Every country has a slightly xenophobic attitude towards foreigners. In the UK, foreigners are often labelled (consciously or otherwise): People Like Us, Exotic or Inferior – depending on where they’re from. In America, according its presidents anyway, you have collectives of nations like the “Axis of Evil” and “Shithole countries”. In Guyana, the debate seems more internal. Foreigners and foreign things are good or bad depending on who you speak to, when you speak to them and who’s asking.
Foreigners tend to stand out in Guyana – especially if you’re white. When I visit the UK, it takes me a while to readjust because seeing white people here is still worthy of a second glance and a few questions: usually “What are they doing here?” That’s often coupled with a certain amount of suspicion: “What are they really doing here?” Which is not really surprising when you look back at the kind of projects white people historically spearheaded in Guyana: you know, slavery, indentureship, political interference, exploitation of minerals…
“White people are the devil,” a Guyanese friend jokes – a statement pregnant with memories and incredulity.
It can be pretty uncomfortable if you are white, then, to come to Guyana. Your motivations may be questioned. People may joke about the colonial legacy of your country or assume you’re a do-gooding volunteer/jumping on the oil bandwagon/here to spy. You’ll most likely be called “whitey”. In white-majority countries, white people are not used to being othered. They are usually the norm – “flesh coloured”. The best response you can have as a white person in Guyana is to wear the name “whitey” lightly, don’t take it personally, and recognise where it’s coming from.
Despite this wariness of people from “outside”, Guyanese are often accused (usually by each other) of being “foreign minded”. So while most people talk patriotically of their country and fiercely defend it against criticism or “watery wilderness” type stereotypes, many are simultaneously seeking ways out – whether it’s for education, healthcare, a job, or a whole new life. Particularly if they’re not living the “good life” that is possible in Guyana – especially if you have money. One of the first questions you’re asked as a foreigner in Guyana is “When are you leaving?” I’m not sure if it’s an assumption – or a hope.
Preferential treatment still happens too (and some of it I’ve experienced). I’ve heard of foreigners being served before Guyanese customers who were already there. Of foreigners being given more respect and attention in the workplace – while local colleagues with the same, if not better, ideas are ignored. Of foreigners being allowed in or not questioned about their presence in certain spaces. In response, some visitors don their metaphorical (or real) safari suit and lap it up, slipping back into a role etched over hundreds of years: the saviour, the exploiter, the explorer. Others question or challenge it, and work to decolonise their own minds and others’.
Of course, what response you get depends what kind of foreigner you are. Guyana too has its classifications. Just look at the visa requirements being considered for Cuban visitors. The reports of Haitians being extorted for money on arrival. The comments dished out about Venezuelan or “Spanish” women in particular, in relation to their designs on Guyanese men, clothing, language, employment status, etc. A students tells me she wants to write her next assignment about how Guyanese treat migrants and why, another worries about not being able to understand those chattering away in Spanish.
It’s not unusual. Every country around the world has their own version of this. But what I think is different in Guyana is how it views its own citizens when they go overseas: both those who go away and stay away, and those who go away and then return – the “comebackees”. I’m not sure what the criteria is: if you go away for one year are you a comebackee? What about five years? Or is it if you come back with a new accent, wardrobe and attitude?
Again, if you look at the context, you kind of understand why this is the case. The ABC countries love telling Guyana what to do, when to do it, and how. And the Guyanese diaspora are sometimes no different. Through social media feeds, WhatsApp messages, local news reports and occasional visits, they cobble together their reality of what Guyana is – and where it should be. Some offer welcome, supportive words (or dollars) to their brothers and sisters back home, some shout from the sidelines (or the witness stand), others are frustrated or inspired enough that they move back to “do their bit”.
Some of those who return make it, others don’t and return from whence they came – saddened they couldn’t stick the course, grumbling about being “unappreciated” or frustrated by what they see as the slow pace of change. The ones who stay don’t always have an easy ride and talk of having to battle disappointed families, mocking friends, the rumour mill and anti-comebackee rhetoric to re-establish themselves as worthy of being Guyanese. Is it this hard in other countries?
Perhaps one way for new arrivals (diaspora or otherwise) to feel welcome and dispel suspicions is to be humble. Don’t expect everyone to be thrilled you’re here. Don’t over-estimate your importance to Guyana. And don’t assume that people here want the same things you do. Maybe they don’t want to set up a website to export their craft products overseas. Maybe they don’t want to monetize a cultural practice passed down to them over generations. Maybe they don’t want an overpriced coffee and a cold sandwich for lunch. Maybe they don’t want an internet hub, thank you very much. Maybe they don’t think there’s anything wrong with going barefoot. Maybe they like the physical feel of a stamp rather than an e-receipt. Maybe they relish in conducting business in Creolese and don’t want to talk about “local content” and hand out business cards.
Guyana is on the cusp of great change, if the oil prospects are to be believed. In a discussion the other day, the speaker asked: How is the country going to deal with an influx of foreigners, foreign ideas and foreign expectations. It made me think. Will Guyana lash out against these outside influences or embrace them? Will the Guyanese identity be pushed forward proudly, or left to melt away? Will foreigners be handed a spoon or roti and told to eat properly, or will Guyanese quietly switch what cutlery they put in the napkin?
Guyana is not an island, and so embracing its neighbours or new partners is necessary to some extent – partly because we live in a global society, and partly because there are opportunities to be had. But it’s also not “undiscovered” land – it wasn’t when the Spanish colonialists arrived, and it certainly isn’t now the oil ship is pulling up anchor. There are values here about how you treat people. There are diverse cultures. There is great knowledge. I hope we’re able to sort the imported wheat from the chaff – without forgetting there’s homegrown plantain, eddo and sweet potato flour that taste pretty sweet too.