Issue 29

Playing the Right Chord in the Rupununi

By Darrin DuFord

The Takutu Bridge is a thrill for geography and geometry nerds alike. Completed in 2009, it connects Brazil to Guyana, forming the latter’s first ever connection to another country by road. It raises and twists one lane over the other to allow the former’s right-side driving to flow into the latter’s left-side driving. This topological interface exposes realities beyond differing transportation standards: Guyana is often considered an honorary Caribbean nation due to its British colonial past and its cultural ties to English-speaking islands such as Jamaica and Trinidad. And until 2009, Guyana was a virtual island itself within the South American continent.

I was sitting at a picnic table across from Sydney Allicock, pioneer of community-based tourism and community leader of the Makushi Nation, at an open-air cantina in Guyana’s Rupununi Savannah, the flatlands that spread out eastward from the Takutu Bridge. When I asked him what the bridge meant for the Makushi, the indigenous South American nation that calls the savannah home, he answered, “We should use it instead of it using us.” Some xenophobic elements within Guyana believe the bridge, paid for by Brazil to afford her faster access to the Caribbean, will skew the demographics of Guyana—and especially the Rupununi, the first region the Brazilian drivers see when driving into Guyana—converting towns along the highway into a Portuguese-speaking extension of Brazil.

The Makushi have successfully navigated through previous challenges to its culture. Before Guyana was granted independence from British colonial rule in 1966, schoolteachers from the Anglican Church whipped students with the teachers’ preferred instrument of punishment, the three-foot switch, when the children committed the offence of speaking Makushi in class.

Sydney was one of those children. “It used to happen right here,” Sydney said as he released his grip on a sweating bottle of Banks lager and pointed to the ground. “Then when you would go home, you could not tell your parents what happened, or they would whip you too. The teachers said to me, ‘That is not a language.’ I asked myself, ‘Why is it so bad?’”

Students can now speak Makushi in the classroom throughout the Rupununi without fear of a flogging. Motivated by his memories of childhood schooling, Sydney has, for the past several decades, been negotiating with the government to secure recognition and respect for the Makushi. Thanks to Sydney’s current negotiations, the Makushi have a voice in what mining projects can proceed in the Rupununi’s potentially mineral-rich territory. I wanted to know how he had accomplished this, and as if on cue, the savannah obliged with suitable ambience. An inky nightfall, the equatorial kind that arrives with the haste of a monomaniac, had hidden the overwhelming flatness of the savannah, yielding to euphoric mosquitoes pouncing upon the cantina. A lone floodlight cut sharp shadows across Sydney’s face. Under the shade of his cowboy hat, his eyes appeared tight and squinted, painting him more like a Wild West sheriff than a community activist and poet.

I imagined for a moment that utilising such an intimidating image was how the Makushi’s most well-known son had helped the nation earn respect in Guyanese society. But when his head tilted, the shadows lifted, revealing a calming, compassionate stare, hinting at how he had become a successful negotiator over the past four decades. A past toushao, or leader, of the village of Annai—a short walk from the cantina—Sydney is currently the executive director of ecotourism of Surama, the next village north. His tourism projects employ dozens of members of the local Makushi community as artisans, birding guides, cooks, maids, drivers, and farmers.

Having had recently arrived in the Rupununi on Annai’s dirt runway, I’d only just begun to learn where this nation within a nation is going. Or, rephrased with the help of anecdote, I’d just met a little-known population inside a little-known country whose continent several of my friends and acquaintances could not nail down (Africa seemed to be a popular guess).

And they are not alone. While many Westerners may not know the Makushi, the Makushi know the West. CGI superheroes, t-shirts of sweatshop pedigree, processed snacks that refuse to spoil—such influence trickles in by road, plane, and television, yet the savannah’s remoteness still serves as a natural barrier to keep such influx in check. The 9,000 Makushi in Guyana total slightly more than one percent of the country’s 770,000 inhabitants, yet sparsely populate a homeland the size of Connecticut in the landlocked southern tail of the country. Meanwhile, nine out of every ten Guyanese live huddled along the fertile coastal flatlands along the Atlantic Ocean.

Further distancing the Rupununi from the coast is the imposing ethnic legacy left behind from England’s colonial rule of Guyana, South America’s only English-speaking country. 40 percent of the population of Guyana is black—descendants of slaves who worked the coastal cane fields—and 50 percent is East Indian, descendants of indentured servants brought from India when England abolished slavery.

I asked Sydney how he began to find success in negotiation. This sent him into a childhood story: “I am the eldest of twelve children. As the eldest child, I had to cook and I had to keep order over six boys and five girls.” Two more bottles of Banks appeared in front of us, a pair of arms reaching into the floodlight’s reaches. “Depending on the crime, I had to know how much pressure to put. I cannot love one more than the other.” His words were unhurried. “I see in each of their faces, ‘I am right!’ But I had to balance it all. Because of that, I survived this long.”

I wondered how his sense of balance has guided him when reconciling a cash economy with a traditional Amerindian lifestyle of hunting and sustenance—two tracks of civilisation too often bound for a collision course. His ecotourism project in Surama blends both together. “Development happens in almost everything on earth,” he answered. “We cannot be rigid. Anything rigid can break. Change is inevitable. Today is not like a hundred years ago. For us to survive in time of much change, we need to ride the wave of time and activity.”

I had already received answers from Sydney the Role Model and Sydney the Community Leader, and now I heard from Sydney the Environmental Poet: “We are part of a circle. Each of us is one key of a keyboard. We are playing a part of a choir. As long as you’re playing the right chord, it blends into the natural setting. That is how I look at the balance of tradition and modernity.”

At the table next to us, a couple British VSO workers were discussing whatever politics and gossip came down the unpaved highway that day. Jaguars have been recently making off with cattle. Fibre optics would be coming to Annai. A visit from a Georgetown politician may or may not be in the works. But I heard nothing more when an oversized sound system, mounted on posts nearby, buzzed and crackled as it came online with the growl and grind of a dancehall reggae track. Sydney continued, undaunted. “Nature is sending a message to us,” he reflected, referring to the necessity of the eco-lodges. “Tourism helps to keep our culture alive.” It is a common concept across many Amerindian nations: if a community wishes to earn an income by showing tourists their traditional culture, their culture must be preserved so they have something to show.

For the Makushi, this includes building benabs (large, circular buildings with thatch roofs and open walls, used for community gatherings), demonstrating how to toast cashews, and making cassareep, a viscous, bittersweet flavouring sauce created by boiling down cassava juice, a staple of Amerindian cuisine in Guyana since before Europeans landed with their slaves.

At the same time, however, the money the Makushi earn from guiding tourists to sightings of tapirs and harpy eagles may draw them away from sustenance and into a life of washing machines and mortgages. Or even out of the country: the population of Guyana, the poorest country in South America, has remained steady for the past 30 years, a testament to the unrelenting tide of emigration out of Guyana.

Thus far, the wave of time and activity of which Sydney speaks seems to be delivering a more benign effect to the savannah. The cantina sat beside a general store, both establishments part of the Rock View Lodge, an ecotourism hotel opened by a British expatriate with whom Sydney often meets. The shelves and rafters of the general store held a sociological study of whatever creature comforts the people of the Rupununi currently found appealing: toy guns; Oreos; inflatable Santas; baby pants; cassareep, purchased from Annai households and poured into used rum bottles; Del Monte corn.

But to Sydney, money is just an element of the equation of tourism, not the goal. The goal of tourism is, according to Sydney, “for both parties to feel appreciated.” The rewards of mutual advantage also drive his philosophy of future mining contracts. “Everybody must benefit from what is happening. Everyone deserves the best while on this planet.” Another round of beers was pushed into our hands.

Currently, small and medium mining projects can proceed with approval of the Makushi council. For heavier deposits, the Guyanese government can claim that the project is in the best interest of the nation, and allow it. I had thought that mistrust of the government would be natural, since the wealth generated from Guyana’s substantial gold and diamond deposits elsewhere have never trickled down to the poor and unconnected. But Sydney defused such antagonism, adding without a hint of forcefulness, “If there is no trust, that defeats the purpose of why we talk at all.”

The mining subject did manage to reveal one steadfast boundary of this well-respected negotiator. “Selling land is like selling your mother.” His words had briefly sharpened, a hint of a fountain of aggression long since trained to contain itself.

But a refusal to sell does not imply a refusal to negotiate other terms. He leaned in and added, “We are aware of past and present. We have elders that can go back to the 30s, and can see the trends. We were able to survive this because we saw this coming. In this time, we need to sit and make an agreement. There has never been a better time for the Makushi to make a deal with companies.”

To illustrate his method of dialogue, he provided me with an example of a past encounter with a politician who had been sent to the Rupununi in response to an organised bloc of Makushi standing together against further encroachment of Makushi land:

Government official: “What gives you the right to organize?”

Sydney: “Do you really want me to tell you?”

Government official: “Of course. It is my job to find out.”

Sydney: “How about necessity?”




At first, I found it odd that someone other than a Makushi would be my guide for a Makushi village. Yet so new is the idea of tourism to the area that the only Rock View guide that day who was qualified to accompany me to Annai was Leon, a young Afro-Guyanese student originally from the coast.

But when Leon began demonstrating how cassava is grated on a board of nails so its juice can be extracted to make cassareep, I realised I was witnessing an extension of the passion for cassareep I had seen throughout the country. Cassareep, which Leon pronounced in Guyana’s English as “KAH-zuh-rip,” is championed by everyone I’d met from market vendors in the capital of Georgetown to attorneys of the government. Guyanese regardless of ethnic background make stews with cassareep, yet bottling companies still recognise the origins of the ingredient by marking the labels with AN AMERINDIAN FLAVORING SAUCE. The once-invisible people of the savannah have invented the required ingredient of pepperpot, a slow-cooked stew of meat—Guyana’s national dish. With a little tweaking, this stew even comes in handy for the on-the-go lifestyle. “One of my favourites is the pepperpot cheese sandwich,” Leon said.

Leon and I passed Annai’s dirt runway to reach a low knoll that cradled Annai, population 512. The walls of the houses were brick, and most of the roofs were thatched—a metaphor for how the Makushi have been straddling tradition and the West.

We entered the community centre, where I browsed the bulletin board covering the village’s recent and future events. Hand-woven frames surrounded pictures of the most recent winner of the Heritage Annai competition, a teenaged girl, commanding a microphone, wearing a tiara and a fringed, belly button-bearing top. Against a wall lay a few matapees, woven tubes used to squeeze the juice out of shredded cassava. Above them hung several poems that had won a recent talent contest, including one titled “Makushi Girl,” written in the round, neat handwriting of kids. “I am a young and talented Makushi beauty,” it began, continuing with such thoughts as “Fishing and farming is my way of life” and closing with “I am not ashamed of my life, dialect, pepperpot, and drink / living a sweet life in the Rupununi.”

Another poem read like advertising copy that hasn’t lost its innocence: “The fresh air in this beautiful Rupununi will always make you want to come back to this wonderful land of ours.” All were written in English.

Vernalene, a high-school-aged girl from the village, insisted I sign the visitor’s log. Dressed in a straight white pencil skirt and fitted top, she could have been mistaken for a Georgetown bank teller. She was learning guiding skills from Leon and walked with us. Kids in t-shirts chased a soccer ball nearby. Some wore sneakers.

I was curious to learn about the current education tracks in Annai, so Leon introduced me to Ivar, a man in his mid-50s who was laying down bricks for a snackette—the Guyanese term for a small store selling sandwiches and a few groceries—extending from his house. His moustache poked out in two thin tufts like savannah scrub. He was staying cool in the heat of the afternoon—his bare round belly hung above shorts and shoeless feet.

“I hope my English is fine,” he said as he shook my hand. English is his second language, but his speech was smooth and undulating through the distinguishing vowels of Guyanese English: “boards” for birds, “ta-EEM” for time.

“I understand you better than Georgetown taxi drivers,” I said. And it was the truth. But I was more interested in how the Makushi language has been faring, especially in school.

“The students can speak Makushi in class,” he answered matter-of-factly. Then he quickly added, “But the teaching is done in English. There are no jobs in Makushi.”

Is Makushi spoken in the house, while English is spoken outside? “Not always,” he said. “Some children can speak Makushi. Some can understand it but can’t speak it.” A black puff of smoke from a nearby cashew fire filtered past us.

And his own level of education? “Let me be frank,” he continued, “I have no education.” Then, in the next breath, “I like to read. I keep reading.” Wires of his moustache poked up from his smile.

Leon grew restless, hinting that I had kept Ivar from his construction project long enough, so for one last subject, I asked him what was the largest change he has seen in the savannah in his lifetime. “You will never find a pure Amerindian now,” he answered, gazing into the savannah. “It’s not like before.”

Walking back to the lodge, we followed a dirt track, worn into a clay-red line by motorcycle tyres. The sign at the entrance to the Rock View Lodge, along with the sign at the cantina, were the only two instances of written Makushi language I would see in the Rupununi.




Earlier that afternoon, the brief shower that had fallen on the savannah had acted out a reliable part of a December day in the Rupununi: the cashew rains. This period of short downpours in December and January owes its name to its concurrence with the area’s yearly cashew harvest. On the clammy morning of January 2, 1969, the southern Guyanese border town of Lethem had awaited the same reassuring static of pattering rain, but instead awoke to the booms of bazooka rounds blasting apart the walls of the police station. Five officers were killed.

The town’s government officials were herded into a guarded slaughterhouse. Cattle roamed freely on the airstrip that had been blockaded to prevent Guyana Defence Forces from landing. The Rupununi Uprising had begun.

Armed with the aforementioned bazooka, assorted automatic weapons, and an indeterminate blood alcohol level, a group of paranoid ranchers—whose families had owned sizeable parcels of the Rupununi Savannah for over a century—suspected that the government was going to take control of their farmland. The ranchers had decided that they were going to secede from Guyana.

But they couldn’t mount the attack alone. As the Makushi had grown dissatisfied with the government’s refusal to acknowledge Amerindian rights, a handful saw an opportunity in an alliance with the ranchers and decided to lock and load, guarding the slaughterhouse while the ranchers hunted down policemen.

Perhaps the ranchers viewed Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, as too distant to matter. Lethem is 330 miles inland from coastal Georgetown, at best a fourteen-hour journey in a 4x4 along a road only paved for the first two hours from the capital. In the wet summer months, the drive may take much longer, or may become impossible when large swathes of the savannah flood.

Georgetown was not as far away as the ranchers had thought. That afternoon, airplanes carrying Guyana Defence Force troops landed at the only airstrip in the Rupununi not blockaded by the rebels. By the next day, the GDF had smashed the rebellion. The ringleaders escaped into either Brazil or Venezuela. The GDF closed the Rupununi to outsiders for a month to allow the soldiers to burn down thatch-roof houses of the Makushi while killing dozens suspected of corroborating with the rebels. Owing to the lockdown of the area, the exact number of deaths is not known. The government still maintains that no atrocities were committed.

Despite the Makushi’s narrow role in the failed uprising, one thing became certain: the government never ignored the Makushi—or other Amerindian nations—again.




I arrived in Lethem on the same airstrip that had been commandeered over four decades earlier, the Cessna’s approach onto the strip proving uneventful since no cows obstructed the path. I was mildly surprised that this dusty outpost did not exhibit any of the sleaze normally inherent in a border town. The town of roughly 6,000 inhabitants, the largest in all of southern Guyana, was still small enough for many of its businesses to serve multiple purposes, like the handsomely hand-painted Double Wheel Meat Shop and Disco, and my hotel that sold gas and rum. As announced by a block-lettered sign, a kiosk in front of someone’s house specialised in CHICKEN and CEMENT.

Any ghostly echoes of automatic weapons rattling off at policemen had been drowned by flocks of noisy goats trotting on the dirt of the roads. The flatlands of Brazil lay across the coffee-brown Takutu River and signs reminding drivers to keep to the left side of the road were written in English and Portuguese. Duty-free shops, employed with young Makushi clerks, advertised prices of motorcycles and skinny jeans and water bottles in Brazilian reales. A Sao Paulo graffiti crew had tagged an abandoned concrete foundation. The television in the lobby of my hotel was playing Iron Man with Portuguese subtitles.

Thousands of Brazilians come into Guyana for mining and logging work in Guyana’s Western region, while others come only as far as Lethem for the duty-free shopping. But the Brazilians are not the only ones crossing the border. 15,000 Makushi live on the other side of the river in Brazil. When also counting the 600 living in nearby Venezuela, I tried to imagine the pre-colonial landscape of this Amazon floodplain that is now split between the results of three different colonial excursions.

And yet the new borders have affected the Makushi population in ways beyond having to reckon with different governments. Sydney had related to me stories of how generations ago, the Brazilians used to cross the border, take Makushi, and enslave them for labor on their coffee farms. The days of enslavement have long past, but the legacy of the raids live on in the population displacement. Today, crossing the border at anywhere but Lethem is illegal, but Sydney views the freedom of crossing at other points differently than the government. “For us, it is the norm,” he had told me the day before. “We do our business trading.” Marriages in one country may draw Makushi relatives from a bordering country. Sydney’s mother-in-law is from Brazil.

Since the story of the Makushi does not end at the border, I decided to find a taxi to carry me across the bridge before this December day’s cashew rains began to fall. As if there were any doubt I was in Guyana, my hotel’s list of local taxi drivers contained nicknames following the very Guyanese convention of one’s likes becoming one’s nickname. I could choose from Jagdeo (the name of the current president), Rasta, or Pussy. Alas, Jagdeo was busy and Pussy was busier, so I entered Rasta’s taxi, hoping for a bass-heavy Peter Tosh soundtrack to usher us over the bridge. But the ride was unexpectedly quiet. His radio was broken. Or maybe it had become too entombed in dirt. Lethem’s clay-red soil generously lined the dashboard, the clutch housing, and the creases in the seats, as if we were driving around inside a faded photo. I noticed that Rasta’s baseball cap had been white at one time.

Beside the bridge, the Brazilians also built—and paid for—a couple miles of paved road on the Guyanese side, including the necessary ribbon-like crossing of one lane under the other (the only such crossing in the Americas). Such modern infrastructure did not save me from emerging from Rasta’s taxi with red dirt on my shirt, in my hair, up my nostrils—my duty free import.

Bonfim, Brazil’s border town, stood equally as quiet and sparse as Lethem, but stretched along its straight, paved streets with curbs and streetlights adorned with Christmas wreaths and plastic Santas—an inescapable juxtaposition when crossing from South America’s poorest country to one of its wealthiest. Yet the streets felt wide open and lonely, as if Bonfim was an urban experiment that was never completed. I am reasonably certain I was the only pedestrian in town. Bonfim hardly seemed like an eager, drooling springboard of an economic invasion.

I spied several thatch-roof Makushi houses nestled, suburban-style, between shingled homes. Their backyards were scarcely large enough to raise a few chickens, yet several did just that. I wished to probe deeper into Brazil to locate a livelier settlement, but the customs officer on the Brazilian side had not stamped my passport because I had declared I was only going as far as Bonfim, and only for the day. Before I left, I ate grilled meat, sausages, and coarse farofa at an open-pit churrascaria, all while tickled by the irony that, because of the established stream of Brazilians daytripping across the border, I could have had the exact same meal in Lethem, but with more English spoken by the staff (or maybe less).

Back to Lethem, back to goats munching on fallen mangoes. Back to where an odd, intoxicating mixture of Caribbean, Indo-Guyanese, and Amerindian influence played out at the town market. Stalls burbled with the sound of refrigerators buzzing and chicken curry simmering under the chatter of Makushi cooks speaking to one another in English. A plump Afro-Guyanese woman was stacking bags of rice in her concrete stall. Outside, the parade of reggae-flavoured Christmas carols, rumbling out of open windows of passing trucks (“Dashing troo deh snow”), could not subdue the ninety-five degree heat.

The day’s cashew rain, the storm with the deceptively gentle name, darkened the sky and quickly unleashed its angst upon the savannah. After a few untamed minutes, it stopped, satisfied that it had aired whatever thoughts it needed to. Water dripped off the sun-bleached, fifty-year-old car carcasses that dotted the roadside scrub, each of the vehicles’ steering wheels on the left side, modestly illustrating that the Brazilian influence began probing southern Guyana long before the bridge existed (owing to the now defunct pontoon), all without converting southern Guyana into a new Brazilian state.



Unlike Bonfim, with its array of decorated streetlights, Lethem fell into a shapeless black at nightfall. To connect me with a bottle of Banks, I needed a cab driver to navigate the darkness. I found Josephine (alas, Guyanese nicknames normally apply to men only), who runs a grocery store in town, but also uses her pickup truck as a taxi for extra income. Her tiny figure dwarfed by the monstrous dashboard of the truck, she proceeded slowly around the curbless curves of Lethem’s roads, because her truck’s driving wheel was on the left—she had purchased the truck in Brazil.

Josephine frequently crosses the border because her father is a Brazilian Makushi. Her mother is Patamona, another of Guyana’s Amerindian nations from the south of the country. “Sadly, I cannot speak Makushi,” she said with a slight laugh, the type of laugh that impulsively arrives to deflect awkwardness. She then mentioned that she is currently taking classes to learn a second language: Portuguese.

“I’ll take you to a local place, popular with Makushi,” she said. The rumble of the Comfort Zone’s sound system reached the truck before the headlights caught its source. What used to be a house with a porch had been converted into a nightclub, with a row of motorcycles parked in front and a half dozen men yelling into one another’s ears, or at least demonstrating admirable proficiency at lip reading. The bass of a remixed dancehall version of “Karma Chameleon” made the zinc roof of the porch fart in perfect time. Bouncing around behind the mixing board, the deejay began a sort of free-association rap over the already vocally equipped songs, what some Guyanese refer to as karaoke.

The all-female, all-Makushi barmaids were busy opening beers and collecting payment for orders of lo mein and chicken wings. On the porch, a stray dog withstood an onslaught of decibels in exchange for scraps. I could not hear a word anyone was saying, but the pleasant smiles accompanying greetings told me that everyone at the Comfort Zone knew everyone else, except me.

I had not arrived fashionably late enough, because I was on my third beer when the bulk of the cars arrived, unloading thin, well-coiffed Indo-Guyanese girls in slinky black clubbing dresses; Amerindians in skin-tight tops and heels, as if ready for the throbbing undulations of the dance floors of New York City’s Webster Hall; a young Afro-Guyanese man and his Makushi girlfriend, hand in hand. An oil truck arrived, but not to make a delivery: the crew stopped by to pick up lo mein to-go and a few beers, and then hopped back into the truck, a drinking, driving, noodle-scarfing vessel of flammability cheerfully rolling off into the darkness. Boys with neat, buzzed hair… two German NGO volunteers I had met earlier… a stunted drunkard charading an undecipherable sequence of gestures… it seemed like anyone who desired a social evening in Lethem was at the Comfort Zone. But I was not entirely correct. Across the road, another house-turned-club had just fired up an even louder sound system.

A power outage equalized the contest between houses. But no barbed complaints flew. Cell phones became flashlights until power returned. Then both houses continued addressing the savannah with karaoke and distortion.

Could participating in such endeavours be considered corrosive to the Makushi? As a pair of girls dance-walked toward their boyfriends who were leaning on their motorcycles, I remembered something Sydney had mentioned to me on the subject of change. “It is more difficult to avoid it. Avoiding it is building a barrier. That’s not what life is about.”


Darrin DuFord is a seed saver, mapgazer, and jungle rodent connoisseur. His writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, BBC Travel, Gastronomica, and Perceptive Travel, among other publications. He is the author of Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, silver medallist in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards.

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