Gunn's Strip: Guyana's most remote village

by Stephanie M. Huelster
Stabroek News
June 27, 1999

(A PhD candidate in Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin who has been researching among the Wai Wai, with the permission of the Touchau and Village Council, and the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs.)

Most Guyanese have heard of the Wai Wai. They know they are an Amerindian people and that they live somewhere in the deep south of Guyana. Many still refer to their village as 'Konashen', which was actually abandoned nearly 30 years ago in favour of two smaller villages. The first, Sheparymo, was occupied until around 1985 and the present village at Gunn's Strip has been their permanent home since that time. It has been my special privilege to have lived and worked among the Wai Wai for the past few months and this short description is merely an introduction to them at the brink of the new millenium.

Wai Wai head off to fish in a dugout on the Essequibo

The village at Gunn's Strip is situated on a bend of the Essequibo river, which allows river access to the surrounding family farms. The airstrip that brings visitors and supplies is located about 20 minutes walking distance from the village on a small patch of savannah.

Stephanie Huelster and a Wai Wai child of pre-school age

There is a village guest house for researchers, the characteristic Umana Yana - or communal meeting house, a village clinic, as well as a beautiful church and the village school, Konashen Primary. Aside from these public structures, the rest of the village comprises the houses, kitchens and work spaces of the Wai Wai and Wapishana families who make up the population of approximately 235 Amerindians. At the close of the 20th century, it is still transportation which remains the limiting factor in reaching and leaving the village. Planes are available by charter only, which is extremely expensive, while the overland joumey is long and prohibitively challenging to most non-Amerindians. For the Wai Wai this presents very real logistical problems in attempting to secure viable means of supporting their village economy, which at present relies on the harvesting of family farms, hunting and fishing at the local level.

Wahia paints a grater board with annatto juice. The Wai Wai are known across the region for their cassava grating boards, which are sought after as trading items by other Amerindian groups

While the Wai Wai people have no peers where living in this remote forested area of Guyana's hinterland is concerned, there are manufactured items they find essential to their daily lives, such as torchlight batteries (for shining on game while night hunting), ammunition, fishing tackle and gasoline for their outboard motors. All these and other requisites must be carried in, and for this reason going to Gunn's requires a great effort on the part of the visitor in terms of what has to be transported.

Such efforts are often forgotten by visitors, but never forgotten by their Wai Wai hosts. In fact, the Wai Wai themselves are also pressed to carry in items for their families and co-villagers whenever they make the long trek out of the village to an area with shops and supplies such as Lethem.

In compensation for this lack of a steady supply of manufactured goods, the surrounding forest and river provide an abundant variety of natural products which the Wai Wai depend on in daily life. They know how to live in this part of Guyana, adjusting their tasks and activities to the rhythm of tropical forest life.

These are characterized by the maintaining of farms, the making of cassava bread, starch and farine, the gathering of wild produce, the hunting of wild game and fishing in plentiful waters. Boats are made out of trees and implements from wood, vines and leaves.

Two vital social institutions also regulate the flow of daily life in this village - the primary school and the Christian Brethren Church.

All school-age children attend Konashen Primary School, which at present has an enrolment of 69. The large and pleasant building (erected with help from Youth Challenge International and Dr George P. Mentore) is in the thatched roof style characteristic of the Wai Wai and is divided inside by blackboards and benches. The headmaster, Mr Dennis Paul and the three teachers have the task of educating children in the context of a shortage of pencils and chalk.

School children playing games during recess

The dedication of the teachers is rewarded by the earnest efforts of the children, who sing the national anthem and raise the Golden Arrowhead above the school each morning. The Wai Wai Touchau, Paul Chekema is very aware of the importance of attending school, and encourages all the children in the village to attend and to learn, even adjusting the daily activities of the village to ensure the children can remain in classes. He is determined that Wai Wai children will be the educated and informed leaders of the next generation, able to participate in the growth and progress of the nation.

The Christian Brethren Church has been active among the Wai Wai since the founding of Konashen in the 1950s. It would, however, be erroneous to assume that the village is under 'missionary influence'. Today, the Wai Wai are Christians by their own choice, autonomous, with their own church elders and with services conducted in their own language. The church during these times is full of song and music, an opportunity for sharing a sense of community with the other members of the village. There is little or no crime in the village, no consumption of alcohol, no smoking of tobacco and no drug use. Both men and women feel a sense of security and can also rely on the empathetic counsel of a church elder in times of trouble.

School children playing games during recess

The Touchau of Gunn's Strip is a very special individual. Constantly concerned with the welfare of his people both within and outside the village, Paul Chekema works extremely hard in the service of his community. He is often faced with making difficult and consequential decisions for his community in relation to the outside world and he does this with very limited information and essentially in a second language, English being difficult to master even for those of us who speak it on a dally basis.

The Wai Wai have retained their traditional language and it is the language of daily life in the village. Speeches, news and church services are all in Wai Wai. The only place where Wai Wai is not the primary language is in the village school, where English prevails. Thus, most Wai Wai are bilingual, if not multilingual, since they also know a variety of Amerindian languages through the location of their families in neighbouring Trio villages in Suriname and Wai Wai villages in Brazil, as well as the Wapishana people living at Gunn's. The villagers who have spent time among the Brazilian Wai Wai also know Portuguese.

The Touchau and other Wai Wai men have made a special effort in recent months to participate in conferences and workshops outside the village which deal with Amerindian issues. The Wai Wai presented a statement regarding the boundaries of their traditional territory, the resources they depended on, their desire to maintain their language and culture and their opposition to the death penalty at one of the Constitutional Reform Commission public hearings in March of this year. They attended the first National Touchaus' Conference sponsored by the Amerindian People's Association (APA) in Lethem last month and the Touchau added his signature to the revised Touchaus' Statement issuing from that event. Paul Chekema also attended the consultation workshop of the National Biodiversity Action Plan held at the Amerindian hostel in Lethem early this month, an event sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency. At all these venues, he attempted to deal with complex issues affecting the lives of his people. He is very concemed about the impact of environmental issues such as ecotourism, mining and logging in the area his people have been occupying, using and maintaining in its present state for many years. He is opposed to tourism entering his area and especially his village.

He understands the difference between ecotourism - viewing and enjoying the natural beauty of the environment - and ethnotourism, which involves putting the daily lives of people on display for public consumption. He considers that this difference should be carefully considered by those planning to become involved in a growing tourism industry in Guyana.

Touchau Chekema would prefer to have his community involved in strengthening their handicraft market and the market for their forest products, such as Brazil nuts. To this end he is proposing, as the Wai Wai leadership has been doing for some years, that a road connecting the southern village of Karauadanawa to the Bara Bara landing on the Kuyuwini river be supported by his regional government. He has offered to provide the labour force to build this road, a distance of about 15 miles, and is asking only for the cutlasses and rations necessary to sustain the Wai Wai workers. This road has been the subject of campaign promises made to the Wai Wai during election time, a fact they do not forget. As yet, they have not been able to get the support they are asking for to construct the road.

Touchau Chekema has indicated he will begin working on the road with a group of Wai Wai workers in October of this year with or without government assistance.

Finally, I wish to say that my initial experiences among this very special group of Amerindians has made me realize how fortunate Guyana is to have them residing within their borders. When we think of the interior, a place many Guyanese have never been and may never go, we can think of the Wai Wai as living there, caring for the hinterland and ecosystems they understand so well and looking toward the coastland for brotherhood and recognition as Guyanese citizens.

A page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples