As I’m sure you know, Guyana is a “Developing Country”. This is defined by google as “a poor agricultural country that is seeking to become more advanced economically and socially”. This is true–I’m currently surrounded by farmland, people in my village make little money, and most people here want to improve–but it doesn’t really give the full story of what it means to be “developing”. In the US we see commercials for UNICEF with starving children, Peace Corps has huge posters with mud huts to recruit volunteers, and we hear about the pain and sadness that exists in the developing world. What’s really stood out to me while living here, is how wrong the picture of the developing world is often painted in the US. I can assure you that people here laugh and dance and sing and smile at least as much as people in other places. They face unique challenges, but overwhelmingly they live their lives–they work, they raise children, they go to church–and they live without all the tears and sadness we see advertised.
So being in a developing country doesn’t mean that everyone is starving or crying–then what is it like? The previous volunteer in my village, Alex, explained to me that Guyana isn’t 30% developed compared to the US being 100% developed. It’s more like 100% developed in some ways, 30% developed in other ways and 0% developed in still more ways. Living here I’m sometime surprised by the amenities I have, the things people talk about, how people communicate, and the familiarities of home. Then something will happen to remind me that I have left home. Here are some examples of the complexity of “development” in my village.
My host family had wifi installed on our house at the beginning of the month (yay connectivity!) and it’s slow but pretty amazing considering where we are. Unfortunately, the two generators that supply power to the entire region both died on July 8th. For 8 days we would have power for a few hours then it would go out again for two days. They supposedly got them fixed, but my portion of the region is still only getting power about every other day. Rumor has it they’re shipping a new generator in from India which won’t be here until October–but honestly who knows. Usually when we have power it’s because they’ve switched off the power in Anna Regina where most of the population is. It also is where the wifi comes from so whenever their power is out we don’t get signal even if we have power. And if our power is out we can’t run the router or tower. Sooooo moral of the story is we bought wifi the same month the power didn’t allow us to have wifi the whole month. Wifi=super developed. Power=needs improvement.
My host family also has one of those fancy curved TVs and cable with over 50 channels. Of course none of that works without electricity but the cable is interesting. The label on some of the channels says it’s DirectTV but I’m pretty sure the entire setup is pirated from Venezuela. You’ll be watching something (eg. Food Network or HBO) and the commercials will cut out and come back in with commercials in Spanish that obviously aren’t DirectTV approved. It’s great cause we get all the good channels at a low cost but it signals to Guyana’s limited intellectual property laws.
Along similar lines, is the video store at Giftland Mall in Georgetown. This mall is pretty great. It has three escalators, air conditioning, a movie theatre, and an all over American vibe. The first time I was there I felt like I could be back home until I saw the video store and laughed out loud. They have a store that sells DVDs but they’re ALL pirated. It’s not a little kiosk or back ally place–it’s a large, well light, bright store in the mall selling obviously pirated DVDs for about $0.60 each. Also, I’ve been told that the movie theatre, Caribbean Cinemas, cuts off the edges of their films (you can tell sometimes if there are subtitles) because they get pirated copies. On the bright side they have the movie theatre popcorn I crave and there’s a PizzaHut right outside so you can smuggle in pizza to enjoy during your movie. Once again I’m puzzled by how they can have a modern mall, great cable, and a huge movie theatre (pretty developed by my standards) and at the same time have all their movies/TV pirated.
You can buy almost anything in Georgetown and I can usually find what I’m looking for in my region. The American brands are expensive because they have to be imported but if you’re interested in buying Dove soap, Cheetos, Dr. Pepper, or Nutella and you have the money, you can find it. Sometimes the stuff is expired because it came in a random batch of stuff and you got the last one but usually it hits the spot when I’m missing home. So Guyana is moderately developed as far as available goods go but most people can’t actually afford these “luxury” items.
I’ve gotten tons of mail and care packages from friends and family in the US (thank you all so much!!! It’s like Christmas morning every time something comes!) and it usually takes about 3 weeks to get to me. The lady that delivers mail to my village has figured out my schedule well enough to deliver letters to wherever she thinks I’ll be (usually the clinic or home) which I think is amazing. Whenever I get a package she gives me a slip and I have to take a bus down the road a few miles to the post office to pay the import fee and pick it up. The whole process is pretty slick and I can usually get in and out of the post office faster than I could in the US. People here don’t really utilize the postal system and I often get weird looks when I talk about writing letters to people at home. Almost everyone here has family or friends living in the US or Canada. Everyone knows where New York is and sometimes they ask me if I know specific streets in Queens. I’ve been told there are more Guyanese living in New York City than in Guyana… Because of this, people are very accustomed to using WhatsApp to communicate to people outside the country and it’s common to find plastic barrels in people’s homes which once carried goods from the US. It makes me laugh that sending letters is too old school for people here because they know they can just use WhatsApp or Facebook. At the same time, most of them don’t know how to use email or how to effectively use the internet.
The volunteer before me, Alex, worked at the primary school and originally he was suppose to teach kids how to use computers. The school had just been updated so they had a room that was sealed (the roof and walls didn’t have windows or holes for air or moisture to get in), had two air conditioning units, a white board, and brand new computer desks. The only problem is that they didn’t ever get computers… He served at the school for two years and the computers have still yet to show up. Once again A+ on preparing for new computers and teacher, but F on the final project.
My host sister, Tanza, has her masters in clinical psychology. She did an online course through an American university because the university in the country doesn’t offer the program. She didn’t have a computer with easy internet connection so she did the program on her PHONE. I don’t know about you, but that amazes me. She managed to overcome all the developmental short comes of the country to get her degree and has a job she loves because of it. I should note she’s the only person living in my village with a masters degree as far as I know.
I could go on about this forever because it fascinates me and usually gives me a good laugh but I should get going on my walk. In sum, yes Guyana is a developing country. Most families in my community farm rice or grow a large garden. People are pretty poor –a community health worker makes about $400 per month working full time and this is considered a pretty good job. In general I would say that people want the country to improve–they certainly want more job opportunities and certain social norms need to change. But so many things are more modern than I could have imagined. I have running water, a flush toilet, electricity (sometimes haha), wifi, a gas stove, a fridge, a microwave, a washing machine… It just all works a little differently to make up for the shortcomings that are part of the “development”.
I couldn’t get any pictures to upload right now so you’ll just have to use your imagination 😉