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4. DEMERARA TO BERBICE
HE natives of the islands of the West Indies, proud of their azure sea and luxuriant uplands, often refer to British Guiana, by hearsay, as 'the mud-flats', and the Guianese are a little sensitive about this reputation. They might, in fact, boast that Georgetown is an immeasurably more beautiful town than any in the British Caribbean, and that their coast-lands are not unbeautiful. Near Georgetown ancient trees give form and variety to the flatness of the land, and when one is beyond the suburbs of the town the scene is constantly changing, and above the broad horizon is the huge sky, intensely blue and hung with the ever-present cumulus. They are East Anglian skies, Constable skies, made more vivid, on sunlit days, by the tropical clarity of the air. The land on either side of the road is rough and uncultivated except for occasional paddy-fields. Large areas of the top-soil have been dug away, leaving the surface scarred and exposing the less rich earth beneath. The removed earth lies in smouldering mounds at the roadside, ready to be strewn, pink, on the disfigured surface of the road.
A few ill-favoured sheep share the grass of this common-land with worse-favoured cows-'H' cows, as a Guianese described them to me, composed of nothing but hides, horns and hooves. There are several reasons for the poor condition of these animals; they are put to graze wherever some little pasture can be found for them-during the rice season they graze in the badly drained 'backlands' behind the plantations, where they spend the months knee-high in swamp, nibbling the unnutritious grasses that are above the water. After the rice harvest they graze on the front-lands gorging carbo-hydrates but getting little protein, phosphorus or calcium from the saline grasses. Apart from imperfect methods of breeding it is this mineral deficiency which has produced so poor a race of cattle. There are 130,000 head on the coastlands and most of them are owned by the small farmers who have grazing rights on land belonging to the plantations, or on common-land. A small percentage are dairy cows fed on concentrated imported foods, but fresh milk
in the Colony is expensive and not very good. Most Guianese prefer to use imported tinned milk. By the time fresh milk has reached Georgetown after travelling in trucks which are not fitted with cooling equipment bacterial growth has already begun and it is impossible to use the milk without boiling it. At the end of 1955 work had begun on the erection of a pasteurization and cold-storage plant, at an estimated cost of at least £47,916.
Narrow drainage canals run along each side of the road and constantly one sees Indian women and their children fishing with seine-nets or picking the muddy bottom of the canals for the shrimps which are a delicacy of the daily curry. Sometimes two women, holding their dresses high, walk along the canal with a net between them, patiently dragging the water. Their dresses are usually gay-coloured cotton prints, probably from Manchester, and they wear bandannas on their heads in the manner of Negro women in country districts. Yet there is a difference. The African women who still wear bandannasmost now wear hats and would never be seen in the street without them-wear them with a certain chic abandon, calculating the amount of forehead to be visible and the position of the knot; but Indian women wear them very low on the forehead and without style. It is a pity that the sari is nowadays seen only on a few old Indian women, and the only Indian men who wear national dress are the pandits.
After some miles of open grassland the horizon will suddenly change to a dense fringe of palm-trees, running inland for some miles at right-angles to the sea. The villages found where the road crosses the planted area are the prettiest on the coast, for the shacks that appear so squalid on the open land gain some beauty from the setting of palms and the huge flapping leaves of plantains and bananas. On Sundays in these villages-if they are predominantly African-everybody gathers under the palms to drink coconut water and to listen to the steel band, that extraordinary by-product of the oil industry. A steel band is composed of oil-drums which are cut to various depths, their tops being divided into several areas which are tempered separately so that when each area is tapped with a drum-stick it gives a different note. The steel band was an invention which followed the beginning of the oil industry in Trinidad, and
the Trinidadians claim that no one can play the instrument except themselves. But I have heard one steel band in British Guiana which equals, if not excels, both the She-She band of Port-of-Spain and the Trinidad Panharmonic Orchestra.
From the large area of the coastland which is planted with coconut palms one would imagine that the products of the coconut formed an important part of the Colony's economy,
but in fact they contribute only 2 per cent to the Colony's income from agriculture. The story of the coconut is, again, one of adversity that has not been conquered. The palms suffer
om 'wilt', a disease which has defied all research into methods for controlling it. Insects like the coconut caterpillar and the borer weevil reduce the health of the trees further, and the owners of the plantations get what crop they can without spending money on efficient weeding, drainage or fertilizers. Nevertheless there is an Indian plantation owner who has been able to build himself a fine house in style midway between a Riviera villa and the Taj Mahal, superbly set among the palms. During the dry season, when passing traffic would otherwise send a fine pink dust sailing into his house, he employs a man to spray
water, at intervals during the day, on the road for 200 yards on either side of his house.
Although the coconut and its by-products do not figure largely in the economics of the Colony it is an important crop for home consumption-none is exported. Nearly half the production is used as a food and the rest is made into cooking oil, for most of the food of the common people is cooked in coconut oil. The Coconut Industry Committee suggested that the production of oil might well be increased if planters were prepared to improve the health of their trees by studying new methods of growing, and coconut production become an important part of the economy. The Government now provides credits for the local making of copra-driers, which should produce some improvement.
During the rice-planting season the paddy-fields, usually visible from the road, are filled with Indian men, women and children. They work hard-harder, the sugar plantation overseers will tell you, than they ever work in the sugar fields—and take a short time off for their meals. In the matter of food, as in most other things, the Indian's habits differ from those of the African. An Indian family goes into the fields with a large curry mixed with rice, already cooked and to be eaten cold, but the African likes his food hot and fresh. He takes out his meat and vegetables uncooked and makes a fire in the field for cooking his vast meal. He eats almost as much rice as the Indian and it is an impressive sight to see the plate of an African piled with a pound or two of rice among which lie lumps of meat, chunks of underdone plantain, all flavoured with hot spices and a hard pickled berry not unlike a crab-apple. To an African his condiments are as necessary as subtle herbs to a European chef. Out in the field the African always leaves a proportion of the meal he cooks in the billy-can, to be eaten later in the day. He calls it his 'by-and-by'.
For most of the way along the coastal road there is no view of cane fields, no indication that beyond the uncared-for land lie plantations designed with geometrical symmetry, intersected by canals dividing the fields into exact proportions. Each narrow strip of plantation preserves the name it was given by its original owner, although many old plantations are grouped together to form one unit. The old plantation names were