PRONUNCIATION: frEHNch gee-AH-nuhns
LOCATION: French Guiana (French American Dependency)
LANGUAGE: French; Amerindian languages; Taki-Taki
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; traditional Amerindian beliefs
In 1604 French explorer Daniel de la Ravardière became the first European to arrive in what is today French Guiana. Many hardships awaited the explorers and settlers. Eventually coffee, indigo, and sugarcane were cultivated. The Jesuits, an order of Catholic priests, established several village colonies of American Indians.
In 1852, French Guiana became a penal (prison) colony. The French sent many convicts there, especially to the notorious Devil's Island. In 1855, gold was discovered, and a gold rush followed. French Guiana's status as a penal colony ended in 1940.
French Guiana ceased to be a colony and became a département (political division) of France in 1964. It is represented in the French parliament by a deputy and a senator. French Guianans are, therefore, French citizens and as such they are members of the European Community.
French Guiana, with an area of 35,135 square miles (91,000 square kilometers), is about the size of Ireland. It has an Atlantic coastline stretching 200 miles (320 kilometers) along the north and northeast. The Tumuc-Humuc Mountains run along the southern border with Brazil.
French Guiana has a very small population for its size. It has only about 100,000 permanent residents. Despite being sparsely populated, it has a colorful variety of people and cultures. The capital of French Guiana is Cayenne.
The official language of French Guiana is French. However, other languages are spoken, including a variety of American Indian languages. The black peoples speak Taki-Taki, which is based partly on English.
Children are usually given French names. Popular French boys' names are often combined, in the French manner, and become Jean Paul or Jean Pierre. Many girls have names that end in -ette, which means "little": Yvette, Suzette, Jeanette.
An important folk hero of French Guiana is Mother Anne Marie Javouhey (1779–1851), the mother superior of the St. Joseph of Cluny convent. Between 1827 and 1846, she established and guided a thriving settlement for freed slaves.
Most French Guianans are Roman Catholic. However, in the tropical forests of the interior, some American Indian peoples follow their own spiritual and religious practices. Some black peoples descended from runaway slaves also have their own religious practices. People who came to French Guiana also introduced Hinduism, Islam, and other religions into the region.
Major French holidays, as Bastille Day (July 14) and Labor Day (May 1), are celebrated. Also observed are Catholic holidays including Easter and Christmas. Carnival is celebrated for the three days preceding Lent (in February).
Children are often baptized and also enjoy their first communion, usually at the age of seven. According to Catholic custom, they receive a special name and are received into the Church. Many couples marry in church.
When a person dies, a novena , or cycle of prayers, is said according to Catholic custom, and close relatives and friends are expected to visit.
A friendly and informal greeting in the French style is Salut! ( Hello). Formal greetings include the phrase Comment allez vous? (How are you?).
People in French Guiana generally enjoy social visits and festive occasions. Family occasions are important.
French Guiana is a land of astonishing contrasts. Peoples in the jungles of Inini make do with only the basics needed for survival. Meanwhile, the French-oriented Creole population of Cayenne, the capital, lives a modern city lifestyle.
Housing in the American Indian settlements often consists of simple huts with thatched roofs. In Cayenne, there are many different housing styles. Houses are often painted in bright colors, such as light blue or yellow. Brilliant tropical flowers grow in many small gardens.
Family ties are considered very important in French Guiana. The Catholic faith of most French Guianans reinforces the importance of close-knit families. Families tended to be large in the past, but now many people have fewer children.
Western-style clothing is worn in French Guiana. Men wear shirts and trousers; women wear blouses and skirts or cotton dresses. In Cayenne, many women are quite fashion-conscious and tend to follow French styles and tastes. However, they adapt these styles to the very warm climate of their homeland.
French Guianans eat a wide variety of foods because of their many ethnic backgrounds. French Guiana is populated by settlers from both China and India, in addition to France. Seafood dishes, including shrimp, are popular, often served with rice and seasoned with spices. The hot pepper known as cayenne , used in many parts of the world, takes its name from French Guiana's capital.
French Guiana has an 80 percent literacy rate (percentage of the population able to read and write). Primary schooling has been available to most people for some time. There are high schools in Cayenne and some of the smaller towns. Schooling is modeled on the educational system of France.
Music and dance vary according to the many ethnic traditions of French Guiana. Black peoples living in the interior play music featuring drumming. In contrast, woodwind instruments have a central place in American Indian pro music. Modern influences are found in Cayenne, including French ballads, pop and rock music.
French Guiana's economy relies on the export of tropical hardwood and valuable seafood such as shrimp. Mining of bauxite and diamonds has also provided work.
The European and French space agencies are both located on the coast at Kourou. (It was from Kourou that the Ariane rocket was fired in 1996.)
Water sports are popular with many in French Guiana and include boating, swimming, and fishing. Others French Guianans enjoy soccer.
French Guianans, especially in Cayenne, enjoy going to the movies. Watching television is also a popular pastime. Young people enjoy going to discos. In Cayenne's main business areas there are now movie theaters, cafes, dance clubs, and nightclubs.
A favorite pastime is going to the beaches outside Cayenne for picnics and swimming. Families or groups of young people often spend the day there.
Crafts and folk art in French Guiana derive from black, American Indian, and even Vietnamese traditions and include textiles, pottery, and wood carving.
In spite of its legal status as a French département, some people still view French Guiana as an unofficial colony of France. Although it exports minerals, seafood, and timber, French Guiana is not economically independent. It still depends heavily on French government subsidies to maintain a degree of prosperity.
Morrison, Marion. French Guiana. Chicago: Children's Press, 1995.
World Travel Guide. French Guiana. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/gf/gen.html , 1998.