Back Dam

The sweet smell of sugarcane grows stronger as the road begins to erode, and it feels as if we are walking on a thin line of chocolate milk. We start taking shortcuts through the neon green brush and dodge unspoiled trees that I know only the Guyanese back here have named. I walk over puddles on impromptu wooden planks, their furry splinters brushing my feet; dirt begins to take refuge in my toenails. The deeper we go in, the louder the drums from the local cultural group become. The Rastamen frantically swing their dreadlocks to and fro in sync with the beats as we approach the cane field, looking up momentarily to acknowledge our presence. We begin to step in rhythm to the drums, as the performers beat their skins desperately, longingly and yet joyfully as practice for the upcoming show. They hit the drums with such ferocity that even my freckles feel as if they are dancing.

“Jah Bless, Sister Celeste,” the oldest man calls out to me as we pass their bamboo decorated commune, the furthest I’ve ventured outside town until this solemn march.

“Brooks, good afternoon! I’ll see you tomorrow!” I respond.

It is to his tiny cabin I go when I am tired of phonetically sounding out words all day long or when the students have usurped my energy. He makes me a vegetarian dish called ital (“Ital is vital, sis”) and we relax on wooden chairs, discussing how we can stop HIV from ravaging the country, how we can empower the youth, how the Guyanese can move their bodies in perfect timing to the rhythm of any song. A smile breaks across my face.

But it fades as quickly as it comes, the children’s defeated demeanors reminding me of our destination. I’m tired from the hot equatorial sun beating my mosquito bitten body. I want this ant-like procession of twenty small maroon and beige uniformed children and one “whitey” to end. The rows of eyes peering through the decrepit shack windows are beginning to peel off the layer of my forced oblivion, causing me to blush ferociously.

Usually I don’t mind the stares. Most times if I am walking by the local karaoke place on a weekend night, the owner will cajole me inside with promises of free rum and unlimited turns on the mic. He always wants me to sing Destiny Child’s “Independent Woman,” a song whose lyrics make the usually complacent women sing along in passionate defiance. They want their lives to ring true like the lyrics: The shoes on my feet/I’ve bought it/The clothes I’m wearing/I’ve bought it/The rock I’m rockin’/I’ve bought it/’Cause I depend on me. And for three voyeuristic minutes, they do. My white skin is their imaginary ticket out.

But here in the back dam, those women are mothers in faded second hand sweatpants who continue to squish squish their family’s clothes on wooden boards as they eye me up and down. Muscular fathers in frayed jean shorts stop and stare for a second and then just as quickly return to shaving the grass with a machete. As dirt-covered five-year-olds run around me, grinning in their underwear, my eyes are downcast. That my monthly volunteer salary is more than they make in one year seems ludicrously unfair. Each gaze reminds me of this fact, the stark difference between our birthrights embarrassingly transparent. In my skirt and sandals, I am the one who is naked.

We finally arrive at the canopy underneath the house just before the merciless rain begins. I try to squeeze into the back of the crowd next to the head teacher, Ms. Correia, hoping her cold detachment will shield me, but I am immediately handed off to the family. “To the front, to the front,” they say, my white skin earning me a seat next to the distraught mother. The other teachers, whose heritage includes slavery and indentured servitude, are ignored.

“It’s okay, Miss,” says Meganauth, a sweet overachiever who has become my favorite student. “Go.” He places his hand on my arm and gently nudges me.

“Yes. I know,” I say, giving him a wink out of habit. I take my place and look directly into the coffin.

My skin is usually a ticket for the things I enjoy: backstage passes to dancehall concerts, unlimited amounts of chicken and roti from my neighbors, dozens of lustful eyes following the sashay of my hips as I walk down the street, a little bit more rum in my cup. I didn’t know that sitting in the front row of a corpse was part of the package.

My students have scattered throughout the tiny space, seamlessly stepping into the various needed roles. Some play hostess, helping stir cook-up rice and handing out cups of Coke. Others act as greeters, meeting each new person who arrives with a half-smile as they wipe the mud caused by the downpour off their clothes. The timid are huddled in small groups on the outskirts, straining their necks and standing on their toes to catch a glance at Devina through the sweat-soaked backs facing them.

Devina lies there like a miniature bride in a beautiful white dress, her thin bones swallowed by the folds of the fabric. Her caramel skin is pristine. I barely remember her sitting quietly in the back row of my reading class. Until yesterday she hadn’t returned to my line of sight when I saw her picture on television as part of the nightly death announcements. She was smiling in a prematurely seductive red dress, long black hair swept up prom-style, next to a running text of family members in Guyana who would acutely feel this loss and relatives in Queens whose only connection to her were the bargain Gap clothes they sent in barrels. Had she lived, she would most likely have re-taken that same picture as she grew older, next time against the backdrop of a sunset with a rose in hand. She would have been proud of this photo and placed it on her desk at work, an example of the refreshingly undisguised Guyanese vanity.

I joined the Peace Corps to be part of the solution, to prevent deaths like this from happening, and to connect with a community outside my own. Yet Devina’s presence eluded me, blending in with all of the other faces taking up a seat in my classroom. I grip the wooden box and let the splinters dig through my fingers while the unrelenting raindrops continue their fury around me. Her body is a cold reminder that no matter how much knowledge I pass along, the woman on the corner will still make her cherry juice, the ferry will come and go, and children will inexplicably die long after I’ve left this town.

The air is suddenly still, humid. Devina’s peaceful display enrages me. All this because no one had ever handed her a silly asthma inhaler, I want to scream. I look up and hear silence, notice a calm resignation on the faces surrounding me. Their eyes shift to her as if to say: this is why we are called “Third World” and “developing.” They look at my skin: this is why you are not.

Caught in a post-colonial web of tragic contradictions, the Guyanese are at once formally free from their oppressors yet still bending to those with lighter shades of skin. But I don’t want this attention. I am not one of your captors! I didn’t rip Africans from their homeland to bring them here, like the British. I didn’t ravage Guyana’s land for its precious gold, like the Dutch. Don’t you see? I am one of you. I am a woman. I know how it feels to be treated like second or even third class.

But I would be lying. I am not Guyanese, was not raised in a country that is repeatedly confused with the African nation of Ghana. I may live on only $250 a month, but that will end when I return soon to good hospitals, to orderly lines, to a thriving stock market. I will go back to my all-white hometown of Levittown in Long Island and will again stare when I see the one black man walking its privileged streets.