Makushi women affirming their culture in words & pictures

Woman's-eye View
by Vanda Radzik
Stabroek News
December 3, 2000

"Makusipe Komanto Iseru" which roughly translates as "Sustaining Makushi culture & lifestyles" is the name of a process, a project, a book, and a series of bi-lingual booklets and a collection of exquisite hand-made embroideries. The women who are the producers of these products live in the vicinity of the foothills of the Pakaraima Mountains, the Iwokrama Forest, the upper Essequibo and Rupununi rivers and the North Rupununi savannahs. All of the indices and measurements used to quantify and measure quality of life describe these women as the "poorest of the poor". The 1999 Poverty Survey indicates that while there has been an overall reduction in poverty in the country as a whole, 95 per cent of the people in Regions 8 & 9 live in "absolute" poverty. Studies also show that less than 1 per cent of the Amerindians have received tertiary education.

So, in terms of material assets and spending power and consumption patterns, the Makushi, Patamona, Wapishana and Wai Wai living in Regions 8 and 9, as well as other Amerindian women in other regions are stamped as amongst the poorest of the poor in Guyana today. But this is only a partial truth. What is undeniably rich and potentially enriching is their age-old knowledge, use and management of the plants and animals which has guaranteed their survival and sustained themselves and their environment for centuries.

Take for instance the brilliance of the cassava processing technology which transforms the cyanide poison in bitter cassava into edible and nourishing products and is without compare. The research report compiled by the Makushi Research Unit and published in their book lists over 120 cultivars of cassava - types of cassava that they can distinguish and name in a single farm.

This emerging organisation, the Makushi Research Unit (MRU) currently made up of 10 women and one man, in its modest and genuine way, has demonstrated the importance of developing Amerindian knowledge-based institutions that are owned and operated by the people themselves primarily for the purpose of ensuring the survival and transferal of such knowledge to future generations. In this case, the MRU has pioneered a series of bi-lingual booklets on topics such as cassava, birds, fishes produced as low-cost/affordable texts with simple black & white illustrations mostly produced by the youth from the villages in the North Rupununi. The Ministry of Education has recently given the go-ahead for these booklets to be tested in the Makushi-speaking primary schools as a small-scale project to pilot bi-lingual environmental education targeting hinterland primary schools.

The agencies currently supporting this venture are CIDA and Iwokrama as well as the Guyana Book Foundation, and The North Rupununi District Development Board. The first phase of training and research of the core team was carried out by Iwokrama in collaboration with the Amerindian Research Unit of UG with financial support from the Global Environment Facility channelled through the UNDP.

The way forward for the MRU is exciting, with community-based consultancies on crabwood oil research and diet and nutrition in the offing. Recently, the MRU helped select a number of Indigenous Skills experts from within their communities to conduct an apprenticeship course for Forest Rangers (most of whom are from Region 9) that would document the making of a canoe, weaving cassava-work implements and other baskets, traditional hunting & fishing techniques, traditional pottery-making. Future plans and possibilities include the MRU being part of an Indigenous Expert consortium that would mount and offer courses in their respective regions for students and other interested persons and help develop and encourage other language and culture-based Amerindian groups to do likewise.

Ensuring that the fruits of their knowledge and the rights to benefit from such are protected is a critical issue, and the foundation stone for the positive and equitable development of traditional knowledge-based industries. Guyana has no Intellectual Property Rights legislation at present - and this is rather urgently required in the interests of all Guyanese, including our Indigenous Peoples and their specialized areas of knowledge. The MRU's book-based products are copyrighted in their name in conjunction with their umbrella organisation - the NRDDB. This copyright and the legal deposit of their products with the National Library and UG gives them the rights over the material in the publications and guarantees that all monies earned from sales of these books and booklets accrues back to their organisation and account. They can then decide how to use or otherwise invest the funds.

A soon to be released story book written for the child in each of us by the Makushi Research Unit re-tells the stories of culture heroes, magic worms and more that gave rise to the meaning and naming of the Iwokrama mountains. This has also been transcribed into Makushi and is colourfully illustrated by a young artist from Annai. Put this down on your Christmas list to buy!!

It is of considerable significance that recommendations tabled in both the Constitution Reform Commission as well as the proposed National Development Strategy highlight the fundamental value of language and its link to conserving culture with specific reference to our Indigenous Peoples. The pioneering of texts like these in schools will concretely demonstrate the value and purpose of language preservation and transcription, and will serve as a good baseline for re-evaluating school curricula with a view to giving Amerindian culture and lifestyles contemporary significance and current value in the building of our nation as a whole. It's about time that we put paid to the notion that Amerindians are museum pieces and belong to the category of ancient history. They are very much part and parcel of our modern world and have borne the brunt of the double-edged sword of "development" from the north - not least of which has been the consequence of exploitation and slavery followed by marginalisation and poverty.

Amerindians in Guyana today, are amongst the leading lights in community-based civil society organisations, women's revolving funds, and innovative and affirmative cultural products and merchandise and in Indigenous rights representation and environmental resource/management pilot projects.

Just look at the quality of detail and texture and information that the embroideries reproduced here display? These extraordinary pieces of work are labours of love -- stitching together the fabric of these women's lives so rich in heritage and tradition and skill. These "culture pictures" speak volumes for establishing patterns and frames of reference for sustainable livelihoods that serve as windows of opportunity for Amerindian women and men everywhere in Guyana. Future embroidery projects under discussion are print reproductions of the "culture pictures" as calendars, cards, notepaper and other types of products which would, of course, be made from recycled or other types of environmentally-friendly paper. Some of the women are also experimenting with framing these pieces themselves.

Red Thread Women's Collective through Joan Griffith transferred their embroidery skills and culture pictures project to Makushi women groups in the North Rupununi, and this coastlander-hinterland women's development partnership was a very positive thing.

The work of Janette Forte, arguably Guyana's leading anthropologist of the day and former head of the Amerindian Research Unit has trained the core group of the Makushi researchers in research skills and techniques and generally mentored the Makushi Research Unit.

Woman's Eye View Honour Roll

* Honourable Mentions: Joan Griffith & Janette Forte
* Badge of Honour: The Makushi Research Unit & The Makusipe Komanto Iseru Embroiderers

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