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In Guyana, saving an Indigenous language from dying out with its last speakers

  • There are only about 2,000 speakers of the Indigenous Carib language left in Guyana, most of them elderly, raising concerns that the language could soon die out.
  • But in the remote village of Kwebana, a young primary school teacher and a community health worker are spearheading a project to save the language with the help of its remaining speakers.
  • They’re working with Indigenous women as part of an empowerment program that’s taking on the challenge of not just preserving the language, but embedding it in the lives of the younger generation.

The Carib language is slowly disappearing from the villages of its descendants in Guyana. But in the remote village of Kwebana in the country’s Barima-Waini region, a schoolteacher, a community health worker and a group of women are pursuing revival efforts to save the language of their community.

Kwebana is a sprawling village of vast timber resources. A budding tourism destination, the village is accessible by road and boat. It sits along the right bank of the Waini River, a main waterway that cuts across the northern section of Guyana.

To get to this remote village from Georgetown, the capital, one must first travel to the port of Charity, the business hub at the end of the public road heading north along the country’s Essequibo Coast. From there, passenger boats with outboard engines take the traveler further north along the Pomeroon River, crossing the Atlantic Ocean briefly before entering the Moruca sub-region at the village of Santa Rosa, considered by authorities as Guyana’s most populous Indigenous village.

From there, after an hour’s drive along a 35-kilometer (22-mile) dirt road, the village of Kwebana lies in the distance. In all, the trip takes six to eight hours from the capital city.

Several families in Kwebana live along creeks that feed into the Waini River. Most of them are farmers who relocated to the areas after finding fertile land to cultivate their crops over the years. Such was the case during the 1950s when the first Indigenous settlers put down roots in Kwebana.

A view of the waterfront area of the village of Kwebana. The Waini River, which is seen in the background, connects the village to other communities in the North West District. The river is also used to access the Atlantic Ocean by fishermen. Image courtesy of Alva Solomon.

Indigenous traditions

The Kwebana residents practice their traditional life skills daily. These include hunting and fishing. Food is never in short supply here since a simple trip to the nearby river and creeks can net various species of fish. On other occasions, a hunter may appear with wild meat and sell it out within minutes. For lunch or dinner, a serving of wild hog soaked in a peppery sauce with cassava bread is a common sight in village households.

But while these traditions are passed down the generations, the Carib language is one tradition that tends to get ignored. Today, there are fewer than 10 people in Kwebana who can speak the language fluently, and all of them are elderly.

In October 2020, Althea Harding returned to Kwebana, the village of her birth, as a teacher at the primary school, after three years of university studies in Georgetown. At the time of her return, the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, and she grew worried about the future of the residents.

She was particularly worried about the last few elderly women and men who speak the Carib language.

“They are the ones we have to rely on as part of our plans to teach the young ones and other residents Carib,” Harding told Mongabay in an interview in the village in September. At the time, the village was celebrating Indigenous Heritage Month, marked every year throughout Guyana.

Primary school teacher Althea Harding dries several cakes of cassava bread at her home at Kwebana. Cassava bread, which is a traditional Indigenous staple, is used by every household at the village. Harding says she holds her traditional roots close to her heart. Image courtesy of Alva Solomon.

While completing her university studies, Harding said, she began examining ways in which she could contribute to the ongoing development of her village. Since she studied administration as part of her education degree program, she looked at what areas of development were needed in the short and long term. She said she decided her immediate plan would be to engage the elderly residents who speak the Carib language.

In the long term, her plan is to create a Carib language dictionary.

As Harding set about her plans, a fellowship geared toward Indigenous women’s empowerment caught her attention in February 2021. After considering the opportunity and discussing it with her relatives and other villagers, she applied for the fellowship, and two months later received the good news: she’d been selected to be a part of Conservation International’s Indigenous Women’s Fellowship program.

“I was elated because as part of my project proposal, I included plans for a Carib revitalization project,” Harding said. “The language is dying here and I want to ensure our children can speak fluently in the language before it is too late.”

Her women’s empowerment project commenced in mid-2021 with more than two dozen women, mainly mothers, participating. “The women are the bedrock of the family and I know with their influence, the language can be saved,” she said.

Harding described the women of Kwebana as ambitious and progressive individuals — “go-getters” who don’t just sit around. “Our women are strong, independent and determined so I know they will ensure that the language is handed down to the youths of the village,” she added.

The group of women who are participants in the Carib revitalisation project. Seated at left is primary school teacher, Althea Harding, who is leading the project. Image courtesy of Alva Solomon.
Several youths engaged in a game of cricket at the waterfront area of Kwebana. Image courtesy of Alva Solomon.

Getting youths involved

At Kwebana, if one strikes up a conversation with the villagers about the language, more than likely young people will scoff at the idea of speaking in Carib. Conversely, the older residents would either stress the need for the residents to preserve the language, or express sorrow about not speaking in Carib much earlier in their lives.

Former village leader Godfrey Wilson said he had some regrets about not paying attention to earlier opportunities offered by the elders of the village. “It is a something that we need to do, we need to gather all the speakers of Carib at one central location and let them speak the language so that we can let the village know how important the language is,” he said in an interview one afternoon at his shop.

He said time may be against the villagers since only the elders at the village can speak the language fluently. Among them is his mother, Virginia Wilson. Carib was the only language she spoke as a child, until her teenage years when her parents moved from another remote riverside village. These days, she sings songs in Carib.

In an interview at Wilson’s home, she recounted her childhood and her affinity with the language.

Virginia Wilson grew up in the village of Waikaribe, more than an hour away from Kwebana by speedboat. As a child, her parents spoke the Carib language at home, and as such Virginia and her siblings, relatives and friends communicated fluently in the language.

She only started learning English after a group of Christian missionaries visited and set up a church in the village. Later in her adult life, she said, after she moved to Kwebana, she knew only a few words in English.

Godfrey Wilson said the Kwebana village council, in collaboration with the government, undertook efforts in 2017 to preserve the language. Classes were held at the village hall and residents were encouraged to participate. His mother, who was more mobile at that time, was one of the contributors to the project. Initially the number of participants was high, Godfrey said, but as time passed, the numbers dropped and the project eventually came to a halt. But although the classes stopped, a few residents had learned to speak a few words in Carib, including greetings.

A female participant completes her bookwork during a remedial class for women involved in the Carib revitalization project. Image courtesy of Alva Solomon.

Optimism of a revival

For Harding, the task of reviving that effort may appear to be an uphill one, but she says she’s determined to accomplish her goal. Thus far, she’s undertaken research and verbal sessions with the women. She plans to engage the Ministry of Education or the University of Guyana’s language unit on the subject, since she notes that it will make for valuable futuristic enhancement of the language.

Community health worker Hilton Sampson is providing support for Harding’s project. He was a participant in the 2017 effort to revive the language, and during those sessions he was tasked with documenting information. He still has the books in which he wrote his notes, and says he’s optimistic that the women of Kwebana will be fluent Carib speakers in a matter of years.

For Harding, the thought of the villagers being able to converse in Carib is a dream. She said that since other Indigenous traditions are evolving through each generation in the village, she believes the language revival will also be strengthened and embedded in everyday life in Kwebana.

Godfrey Wilson says he’s also optimistic. In fact, he suggested that the village council at Kwebana undertake plans to ensure the language is spoken in every household. He said that while it may sound ambitious, given the reality of today’s world where social media and mobile phones are common in the village, he believes the residents, particularly the youths and those involved in church-related activities, will make an effort to speak the Carib language.

Community Health Worker, Hilton Sampson (in forefront) poses with a group of women who are engaged in the Carib revitalization project. Sampson teaches the women various subjects, including the Carib language, as part of a wider women empowerment project. Image courtesy of Alva Solomon.

Linguistic research compiled by various Indigenous organizations show that Guyana only has around 2,000 Carib speakers. And while there’s not much more detailed information on the subject, Indigenous Guyanese are aware of the villages where the language is still spoken.

When the U.N. declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages, it said at the time that the languages play a crucial role in our daily lives. “The ongoing loss of Indigenous languages is particularly devastating, as the complex knowledges and cultures they foster are increasingly being recognized as strategic resources for good governance, peacebuilding, reconciliation, and sustainable development,” the U.N. said.

Among its resolutions, the U.N. said it would mobilize stakeholders to drive empowerment through capacity building. Harding said it’s this stand taken by the global body that she’s pursuing. And she remains, as ever, optimistic.

Banner image: Two women paddle along the Waini River near to the village of Kwebana. Canoes are a primary means of travel used by villagers. Image courtesy of Alva Solomon.