The Chenapau experience

By Lakhram Bhagirat

After landing at the Kaieteur Airstrip in Region Eight and taking the approximate ten-minute trek through the Kaieteur National Park to get a glimpse of the highest single-drop waterfall in the world, one would feel complete, wouldn’t you?
What if I told you that a trip to Kaieteur Falls is not complete without visiting a remote village up the Potaro River? What if I say that seeing 741 feet of sheer magnificence cannot compare to waking up to the sweet sounds of welcoming the Holy Spirit flowing through the village while inhaling the crisp fresh air?

Canoeing along the Potaro

Well, come and join me as we go on an adventure and live the Chenapau experience.
Chenapau Village, an Amerindian settlement located some 29 miles up the Potaro River, is accessible by an approximate three-hour boat ride, depending on how fast your boat moves. The village is divided into four zones, and according to Toshao Edward Mc Garrell, it is the best place to live, or escape from the everyday hassles of city life.
You see, in this remote village, there are no cellphone signals, television stations, radio access, internet access, potable water or electricity. So this is the ideal place for a ‘millennial’ to detox and embrace the life that some of our parents would have lived.

The future of Chenapau

The children of Chenapau Village lead normal lives. Books are their friends, and wading through frog pond in a canoe or just taking a plunge in the river are just some of their many pastimes. The name Chenapau is a Patamona word that translates into “frog pond,” and the village would have gotten its name from the variety of frogs that inhibit the pond. One of the most popular frogs is what we refer to as the ‘mountain chicken’, and in this village it is called Chenau.

Warishi at the ready, this woman prepares to go into the farm to pull some cassava

Chenapau is a model village; everyone looks out for everyone, and there is absolutely no crime here! Hence the village has zero Police presence. Toshao Mc Garrell boasted about that, but revealed that there would be little tiffs among some villagers, none of which ever escalates into a fight. He says the community is closely knitted, and that is one reason why he enjoys living there.
Walking about the village would allow you the experience of seeing the elders getting up at the crack of dawn and raking up the leaves, preparing cassiri and making breakfast — a community affair. They would sip on calabashes full of cassiri or porridge while conversing in their native Patamona language. The youngsters would sit around and observe the elders communicate while having their input once in a while.

Because of its remote location, the delivery of education in the village is hindered by the lack of updated information, this is according to Head Teacher of Chenapau Primary School.
There was a time when the prospect of educating Chenapau’s children was bleak, but the determination of Stanley Mc Garrell changed that. Stanley is now the oldest living resident of the village, and he recalls, quite happily, how he helped to assist in the delivery of education.
“I have been living here for over 30 years, and tried to do whatever I could about educating the people of the village. And now I am seeing the fruits of it… At that time, the church used to pay the teacher, and most teachers worked for the church. Those days, for months we would not get teachers, and I filled that gap and I tried and kept the school going,” the Bartica native fondly recalled.

One of the many birds of Chenapau – the Cock-of-the-Rock

“I would tell any youngster that education is the base of good living and existence. Without a proper education you are nowhere, you are behind. I always tell the people to send their children to school, because without education you are in the background,” the 85-year-old advised.
The youths are building on that legacy by performing very well at their CSEC examinations, and going on to become productive citizens of the country. However, the road to success is not paved for the children of Chenapau; they would have to walk for two days to get to the Paramakatoi Secondary School every term, and it takes a toll on both the children and their parents.
Parents complain that the life of Mahdia and Paramakatoi would shape their children sometimes in the direction that is not in accordance with their morals and values. However, they are quite satisfied that their children are being able to gain a proper education and be able to develop themselves.

Economic struggles
Access to goods, coastlanders take for granted may be a luxury in this remote village, since airfare and other transportation costs have to be factored in when determining the final price of a particular good. That having being established, the issue of accessibility must also be factored in.
Because of its location, employment opportunities in Chenapau Village are limited to only two sectors — mining and farming. The womenfolk often take up farming as a means of providing a ‘back-up’ to the menfolk’s earnings. Most of the men work on mining dredges, and would usually ply their trade in the Blackwater – Korobrung area, since the earnings from mining are much more feasible for maintaining a family.
“There is no market for farming in this area, and we don’t get tourists here, so mining is the only way we can live,” one resident said.
About a month ago, following heavy rainfall, the village was inundated. Water rose approximately 20 feet in some areas, washed away houses, and flooded farms. “Because of the water, the cassava (was flooded) out, and now they are starting to rotten. And you know how long cassava does take to grow,” one of the women folk lamented.
The community is yet to begin rehabilitation after the flood, since the rain is continuously falling and the prospect of flooding remains. After experiencing devastating floods, then came the issue of the militarization of the Kaieteur National Park.
President David Granger ordered a military operation to combat alleged illegal mining in the KNP. Twenty-one residents from the village were rounded up and charged. However, the authorities failed to say whether those arrested were caught illegally mining, since they all claim they were working on legal mining claims. Those charges have since been dropped.
Many note on social media that the residents are the victims of corruption within the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC), to which the authorities are not paying attention. Heavy military presence in the KNP and intimidation by soldiers brandishing AK-47s brought all activities in Chenapau to a standstill.

The Chenapau Spirit
Despite the hardships, the people of Chenapau are resilient and would welcome anyone warmly and treat you as though you are family. That is the spirit of Chenapau — where you do not go hungry or uncared for.
Just for the crisp fresh air, or experiencing the frog pond, or even the boat ride up the Potaro, Chenapau is the ultimate culmination of a great visit to Kaieteur Falls. On a lighter note, you will meet Donald Trump if you visit Chenapau. (Photos by Dexter Ceres)