My navel string bury in Guyana. Fuh true, my mother keep it and I see it, a dry-up dry-up twist of skin, but it didn’t come with us to New York. I frighten where it deh, under some Dutchman silk-cotton tree or in some water mumma river. My mother is a real fullaman Muslim lady, but she warn me about jumbie and ting since I small. In dem days not so long ago even the cocaine taking over the country was obeah.
I leave Guyana in the early 1990s. Twenty-five years gone. Wilson Harris leave home since independence time but I sure now his heaven look like El Dorado. None ah we stop thinking about we country and we land. In life and death we haunt by Guyana.
I study Guyana, I dream Guyana, I hearing de Guyana news. In my head I does talk to myself in this halfway Creolese even when I talking professional in a big-time American accent. Dem white people does talk sweet sweet out of their dry slit mouth to me, but I seeing their jumbie soul and all I thinking to meself is gyal, wheh you deh? Watch story.
One time my friend Gaiutra, a next Guyanese writer who write a really important book about we, call me in a speech her jahaji bahin. That mean “ship sister” in Bhojpuri Hindi, from what them indentured people used to call each other on the ship when they lose their born family on kala pani black water and have to mek a new one. Well I nearly cry up de place in dem white people university, we were so far from home.
Until a few years ago, my dreams used to take place in the house in Guyana where I born and grow. I toured that house in my dreams and excavated from the crevices of my child mind details I couldn’t remember in my conscious awakeness.
Then I went back home. I fly to Guyana, and me house gone.
My house that was my whole child’s life. A proper Georgetown colonial two-story wooden house, blue paint and louvre window, shored up by crumbling yellow-and-white painted concrete. The veranda where I and my brother spent all our time watching people and animal pass by. Them pack of starving brown mawga dog. Mistah Das like he never leave he ahir caste in India, marching cow up and down the street at sunrise and sundown. We did run in we yard and clear the street for de mad dog dem and he cow. If cow start run, dem won’t stop.
The veranda to which people used to look up and call Hello, how you all doing today? Where I used to watch Mandy mother and Miss Ramday ‘buse each other up day and night just to pass the time. Where thief man climb up one night and nearly bruk in. We know thief man was de neighbor son that live behind we.
The veranda where I used to watch them bright yellow buttercup and pink bougainvillea ‘cross the street grow and grow. Where I see Mistah Mac glide by in a red and gold sari! Yes! Ah telling yuh true. Mac was a black man but he convert one time to Muslim and next time to Hindu, and he light diya on Diwali too. I had big ears and I hear big people watch he and suck they teeth and whisper, antiman. But nobody used to trouble he. He live quiet.
The veranda where when the electricity gone and was blackout and racial trouble every night in Georgetown, me whole family used to sit in the pitch dark and watch them bright gold star and sing song by the flicker of a sooty kerosene glass lamp. I learn all kind of song that way, English hymn, the score of “The Sound of Music,” and nuff Guyana song. Me Muslim recitations I learn good and proper in madrassa two streets over. I get educated thorough in all aspects of Guyana. I was learning nationalist songs in Burnham and Hoyte 1980s primary school, but my mother, a multi-generational Georgetown Indian, knew all the independence songs and the old folk songs too. Martin Carter own poems she know, and my father did know Martin heself too from rum shop days.
R.C.G. Potter, Cyril Potter, a teacher like my mother, write the music to Guyana national anthem. It grand, it crashing like Kaieteur Falls itself. But he write music to another song that tek we heart. My mother sing this song, “Way Down Demerara,” to me:
When the ships have passed the islands
And the blue sea turns to brown
And the leadsman calls ‘Five Fathoms’ when he casts the lead-line down,
And you see a long flat coastland and a smokeless wooden town,
You can reckon you are nearing Demerara.
Demerara, Demerara, you can reckon you are nearing Demerara.
Demerara start as an Arawak river. Demerara was a port, Demerara was a Dutch colony, Demerara was an English colony, a Coromantee name Quamina lead 10,000 souls in slave rebellion in 1823 in Demerara when it come part of British Guiana. We get famous and dead for Demerara brown sugar’s molasses bite. Now is some other old English colonies, Malawi and Mauritius, growing Demerara sugar, not we.
I born in Demerara, like my mother and her mother before. My mother love British Guiana and then Guyana, she see both. She love the West Indies. She didn’t want to leave it. She still sad we gone. My father say we had to go because Guyana poverty and violence getting too bad and children can’t get proper education anymore. I, mother’s and father’s reason for emigrating, in my naïveté ask them, But why we can’t go to England instead?
I was well-read in Enid Blyton storybooks and thought I knew England and it would welcome me. I did already know where England deh: on top of de Faraway Tree. A child’s version of Jamaica Kincaid’s and Stuart Hall’s dashed expectations of de Mudda Cuntry.
I never migrate to England. When I finally visit me aunty who went and live in England like a proper colonial, I was eighteen and a New York revolutionary. Che and ting. In he Walter Rodney Non-Aligned Movement days, me father used to carry Mao Little Red Book in he back pocket. De man wear Burnham shirt-jac at he own wedding and tell my aggravated mother this was he condition for marriage, because suit and tie is for British imperialist. Nuff politricks come to naught in Guyana. In London I his daughter want only to bruk down Buckingham Palace and post dem people statue home to Greece and Africa from King Thief Man, the British Museum. As for America, before we go I didn’t know anything about that Yankee country except one-two cowboy book.
Is why I would want to leave Guyana? I was a rising Guyana almost-teen star and midget nationalist. Is who did give the speech to President Desmond Hoyte at 1989 Mass Games? Who bring sixth in de country in Common Entrance exam? I mash up dem boys and was the first girl in de masjid to win Qur’an recitation competition. Ah tell yuh my picture was in the newspaper for that first one, sporting my yellow Mass Games gymnastics singlet and two long beribboned plaits. By the time I became Head Prefect of Stella Maris Primary School and pin me badge ‘pon me blue pinafore uniform, nobody could say boo to me. If my shirt white and iron with starch! Guyana was my land.
All ah we gone abroad and shatter. We come back reassembled from pieces looking for home. The first time I came back I was already an adult. I had waited too long, I thought.
On Caribbean Airlines which you couldn’t call BeeWee anymore, I was triumphant because I order halal meal. A nice-nice stew beef and rice come in a seal-up container, cook by a lady name Miss Bibi it said. All around me the unlucky religionists were served dry-up sandwich, and how they jealous, eyeing up my stew beef!
Was joke Allah did playing on me then because soon after that minor victory I catch a sight of my own true motherland. Guyana is not in the clear blue Caribbean Sea. Every Guyanese poet know. The first thing I see from the plane was the muddy brown water and all of them mangrove tree holding the coastline from sliding away into a Black Atlantic full of bones. And jahaji bahin, me see de cane. Tears fall that time.
When the ships have passed the ocean
And the blue sea turns to brown
You can reckon you are nearing Demerara.
Me Demerara house did gone. On its site was a bright pink, fully concrete monstrosity of the kind that taking over the whole country. China come to de Caribbean and tek all de greenheart and purpleheart and moraballi and silverballi tree from Guyana, and not one plank ah timber left for we. And is only mall and shopping dem businessman building while stinking garbage pile up in the mucky black trenches outside. The pink house too was a hopeful shop selling dry goods to nobody in particular. All the houses ‘round by board up and decaying. Everybody gone to America or Canada or just gone.
I see plenty cow and donkey in this urban Georgetown, but even Das left he cow pen and gone to America. I hear how donkey-fool rich man Guyanese importing husky to the tropics for status, and how dem poor dog does proper scratch and suffer with dem winter fur.
Thief man who climb we veranda fuh choke and rob we had a sister. She name Melly and she was my friend. She dead of AIDS long time. She did tek man and mek baby early. I was younger than she but I know is really man tek she. I don’t know what happen to the child. He was a fat little red boy and we did only call him Baba. Every mother’s child in Guyana name Baba.
I stop dreaming in the house.
My soul-self friend is a man from Venezuela. But his family is from Cuban sugar and tobacco plantation. His shirt-jac name guayabera. He from the other South American Caribbean, the Spanish one. Sometime we does marvel how we did live only one border away as children, watching the same yellow kiskadee, but we never know each other. Is only overseas the English and Spanish Caribbean meet, to our blame and shame.
I does laugh because white people think sloth sweet and cute but my friend hate them. Sloth have long arms and wicked claws but always sleeping. They so slow-slow they always causing big traffic accident in Caracas. Where we come from, Makonaima jungle always trying to creep inside. Everything too green.
One time my friend tek me to a Venezuelan restaurant to taste arepas. I like de arepas and de tamarind juice taste the same, but that was the first time I see their map of Guyana. Dem dispute colonial border. They take the whole of Essequibo. Mount Roraima gone. Not one Pakaraima macaw or waterfall left. Me and he nearly fight for the first time.
But de man smuggle dal puri from a Toronto Trini roti shop across the Canadian border for me. When I cut my finger on a knife cooking, he touch his finger to his lips then touch my finger and sing his mother’s child song: sana, sana, colita de rana! So I forgive he.
The Pakaraima mountains are 1.7 billion Precambrian years old, the oldest geological formations on this earth. Dem nah care ‘bout border. But if Bolivarian sabers rattle more and Exxon find too much oil, is war me and he going have. I is a patriot.
In blackout night in Guyana my mother used to sing a true-true Guyana folk song,
Small days is still on me mind
Small days is a good good time
Me neighbor had some little children
And when they singing and they dancing
I does really admire them.
My navel string bury in Guyana. Small days can’t leave me mind.
Image credits: AP
Aliyah R. Khan is a professor of literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, but her navel string is buried where she was born and spent her childhood, in Georgetown, Guyana. She holds a creative writing M.F.A. from Hunter College of the City University of New York, and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her nonfiction academic book on enslaved African Muslims, indentured Indian Muslims, and contemporary Islam in the Caribbean, Far from Mecca: Globalizing the Muslim Caribbean, is forthcoming from Rutgers University Press in 2020. She is always thinking of yesterday’s night sky above the Caribbean and today’s Atlantic politricks, in hopes of a better tomorrow.