Christmas in the sugar belt


By: Andrew Carmichael 

Christmas is one of the most extravagant holiday seasons but it has not been the same for the thousands in the sugar belt who were terminated when the Government decided to  downsize the industry.

The usually bustling community of Wales on the West Bank of Demerara completely changed since the closure of the sugar estate in that community. However, the situation with Wales is not unique since the entire Region Six (East Berbice-Corentyne) area is still reeling from the brunt of the estate closures.

It was in December 2017 when an estimated 800 workers were sent home from the Rose Hall estate.

There have been drastic changes in several villages in East Canje where the estate was situated. At this Christmas period, the impact the closure has had and is continuing to have on the lives of those who live in the sugar belt is most evident.

The residents said that they have been depending on overseas help for basic sustenance.

“It is the overseas help that has been driving this community,” one retired teacher said.

Some have left the community in search of jobs while others are sitting waiting on employment. Properties are being put up for sale and many females, who were once housewives, are now seeking employment and most of them are looking towards the security sector. However, of major concern is the fact that the main employer in that sector has reportedly not been turning over the monies it has been deducting as National Insurance Scheme (NIS) contributions from employees.

“The environment here is dead,” one lady said, explaining that there is literally nothing to do.

Business at the pay office at Rose Hall in years gone had been bright, especially on Fridays. Last Friday the market which has been reduced to just two stands, saw just one customer when this publication visited.

In the past, many made a living off of selling at that market. There are now no meat stands, none selling clothing or toys as in the past.

Leslin Southwell, a mother of four, who remembers the golden days in East Canje while she worked on the estate said it was wonderful working there.

“It was hard work but being among your colleagues made you feel great. It was different but we had a wonderful time. When people got money, they spend. The estate used to operate and money used to circulate. We don’t even know if the workers will be paid for last week,” Southwell related.

She noted that while the value of the money might not have been as much as it is today, for the workers, with little money, they were still able to give their children something for the holidays.

She said when she commenced working on the estate, she was being paid $65 daily and worked her way up. In March this year, she was forced to take up new employment.

Several other persons in the community related similar experiences.

“We don’t have Christmas here in Canje. This is supposed to be an entire season but it’s just like Christmas Day and Boxing Day we can have a nice time with the family. I can’t buy anything for my children. I used to work at the estate and my husband and both of us get sent home. He left and he gone in the bush and since February…he hasn’t returned,” one woman said as tears ran down her cheek.

She was out with her three-year-old son, who was not wearing a shirt at that time.

“This is Christmas time I should get nice clothes for them but any money that I get is just to find something to cook,” the woman related.

She now operates a small business in the New Amsterdam Market.

Meanwhile, children offered comments without the permission of their parents saying that toys were not bought for them. Many boys in the community of Adelphi have opted for ball games to keep them going.

Yassodra Singh, who was just rocking in a hammock, told this publication that there has been no significant increase in purchases made by members of the community during the Christmas period. The businesswoman related that this has been the trend since the closure of the estates.

The impact of the closure of the Rosehall Sugar Estate is being felt more than twenty miles away, where Guyana’s largest Market is. The Port Mourant Saturday Market is Guyana’s largest market. Many of the customers once came from East Canje but they seldom go to the farmers market, which is impacting negatively on business even in that Corentyne community.

Over in Wales, the situation is the same. The community remains depressed because of the short income. Children are not looking forward to the holidays because of the fact that there may not be a present for them.

What was once an elaborate celebration is now another regular day where the worry is finding the next meal and keeping your job.