Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Vagrant - An Obituary (of Sorts)

Jerome died on Wednesday afternoon, savagely stabbed multiple times and left lying in his blood in Bourda Market. I wanted to know the exact spot where he died and to find out the kind of person he was, so I went around the market making inquires. The general sentiment of the vendors to whom I spoke was that he was a good and helpful person. Lenny pointed out Jerome's friend to me, Judah. Judah was the last person to speak with Jerome as he lay dying in the market. Judah showed me the spot where his friend fell and re-enacted how he knelt down beside his friend asking him, "Who did this to you?". Like the vendors to whom I spoke, Judah had nothing but good things to say about his friend. 

Jerome was a "vagrant". That was how the news media characterized him in the newspapers the next day. That is how the individuals and groups who gave him food from time to time charactize him. That is how those to whom we have given the mandate of managing the affairs of State characterize him. That is how the Guyanese people characterize him. A "vagrant". And we do not have in view the word's denotation, its dictionary definition. We have in view the word's connotation, its meaning beyond the dictionary definition. He was a "vagrant". For us then, that means he was odious, disgusting, nauseating, criminal, loathesome, reprehensible, despicable, idle, purposeless, burdensome, scary, an object of scorn, a blight on our society. That's how we think of Jerome and "his kind". Before we even knew him we had already marginalized him, judged him, and passed sentence on him, in the same manner we have done the other "vagrants".

Jerome was killed around the same time I was hanging out with some other "vagrants" just around the corner. He made the news. And it was the only time he was brought to the public attention, into the public consciousness (assuming we read it in the newspapers or heard it over the radio or TV network). And sadly, he made the news only because he was killed. In fact, that seems to be the only way in which a "vagrant" would make his or her way into the public consciousness. He had to be violently killed or be found dead in a trench. And sadly, he remains in our consciousness for but a moment, for he is soon passed over and forgotten. The "vagrant's" daily struggle and suffering on Guyana's streets is not newsworthy because such struggle and suffering is not important to us. Or, it has lost its importance because we have become inured to it, leaving in place an insensitivity and a callousness.

Jerome became more important in death than he was in life not because of our desire to celebrate his "hapless" life but because of our desire to satisfy our curiosity, our morbid appetite for salacious details about the violent snuffing out of a life and with a vulturous and insensitive media only too willing to oblige, offering us mere spectacle and show while we watch uncaring, unfeeling, and unthinking. And at the place where the "vagrant" met his terrible death all is forgotten, life goes on, the market is back to business. One fewer "vagrant" to deal with. The news media awaits another story. We return to our day to day. Even his fellow road people, of necessity, must move on, for they cannot afford the luxury of lingering in collective sadness as they must continue to focus on their own survival. And so, Jerome, the "vagrant" is summarily forgotten.

[photo art by Ric Couchman]

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Ignored, Unnoticed, Forgotten: Guyana's Street Dwellers

I believe that every step we take towards humanity, however small that step is, is a step in the right direction. Every attempt to mobilize others to take that step, every smile offered, every encouraging word, every caring touch (a hand on the shoulder, a handshake), every act of kindness, it is a step in the right direction.

If the freedom of the street dweller is assumed (the freedom to make choices and to accept the consequences negative or otherwise), then that pre-supposes my freedom also - my freedom to show compassion to her (or not), to feel sorrow for her (or not), to extend a helping hand to her (or not), to "save" her however illusory (or not), just as that individual is free to choose to accept or reject my gestures.

If you are free to judge the street dweller's merits, or to speculate about his circumstances or motives, or to form conclusions (without evidence) as to his character (for example, that he is lazy), or to put forward the exceptio probat regulam, or to hold that tough love is the requisite response, allow me the freedom also to defer analysis, to assume his good intentions, to assume his weakness in the face of his overwhelming circumstances, to figure that it is not simply a matter of his manning the f#@k up and suddenly receiving clarity of mind from some tough love approach. Allow me the freedom to care.
[youtube presentation by Ric Couchman]

At the Other End of the Line - A Mother's Anguish and Tears

It was important to Shaun that I understand that he didn't smoke. He told me repeatedly that he didn't smoke, and on many occasions while I sat with him he would appeal to his fellow street dwellers as they passed by for confirmation of that fact. Shaun is living on the streets not on account of the usual assumptions we might have, namely, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, too lazy to work, or mental challenge. He is living on the streets because he is too ashamed to face his wife and two young children, Paul and Leah. Why is he ashamed? He is ashamed because he cannot provide for them? Why can he not provide for them? Three years ago he suffered a terrible injury to his left wrist that left his left hand paralyzed - an injury that has not healed to this day and that seems to be getting worse. For Paul, not being able to work is an evisceration of his manhood.

Shaun is from Black Bush Polder where his mom, his wife, and his children currently reside. He has not seen them in three years. This was the fourth time Shaun and I were meeting. He had asked a few days earlier whether I had a pair of used pants, a shirt, and a pair of sneakers to spare as he wanted to go to the hospital to get his wrist checked out. I provided the pants and shirt and my friend Roberto provided the sneakers. Roberto and I had arrived to drive him to Black Bush Polder to visit him mom and his family. The day before, I had asked him whether his mom and his wife had access to a phone and if he wanted to talk with them. He remembered his mother's number. I called the number, and a woman answered. I put Shaun on the line. It was his mother. What followed was the most heartbreaking phone call I ever heard. Shaun was in tears, and at the other end the tears and anguish were obvious. At one point Shaun asked, "Ma, what did you cook?" Pause. Tears. "Ma, and your son is living on the street with nothing to eat. I am coming home, Ma. I am coming home. I am coming to see you and Paul and Leah."

In the end, Shaun's shame proved far stronger than his desire to see his family. When Roberto and I showed up and asked if he were ready, he said that he couldn't do it. His wrist was bandaged, and the viscous, yellowish, white fluid could be seen oozing through it. I did not press the issue as I wanted to leave the choice entirely to him. I understand his change of heart. One does not peel away three years of shame and guilt in an instant, but talking to his mom for that brief moment was, for him, priceless. In the meanwhile, to numb the feeling of shame and guilt that he carries like an albatross around his neck, Shaun drinks high wine. For "what else is a man to do," he says, "with all that time on his hand to sit and think of the pain, the hurt, the suffering, the shame?" 

[photo by Ric Couchman]

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Police Checkpoints/Stops in Guyana: Harassment, Intimidation, and Corruption

The purpose of Law Enforcement in any sovereign State is to ensure the safety of its citizens. Like those individuals elected to manage the affairs of the sovereign people of Guyana, our police officers are public servants who are no greater than the citizens they serve and whose task is the protection of our rights, our property, and our person. However, the foregoing is hardly the case, for instead of being proud of the service of our enforcers of the Law, citizens seem to be afraid of them, and this fear is becoming inveterate and increasingly pervasive. It is a contradiction that we should fear those who are entrusted to ensure our safety. 

One of the key mechanisms of fear is the Checkpoint. They have become ubiquitous and are popping up on the roadways all over our country. And what is more, is that they seem to have no purpose other than to harass and intimidate citizens and to provide an opportunity for some police officers to unlawfully get money (corruption) from those motorists they stop or pullover. What is even more ludicrous are the customs outposts (far removed from border crossings) and police checkpoints along the Georgetown-Lethem roadway where vehicles are checked, citizens required to show identification cards and to check in with customs officials, and foreigners (mostly Brazilians) are harassed. It is illegal to be stopped, to be asked to produce identification, and to have one's vehicle searched without probable cause. And of course, stories abound of police officers stopping or pulling over motorists and exacting money from them.

It is time for law enforcement officers in Guyana to be reined in from their illegal practices, and it is time that Guyanese understand what ought to be the relation between the police and the sovereign people - that they are in office as law enforcers to serve us, to ensure our safety, not to intimidate us, not to harass us, and not to use their authority to exact money from us.  We ought to know what our rights are under the law and to hold them responsible for respecting and protecting those rights. If the practice of harassment, intimidation, and corruption does not stop, we run the risk of our Cooperative Republic becoming a police state in which fear predominates.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Rose on a Quiet Guyana Street


Lying among some garbage I saw
Was the most beautiful thing -
A beautiful flower, a beautiful rose,
Yes, just lying among the garbage
In peaceful, beautiful sleep
On the quiet city street.
Who, I asked myself,
Would want to discard such?
Who would simply pass it by?
Who would ignore it, 
Or would leave it lying there?
And with that thought 
I continued along my merry way.
And just like all the other passersby,
I did not pick up that beautiful rose;
I left it lying there.

[photo by Ric Couchman]

Humans, With Names

They Have Names
Ric Couchman

They are not merely part of the Guyana landscape. 
They each have a story. 
They are our fellow citizens.
They have names. 
They cry. 
They laugh. 
They hurt. 
They feel pain. 
They love. 
They dream. 
They have virtues. 
They desire companionship.
They have vices. 
They feel shame. 
They feel pride. 
They desire to be touched. 
They desire respect. 
They desire friendship. 
They experience anger. 
They smile. 
They have weaknesses. 
They want to look nice. 
They have strengths. 
They are human. 
Just like the rest of us.
They have names -
Andrew aka Tallman, aka Rasputin 
Mr. Meertins
Auntie Neisha
Shaun aka Sancho
Ms. Sandra -
Just like the rest of us.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

My Response to a Friend's Questions on the Problem of Street Dwellersin Guyana

[Is this a social, humamitarian, economic, health, or political problem?]
This is OUR problem. Our nation's problem. Our crisis. Like when a member of our family is in crisis - a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife, a mother, a father, we become worried, concerned, willing to move heaven and earth to help them. We focus more on helping them than on analysis. We consider the impact on the larger family, and we strive to the best of our ability to remedy the situation. 

[Why do these people sleep on the streets?]
First of all they are not "these people". They are humans, our fellow citizens, our people. Secondly, we don't know definitively the reason each Street Dweller lives on the street. We make a lot of assumptions as to their reasons, and our assumptions are largely incorrect. The only way we can answer that question is to sit with them and to ask them directly. But before we ask them questions of such a personal nature, we have to spend time with them, establish their trust. 

[Do they have families who care about them?]
Some street dwellers do have families; some of them don't. Some (Sajun for example) have families who love and care about them. Some of them have families who do not care about them. 

[Is mental illness and drug addiction the reason they are on the streets?]
Mental illness is not the reason people dwell on the streets. There are people who are mentally ill who live in homes. Drug and alcohol addiction/abuse is not the reason people live on the streets. It is too easy to reduce the problem to mental illness and drug abuse. Some people develop drug and alcohol addiction while living on the streets because they want to escape the moment to moment of living on the streets. 

[Are homeless people homeless because there is no home to go to? Or have they chosen not to live in available homes and to comply with sanitary expectations?]
Some people live on the streets because they lack the means of self-sustenance or because they are unable to care for themselves. Some people live on the streets by choice. They have a home, but for some reason they choose to live on the streets. Sajun, for example, lives on the street because he is unable to take care of his children, Paul and Leah. He cannot work because he cannot use his right hand which was severely injured in an accident. He is too embarrassed to face his family because as a man he cannot provide for them. Some people choose not to live in the provided shelter (The Night Shelter) because the conditions of that shelter is worse than on the streets.

[Is it not true that many homeless people make more money per day by begging than a minimum wage worker?]
First of all not everyone who begs on the streets is a street dweller. Many individuals who beg do have homes (for example, Auntie Neisha, Miss Renee). You can often see mothers (some of them quite young) with their children begging on the streets. Secondly, contrary to that erroneous assumption, those who beg do not make more money per day than a minimum wage worker. On most days, they are barely able to acquire sufficient money to buy a 400 GY dollars meal. 

[If they choose not to care about themselves, why should we?]
First, the question assumes that street dwellers choose not to care about themselves. This is another grossly erroneous assumption. Some street dwellers do not know how to care for themselves. Most street dwellers do not have the luxury of change of clothing as most of us do. Street dwellers do not have access to clean water on the streets or access to facilities that would allow them opportunities for appropriate disposal of personal waste or for cleaning themselves. Secondly, we should care about street dwellers because their problem is our problem. Street dwelling as a problem represents a breakdown in our society which, if not dealt with appropriately will lead to callousness, estrangement, indifference, etc. We cannot survive as a society with such mindset.

[If I became financially destitute, mentally challenged, or a drug addict, would I ask for help or wish to be left alone?]
I do not know what you would do under the circumstance. Further, remember that dwelling on the streets is not a logical corollary of financial destitution, mental challenge, or drug/alcohol addiction or abuse. These might lead to homelessness. There are people who are in the circumstances you identify but who still live in some home. Now, very few people desire to be left alone. The rare few (like Mr. Meertins) who so desire are those who have lived on the streets for such a long time that there is no way one can get them to do otherwise. Most street dwellers desire help. Some are too embarrassed to ask and some do not know how to ask, lacking the literary, emotional, elocutory equipment to do so.

[Personal choice, freewill and humanitarian/medical intervention is a delicate dance. How much should a government invest in mental health and social intervention?]
This question needs reframing as it assumes a correlation between mental health and street dwelling. It is a mistake to reduce the problem of street dwelling to such constructs as mental health, alcohol/drug addiction, etc. Those to whom we gave the mandate of managing the affairs of our sovereign people ought to set in place and maintain policies and services that would minimize and eventually eradicate street dwelling. Auntie Neisha, who is obviously of age to receive a pension or some form of social security to help her with her daily expenses, cannot receive such service because she does not know her date of birth nor does she have her birth papers. There are many like her, locked out because of the impassable wall of bureaucracy.

[What is our responsibility as family/friend to those suffering?]
The answer is a no-brainer. The operative word is suffering. I hope that we have not become so desensitized that the natural response of empathy and direct care have departed us.

[photo art by Ric Couchman]