The last one left
By Roxana Kawall
December 28, 2003
January 17, 1967, and a young, romantic missionary nurse arrived in a Guyana where the lights from the Independence celebrations the previous year were still up - whether in prolonged celebration or as oversight is unclear, but nonetheless, still firmly up for her arrival. Born on a farm in south central Kentucky, Doris Wall says ever since she was eight years old she had wanted to be a missionary nurse. The two words 'missionary' and 'nurse,' although not necessarily the same career, went together in her mind; were inseparable words for her.
When she was four years old, her father, a factory inspector, had migrated to the city of Cincinnati for work. However, she still lays claims to rural roots, since she says she spent every summer in Kentucky with her grandparents, who were livestock and crop farmers. Her family were regular church-goers, and she practically grew up in the Wesleyan church. Missionaries on home leave in the USA would come on speaking tours, and listening to them tell of the places where they were stationed had a great influence on the young Doris.
At the time the little girl did not know that one day roles would be reversed, and she would be the missionary on home leave, speaking of a distant land she had gone to when she was twenty-two, and where one December morning in 2003 she would wake up and find herself turned fifty-nine, having lived her life with Amerindian peoples in the interior, far from the Independence lights.
Although she had always wanted to work in the Amazon Basin, that she did end up in Guyana was fortuitous, because it was the Wesleyan Mission Board that chose the country you went to. She had, she says, taken Spanish at high school because she thought she was going to go to South America, and straight out of high school had done a Diploma in Nursing. The reason she was sent to Guyana was that at that time there was another Wesleyan nurse who had a bachelor's degree in nursing, which those sent to Africa were required to have, whereas Guyana accepted a diploma. So the other nurse was sent to Zambia, and Doris came to Guyana, happily leaving her boyfriends behind without a broken heart.
She recalls being interviewed by the Mission Board when she had been twenty-one, and being asked how she felt as a young person about being stationed in the middle of a jungle, which they somehow strangely seemed to believe would lessen her chances of marriage. "How will you cope?" the Board enquired. "I glibly answered that if God wanted me to be married, He would provide someone," she laughs. "But it wasn't a real hardship. When I was about twenty-four and would be lonely or would think of friends back home, I prayed to God: 'Don't let me love whom I can't have." And I have never had a broken heart..." she states.
A week after arriving in the newly independent Guyana, where she says everything was "new," she was sent, very excited, to Baramita - where she just did not bond. It was basically a very small Carib-speaking village at the end of an airstrip, very cut off from everywhere, with no access except by plane. The nurse would be the only medical person in the area; the next closest was at Matthew's Ridge. There she lived in a baking tin - a three-bedroomed house where even the walls were made of corrugated zinc, with a missionary family - Hubert, who was pilot as well as pastor, and Joanne Traugh, and their ten and four-year old daughters, Cathy-Sue and Shelly. The children of the missionaries just loved it there, she reports.
She describes her two years there as a training ground, although she was not very busy, because the population was low, about sixty persons, with two other communities about three miles away each - Alanka with about seventy people, and another family unit of about twenty elsewhere. There was also the Five Star gold mine about five miles away. They were very isolated and the people were mainly healthy she says. Nonetheless it was still tropical medicine in the deep end, where the only help she had were textbooks and the voice of a doctor at the other end of a radiophone to answer questions in an emergency.
At Baramita she learnt how to clean chickens, skin the leg of a deer, and bake bread in an oil drum. She also started to learn the rudiments of writing and speaking Carib, with the help of the Traughs, who luckily had attended the Summer Institute of Linguistics, or else, she laughs, she "would have been out in the field!" However, when she left Baramita after two years, she says she "left Carib behind." Only very recently the government announced plans to build an access road to Baramita, nearly thirty-seven years after her arrival there.
In the meantime, her father had had a year of anger, in which no letter from him arrived for his daughter in the jungle. Her mother, in the way of mothers, would leave Doris' letters lying around, so that he could read them secretly and save his face. Although she had a brother, her father was, Doris says, extremely angry at God because He had taken his only daughter. She relates that when people exclaimed how proud he must be of his daughter, he would reply he only wished it was theirs.
Her mother, on the other hand, she said, wrote her faithfully every single week throughout all the years. Nonetheless, she too was feeling the loss, but only just before Doris was due to leave for Guyana did her mother reveal a secret. Her mother confessed that when Doris had been a four-year old toddler, her mother had actually told God that if He wanted her daughter as a missionary, he could have her, and now it had actually happened, despite the pain, she felt she could not take it back.
At the end of one-and-a-half years, Ms Wall's service area was extended because a nurse was needed in Paramakatoi, and she started to go back and forth, luckily by plane, between Baramita in Region One and Paramakatoi in Region Eight, alternately staying one month in each village.
However, at the end of two years, the doctor at the end of the radiophone in Lethem had bad news for her. He was leaving. He summoned her to Lethem, along with another famous missionary nurse, Miriam Abbott, then stationed at Nappi, where he quickly gave them a crash course in Tropical Medicine and Obstetrics. Ms Abbott is now well- known as a Macushi expert, who has worked on translating the New Testament into the Macushi language, and has trained Macushi in Brazil as teachers of their own language. Ms Wall was never to return to Baramita from Lethem; Hubert Traugh had been bitten by a carpet labaria (fer de lance), and then had had a bad reaction to the anti-venin. The Traugh family had had to return to the US. To compound matters, it was a time of stress in the Venezuela-Guyana relationship, and the Government did not want foreigners living so close to the border.
A little earlier than had originally been intended, she was sent to Pipilipai in Region Seven, an Akawaio-speaking area, where she worked in three villages with an aggregate population of about a thousand, and where she says she was teased, because she pronounced Akawaio like a Patamonan American. She had, she says, started to learn Patamona during her visits to Paramakatoi from two teenage children of missionaries, Lonna and Linda Sayers, whose parents had been stationed five years in Pipilipai, who spoke Akawaio fluently, and were already beginning to pick up Patamona, although the parents did not really speak either language.
At Pipilipai she says she bonded. "The people liked me," she declares. There she had her own little house and not a baking tin. Waiting for her were not one but two pastors; furthermore, they were female not male; and furthermore they looked exactly alike. They were identical twins, Genevee and Evelee Mason, who further were co-pastors of the Pilgrim Holiness Church, a loose amalgamation of non-denominational individuals that merged with the Wesleyans in Guyana in 1968. "Very remarkable ladies who could repair things!" she comments. Ms Wall was to be stationed at Pipilipai for seven years. However, by 1969 to 1970, everyone else left, and she was to remain the last American Wesleyan missionary in the interior from 1970 to the present day.
After her first three years, which was the regular time of a mission contract, with an option to renew, Ms wall went to the US on what they termed in rather militaristic fashion 'furlough', but she turned it into educational leave, attending the Summer Institute of Linguistics, where she picked up credits in how to learn unwritten languages: phonetics, grammar and field methods, before returning to Guyana.
After the first four years at Pipilipai, the Department of the Interior with the Maternal and Child Health Department of the Ministry of Health started to move her around for a three-year term to wherever she was needed, which happened to be between Pipilipai and Paramakatoi. Because there were Wesleyan missions at these places, she had no objection, she says.
In 1974 she was transferred permanently to Paramakatoi by the government. "I loved it," she says. She would go on the trail from area to area, carrying vaccines in a flask herself, with a helper carrying her warishi and hammock, blanket, food, and pot to cook in.
If she stayed in a Patamona house she would borrow a bucket for washing and for carrying water, and there were usually Patamonas around to light fires. Giving vaccines, checking pregnant ladies and any sick persons, and training community health workers on the way, she would walk from Paramakatoi via Kato to Kurukabaru, a four-day round trip; from Paramakatoi to Taruka in one day and stay a couple of days; from Taruka a half-day to Monkey Mountain and stay a couple of days; then walk one-and-a-half days back to Paramakatoi. She would also walk six hours from Paramakatoi via Bamboo Creek to Tusenen, where she would stay a couple of days. The Amerindians, she says, would discipline their children by telling them she would give them an injection if they did not behave.
Over the long years, during various furloughs in the US, Ms Wall earned herself credits in advanced phonemics and grammar, and worked on Akawaio, as well as doing courses in theology, cultural and linguistic anthropology, and in literacy teaching, such as how to make primers and literacy books. She also trained as a nurse-midwife. She eventually, she says, put all her credits together, to get a BA in Anthropology from the University of Eastern Kentucky in 1989.
However, before that, when she was in the US to do midwifery, her mother was very ill, bedridden with the beginnings of congestive heart failure and rheumatic heart disease. She looked after her for three months, she says. She confesses that she was only thirty-three at the time, and asked herself: "Is this what I have to do now? Looking after my mother at thirty-three?" This, she reveals, was what the sacrifice was; to stay with her mother, not her life with the Amerindians. She reports she begged God in creole: "Give me another ten years, nuh?" Her mother greatly improved, but exactly ten years later she got a call saying her father was having heart surgery the next day. In those days, she explains, you had to go through the long process of getting tax clearance before you were allowed to leave Guyana, but miraculously, she was able to leave in twenty-four hours. "This time," she says, "I was ready for it, and spent the next five years looking after my parents in their final illness." Her father, who had made his peace with God and with her, died in 1990, and her mother in 1992. "When they needed me, God gave me back to them - as a trained nurse," she adds. "I was able to look after their problems."
Although her father had had five heart bypasses, and her mother was on oxygen, "they never had to go to a nursing home or anything like that," she claims. During this eight-year stint in the US she also received an MA in Missions and Evangelism, which she says had a high anthropology content, from Asbury Seminary, in 1994.
On her return to Guyana she was based in Georgetown at the Wesleyan Bible College in Brickdam, as an educator, not a nurse, and taught Bible courses, Church history and anthropology, going to Pipilipai and Paramakatoi during the summers. Her house in Georgetown was like a hotel during this time, she says, for Amerindians from Paramakatoi and Pipilipai, for whom she seemed to be the resident grandmother in Georgetown. She would also visit the Georgetown hospital, interpreting for Amerindian patients and helping them through the system.
After her return from a year's fund-raising speaking tour in the US, she moved back to Paramakatoi where she established a branch school of the Wesleyan Bible College, and taught thirty subjects for a three-year diploma, usually stretched out. During this time the Wesleyan Bible College building was erected there. The first class graduated in December 2002.
To Ms Wall's inseparable words 'missionary' and 'nurse' had been added another: linguist. In 1985 she had given up nursing full-time, and had started doing Bible translation into Akawaio. She would travel by boat, plane and two feet to places like Waramadong, Jawalla, Amokokopai, holding Bible translation and writers' workshops, and checking translations.
She explains that Akawaio has a difficult grammar, as does Patamona. "I don't feel myself to be fluent. In both I reached a certain level of language ability and got lazy - I didn't press on to full fluency. I regret it - it doesn't come by osmosis."
Regarding Patamona, spoken in the main in Region Eight, she says except for a song book from the sixties, and a New Testament translated in the 1960s and 1970s by Hellen Bassett, an American Wesleyan missionary and Ruth Waith, a Patamonan Amerindian, and other helpers from Paramakatoi, there were no Patamonan texts - it was otherwise a purely oral language; that is, without literacy in reading or writing.
So when Patamonans in Kurukabaru, who were also mainly without access to these two extant texts, had been trying to write songs and prayers in their own language, naturally they could not agree on how to do it. The local Roman Catholic priest therefore invited her to a workshop for them on reading and writing the language in March 2002. She says she presented the orthography used in the Bassett New Testament, which can be changed if this is revised. About sixty persons from various villages attended, and since this workshop, Ms Wall reports there has been a new interest in reading and writing Patamona. In two-and-a-half days, she says, those adults who could read and write English (which they learn at school), and who spoke their own language fluently, were reading and writing Patamona, and had even written stories at the workshop.
As an instance of the renewed interest since the Kurukabaru workshop, there is now a Newsletter in Patamona, entitled Kurukabaru Newsletter Region 8, prepared by Ronald Thomas, a Patamona of Kurukabaru, and typed by his daughter on the donated solar-powered computer in the community centre.
"Walawok 14 pe Kilichimochi kaichala iko'man sak ikkapu akai uya Tuesday yatai, Wednesday tewin wei ikanwa woton iwapak tok
uko'mamupu, Kamana po tok uya kulunkanwa mamukupu mei pula," reads one line. The translation roughly says: "A 14 year-old boy was bitten by a snake on Tuesday and he waited one day at Kamana airstrip for a plane."
It is a professionally presented news sheet with a logo at the top done in two shades of brown with something that looks like an acorn, and which is definitely something out of the computer age.
Ms Wall explains that Amerindian languages are exceedingly complicated. Patamona, for instance, has seven vowels: the five a e i o u which have Spanish sounds, and two others for which there is no equivalent sound in English, written a and u. There are nine consonants, PTKSNMLWY, and the glottal stop '. The three stops P T K are both voiced and voiceless; at the beginning of a word they are voiceless; in certain other positions in a word, for example between two vowels or after an N, P,T,K are voiced as B, D, and G respectively. N becomes NG at the end of a word or syllable, and S is pronounced CH in the presence of an I. There is no S at the end of words, so a word like Jesus is written 'Sisek,' or 'Chisek.' Guyana is written 'Kaiyana.'
The tip Ms Wall gives on mastering Patamona is to master the verbs, which is reminiscent of one's old French mistress saying: "Your verbs, girls! Your verbs!"
Unkind Patamona verbs, says Ms Wall kindly, take affixes - prefixes, suffixes and infixes - and are conjugated in two totally different ways according to the time of action. The immediate past and intermediate past and future commands have one kind of conjugation; the distant past and immediate command have another. The verbs then take different kinds of prefixes and suffixes according to the way they are conjugated. Ita = he goes; nutai = he just went; itapu = he went. Verbs are also nominalised; eg instead of the use of a phrase such as 'the one who,' the verb itself would take a suffix which would have this additional meaning. The object would be attached to the verb - but as a prefix. Verbs can also carry affixes which denote completed action, continued action, reversed action, or which can change a transitive verb to an intransitive one or vice versa. There are also lots of vowel glides, she says.
"Sometimes I sound OK, and sometimes like baby-talk, she confesses. "My own problem is with the two kinds of conjugation, in that the immediate and intermediate past are dynamic, but I work a lot in translation, which is the distant past conjugation." As regards the fluency of outsiders, she feels that the only truly fluent and bilingual ones were actually the children of the missionaries.
Doris recently returned from another speaking tour in the US and was busy packing mounds of boxes and containers with kerosene to send up to Paramakatoi. She explains that she buys food for three months at a time in Georgetown, and since she is the proud possessor of a kerosene fridge, she has co-workers who send in meat, taking it hard-frozen to the airport. There are, she says, scheduled flights, but these only go, "if there is a reason." As regards mail, she says when the plane comes, they would all go over to the little shop near the airstrip, open the mail-bag and call out names. Whoever knows the person would take the letter if they are going that way. Return mail would be put in the mail-bag or simply handed to the pilot. However, since she was away this last year, she found out that the airline company which carried the mail-bag no longer goes there; she is now wondering what ingenious means she can come to receive mail. Maybe taped to the frozen meat?
Asked what was the hardest thing about her time here, she said this was when she had to call for emergency flights, and would be waiting for a plane that didn't come. "My ears would actually get tired, because of listening so hard for a distant buzz. Even in the US I have dreamt of being on the airstrip waiting for a plane that doesn't come."
The best thing, on the other hand, she said, was delivering babies, which she described as "very satisfying." She says she has also now delivered a baby from one of these former babies she delivered, who are all now between 25-35 years, and in contact with her.
Ms Wall has yet another three-year term here, and hopes to turn the Bible school in Paramakatoi over to Guyanese leadership. She has, she says, been able to turn over all her major responsibilities, nursing, midwifery and translation to others. The Akawaio Language Preservation and Bible Translation Society is for instance continuing translation work.
"I have no regrets," she muses. "If I had my life to live over, I would do the same thing."