My memorable tour talking about Information technology

By Makonnen Blake Hannah
Stabroek News
July 18, 2001

I have been a lot of places in my life in America and the Caribbean, but I never expected Guyana to be so fascinating.

My mom and I were invited to Guyana by the Carter Center (yes, that's Jimmy!) who sponsors the National Democratic Institute in Guyana to help develop democracy, civil society and community development. Our trip was part of a special development programme aimed specifically for children, women and indigenous people, and our job was to get people sensitized and interested in Information Technology.

After a smooth flight over lots of beautiful Caribbean islands, and stops in Barbados and Antigua, our BWIA jet landed in Georgetown early evening. Our host was Candace Ramessar, a bright, dashing, intelligent young lady who looks far too young to occupy the important job she does. But who am I to say? I am just sixteen. We can't forget to mention Rene, our driver and 'father', who took such good care of us in a comfortable Pajero all week.

Candace had organized a busy tour of activities, with visits to schools and towns in several parts of the country. We spoke to students in Linden, New Amsterdam, Corentyne and Berbice, as well as the computer students at the University of Guyana. My job was to talk technology, and I've got to admit it was a fun job.

Mom and I also met with the Minister of Education Dr. Henry Jeffrey and his senior staff. We had a good talk and arranged to stay in touch with them, especially Mrs. Evelyn Hamilton, the Chief Planning Officer. In Lethem, we spoke at a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce attended by the Minister of Local Government, Honourable Harry Persaud Nokta. We also gave a talk in Georgetown at a Public Forum on Information Technology in Developing Countries, which the NDI officials said had the largest audience of any event they had organised. That's where I met a cute little 7-year-old girl who says she uses the computer 'to check my mail' and asked me for my e-mail address. I had to smile.

Guyana's people are mostly African or East Indian, with Amerindians living in the interior. At one school we went to, 99% of the students were East Indian, and at another school 99% of them were African. Then at the Amerindian town of Lethem, the students were 99% Amerindian. Lethem was the nicest stop on our visit.

Most students in Guyana are just beginning to learn about IT. Schools are just beginning to get computers, and only a few kids have access to a computer at home. I talked to them about things they could do with computers and jobs they could get by knowing IT skills. I showed them how to build websites, and told them about connecting with kids in other countries through e-mail, ThinkQuest and Nation 1.

They all seemed very interested in what I said, and glad to hear it. I was interviewed on 4 TV programmes, and twice in the daily newspaper, and they have invited me to come back in Summer to hold technology workshops. I can't wait to get back.

Nothing was as big or as exciting as the view of the Amazon forest, the big rivers and the flat savannah grasslands below that we saw on our flight from Georgetown to the Rupununi region in the interior. We flew over the world's largest gold mine - a wide gray scar with its cyanide pool for extracting the gold ore from the rock. Our guide, Gordon Forte whose wife is an expert on Amerindian culture, told us that two years ago the cyanide pool had burst its banks and flooded the river - an ecological disaster that killed fish and people.

The two-hour flight across wide open spaces ended at the town of Lethem, which was a totally different world from any I have ever experienced. For a start, I had never met any Amerindian people before. In Lethem nearly everybody was Amerindian, even the Member of Parliament - Mrs. Shirley Melville, a very cheerful lady who was just voted in as the first Amerindian representative of her region. We had a big breakfast at her home-restaurant, then set off for the St. Ignatius School.

What a sight greeted us! Hundreds of children of all ages, eyes wide open looking at us, looking at them! What beautiful, interesting faces! We were warmly greeted with songs and dances, not traditional dances as we hoped, but different. My mom and I gave our tech talk and then we organized the students to select a team to begin building a website for their school and community. By the time we return to Guyana in August, they will have all the information we need to start work on computers we will bring with us.

Meeting the Amerindian children was a wonderful experience. They surrounded us with love and it was hard to leave at the end of our session. Afterwards, we toured the area around Lethem with Gordon. Lethem is right beside the border with Brazil, and Gordon pointed to the land on the other side of a stream and said that was Brazil. The earth in the Rupununi was red and covered with grass that feeds the cattle on the huge ranches in the region. At Lethem they grow the biggest cashew nuts I have ever seen. I picked a ripe red cashew fruit off a tree and bit into it. It tasted yummy.The women have a cottage industry processing and packaging them. There is also a shop for the women who weave hammocks in the traditional ways. They have a website that you can visit and learn about them and buy hammocks.

We drove around, seeing bright green iguanas run across the road. Gordon took us to see the home of an Amerindian woman doctor living a little way out of town. She was so surprised to see my Mom there in the middle of Guyana, as they had last met nearly 40 years before at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. Her house was beautiful -- modern, of brick and wood with its own solar generator and windmill, vegetable garden and a small river flowing by.

That night we stayed in Lethem and attended the flag-raising ceremony for Guyana's Independence. It was such a nice feeling to be in Lethem with the Amerindians celebrating such an important day in Guyana's history. There was a concert of songs and dances performed by the youths, and we finally got to see an Amerindian dance. Two girls dressed up as vaqueros danced the Rodeo Dance that is performed each year when they celebrate the region's cattle ranch life. It was so different!

The Minister of Local Government was there to give the official speech at midnight, along with MP Shirley Melville, and we stood at attention with the crowd and watched as the soldiers hoisted the red-gold-and-green Guyanese flag. The people recited the Pledge and sang the national anthem, and it was a really beautiful, moving moment.

I met some cool tech kids all over Guyana, especially at Guybernet - a cyberclub in Georgetown, where I have to mention Trevor Benn, David, Mark, Merissa and Natalie. Also got to 'big up' the students at University of Guyana. I'll never forget my trip to Guyana, the friendly people, the interesting sights and the whole new experience. I hope to return soon. This is a pioneering new world frontier. Thank you Candace Ramessar and the NDI for such an uplifting and empowering experience for everyone who participated.