Joe Bloggs:An Unlikely Hussar Part 20 In the cold of a German winter, remembering my school days in British Guiana

taa and my brother

The tank park was much colder in winter in Hohne than I ever remembered it being in England. That morning, it was so cold that if I had put my bare hands on any part of the tank, my skin would have stuck to the metal and I would have probably ended up with frostbite if we hadn’t had thick protective gloves to wear. I couldn’t help dreaming a bit about being back in the warmth of tropical British Guiana as I set about my work. I wondered what I’d be doing if I had stayed there. I’d just received a letter from my mum with this photo of her and my youngest brother on the new steps of the house that my postal orders had been helping her to build. I thought about the carefree days I’d had in my first few years of life and school days. Far away on the other side of the Atlantic, in British Guiana, my childhood had been free of the horrors of the German bombs which had killed the families of my English school-friends and made them homeless, or the devastation of Allied bombs in North Germany which German families were still suffering the consequences of.

English and American soldiers were stationed at my local village of Fort Wellington at that time, since World War II was in full swing. Their jeeps and trucks regularly travelled up and down the road between Georgetown and Rosignol. What engendered most excitement, however, was the sight of German zeppelins flying overhead. My school friends and I watched the people inside them throwing down papers and packages. We ran after them waving and scrambling to pick them up. I couldn’t read the leaflets, but they were posted on shop notice boards and it seemed that they were trying to persuade us that the Germans were our friends. Sometimes they also dropped bags of sweets or shoes and socks although I never personally got any of these items. Now I was older, I wondered why Germans would feel the need to drop this propaganda. My reading of current affairs and history books helped me to understand why. I’ve always been independent minded and question what I’m told to the point of being labelled a rebel.

Even at three years old, I’d already become uncontrollable for my mother, whom I wouldn’t obey. At that time, she worked as a servant for the local Congregational Church minister in Rodboro Manse, a former sugar plantation house. Parson Munroe advised her to send me to teacher John’s nursery school in Hopetown. No one at home could help me learn or practice reading, but Parson Munroe taught me to read a few words even before the age of four. He felt I was bright enough to learn. Uncle John was a local Negro (born to a “bright family” in the village), who had been educated. He made his living by charging a small fee to run a pre-school nursery in Church Dam in Hopetown. The Munroe family helped my parents with the fee. I was a very proud three year old carrying my slate and slate pencil into the tiny room for the first time. The walls were hung with wondrous things I’d never seen before. Brightly coloured pictures of birds, mammals and reptiles, people picking corn, coconuts, and various tropical fruits surrounded us. Some were hand drawn, others printed for the London Missionary Society. Apart from the usual counting and ABC lessons, improvised drama “skits”, acting out stories were a favourite of mine. Uncle John was a stickler for neatness and how to conserve our resources by carefully handling them.

Classroom learning finished at midday and then “Uncle John” would sometimes take us down to the fields at the back dam to see the arrowroot or cotton being cultivated by the village men. He would explain what they were doing and why. He also taught us to respect nature and only to take what you needed. On one such walk, he showed me my first Spurwing’s[1] nest and told us not to go near the nest or harm the birds because they were really pretty, “and we don’t want them to die out”. Another time he took us to the local burial ground and introduced us to prominent characters from the past, telling us what they had done for the village. It wasn’t a scary place, but a place of interest. He also took us to the village office where we sat on the floor while the overseer, an old local man, explained how the trenches[2] were cleaned by village men who thus paid their rates and taxes in the form of labour. It was so interesting. I never wanted to miss a day at school.

My time with Uncle John had lasted for about a year and I was ready to move up to Hopetown Congregational Church School just before my fifth birthday. I immediately went into the class with older children as I was already ahead of those my own age. The headmaster, H.M.S. Wharton, was nicknamed “Chiri”. I never knew why. Teacher Dorcas, Teacher Donald Moriah and Miss Isaacs taught me. The head of the district council at the time, T.T.Thompson, used to visit the school to fulfil his council duties. Parson Munroe was head of the “number 22 Belair” village council. The school was run by the Congregational Church, so Parson took a strong personal interest in it as with all the schools in West Berbice. He visited the school one day when I was in third standard, and noticed a step needed repairing, so he had it done.

Since all classes were open plan, we took notice of teachers when they said to be quiet as it would disturb other classes, especially the exam class. We all wanted to learn, so misbehaviour was rare. Mr Wharton sat at the top table on the stage, overlooking all the other classes and teachers at work. From time to time, he stepped down to ask a teacher a quiet question before returning to his dais. There were books to read that were from England, courtesy of the London Missionary Society. These included “Robinson Crusoe”, “Treasure Island”, geography and history books about the West Indies, its products and its part in the British Empire. The books were given out at the start of the lesson and collected back in at the end. We were never asked to buy books for use in school.

Every day, after school, there were always some activities: either rounders, cricket, “circle tennis”[3], running races, singing practice or rehearsing for an upcoming show. We had a school garden in the churchyard so we could do practical agriculture. I liked doing that. Normally after school I would go back to Rodboro for the night, but if I was involved in any of these activities, I would stay at Marma’s or at my cousin, Peter McPherson’s house instead. School had been a joy for me so I took the lead in every activity. I sang in the church choir, played cricket and represented the school in athletics. When doing the high jump, there was no sand pit or mats in those days. I landed awkwardly on one occasion and broke my collarbone, so had to be taken to the doctor at Fort Wellington.

Parson helped me practise reading at home by making me read the newspapers aloud to him so I became very proficient. This meant I often had the task of reading aloud from the Bible in the Sunday service. I also had the leading role in all the school plays. These were watched by the whole village, as it was one of the few forms of entertainment even for adults in a pre-television society. I was also in the maypole dancing competitions, especially when people came to visit. St George’s day and the King’s birthday were occasions when the governor and other dignitaries visited the village. Missionaries frequently visited the churches and schools that they supported in West Coast Berbice, so we had to perform for them. We also learned and performed square dances at the annual Swaree.[4]Performing in public in front of them gave me lots of confidence that enabled me to survive and succeed later on.

I was one of those given a Union Jack flag to wave at Princess Alice when she visited Hopetown. We had to line the main road as the car that brought her from Georgetown passed. She got out, visited selected village office-holders and then was transferred to a horse and buggy to complete her procession through the village where she carried out an inspection of the troops stationed at Fort Wellington.

Unlike my village friends, I lived at Rodboro during the school holidays and so was privileged to be involved with white missionaries from the London Missionary Society, prominent local people like Reverend Pat Matthews and his family, and middleclass black families from Georgetown, such as the Pollards, Kenneth George, the Dolphins, the McGregors and the Potters, who came to visit the Munroe family. I had the job of taking them to see the wildlife in the back dam and the workers in the fields and explain to them in the same way that Uncle John had done to me in nursery school.

Every May in British Guiana, the rainy season started. By June, torrential storms lasting days on end soon flooded the pastures. Our house was on an island in a huge lake at such times and there was no way to get to school with dry feet! I never missed school, however, as I loved it. Dad kept a small wooden boat under the house and I can remember occasions where either my dad or one of the neighbours paddled us out across the flooded pasture to the main road and set us off, then paddled the boat back to the house. The homeward journey would be enabled by one of the neighbours with a boat at the main road, giving us a lift across. Otherwise dad would paddle out to meet us. Sometimes if no boat was available, I would wade across the pasture and change at the Baptiste’s house on the main road putting on the dry school clothes I carried with me, and leaving my wet clothes there until later when going home. I only had two sets of clothes one for play and one for school and no shoes. I always went to school barefoot.

I cannot remember any East Indian at Hopetown School when I was there, but there were “duglas” and Portuguese. In our free time, “Hardwhite” (my cousin Peter), “Spanner”, “TaaTee”, Viola and Louisa Baptiste, my cousin Alice Joseph, and others, would fly kites together, ride donkeys, hunt fish at the back dam, and play with cow bladder footballs. Above all, however, at the end of term, the whole class brought food and pots and went down to the beach to organise a cook. We loved this ritual feast that we all shared. Afterwards there would be games organised on the beach. Parson would join us and bring a watermelon or muskmelon, while shop owner Benjie Yapp would contribute some item of foodstuff to make the feast more enjoyable.

Toys were things we had to make out of what we could find around us. Every week at the gallows on Hopetown waterside[5], we young boys anxiously awaited the weekly slaughter and butchery of livestock for the market. It was the cow’s bladder we wanted, so we could blow it up and make a football of it. My father showed me how to make a spinning top from an awara seed[6]. We bored a hole into the middle of the seed with a tiny auger and then shaped and smoothed the inside of the hole with a flat nail or stick wrapped in sandpaper. A small piece of beeswax placed in the hole would secure the wooden spindle on which it would spin. With some twine carefully wrapped round the spindle, we were all set to outspin each other wherever there was a flat surface suitable.

The bigger boys showed us how to make bangers at certain times of year (usually leading up to Christmas). We would bore a hole in the base of an Andrews Liver Salts tin, and put into it some pieces of carbon (probably smuggled out of the bauxite mines at McKenzie). We would spit on it, shake it, put the lid on, and set a match to the hole at the base so that it would ignite and explode, blowing the lid off the tin. I was forbidden to do this by Marma who did not like the noise and said it was dangerous, and it frightened animals. Of course, I obeyed because it was Marma who said so.

Around Christmas time, besides the customary rounds of church carol singers, extra excitement came in the form of masqueraders. They would come dancing into Rodboro all dressed up in carnival costumes of birds, horses, men on stilts or dressed as ladies with huge bustles and playing their drums and whistles. They would be putting on a show for the missionaries and Georgetown visitors staying at the manse. We would bring out food and drink for them and then they would go on to the next village with their pageant.

The only Indians I had contact with were “Lilboy” and his wife Millicent who lived and worked at Rodboro manse. His job was to look after the horses. He hunted the caymen[7] to keep them away from the cows and livestock. He and Parson both taught me to groom the horses, to cut the grass in the pasture for them and to put them out to graze and exercise them. I also learned how to hook them up to the buggy but my work was always checked for safety. After we unhitched them, then I had to help clean the saddle and harness and brass fittings. I sometimes had to clean the flambeau candle lamps that hung from the side of the buggy on the rare occasions when travelling in the dark was necessary. In the wet season, we had to light a fire under the house to keep away mosquitoes from the sheep. Even though I was only 8 or 9, I was included in all the adult activity and by that, I observed, learned, copied and never forgot. The men would shoot cory-cory (ibis), pigeon, anteaters, alligators and carmoudie (anaconda). My first shot knocked me over with the recoil, so they never let me have another go at that, however. Lilboy skinned the carmoudie, rolled the skin up, packed it up and sent it by train from Bath station to the museum in Georgetown.

Parson was the first, and at that time, the only, beekeeper in British Guiana. People used to come to him to be taught the skills of apiary.[8] I used to watch Parson “dressing up in mosquito nets” over his straw hat, elbow length gloves, thick white canvas cotton suit and goggles. He harvested the honey into a big upright metal drum, which had a tap at the bottom. We used to rotate the drum and then stop and open the tap so all the honey would drain out into a bottle.[9] Then we would turn the drum again, stop, and bottle some more. Finally, when no more honey would run out, we would pick out the wax and the helpers would take it away to make candle wax for the church and the manse. Honey making would end with a treat that was a marvellously thrifty measure to clean the equipment without waste: Parson would cut up limes and squeeze the juice into the drum, then add the peel and hot water and leave it to dissolve all remaining honey stuck to the barrel sides. This now became super lemonade for us all to drink in church.

Every village family in those days had to hunt and fish for most of their daily protein. Iguana hunting with my father was an experience. Beforehand, he showed me how to make the loop from string and attach it to a strong bamboo pole. Then we went hunting for these lizard-like creatures. He showed me how to stalk one and get the loop around its neck to catch it. I caught my first iguana in a banana tree but I cried when my father would not let us eat that one. He released it, saying that it was too small. He knew not to take the females that were carrying eggs, only the large male ones. The one he caught, we ate. It was enough to feed my parents and all four of us children. Hunting wild birds was not taboo in those days, so he showed me to make a bird trap out of shingles.[10]It was a pyramid shaped construction balanced over a base where you put birdseed. The minute a bird went into the base to peck the seed, the pyramid collapsed down onto the base, trapping the bird inside. After I made my first trap, it was while before I caught my first bird. The joy of success was again dampened by being made to release it because it was too small, since my trap was too small. Big men made big traps to catch big birds, like woodpigeons, bush turkeys and wildfowl.

Towards the end of the wet season, when the pools were drying into puddles in the pasture, and thousands of fish were visible fighting for their last minutes of life, “plowards” were in flocks of hundreds feasting on them. Hungry little boys like me had the job of chasing them into the wires tied between the poles we had set apart some distance away in the grass. Four or five of us would run towards the flocks of birds as they fed, shooing them to fly away into our wires that they could not see. We would share the spoils and cook them on sticks on a bush fire.

Even at this tender age, boys like me had to do the men’s jobs when they were away at work. It was a matter of survival or you went hungry. I witnessed and helped dad to deliver the goat’s kids and had to dig deep holes to bury the afterbirth. I milked the cows and taught my brother Victor how to do it. I had to take the milk to Aunt Betsy before going to school every morning. Even so, I was never late for school.

In the Manse or the village, nothing was wasted if it could be used. At the village gallows, after the sanitary inspector and overseer had witnessed the slaughter, the men butchered the carcass. Every part of the slaughtered animals was made use of. Both Parson and dad showed me how to grate or chip up coconuts for feed for the poultry. Leftover gratings from making coconut milk in the kitchen could be mixed in with animal feed. Vegetable peelings made up the pig swill. All these daily activities, the community spirit of sharing resources and skills and the self-sufficiency were features of life that I loved.

Reality kicked in as I finished the routine work I had been doing on the tank and Lieutenant Rodney Martin, my tank commander’s voice nearby, reminded me that I was in sub-zero temperatures and about to start my day’s work out on the ranges.

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[1] A southern lapwing commonly found in wetlands along the Guyana coast

[2] Trenches are a grid network of ditches alongside every dirt track in the village designed to keep the tracks and fields dry and drained of excess rainwater and also to carry the village water supply for bathing washing and farm irrigation

[3] A game invented and only played in Guyana, consisting of a 6ft high wicket, using a tennis raquet and ball and rules something like a mixture of rounders, baseball and cricket .

[4] Swaree was the local name given to emancipation eve celebrations held every July 31st .Slavery had ended on August 1st 1834 and ever since, the villagers celebrated on Freedom day, as they called it and held a big street party the evening before.

[5] The “waterside” was the name given to the land between the main road and the sea.

[6] Awara are spiny rainforest palms that bear a pithy orange coloured fruit the size of a plum with a hard stone the size of a walnut shell inside it.

[7] Local name for alligators

[8] Rajkumar from number 2 village was taught by Parson and his son by him. The latter still runs a thriving honey business in Guyana.

[9] The honey would thus be separated from the wax by centrifugal force and the liquid would collect at the bottom while the wax would stick to the sides of the drum.

[10] Shingles are thin slices of wood cut and shaped like clay tiles, which were used in much the same way as tiles: for roofing or exterior cladding to weatherproof house walls.