Sunday, May 5th 2013 was a notable date here in Guyana. It marked the anniversary of an event which played a huge part in shaping the face of the Guyana you find today. Exactly 175 years ago to the day, on May 5th 1838, the very first indentured Indian labourers arrived to work in the sugar plantations of the then British colony of Guyana. They weren’t ‘slaves’ as such, however their workers’ rights were neglected and conditions were often poor. They did however have the right to repatriation in India after five years. Some took up this offer, others decided to make Guyana their permanent home.
Over 200,000 workers in total made the journey from Asia to South America in the 19th century, and possibly the most telling statistic of all is descendants of those immigrant workers now account for 44% of the total population in 2013. The Indo-Guyanese are therefore officially the largest ethnic group in Guyana.
One aspect of this country that has intrigued me most during my time here has been the incredible diversity. For a nation modest in geographical area and with a total population comparable to the city of Leeds (UK), or Austin (Texas), Guyana is a melting pot for such a diverse range of cultures, peoples, languages, and traditions. In addition to the Indo-Guyanese; Afro-Guyanese account for 30% of the population, whilst mixed heritage Guyanese make up 16%. The Amerindian (indigenous) community accounts for the remaining 10%, aside from small Brazilian/Portuguese and Chinese communities.
This diversity manifests itself in so many aspects of Guyanese society. As I touched upon in a previous blog post, language is certainly a strong reflection, with the presence of English, Creole, Portuguese, Spanish, Chinese, and nine Amerindian dialects. Cuisine is another. The popular ‘cookup’ is a Caribbean style dish made of rice, beans, meat, coconut and various vegetables all cooked together in one pot. Curry and roti dishes are readily available and popular, as are Chinese options, including the Guyanese style chow mein. Meat eaters get their fix at various Brazilian barbeques, and Amerindian cuisine is known for the spicy beef or pork stew, Pepperpot – customarily eaten during the Christmas period.
Music and dance is another diverse characteristic of Guyana. Traditional south Asian beats, tablas and sitars, and popular Bollywood songs frequently fill the air. Calypso, Soca, and Reggae are equally prevalent, and a reminder that despite being part of mainland South America, Guyana is very much influenced by its Caribbean connection. Brazilian and traditional South American music is also a common sound.
However, I feel I’ve been struck most by the religious diversity of this country, which is quite evident in Georgetown. Perhaps it’s because my eighteen months prior to Guyana were spent in the predominantly Islamic state of Bangladesh, where 90% of the population identify themselves as Muslim. My religious experiences were therefore defined by the distinct daily call to prayer, the abundance of traditional Islamic dress, and the Mosques of varying shapes and sizes. There is of course a sizeable Hindu community in Bangladesh as well as a modest number of Buddhists. Yet, overall society is defined by the teachings and values of the Qu’ran.
Christianity is the most widespread faith in Guyana, but given the history I touched upon earlier in this post, Hinduism is also very visible. Islam has a noticeable presence, despite being less represented in terms of actual followers.
From my front porch if you look to your left you will see a large Seventh Day Adventist Church, and if you look to your right you will see the towering structure of Guyana’s newest and biggest Mosque (currently under construction).
I decided a few weeks back to take a series of photos that would demonstrate Georgetown’s religious diversity, and I’d like to present these in this blog post.
(The images are best viewed in full screen mode!)
I’ll begin with the most followed faith in Guyana. It is estimated that 57% of the population are Christian, of which various denominations are present. Below is a selection of images showing the churches of varying shapes and sizes across Georgetown, most of which were built during colonial administration and therefore possess a significant degree of historical and architectural charm.
Hindus account for 28% of the population, with the presence of Hinduism a result of the vast numbers of Indian immigrants brought to Guyana in the colonial era. Below are photos taken at temples across Georgetown.
The exact root of Islam in Guyana is debated. It’s quite possible that it first arrived with a number of the West African slaves. It’s also widely accepted of course that like Hinduism, the presence of Islam is a direct result of 19th century immigration from India.
The first three images below show the new Queenstown Jama Masjid. The original was built in 1895, but succumbed to old age in 2007 and was dismantled. Upon completion it will once again sit proudly as the biggest mosque in Guyana and will be a place of prayer for much of the city’s Muslim population. It sits literally right behind my house, and I have watched its growth with great interest. When I first arrived it was merely a shell, but 10 months on it’s nearing completion and will certainly be a grand structure when finished.
Below this are images taken at other mosques across Georgetown. I’m always more intrigued by the role of Islam in society here, and I think this stems from my time in Bangladesh.
So there you have it, a selection of places of worship, which are dotted across Georgetown, some of which bear a connection to a bygone era when the foundations of religious faith were being laid in Guyana. My impression has been that generally speaking this is a spiritual society, signified by the vast array of ‘houses of god’, which vary in shape and size. Within one square mile of my house I believe there are at least ten different places I could visit to connect with god, if I were so inclined. I would therefore hazard a guess that there are at least fifty across the whole of Georgetown.
I could of course have delved much deeper into this subject area, but I was more interested in capturing and presenting the distinctive religious architecture that is displayed right across Georgetown. I am also pretty impressed by the manner in which religious respect seems to maintain a sound level here. Considering you have three significant world religions coexisting very openly side by side in such a concentrated area, maybe other places across the world could learn a few lessons on religious tolerance from Guyana.