Wakenaam: An island of cycles and motorcycles Achal Prabhala
Stabroek News
June 23, 2002

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Wakenaam sits in the mouth of the Essequibo river, and is one of the three large islands there. The Dutch first occupied this island in the eighteenth century, and their legacy is visible in the names of some of the villages. Farming is still the main occupation on this island with a population of roughly 13,000. Small-scale farmers grow fruits and provisions, while the larger-scale farmers grow rice and coconuts.

Wakenaam is roughly 17 1/2 square miles in area. Its populated villages are: Good Success, Sans Souci, Melville, Belle Plaine and Sarah. Less populated are the villages of Maria's Pleasure, Zeelandia, Friendship, Bank Hall, Meerzorg, Caledonia, Free and Easy, Arthurville, Palmyra, Maria Johanna, Domburg, Fredericksburg, Noitgedacht, Rush Brook and Ridge.

While most of the island's population (about 75%) is of East Indian descent, there are several villages which are peopled by those of African descent. Within the East Indian community, it seems that Christianity is more the norm than Hinduism or Islam, though the landscape is dotted by the presence of a few mosques and mandirs, in addition to the many Christian churches of all denominations.

While agriculture and farming are the mainstay for the majority of Wakenaam's population, there are a few engaged in business and commerce, particularly around the areas near the stelling, in the villages of Sans Souci and Melville. While there is no established market, trucks ship out goods to people in the interior of the island on a regular basis, and shops near the deck sell a variety of consumer goods.

A common complaint is the exorbitant price of goods and commodities. The citizens of Wakenaam complain that as they live on an island, and depend on transport to bring anything in, it is very expensive to shop locally. The cost of transport being high, it is factored in to the prices of essential goods, and makes it difficult to subsist. Yet, they complain, that shipping on government steamers and ships makes little sense as it is even more expensive than the private system, and also harder to get space on.

Similarly, transport within the island is difficult. When it is available - which is rarely - it is much too expensive to use on a regular basis. A resident of Noitgedacht complains that a two-mile ride to the hospital would cost about $800 by minibus, an exorbitantly high price to pay by any Guyanese standards. Consequently, education becomes a problem, when children find it difficult to get to school, having to dodge the ditches on the road, and brave the rain.

A slow success: schooling in Wakenaam

The only secondary school in the island of Wakenaam is buzzing with activity. It is 8:00am in the morning, and students are furiously cycling in. The headmaster arrives in a car, with bundles of test papers. A bell rings, and classes convene. The noise subsides.

Jaidat Persaud, the headmaster of the school, located in Sans Souci, is pleased with the way things have turned out. Established in 1970, the Essequibo Islands Secondary School now churns out up to 70 graduates a year. Apart from Wakenaam, the school also serves students from the 'feeder' islands close by. Persaud feels that as a result, the school's resources are stretched and he is able to take in far too few students, indicated by the fact that the whole island of Wakenaam has as many as six primary schools.

Yet, he is proud of its recent successes, like, for instance, being adjudged the best school in Region 3 (West Demerara/ Essequibo) for an average of 85% marks in the CXC examinations, in 2001. The school regularly participates in sports tournaments, travelling into Georgetown and beyond to compete in such sports as soccer, tennis and cricket. Education and career patterns, he says, are most often shaped by the parents of his students, who are usually coconut or rice farmers. He notes that there is a serious desire in people to better themselves, but understands that some students - who do not find academics easy - would want to opt out of school (at some stage) due to the difficulty of the situation (reaching the school, staying there, affording the clothes and time).

Persaud says that out of 70 students who leave each year, only 20 will move on to a graduate degree at the University of Guyana. The remainder will opt for non-university training, at technical institutes and colleges, or directly enter the job market. Like other small places, Wakenaam too sees its fair share of migration. Most people leave for Georgetown, and this is understandable, Persaud says, given the opportunities available there, against the limited economic output of an island like Wakenaam.

The success of this secondary school is matched off against the crumbling, dilapidated structure of the primary school at Maria's Pleasure. Parents of students complain that when it rains, the school gets flooded. "There is not a single space inside the building," says a member of the community, "which remains dry." Students run around the grounds, then settle down for classes, which are all convened in one large building that has no partitions between classes. "The real problem," says a parent, "is that the Parent-Teacher Association needs to be revived. The school has to fight for its rights. We have to constantly remind people that we need help. We have no representation."

Living off the land, barely

Camille, a resident of Noitgedacht, and a single mother, runs a small provisions farm on her lot of land. Primarily, she grows fruit: plantains, bananas and cashewnuts. There are about 150 families, she says, between the two villages (Arthurville and Noitgedacht), separated by a small trench. She talks of the market, which is tough. Since she (like many farmers around) prefer to sell wholesale in places like Parika, rather than directly to consumers at home on the island, that means paying for transport to get to the coast.

Camille's plot of land measures about 600 x 36 feet. On it, she grows provision crops, but worries that the way prices are going, it may not any more be profitable to live by farming alone. She is used to the system of half-day power (in this case, from 4:00 pm to 8:00 am), and adjusts her personal and professional activities around it. She distinctly remembers her village getting electricity in 1979, and doesn't particularly suffer from the lack of running water (when there is no electricity) as she has built herself a pond, plus a trestle, on which she keeps large amounts of water stored.

Camille talks of how she has been "blessed by good health." Neither she, nor her children, have ever been to hospital with a serious problem. The doctor from the one hospital on the island (in the central, populated area around Sans Souci) comes around there at least once a month. Plus, there is a small Outdoor Clinic in Noitgedacht, which serves basic medical needs. All the treatment, including the drugs, is free of cost.

'Oscar' Indar Binda is a retired farmer, who started life as a labourer on other people's farms. Binda used to climb coconut trees to pick the fruit. He has reared eight children here, five sons and three daughters. His family returns every now and then to see him, he says, as he relaxes on the front steps of his wooden home. Yuvraj Binda, his youngest son, smilingly talks of his life on Wakenaam Island. He is a carpenter, and helps contractors build homes. Of late, he isn't getting much work, due to both the economy, and the rainy weather.

The Binda family thus resorts to farming as a subsistence staple. Yet, the falling prices of fruits and vegetables have meant less money coming in from that effort. Yuvraj would like to go to Georgetown, but cannot think of how he will manage there, without the money to set him up in a stable profession, and without family contacts to support him. He can see the limited work opportunities available to him in Wakenaam, but yet, there is a fondness and love for this island that he grew up in.

"Most young people just get out of here," he says. The lack of telephones is a major drawback, especially for a freelancer like him. No one can contact him, and he has to trudge all the way to Belle Plaine (a few miles away) to make calls. It is also fairly expensive to make calls out of Wakenaam, there being only very few telephones there at all. He wishes instead, that there could exist something like a community telephone, one for every few homes, which would save him this travel, expense and discomfort.

Bill is a processor of coconut oil, in the village of Maria's Pleasure. He employs three women in his business, to cut down the coconuts, and extract their flesh. The work of producing (crude) coconut oil is intricate and hard: first, the coconut is peeled. Then, the flesh is crushed. This is left to sit in barrels overnight, after which it is boiled, to separate the oil from the husk. Bill talks of the days when he could make good money on coconuts. Now, he says, he makes as little as $500 profit on every 1000 coconuts cut. Each day, he and his team are only capable of processing about 2000 coconuts.

Bill blames the falling prices in coconut oil on unregulated imports, which did not seek to protect a domestic industry. There are other, simpler reasons, why occupations in farming - like growing rice - are not working. Either there are no kokers for rice fields, or, as in the case of the rice plantations around Maria's Pleasure, one koker, wrongly built, appropriates water away from where it should be sent, thus turning what were once rice fields, into barren grazing grounds for cattle.

Ridge: Five years on, still no roads, electricity or post

When Stabroek News last went into to the village Ridge, in 1997, plans were afoot to improve the road leading in to the village. In 2002, five years on from Cheddi Jagan's visit there, nothing has been done. The road leading in to Ridge is still not navigable by car and minibus, indeed, they refuse to go right through for fear of getting stuck. The only way to approach is by motorcycle, cycle or tractor. Postal services, which were discontinued in about 1984, have not resumed. Electricity has never touched this village. Needless to say, telephones too, do not reach this end of Wakenaam Island.

Approximately 50 families live in Ridge. Lionel, Edward and Neville are three brothers, who have lived here all their lives. They have farms, where they grow plantains and pumpkins. In their home, a huge tractor sits waiting - idly - since they have just discovered a fungus on their pumpkin crop, which prevents them from doing any further harvesting. It is possible that their entire crop has been damaged by this fungus: other farmers in the area, they say, have been similarly affected.

Edward, the eldest of the three brothers, went in to Georgetown last week, to try and sort out this problem at the National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI). They gave him some brochures relating to pumpkin farming, and advised him on what the possible medicines he could use were (Ridomil and Aliette). Edward then bought the medicines, which he says were fairly expensive, and used them on his farm. So far, there has been no improvement. When he took us into his farm, the effects of the "sick" were obvious, with pumpkins displaying the white/yellow signs of fungus rot.

Edward's family (he hesitated to divulge his last name) has been buying up land slowly, over the last two generations. Now, they own a few large pieces of farmland, where they grow pumpkins and plantains. They have lived here all their lives, and intend to continue. When asked, on whether electricity, telephone and postal services would improve their lives, they were nonchalant.

Their water problem has been solved by storing huge quantities of it in tanks and containers. The electricity problem has been overcome by buying a "stand-by", or generator. They own cellular phones. Medical help is nonexistent: in any case, Edward says, when the doctor came, all he would bring is "a little Panadol". In a sense, it seems, their lives exist in a perimeter entirely outside the sphere of government influence or action. When the residents of Ridge need to buy something, they find it easier to take the boat to Parika, rather than drive down to the more populated parts of the island.

At the Rum Shop, Nalini Singh sits waiting for customers. Her husband is a farmer, and the owner of the boat that was recently run over by a government steamer. One fisherman died in the accident, and yet, no one in Ridge has been paid anything for the accident, neither the owner of the damaged boat, nor the family of the fisherman who lost his life. Singh has a "stand-by" in her shop, which she needs to keep the refrigerator going. She says that she runs it almost all day, every day.

The Rum Shop in Ridge, like the others (there is one in every village) is doing well. Singh says that people come in regularly, and seem fairly happy with their lot. Indeed, this happiness in general, is one of the remarkable things about the people of Wakenaam. There is, it seems - at the risk of making a general statement - a placid acceptance of fate, and a cheerful resolution to go on living, that marks the life here. Singh is one of those cheerful people, who still manages to retain a strong sense of belonging, even while she talks of how agricultural produce is not selling well any more (her husband couldn't sell anything in Parika last week), how the government hasn't paid a dime towards her husband's boat, how her son stopped going to secondary school because of the bad road and how her daughter is being educated - but barely - at the primary school.

Nalini Singh was born and bred in Ridge, Wakenaam, and couldn't think of living anywhere else. When she visits her mother, on the West Coast, she says she wants to return home immediately. This is her land: and she's happy here.