By Lakhram Bhagirat
“When you are a Toshao you are everything to the people. You are the Police, you are the nurse, you are the leader, you are the boat captain, you are everything and when I say everything, I mean is everything. Plenty nights, people would come banging on your door to tell you something happened and you have to leave your bed and go to deal with it. That is what it is being a Toshao,” Toshao Edward McGarrell shared with the Sunday Times.
McGarrell is Toshao of Chenapou village located in the Potaro-Siparuni region. The Indigenous settlement is located some 29 miles up the Potaro River. The name Chenapou is a Patamona word and when translated means Frog Pond and the village would have gotten its name from the variety of frogs that inhibit the pond. One of the most popular species is what we refer to as the “mountain chicken” and in this village, it is called Chenau.
The village has in excess of 630 residents with most of them relying on the mining industry for an income. The main livelihood of the Chenapou residents is subsistence farming. All fertile farming areas are located outside the village title with cassava, plantain, banana, pumpkin and squash being common crops.
In Chenapou, you are mostly disconnected from the outside world since there are no cellphone signals. However, it is one of the most breathtaking places to be with crisp fresh air and lots of adventure, culture and pride.
The 38-year-old father of four is at the end of his second term as Toshao and according to the Amerindian Act, he would have to bow out of the race now since he served two consecutive terms. However, his does not dissuade McGarrell from continuing to advocate for the residents of Chenapou.
“I was born and raised in Chenapou and this is my home. I will always want to see my villagers happy. I enjoy the life in the hinterland or what they call the bush. There we feel free. You can go walk and get a nice fresh air and our way of life I really enjoy because you can go into the bush and find something to eat, natural things, things that grow by themselves,” he said.
Edward McGarrell (standing second on the right) with his football club during the early days
McGarrell was pushed into the leadership realm after his fellow villagers realised that he has the capabilities to serve their interest. An active footballer, McGarrell was leading the Red Heat Sports Club when the villagers encouraged him to tip his hat into the race for Toshao.
In the first round, he was chosen to serve as Deputy Toshao and after that three-year stint was over, he was elected to the substantive post of Toshao of Chenapou village.
McGarrell related that though he has had many opportunities, being a trained motor mechanic, to leave the village and work outside, he could never do so. Short stints in the mines are enough for him because he does not see himself anywhere else than Chenapou.
Elections for leadership of the Indigenous villages are due this year and McGarrell said they are actively looking for his “replacement”.
“Getting into this area of being a Toshao you have to show your leadership quality. You have to show the things that you are capable of doing as a leader.
If you want to contest being a Toshao, you don’t have to be campaigning and campaigning because that shows you have no confidence in your own self. People look at you and the way you operate, the things you do and they would say ‘oh he or she look like a good person to put as a leader. That person is very vocal, that person is straightforward’ and those are some kinds of the things that people look at,” he said.
During his 6 years at the head of the Village Council, McGarrell has had several accomplishments when it comes to advocating for his fellow villagers as well as disappointments along the way. However, he explained that it all helped shape him.
“I had a lot of accomplishments and disappointments as well. I particularly got great respect for always advocating for the people and involving them in the process because this is a village I am representing and not myself. Challenges were a lot too because being a Toshao you are the doctor, Police, Toshao, nurse, boat captain, you are everything. You’re everything and it is a 24-hour work. Any time in the night people would come banging at your door to tell you that Toshao somebody got bitten by a snake, there is a fight and you have to go and attend to them.
“If it is anything you have to try and go and fix and I don’t know for what reason they always come to the Toshao and they know that there is a health personnel and there might be the Police. You are everything to them. It is a lot of sacrifices for a monthly stipend of $30,000. You have your family and sometimes your wife may want to divorce you because you are spending so much time looking at the affairs of the village that you are neglecting the affairs of your family.”
An overhead view of Chenapou village
When asked about what advice he would have for someone, particularly the younger generation, thinking about entering the realm of village leadership, McGarrell said “My advice would be to them is to listen to the elders because they have experience. Listen to their advice and take it and you would analyse and see how we can go.
“Be someone that anyone must feel free or comfortable to approach. Try not to get power-drunk, be humble because a lot of things will come your way and you have to be level headed to deal with them. You will have people coming and want to accuse you and beat you and these kinds of things. Walk away from that and then talk with them. Be humble and try not to be too demanding.
“Respect everyone even from the babies to the grandmothers. Do not abuse your power because a lot of things will come to you. Try to get the consent of people to do things. Take their advice because at the end of the day you as Toshao still have to wait for the approval of the village general meeting to come to a decision. Being a Toshao is not about having the last say, it is about serving the public and making sure they have a voice.”
McGarrell, after he leaves the Toshao’s seat, intends to work with the new Toshao so that they can better enhance the lives of Chenapou residents.