On July 20, 2018, “The 20 Billion Question for Guyana” hit the New York Times. In said article, one Mr Clifford Krauss attempted to discuss the potential impact of our recent oil finds on the country. I will not address the parts of the article that delve into the impacts of oil, the parts which warn of potential mismanagement, nor even the parts which draw comparisons to other countries that have found oil in the region. These concerns raised are valid ones, and I do not think that there is any Guyanese who does not have doubts about whether or not the resource will be handled responsibly and the money will reach the people.
Instead, I wish to focus on the parts of the article dedicated to describing the country. The article opens with a punch of descriptive imagery, “Guyana is a vast, watery wilderness with only three paved highways. There are a few dirt roads between villages that sit on stilts along rivers snaking through the rain forest. Children in remote areas go to school in dugout canoes, and play naked in the muggy heat.”
Now, anyone familiar with modern day Guyana would immediately recognise that this statement was purposefully misleading. It attempts to create a caricature of this country to make the oil find that more dramatic. Understandably, people were not pleased with the way the country was described, and Mr Krauss has found his twitter subject to tweets from the angry.
One interaction, however, which I found particularly interesting, was when twitter users contested his opening sentence, in particular the bit about Guyana only having three paved roads. To this he replied that he never said roads, but instead said highways. Now, according to the United States code, the term highway and road are interchangeable. Specifically 23 USC 101: Definitions and declaration of policy, having defined the term highway as including roads, streets and parkways. However, for the purpose of discussion, let us assume that Mr. Krauss meant highways to be defined as main roads (usually connecting cities). His response is therefore meant to be interpreted as: Guyana may have more than 3 paved roads, but only 3 paved main roads. Yet this is not what will be understood by someone whose first introduction to Guyana is this article. His immediate juxtaposition of the dirt roads and villages along rivers in the rainforest lends one to believe that, outside of our three paved highways, this is all that exists.
The situation of children going to school in dugout canoes and playing naked is one of an extreme. And even though the article specifies children in “remote areas” it does very little to present what the life of a child living in a non-remote area (say Georgetown), looks like.
It truly does not give the reader an understanding of the life that most Guyanese live, and this is done deliberately. Who wants to read about a Third World country where most children go to town on the coastlands by way of regular means of transportation? Schools which manage to produce the Caribbean’s top performers year after year? This is because things like these do not fit your narrative. It does not support the idea that Guyana is a dismally poor (mentioned two separate times as being “one of the poorest countries in South America”, and once as “one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere”), which the jackpot of oil has come to save. I suppose when we are saved, those children may finally be able to afford some clothes.
The second paragraph goes on to read, “Hugging the coast are musty clapboard towns like Georgetown, the capital, which seems forgotten by time, honeycombed with canals first built by Dutch settlers and African slaves. The power grid is so unreliable that blackouts are a regular plague in the cities, while in much of the countryside there is no electricity at all.” Here, again, we see purposeful exaggeration where he diminishes cities like Georgetown to “musty, clapboard towns”, giving the reader the imagery of a town comprised of mostly wooden buildings (of a particular style), possessing a stale or mouldy smell; whilst in reality, although Georgetown maintains some old colonial buildings, significant parts of the town have been overcome with newer architecture.
The last sentence is again also painfully misleading, as it gives no context to the reader; in this instance, the context being the percentage of the Guyanese population who live within towns and neighbouring areas. While a large part of the country may not have electricity, what percentage of the population live in these areas?
Finally, there is one other line that bothers me tremendously. It reads as follows, “A vast majority of college-educated youths emigrate to the United States or Canada, while those who stay behind experience high rates of HIV infection, crime and suicide.” I suppose by simply existing in Guyana I should personally experience HIV infection, crime and suicide?
Yes, Guyana has social issues, but to paint the country with such a broad brush, to say that anyone who remains in the country remains to experience these things, is just careless reporting. It does not address the fact that a large part of the reason why HIV infection is so high is due to education, and that certain groups are more vulnerable than others (perhaps because if it had mentioned this nuance, one would see that college educated youths are part of the least at-risk).
Perhaps the experience he meant is second hand experience, but even so, the purpose of the sentence is simply to bring up social ails within Guyana. Not once is time taken to explain the things that Guyanese enjoy about Guyana; and the mention of educated youth leaving gives the subtle inference that those who are smart enough and have the ability to leave do. Very little time is taken to address the fact that people may leave (for example, in my instance) to become better educated (in ways that UG cannot provide), or because they simply cannot reach the heights of their careers within Guyana.
For example, a budding physicist who wants to work at CERN and leaves his home in Iowa hasn’t left because conditions in Iowa are unbearable, but simply because, for his career, CERN is the best place to be.
This article struck a wrong cord with many Guyanese, and we must be vigilant in portraying an accurate image of our country to the rest of the world. Prior to this, Guyana’s calling card has been Jones Town. We are in the public eye now, and we must ensure that we present a favourable image of our country (whilst not ignoring legitimate issues we may have).