Written by: Jean Janki Samaroo
Am I Guyanese, British-Guyanese, Indo-Guyanese, South American, Canadian, Guyanese-Canadian, or some blend of these different cultures? Is my background East-Indian, West-Indian or Indo-Caribbean? What about the fact that my geographical place of birth was South America? Am I just an eclectic person— one of mixed cultural heritages?
The simple answer is that I have been influenced by a diversity of cultures from the day I was born. Whether I’m definitely one thing or the other is worth questioning but the answer that I have will be different to that of another person from the same background. Guyanese are not all the same just as Canadians are not all the same. There are variables.
"People of different religions and cultures live side by side in almost every part of the world, and most of us have overlapping identities which unite us with very different groups. We can love what we are, without hating what – and who – we are not. We can thrive in our own tradition, even as we learn from others, and come to respect their teaching —Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations
I’m the sum total of diverse circumstances and situations. It’s good to get my hands on the historical facts and data with regard to my ancestors leaving India in ships for a distant shore. However, growing up, I’m sad to admit that all I knew of my ancestors was that they arrived in British Guiana to be indentured labourers. My parents nor grandparents ever spoke of them.
“Do you know who your grand grand grand grand grand father is? Probably you don’t! If you want to know your very distant past, just look at yourself because you are the accumulated past, you are the ancient river coming from the valleys of the far past!” —Mehmet Murat ildan
When I look at myself, I’m definitely of East Indian origin. My ancestors stayed. But why they came and why they stayed are still questions I ask myself today. It’s only today that I have an appreciation of how perilous and fraught with danger their voyage was.
Their arrival may have been even more traumatic. It didn’t even occur to me how hard they worked on those sugar plantations and fields planting and harvesting rice. Whether they were duped into coming or came freely is irrelevant today. Perchance there were some adventurers among them, the fact is they came.
Though their early days were very hard, they paved the way for the “better” life that we were able to experience in Guyana. They changed the culture they came to and they were changed by it— a cross-cultural exchange you might call it. This also applies to the other groups who came.
"We inherit from our ancestors gifts so often taken for granted. Each of us contains within this inheritance of soul. We are links between the ages, containing past and present expectations, sacred memories and future promise." — Edward Sellner
The eclecticism I refer to derives from mixing and mingling with people of different ethnic races every day. Their ancestors also came from different parts of our globe. The ethnic groups to be found in Guyana were African, East Indian, Amerindian, Portuguese, Chinese, and European. As in all other countries, intermarriage resulted in “mixed” races. Personally, I think there was no better place to learn about the customs and cultures of a diverse group of people.
“We may have different religions, different languages, different colored skin, but we all belong to one human race” —Kofi Annan.
I wish I could say that this blending of cultures was totally harmonious and peaceful. However, this wasn’t the result. Ethnic tensions continue to exist between Africans and Indians up to today. When I was in primary school, there were many times I was called a “coolie” on the playground. It was a derogatory term —a put-down. Although I didn’t fully understand what it meant, it hurt my feelings.
There were also times when, as children, all racial groups would do their schoolwork, play, and have fun together at school. We would be invited to each other’s birthday parties and have a chance to visit in each other’s homes. Looking back now, I realize that the children who called each other names learned this from their parents. They wouldn’t have been this way otherwise.
Although I wasn’t familiar with the word or concept of “multiculturalism” before coming to Canada, this was, for the most part, the way Guyanese society operated. We all lived together in this one country and shared what each had to offer.
“Multicultural societies are characterized by people of different races, ethnicities, and nationalities living together in the same community. In multicultural communities, people retain, pass down, celebrate, and share their unique cultural ways of life, languages, art, traditions, and behaviors.” (thoughtco.com)
The one area in which this is truly evident relates to Guyanese cuisine. Each group that was transported to Guyana brought their own culinary skills with them. I’m happy to have been exposed to the many different kinds of foods that people brought with them— a truly eclectic mix.
“ Food is everything we are. It's an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It's inseparable from those from the get-go.” —Anthony Bourdain
We came home from school for lunch every day and my father came home from work. My mother prepared the food and was assisted by the maid. Our maid was from the “countryside” and she knew how to cook Indian food the right way. She prepared our Indian food. She didn’t know how to cook many other dishes. Lunch was the main meal of the day. We sat and ate together and our meals consisted of food from all the ethnic groups in Guyana. We mostly had fruit for dessert.
The East Indians brought their roti, dhal puri and curries with them. Dhal was an accompaniment to rice in many homes. A variety of snacks like bara, pholourie and fried channa were common everywhere. Jalebi, pera (called barfi in India), kheer (sweet rice) and mithai were abundant at East Indian weddings. Parsad, another sweet, was served at Hindu weddings and halwah at Muslim ones. People also made these sweets at home on occasion. They were delicious.
My mother liked to bake and we also had bakeries in Georgetown. When we came home from school in the afternoon, we would have something my mother had baked or bought— cakes, sweet breads, tennis rolls, cheese rolls, butter flaps and sometimes pine tarts. We would have something cold to drink with this or a cup of tea. This was our “tea” time. Our bread was delivered to our home by a local bakery every afternoon.
The Africans brought their cuisine with them and metagee was eaten by most Guyanese. My family ate that for lunch at least once a week. It contains lots of root vegetables and is served with meat or fish. Foo-foo, another African dish was usually served in soup. It’s made with plantain. Cook-up is a rice dish with peas and meat and is a favourite with all Guyanese. It’s served as a regular meal, at parties or taken along at picnics.
From the Chinese, Guyanese cuisine includes chow mein. The Portuguese brought their garlic pork with them which is mostly eaten at Christmas. From the Amerindians, there is pepperpot (made with cassareep) which is a stew and very popular at Christmas. Cassava bread is also a well-known Amerindian food.
From the British, we were exposed to British cuisine. We ate cheese sandwiches, egg sandwiches, stuffed eggs, patties, cheese straws, crab backs, pine tarts, sponge cake – everything to have a fine afternoon tea. Many parties I attended as a child or teenager served these delicacies.
Baked chicken, fried chicken, steak, beef stew, mince balls, tropical fish (snapper, gilbaka, hassar, banga mary, butter fish) served in many different ways, and cod fish cakes were all part of the regular diet in our home. We liked shrimp and prawns too. I believe that this may have been the case for many other Guyanese too. Rice was the staple. Baked potatoes, mashed potatoes, chicken salad (made with potatoes) were also part of what we ate at home. Macaroni and cheese (baked) was a favourite in our home and my mother made that regularly.
I would hazard to guess that some people living in Guyana may not have eaten all the foods I mentioned but they were a regular part of the diet of some. I’m sure that the ethnic food was the “authentic” thing on arrival in Guyana but may have changed slightly over the years. The only constant is change and that applies to food and diet too.
As an aside, I have heard that some indentured Indians ate only vegetables with rice, roti and dhal. This was mainly what their diet consisted of. Perhaps their ancestors had been vegetarians. These vegetables included bora, okra, pumpkin, callaloo and eggplant. They made a kind of curry or stew with these vegetables.
As for religion, there are also many faiths practiced in Guyana. There are Christians, Hindus, Muslims, and a sprinkling of other faith groups. I’m not familiar with Obeah and Comfa but understand that these are practices brought by Africans and that some still practice today.
I was raised as a Christian (Presbyterian) and attended a Moravian public school and a Catholic high school for girls run by American nuns. When or how my ancestors converted to Christianity is one of those questions that I have no answer for.
In British Guiana, at my Moravian public school, there was a church service every Wednesday morning at the Moravian church just across the street. All the students went regardless of whether they were Christians or not. At that time, no parents refused to let their children go In fact, I believe they felt this was a good thing for the children. This meant that Presbyterians like myself, Catholics, Hindus and Muslims, attended service together.
Some of my friends were Hindus and Muslims and I remember celebrating Phagwah, Diwali and Eid with them.
I loved Phagwah because it was the time when we got to throw water and a pinkish/red powder or liquid on each other.
Phagwah was a Hindu Festival and despite living in Guyana and having friends of this faith, I had no idea what significance throwing water and this red stuff was all about. It was just fun! When I was a young person living in Guyana, Phagwah was not a public holiday, but it has become one now. We were regularly invited to Hindu and Muslim weddings which exposed us to rites and ceremonies different from our own. I can’t think of a more eclectic religious background than this. A big part of cultural diversity in Guyana relates to marriage customs and the ceremonies around these events. The majority of Guyanese profess the Christian faith. Hindus come next and then Muslims. The rites of marriage are different for each.
Christian weddings are not unlike those in any other part of the world. The ceremony is usually held in a church with a minister/priest presiding. The bride, groom, and all of the bridal party dress as per usual for Western weddings. A reception is usually held after at the bride’s home or at a hall. There’s food, music and dancing. The traditional “black cake” is a must.
I was married in a Presbyterian church in Toronto to a Catholic. My father came from Guyana and brought my wedding dress for me which he did not allow me to see until the morning of the wedding. He said my mother had told him not to show me. My dress was sewn by a seamstress who regularly made clothing for me which my parents had ordered. My wedding dress fit perfectly since this lady always made clothing for me. Most clothing in Guyana at one time was custom made.
My most eclectic experience of wedding ceremonies in Guyana comes from attending Hindu weddings. They were very bright and colourful affairs. The bride and groom were dressed in Indian outfits and there was a pandit officiating who was dressed in a dhoti. The bride wore red.
Indians like gold jewelry and the bride was usually bedecked with the finest. Many female guests also wore their finest jewelry too. At some weddings, the ladies wore Indian outfits and the men as well. In the city this wasn’t as common though. As far as I can remember, I always had bangles and wore those when I was going out.
The wedding ceremony was at the home of the bride. Hindus make a “mandap” for the occasion. There’s a place for the bride and groom to sit and at the beginning of the ceremony, a sacred fire is lit. I recall the bride and groom walking around this fire several times.
The pandit recited the prayers in Sanskrit during the ceremony. Whilst we were excited to be invited and attend these functions, we the younger folk weren’t able to focus for the whole duration of the ceremony which was quite long. Our parents didn’t explain the various parts of the ceremony before. Maybe they themselves didn’t understand.
We were thinking of the food which was to come after and distracted ourselves with other things.
Hindu weddings serve vegetarian food on a water-lily leaf. There was usually rice, puri, dhal, aloo curry (potato), pumpkin, channa and spinach. As children, we enjoyed eating out of a leaf. Many of the older folks used their fingers to eat. Forks were passed out for those who wanted them. Dessert was usually manbhog (parsad), mittai, and pera. Sweet rice (kheer) was served too—Very delicious! Some weddings gave a paper bag with sweets for guests to take home.
In the city, families would invite friends, neighbours, and co-workers to their weddings. Those who thought that their guests would not be comfortable eating out of a leaf served their food Western style. They had tables with plates, knives, forks, etc. set up to accommodate their guests.
Muslim weddings were less colourful but different. The wedding started at the bride’s house in the morning and was presided over by a mullah or imam. The bride was upstairs and the groom stayed downstairs where the actual wedding tent was set up. The fathers of both parties play an important part. They ask their offspring separately if they agree to marry the other.
Once they both agree, the bridegroom then goes up and brings the bride down. It’s a nikah ceremony. There are no vows just the agreement between the bride and groom to marry. The imam gives a short sermon at which there are some readings from the Quran. After this part of the ceremony, the couple exchanges rings and cuts the wedding cake. There is a big feast afterwards.
In my experience, depending on where the bridegroom lives, there is also an afternoon reception at the bridegroom’s home. I was privileged to be the flower-girl once at a Muslim wedding and this was how it was.
Meat is served at Muslim weddings. I remember having mutton curry (lamb), dhal puri or roti, dhal, and vegetables. We had halwah, mittai, pera, and sometimes cake for dessert. I loved the food at Muslim weddings. At both the Hindu and Muslim weddings I attended in Guyana, there was no music or dancing after the meal.
Because these weddings took place in Guyana, they may have deviated in many ways from what Hindu and Muslim marriages in India were like. Some Guyanese families of East Indian origin may have become more Westernized and their weddings reflected this. Some people are wealthier than others and have more money to spend on their weddings. East Indians from India may not acknowledge these rites as the “authentic” thing. I see no problem with this as the only constant is change.
Both Hindu and Muslim weddings usually last for about three days. However, we were only usually invited to the one day event that I described earlier. It may just have been the close family and friends who went to the other rituals.
This is just a taste of the diversity that emanated from people of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures coming together in a foreign land. It must not have been easy for our ancestors to arrive to be slaves or indentured workers and still hold on to remnants of their culture.
It’s a testament to the spirit of the people that they survived and that we, their descendants, are the inheritors of such rich backgrounds and cultural diversity. If our ancestors had never left and never stayed, who would we be? Not Guyanese or any other hyphenated title for sure. I certainly wouldn’t be wondering about my identity – about being different.
“Difference is the essence of humanity. Difference is an accident of birth, and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace: respect for diversity.” — John Hume
I see no point to bitterness where my ancestors are concerned — neither to them nor those who brought them there. I have chosen to accept and celebrate who I am in its entirety and to be grateful for the experiences that their leaving their ancestral home bestowed upon me.
Green Land of Guyana, our heroes of yore
Both bonds men and free, laid their bones on your shores
This soil so they hallowed and from them are we,
All sons of one mother, Guyana the free.
(2nd verse of National Anthem)