‘Your culture is your identity’

British Member of Parliament James Duddridge interacting with media operatives

The Surama Culture Group, preserving the Makushi culture in Guyana

WHEN music and culture specialist, Glendon Allicock, travelled abroad as part of the European Union En-Compass Project from 2010 to 2012, he found that the dying culture of the indigenous peoples was a phenomenon that was occurring, not only in Guyana, but in other countries as well. This observation only reconfirmed the mission that he had long since committed to in his native village of Surama in Region 9: to ensure that the culture of the Makushi (also Macushi) people of Guyana is kept alive.Together with his wife Jean, the two have for the last 20 years taught and mentored the youth of Surama village in the ways of the Makushi people through the established Surama Culture Group. Having both been brought up in the traditional ways of the Makushi Tribe, the Allicocks- both of whom are extremely passionate about their culture- felt it was their duty to impart in the younger generations the songs, dances and other practices of their people.

Jean Allicock (centre) and Glendon Allicock (third from right) and members of the Surama Culture Group in their traditional wear.
Jean Allicock (centre) and Glendon Allicock (third from right) and members of the Surama Culture Group in their traditional wear.

“Your language and your culture are your identity,” Glendon said, in an interview with The Buzz, “You cannot be who you are not. You have to be who you are and be proud of it too.” In the beginning, Glendon said that the idea to form a group surfaced when he observed that the children in the village were not speaking the Makushi Language. His first attempts, therefore, were made to teach the language to them. But due to the necessity of the English Language to earning jobs outside of the Region, the interest to learn to speak only in the Makushi tongue dwindled. “So later, we came together as a group and restructured. We thought that if we can’t have the children talking the language, we will teach them the songs and the culture,” he said.
Today, the Surama Culture Group has not only mentored scores of children from the community over the years, but now stands as one of the most popular Indigenous culture groups in the country. Apart from teaching the culture, the group has also performed the traditional dances and songs at various cultural events including Carifesta X in 2008 which was held right in Guyana, as well as the 2014 Independence Celebrations of neighbouring Brazil.
“We have learned all the traditional ways from our parents and so it is wonderful to continue to teach it to children as they come along and that keeps us going,” Glendon said proudly. He added that the partnership that he and his wife share allows them to cover a wide range of areas in teaching their culture, with the pair working together on composing songs and choreography, while Jean also assists in telling stories and teaching the children useful lessons learned about their natural surroundings.
Jean prides herself in her Makushi culture, and admits that the teachings passed on from her mother and grandparents have helped to carve her into the woman she is today. “I love when the children ask me to tell stories; it helps to keep the culture alive. All the things I did as a child like visiting the Shaman, learning about the plants, listening to the spirits that the shaman communicates with- all those things are now a plus to my life and now as a culture leader I am using those experiences to teach to the younger generation,” she said.
Jean added that her spirituality has also taught her to appreciate the negatives in her life and turn them into positive situations. “[Before I met my husband]I was a single parent and it was a difficult time for me, but I believe that if I wasn’t a single parent who had to stay here because of my obligations, I would have been abroad like my sister. But being back here I feel like this is my purpose and I feel that it has worked out for the best,” she said.
Jean boasts that she is very in tune with the environment and is well versed in reading the weather and the signs of the plants and overall being in tune with nature. “I am very grateful to have been taught these original ways by my grandparents,” she said.
The couple is also aware that they must pass the mantle on to the younger generation to continue the culture work that they have started and said that there are individual members of the group who they believe have the potential of being future culture leaders and will work with them as they get older.
Come September, which is also designated Amerindian Heritage Month in Guyana, the Surama Culture Group will launch a musical DVD of their songs and dances. This project will be the very first recording of their work and will help to ensure that there is permanency in the culture of the Makushi people in Guyana.