Godfrey Wray started working at what is now the Guyana Chronicle in the early 1960s. His career in journalism took him around the world, but nothing could prepare him for the return to Albouystown, the Georgetown ghetto he once called home. When one of my old-time buddies in New York heard that I was bitten by the remigration bug and would soon be domiciled in Georgetown, he asked me to deliver an envelope with a “small piece”
to his grandmother (Mama Muriel).
A “long yard” in Hunter Street was where my buddy and I grew up (25 years) and where his grandmother still lived. But I had not paid a social visit to anyone in the South Georgetown ward of Albouystown in almost three decades, so I accepted the assignment as a sort of penance.
One day after arriving in GT, I set out to deliver Mama Muriel’s envelope but I instructed the taxi driver to drive from Callender Street slowly westwards along James Street. The 12- block stretch which was once so sterile is now an amalgam of bread trays, closet-sized boutiques, nail polishing salons and mobile beer gardens. Young men gambled (played dice) at every street corner; music blared incessantly; and school-aged kids frolicked, parents applauding their bare-footed efforts.
I clearly remembered Albouystown (now being referred to as Al-Man-Town) for its curious mix of ethnicities, each distinct in skin tone, hair texture and cuisine; the epicenter of social deprivation that has its parallel in every capital of the world – a tough neighborhood where one had to have an overpowering reason to pay an unscheduled visit.
But the transformation I saw that day constituted the depths of hopelessness and depravity. And it is not difficult to face the blunt truth that the once proud neighborhood has been broadsided by official neglect, and the resultant carnage is now being seen in the lost generation that continues to prance and parade in flagrant ignorance.
I exited the taxi at the address I knew so well and the driver shot off, preferring not to wait for his tip. A young man wearing an enormous pair of dark glasses looked me over, and in answer to my query, said there were no dogs. As I took a closer look at his face (what was visible) I saw a road map of disaster. An old wound that must have required a dozen stitches dominated his forehead. Another, obviously inflicted not long ago, adorned his left cheek. And a bulbous nose also displayed scattered marks of violence.
He whipped off the eye-wear to peer at the name on the envelope. I saw eyes swimming in indifference but he surprised me by pointing backwards and saying, “de back house.” He moved off with an exaggerated swagger, a singlet over his shoulder and his trousers sagging and bunching at the ankles. Multi-colored underpants were prominently on display throughout the hitching exercise.
Just then a precocious half-naked girl came sprinting from the rear of the yard, delightfully sucking away on her comforting right thumb. She took my hand with the envelope and with a pleading statement/question uttered, “You must be Mr. Godfrey. We hear you come and we looking out for you since yesterday.”
It took all my resolve not to burst into laughter. However, Mama saved me the indignity. Her infectious chuckle was as tantalizing as yesteryear and she bounded down the steps with an agility that belied her age. The warm motherly hug, the coconut oil body fragrance and the bonhomie that welded poor people together…they were all there. Then she got my full attention when she said, “You look the same like when you left.”
Fibber! Fibber! But it was nice hearing those words.
The news had spread. Blinds were clandestinely being drawn and more than a dozen persons had suddenly arrived at the standpipe, in no hurry to fill buckets. Even a minacious canine had joined the burgeoning group eager to let me know of its lineage.
I stayed with Mama half-an-hour, sitting on the cleanest tread I have ever stepped on. By the time I said my goodbyes and reached the gate, I was like the Pied Piper without music.
I didn’t want to be judgmental but it was far beyond time to leave the breeding ground of despair. Poverty was indeed ingrained, having become part of the natural fabric. Proud and happy men and women I had looked up to now seemed old and sad, no longer strangers to hunger, drifting aimlessly about the fog of existence like restless ghosts. During the quarter century I lived in that very yard I had felt a close kinship to poor, yet proud people. Now seeing so many young ones squandering their lives in the ghetto fuelled a fear of what would most likely happen in the not-too-distant future.
Albouystown is now a simmering cauldron ready to blow. The narrow streets accustomed to dray carts and no-fender bicycles now accommodate the most expensive scooters, cars and SUVs – a parking lot of depreciating metal. On the other hand, the neighborhood stinks of garbage and dilapidation – everything horrible about the rot and decay of generations of accepted poverty.
The ward had always presented a contrasting two-dimensional picture of a community of enormous will and fading hopes. One could always see the older generation clinging obstinately to dignity while the younger people seemed caught up in a cyclone of hopelessness.
In the past, the area produced countless scholars and leaders, but now the paucity of children in school uniforms is testimony that education, as a symbol of hope, is no longer an imperative. Many ambitious persons have risen from humble roots to heights of power and wealth. Many have found success through a relentless work ethic. And many, first in their families to go to college, have led the way out of the quagmire that tenuously clings to those without ambition.
I flagged down a taxi with tires that had seen better days.
“Let’s move driver,” I said authoritatively.
He needed no further urging, the despair in my instruction enough motivation.
As I left the area behind, once again I noted the changes and differences. I could still feel a close kinship to the ward and its curious history, but I knew I could never live in that environment again.
(Excerpts from BEYOND REVENGE)