Merle Kindred shows off one of the examples of colourful embroidery she picked up while on a Cuso International-sponsored posting in Guyana. Steve Kidd/Western News

South Okanagan woman returns from 6 months in Guyana

After five decades of service work, Merle Kindred shows no signs slowing down

Volunteering in foreign countries and remote areas might seem like a young person’s game, but as she approaches 70 years of age, Merle Kindred is looking back on more than 50 years of volunteering to do service work in countries ranging from to Jamaica to India to Guyana.

She was working in Guyana last year when she realized the posting marked five decades since she first set out in 1967, straight out of college.

Related: Five decades of volunteering

Guyana was no “sun and sand” posting. The country is on the UN watchlist as a potentially dangerous place, struggling with poverty, especially in the capital, Georgetown, and being a conduit for the South American drug trade.

Kindred describes it as “the worst assignment I’ve had in being in and out of a variety of countries over the last half-century.” Which makes it all the more surprising that she went back to Guyana this year for Cuso International.

“It was mostly because I was stuck in Georgetown all the time. I couldn’t get out,” said Kindred, referring to her 2017 posting. It was towards the end of that trip while visiting a remote region that she decided she wanted to go back.

That remote area, the Pomeroon-Supenaam, is about four-and-a-half hours from Georgetown, a journey she describes as “road, river, road, river, road, river.” No mention of bridges.

“The whole area is rivers and rainforest, and it’s also savannah. But this is moist savannah. So it is wet and it is wetter,” said Kindred.

The main village she worked in, Wakapao, is only reachable by speedboat or canoe and has a population of about 5,000 people.

Merle Kindred poses with some of the youth from Akawini, one of the villages she worked with while in Guyana. Submitted photo

Kindred consulted with the village leader and council to work out what she could help them with. It turned out there were two items high on their list, starting with higher education.

The village had a secondary school, but the students weren’t able to prepare for higher exams. They had no library and weren’t connected online.

“They can’t go forward with their education, because they can’t do the exams that will allow them to go forward,” said Kindred. “They wanted my help in approaching the Ministry of Public Telecommunications in constructing an Information Communications Technology Tower.”

That work bore some fruit the week before Kindred left when the ministry sent representatives out to assess the possibilities.

The other thing they wanted help with was agriculture. And coincidentally, on her last trip, Kindred had met a young woman of Guyanese heritage, a fellow CUSO volunteer from Vancouver who had schooled herself in tropical organic agriculture and soil restoration.

“We made things happen. Lydia is now the tropical organic agriculture advisor for Wakapao,” said Kindred. “She is helping them to develop small family plots and helping them with restoration.

“They are absolutely thrilled.”

Getting two major projects started might seem like enough for a six-month posting, but Kindred wasn’t finished yet. She was also able to work with a smaller nearby village, Akawani, that was hoping to develop eco-tourism.

For all its troubles with poverty, Guyana is a natural wonder; 80 per cent of its rainforest is intact, thanks to progressive countries, like Norway, that pay the small nation not to log.

And the country is a birding hotspot, with about 900 species to be seen, both resident and migratory. While she was there, Kindred also delivered a gift from the South Okanagan Naturalists Club of five pairs of binoculars, a digital camera and a spotting scope.

But it was a trip she arranged for four young people from the village to the already operating Surama eco-lodge in Rupuni that may have a long-lasting effect on their future.

The young people got a look at all the skills needed to run an eco-lodge operation, not just guiding, and a side trip to the Bina Hill Institute showed them how to get there.

The Youth Learning Centre at the institute trains youth in a variety of skills in natural resource management, forestry, wildlife management, agriculture, tourism, business studies, life skills, traditional skills, basic computer skills, mathematics and English. And it’s free, said Kindred.

“These young people are now making applications to be students there,” said Kindred. “There is great hope there. We will see what happens in terms of helping to propel these youngsters forward in a positive manner.”

Kindred recalls a profound moment on the tourism study tour when the youth were being interviewed on a local radio broadcast.

One of the boys, Jacob, spoke of how they had seen buildings at the lodge still built in the traditional fashion, with homemade brick, with bamboo and thatch.

“And he said ‘we’ve lost the ability to do that. We are trying to build in a modern fashion. It’s wrong, we should retain more of our heritage. We are building a small guest house now, but it is a modern design, and it doesn’t connect with our way of life at all.’” Kindred recalled.

“You could hear the real pain in his voice,” Kindred said. “The youth also spoke in wonder of people who had danced and sung for them in traditional regalia, how they had seen the ways they spin fibres they weave.”

“I think there was real knowledge that they have something exceptional that they need to hold on to and find ways to integrate it in the 21st century, not lose who they are,” said Kindred, noting that the villagers had lost their native language.

“The same sort of things happened in Guyana as did in North America. People came in to educate them and they punished them for their language or trying to do any of their indigenous cultural practices.”

Bringing those two worlds together, the traditional and the modern, is a hard thing to do, especially in the face of the global marketing of the way of life. Kindred said her presence, choosing to give up the western life and live with them, sometimes communicates that message.

“At my age and stage in life, travelling light with a small backpack and simple cotton clothes, sharing ideas and information with them, getting them to see how much they have and the positive aspects of their life,” said Kindred.

“I think it is a matter of communicating deeply with people to get them to appreciate where they are, what they already have, get them to see the value of that and the fact the western way of life is being marketed globally as the be all and end all of what we should be striving for.”

That means both being a real cheerleader for their way of life, showing respect and then talking to them about the things that would be possible, like getting them an ICT tower in Wakapao, which would not only help the school of their young people, but it means people in the community could also access the internet.

“Showing ways that being online, ways that technology can be useful … skill building, looking at ways to build skills, that is what is going to move people forward,” said Kindred.

Related: Home is where her heart is


Steve Kidd
Senior reporter, Penticton Western News
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