Return to Kurupung
By Barrington Braithwaite
December 24, 2006
Most of the shop owners I knew back in the late '70s were dead - Fernandez, Marcilline, CC Joseph, to name a few - and so were the old pork-knockers, Cash Morgan, Marius Morline and Alvin Mahaica; even Dancing Master had passed on. I could not help but notice the Brazilian presence. I was told that the Brazilians were responsible for many of the new buildings I saw. The old Kurupung was gradually passing on. I recognized that if I wanted to capture this aspect of physical history I had to do it then, so I photographed the disappearing shingle residences built some time in the 1950s/'60s, small cottages whose walls hold so many secrets, forever lost to our awareness. This was the Kurupung of the dreamers, men who believed that rivers and tributaries had spiritual guardians, men who would not enter the gold bush without their 'beena.' The night 'gaff' that stimulated the stories of the bush, and the beliefs had faded into the memories of the past. Today, satellite dishes, DVDs, TVs now occupy the Kurupung night; no longer are warishis the ideal backpacks, rather haversacks are the norm. Progress is inevitable, but progress can only have lasting depth if it's founded on the respect of its pioneering spirit.
I photographed where we used to bathe down by the Mazaruni River, and I was lucky to capture some young women washing. I couldn't help but notice the erosion of the river banks to an extent that was more than natural. 'Fine Man' indicated that the jet boats were most likely responsible for this. I did not get to see the jet boats in action, for the brief twenty-eight hours I was there they did not come. There were several reasons for this, among them the fact that the recent gold rush in that area had simmered down, the river was low and an accident in which a jet boat had sunk and a young mechanic had lost his life had occurred. Progress always has repercussions it seems.
It was decided that I should take a trip up the river to witness the process of land dredging. I've heard so much about it. In the old days - the '70s going back - there was no land dredging going on; it was all about hand work: shovels, spades and pickaxes, bend and straighten or the occasional Briggs and Straton, as Mohan reminded me in the old bush humour.
We visited the operation of Vincent McKenzie, who is from Georgetown, but his people are from the Demerara River. I joked with Vincent, who I found had the keen sense of humour common to so many of the 'gold bush' folk. Incidentally, Kurupung is not really a gold area, diamonds are the favoured mineral here.
"Town people don't 'run bush,'" I said to Vincent. He laughed and confessed that he was the first bush man of his clan. Vincent actually worked in the timber business before becoming a pork-knocker in 1981, and it has now become his calling.
One of Vincent's young employees informed me that there were still a few pork-knockers using the old system working here and there. But we all agreed that in another two or three years the pork-knocker with his shovel, bucket and small pump would be pure memory. Vincent remarked that even though the system was much easier now, the younger people would still complain, "Boss man, bring in ah excavator, meh hand tired holding this jet hose."
Vincent encouraged me to look at the new system, so guided by Mohan, David and Fine Man, I viewed the tools of the new pork-knockers - if I may still use that term for what was going on in 2005. This is the current standard system of land digging or dredging, an operation which differed vastly from the old methods, and produced far more encouraging results.
After we departed from the claim of Vincent Mckenzie, we next visited the operation of Aubrey Bishop, a miner whose understanding of the world of mining, makes what we are doing even more crucial. Aubrey, originally from Pomeroon, admitted that he was not the first from his family to enter the mining fields, although he admitted that his folks didn't discuss their bush exploits much. Aubrey Bishop who started his mining career in 1976 is full of energy and eager to take on the next challenge. Mohan informed me that he was the first Guyanese miner to his knowledge to introduce the now popular method of land dredging back in 1981.
The conversation with Aubrey also returned me to the distinctions that exist in the mining world. In Aubrey's words, "Years ago when we came in the bush we were all called pork-knockers, but we made the distinction: We were divers, the guys who used the spade shovel and mattock - they were the pork-knockers." Aubrey's geography of the villages whence the first Pork knockers hailed is also quite amazing. Aubrey thinks that Buxton, Ann's Grove, Plaisance and those villages are all situated in Berbice. Aubrey is as Guyanese as any of us, but in his mind the old pork-knockers came from Berbice, because the East Coast is all a part of the county of Berbice.
Before we left Aubrey Bishop made two points which stuck. He mentioned that this new land-mining process was not going to take a living away from the "small miner," meaning the pork-knocker. I assured him that there's always resistance to new ideas. But later I was to hear this repeated. The other was the fact that since the use of the lavadore, mining was now far more rewarding as more diamonds were to be found. The lavadore was introduced by the Brazilians. They were themselves posing a kind of cultural problem in respect of bringing the ethnic attitudes of Brazil to Guyana. The fact that the Americas were founded on the horrors of slavery and the extermination of the Indian tribes in many countries, has left a bitter legacy of racial prejudice, sometimes subtle, and Brazil is no different. The authorities in Guyana are well aware of this problem which will affect the relationship with local miners, especially the pork-knockers.
We stopped for a while at the shop of Leslie Sobers, not too far from the operation of Aubrey Bishop. I embarrassed myself there when I attempted to purchase a round of beers; for a moment I had forgotten where I was and that at Kurupung as anywhere else in the hinterland, a beer would cost from $500 up. Leslie politely rescued me and hosted the refreshments. Leslie is the prototype of the new shopowner; he had entered the bush as a lowly pork-knocker and worked himself to his present position. Leslie confessed that he was inspired by old stories of the bush, and though he had no relatives who were into pork-knocking, it was a disagreement with a close relative that brought him into the mineral-seeking world. Leslie is a young man so I asked him if he saw himself leaving the hinterland, which was a long way from his West Bank Demerara origins. He responded with a definite 'no,' and I agreed with him; why change what's working?
It was now time to move on, and as we proceeded to the river I couldn't help but notice the popular Honda ATV, a now necessary feature in the landscape of the pork-knocker world.
We arrived on the landing, and after a meal at the GGMC building in the company of Mohan and David, we headed towards the first group of men at a Brazilian shop. There I was introduced to Renvide De Luz by Mohan. Renvide is a Guyanese of Brazilian-born, naturalized Guyanese parents. He was born at Monkey Mountain, Rupununi, and entered the mining field at fourteen years old doing both pork-knocking and diving. We were speaking a few days before he celebrated his forty-fourth birthday. He has worked some thirty years in the mining industry and had no intention of trying anything else; as a matter of fact, Renvide has never given anything else a thought.
The encounter with Lear, an Islander/Guyanese who has spent over fifty years in the gold/diamond fields was an eyewitness talk on the first years of Kurupung as a formal landing, at a time when the area was shaped by men like Frederick Mahaica. Unfortunately the recorded chat with the still robust Lear was lost, but much of what was said was filled in by Clifton Jhingoree and Thomas Winfield, who's most likely the oldest pork-knocker in Kurupung.
It was Clifton Jhingoree, an old-time pork-knocker, who took me to chat with 96-year-old, Eric Thomas Winfield. He told me, "I came into the bush from Berbice in 1917, but I live at Kurupung for the last 30 years; I used to work and own claims at Apekwa, yeah."
I probed Mr Winfield a little more about his origins: "I come from Eldorado [Berbice]. I got a daughter, she gone away though." I asked both Jhingoree and Winfield about the women of the bush to lighten things up, "For there would be no gold bush had there been no women," I said, and they both agreed. Thomas had a bad right eye but the other piercing eye lit up as he recollected the memories as if they were coming alive. He smiled and slowly threw some names: "Olive Lard, Cary Harding, Trio - she gone to America - then there was 'oman like Edith Hope and Ma Grogan."
Jhingoree interrupted "Them is before me time, but ah know Trio; in me day, '50s, '60s was 'oman like Una Carrington and suh."
Thomas inserted a grim reminder that switched channels immediately. I was to hear no more about bush women from almost 80 years ago, "Dem people dead, all ah dem dead out, meh na like talk about dead people."
So we talked about Kurupung. This time it was Jhingoree who led the narrative: "It was in 1957 that Kurupung really kick off". "Yes," Thomas agreed and continued: "All this was bush, men like Bishop, Peters, old Jhingoree [Clifton's father now deceased]." Clifton threw three other pioneers into the fray, "Fred Gomes, MC Correia, the old man, he dead now, Inco Yhip and other men, Islanders too yuh know - Bajan, Saint Lucian, Trini, all bin here, nuff ah them bury here."
"Yes is de people dem wuh dead now mek Kurupung what it is."
"All dem old people gone, is only I deh fighting here."
We spoke a little about making Kurupung a village, and a little about my own grandfather, Christo Braithwaite, who was a mechanic at Issano and lived and died at Bartica, though he originated from Buxton on the East Coast. I must confess that this brief visit was too short to extract what I really wanted from these old timers.
But I had worked out a strategy of other names that I would talk to later as I was committed to leave for G/T within the next hour.
Next I spoke to Elvis Stephens from Buxton whose grandfather and beyond him had been pork-knockers. The concerns are the same; Elvis expressed with deep indignation, "Miners build Brazil, but they don't respect the pioneers here."
"Kurupung ain't got a post office," he lamented. We spoke a little on the feelings of these residents; they wanted progress, the simple amenities of communications, electricity, proper medical facilities - chants, if they had but known, which were echoed throughout Guyana. Elvis has been living in Kurupung for the last twenty years.
I spent moments with residents conversing on subjects most dear to them. I can remember the passion of Lester Fiedtkou and his wife as they lamented the lack of interest of the authorities in not making operational a generator which had already been installed. They showed me the logs left to rot on the dusty main road of the landing. All electricity is powered by private generators. Then I was taken to see a well-kept building that is supposed to house a clinic, but which has no beds or even basic accommodation for the current medex. In case of serious illness at Kurupung, the destination would be Georgetown, and the likelihood of surviving an emergency, remote. Some things have changed while some remain the same. There is many an old story with supporting graves all over the 'gold bush' which tell of serious sickness in the hinterland.
A housing scheme was proposed, but there again the location was next to the cemetery, almost in a swamp and most likely on civil aviation property, from what the residents showed me. I tend to agree with them that the location is not quite suitable. I suggested south of the airstrip, but it seems that most of Kurupung has been allotted out to one Raphael Addis, leaving no land to expand the landing into a new housing area. The present landing will have to be done with anyway because of the erosion of the river banks and the closeness of many dwellings to the river.
Kurupung now has a waste problem, and unless it is given serious attention the number of plastic bottles which can now be seen floating here and there in the proud Mazaruni River will no doubt increase. When we returned from our trip upriver, I remarked to Mohan on the neat stacks of used plastics that were boxed in, in what appeared to be a waste site on the slope leading down to the river.
The GGMC has become the official custodian of the mining township, and will have to extend its expertise to devise systems in areas which other agencies normally are mandated to deal with. To repeat the words of Elvis Stephens of Kurupung: "Man, the mines commission got fo' be interested in people, cause without people deh can't got no minerals."
I am not a medically trained person, so I can only follow the logic of residents when they voice their disapproval about the location of the newly constructed mortuary building. The contention is that against the advice of the previous medex, it was built on a slope that drains into the river. These are issues that occupy a significant part of the day-to-day concerns of residents and should not be deemed trivial.
In closing, I couldn't help but notice that some time soon one or more than one policeman is going to fall through the floor of the police station. This is the very building which I could imagine housing the post office on the ground floor. The current structure, however, is virtually falling to pieces.