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Bertina and Bernadette performed a stupendous feat. They spent a month trekking through the savannahs and Guyana’s heartland defying the odds of being harmed by numerous wild beasts. They walked by daylight and existed on wild berries, peppers and the flesh of roasted fish, which they caught by probably using traditional skills. In the cold jungle nights, they would climb trees and settle in a crock of branches hugging each other for warmth. One day, they arrived upon a clearing, which turned out to be a miners’ camp. The girls quietly walked up to the astonished pork-knockers and wished them a polite ‘Good afternoon!’
These two young ladies demonstrated a fortitude and resourcefulness way beyond their years. They calmly related their encounters with snakes and their meeting with a jaguar. The girls must have subconsciously drawn upon all the ancient survival arts known to their brave ancestors, who have explored this land for millennia. Bertina and Bernadette succeeded in an odyssey, which would cause many so-called heroes of American television survivor drama to pale into insipidness. Later that year, the Guyana Government honoured Bertina and Bernadette with well-deserved National Awards.
It is fitting that we remember the adventure of these brave girls during this month when Guyana pays homage to its aboriginal peoples, who have contributed so much in the naming of this land and to its material culture. The existence of the Amerindians did not begin when the Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus and his ‘huge burdened caravels slanted to the shore’ in the late 15th century. Like their siblings in the rest of the Americas, Guyana’s first people crossed the Bering Straits during the fourth ice age as hunter-gatherers. In the early 1980s, the late Dr Denis Williams, archaeologist and anthropologist excavated scores of skeletons and dozens of pieces of potsherds at Barabina in the North West District, where Amerindians of antiquity lived. The skeletons were later confirmed by the Smithsonian as being over 7,000 years old.
After territories in this part of the world were claimed in the name of European kingdoms and Christianity, there began the methodical decimation of the native peoples. Over the following decades of European expansionism, the indigenous peoples were enslaved and robbed of their lands and many of their priceless artifacts. Thousands died resisting enslavement, while many others were displaced. The Caribs of Saint Lucia were forced to make their way to other lands, and to this day, their descendants, the Garifunas of Belize, who appear to be black, complain bitterly of their forced exodus 200 years ago.
In the modern history of the Americas, Guyana is one of the few territories in which the population of indigenous people is on the increase. For decades, many hundreds of Amerindians have been trained as teachers, nurses, midwives, Medexes, religious and artists. We are constrained to admit that discrimination, exploitation and sexual abuse are still the lot of some Amerindians who have sought employment in urban communities. Many otherwise respectable citizens, still import Amerindian women from the hinterland to be live-in workers. These women are assumed to be naïve and unworldly, and therefore would not quibble over low pay and inhuman hours of labour. Fortunately nowadays, Aboriginals the world over are networking and making their voices heard in most councils where their concerns and aspirations are listened to respectfully and not patronisingly.
In the words of former Secretary General of the United Nations Boutros Boutros-Ghali, society must do more than just apologise for the historical wrongs indigenous peoples have faced. He admonished that tribals must be helped in taking their rightful place as full participants in the community of nations.