Culture in Guyana is an incredible combination of Amerindian, African, Indian, Chinese, British, Portuguese, and Dutch cultures, a reflection of the colonialist plantations past. Add to this already fantastic mix the fact that Guyana is considered the only mainland territory of South America to be part of the Caribbean region, and it is easy to see how this beautiful South American country is a fabulous melting pot with the most varied culture one could hope for.
As a former human rights lawyer, and having written my doctorate thesis and subsequently my book (and many more scientific publications) on the right to culture and the protection of cultural identity of minorities, I was intrigued to find out more about Guyanese culture and happy to learn about the involvement of the local indigenous communities in the preservation of their language, history and traditions, as well as of the environment and wildlife.
To find out more about wildlife in Guyana, check my post “The Most Amazing Wildlife In Guyana.”
During my time in Guyana I had the opportunity to visit 3 tiny indigenous villages in the Rupununi region and to get in close touch with the local communities. I loved to see the pride and joy with which the local communities embrace the comforts of modern life (for as little as they may be in this remote part of the country) and mix them with the most traditional Amerindian Guyanese culture.
I know that the indigenous communities of Guyana strive for their culture to survive, much like all indigenous and minorities groups around the world. So, they ought to be praised for everything they do for the survival of their traditions and for the preservation of the environment where they live.
Before I get into more details about the 3 villages I have visited and my experience there, let me provide some background information on the indigenous peoples and culture in Guyana.
Some Background Information On The Indigenous Peoples And Culture In Guyana
There are 9 officially recognized indigenous peoples in Guyana. According to the 2012 census, there are around 78500 Amerindian persons in Guyana. This number marks around 10.5% of the total population of the country. Of these, around 90% live in the interior of the country, as opposed to the vast majority of Guyana population, which lives in the narrow Atlantic coastal strip.
The indigenous peoples have been largely integrated in the Guyanese culture. The Amerindian groups that live on the coast share many cultural features with the Afro-Guyanese and the Indo-Guyanese population, with intermarriage often occurring: Afro-indigenous children that are born in Amerindian villages (typically by an Amerindian mother) are accepted as Amerindians by the village.
Minority Rights Group International reports how the standards of living of the indigenous peoples of Guyana is generally lower than that of most citizens of the country. I have to say, having visited 3 indigenous villages, that indeed there are few modern life comforts there. Yet, these communities appeared to be happy, and they strive to make sure that their traditional culture is preserved and becomes a full part of the culture in Guyana.
In 1995 the government of Guyana designated September to be the national Amerindian Heritage Month. This heavily focus on sports, environmental activities and the Amerindian culture in Guyana and it was conceived to showcase nationally and promote (and as such protect) the Amerindian culture. It may be a great coincidence that I visited Guyana in September.
Of the 9 indigenous peoples of Guyana, I mostly got to know the Makushi group. These originally lived in the Rio Branco region of Brazil and started drifting to the northern Rupununi savannahs of Guyana at the beginning of the 18th century. More of them left throughout the century in order to flee the colonial resettlement policies of Brazil in the 1780s.
Much like the rest of Guyanese people, the Makushi show pride in their identity and traditions. This came across quite strongly when I visited 3 tiny villages, who are doing an outstanding job in preserving the indigenous culture in Guyana, which is constantly at risk of erosion given the difficult living conditions that the Makushi face.
How Three Tiny Villages Are Preserving The Amerindian Indigenous Culture In Guyana
Visiting indigenous villages is one of the nicest things to do in Guyana (read more about all that this country has to offer on my post “13 Absolutely Amazing Things To Do In Guyana”). Not only do they provide a vantage point to access some of the most stunning places in the country; but they also are perfect places to get to know Guyanese culture better.
I visited Rewa, Surama and Annai, all of them different from one another and each one offering a unique experience to the visitors they get.
Rewa and its effort to save the Arapaima
Rewa is a village of 312 people, mostly belonging to the Makushi indigenous community, and located in the Amazon basin of Guyana, at the confluence of the Rupununi and the Rewa rivers. It is an incredibly remote place, that is extraordinarily open to tourism, and that has been working hard to protect the indigenous culture in Guyana.
Visitors have the option to stay at Rewa Ecolodge, which was founded in 2005 thanks to a grant provided by Conservation International with the intention of protecting the land for future generations, of protecting the environment and the local wildlife from poachers, and to preserve the indigenous culture in Guyana.
The community smartly thought that if they opened up to tourism, they’d have more employment opportunities without having to leave their land, and they would as such be able to contribute to the protection of the local environment and to the preservation of their culture in Guyana.
And this is very much what’s been happening: taking 2 weeks shifts, pretty much everyone in the village is employed at the lodge. Women cook and clean; men tend to the garden and take care of the transportation; others guide the tourists into visiting the jungle and teaching them about the traditional lifestyle and Amerindian culture in Guyana – ie showing them how traditional fishing and hunting is done.
Even I went fishing for piranhas, and it was an incredibly fun experience. Find out more about my fishing experience on my post “Ten Tips For Successfully Fishing In Guyana.”
The lodge is extremely modest, much as the village next to it: there are five self-contained bungalows which have a private bathroom, and two “benabs,” each having two rooms and sharing bathrooms and showers, for a total of 18 beds. All bungalows and benabs are built in the traditional way, once again reflecting the Amerindian Guyanese culture: a small and plain wooden construction with plenty of gaps between the wooden boards and the walls and the thatched roof (to allow air from flowing through, but with air come also the bugs and, in the case of my bungalow, also a small mouse!); plain beds with the very much needed mosquito nets; and a basic bathroom with only cold shower (but really, in such heat that’s all one may possibly want!).
Since the culture in Guyana, at least in the Rupununi region, is to sleep in hammocks, all bungalows also have a hammock on the porch. I tried sleeping in one after hiking Awarmie mountain and wasn’t very successful, to he honest.
By the way, more about my hiking experience in Guyana can be found on my post “Three Short Yet Challenging Hikes in Guyana.”
All meals are home cooked by the women of the village and served in the dining benab, and even then there’s an element of Guyanese culture as along with international dishes such as pancakes for breakfast or mac and cheese for lunch, there’s also the local farine (a derivate of cassava) or the pepperpot.
The local community of Rewa not only has a mission to perpetuate its culture in Guyana, but it goes above and beyond in its effort to protect local wildlife. It was only two years ago that the people of Rewa realized that, following the dry season, a pond where the huge arapaimas lived was almost drying out, putting in danger the lives of 20 of these giant fish. That’s when they decided they’d do anything they could to save them, and sure enough they did! Over the course of two days, they loaded the fish on canoes, covered them in water so they’d continue breathing, and took them to the main river.
Of course, visiting the actual Rewa Village is a highlight. It is tiny, really: think just a few small huts, each with a garden and chickens roaming about, and a few dogs for good measure. There is a church; a village school (it was too late in the afternoon when I visited, so I didn’t get to meet any children, unfortunately); a main office and even two shops. Life seems to go by slowly and peacefully.
Needless to say, I wholeheartedly recommend visiting Rewa to experience the pristine nature of this part of Guyana; and to appreciate the indigenous culture in Guyana. Whatever Rewa Ecolodge is lacking in comforts, it makes up for it with the kindness and the smiles of the local community.
How to get to Rewa
Those who wish to visit Rewa have two options. The first is to fly on a 12-seater Trans-Guyana plane from Georgetown to Apoteri airstrip (it really is nothing more than a strip of grass in the middle of the jungle) and then get a two-hours boat ride to Rewa. This is the way I got there.
The other option is to fly to the Annai airstrip (which is actually linked to a village, more about it below!) and then drive all the way to Kwatamang boat landing and take a two hours boat ride to Rewa (I did this journey in reverse to leave from Rewa).
Surama and its tribute to mother earth
Surama is another tiny village in the Rupununi savannah region of Guyana, surrounded by the Pakaraima Mountains and not far from the Iwokrama International Center for Conservation and Development.
The village counts a population of little over 300 people, of which 55 are children attending the local school. The inhabitants of Surama are mostly of the Makushi indigenous group, though there are also some of African descent coming from Georgetown. There actually are a few examples of intermarriages among Amerindian and African Guyanese, whose children are considered to be Makushi, as I have mentioned above.
Travelers wishing to explore the savannah of the Rupununi have the option of staying at Surama Ecolodge. This actually was the first community lodge to be founded in Guyana, more than 20 years ago (in 1996 to be more precise), with the aim of using the natural resources and the traditional indigenous culture in Guyana in a socially appropriate manner, giving the locals the chance to be trained and later on employed.
The idea is that any money that gets into the lodge stays with the local community, to help preserve the local environment and the traditional indigenous culture in Guyana. That’s why the lodge is completely run by locals: from the guides to the cooks, from the drivers to the admin staff, all employees of Surama Ecolodge are members of the local community.
The lodge is built in a traditional way, reflecting the Amerindian indigenous culture in Guyana, much like Rewa Ecolodge: four plain bungalows, and a larger benab which houses four small bedrooms, each with its individual bathroom; a benab housing the dining room, and a larger one housing the office. The thatched roof are a great hiding spot for lizards and bats, so these are not an uncommon sight in the rooms at night (on the plus side, they eat bugs!).
Surama Ecolodge offers a wide range of activities, such as hikes to Surama Mountain, fishing and birdwatching. However, my favorite part of visiting Surama was experiencing the Guyanese culture of this part of the country.
Entering the village a totem welcomes visitors, immediately showcasing the indigenous culture of this part of the country. The local school makes for a fun stop: the children enthusiastically welcome visitors, inviting them to play, while the teachers proudly show the facilities, which though basic are colorful and joyous, providing for a great learning environment.
The same children and teachers that attend the school during the day are members of the Makushi Culture Group and of the Wildlife Club. Here, children are taught about their heritage and they put together a show of traditional dances and songs, proudly demonstrating the strict connection between the environment and the culture in Guyana. The group has gained popularity to the point that it travels around the country and even overseas, inspiring the creation of other similar groups having the aim of showcasing the indigenous Guyanese culture.
Surama is a fantastic place to visit. The setting of the village and the lodge, the surrounding nature, the wildlife (imagine waking up to the sound of howler monkeys and casually walking into an ant eater on your way to breakfast) are all great reasons to visit; but the personal touch of everyone that lives and works there makes it a truly special place.
How to get to Surama
Surama can be reached from Georgetown on a journey that can last anything between 4 and 8 hours, as the road is not paved and the journey can be bumpy even during the dry season. On the way to Surama, it is possible to stop at the nearby Iwokrama Canopy Walkway, which is at around one hour drive and one of the most fun places to visit in Guyana.
Annai and the importance of education
For as small as it is, Annai has been doing an impressive job in preserving and promoting culture in Guyana. Little more than 300 people, most of them Makushi, live in this village, located at the edge of the Rupununi Savannah in the Upper Takutu – Upper Essequibo region.
Less of a tourist destination compared to Surama and Rewa, travelers who visit Annai usually do so in order to travel to other destinations, as there is an airstrip right at the back of Rock View Lodge, the only place to stay in the area that is geared to international tourists. It’s a pity, as this is a great starting point to explore more of this amazing part of the country and to enjoy its natural beauty.
Contrary to Surama and Rewa Ecolodges, Rock View is not a community lodge but it is owned by a private family: Colin Edwards, an English businessman, bought what used to be a cattle farm in 1992. Obviously, much of the local community is employed at this lodge, which like the rest of those I have mentioned is run in an eco-friendly manner and in complete respect of the local Guyanese culture.
One of the must sees in Annai is the local radio station. Located in the main square of the village, this frugally run radio station has been doing a great service to educate the local community about what happens in the region – any sort of social, political and cultural announcements are spread, along with a good deal of international and local music. But there’s more: this radio station constantly advocates the preservation of the local culture and way of life.
How to get to Annai and Rock View Lodge
Getting to Annai and Rock View Lodge is fairly easy: charter flights connecting it to Georgetown depart from the airstrip located right behind the lodge. Ground transportation is a bit more complicated, given the road conditions on this part of the country, but from Annai it is possible to reach Iwokrama Forest and Atta Lodge, Surama and Kwataman Landing, from where it is possible to charter boats to Rewa.
Have you ever been to Guyana? Which aspect of the culture in Guyana did you enjoy the most?
Legal Disclaimer: I was a guest of the Tourism Board of Guyana during my visit, and wish to thank them for the wonderful welcome and the incredible experiences. The views expressed in this post remain my own.
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