Paralysed with fear in Guyana

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Much of my time in Guyana is spent trying to not be afraid – as much as some people would like me to be. Fear is often seen as a positive rather than a negative sentiment. To be fearless is to be careless, to invite trouble on yourself.

Fear can be a necessary emotion, like pain. It tells us something is wrong, and that we need to do something about it. But while pain ends as soon as the treatment begins working, fear doesn’t. It sticks around long after the danger has passed – knotting itself into your guts like a cancer so you can no longer tell if it’s your instinct or fear talking.

Don’t leave your bike there. Don’t walk there. Don’t take the bus. Don’t go there alone. Don’t trust them. Don’t trust anyone. Watch what you say to who. Don’t tell them you’ve gone away. Get extra grills. Don’t go to Guyana, fullstop. 

Sometimes the advice is wise, sometimes it’s necessary, sometimes it’s not. Deciding which is which is not always easy. And before you know find yourself being ‘safe rather than sorry’ about everything. Just stepping out of the house feels reckless.

One of the first things that fear destroys is trust. That’s why receipts are stamped by someone who’s not the cashier, why there are bag bays in superstores, why you need your ID to pay by card at a supermarket, why people are reluctant to advertise their prices, why the customs inspector at Guyana Post Office bore holes through the soap I was sending to a friend – testing, presumably, for drugs.

It seems unnecessarily suspicious, but then I haven’t experienced what happens when these trusts are betrayed.

I haven’t lived through times when the possessions I broke my back to buy were stolen from under my nose. Or when family and friends deceived me for their own gain. I haven’t had someone pull a knife or gun on me. I haven’t had someone threaten my life for just speaking my mind. I haven’t had my front door beaten down (well, a couple of thieves tried to kick my door down once years ago in the UK but they didn’t get through).

Perhaps if that had happened to me again and again I would not be able to dismiss the fear so quickly.

The problem with living in fear, though, is that while you may stop the bad things happening – you also stop the good. How many innovative ideas have never been realised because someone was worried a rival would steal or copy them? How many films or albums sit on hard drives, safe from pirates but unseen? How many frightened people spend sleepless nights or nervous days, waiting for what they see as the inevitable? How many beautiful relationships have never begun because of a fear of what could go wrong? How many leaders have never taken the lead because it was less risky or scary to continue with the status quo?

Growing up, my dad often quoted President Roosevelt as saying, ‘The only thing to fear is fear itself’. It was part of Roosevelt’s inaugural address on being elected in 1933 – at a time when America was in the grip of the Great Depression. Fear was something he tried to banish from the minds of his electorate. Today, leaders fan the flames of fear to get into power – and then to maintain their grip on it.

Speaking to my Communications students about ethics in the media, I showed them an Al-Jazeera video analysing media manipulation in Kenya, which is due to go to the polls – like Guyana – in 2020. Like Guyana, Kenyan elections are often beset by ethnic tensions and fierce political rivalry. The video showed a campaign ad that played on its viewers’ worst fears, imagining a future Kenya where communities are removed from their homes, where there is no money for clean water, and where women are giving birth in the streets.

What fear-mongering can Guyanese expect in the coming few years from all political parties? Are we ready to withstand it, to question it? Are we willing to criticise parties for using fear tactics? As internet connectivity spreads across the country and sensationalist ‘news’ websites mushroom, how will GECOM or the GPA guard against the spreading of fake, malicious and prejudicial coverage without trampling on press freedoms?

Guyana is a scary place for many people, especially those Guyanese living overseas who wrap themselves in a nostalgic, rose-tinted view of Guyana – while being terrified to actually step foot in the country they rhapsodise about. Yet is it really the worst place in the world? Sometimes you would think so.

A neighbour stops me almost every day to share a new fear. An errant relative. An unknown figure on the street. A particular corner where you could get mugged around 1pm. “Girl, I frighten”. She tries to pass on her fears, and seems almost disappointed if I don’t share in them or immediately pledge to change my habits.

There are some fears that are justified and real. But when every decision we make is an act of fear, we become paralysed by it.

[Main image: Image from page 130 of “Natural history of Selborne and observations on nature [microform]” (1904), via Flickr]

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