The Fresh Prince of Guyana
During the first three months of my 27 months of service, I trained with Peace Corps staff by day and lived with a host family in the evening.
The Torres family had no TV or internet access; instead, they spent the humid evenings gaffing (chatting) outside on their cool, concrete patio. Mr. Torres, the patriarch of the family, and I quickly discovered a mutual appreciation for storytelling. A half-dozen young boys and girls would gather around to hear Mr. Torres’ Guyanese folktales and my western fairy tales. It became a tradition for the kids to come and listen before bedtime, although it wasn’t long before I ran out of traditional fairy tales to tell.
Without access to books, I told stories as best I could remember them. The older boys enjoyed scary stories like “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” whereas the girls liked happy stories such as “The Wizard of Oz” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Most of these were completely new to them. I altered little details like setting and characters to make it more relatable to my Guyanese audience. For example, Dracula was from Essequibo and his castle was the old Dutch stronghold on Fort Island. But the family’s favorite story was about a young prince from Bel-Air, inspired by the Will Smith TV show of my childhood. The kids liked the story so much that we crafted an illustrated book about “The Prince.”
I wrote down the theme song to “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” on the pages and let them, having never seen the show, draw illustrations using their imaginations. I learned a lot about how a Guyanese child sees the world from their interpretations of the text. For example, a prince usually lives in a castle and they didn’t know “Philadelphia,” so they assumed that Philly should be drawn as a medieval kingdom. However, they did knew of a village called “Bel-Air,” so they drew the prince’s new home on stilts (to avoid the floods).
They colored “the bad guys who were up to no good” with the colors of the political party that their parents despised. The fighting was done with cutlasses, a common tool men carry in Guyana, and the prince played cricket instead of “b-ball” (basketball). Ironically, the minibus culture in Guyana is very extravagant so the “cab with dice in the mirror” ended up looking exactly the same as in the show. We made two copies of the book, one for me and one for the family. “The Fresh Prince” became my first and perhaps favorite memento of my time in Guyana.
One of my favorite moments came weeks later when I happened upon a copy of the Will Smith sitcom. I could hardly hold back a smile as I played the tape for my gathered host brothers and sisters, who quickly recognized the words of the opening theme song. We all had a good laugh, and I could hear my host siblings humming the tune and re-watching the tape for weeks.
My host family and I enjoyed book crafting so much that I continued to make story books with my classes. It turned out to be a perfect way to get reading materials to students who don’t have access to a library or internet.
Encouraging creativity among my students became one of my deepest passions during the two years I served. Because Guyanese students are not often given the opportunity to grow and nurture their imaginations in class, I focused on providing free electives in art, crafting, and creative writing. Simply reading to the class was often enough to pique a student’s interests in books.
Storytime became one of my favorite classroom activities, and I tried to make each story stimulating and relatable. I often adapt American stories for my Guyanese audience, like setting “The Fresh Prince” in Essequibo. Other times, I write short stories based on Guyanese themes or locations, such as “The Great Gold Kite” and “Mystery on Fort Island.” Incorporating a crafting activity or game ma the experience more memorable — fashioning crowns for “The Prince,” or kites for “The Great Gold Kite,” were two crafts the kids loved.
In an attempt to keep this idea alive among Volunteers in Guyana, I did bookbinding demonstrations for new groups of Volunteers in the hopes that they will do the same project in their classes.
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