Produce and punish
The craftspeople of the Pomeroon river
Stabroek News
October 14, 2001

The Pomeroon river is surrounded by high walls of mango and cork wood trees. Its waters are smooth and dark . And they are only ruffled this Saturday morning by the occasional small boat carrying provisions to Charity wharf for tomorrow's market. Speedboats buzz across the river's surface like large dragonflies. Women look up from washing clothes by the river's edge. A canoe with three children paddles past, too shy for the camera. The houses that line the banks are brightly painted and stand in neat little gardens bursting with mussaendas, crotons and cherry trees. The scene is close to that romanticized image Westerners have of a paradise populated by ingenues in harmony with nature.

But look closer beneath the surface. The clothes on the lines are slightly grey and faded and have the odd hole in them. Those smiling farmers on their way to market cannot get a decent price for their produce. Plantains and cassava sell for $10 a pound, eddoes for not much more and don't bother going to the stelling unless you have an order. It won't sell. The once vibrant copra industry is moribund since world prices sank a few years ago and the oil mill at Charity stopped buying.

There is no electricity past Judge's creek, the border of Charity. And the only running water is the river's perpetual ebb and flow.

Look closer. Some of those smiling children are thin and have scabs on their skin. As they grow older many parents don't have money to send them to the secondary school on the Essequibo coast because it costs too much to commute. And anyway as soon as they are old enough it is time to start working on the farms most families own. Or they enter an industry that supplies much of Guyana's nibbi furniture and craftwork. The furniture in particular is exported to Trinidad, Barbados, and other Caribbean islands where it fetches high prices for its design and quality of craftsmanship.

In Siriki and Abrams Creek, two villages ten miles up river from Charity there are thirty or more families busy weaving living-room sets, picnic baskets, wide-brimmed hats and rocking chairs. This has been a tradition in the area for two generations. But it is now under threat from the rising cost of materials and rock-bottom prices for what are carefully crafted and unique items.

The craftspeople most of whom are East Indian and Amerindian need two main types of material - nibbi and kofa. Both are parasitic vines that hang from trees further up the Pomeroon river and in other interior locations. Kofa which is far more prolific is a thick hard vine varying in diameter from a quarter inch to over an inch. This is used to build the frames on which the weaving is done and for trimming the edges. Once the wood is soaked in water it can be bent to make curved corners or arches such as for headboards. Nibbi is a much finer vine and grows to lengths of 25 ft. It takes much longer to grow - up to eight years. The craftsmen first peel the bark away and after soaking the vine split it into flat strips for weaving. The cupa also has to be made uniformly round and smooth, so all in all it is a laborious, time-consuming process even before the actual making of the furniture can begin.

These two materials are provided by local Amerindians who go far up river to get supplies. They often have to walk for days deep into the jungle before dragging out the bundles. It is dangerous work which requires climbing trees to cut the kofa vines and it is becoming more difficult as supplies of good quality nibbi become harder to find. The vine is still plentiful but each time the Amerindians have to travel further and further to collect it. As such the price has increased considerably over the last few years. A bundle of 100 lengths of good quality nibbi now costs $1300-$1500 compared to $800 two years ago. Kofa sells from $25 to $40 for a 14 foot length depending on the width.

John is soaking some lengths of cupa by his landing and looks up a little warily as the boat approaches. He and his wife Chandrapattie have been busy all week making a popular living room set called 'Bombay.' This four-piece set consists of a three-seat sofa, two armchairs and a coffee table. The style is rounded with generous armrests. The sort of thing you might see in a luxury hotel in the Caribbean and with a thick cushion it is perfect for dozing away a Sunday afternoon. Under their workshop thatched with troolie leaves, their two workers are busy putting the finishing touches to the pieces, puttying over the small tacks and making repairs to any flaws in the weaving. Like John, Chandrapattie's parents were also weavers and when the two married they effectively joined forces. A boat arrives driven by an Amerindian man and a small boy sitting on bundles of kofa. The man unloads the material onto the shore before chatting with John. Despite the increase in prices there is no animosity between the weavers and the Amerindians. The weavers understand how hard fetching the material can be.

It takes two people, working eight to ten hours a day, one week to finish a Bombay set. They need four bundles of nibbi which costs at least $4800. Then they need roughly 150 lengths of kofa around $5000, five pounds of tacks ($500) and plyboard or wood for the seats ($2000). Total cost for materials is $12,300. John is selling the Bombay set for $30,000 but it usually sells for as little as $21,000 to $25,000. He has two helpers putting finishing touches on the furniture and he contracted out the weaving to a nearby family. All this increases expenses and in the end their profit is minimal. And work does not come every week so their income is probably close to the minimum wage for a job that is highly skilled.

This same Bombay set might be shipped to Georgetown and will sell for upwards of $50,000. If it goes to one of the islands it would fetch over $100,000. Creations Craft on Water street sells a comparable collection for $63,000. Elvis Dias, the manager, says the cost of transporting furniture from the Pomeroon is high and the business has to finance the purchase until the product sells which might take months. He does not believe the weavers are being exploited saying, "I pay whatever they charge...They give us their price." And he showed an invoice for a five-piece set for $45,000.

Herman Rodrigues is eighty years old and lives in a little shack just off the river bank. The dog in the dusty yard is too busy scratching himself with his hind leg to look up as we come ashore, but three little half naked children peer from a nearby home. A chicken patrols the weeds looking for something to peck. Herman and his wife Jane both have cataracts which give their eyes a misted over watery look as if they are about to burst out crying. She is rake thin in the way some old people become as if food did not matter any more. She sits silently in a cloth hammock in a blue dress that has seen better days. Herman leans back on the railing of his steps in a pair of old shorts. He has been making craft since 1963 and has little to show for it but his pension and a one-room house. He claims to have invented the peaked cap, a sort of wicker baseball cap once popular with farmers. That was when business was good and he could get a decent price for his work. Nowadays he says he gets $100 for such a cap and $150 for a woven rimmed hat. The most he can make in a day if he really works hard is four. Wall pockets sell for $75 each - about the price of a soft drink. Deducting for the cost of the material Herman says he might make $400 a day. He points to a bookcase he built for a customer who never came back. This happens often up here. People order something and then either don't show up or say it was not quite what they wanted so refuse to pay for it.

In Abrams Creek Theodore Rambarran is lying in his hammock watching the afternoon pass on down the river. He has just finished making an order of picnic baskets. Stacked up in the corner are a set of children's rocking chairs. Theodore who is 57 is originally from Reliance on the Essequibo coast but has been weaving in the river for the last forty years. He says to make a picnic basket which takes about half a day it costs about $470 in materials and he sells a basket for $600-$800 depending on the size. The rocking chair sells for $1000. Herman says the only way to make money is to make large quantities - a kind of mass production. He has his teenage son helping him and his wife also pitches in. It's a family affair and once the order is there they work all day and often into the night to get it finished as fast as they can. "This work don't have any time." When it's all over and they have got paid he might go to the local shop and buy a half of rum for his friends.

Nibbi caps and hats sell in Georgetown from $400 to $1500. Colin Maloney of Colin's Crafts and Things at the Stelling View market says the craftspeople are making money. He says the prices are higher than those the people are claiming and they can produce more in a day than they say. He says he buys caps and hats from $200 to $400. And the weavers are not saying how they take an advance and then use it to make something for someone else. Colin sells the same picnic baskets for $1500. At F Gibson Craft Shop in the Hibiscus Plaza complex outside the Post Office a similar basket sells for $2000. A sign advertises genuine nibbi crafts from the Pomeroon. But the lady there says she does not buy directly from the area but gets merchandise from middlemen. Elvis Dias also says he buys craft from middlemen. Colin says the residents have other jobs such as wildlife, farming and timber, "so this wicker is just a side business for them." He smiles and says he is helping to keep them alive in these rough times.

One may wonder why these families do not go do something more profitable. But in the Pomeroon the alternatives are limited to farming which pays worse or cutting wallaba staves or other timber work. Despite the present hardship the community is remarkably stable. While families practically all over Guyana have relatives overseas almost none of the families here have a close dependent living abroad. It's a long way to the US embassy. Many parents have however made sure that their daughters marry coastlanders.

They are afraid to say who they sell their products to in case they lose the business. Many of the craft shops in town buy products from there along with dealers from the islands who resell the furniture at exorbitant mark-ups. And sometimes the craftspeople are scammed out of money. One man says he is still owed $750,000 for a container of furniture he shipped in April. Another sold $435,000 worth of items and calculates his earnings for a month's work at perhaps $40,000.

One resident says the people in the Pomeroon are timid and too easily cowed by some outsiders who bully them into accepting any price. And when they come to collect, the buyers sometimes give them what they feel like regardless of what they have previously agreed.

But Elvis Dias of Creation Crafts says the producers he deals with are hardly timid and certainly state their wishes. He has not heard them say they are unhappy with the price they receive. The craftspeople are also their own worst enemies as they continually undercut each other to sell their products. If a neighbour is selling a Bombay set for $25,000 someone else would look to sell for $22,000.

In the early nineties the families attempted to form a cooperative that would set prices but it never got started so they scramble amongst each other for business which has been steadily declining. This is because a number of wicker factories have opened along the coast. The owners who export most of the furniture come in and buy up all the material and then hire young men from the Pomeroon to churn out the work in short order. This drives up both the cost of labour and materials.

Even taking into account the differences in prices quoted by the craftspeople and the buyers, the actual producers remain poor and underpaid for their unique knowledge and skills. Very soon the Pomeroon might see a similar exodus to those which have affected other riverain areas of Guyana as the people move in search of work. That would be a pity. For some of the beauty of traditional crafts is the way they reflect the places they come from.