GUYANA: We still cannot keep our heads above the water in this oil economy – By Red Thread

By April 26, 2022 – By Red Thread

Starting a few months ago, a group of Indigenous, African and Indian Guyanese women from Regions 3, 4, 7 and 8 have been meeting to talk about oil. (see map of Regions below). We decided to begin with what we know best, what is happening at the market, in the shops, in the corner store, in the fruit and veggie stand, in the minibus park, in our communities and our households. We decided to begin here because we are seeing promise after promise, and every day it seems there is a new story about new developments and this bright and shining future that will be there for all Guyanese.         

Just before Christmas, we wrote an article, ‘Oil, oil everywhere but not enough to eat: A holiday reality check.’ In March, we followed up with another article, called ‘Oil Economy and Grassroots Budgets. The big talk is one thing; the everyday reality for poor people in Guyana is another thing altogether.

We have been collecting household budgets on a weekly basis so that we could track what is happening, looking at how prices change from week to week (going up for most things, sometimes going down for greens and ground provisions depending on what is available). This has not been easy to do. It is not easy to be consistent and measure the same things every week when people are trying to catch their hand. The information we have been collecting is showing what grassroots people have to do to feed and support their families and how this is not something you can just plan for in advance.

For instance, someone who was able to tell us how much a pound of onions cost for one week, could only tell us what it cost to buy one onion the following week, because they didn’t have enough money and didn’t even bother asking about the price of a pound of onions. Another woman from Region Eight said she doesn’t even bother passing by where the fish is being sold anymore because she doesn’t know the last time she could afford fish.

For the women coming from Regions 3, 7 and 8 to Georgetown where prices are cheaper, we have not been able to collect prices from where they live every week because they have stopped buying many things in their communities. For example, one woman from Region 3 now gets vegetables she can take back on the minibus like ochro ($100/lb in Georgetown; $160/lb in Vreed en Hoop), Carilla (same price difference), Squash ($100 as opposed to $300 for one). In her case, she does not even live in Vreed en Hoop but travels there every two weeks – which takes time and costs to get there and back – because prices are so high in the West Bank Demerara community where she lives. As she said, if she shopped locally, “it wouldn’t tek me so long, but I going be crying plenty when I finish buying.” – Note: ( Prices are in Guyana dollars–approximate exchange rate is G$200 = $1 US.)

But the women do not come often to town; it is expensive and takes time. For example it costs women coming from Region Eight close to $30,000 roundtrip to Georgetown when one factors in the cost of transportation and stopping to get something to eat on the way. One week when the weather was bad, it took close to 23 hours to get to Georgetown; passengers had to sleep on the minibus, packed with people and their belongings.

Then there are other things that come up. Since we began, one woman who uses a coalpot to cook to reduce her gas and kerosene bills reported that she now has to buy sawdust for $40/bag to make the fire. She used to get the sawdust for free (women tend to use the kero for things that take longer to cook, because it is cheaper than gas).

Everyone is cutting back –  for example, cutting a bar of soft soap in half and trying to use less; washing clothes once a week in order to cut back on soap powder; not using greens every day and not storing them anymore because it is too expensive to store and risk it going bad; buying seasoning (shallot, celery etc.) only when the prices go down and blending them up to stretch it.  Many of the women reported eating less; one woman said she cooks for more than one day to save on gas and to stretch her pot, and if her seven year old son asks for more to eat, she tells him he has to be content. Some have stopped cooking with oil, and have stopped using milk. One of the women who is pregnant and works outside of the home, has started buying expired milk; as she said, “I was concerned about buying the almost expired stuff but it was cheaper and as I am pregnant I needed the milk.” Few of the women can afford to eat meat or fish regularly or at all – one woman in Region Three does so when her niece or friends in Region 2 who fish, share some of their catch with her household.

In poor communities, there are small shops that have to sell according to what people can afford. They will sell things like a quarter pound of milk, a half ounce of cheese, a single tennis roll out of a bag of five. One of the women who ran a small shop was even asked how much a daub of peanut butter would cost to put on the single tennis roll the customer bought, for a snack to send their child to school with. Finding food to send children to school is a huge challenge for grassroots women – one woman whose daughter attends a secondary school in Region Three says it costs at least $1000 a day if her daughter is to get something adequate to eat.

In Red Thread, sharing and comparing our budgets is showing us how, across race and our different communities, we are all catching hell trying to feed our families. We are also learning from each other how to stretch a dollar, where to find goods that are cheaper.

Women are coming from different kinds of households. For instance in one household the husband is a contractor, but he has been unable to find any work in the last couple of weeks. In another, a woman holds down two jobs and still cannot make ends meet. This is on top of all the unwaged, caring work that is done mostly by women but without which our economy would grind to a halt, work that has become more challenging with the cost of living increases – like spending four to five hours every other week travelling and shopping in Vreed en Hoop because prices are unaffordable in one’s community, or figuring out how to cut corners.

What we know from our daily experience is that the cost of living is making things increasingly difficult and unbearable for us, and what we are able to earn is not keeping up with these changes. And we know that we can multiply these examples over and over again across Guyana. And yet in all of the conversations about oil, behind the photo opportunities, behind the bright smiles, behind the new deals signed, behind all the talk, these are the stories and voices, our stories, that are not making the front pages.


Guyana Map showing Regions

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  • TERENCE YHIP  On 05/01/2022 at 11:39 pm

    Excellent: Just three words (1) Original idea (2) A measurable concept (tracking the real cost of living of the bottom 80 percentile of the population) and (3) quantifying the hardships of making ends meet. This is truly practical economics!

  • WIC  On 05/02/2022 at 1:44 am

    Strange reading this. When I was a child growing up in Newtown, Kitty, I had a kitchen garden and grew ochra, squash and green beans from blackeye peas. We also raised chickens for eggs and Sunday meals as beef was cheapen than chicken and used every day

    I had been taught much of the foregoing in 1st standard (grade1)as part of the nature study curiculum under the British education system. So why now after 50 years of Independence, do people from the interior/countryside don’t grow and need to buy such stuff and other greens? in 1963 there was the general strike with little coming into the country; we ground rice to make flour and many who weren’t working went to the streams and caught fish to eat. These people seem slack to me and are just waiting for handouts from the oil money instead of helping themselves.

    • Dennis Albert  On 05/02/2022 at 8:44 am

      Entire yards are paved to build driveways and extra sheds. This isn’t just a Guyana thing. Happens all over the world. It’s called “progress”.

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