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How living in the Caribbean helped me understand my West Indian heritage

shawnette brandt guyana

Growing up in New Jersey, I was surrounded by peers who were first generation American or immigrated to the United States at a very young age. I fit the norm in my culturally diverse secondary school.

I was born in the United States and I am Guyanese. Although I had never been to Guyana, which was quite embarrassing to say especially around fellow Guyanese, I have always had a strong desire to visit the land of my parents.

As a first generation American, I saw myself as a global citizen. And as a citizen of the world, I think it’s of the utmost importance to give your time, energy or, in some cases, funds to enrich the life of others. Ultimately, this led me to apply to the Peace Corps. After a lengthy application and wait time of a year and a half, I started my adventure as a Volunteer. I was pretty excited to serve in the Eastern Caribbean – St Lucia as a Youth Development Volunteer.

Upon my arrival to St. Lucia, I experienced what many Volunteers feel when they embark on a journey such as this: excitement, nervousness, cultural shock, but beneath it all, the eagerness to share in another’s culture. I have had the privilege to travel to other parts of the world but never to the Caribbean. However, the much touted flavor and sounds were not a unique experience to me. Family gatherings always included treats made from fresh oven baked bread, coconuts, and plantains. Reggae and calypso continuously played in the background while adults and children alike swayed their hips to the soulful beats. As a child, I drank fresh coconut water directly from the coconut. A Guyanese party wasn’t a party if a group of men weren’t playing dominos.

All of these things were familiar as I acclimated to my new life in St. Lucia. I naively believed growing up in a Guyanese household allowed me to have a distinct advantage over my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. Even though I was cognizant of my dual American and West Indian heritage and the impact it could have on my work, I didn’t immediately understand the dichotomy of my culture was an asset and, in some cases, became quite a challenge.

Guyanese people live all over the world with a significant number that reside in the United States, Canada, England and throughout the Caribbean diaspora. Therefore, it was not a surprise to learn that St. Lucia is home to many Guyanese – a reversal of immigration patterns from the past when many Lucians immigrated to Guyana in order to mine gold and bauxite. It was such a significant amount that even members of my host family were employed by the same mining company as my uncle. I was extremely pleased to hear about the close ties between Guyana and St. Lucia but it came as a complete surprise to learn that the influx of immigrants was not always welcomed. The vast majority of my interactions, when Lucians learned of my heritage, were positive. It helped me to relate to the youth, community members and my co-workers. 

However, for the negative reactions, which mostly occurred when the individual didn’t know of my Guyanese parentage, was unexpected. For the first time in my life, I lived in a country where the vast majority of the people looked like me, shared similar foods, music and a West Indian identity. It never occurred to me that I would face xenophobia. I tried to use this as an opportunity to gently challenge their prejudices either by comments and or deeds. I may not have changed minds but perhaps planted seeds for their further growth.

At this point I still had not made it to Guyana! Being in an environment similar to what I had as a child, increased my need to seek a greater connection. To walk the same path my grandmother took to attend the Anglican Church in Beterverwagting was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. I live just a short plane ride away, so here was my chance! I packed a bag and bought a ticket. Living in St. Lucia prepared me for my visit. The rush of the Georgetown market, bucket baths, reggae playing into the wee hours of the night or morning – all were things I had experienced for the last 19 months. I got to see and interact with family members that I’d never met before. 

A visit to the Peace Corps office was a must. It was exciting to hear about Camp GLOW and other health and literacy projects being done around the country. Later in my trip I discovered a family member also worked with the Peace Corps in training new Volunteers. We make these connections and have no idea how far reaching it can be. It seems Peace Corps was meant to be part of my life’s journey.

At the end of my trip, my family and I discussed when I would come back. We made plans for when a nephew will come to the United States. He desperately wants to eat fresh lobster. Can we say road trip to Maine?! I am on it!!

Living in the Caribbean, and more recently after my trip to Guyana, I have come closer to understanding my West Indian heritage. The best compliment I received was when a family member realized I didn’t need to heat water to ‘go bade’: “You’re a real Guyanese, I can’t even do that!” Hearing the voices, the English Creole widely spoken all around me, felt more like coming home. And in a sense it was. I now have two countries that are my home.

I consider myself to be extremely lucky. I live in the Caribbean and spend my time volunteering with the Peace Corps. Being American has afforded me opportunities that are inaccessible to many around the world. I believe I have successfully cultivated my Black American and ethnic Guyanese identities, both with its rich and vibrant cultures. Afro Guyanese American – a unique perspective indeed.