Meeting Date: 10 August 2012

Prepared By: Dick Strayer

 

Mission to Guyana

In 1998, Dr. Otto Austel, M.D., convinced me to accompany him to Guyana to work of Rotary projects. Otto had the medical background along with a desire to eliminate malaria that caused the death of his son. Otto’s background and my administrative skills and humanitarian desires, made a great team. Excluding Mexico, Guyana was my first real foreign country to do humanitarian projects.

Guyana was formerly a British colony since 1815, British Guinea, but became an independent country in 1966. The government was hostile to Britain and showed it by eliminating evidence of being a British colony by removing the trolley system and abandoning most of the beautiful Victorian homes. Most of these homes were burned and the shell of the house and ashes were just left in place. The government was quasi-communist and had strong ties to communist China. The population is primarily Black, East Indian, Chinese, British and Amerindian. It is a very poor country with a very weak economy. The country was heavily populated by slaves who were brought in to work the sugar plantations. Sugar is 60% of the countries production. Under British rule, Guyana was noted worldwide for their production of brown sugar called Demerara after the area in which is was grown. Most of Georgetown is below sea level with dykes to hold back the ocean. Houses are built on stilts to protect them from invading waters, especially when hit by a hurricane.

Guyana is also known for Jonestown which was in an isolated area near the Venezuela border. Jonestown is where there was a cult of just under 1,000 people who committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.

We were met by Rotarians at the airport and delivered to a hotel for a couple of hours of rest. There was only one acceptable hotel in the capital city of Georgetown and that was marginal. There were walls around the hotel and armed guards at the entrances. The crime rate and especially the murder rate were very high. As I was about to find out, Otto is a fearless man. Otto decided that we should go for a short scenic walk to the beach. We headed out the rear entrance to the beach when we were stopped by an armed guard. He stated that it was far too dangerous and we were not permitted to go out. Otto said, “We will see about that!” and pushed passed the dismayed guard with me following closely behind. The guard shouted to us that we had been warned!

In a short distance, we came upon a heavily treed area behind the seawall and approaching a group of about 20 bare-chested young men sitting and talking near a half-built large, wooden hull of a ship. They stood up and started walking toward us holding tools including a couple of machetes. OMG, my first thought was to stick me head between my legs and kiss my ass goodbye.

Otto just said, “That is a beautiful ship you are building. Can we have a tour?” That took the young men off-guard and they proudly showed us their project and told us of their dreams and objectives. After we started to leave, a couple asked if we had any money that we could give money to help build their boat—here it comes! Otto merely pulled out his wallet and gave them a couple of dollars. We walked away but I kept a wary eye on the men behind us.

We survived that one! As we were walking through the trees and bushes towards town, we came upon a couple of men unloading a box-truck hidden in the bushes. I was ready to say something when Otto grabbed me by my arm and said let’s go and significantly picked up the pace of the walk. When asked, “Why the hurry?” Otto calmly replied that they were drug dealers and they were unloading drugs. Being a naïve kid from South Dakota, I had no idea.

When the local Rotarians found out where we had gone, they were in shock and angry. We were told that we must never wander around the city and that we were extremely lucky to go through that area without being attacked.

Malaria Project

Guyana was picked as an area to conduct a malaria project. This country was picked over others because the national language is English (which I speak somewhat, but poorly), closeness to the USA, school in each village, high literacy rate, a very, very basic health station in each village and a mild form of malaria in the country. These were crucial factors to our project. We selected an area with a high incidence of malaria in the Rupununi Savannah where there was a small town, Lethem in the southern part of Guyana.

To get to Lethem, there was only one dirt road and that road was virtually impassable due to pot holes up to 7 foot deep! We were shown a picture with a large gravel truck in a pothole and all that could be seen was the top 2 inches. Driving cross country would take 24 hours. We chose to fly down on Guyana Airlines!! The airplane was a two prop plane that had seven passenger seats made of canvas and folded down from the side of the plane. Inside the plane was all the freight, including a crate of chickens! We landed in a pasture near a burned out concrete hotel which served as the airport. The best part was that the pilot was a Rotarian.

It seemed that we were in the middle of nowhere but this was just the start! From a nearby farm/store, we got a four wheel drive that was donated to the area by Rotary. Before we could do any project, we needed the blessing of the local chief. So, into the vehicle and we headed deep into the jungle and rain forest. What did I get myself into! After a couple or three hours of cross country driving, we came to a shack where the chief lived. We got out, knocked on the door—well, actually there was no door—on the door frame! No answer. So we started to walk around the shack into the jungle when the chief emerged! Surprise! He was wearing sandals, shorts, straw hat and a LAKERS T-shirt! And he was speaking perfect Queen’s English right out of Eton! There is something wrong with this scene—I must be dreaming. The chief was holding a glass of wine and explained that he was in the process of making wine. We all had to taste the wine and, of course, there was only one glass so that glass was shared.

Having received the Chief’s blessing, we headed back to Lethem where a man was in the process of building a motel. He had one room complete and that is where we stayed. All the meals were served outside as there was no café. The kitchen was open-air under a canvas stretched between two buildings. There was one retired USA female medical doctor and her husband that just complete building their retirement home. Very interesting. The only rooms that had four walls and a lock, were the bedroom and the pantry—everything else had no walls. The Dr.’s mother had a small home located on the same property about a block away. No other buildings existed in the area.

The next day we started our survey of the area to lay out detailed plans. We visited numerous villages consisting of 100 to 300 people. Each one had a school—most met outside.

Typical Health Station

Each village had their own health station—usually a small building with a microscope and some basic drugs. Each was staffed with one person with a few days training. The book in the left picture is the only source of information. The important thing was that each did have a microscope and colored pictures of the four types of malaria parasites.

Outside Station, Village of Shulinab

We talked with many of the villagers. One man told us that he had malaria 25 times because he always went fishing in the evening which is the best time for fish and the worst time for mosquitoes. He said, “Too bad, I am not going to quit fishing in the evening.” This presented a problem as mosquitoes are not the carriers of malaria, it is the human. If no human, and some primates, had malaria, then malaria would not exist. The mosquito merely transfers the malaria parasite from one person to another. This man agreed to be tested for malaria on a daily basis so he could be treated before he passed the parasite to another human.

A man who was walking across the Savannah was headed for the river to go fishing showed me the Bow and arrow he used for fishing. He sold me a small bow and arrow to me for $2, which is a lot of money in Guyana. I also purchased from a local Amerindian some handmade beads and hand carved canoe.

 

The picture below is a typical village on the Savanah. The trees in the background are where the school classes meet. The next picture is the Rotary truck on the left is driven by a Rotarian from Georgetown. The other truck is his relatives--with the pet Macaw hanging on the back.

In our discussions, we learned that there were two medical doctors from Cuba that were working on a malaria project just across the river Tacutu in a small village in Brazil called Conceicao Do Mau. Yes, that is the road and we did cross it. Notice the muffler coming out of the engine and up over the top of the truck?

It is illegal to cross the border without a visa to enter Brazil but a little thing like that did not stop Otto. Fortunately, Otto speaks fluent Portuguese so language was not a problem. Two Rotarians from Guyana were with us. This is where we drove across the river into Brazil.

This is where fearless Otto stood out again. We stopped at a little shop with outside seating and a Brazilian came up to us. He was a very muscular man, obviously had done much physical labor and spoke perfect English. He used every four letter swear word he knew and told us f….ing Americans to go home and that he was going to kill us. Up jumps Otto, puts an arm on the guy’s shoulders and directs him around the corner of the little building and said, “Come on Buddy, let’s talk about this.” Otto then launches into perfect Portuguese. As they disappeared around the corner, the two local Rotarians were left with me and both immediately pulled out their hand guns (as I said, there is very high crime/murder in Guyana.) They thought that they were going to have to use their guns. But shortly thereafter, Otto and the Brazilian came around the corner hugging each other and the best of friends.

We met with the Cuban Doctors and shared information. Back to Guyana--Georgetown.

 

Mosquito Netting

Dick teaching malaria prevention

We planned the malaria project involving mosquito netting which was provided in bulk. We also provided sewing machines to a local ladies group that we set up so they could make custom bed mosquito nets. The ladies were paid for their work in making the nets as a small attempt to assist the local economy. Also provided were malaria testing equipment, diagnostic supplies, sprayers and DDT which was still usable in Guyana. Educational and teaching youth about malaria and prevention was taught in the schools.

Several years later, I was informed that the malaria incidences had declined from 60 per month to one per month in our test area. And I would almost bet my life that that one is the man who went fishing every night!

Other projects resulting from this visit include:

  • Library—inside community center with thatched roof (First picture)
  • Bore hole—drill well, storage tanks and windmill pump. (Clean water)
  • Irrigation system—water into white bucket and out through drip hose (Primitive but effective.)
  • Egg production—Chickens and supplies given to be repaid out of proceeds. (Village banking.)
  • Cashew Nut production—see below.

 

Cashews. While walking around the countryside, I noticed an “apple” on the ground with a huge “worm” crawling out. I then noticed that all the fruit on the tree had the same “worm!” They were cashew trees with a nut hanging from each fruit. Below is the tree and one of the fruits sitting upside down with the cashew seed sticking up. The shell of the seed was very hard so most of the nuts were going to waste. A machine was devised to break the shell and recover the cashew nuts. Another small economic enterprise was started in the Rupininni.

 

The most important part was establishing international fellowship and that continues some 12 years later. The projects team:

Dick, John, Amanda (President), Gasteau, Lloyd, MD

On our way home to the USA, we missed our connection in Barbados. We had to stay overnight to catch the next plane. There was no “inside” airport building—it was all outside. So I suggested we get a cab and go into the city to rent a room. Not Otto! We will sleep on the concrete. The local police advised us not to do that as it was not safe. “Too bad, we are doing it any way.” The police did keep an eye on us.

The next morning Otto demanded that the airline upgraded us to first class all the way to Los Angles. Thank you Otto!

 
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