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My Poor Guyana
By Richard Rupnarain
Guyana Journal, October 2006


Many people, especially the rich and successful, believe that poor people and poor nations are to be blamed for their predicament. According to them, poor people and impoverished nations are either lazy, or have made poor decisions, or have willfully supported corrupt governments and therefore are not deserving of sympathy, empathy, or assistance.

Smart people however believe that there are more serious answers to the cause of poverty. There is globalization. In order to attract foreign investors poor countries are forced to lower their standards, reduce wages and provide cheaper resources. There is political economics. Wars, hot and cold, instigated by the rich and powerful, have increased poverty and dependency. There is dumping. Even though the intention is good, as in food aid, in the end it is destructive because it undersells local farmers and ultimately affects, adversely, the entire economy of the nation. There is corruption. Sadly, this is not only limited to the governments of poor nations but extends to the “benefactor” nations that often have ulterior motives behind their acts of magnanimity. There are lending agencies. Programs such as the IMF and World Bank have been criticized for many years as causing poverty and hardship because of the Structural Adjustment Policies they have imposed upon nations to ensure debt repayment. These “adjustments” are often at the expense of vital things like health, education and development. There is war. War damages infrastructure and social services and results in a drastic reduction in average income and gross domestic product. There is the agricultural cycle. Droughts and flooding, natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and diseases, destroy crops and livestock that many depend on for a livelihood. There is colonization. Most colonies or former colonies have poor infrastructure because the colonizers were concerned only about developing local economies to the point where they can expropriate resources for their own economic growth and development. There is centralization of power. In many poor countries there is one dominant party responsible for making decisions. Not having a broader based representation results in neglect in certain communities in the country. There is social inequality. Social imbalance – different values being placed on genders, races, ethnic groups, and social classes, based on cultural or religious orientation, are often at the heart of much poverty. These are some of the reasons advanced by smarter people – academics, economists and social scientists – to explain poverty.

But as far as Brijnauth Balkissoon was concerned, neither of those two groups adequately explain why his beloved country of Guyana was as poor as a church mouse. The Bridge, as he was popularly known among villagers, always had another opinion about how things work and why things happen, and his explanations were always so passionately and fluently articulated that his lesser-learned comrades saw him as infallible, much like Roman Catholics see their Pope. The irony in all this is that Bridge never matriculated past third standard, never read even a comic book, and never even listened to the news. His explanation for dropping out of school is that he is an independent thinker, a man who can rationalize any and all problems using common sense. “Common sense,” he would always say, “is the best sense. That is why God gives everybody common sense. That is all you need in this world.”

And always, he would justify his belief by making reference to someone they all knew, who had a lot of education and yet found themselves in dire straits. Like Ramjit, who went to University of Guyana and got his BA in Social Sciences and came home one day to find his wife had left home with his best friend. Or Goolsarran, who could not fix a carburetor even though he had a Masters degree in Engineering. Or Manniram, who even though he studied long and hard at the agriculture school at Mon Repos, could not tell the difference between a breadfruit and a catahar. Or Nazim, whose father spent thousands of dollars to send him to America to study botany and who upon his return could not tell if pigeon pea was a fruit or a vegetable. Common sense, he would say, while tapping his right index finger against his temple, is all you need.

Not surprisingly, Bridge’s common sense approach to problem resolution had led to some interesting conclusions. Hiccough was the result of eating bird pepper without drinking water. Diabetes, or too much blood sugar, could be neutralized by anything bitter, and a surefire cure was a healthy dose of karila bitters every morning. Muscular cramp was the result of the congealing of blood in the muscles. Coconut oil was the best cure for a headache because it was the only substance that could penetrate the human skull. Shooting stars were flying saucers that appeared briefly to take pictures of earth and then cloaked themselves again. Fish that appeared in newly dug drains were formed in the clouds and brought down with the rain.

The Bridge had a theory about anything and everything and if he could not get into the conversation because of a lack of knowledge on the subject he would wrangle it in such a way that the discussion moved on to something he knew about.

That Saturday, as it approached noon and the start of the cricket match between teams from the East Coast and the West Bank, he sat quietly among his buddies – Boysie, Kamal, Kooblall, Harshan and Haniff – at the community center pavilion and stared with unblinking eyes at the empty pitch as Calypso music blared from a nearby jukebox. His friends, meanwhile, were engrossed with the cricketers who were warming up, stretching, practicing their catching techniques, and getting their gear together. Boysie Rambarran, observed that most of the cricketers were dressed in dingy attire and carried sub-standard equipment and he could not help being vocal in his dismay. “I don’t understand it. Why can’t the Sports Council help the cricket teams to buy some decent gear?”

“Because the government cut the budget for sports,” Kamal Hassan replied.

“But why? I don’t understand how they don’t have money! We have sugar, rice, bauxite, manganese, timber and gold and we are still among the poorest nations in the world. I think we are second to last, just a little better than Haiti. What they doing with all the money?” Boysie lamented.

“They thieving the money, what else? The government is,” Hanniff railed. “Burnham got all the money in Swiss bank.”

“I don’t doubt that the government is corrupt and that they are stealing the money. But I think that the real cause of our problems is the IMF. They forced us to devalue our currency and cut down on imports. Of course, the government banned all the East Indian people foods first, like potato and dhal,” Harshan offered.

“I think it is also because demand for sugar and bauxite has fallen. People are finding cheaper alternatives these days,” Kooblall added.

“Is not no alternatives,” Hanniff countered. “Since when people don’t need sugar and what substitute is there for aluminum? The British and the North Americans are just taking revenge on us for nationalizing their industries. We nationalized without preparing for the consequences. We paid them a dollar for their shares and now we need spare parts for the factory and machinery from them, and we want them to buy our products. We didn’t think of all the consequences. That is what the problem is.”

Then there was quiet. A quiet that says they must now defer to the Bridge. He was like the judge in the courtroom, always with the final word. Bridge clutched his brown Banks beer bottle between his palms and allowed the condensation to seep over his fingers and unto his boots. All the while he sat staring out in trance-like state at the empty pitch as though he was in deep philosophical contemplation. When he finally snapped out of his trance he bent his head towards his boots in the manner of someone in prayer. Finally, he lifted up his head, slowly and deliberately, staring out over the ball field, and spoke. “None of those are the reasons why we are poor,” he said, authoritatively, as if he was Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom.

“We are poor because we don’t have black gold and everybody knows that black gold is king.”

“King of where?” Boysie interrupted.

Kamal also interrupted. “I hear about white and yellow gold. But I never see black gold. Where do you find that?”

Bridge sighed. It was going to be a long day. “Black gold is oil, you mook!” he cried.

“Coconut or kerosene?” Kamal persisted.

“Oil! Oil! Fuel oil!” Bridge screamed.

“Okay, okay, I get it, go on.”

“Every country needs oil and those that do not have any are in the deepest trouble. We have to spend a great portion of our foreign exchange reserves just to buy oil and that is why there is no money for things like cricket gear. But that should never be.”

“Why? We need oil to keep the wheels of commerce and industry turning. We have no choice but to buy it. Why do you say that should never be?”

“Because we have plenty of oil right here.”

“You mean under this community center?” Kamal asked.

“In this country, you doce.”

The Bridge went on to explain that Guyana has the potential to become one of the richest countries in the world but that that potential is hidden, not so much under layers of rocks as by layers of ignorance and calculated deceit on the part of the multinational oil exploration corporations.

“Let me tell you,” he began, “I was there when Shell came to drill for oil off the Abary. I was working on the offshore rig, eighty miles out at sea.”

“How did you get a job with the white man. The white man is always asking for papers and you don’t have any,” Kamal interjected.

“Common sense! That is what I have,” Bridge reminded him.

“What did you do?” Kamal asked.

“They had lots of jobs to choose from: Driller, Derrickman, Shakerhand, Toolpusher, Floormen or Roughnecks, Motorman, Assistant Driller, Crane Operator, Roustabouts, Cleaner/Painter, Storekeeper, Mechanic/Electrician, Sub Sea Engineer, Rig Mechanic, Rig Electrician, Rig Welder, Barge Engineer, Ballast Controlman or Watchstander, Captain and Chief Engineer, Rig Medic and Safety Man. I worked as a Shakerman.”

“What is that?”

“Well, it’s a technical job. We had to pump mud down into the casings in order to bring up samples. I was an assistant Shakerman.”

“You mean an assistant mud man?”

Sensing an outburst of laughter, Bridge decided to elaborate. “A Shakerman is not what you think. It’s not mud like the mud on the dam. This is a different type of mud. It’s a chemical.”

“What color is it?” asked Kamal.

“Grey.”

“Is it soft.”

“Yes.”

“Sounds like mud to me.” They broke out in laughter.

“Aright, is just like mud. You satisfy? And I was a mud man. Assistant mud man. Happy?”

“Yes, so what do you do with the mud?”

“Well, as the drill goes down in to the earth and the diamond bit cuts away at the rocks it has to find a way to get rid of all the cuttings. So we pump down mud into the casing and that brings up all the stuff that was drilled out. It sounds easy but it was technical stuff. That is why they asked me to do that job.”

“You must have made a lot of money.”

“It was the best job, ever. We worked for fourteen days and had twenty-one off.”

“That is almost like three-fifths of the year off.”

“Exactly! And its not like the pay was cut or anything. Some of the guys made almost three hundred dollars a day.”

“How much did you make?”

“Me! I made three hundred a day. As I said, I was an assistant.”

“Wow! So why did you leave Shell if you had such a big job?”

“Because they closed down after two years saying that they didn’t find any oil. But they were lying.”

“Why do you say that?”

“First of all, I know they found oil. We were drilling, maybe for sixty days in a row, night and day, four shifts, and we had gone down, I don’t know, maybe three miles deep into the earth, when suddenly there was commotion in the Operations Room. That is a little room where they have all the equipment that measures oil saturation and density and stuff like that.”

“What was the commotion about?”

“Well, I asked the locals and nobody seemed to know and so that night, after my shift was over I passed by the Operations Room and noticed that it was empty. The operator had left for the cafeteria to get a bite. Man, you should see that cafeteria. It was open twenty-four hours a day, with food and juice galore, all free. These people went out of their way to make sure our time spent onboard was an enjoyable one. People said the accommodation wings we had met 4 and 5-star hotel standards even though we were living in the middle of the ocean. We had free 24-hour food service, free laundry and boarding, and the company paid for our travel costs.

“Anyways, I walked into the Room, quietly, like a cat, and then I spot this machine with this needle that was going up and down on the graph paper and the needle was scratching on the graph paper and it was going upwards, you know, like 80 degrees or so. Then I heard footsteps approaching and I left. But on my way back I passed by the room where Hans, the drilling engineer, stayed and I heard him talking to some other white men. So I grabbed a broom and butt around outside the door, like if I was a cleaner or something, and I listened to what they were saying. Sometimes they spoke to each other in Dutch and then they had this guttural laugh, Haw! Haw! Haw! you know like if they were trying to pronounce the laugh. They were in a celebratory mood, drinking Hennessey and eating hamburgers, and then amid the laughter I heard the geologist say, “Hans, we did it! Cheers!” and they all lifted their glasses and drank and then one by one began to pat each other on the back. Did what, I wondered. So I continued to bat around the door with the broom and listened. The engineer then said that the General Manager, who was stationed at the Head Office on Camp Street, was leaving for London now that Abary One was completed and that they should give him a farewell present and when one of the voices said it was a good idea and asked for suggestions, another voice recommended they give him a test tube with oil from the well. They all agreed and broke out in laughter. That is when I bolted out to my quarters.”

“What did you do?”

“That night I lay on my bed and could not sleep. The noise outside seemed louder at nights. I could hear the waves slapping at the huge legs of the rig. I could hear the mud pumps circulating drilling mud through the drill bit and the casing to cool and remove cuttings. I could hear the clanging of chains and metal as massive hoists were at work, lifting thousands of tons of pipe. I could smell the acid that was being poured down into reservoirs to facilitate extraction of the oil or mineral sample. I could even hear the guys next door blasting music in some foreign language. There were over a hundred of us on board at any one time, and several of the men were from Colombia and other South American countries.

“But I kept thinking about this oil and how everything in Guyana will change. We will be able to build nice communities and affordable housing for all. We will be able to build big highways and afford fancy cars. We will be able to put in air-conditioning in our homes and offices. We will be able to set up television stations and watch TV. No more will we be the eyesore of the Caribbean. No more will the Trinidadians treat us like hucksters and interrogate us at their airport. No more will the Bajans ridicule us for not having television. No more will we be known only for the Jonestown suicide. No more will the American and Canadian embassies give us a hard time to get visas. No more! No more! The tables will turn and everyone will want to do business with us. Everyone will want to be our friends. Just then another thought interrupted my vengeful musings. Why were the explorers not releasing this information to the Guyanese people? And why were they so secretive about their findings? Surely they had found oil. Else, how could they give the General Manager oil from Abary One if they didn’t find any? I was determined to find the answer.”

“What did you do?”

“As soon as day cleaned the next morning and we sat down to a continental breakfast in the cafeteria, I asked some of the boys how the drillers knew when they hit oil and they all said they heard that information came from the graphs. They did not know anything more. Then I found out that the Guyana government had a watchdog on board the rig, a geologist from the Ministry of Mines and Forestry, and it made me feel good to know that there were checks and balances and that the white man could not rip us off blind. My shift started at eleven that morning so I had some time to wander around the rig.”

“What was the rig like?”

“It was a semi-submersible rig, weighing about fourteen thousand tons, with huge cylindrical legs that served as buoyancy tanks to keep it afloat in the sea. The legs were anchored to the sea bed some fifteen hundred feet below the surface and the rig was lowered or raised by altering the amount of flooding in the buoyancy tanks. The platform was self-sufficient in energy and water needs, housing, electrical generation, water desalinators and all of the equipment necessary to process oil. Moored alonside was an a platform supply vessel that had brought provision and supplies, and anchored a few hundred yards off to the east was one of the tugs that had towed the platform to its location and which now served as a standby rescue and fire fighting vessel. Well, the morning shift was at work, fitting casings, adding lengths of pipe, pumping mud, and collecting samples for testing. It was hard and unrelenting work. With the cost of rig rental running into thousands per day the drillers could not afford to stop and so the drilling went on night and day. It was also dangerous work. Extracting volatile substances sometimes under extreme pressure in a hostile environment has its risks. But we were prepared for it.

“I stood along the railings and stared out in a south-westerly direction, hoping to see land but it was too hazy to see beyond a few miles. Below me the waters were churning, slapping at the huge legs and creating huge circles of white foam. Unlike the murky brown water at the shoreline here it was green and further out it turned blue so that you could not tell where the water ended and where the sky began. Birds were always present above the rig, and fish below, looking for scraps of food. From our vantage high above the waters we could see sharks and other large fishes and some of the boys even brought their fishing rods out and tried their hand at snaring baby sharks to make fish cakes. The drilling manager put a stop to it saying it was dangerous. But we enjoyed it while it lasted.

“After breakfast, everyone slated for the eleven o’clock shift went back to their rooms. It was really warming up and they all preferred to be in their cool air-conditioned rooms. But I stayed back. I wanted to speak to the Guyanese geologist. I went by the Operations Room and asked for him but the chap in there told me that he was out somewhere on the deck. I searched him out and imagine my shock when I found him sleeping on the deck with his feet up on a chair and his face covered with his hat. He was a tall, muscular chap with a big afro and he was dressed in a blue tee shirt and hard pants and steel tip boots. His skin was clean as a whistle and not a drop of sweat was on his face even though it was ninety degrees outside. He was so fast asleep he did not even hear when the helicopter landed on the pad less than thirty feet away or when it disembarked its cargo of rowdy workers who were coming back from offshore leave. Then I wondered how he could know what was going on unless he was in the Room. So I hung around until he awoke and then I approached him. I said, “Hi mister Lewis, how you doing?” He was not surprised that I knew his name. He said, “Good, man, and you?” Then I said, “Oh, just liming a little since my shift is over and it is still too bright for me to fall asleep.” I didn’t want to get down to brass tacks right away to make him suspicious. So I said, “I understand that you are the government geologist.” He said, “yes,” and wanted to know if there was a problem. I said there was no problem, that I just wanted to know how oil was formed at the bottom of the sea. On hearing of my feigned interest he raised up from his reclining chair, like a schoolboy who had the answer to a question, and said: “Well,” oil comes from the remains of tiny plants and animals that died a long time ago, million of years. After they died they sunk into the sand and mud at the bottom of the sea and over the years decayed in sedimentary layers. Because there was little or no oxygen present in those layers the microorganisms broke the remains into carbon-rich source rock. As new sedimentary layers were added the pressure on deposits, they exerted compounds that formed organic layers and this mixed with the sediments to form what they call intense pressure and heat on the source rock and the heat and pressure distilled the organic material into crude oil and natural gas. The oil then flowed from the source rock and accumulated in thicker, more porous limestone or sandstone we call reservoir rock. Then earth movements can trap the oil and natural gas in the reservoir rocks between layers of impermeable rock, or what we call cap rock, such as granite or marble.”

I said, “Wow! You really know your stuff, man. So how did the oil exploration people determine that oil might be out here, eighty miles from shore?”

“Oh, geologists use a lot of different techniques. Sometimes they use sensitive gravity meters to measure tiny changes in the Earth's gravitational field that could indicate flowing oil. Sometimes they use sensitive magnetometers to measure tiny changes in the Earth's magnetic field caused by flowing oil. In some cases they can detect the smell of hydrocarbons using sensitive electronic noses called sniffers. But the most common method is the use of seismology. They send shock waves through hidden rock layers and then interpret the waves that are reflected back to the surface," he explained.

“I was surprised to hear that these white men had to use all that fancy equipment to tell if there was oil off Guyana’s shore. I could tell them that by just looking at a map.”

“How so?” Balram inquired.

“Look, when you go home, take a map of South America and draw a curve through Trinidad, Venezuela and Surinam and tell me if that line does not pass through Guyana. And if those three countries have oil, doesn’t common sense tell you that we have to have oil too? Or would the oil stop at our borders?”

“You are right, my friend.”

“Good! Anyways, back to the Guyanese geologist. I asked him how he would know if they found oil. And guess what the man said? He said, “Boy, you better ask the geologist that question. He comes for a visit every now and again, but mostly he is stationed in the Georgetown office on Camp Street.” He then explained that he didn’t study oil exploration and that nobody trained him how to use or read the equipment in the Operations Room, but that the government wanted somebody to keep and eye on things and they sent him. He also said he wasn’t in the Operations Room because he did not want to feel like a mook so he just took the report from the Operators every morning and sent it to the Ministry by telex. You ever hear anything like that? He just takes what they tell him! Like them white man would tell him everything.”

“Exactly!”

“So what did you do?”

“Well, after I realized he did not know how to read the equipment I decided not to tell him about what I saw in the Room. Instead, I waited patiently in the cafeteria for the geologist, who was on board the rig at the time, to arrive for his supper. Mister Van Heusen, that was his name, was a lanky Dutchman, maybe fifty years old, with a serious look and he seemed always in a hurry. At first I was scared to talk to him but when the cook told me that he was a nice man I walked up to him and introduced myself. I told him I was really interested in oil drilling and exploration and asked him about his job. You know that makes people feel special. I asked him how will they know when they strike oil.”

“And what did he say,” Kamal asked.

“He said that based on the seismic reports and other data they can tell whether there is a prospective oil strike, but only by drilling can they really know if there is oil. They drill a surface hole down to a pre-set depth, which is somewhere above where they think the oil trap is located. Once they reach that pre-set depth they run and cement the casing into the hole to prevent it from collapsing in on itself. Then they lower gas sensors into the hole to take measurements of the rock formations there and measure the pressure.”

“So, get to the point man, you said you know they found oil. How did you know that?” Kamal cried.

“Like you are a Russian or what? Be patient! I am trying to teach you things. When I asked him how he would know if they had a good strike he said they have machines that measure gas saturation and stuff like that. Then I asked him where those machines were and he said they were in the Operations Room. Then I asked him what kind of reading would tell them if they found gas in commercial quantities and he said they needed a high percent of gas saturation. When I asked him if eighty percent was high, he said, yes. But I didn’t tell him I saw the machine in the room scratching the graph paper at eighty degrees, and of course I didn’t ask him about the commotion among the white men on the rig the night before and why they were celebrating and drinking.”

“Okay, so tell me, “Kamal insisted, “why would the white man spend millions of dollars to drill for oil and when he finds it he just removes his rig and leaves the country? Tell me, why?”

“Because, my stupid friend, this country going socialist and we are nationalizing multi-national industries left, right and center. You think the white man will want to say that he found oil knowing that the government will nationalize everything? Those people are not stupid. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars of their shareholders monies in geological surveys and exploration costs. Do you think they will risk having their investment nationalized for a dollar? They will wait until the CIA overthrows the government or when a pro-West government takes over the country then they will re-open the oil wells.”

“You mean they lock up the oil under the sea?”

“Yes, man. The geologist told me that if they don’t want to bring up the oil right away, like when winter comes and frozen ice forces work to a halt, or if the ruling government is unstable or manifests devious intentions, or if the price of world oil has fallen, the explorers will connect a multi-valve structure called a Christmas Tree to the top of the tubing and cement it to the top of the casing. And I know that is what they did to our oil.”

“How do you know this?”

“I suspected it when the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission said Oil company could not test Abary One because of difficulties.”

“What difficulties?”

“They were not specific about the details but common sense tells me that it has something to do with the Abary well falling in the territory under dispute between Guyana and Suriname.”

“What do you mean? What does Suriname have to do with all this? I thought we were friends with Suriname. We share the same kind of history.”

“You would think so, right? Well, the border dispute was never really an issue when the British owned both Berbice and Suriname.”

“You mean Suriname was a British colony too?”

“Yes, man, Suriname was changing hands between Netherlands and the British as fast as you change your clothes. But finally the British handed over Suriname to the Dutch.”

“So, didn’t they settle the boundaries at that time?”

“Not really. They just carried on with demarcations established since the seventeenth century. And at that time no one bothered with whether the boundary line was ten degrees east or thirty degrees east of north.”

“Why?”

“Because that area was not of any significance at all. They saw it as a relatively worthless realm where a few farmers and some poor fishermen made a living. But now, when it is believed that the area might be a rich oil reserve the Dutch raised up the issue and claims that the territory is theirs.”

“So are they claiming Berbice as theirs?”

“No, man, they read the agreement to mean that since Berbice is deemed to be the territory west of the west bank of the Corentyne river that they own the river in its entirety. And then they claim that the territory out at sea, ten degrees east of true north, starting somewhere around No. 61 village, is theirs. That means they are trying to say that the area where the oil was located belongs to them.”

“No. 61 village. My aunty lives there!”

“Then she might be a Dutch woman. Who knows?”

“How much oil is there?”

“About fifteen billion barrels.”

“Maybe the Dutchmen will instigate Suriname to claim Berbice as their territory and then if they win the case they will reopen the well. You see, the Netherlands, of which the Dutch company is a part, has a vested interest in Suriname, even though they gave them their independence in 1975. They still have a lot of trade and development agreements with the former colony and so they stand to gain a lot from all of this.”

“And we stand to lose.”

“Of course! The biggest losers are the rising middle-class who risk falling back into lower economic strata of society to join the poor.”

“What about the poor people?”

“Well, they can’t get any poorer, can they?”

In any event, there you have it! The white man is hiding our oil. And that is the real reason why Guyana is so poor.”

“And to think that all the time I used to believe that it is because of government corruption, bullyism, incompetence, pressure from multi-national corporations and international monetary institutions. But it just goes to show what I know,” Kamal muttered.

“And I went to UG and did Economics and still didn’t know that,” Boysie lamented. “Thank goodness for Bridge.”

The Bridge leaned his head to the right and tapped at the side of his forehead with his index finger. “No, man, thank goodness for common sense. Now, let’s watch the game.”

© Richard Rupnarain


Note: This story contains names of people, places and events. Any resemblance to actual persons – living or dead – places, things or events is unintentional and purely coincidental, or intended as a parody.
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