Friendship Squating Area

Stabroek News
July 15, 2001

On May 24, Shanta Persaud was stabbed in the neck with a pair of scissors. She died three days later, leaving five children to the care of her mother. Her common law husband has been charged with her murder.

To reach Shanta's house which is not more than 8ft by 6ft and made out of old wood, you have to travel to Friendship on the East Bank of Demerara. Then you walk from the public road along a dam for a couple of hundred yards, take a right, and walk along a path lined with a few scrawny trees and wooden houses in varying stages of construction and size. This is Friendship Squatting Area. Population approximately 250 - men, women, children.

Many people living here have come to get away. Away from abusive relationships, disapproving relatives and high rents. Others are large families of six or seven children who cannot find anywhere affordable to live. They work in farming, as security guards, at Barama or just in the scheme weeding and doing odd jobs.

This Saturday morning Shanta's sister, Gino is coming home with her cousin and her infant girl after the two have been shopping out on the main road. Gino, a slim tomboyish girl perhaps in her late twenties lives in a small wooden house right next door to that of her murdered sister. She lives there with her mother and Shanta's five children aged 13 to 3 years, who when they arrive are wandering around in the dirt yard on their own playing quite contentedly. The eldest daughter Kavita is withdrawn and shy in her grubby blue dress. She hangs onto the side of the house, her head tilted to one side... watching. Her mother's house is empty now. No one goes in it since the murder. Gino says they are going to tear it down soon.

We sit on a bench outside the home and talk. Gino has one son Omkar who is busy getting into trouble in the kitchen. He is five but looks at most three. Gino is not married. She makes a living by fetching water for people living in the scheme. She gets $60 for a pail and can make up to 10 trips a day. Her mother works at a farm in Coverden picking cherries. Gino used to do this but it was hard work. The farmers pay about $10 a pound and you have to find your own passage. You can make about $800 a day if you hustle. The family used to live on the public road and moved in the area about 3 years ago after the rent went up at the house they were in.

Gino's cousin Reshma nurses her baby. She lives on the next dam with her husband who is a butcher. She says she is happy here although it will take time to get the things she wants. They moved here about two years ago from an East Bank Village. She had had a difficult time but she is happy now. Her husband treats her well.

But she has to go cook lunch- macaroni and beef. So she heads home carrying the baby under her red umbrella, back along the dam avoiding the puddles, the grazing cows and the dogs arching their backs and scratching themselves. One house has a little stand outside selling bora, eggplant and tomatoes. Many of the lots have rough wooden fences to clearly mark off the boundaries. Almost everyone is planting something, be it plantains eddoes or pakchoy.

All over there are children running around barefoot, climbing trees, troubling dogs, playing ball, enjoying their freedom.

The area which is growing every day has not yet been regularised by the government. Of course there is no electricity. Only one water pipe, close to the main road, serves the community. But many of the people living there do not want government intervention. They say this would lead to them getting smaller lots and they would have to buy from the government what they already feel they own. Instead they have formed a committee and are looking to raise money to put in pipes and to improve the road. Other residents seeing little progress want the infrastructure the government can bring and the security of having titles to their lots.

Some of the lots have been sold by the original settlers. The cost of the lot is based on the amount of labour that has been put into it. So if a patch has been weeded several times and has some young coconut trees or a drain then it has a certain value. One weeding would add about $5000. A coconut tree would also add to the price. Houses can be sold too, with a little hut going for about $40,000.

Peter Graves is sitting in front of his home eating porridge from a big plastic cup. He scrapes the sides and licks the spoon clean. Then he lights a cigarette. With a pockmarked face and a gaunt stare he would strike not fear, but perhaps caution into most passersby. His home is about 5 ft square with two walls made of blue tarpaulin and the rest of old wood his sister had given him.

Peter says he used to be a wild man, sleeping rough on the streets of Georgetown, "living a don't-care-a-damn life." But reaching forty he thought it was about time he got a grip. He is not stupid and maybe his smarts and charm have worked against him over the years. Where another man might have settled down to one job and put his nose to the grindstone he has been variously a soldier, a porkknocker, a stevedore and until recently a vagabond. But he came up to Friendship three months ago and "the spirit just took me to put up a little house" on his sister's property which is about 40ft by 100ft. He points proudly to some corn and bhagee coming up and says soon he will have greens to cook. He makes a living helping to fetch in wood and other materials for residents. He does some weeding as well. He gets the money and buys up his rations to last until the next job.

A passing cloud brings rain and we shelter under his zinc roof. His bed is a few planks of wood. Does it hurt you? "Well I am rough like that!" he laughs. What really bother him are the mosquitoes which come in droves. By 6:30pm he has to wrap himself under two sheets from top to toe and still they bite. No matter. He says he is happy now. He didn't care if he died before. "But now I don't want to die. I want to live." A friend brings him a mango seed, a black spice which is sprouting. He says he is going to plant it today and pretty soon he'll have mangoes to eat too. He is willing to wait that long, now that he has a patch of land.

Still he has to watch himself. A few weeks ago he was playing cricket with some boys and the ball went into someone's yard. The owners quarrelled and the police came later and locked him up for the night. As he talks he kneads the wild gum he used to catch his bird ? a planthead which darts around a cage above his head. Right now the bird is still too frightened to sing but Peter plans to tame it. Then it will "start rejoicing."

He's glad for the committee and does not want the government to come in. Right now he is caretaker of his sister's land while she lives in Lodge. But he hopes to get a plot some day.

The cloud passes and the sun starts to shine again. Gino is relaxing on the steps of her cousin's home smoking a cigarette. Reshma is inside doing the dishes and tidying up. Her little daughter lies on the bed sleeping, a grey kitten sits hunched up with its eyes barely open. Reshma mentions that the committee is having a barbeque August 1. They have printed 150 tickets at $400 each and are going to print some more. The money is to go towards extending the pipeline into the scheme so people don't have to walk so far for water.

"I am glad if the government comes in and gives us titles. SIMAP can give us water and roads. This committee just doing what they want with the money," complains an older woman in the local rum shop. Although it is still morning she is sipping a quarter of vodka out of a frayed orange plastic cup to "help me sleep, you understand." She covers the bottle with her keys to stop any flies from falling in. The shop owner, wearing the sort of white cap used by food handlers sits on a bench swinging her legs. The house is a whitewashed wooden two-storey with a little concrete shop downstairs and some bottles and a few tomatoes lined up on the counter. There is a sign saying 'PEPSI' but there are no soft drinks. On the fireside a pot is cooking callaloo and chicken.

The owner complains not without pride how her "boy pickneys are real botheration... Eating whole day." She has to cook three pints of rice a day and eight roti. She brings out the pot to show "how much they does eat for lunch alone." Right now they are off playing in the back yard. They are supposed to be doing some weeding as per instructions from their father. The shop owner says she likes living in the scheme. Out there the children can't run around "naked skin." The neighbours think you are a bad mother and then you have to worry about them "gettin lick down pon road." Here they are free and she does not have to study where they might go. "I just tell them to not stray too far."

The family had to move in here after they found it hard to find somewhere to rent. Many home-owners don't like to rent to families. She wants some improvements to the road. Sometimes when it rains the mud is knee-high and the children have to take off their boots when they go to school.

The sole customer sips on her drink and fusses with her auburn dyed hair. She explains how the land once belonged to a doctor who died and left it for his daughter, but the family did not pay the rates so about 10 years ago people started settling there. The matter is supposed to be in court. She would be glad if the government came in, she repeats, and then people could get their house lots. For $50,000 she would "cut me belly and pay it off every month… The committee is only running from the government, they are hiding." The owner breaks off some firewood and throws a pile of callaloo into the pot.

Outside the grocery shop a set of boys stand in a circle, playing football, kicking it to each other while keeping their arms behind their backs. Off their chests, shoulders, heads, knees and feet keeping the ball in the air for as long as they can. Gino passes with a pail of water. A man wobbly with drink and holding a cutlass wrapped up in green felt tells her something as she takes a rest. She opens her mouth on him, but they start up a conversation. The sharp slap of dominoes comes from the back of the grocery shop. A white dog lies in the doorway nibbling at his foot. The owner stands amongst stacks of margarine, flour bags, vaseline, mosquio coils, eddoes and plantains and tomato paste. The little shop is busy with boys running in on errands. "Please for one soap powder and one bottle of bleach." Saturday is laundry day and in front of every home lines groan under the weight of clothes. He adds up a bill for an old man: "Kero, three eggs, tennis roll, cheese, sweet drink - $380."

Between serving customers the owner, a young, clean-cut and confident man says the scheme has people from all over the country. "Berbice, over the river, from the highway." That is because many of the lots have changed hands as people have moved on. The committee does not have the confidence of the people. They lost the account book, couldn't find this or that. He would not mind the government helping out, but wonders how they would divide up the lots. After all that work, "it would be hard to give another man me piece."

Right now he has to struggle to bring in his groceries from the main road. Sometimes he is tired of the hardship: "I want to buy a nice land cruiser and go to Splashmins every weekend like everyone else. I don't want to grind Sunday to Sunday. You can't be living the same way… in this mud… year after year… you know, and then 25 years later and you're still fetching water in an old bucket… It's hard, it's hard, it's hard. That's what Anthony B says." He looks out on the hot road and sighs.

The football game is over. The boys are sitting on an old cart talking and laughing in the midday sun. That is friendship.