On the 23rd of August 2018 I embarked on a journey that would take me across the world to Guyana (a country I knew little idea about), to volunteer as a teacher (an occupation I had little experience in) and live independently for the first time. This was a huge leap of faith, but one year on I’m home again, having learnt a huge amount about myself, the people I was living with and the world.
I moved to Sand Creek, South Central, Region #9, Guyana. A village positioned in between the expansive savannah and the impressive jungles. A place impacted by colonialism and more obviously, by Christianity. My school, Sand Creek Secondary School, was one of 4 schools in the region and served the surrounding villages. There were 250 students from years 7 to 11, with students in year 11 sitting their CXC’s (GCSE equivalent). In terms of their teaching staff, there were about 20 teachers, but quantity is pushed above quality. Students who failed 1/more of their CXC’s are now teachers in the same subjects. Therefore, with both GCSE’s and A Levels I was more qualified than most, that’s not to say it was easy at all. The school environment is very much different, corporal punishment is still legal and very much used (and more commonly threatened). Teachers commonly have very little patience and teaching methods tend to include reading from a textbook for students to copy, or writing on the chalkboard, again for students to copy. So, the idea for me was to show the students how to enjoy school and learn whilst having fun.
In terms of communication, there is a village radio to contact nearby villages. The radio operates on solar and was patchy at best, the WiFi situation was similar. The school had free, government provided WiFi, although it only worked when the sun was shining and even then ‘worked’ is generous. So, communication with family was done via WhatsApp, with phone calls a handful of times throughout the year.
As a teacher, I was involved in teaching students in year 7, 9 and 10 maths, science and geography. Maths and science were the ‘easy’ subjects as they were common in the school with resources and teachers to ask for help. On the other hand, geography was brand new, introduced for the first time by yours truly. The school had 4 CXC textbooks as well as some British A level resources but no curriculum or guide for teaching it. So, I wrote my own. I found this hugely enjoyable as I choose subjects that gave the students a view of the world around them, their impacts on it and how it’s changing (areas that I am passionate about).
A memorable moment for me was whilst teaching students about the world’s continents, a student stopped me to ask “Sir, how do you know all of this information?”. These students are disconnected from what is going on around the world and for me to be able to stand in front of them and answer all their questions about the animals that live in Europe, what the temperatures are like in Australia or even the languages spoken across the Americas boggles their minds. I found all my teaching hugely rewarding, especially with the younger students who would sometimes be the sunshine in your day, and other days they would be the hardest class. They ended up teaching me a lot about patience and perseverance (it’s not just the students that learn in school). For science, I taught at year 9 level and in Guyana they have a national exam at this level. I was responsible for coaching 42 students through coursework and how to answer the exam questions. A challenging experience when some students don’t want to help themselves, but together we got through it and I’m just as nervous for the results as they are.
At the end of a year of teaching, both my students and I had been on a journey. From my first day teaching to my last and from their first day in secondary school and still many more to go. My time there was short at only a year, but I would hope to have left a lasting memory with my students, of perseverance, of learning from mistakes, and of having fun and working hard.
Although teaching was a large part of my year, I was also living amongst an indigenous Amerindian community. A community below the poverty line, but regardless get on and live their lives. They work on their farms to provide vegetables and provisions for their community. They train as cowboys to herd their horses and cattle in order to earn some money. This is a place where laziness isn’t allowed, as it doesn’t put food on the table. That is the day to day struggle, what will we eat today? Where will it come from? Through their struggle they are the most generous and kind people I have known. Everyone knows everyone, says hello to everyone and helps when they’re in need.
To exemplify generosity, I will tell a little story. There was a time that I visited my friend’s house, they are a family of about 12. I stayed for a while and chatted and played with their children. When I get up to leave, they hand me half a bunch of bananas. Half of their last bunch. They don’t know when they will next get fruit, fruit that is their breakfast and snack. If I was to politely refuse, they would be offended, they are offering, and I must accept. Can you imagine your friend turning around and offering you a similar proportion of their monthly salary?
I have to say, my experiences in Guyana have had a profound impact on me. I have jumped into the deep end of the deepest pool I know and not drowned but thrived. I made lifelong friends, I helped shape the futures of my students and I gained memories that will never fade.
Finally I would like to extend a huge thank you to the Knowle and Dorridge Lions, without their invaluable support through the Youth Travel Bursary Programme I am not sure how I would have raised all my funds (£6,200 in total!). I hope that they continue to offer this amazing support to young people who are hoping to embark on the journey of a lifetime. To any young people reading this, I can whole heartedly recommend travelling out of your comfort zone, not just as a tourist, but live in a new, exciting and diverse place.
Jack Bailey – August 2019