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Guyana Museum of African Heritage

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To give you a bit of background my mother’s family is from the South American country Guyana. When I speak to a lot of people they generally haven’t heard of the country unless they’re from New York or the Caribbean themselves. Guyana is notable for being the only country in South America where English is the primary language. As a result of Guyana being a former British colony and bordering the Caribbean Sea, it is still considered a part of the Caribbean and the West Indies.

My mother, her parents and siblings, and several other extended family members emigrated to America between the 60s to the early 90s. As a child, I visited a few times but several years had passed since my last visit.

My grandmother Ethleen Elizabeth Watson (née Harry).

In 2016, when my grandmother passed away her final wishes were to be returned to Guyana for her burial. I spent a day traveling from Atlanta to Orlando to Georgetown, Guyana and then onwards to the New Amsterdam, Berbice area where my mom grew up. Because the trip was somewhat unexpected and planned at the last minute we only spent a few days in the country. This offered just enough time to visit a few family members and attend my grandmother’s funeral.

It was an incredibly sad occasion but it offered an opportunity to meet family members as an adult that I had not seen since childhood. I also had the opportunity to reconnect with my great-great-aunt and my grandmother’s mother, my great-grandmother. I began having regular conversations with my great-grandmother over the phone when I returned home. From these conversations, I learned a lot about my great-grandmother and other members of the family who had already passed away before I was born or when I was still quite young.

My great-grandmother Linette Ismay Crawford (Stada Granny)

A little more than a year after my grandmother passed away the family found out that my great-grandmother was also terminally ill. My mother and I decided to return to Guyana in hopes of seeing and spending time with her before she passed away. Once more we spent about a day traveling from Atlanta to Miami to Georgetown and then onwards to Berbice. Unfortunately, my great-grandmother passed away while we were en route.

My mother and I ended up spending three weeks in Berbice as we waited for more family to arrive and for the funeral to take place. My great-grandmother had played a huge role in the lives of and in raising several other family members. Given a bit more advance notice more members of the family were able to travel back to Guyana to mourn and pay tribute to her life. Once again a sad occasion had a silver lining because my great-grandmother’s funeral became an unofficial family reunion.

I spent nights at the wake listening to stories about my great-grandmother and other family members. Something you should know is that my great-grandmother was a tiny woman but an absolute ball of fire in human form. There were stories upon stories about events from her life, her shenanigans, disagreements, and church lady beefs. During one trip up the Courantyne coast with my great-great-aunt (my great-grandmother’s sister), we sat in the car and I asked her questions about herself, my great-grandmother, their parents, and other family members that I’d either never met or could no longer remember. I still look back on it as one of the saddest but also one of the happiest and most memorable experiences in my life thus far.

In addition to the passing of my grandmother and my great-grandmother we also experienced a few other losses around this time. My great-grandmother was 92 when she passed away. She had lived a long life and had seen and experienced a lot in her years. So it was sad not so much because she passed away but rather that it was unexpected and she had such a presence In the family that her not being here anymore was deeply felt.

My great-great-aunt Mary (Vera) Crawford.

Another silver lining was that my great-great-aunt’s 99th birthday was just a few weeks away. Realizing that tomorrow isn’t promised for anyone we celebrated before everyone returned home. We held on to the hope that she would be able to cope with the loss of her sister and we would be able to celebrate her 100th birthday in a large celebration the following year.

I think I’ve mentioned it before but I’m a huge history buff. I’ve loved history since school and I think the interest comes from listening to family stories as a kid. Whenever my family has a gathering of at least a few people and an environment that lends itself to chatting it’s inevitable that stories from long ago will be shared. It’s gotten to the point where when my mom now tells stories I already know the punchline before she gets to the end and can add reminders along the way for the details that she sometimes forgets. Although I’ve heard these stories countless times before I still love hearing them now.

Growing up I’d heard stories about funny and interesting tidbits from the lives of my family members. But aside from a few prominent figures and events I really didn’t know much about my personal motherland, Guyana. As I got older I started asking my mother, grandmother, and grandfather questions about our family history, what the country was like when they were growing up, and about the country’s history in general. From these conversations, I learned a bit about the country of Guyana and its people.

In March 2019, my mom and I once again made the day-long journey to Guyana. But given that this was for a joyous occasion we decided to make a full vacation of it and spent a few days in the capital, Georgetown. While there we visited a few restaurants and tourist attractions which included the zoo, the 1763 Monument, and the Guyana Museum of African Heritage.

I found out about the Guyana Museum of African Heritage online and we got up bright and early one day and made the trek from our hotel to the museum which was located about a 30-minute walk away. The museum isn’t huge and from the outside, it doesn’t really look like a museum or at least not like the museums in America. When we turned through the street we thought we had the wrong address as the area to which Google Maps was guiding us looked like a residential area. But it turns out that the Museum is housed within what was probably a house. It’s flanked on both sides by two large houses so it’s rather easy to think that you’re at the wrong place.

When we entered we found a few workers sitting at a table near the entrance. They welcomed us in and guided us upstairs to view the art and artifacts on display. The Guyana Museum of African Heritage features a lot of original and replicated African crafts and works of art. There are various types of figures and tools carved from wood, stone, brass, ivory, etc. The thing that was really cool about the museum is that it doesn’t just present a lot of historical facts but rather uses the crafts to explain African history as it relates to Guyana as well as African culture.

The museum wasn’t very busy so we were fortunate to have one of the workers guide us around this part of the museum and provide additional background on the items that we were viewing. Along with the pieces of art on display, there’s an info card that details who / where it was created and sometimes a blurb that provided additional information about its cultural use or significance.

Ndyuka Women's Decorative Paddles

There are decorative paddles, calabashes, and stools carved from wood. When you look closely at these items, they have very intricate designs with carvings that are incredibly detailed. Our guide (unfortunately, I didn’t write her name down) explained that these paddles and some of the other items displayed nearby were created by a Ndyuka community that lives in Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana).

The Ndyuka are one of several groups of people referred to as Maroons. I’d previously heard of the Maroons in Jamaica who were enslaved people that escaped into the interior. I thought the term “Maroon” referred specifically to this group in Jamaica. But she explained that the term is actually used to describe enslaved people throughout the “New World” who escaped and created their own independent settlements and communities.

Guyana’s 1763 Monument, Neg Mawon, a kola nut bowl from the Yoruba Tribe of Nigeria, and a Bust of a Woman from the Fulani Tribe of Nigeria.

Some of the art was created by people of the Caribbean but some of the pieces featured are from areas of Africa from which the enslaved people of Guyana would have originated. For example, there is a replica of Guyana’s 1763 Monument as well as the iconic Haitian runaway slave statue Neg Mawon. The museum also features a kola nut bowl from the Yoruba Tribe of Nigeria, a Bust of a Woman from the Fulani Tribe of Nigeria, and an Oware or Mankala game board from the Akan people of Ghana. I was actually very excited when I saw the game board because I remembered playing a board game in elementary school that looked very similar and also used small stones or pebbles as pieces.

Oware (or Mankala) game board from the Akan people of Ghana

The lower level of the Guyana Museum of African Heritage doesn’t contain any pieces of art but instead has a lot of text about various historical figures and events. One of the walls focuses on the achievements and accomplishments of Guyanese women of African descent. Many of the women featured worked in education, healthcare, and politics. There is another wall that I believe focused on the achievements and accomplishments of Guyanese men of African descent (or at least I don’t remember seeing women on that wall). Many of the men are notable for their involvement with cricket, other sports, music, and politics.

The remainder of the lower level provides a detailed explanation of the 1763 Berbice Slave Rebellion. By no means is this a fancy or state-of-the-art museum so the exhibit is not interactive. Instead, there are large posters that feature text and a few images which explain the conditions that caused the rebellion, why it failed, and the aftermath. In the past I’d heard of Cuffy and that a Slave Rebellion had taken place but nothing about the details. It was interesting to get a better understanding of what the country was like at that time and the intricacies of the Slave Rebellion.

I love history and I love museums so the Guyana Museum of African Heritage was a very easy sell for me. The museum is funded by the government so admission was free. But, I was surprised that when I mentioned it to my family and friends that live in Guyana many of them weren’t aware of its existence or had never visited. A few people had heard of the museum and had attempted to visit but couldn’t find it. It’s relatively close to some other tourist attractions but depending on where you are in town it can be a bit out of the way.

If you’re in Georgetown and have an hour or two to spare I definitely recommend visiting the Guyana Museum of African Heritage. The museum doesn’t have its own website but does have a Facebook Page, entry on Explore Guyana, Google results, and also has info available on a few Guyana government websites. It’s actually quite easy to find with Google Maps although the houses nearby may make you second guess the directions. I don’t think the museum would be that great for young kids as it requires a fair amount of reading. I imagine it’s probably a bit tight to move around if there are a lot of people so I wouldn’t recommend going as a group of more than a few people.

I’m planning to re-launch my lifestyle website, SchweetLife.com, in the near future. One of the posts that I’m working on is a more detailed account of my trips to Guyana. That post will include some of the other attractions that I visited as well as trips to the market and local restaurants. I’ll update these show notes with a link when that post goes live on the Schweet Life website.

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