jud and his family, the 7th Day Adventists, we had Nureifa and Shaira, who are the only Muslims in the village, we had David, Shaira’s husband and a devoted member of the rastatfarian brotherhood. We had Bernice, a fairly straight down the line Christian. And Sam and I, Atheists with a capital A. (We’ve taken to declaring this quite aggressively here. Otherwise you get into long tiresome conversations with various church groups attempting to convert you.) Quite a bizarre multicultural band of brothers.

We had a pretty special day in Tobago. We got there just as they were gathering for church (which turned out to have a pretty low turn out). Bernice and I attended the service – she’s a Christian and I’m nosey – whilst everyone else got set up for the day’s activities.

After the service we gathered as many people into the church as we could. Sam kicked things off by opening up a discussion about nutrition and self-sufficiency. The villagers are all too aware that’s its their removal from the river and their source of crabs and fish that is the cause of lots of the health problems, and there is a sense of grievance that the government has not done more to address this. A community boat is seen as a solution. What about the agriculture side of things though, Sam asked – the move was actually instigated by World Harvest who had started an agriculture project with the people when they lived on Simoto creek (now defunct – World Harvest have no presence here), and had got frustrated that their project kept getting flooded. Oh, then move all the people, perfect solution. The villagers said they still don’t feel confident as agriculturists – they’ve been taught a few things, but then when things go wrong, there’s no help and they lack the knowledge or resources to fix things. For example – on the new land, their first crops were wiped out by Acoushi ant. Any local farmer would have told them this but World Harvest didn’t know or predict it – so they lost their first crop, and haven’t the heart to plant more until they can afford expensive insecticides to protect their crops.

It’s a tough situation and not one with a single, simple answer. An encouraging thing on the day was that David, a local subsistence farmer, offered to drop in and help when he could, and to loan them the use of his insecticide sprayer if they could get the spray.

Next, we moved on to health and nutrition – trying to encourage people to grow crops to better nourish their families – and talking about ways they can cheaply replace the lost crab and fish protein from their diet. This included introducing the idea of the beans and the soya flakes. I found myself chipping in here instinctively, as what had occurred in the room was a complete division of sexes, with Sam speaking to the men and being ignored by the women, and vice versa. As a final addendum, we talked a bit about family size, prosperity and nutrition, and got the women thinking about family planning – showing them a packet of pills and explaining that they can choose when to have their children without affecting their fertility. Maybe this helped them make sense of me – everywhere I go here, people think its strange that I don’t have children yet.

Karen did her thing next, getting out her plastercast flip top mouth and displaying how to brush your teeth properly. She had toothbrushes to hand out but also explained how you can make a brush from a twig by fraying the ends – useful to know for camping trips. Then we dished out toothbrushes, toothpaste and condoms – interesting selection – before separating for our various tasks.

For Sam this was running a clinic at the front of the church. People line up in the pews and come up one by one to see him, with no sense of patient confidentiality, but in a village that size, I suspect there are no secrets. At the back of the church, Bernice ran a storytelling group, theoretically for the children but in the end she had quite a few of the men there too, enjoying her stories.

At the same time, Karen and I headed over to the nearest communal kitchen (this is a feature of Tobago life, the kitchens are shared between five or so families – wooden covered platforms on stilts with a wood fire on a raised wooden platform – the smell of woodsmoke is everywhere), to join Shaira in her cookery demonstration for the women of the village. Our hope with getting Shaira to do this was that she is such a great cook, she would inspire them by making delicious and nutritious foods. And she didn’t fail. With not much more than a couple of coconuts, some onions and garlic, dried thyme (which grows like a weed here) and salt, she cooked a big bean cook-up with soya flakes in, and a stew of greens and beans and soya. She also had the ladies make up some cassava bread.

Meanwhile, I gathered some ladies round me and started asking them to help me to learn their language. I am writing a play about Tobago, which examines the events that brought the people here, asking questions about what does it mean to try and develop a place? How do you effect the people and culture you are in contact with? In the play, there are characters speaking Warau, so I asked the women to translate my dialogue into their language, making recordings and writing out phonetically what I heard. They were initially surprised by my request, but soon we were happily beavering away, with different people debating hotly amongst themselves how best to translate “have you got ice” “he’s your sweet man” etc. Then one of the women, Victoria Hosea, began to sing to me. Her voice was rough and strong, and very beautiful as she sang versions of English hymns, first in Warau then in English. Then one of those magical rare moments of synchronicity occurred. The play begins with a true event – one which happened to these people. In 2005, floodwaters threatened their lives in their old homes, and the radical (and controversial) solution to this came in the form of the religious NGO, World Harvest – who uprooted them all from their homes of many generations. The song Victoria chose to sing me next was called “Brother Noah where are you?” And so I found myself sitting in a kitchen in Tobago, being sung this haunting, prophetic song by this wonderfully wise woman, being handed the perfect gift to complete my play:
“Brother Noah, where are you? Where are you? Where are you?
Brother Noah where are you? The rains are falling down”.

By the time we had finished, Shaira had cooked her stew to perfection. There was happily enough for everyone to try the nutritious cook-up and stew, and the improvised meal back in the church had a celebratory feel. There was something good about sharing a meal with the people we had come to help. After that, the rest of the beans and the soya were shared out to each family, everyone excited about cooking with the new food.

By mid-afternoon, it was time for us to get our lift home. We said our farewells – I will be going back to the village next month with my theatre group, and I have a feeling everyone else will be going back for one reason or another. We drove home through Hosororo, a leafy village nearby, where Shaira’s friend, brother Louis, gave us each a freshly picked young coconut. We drank the water from inside and then split them open to eat the nutty white jelly from the middle. Then we all headed down to Hosororo falls – a local set of rapids with (unusually for Guyana – most water here is brown) clear water to swim in. We all cooled off with a swim – even Shaira and Nureifa came in – before all nine of us piled on to Jud’s small 4X4 vehicle – which is about the size of a golf buggy – for our drive home.

I can’t remember a better day I’ve had recently, and its one that really brings into focus a truism about volunteering. Sam recently asked a project manager, Tim, at VSO – who do you think gets most out of volunteering – the governments you work for, or the people you help? Tim shrugged and smiled – it’s the volunteers who get the most, of course.


Gill said...

Becs, thank you for putting me on your list, I'm fascinated by what you're doing.
I really look forward to seeing the play if it ever gets put on here. And I'd love to hear Victoria's singing.
Look after yourselves,
Much love (Auntie) Gill xxx

tommy said...

Guys, your blog is brilliant. Witty and fascinating. I'm learning more even though i lived there for a year!

Your days volunteering in Tobago should be awarded a massive bar of Galaxy (I know you're missing it!). All of us Project Trust volunteers were clearly told that we would not change the world and the year was purely for our experience. Which it was.


Tom Greenwood

Ps, can you collect my post and bring it back with you :)!