views updated


LANGUAGE: English (official); Creole patois; Hindi; Urdu
RELIGION: Hinduism; Christianity; Islam; native animism


Historical evidence suggests that Amerindian peoples occupied the territory that is now Guyana around the 1st millennium bc. Among the earliest settlers were groups of Arawak, Carib, and possibly Warao (Warrau). These aborigines survived practicing agriculture and hunting. Even though Spain claimed rights over this region, the area was avoided because of the difficult access to the zone. The place located between the Orinoco and Amazon deltas became known as the Wild Coast.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the great European colonial powers fought to claim the land for their sugarcane plantations, and the country changed hands with bewildering frequency, mostly as a result of wars between the British and the French. Britain shipped in slaves from West Africa to work in the sugarcane fields. Slavery was abolished in 1804.

Guyana became independent from Britain in 1966 and became a republic in 1970, being the only nation-state of the Commonwealth of Nations on the mainland of South America. Politically, Guyana has moved on a steady course toward socialism from the time of independence. Both the government and the opposition party are Marxist-Leninist, although, since the death of the first prime minister, Forbes Burnham, in 1985, ties with the West have been strengthened. Politics are essentially divided along racial lines and for 28 years, beginning in 1964, Guyana was ruled by one party, the People's National Congress (PNC), representing predominantly Afro-Guyanese interests. Initially identified with the urban black populace, the PNC essentially established a one-party state.

In 1992, however, a new election saw the return of Dr. Cheddi Jagan of the People's Progressive Party (PPP), which represents the predominantly Hindu population. Jagan was chief minister of British Guyana from 1961 to 1965, before independence. Jagan became president of Guyana in 1992 and remained in the post until his death in 1997. His presidential tenure was characterized by the revival of the union movement and a re-commitment to education and infrastructure improvement.

After Jagan's death in 1997, his wife, Janet Jagan, was elected president in elections held later that year, becoming the second female president in the history of South America—after Isabel Perón—and the first to be democratically elected. In 1999 Jagan's widow stepped down due to health problems, and Bharrat Jagdeo was appointed president of Guyana. In 2001, this politician of Indian descent won the presidential election. In 2006 he was re-elected for a new term.

The Guyanese economy exhibited moderate economic growth during the last decade (5.4% in 2007), based mostly on the expansion in the agricultural and mining sectors. However, the shortage of skilled labor and a deficient infrastructure remained the most severe economic problems. Guyana's main exports are sugar, rice, rum, timber, diamonds, bauxite, shrimp, and molasses.


The Cooperative Republic of Guyana is an independent republic and a member of the British Commonwealth located in the northeast corner of South America.

It comprises an area of 214,970 sq km (83,000 sq mi), and its coastline is about 430 km (270 mi) long. Inland there are many uninhabited areas, and most of the country's population (about 800,000 people) lives on the narrow coastal strip along the Atlantic coast, much of which has been reclaimed from the sea by a series of canals and some 140 miles of dikes. The capital and chief port is Georgetown. Inland is a huge plateau, which forms most of the country's center, crisscrossed with the numerous rapids of Guyana's rivers.

Guyana's population originally came from various parts of the British Empire, although a small number of aboriginal Indians still live semi-nomadic lives, scattered throughout the inland forest regions. The Afro-Guyanese, descendants of the African slaves shipped in to work on the sugarcane plantations, form one-third of the population. The Asian Indians, who came mostly as indentured labor to replace the Africans when slavery was abolished, form the largest racial group, making up about half of the population, while Portuguese, Chinese, and Amerindians make up the remaining one-sixth of the population.


The official and principal language of Guyana is English. Guyana is the only South American country to have English as its official language. But, a Creole patois is spoken in the country. Hindi and Urdu are also heard among older Asian Indians.


Much of Guyanan folklore springs from religious and racial backgrounds of its diverse population. Hindus identify with their cultural heroes, such as Rama, Krishna, and Mahavira. In fact, many of them give their children names based on characters from the great epic stories of India.

Many Creole folk tales are based on the Afro-centered traditions that emphasize the organic unity between animals— including humans—and nature and also the unity between the living and the dead.


The major religions of Guyana are Hinduism and Christianity (chiefly Anglican and Roman Catholic). There is also a sizable minority of Muslims. About 35% of the population is Hindu, 50% is Christian, and 10% is Muslim. Many Asian Indians accept baptism and membership in Christian churches without abandoning their participation in Hindu rituals. Animistic religion is still practiced by the Amerindian peoples.

Some adherents of Christian groups also practice traditional African beliefs, such as winti, (meaning "wind"). This is a traditional polytheistic and largely secret religion of West African origin. It recognizes a multitude of gods and ghosts, each having their own myths, rites, offerings, taboos, and magical forces. The phenomenon of obia (a healer god) can be used to bring illness and other calamities onto the practitioner's enemies.

Hundreds of people turn up for the seven-day festival of Ramayana Yajma when the Brahmins read and explain the Ramayana. The Ramayana is an ancient epic poem that recounts the dramatic and difficult life of Rama, the royal heir, who is exiled from the court of Ayodha and exiled to the forest for 14 years because some of his royal relatives conspire against him. The sorrows of separation, the necessary courage required to confront tragic events in life, and the way a human being can create meaning and purpose in life are all important themes in the Ramayana. Christians as well as Hindus from all over the country participate in Ramayana Yajma. Throughout the week, participants are fed a variety of Indian dishes, with vegetables forming the main part of the meals.


Much recreational activity is based upon the festivities that accompany Hindu, Muslim, and Christian holidays, such as Christmas, the end of Ramadan, and (in early March) Phagwah, the Hindu New Year, which is a joyous celebration that celebrates the triumph of good over evil and is noted for the energetic throwing of perfume and water. Easter Monday is a traditional day for flying kites. Republic Day, on February 23, is the day the president reports to the nation and is marked by much street marching.


Baptism is common, even among Asian Indians who attend Christian churches while maintaining their participation in Hindu rituals. In their homes, Hindus celebrate domestic religious ceremonies, such as Pujas, for special occasions like birthdays or anniversaries.

Many Afro-Guyanese couples do not regularize their unions with a license or church ceremony.


Anyone visiting a friend or acquaintance at their home address is expected to call upon everyone else that they know within that neighborhood. Not to do so is considered extremely rude. Open hospitality is a great feature of Guyanese life and no visit can be completed without the offer of a meal or refreshment.

The familiar Hindu caste system, which is a highly localized phenomenon in the villages of India, no longer exists in Guyana. When the low castes and the twice-born Brahmins were thrown together on board ship to travel from India to the Caribbean during the 19th century, the caste system soon became irrelevant. Today, there is just one caste for all in Guyana, although the Brahmins do retain their special religious role in interpreting the sacred knowledge of the holy rituals and Sanskrit texts.


Out of a population of about 800,000 people, some 170,000 live in Georgetown, the capital. Many houses in the center of Georgetown are made of wood. Most people live in small villages and towns along the coast. The houses are built of wood with tin roofs and are constructed on stilts 2.5 m to 3 m (8–10 ft) off the ground to avoid flooding from the sea.

Guyana's gross national product, estimated to be only about $600 per capita in the mid-1990s, makes it one of the world's poorest countries. However, 10 years later governmental efforts to improve the quality of life of Guyanese have made impact on people's life. In 2007 the per capita GDP had increased by about three times to $3,800. However, in spite of this huge leap, food shortages have remained, creating widespread cases of malnutrition and diseases formerly under control, such as beriberi and malaria.

The economy has been shattered by the depressed world demand for bauxite and sugar, which has led to a near breakdown in essential public services, such as electricity. The country is, however, nearly self-sufficient in food.

There is a limited road and highway system, much of which is only partly paved and partly made of baked clay. In fact, there are only a few hundred kilometers or miles of paved roads, mostly in the coastal region.


Ethnic identity continues to be important within daily life. The mother- and grandmother-dominated family that is common among the Afro-Guyanese differs from the father-oriented Asian Indian family. Bearing children out of wedlock among Africans is not stigmatized, although in recent years many have begun adopting middle-class values by "doing the right thing" and getting married. The African community is made up of a variety of households ranging from a nuclear monogamous family consisting of a couple and their children to a kind of extended family that includes grandparents, their children, their grandchildren, and other relations.

The Asian Indian traditionally has a different kind of extended family, but the European nuclear pattern is becoming the norm. Upon marriage, the son is expected to take his bride and live for some time with his parents. This is because it is the duty of the parents to guide the children through the early days of marriage. Then, by the sixth or seventh year, the son will have set up his own household with his wife and children.


A skirt and blouse is the popular form of clothing for women, but Hindu women are increasingly wearing the sari. Hindu men wear a type of shirt called a kurta and one-piece trousers called dhoti (see Hindus of Guyana ).


A tasty Amerindian dish is the pepper pot, a spicy stew that is a characteristic Guyanese dish. The main ingredient is cassava. Farina, coarse gravel-like flour derived from cassava boiled with local sun-dried beef, is known as tasso and is an edible and tasty fare for the Rupununi ranchers, who live in the savannas of the interior.

Dal, of Asian Indian origin, is also a very widespread and popular dish, and not just among the Hindus. It is a dish of lentils, often flavored with a mixture of spices (cinnamon, pepper, and garlic) cooked in oil.


Children receive free, compulsory education. The government assumed full control of education in 1976 and took over Church-run and private primary schools. Teachers are expected to teach loyalty to both the PNC and socialist objectives. The principal university is the University of Georgetown at Turkeyen, in the eastern part of the capital.

The literacy rate is quite high and is estimated at 98% among men and 95% among women. Despite this, due to economic decline, physical facilities have deteriorated in schools; books and supplies are limited; and many educated Guyanese live abroad, particularly in London and New York.


Post-independent Guyana still bears the imprint of its colonial heritage and, despite government exhortation to the contrary, the people continue to be taught to respect and covet European values. Amerindian culture, which remains uninfluenced by national politics, is recognized as an important element in the cultural life of the country. Amerindian artifacts are featured in museum displays, and their culture inspires local music and painting. Major Amerindian groups include the Caribs, the Arawaks, and the Warraus of the northwest coast. The Makusis are the best-known group of savanna-dwellers, whereas other groups are forest-dwellers.

One of the most mysterious aspects of Guyana's cultural heritage are the hieroglyphics known as the timchri scattered on rocks in Guyana's interior, which have not been deciphered and that point to more advanced civilizations. Noteworthy writers are Wilson Harris, A. J. Seymour, and Walter Rodney. The best-known work of literature is E. R. Braithwaite's novel, To Sir With Love, about a black teacher in an all-White London secondary school, which became a famous film.


The country has a three-sector economy: private, public, and cooperative. The government controls over 80% of the economy. The state-controlled sugar enterprise, Guysuco, employs more Guyanese than any other industry. Domestic economy reflects ethnic divisions. Asian Indians and their families control most small businesses, such as small farms and shops, while Africans dominate the government sector. But, there are an increasing number of Hindus entering the legal and medical professions.

Wages are very low, and many people depend on overseas remittances from relatives abroad to survive. Many people also work at more than one job. The unemployment rate is about 13.5%.


The Guyanese share a passion for cricket that is prevalent throughout the English-speaking Caribbean. The game is one of the few unifying factors in the country. It has been said, however, that cricket in Guyana is totally unlike the game as it is played in England. In Guyana it is closer to the passionate atmosphere of a bullfight in Spain, galvanizing the people's national self-esteem.

The sport plays a special role in the historical, social, and cultural development of the country. By playing host in Georgetown to International Test Cricket Matches against other countries within the British Commonwealth, the people of Guyana have the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities on the international scene and to make a symbolic gesture against their oppressive colonial legacy. There are a number of heroes who have played for the West Indies team including Clive Lloyd, who captained the side for a number of years, Rohan Kanhai, and Neville Kalicharan.


Popular culture is as mixed as the various ethnic groups who live in Guyana. Georgetown offers a wide mix of museums and art galleries, and for the young people there are discos. A favorite kind of music among both Hindu and Afro-Guyanese is something called "chutney," a hot, spicy mixture of traditional Hindu music and rock music.

The cinema still plays a large part in the lives of older people, and the imported films from India reconnect the Hindus with their cultural roots. In the villages outside Georgetown, street cricket is played with a sponge ball, and the pitch is a coconut mat laid out in a field. Card games are also a passion with older people during the quiet times between sowing and harvesting.


Many of the folk arts and crafts are entwined with the various Guyanese religions, such as kite-flying and bird-song competitions on Easter Sunday and Monday.


Race has been a divisive issue. The Asian Indians have accused the Africans of racism and repression during the 28 years of rule by the People's National Congress party, during which they claimed that Hindu villages were attacked and plundered by security forces. The Africans dominate the Guyana Defense Force and the police. Street crime and violence are particularly notorious in Georgetown. Community police have now been introduced into the city to try to retake control of the streets.

The new administration has announced its intention of introducing structural changes with a "human face," and aims to alleviate poverty through a basic-needs strategy. It also intends to increase foreign and local investment, production, and exports. Cheddi Jagan has promised a "lean and clean" government and is determined to end racial discrimination.


In Guyana, gender issues are subsumed within the broader context of social, economic, and political dysfunctions and problems. The relations between men and women, in terms of roles, access to resources, and power. are circumscribed by the conditions of political instability, governance issues, crime and violence, and divisiveness.

As in most countries, women tend to be affected by poverty more than men: 50% of Guyanese women are living in poverty and nearly 30% of the households headed by women are characterized by absolute poverty. The most recent employment statistics (1999) showed women's labor force participation at 39%, while unemployment rates for females (14%) were more than doubled that of men (6%). In spite of higher achievement than men in formal education, women continue to face low wages in low status jobs, higher levels than men of unemployment and poverty, and low representation in decision-making positions. Domestic violence and gender-based violence remain unad-dressed problems because the crimes are under-reported and victims often do not seek assistance. Research on sub-populations suggests that as many as two-thirds of all women will face abuse at some time.

Regarding political participation, women have managed to enter decision-making positions in the last decade. The number of women in parliament increased from 12 (18.5%) in 2000 to 20 (31%) after the 2001 elections. This increase resulted from pressure from women's organizations to have women in a third of the positions on the electoral plank of each party. This quota will increase to 50% for future elections. In addition, as of 2008, there were four female ministers in the governmental cabinet, the deputy speaker of the house was a female, one of the three justices of appeal was a woman, female magistrates accounted for 31% of the existing 16 magistrates, and the governor of the Central Bank was a woman.


Dabydeen, Dr. D. Across the Dark Water. London: MacMillan, 1995.

———.India in the Caribbean. London: Hansib, 1988.

Dyett, Harry. Enigma of Development: Guyana 1900 to 1989: An Unrealized Potential. Turkeyen, Greater Georgetown, Guyana: Institute of Development Studies: Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Guyana, 1994.

Frances, J., and I. Frances. Guyana: Politics and Economics and Society Beyond the Burnham Era. London: Pinter, n.d.

Mars, Joan R. Deadly Force, Colonialism, and the Rule of Law: Police Violence in Guyana. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Peake, Linda. Gender, Ethnicity and Place: Women and Identities in Guyana. New York: Routledge, 1999.

South America On a Shoestring. Australia: Lonely Planet Publications, 1983.

—revised by C. Vergara