GUYANA: The Cultural Significance of ‘Gyaaf’: Implications for the Diaspora – By Lear Matthews

By Lear Matthews

  • Give me de gyaaf nuh man…Ah cyant wait to hear (Anonymous)

With the passage of time cultural heritage and customs among diasporans become a casualty of new acculturative experiences as they assimilate into societies such as Canada, USA and the UK, Aka host countries. Nonetheless even as they embrace new social institutional norms, retaining traditional culturally familiar modes of communication couched in reminiscing past experience and practices, is essential to adaptation in their new home. This article seeks to stimulate thinking about the way thoughts, information and messages are transmitted among people living outside their country of origin.

The word “Gyaaf”or “Geaaf” (local dialect) evokes a sense of identity and recognition among Guyanese. It is a unique style of verbal communication covering a range of topics, characterized by animated, exaggerated articulation of facts, colorful stories or incidents often embellished. According to Guyanese Journalist and Folklorist Ovid Abrams the term refers to an informal chat or entertaining conversation. While a second- generation diasporan noted, “when I hear the word I know the conversation will not be a dry discussion of boring facts, but filled with laughter and exuberant hand gestures”.       

However, I argue that among diasporans gyaaf has a purpose beyond entertainment, laughter, idle chat and theatrics. The term represents a unique communicative bonding which also functions as a coping mechanism. Apart from preserving an aspect of culture, it helps members of the diaspora to cope with the challenges, fears, angst, ambivalence, regrets, value conflicts and other symptoms of a transnational experience. Interactions enhanced by this peculiar style of communication provide an opportunity to regroup and socially bond with friends and relatives using culturally familiar cues and language patterns. This is particularly helpful to those who may not transition easily to the norms and behavior patterns of the new social environment.

Social gatherings such as conferences, cultural events, parties, memorials and reunions play a significant role in diaspora networking and shared experiences through gyaafing. As with other Caribbean immigrants among whom there is an equivalent communicative pattern (albeit with a different label) these activities provide an opportunity to engage in multifaceted culture-saturated conversations. They also serve as a crucible for reciprocating news and information about the immigrant community and home country.

Types of Gyaaf: Ordinary/Good Gyaaf vs Serious/Heavy Gyaaf

Gyaafing normally occurs in an amorphous, unplanned group, varies in size and viewed as an adult communication style. It transcends gender, social class, creed, educational level, race and ethnicity. There are various types of gyaaf depending on the situation, milieu and nature of participants’ prior relationship. An Ordinary or good gyaaf may be initiated when two people from the same town or village meet “overseas” after not seeing each other for an extended period and engage in conversation which lead to them reconnecting. The resulting friendly verbal exchange can be extensive, nostalgic and refreshing (“We had a long/sweet gyaaf”). The way in which an ordinary gyaaf is initiated at times seems unconscionable, i.e. an individual may begin a conversation by saying: “Eh, eh, you still alive?”. This may indicate “I did not expect to ‘run into’ you but am happy to see you”, instead of “I anticipated your demise”.

Sports such as cricket stimulate good, amicable gyaaf. A good gyaaf may include a friendly discussion or subdued argument about who is the best spin bowler, soul singer, chutney soca performer or movie actress/actor. Those engaging in a good gyaaf are likely to ask rhetorical questions, share stories about the supernatural or overstate a social occurrence. The supportive potential of a good gyaaf helps new arrivals deal with overlapping identities and allegiances. However, a friendly gyaaf can become boorish or argumentative leading to a Byusin’ (verbal abuse).

Serious or heavy gyaaf varies from engaging political themes to interacting with those who are “home sick”. The latter is likely to be nostalgic and fluctuate between exhilaration and depression, but ultimately provides an informal forum for open expression of feelings and thoughts with a culturally distinct quality. Such gyaaf can be therapeutic. A well-known milieu for gyaafing which varies from friendly to serious is created while Limin’ (hanging out). The ambiance of this group is characterized by multi-topical discussion from personal habits to international affairs, debate, elevated-voices, cajoling, giving jokes, gesticulation, pressure to comply, contentiousness, congratulatory gestures and self-gratifying abstractions. Popular among Caribbean youth, “tantalizing” (teasing) which can morph into angry outbursts is not uncommon during this informal gathering.

Gyaafing provides the opportunity to publicize one’s accomplishments since “coming to dis country”, extolling virtues about how to “make it” in a foreign land. The temptation to exaggerate is ever present. However, it also allows some to glowingly share accomplishments in post-migration family transformations: “Dem children grow big now…. one is a doctor yuh know!”. Others joyously or grievously share what they remember about the home country, while some vent, fret or make light of their current life situation. Thoughts, opinions and feelings may dominate a conversation. The essence of gyaafing about the youth is likely to focus on parameters and judgement related to navigating cross-cultural child rearing acceptable codes of conduct: “These young people couldn’t get away with this behavior back home in our time. What a pity!”

Among first generation immigrants, gyaafing includes wanton shaming or “talkin’ name” whereby peers are unflatteringly described as “lookin’ suh old” or “look baad” without acknowledging the targeted persons’ life circumstances. Conversely gyaafing can be a source of valuable information, but also rife with over simplification, punctuated by ambiguities, misinformation or used to spread gossip and rumors. In contrast, modest participants honestly share successes, failures and disappointments with little exaggeration. Others offer unsolicited advice or support – the heights of gyaaf diplomacy.

“He is a real gyaaf man”; “she could prapah (really) gyaaf”; “duh boy gat plenty gyaaf. Such accolades are attributed to individuals reputed to master this unique communication style, skillfully using metaphors, rhetoric, suggestive language with a penchant for hyperbole and melodrama. They have the gift of gab vis-a-vis the gift of gyaaf and tend to direct the narrative – almost like a performer seeking attention, sometimes with contrived, but entertaining tales. Taking their words literally may be risky, yet there could be a moral behind their story as well as beneficial learning outcomes.

The elements of a gyaaf vary in application, intent and size of audience. Cochore suggests manipulation or chicanery; Soor infers “hot news” or “making a play” for a female, while Give me de Ganguh guarantees the “full story”. Invariably, gyaafing does not only become a respite for deeply cherished values, but centers around politics, strongly held ideology, inherent biases and racially skewed propaganda at home and country of settlement. These topics become poignant talking points (stimulants for serious gyaaf). Participants voice support for a particular political/racial group, touting a chosen ideology while offering “expert” advice from afar. The ensuing verbal banter is saturated with heated rhetoric and occasional vitriol. Despite such mundane concerns, diasporans sustain mutual support using customary forms of communication as a medium to help alleviate the distress of having to relinquish cherished customs and the burden of ascribed “minority” status.

Evidence of emotional place attachment emerges when a gyaaf includes the question: “When last you went home “or “how long have you been here?”. As an agency for sharing information, airing grievances, expressing hope and disappointment, gyaafing facilitates the imaginary “return home” as immigrants reflect on the foundations of life’s inundated journey and hopeful possibilities. Frustrations, facing the unexpected and cultural conflict are often ventilated during gyaaf sessions. These include inevitable family separation and unfinished business as a consequence of unplanned emigration. Conversations that emerge from gyaafing provide a platform for opportunities in cultural retention and dealing with cultural conflict. Gyaafing can be comforting, introspective or painful. It either enhances the contentment of newfound happiness in the country of settlement or lessens the psychological burden in the face of adjustment challenges – operative factors in adaptation.

Snippets of Gyaaf: The Good Ole’ Days

Certain declarative/precursory statements are used to convince participants in a gyaaf. Examples are: “Dis is no joke!”; “I know what I’m talking ‘bout”; “I ain’t lying, duh is exactly wuh happen!”. Below are selected scenarios which characterize typical Guyanese storied dialogue. With a back in time focus, these examples stimulate good, friendly, humorous “gyaaf” in substance, symbolism, reminiscent of home where “we naable (navel) string bury”.

Paramountcy of health and education: When I was “growin’ up” my cousin Oscar had a cut on his instep near his big toe. After “dressing” it (with crushed M & B powder and Iodine) his mother “flattened” (compressed) his yattin boots and tied it securely to the bottom (sole) of the injured foot. Oscar had to walk to school more than one mile with that contraption. Of course this was not done to punish or embarrass him, but to lovingly and responsibly attend to both his health and educational needs. “Yuh laughin? Duh use to happen wid plenty children”.

Party joys and blues: Once my good friend and I attended a house party. The young men in attendance were standing alongside the wall – Oldies blasting. The girls sat on the opposite side of the room. After several tunes with no one “breaking the ice” to open the dance floor, my friend decided to walk across the hall alone with  swag and confidence and asked one of the young ladies for a dance. After looking at him from head to toe she politely refused. He asked another and another. ‘By dee time he ketch he self’, he was at the end of the row of girls and no luck. With a pretentious cool veneer but quite embarrassed, my ego-deflated buddy slowly sauntered back to his standing position against the wall wid dem boys – a journey which must have felt agonizingly long and lonely. His friends “nearly dead wid laugh”.

A tale of Village culture: Back in the day, rural areas had no “road lights”. Despite not being able to see one another, villagers walking along the dark roads would hail one another: “Hey cousin John” or “How yuh do auntie Mattie? Meh fambly yuh walkin’ late!”. In every case, the passing villagers would accurately identify each other despite the darkness (some by voice recognition). They exchanged pleasantries and continued walking or stopped briefly to chat without actually seeing one another. Dat was something else yeh!

Classic meal adventure: Yuh remember Hunte Cook-up Rice? Let me tell you ‘bout dis one. After attending a night party, young revelers would ride their “push-bike” to one of the well-known vendor spots in Georgetown to purchase cook-up rice, prepared and served by a Mr. Hunte under dim “road lights”. There they consumed the tasty grub while boastfully recounting the night’s fete adventures with loud animated gyaaf – who “tackle” who and who nearly “cyary home” which Beeny (girl). They “washed down” the sumptuous meal with coconut water, fortified with “steel drops” for increased virility. Credibility of the latter was never confirmed nor refuted, perhaps except later during friendly gyaaf over drinks.

These snippets, narrated in a uniquely familiar chatty fashion, bring back memories of nostalgic moments, with a sense of history and identity. Similar culture-specific interactive themes and stories related to localized heritage practices occur in the wider Caribbean community. Gyaafing about these experiences is instinctive and entertaining, creating a bittersweet longing for past memories. Many of these “throwback” examples, often welcomed introspection viewed as characterizing the good ole’ days tend to be regional. They are informed by a system of cultural norms and folkways endemic of a particular community and timeframe. Unfortunately there is the tendency to trivialize past practices and customs as obsolete and meaningless rather than realizing their nuanced cultural symbolism.

In this regard the literary contributions of cultural icons Wordsworth McAndrew, Godfrey Chin and others, as well as the work of organizations such as the Guyana Cultural Association and Indo-Caribbean Federation must be credited. Not only have they promoted the idea that Identity is shaped by our past and present social environment, but the propagation of cultural traditions through language and the arts is essential to a nation’s survival. To this end stories that emerge from gyaafing have adapted to modern technology, continuing on Internet platforms particularly in the age of COVID-19 pandemic, although there is no substitute for a good-in-person gyaaf. Second generation, 1.5 generation (those who migrated as children), and third generation immigrants understandably do not fully embrace homeland cultural heritage. Nonetheless, efforts to facilitate cultural continuity through oral traditions are instructive to future generations. Using culturally savored language and the arts for such transmission is essential. The diaspora must help to address and facilitate self-knowledge, identity and awareness among all Guyanese.

Ah done Gyaaf – Fuh now!

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  • Georgy Porgy  On 08/23/2021 at 11:23 am

    I enjoyed reading this. Thanks.

  • wally n  On 08/23/2021 at 12:48 pm

    My ex business partner (jackass) told me this gyaff story, actually he was a good gyaaf man, helped the business.
    During his cricketing days, they were having an after game drinking/gyaff session, it went to the three W’s forget the subject, someone suggested they phone Walcott, for an opinion, since he was in Guyana at the time, of course it was early morning, when this happened, you can fill in the blanks, for Walcott’s response.
    Thanks for the memories.

  • John  On 08/23/2021 at 11:16 pm

    This essay was fascinating. It is brilliant, insightful and entertaining. It is admirable how under the umbrella of “the Diaspora’ the writer selects the nuggets of Guyanese culture , examine them under the sociological spotlight. Thus bringing all of us a modicum of edification and enjoyment. It is well written, informative pregnant with nostalgia and cultural nuances which will be appreciated by those in and out of the diaspora.
    A focus of gyaafing seems so much in keeping with a kind of sociological/cultural tradition of looking at the way language is exactly as the writer points out, binding — forming the patterns of connection and memory, pulling people together. It’ is so interesting to think about how people learn these linguistic terms, how their repertoire develops (maybe through use).

  • Brother Man  On 08/24/2021 at 12:11 am

    Are you sure, Trevor?

  • wally n  On 08/25/2021 at 6:51 pm

    $10 when John and his buddies(if ever) gyaaf, it is at a much higher level, just saying, a lil booze might help.

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