Immersed in Guyana

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Artifacts from the indigenous Amazonian people known as the Waiwai surround Anthropology Professor Laura Mentore as she pores over her latest research—cultural perceptions of water in light of climate change—in her office at the University of Mary Washington.

Each artifact from the villagers in the tiny South American country of Guyana has a story. The shaman’s basket contains a deer bone flute and other instruments used to heal community members; the 7-foot longbow attests to the Waiwai’s claim of making the longest bows of all the indigenous groups of Guyana; then there is the matapi, a long woven instrument that looks like a giant Chinese finger trap, which is used by women to process cassava—the main staple crop of most indigenous peoples of Amazonia.

Mentore’s roots run deep in Guyana. Her husband, George, a professor at the University of Virginia, is originally from a coastal town in the South American country and her two children, Kamina, 6, and Elka, 2, have traditional Waiwai names.

Elka learned to walk at 9 months old while visiting Guyana and Kamina has celebrated multiple birthdays with the Makushi people of Surama village—where Mentore’s study abroad program is based.

For the past 10 years, Mentore, with her family in tow, has traveled to Guyana to conduct research and in recent years she’s brought UMW and UVA students along.

“While peoples such as the Waiwai and Makushi now use Western manufactured goods, have contact with foreigners through avenues such as eco-tourism, and even have Internet access in some cases, they continue to live as true communities, with everyone being morally obligated to support and sustain their kin and neighbors. The central goal of this program is to expose my students to the fact that such a radically different way of life does still exist in the 21st century, despite what we may think about globalization,” said Mentore.

Students help collect cassava, the main staple crop of most indigenous peoples of Amazonia.

Students help collect cassava, the main staple crop of most indigenous peoples of Amazonia.

Surama Village, where Mentore takes her students for a six-week course in ethnographic research methods, is a prime example of a community striving to find a balance between its strict moral ethic and code of environmental sustainability, and increased contact with Europeans and Americans who want to see the rainforest. Men might be on an extended hunting trip one day, then attending a workshop on sustainable development the next.  Many of the women are now having to balance their time between farm work, raising their children, cooking for their families and caring for the stream of foreigners who stay at the community-built and operated Eco-Lodge.

Despite all the foreigners they encounter, the Mentore family has built up a unique relationship with the community because of the extent to which they and the students immerse themselves in community life. The villagers remember every student who visits by name; they welcome the Mentores and students with open arms, generously allowing them to observe and participate in their everyday lives.

“It’s a very face-to-face society. As soon as you come in as a stranger, they’re going to make you familiar,” said Mentore, who spends the six weeks supporting her students as they gradually acquire the skills for conducting independent research on a topic of their choice.

Charlotte Hoskins, a senior anthropology student at UMW, witnessed that simple ideology firsthand when she traveled with Mentore during the summer of 2012. Hoskins immersed herself in the women’s world of cassava production, examining its economic and aesthetic dimensions.

“Laura provided guidance, in the way she always has, carefully without impeding on generative thought while still providing some kind of movement, even if it is silence,” said Hoskins, who decided to travel to Guyana after studying Amazonian people in her anthropology classes.

The Makushi live without indoor running water. They wash clothes and hammocks by hand next to their wells, and let their children run freely throughout the savannas. Mentore laughs as she recalls washing her son Elka’s cloth diapers last summer because she could never get them as white as the Makushi women.

Mentore first became interested in Guyana as an undergraduate student at UVA. She took her first trip in 2002 to the Waiwai communities located deep in the rainforests of southern Guyana. As a graduate student at Cambridge University, she spent a year conducting fieldwork with the Waiwai. For the last seven months of that time, she was pregnant with daughter Kamina, something that has an enormous impact on her research as the women began to relate and share with her their beliefs and practices surrounding pregnancy and childbirth.

The Makishi and Waiwai recognize three main stages in life: infancy, childhood and adulthood. Four- and 5-year-olds know how to build fires and are experts with knives, but this doesn’t mean that the people are untouched by technology.

Mentore talks with a student in her office at the University of Mary Washington.

Mentore talks with a student in her office at the University of Mary Washington.

For example, some of the young people now have cell phones, which they use mainly for music. The government recently equipped most households with solar panels so they have a renewable source of electricity. The difference is in how they approach these things. The construction of the eco-lodge at Surama was a collective effort which proceeded according to the same communal work ethic that is used to clear farm grounds in the forest and build houses—groups of men doing the heavy labor while the women keep them company and support them with food and drink. And just like the traditional distribution of meat and cassava throughout the community, all proceeds from eco-tourism go directly to a community fund.

“Undergraduates really have a lot to gain from this ethnographic experience,” said Mentore, who plans to take another group of students this summer and to continue her research.

Elliot Oakley, a UVA student who traveled to Guyana with Mentore in 2012, said he developed close friendships in the village.

“The trip was rewarding as an experience with formal fieldwork, and has pushed me to apply for a Ph.D. in social anthropology returning to Amazonia,” said Oakley. “But more than that, it was a humbling and human experience that continues to provide a perspective on the balance and rhythm of my life.”

For more information on studying abroad in Guyana, visit the UMW in Guyana website.


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