ALTERNATE NAMES: Guyanese
LANGUAGE: English (official); Creole patois; Hindi; Urdu
RELIGION: Hinduism; Christianity; Islam; native animism
Guyana's official name is Cooperative Republic of Guyana. It is an independent republic and a member of the British Commonwealth. It is located in the northeast corner of South America, north of Brazil and east of Venezuela. Guyana's name comes from the Amerindian (native people) word guiana, "land of waters." During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the great European colonial powers fought to claim the land for their sugarcane plantations. The region changed hands many times, mostly as a result of wars between the British and the French. After the 1815 Treaty of Vienna, it remained under British control.
Guyana became independent from Britain in 1966. Politically, the nation has moved on a steady course toward socialism since that time. Ties with the West have been strengthened since the death of its first prime minister, Forbes Burnham, in 1985.
Guyana covers 83,000 square miles (215,000 square kilometers) with a coastline that is 285 miles (459 kilometers) long. Most of the country's population of about 800,000 people live on the narrow coastal strip along the Atlantic coast. Much of this land has been reclaimed from the sea by a series of canals and dikes. Inland is a huge plateau that forms most of the country's center.
Guyana's people originally came from various parts of the British Empire. Asian Indians are the largest racial group, accounting for a little more than half of the population. They were originally brought to Guyana as indentured workers (workers contracted to work for a specific length of time) in the 1800s. They replaced Afro-Guyanan slaves when slavery was abolished in 1804. A small number of Amerindians still live in the inland forest regions. The Afro-Guyanans, about 43 percent of the population, are descendants of the African slaves who were brought to work the sugar-cane plantations. Portuguese, Chinese, Amerindians, and other Europeans make up the remainder of the population.
Guyana is the only South American country to have English as its official and principal language. But a Creole patois, a mixed-language dialect, is spoken in the country. Hindi and Urdu are also heard among older Asian Indians.
Much of Guyanan folklore springs from the religious and ethnic backgrounds of its diverse population. Hindus identify with their cultural heroes, such as Rama, Krishna, and Mahavira. In fact, many of them give their children names based on characters from the great epic stories of India.
Many Guyanan folktales are based on African traditions. They emphasize the unity between animals—including humans—and nature, and also the unity between the living and the dead.
About one-half of the population are Hindu, roughly one-fourth are Christian (Anglican or Roman Catholic), and a smaller number are Muslim. Many Guyanans of Indian descent accept baptism and membership in Christian churches but continue to participate in Hindu rituals. Traditional animistic (belief in spirits in nature) religions are still practiced by the Amerindian peoples. Some members of Christian groups also practice traditional African religions such as winti, literally meaning "wind." This traditional and secret religion of West African origin recognizes a multitude of gods and ghosts.
Holiday festivities--Hindu, Muslim, and Christian--are also recreational events in Guyana. Major holidays include Christmas (December 24), the end of Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting), and the Hindu New Year known as Phagwah (early March). Phagwah is a joyous celebration involving the energetic throwing of perfume and water. Easter Monday (March or April) is a traditional day for flying kites. On Republic Day (February 23), the president reports to the nation, and there is marching in the streets.
Baptism is common, even among Guyanans of Indian descent. Many attend Christian churches and still participate in Hindu rituals. In their homes, Hindus celebrate special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries with religious ceremonies called Pujas.
Christians as well as Hindus come from all over the country to participate in the seven-day festival, Ramayana Yajma. Brahmins, members of the Hindu religion, read and explain an epic poem called the Ramayana. This poem recounts the life of Rama, a Hindu heir who is exiled in the forest for fourteen years.
Many Afro-Guyanese couples consider themselves married without a civil license or church ceremony.
Anyone paying a visit to a friend's home is expected to call on everyone else they know in that neighborhood. Not to do so is considered extremely rude. Hospitality is very important in Guyana, and no visit is complete without the offer of a meal or snack.
Adapted from Schlabach, Joetta Handrich. Extending the Table: a World Community Cookbook. Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1991, p. 157.
Asian Indians in Guyana have not maintained the rigid caste (class) system that governs social relations in India. However, the Brahmins (a sacred caste) do retain a special religious role in their Guyanan communities. Part of this special role is to interpret their sacred scriptures.
Guyana is one of the world's poorest countries. Food shortages have created widespread malnutrition. Diseases such as beriberi and malaria have become more common as problems with sanitation have increased.
About one-fourth of the people live in the capital of Georgetown. Most people live in small villages and towns along the coast. Their houses are built of wood with tin roofs, and are built on stilts that are eight or ten feet (about three meters) off the ground to avoid damage from floods.
Family relationships differ among Guyana's different ethnic groups. The mother-and grandmother-dominated family is common among the Afro-Guyanans. The Asian Indian family is father-oriented. In the African community, bearing children out of wedlock is not viewed with disapproval. In African communities, households range from the nuclear family of parents and their children to a multigenerational extended family.
Many Asian Indian couples first live in an extended family with the husband's parents. The reason for this is a belief that it is the duty of the parents to help the young couple during the first years of marriage. After six or seven years, the son will set up his own household with his wife and children.
A skirt and blouse is the popular form of clothing for women. The sari, a traditional Indian garment, is increasing in popularity among Hindu women. Hindu men wear a type of shirt called a kurta and trousers called dhoti.
A tasty Amerindian dish, called the pepper pot, is a spicy stew that is a typical Guyanese meal. The main ingredient is cassava. Farina, a coarse gravel-like flour made from cassava, is boiled with sun-dried beef to make a dish known as tasso. It is eaten by the ranchers who live in the interior of the country.
Dal, of Asian Indian origin, is also a popular meal throughout Guyana. It is a dish of lentil beans cooked in oil, often flavored with a mixture of spices such as cinnamon, pepper, and garlic.
Children receive free, compulsory (required) education. There are also programs for preschool children. Due to economic problems, the school buildings have deteriorated, and books and supplies are limited. The literacy rate (proportion of the population able to read and write), however, is very high at 95 to 98 percent among adults. Educated Guyanans sometimes live outside of their own country, mostly in London or New York. The principal university is the University of Georgetown in the eastern part of the capital city.
Guyana still bears the imprint of its colonial heritage in the continuing value placed on European culture. The nation's Amerindian heritage is also an important element in its cultural life. Amerindian artifacts are featured in museum displays, and their culture inspires local music and painting.
Amerindian groups include the Caribs, the Arawaks, and the Warraus. One of the mysterious aspects of Guyanese culture are the hieroglyphics known as the timchri which are scattered on the rocks in the interior of the country. They have not yet been deciphered but seem to be the artifacts of an advanced civilization.
The best-known work of literature is E. R. Braithwaite's novel, To Sir With Love, about a black teacher in an all-white London secondary school. It was made into a well-known movie.
The state-controlled sugar enterprise, Guysuco, employs more Guyanans than any other industry. Asian Indians and their families control most small businesses, such as small farms and shops. Africans dominate the government sector. Hindus are entering the legal and medical professions in increasing numbers. Wages are very low and many people depend on money sent by relatives overseas to survive. Many people also work at more than one job.
The Guyanans share a love of cricket as do other English-speaking Caribbean countries. Cricket in Guyana, however, is very different from the game played in England. Cricket in Guyana reflects the country's self-esteem and can be very emotional, like the bullfight is to Spain. Guyana hosts International Test Cricket Matches in Georgetown, competing against other countries in the British Commonwealth. In the villages outside Georgetown, street cricket is played with a sponge ball and the pitch (playing field) is a coconut mat laid out in a field.
Popular culture is as mixed as the various ethnic groups who live in Guyana. Georgetown offers a wide mix of museums and art galleries. For the young people there are discos. One type of music popular throughout Guyana is "chutney," a hot, spicy mixture of traditional Hindu music and rock music. Movies play a large part in the lives of older people. Imported films from India reconnect the Hindus with their cultural roots.
Many folk arts and crafts are connected with the various Guyanese religions, such as the kite-flying and bird-song competitions on Easter Sunday and Monday.
Racial tensions between Guyana's Asian Indian and Afro-Guyanan populations have been divisive. Street crime and violence are particularly notorious in Georgetown. Community police have now been introduced into the city by the government to recover control of the streets.
Brill, M. Guyana. Chicago: Children's Press, 1994.
Chambers, Frances. Guyana. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Clio, 1989.
Gritzner, Charles F., ed. Guyana in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn. : Lerner Publications Co., 1988.
Schlabach, Joetta Handrich. Extending the Table: a World Community Cookbook. Scottdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1991.