“How ah look?” I asked Nichola as I prepared to leave the office with the salt bag slung over my shoulder. “Well, some people might think yuh run off and might want knock yuh and tek ‘way yuh computer, but at least the bag clean and it white, so it match your shirt.. And maybe somebody will feel sorry for you and give you a drop..” On that hopeful note, I went on my way. I’d left a backpack full of books by the sweetie and cigarette lady at the corner of Camp and Robb St, but had come to the Red Thread office to collect some more donated books for the Groundings. The salt bag was ½ full of books; on my other shoulder I lugged my laptop. The sun was hot hot as usual, but I had had a fortifying ital lunch of rice n pigeon peas, callaloo, pumpkin, bora and chunks from a rastaman at Bourda Market, washed down with a Banks at the former Jerries, and the shooting back pains as I walked had subsided, so I was good to go. Actually, I was still tired and sleep deprived from a busy week, but I was the one who had called the Groundings, so I had to show up. The two other Groundings stalwarts- Vidya and Raydha- weren’t sure if they were going to be able to attend, so, again, I had to show up. Nobody felt sorry enough for me to give me a drop, but I lightened my load a little by giving a book to my vendor friend who sells snacks across from the church on Hadfield st, and greased my conversational gears by giving a Whim update to two old timers by the gambling spot. By the time I reached the Groundings location, I was more ready. My backpack was exactly where I’d left it, as I had known it would be.
Another vendor girl friend of mine who sells on Regent st was the first to pass by. She wanted to know if she would be getting a salary increase too. She augments her vending earnings by working part time at Stabroek News, folding the paper, earning $1300 a night. “We leave there late late sometimes,” she said, “and when other staff people don’t show up, that puts more stress on us.” We talked about public vs private sector then she picked up some books. She was taking them for her sister and niece. She asked me if I knew anyone who taught English. “For a child or a big person?” I asked her. For me, she said. She didn’t finish school. She folds the newspaper but can’t really read it. Raydha showed up at that point, diverting my attention and my vendor friend left. I write this to remind myself to pass by her spot tomorrow and set up a time to sit and read with her. That she felt comfortable enough to share that and ask for help speaks volumes; I love helping people who’re motivated to help themselves.
Lots of schoolchildren were passing by. A quartet of boys from St. Mary’s lounged on the railing next to us. Raydha valiantly started reading from Animal Farm to them, but they were more interested in checking out the girls passing by than interacting with her. It’s hard to compete/divert teenage hormones, which I’m sure she’s familiar with, as a teacher.. Hah. A grandmother stopped with her teenage daughter in tow, with the grandmother trying again, rather unsuccessfully, to divert her granddaughter’s attention to the books instead of the teenage boys. While grandma perused the books, the smiling girl played hide and peek from behind a post with the boys. “Hello- you never see boys before? They don’t have boys at your school?” I try to say it jokingly, but her behavior was irksome. And/or I’m just getting old. Grandma ends up choosing a book about finding the right career, “for her,” she says, and we gyaff about the salary increase while the hide and peek game continues. Granny is disgusted by the increase. I tell her about our picket plans for next week and she promises to attend. I wish, in retrospect, that we had made flyers or handbills to give out, but a- that takes money and b- many people can’t read. I think I’ll still do some for next time tho, cuz I know how easy it is to forget things without a reminder.
Anyway, soon the boys drift off and a couple teenage girls stop; we have an actual conversation. They have opinions about the salary increase; one’s mom is a head mistress and she doesn’t think it’s fair, her daughter reports. They are Afro and Indo Guyanese and seem like good friends. I’m reminded of them later when a young Afro-Guyanese woman asks to touch my hair, saying that she’s never touched an Indo-Guyanese person’s hair before (not counting weaves). This is someone who was born, raised, and lived in Georgetown all her life. Her statement flabbergasted me. I let her run her fingers through my hair, warning her tho, that I hadn’t shampooed it in a while..
Anyway, back to Groundings. The Afro-Indo couple of friends want to know what we’re doing, about this whole free book thing. I counter by asking them if they’ve ever heard of Walter Rodney. They know that he was a politician, that he’s dead, and that there was some investigation going on not so long ago. I ask if they know how he died. “His ex-wife stabbed him!” one of the girls exclaims excitedly. Thankfully her friend corrects her and my hope in the youth of today is resurrected. Another young woman stops and asks if we have any romance novels. We don’t, but she picks up the #1ladies detective agency story that we have after I tell her that it’s set in Botswana (I don’t tell her tho, that it’s written by a white man heh). At first she says the increase is a good idea, but she’s talking about an increase for public servants, not the politicians (although they are public servants as well actually..) She changes her tune as soon as she understands the real situation. Without any prompting from me, she gestures to the big big construction going on behind us, and talks about the rich getting richer while the poor continue to struggle and suffer. Another young woman says that she wants to be successful in business so that all Guyanese would know her name. There are other ways to get famous, you know, I tell her. Look at Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, etc. I’m not an activist, she sniffs.
A big woman and big man stop to gyaff. The woman says how they should be happy and take whatever they are given but again- she’s talking about the public servants, not the politicians. I try to explain the difference- that the politicians are the ones calling the shots, and again, she too changes her tune when she gets the full understanding. It becomes increasingly clear that many Guyanese are not really following the situation, or are confusing issues. This is troubling, as that is exactly how dictatorships flourish- not necessarily by bashing people’s heads, but simply by keeping them ignorant. I’m glad now to be Grounding.
A guy who I’d seen a couple of days earlier in the ‘bush’ passes with his young daughter. He had impressed me then as a hard worker and now, seeing him with his daughter, he impressed me further as a good dad. I’m sorry that I don’t have any children’s books to share, but hopefully that will be remedied next month when the barrel arrives.. Another father, with a son this time, also stop. The boy chooses the book with a picture of the pyramids on the cover. Again, I inform them about the picket plans for next week. Another student, from Bishops’ this time, stops. He wants to be a scientist when he grows up, a chemist, he says,. I encourage him and ask his opinion on the salary increase. Unfair, obviously, he says. Our teachers need to be paid better. Harmon, Trotman, Granger- are you listening? From the mouths of babes..
Earlier, another little boy had stopped and picked up the ‘Explore Guyana’ magazine with the picture of Kaieteur Falls on the cover. He liked Maths, he said, and wanted to be a soldier when he grew up. “A soldier,” I exclaimed! “Why?” “To defend my country,” he said exuberantly, then ran away before I could tell him that he better study Spanish. Couple more teachers stop by, including one who teaches at Golden Grove. She picks up two books, for two of her students, she says, who like to read. She’s planning on giving them the books as prizes. I am glad to have a hand in this, however tangentially. Ms. Golden Grove is familiar with ‘Animal Farm.’ The students have to read it in Grade 7, she says. It’s a good book. The Afro-Indo schoolgirls are still hanging around, listening to the gyaff. They’d never heard of Animal Farm so I ask the teacher if she would summarize it for them. It’s about power, she says, and how it corrupts. This teacher though, does not condemn the politician public pay increase. She is happy to have gotten a higher-than-usual increase and while she only believes in God, she’s confident that next year, she and her teacher pals will get the full 20% as promised..
Some more female students stop by and again we engage in a spirited conversation about the salary increase. Clearly unfair, they said unanimously.A couple more teachers, with decades of combined experience stop by. Vidya shows up at this point and engages them for a little while. The bits and pieces of the gyaff which I hear has to do with the numbers of boys vs girls in school. There is a serious problem indeed; has been this way for years. The books are almost all gone at this point in time. It’s only been an hour. The teachers say they have books of their own that they need to get rid of, that they will bring to the next Groundings. We encourage them to attend the pickets next week as well.
A young mother asks for one of the two copies of Animal Farm that I have been reading from. She reads to her daughter regularly, even though she’s only 18 months old and doesn’t understand everything. I crack up, especially when I remember that a Marxist website had Animal Farm listed as a ‘fairy tale for children’. It’s great tho, when I hear things like that, and meet people who restore my faith in humanity. I give her one of the copies and we make plans to meet up when she finishes reading it for her to tell me what she thinks about it. I leave to go get the snow cone with condensed milk that I’ve been craving since the day before. All in all, another successful Groundings! Join us next time.