Saturday, May 14, 2011

A 7 Hour Tour

Last Sunday, Nate and I set out on our very first river trip with a group of Guyanese educators and health personnel for the purpose of working with special needs children in two villages located in the Moruca sub-region. As you can already imagine, “business trips” take on a whole different meaning here in Region 1. Packing is a bit different. You have to pack sheets, a mosquito net, toilet paper, all of your food goods and of course your clothes and toiletries. This was challenging as we were gone for 5 days and were traveling in an 11-seater v-hull passenger boat made of wood with no cover that needed to fit 12 people and everyone’s luggage and about 40 gallons of fuel. Needless to say, a 4-hour trip turned into a 7-hour tour, coupled with a one-hour truck ride, where once again, a 5-passenger truck was crammed with 12 people and all our gear. Good thing, Nate and I are travel-sized because we have become experts at cramming ourselves in small spaces for long periods of time, and surprisingly even in very small spaces I can sleep as long as there is some sort of movement and a breeze.

Our 7-hour tour boat

We stayed in a regional guest house, which was pretty much like camping, but with a bed because there was no electricity and by the last few days our tanks of water were empty as was our gas tank, so we were fetching water and cooking on a small camping kerosene stove. However, the Guyanese people we were with were incredible cooks and really enjoyable to be around, so the amenities, or lack there of, really didn’t bother us at all. After our 8-hour journey, our group decided it would be nice to reward ourselves with a couple of cold beers and we all decided to head out to the nearest bar. Well…the nearest bar required us to board another smaller boat and ride along a river to a wooden building on stilts on the water. Pretty cool! The bar only had enough electricity to run a stereo, a cooler and one light bulb, but since there aren’t lights for miles, the sky was lit with stars and acted as our own personal disco ball. It was beautiful! And of course, they were blasting 90’s pop, which made the experience just that much better.

The view from our guest house and the rivers we traveled through.

The next two days we spent our time in the village of Waramuri, and met the first group of special needs children. So, before I talk a bit more in-depth about these children, I think it is important for me to explain what “special needs” consists of here in Guyana. Special needs back home, includes things like ADHD or dyslexia, rather than just physical challenges. However, here only children that have physical challenges are considered special needs, and many children that are autistic or ADHD etc are thought to have evil in them (we saw a mother literally trying to beat the demon out of her severely autistic 2 year old). Of course, these ideas are among the less educated individuals and not the health professionals or many of the trained teachers. The community members typically mock these children and indirectly force them to be kept locked up in their homes, never giving them the opportunity to learn or develop socially. Culture shock and heartbreaking to say the least! In Waramuri, we saw about 10 children who were blind, deaf, mute, had clubfoot, cerebral palsy, or were epileptic. We were able to get a comprehensive histogram on each child and find out whether they received any public assistance, which consists of $27.50 USD a month. I also gave a nutrition talk and Nate did two different trainings for teachers on “student engagement & teaching methodologies.” Our first talks weren’t raging successes, as we had hoped, as we are still learning how to be engaging in these presentations, without scaring our audiences with our loud American voices and fast-paced agendas. This is especially a challenge for me, who has the voice projection of a German dictator. A skill I was once proud of is now biting me in the butt. It’s all right though, I am learning to tone it down and Nate is already getting better at engaging teachers and not scaring them with all his questions, which here are often thought of as invasive.

Teacher Nate.

The following two days we did the same tasks with a new group of about 20 children in the village of Santa Rosa. Most of the children were not attending school, because there parents were ashamed, weren’t sure if they could learn, didn’t have a wheel chair and for this reason were bedridden or if they had a wheel chair the schools have no ramps or large enough doors for the student to enter the classroom. There were reason after reason and story after story that was heart wrenching. One in particular stood out that neither Nate nor I have been able to shake. About a year ago there was a young girl that was about 10 years old that had cerebral palsy. Her mother was opposed of her attending school, regardless of the fact that the young girl was very bright and had requested on numerous occasions to attend. After much convincing from the teachers and other health professionals, the mother agreed that she could go to school. On the first day of school, the young girl had to use the bathroom and took herself to the latrine where she fell in and drowned. They tried to get her out, but she couldn’t grab on to the rope and they didn’t have large enough vehicle to knock down the latrine in time. They just had to watch her struggle and die. I am still speechless and this is only one story. Deep breaths.

With some of the kids doing a self-esteem activity.

Even though our trip was not as productive as we would have hoped, Nate and I feel this was a good introduction and first step in working more with these children. Communities need to be educated on children and adults with disabilities and special needs, schools need to be accessible and safe for all children, teachers need to be trained in methods of working with children of special needs and most importantly these children need to be given at least a chance for a better life. We know of course, this is much more than either of us can chew, so right now we are trying to research and learn as much as possible on these disabilities so we can be advocates, and of course looking for funding to improve the state of these schools. One step at a time of course, there are a thousand issues that we want to fix, but we are trying to help in the ones that have the least amount of resources and support.

If anyone has any educational materials (teaching strategies, parenting strategies, community sensitization literature, etc) that are especially relevant to teachers/health care professionals working with students with special needs, they would be extremely helpful to us here. The best way for us to get them is either by email (Nate:, Ilana: or by mail* (see address to the right).

Till next time.

*Items sent in a manila envelope reach us in about a month. It’s not uncommon for boxes to take 2 or 3 months to get to us, so if you’ve sent us a box and are wondering why we haven’t thanked you, it’s probably because we haven’t received it yet (except for Windham… we’ll just send that crap back marked “return to sender”).

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