Located on the northern shoulder of South America, Guyana is bordered by Venezuela to the west, Brazil to the south, Suriname to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the north.
Sir Walter Raleigh originally discovered Guiana during his epic search for El Dorado, but the Dutch were the first European settlers, in the 17thcentury, who founded the colonies of Essequibo, Berbice and Demerara. Between 1780 and 1813 Guyana changed hands several times between the Dutch, French and the British, who eventually captured the country during the Napoleonic Wars, consolidated the districts, and declared them British Guiana in 1831.The country gained independence in 1966, and became a republic in 1970, officially known as the Co-operative Republic of Guyana.
Despite it’s location, Guyana is the only nation in South America of which English is the official language. Historically, it is considered to be a part of the Caribbean due to its British West Indian heritage (culturally and politically). Guyana is the largest country in the Caribbean and one of the few that isn’t an island. It’s vast, sparsely populated interior and substantial Amerindian population, is what differentiates Guyana from other English–speaking Caribbean countries. Socially and culinarily, Guyana shares similar tastes and customs to the islands.
However, in terms of tourism, Guyana has little in common with the rest of the Caribbean. There are no powder beaches surrounded by crystal clear seas, and no all-inclusive luxury resorts. In contrast, Guyana is rich in natural environmental treasures and is at the forefront of green, eco- friendly, sustainable tourism.
The name Guyana originates from an indigenous Amerindian language and means “land of many waters”. Eighty percent of the country is covered in dense, virgin rain forests, cloud-hidden mountain ranges, swamps, savannas and mangroves. Mighty rivers, raging rapids, and jaw dropping waterfalls abound in this lush, unspoiled land, which progress seems to have bypassed. Although approximately the size of Great Britain, Guyana’s population stands at a mere 770,000. As a result, Guyana has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. Its pristine ecosystem supports approximately eight thousand species of native plants, 814 breeds of indigenous birds and unique medicinal flora and fauna. Giant otters, jaguars, caimans and giant anteaters roam freely alongside many undiscovered species, in areas that are almost inaccessible by man.
Kaieteur Falls runs along the Essequibo River (Guyana’s longest river, between the Orinoco and Amazon) and is reputed to be the widest and most powerful single drop waterfall in the world. Standing at 226 metres tall, it is approximately twice the height of Victoria Falls and four times higher than Niagara Falls.
The country is water rich and lies beneath sea level, making the land highly fertile. Agriculture and mining are Guyana’s most important economic activities with sugar, rice, bauxite and gold accounting for 75 percent of its export income.
By time slavery was abolished, British Guiana had become one of the most important colonies within the British Empire, and made a bigger profit than anywhere in the Caribbean. The Dutch, whom had been there for two centuries before, growing cotton and coffee, had amassed a large slave population from West Africa. The British used this existing labour force to cultivate the far more lucrative sugar beet, turning thousands of acres of fertile soil along the banks of the Demerara River into more than 300 sugar plantations, and in doing so, became the richest country in the Caribbean.
Emancipation brought in an influx of indentured labourers from India, China, Portugal and Germany. Indenture was little more than consensual slavery and was designed to restrict workers mobility and anchor them to plantations. As a result, Guyana is commonly known, (and referred to in its National Anthem) as “Land of six peoples’ reflecting the harmonious, multi-ethnic composition of its population. The largest ethnic group is East Indian, followed by Africans, Amerindians, Chinese, Portuguese and European.
Georgetown is the capital and largest city in Guyana. Once nicknamed the “Garden City of the West Indies”, it is laid out in a north south, east west grid, interlaced with canals, airy Flamboyant Tree lined avenues and boulevards studded with elaborate wooden Victorian buildings, laying testament to it’s colonial past. The city boasts St George’s Cathedral, which is one of the tallest wooden buildings in the world and the Georgetown City Hall, which is a spectacular fairy tale like structure, (a Unesco world heritage site) and has been described as one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the Caribbean. Other significant buildings of note include The High Court, Parliament Building, Castellani House, Brickdam Cathedral and Stabroek Market with its iconic, four faced clock tower. Remarkably, most of the buildings are made of wood.
It is fair to say that Georgetown has seen better days, and much of the city and its infrastructure are dilapidated. This once immaculate and orderly city is in serious need of a lick of paint and screaming out for a bit of TLC. However, Guyana is one the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, so locals are understandably more interested in trying to carve a future for themselves, as opposed to worrying about preserving the remnants of British Imperialism.
Guyanese people are very friendly and generous hosts, with a great sense of humour.
However, Guyana is the only country in South America where homosexual acts are still illegal. Any sexual activity between two men is considered to be grossly indecent and liable to two years imprisonment. Males, who are found guilty of attempted intercourse with another male, are liable for a ten-year sentence, and men who actually commit intercourse, face a lifetime behind bars.
The Georgetown that I remember so lovingly was an enchanting city, with tall white washed wooden houses built on stilts, decorated with intricate iron fretwork, and Demerara style shuttered windows. Pungent open running trenches, and lively markets that sometimes smelled so bad that I would runaway from them. House parties packed to the rafters with my extended family, the sounds of their laughter and the joyous expressions on my parents’ faces, because they were so happy to be home. My wonderful great-aunts and aunts, all of whom were accomplished cooks and loved feeding me up. Each one of them had their own signature dishes, but would have died of shame had they served just one or two of them. Every meal was a buffet fit for a king and involved tables laden with a hybrid of dishes from all six cultures that make Guyana a unique, culinary melting pot.
Guyana celebrates its Golden Jubilee of Independence of the 26th of May 2016.
To help me celebrate, I’d like to share two of my favourite recipes with you. The first dish Pepperpot is based on an ancient Amerindian recipe, which was the last dish my mother taught me how to cook before she died. Secondly, Garlic Pork, which originates from Portugal and is based on my grandmothers’ recipe. Traditionally, my family eat both dishes on Christmas Day.
2/3tbs of sunflower oil
450g pork shoulder chops cut into large cubes large cubes
450g stewing beef cut into large cubes
3 pigs trotters chopped into large chunks
2 Scotch bonnet peppers finely chopped
4 tbsp sugar
150ml cassareep (cassava root syrup)
4 star anise
1 large cinnamon stick broken in half
2 tsp West Indian pepper sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oil in a large deep saucepan, over a medium heat. Place all the meat into a the pot and season with generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Cover with water and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer gently for an hour or until the water has reduced by half.
Skim the cooking juices.
Turn up the heat and add the sugar and stir well. When the sugar has dissolved, add all the other ingredients and combine well.
Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer gently for up to two hours or until the meat is tender and the gravy thick and glossy (add extra water if the gravy gets too thick).
Serve with bread or rice.
1.5 kg (3 lb. 5 oz.) boneless pork shoulder, cut into large chunks
Juice of 2 limes
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
3 red Scotch bonnet peppers (or red chili peppers) halved, seeded and finely sliced
20 garlic cloves diced
850 ml (29 fl oz./3 ½ cups) distilled white vinegar
Oil for frying
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Put the meat in a large mixing bowl and pour over the limejuice. Season generously with and salt and finely ground black pepper. Then add the thyme, chilies, cloves, garlic and combine well.
Place the pork mixture into a 3-litre (5 pint) pickling jar ( or any glass air tight container ) pour in the vinegar,making sure that all the ingredients are well covered and seal.
Leave the jar in cool dark place for up to a week, or for minimum of two days.
When you are ready to cook, drain the meat and fry it in batches for a few minutes on all sides until the pork is golden and crispy.
Alternatively, preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F/Gas 5). Lightly oil a baking tray, add the drained pork in an even layer and bake for
About 30- 40 minutes, turning once, until cooked through.
Serve with rice or bread.