we be backdam people

My maternal grandfather came to Guyana from Afghanistan with his parents when he was a toddler. They came as indentured laborers, to work on the sugar plantations on the East Coast of Demerara. Nani Paa never learned to read or write and the Estate was the only place he ever worked in all his life. From childish chores, he graduated to the position of ‘shovel man.’ It was brutally hard work, for the strongest only. Short and stout, but muscled from wielding the shovel in the sun for hours at a time (and also because he minded a flock of sheep), he gained the nickname ‘Ram Shaw’. Of the six children that Paa and my Nani had, three (one of which was my mother) became public school teachers in Guyana. None worked the land. And none live in Guyana anymore.

I spent the morning in the backdam with some cane cutters and a farmer who has been growing sugarcane in Guyana for 50 years. Among the many topics of conversation: the history and future of Guysuco, cane vs rice farming, and the always-interesting going-ons at Skeldon.. There might have been some refinements on the processing end, but cane cutting- getting the cane out the ground and into the factory- hasn’t changed much in the decades since my grandfather worked on the estate. It’s still brutally hard work, with men (and a few women) in the fields in the sun for hours at a time, bending, lifting, and fetching. Indentureship being long over, most people who have other options for employment take it, leaving cane farmers desperate for workers. But it’s not work most youth or other Guyanese are interested in. Unless, that is, people have no other choice. People who have no choice but to engage in backbreaking labor (for not a lot of money) are not happy campers generally. Alcohol abuse, interpersonal violence, depression, and suicide are common in canecutter communities. On the organizational level, Guysuco has been failing for years now. From Directors who live in the USA and fly in for meetings (and who have been implicated in numerous instances of corruption) to decreasing yields and markets, and a multi-million USD factory that has never functioned properly from day 1- Guysuco is on its last legs. However, because canecutters have traditionally been the base of the ruling political party, the politrickans are keen to keep them pacified. Also, race being the jumbie that it is in Guyana, every vote counts. Fascinating then, to hear of the recent altercation between the Afro-Guyanese worker and Indo-Guyanese manager at Skeldon. Black worker fired and the entire factory (joined by Albion workers as well) goes on strike in support of him. I am surprised, truth be told. Apparently solidarity is still alive in Guyana today..

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Until just a few years ago, I had never been in the backdam of Guyana. My childhood was spent on the main road and farming- though a necessary endeavor- was deemed an undesirable activity and one we should leave far behind as we climbed the socioeconomic ladder. Doctor, lawyer- those were now the positions to strive for, as the children of teachers and grandchildren of backdam people. I know that Nani Paa would chastise me if he were still alive today, for I’m neither doctor nor lawyer, so I’m glad he’s peacefully in the ground. But it’s he I think about every time I go in the backdam now. His parents migrated to this spit of land in search of a better life for themselves and their children but one generation later, their descendants have moved on mostly, still seeking betterment. Wheel and come again, Guyana. A few of us are still here though. We be backdam people!

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