View is pleased to present this week's guest column with its clear-eyed
view on the topic of alcoholism. Guyana's rum culture has this country
by its throat! Alcoholism, a killer disease, is a big gender issue confronting
men. Men and boys are at particularly at risk! It kills them and their
self-esteem. And it is linked to other demons: suicide, drugs, domestic
violence, and murder, to name some of the common consequences of this
disease. Women and children and the whole society are at the mercy of
drunken persons everywhere. It would make for an interesting study to
gather all the evidence and reports of alcohol-related deaths and injuries
across the spectrum in Guyana. I think we would all be stunned and sobered
by the findings.
There is a lot of noise about smoking and a global anti-smoking campaign
has forced the tobacco industry to take note of this trend and put health
warnings on all their products and advertisements. While this is a very
good thing indeed, it interests me that there is no comparative anti-alcohol
lobby. I've never really heard of a person smoking a cigarette or a pack
of cigarettes for that matter, and then be so out of his or her mind that
she or he kills a child on the road, or, in the case of a man, goes home
and brutalizes wife and children "under the influence." How
come the silence on alcoholism?
WE need to cross swords with big business on this issue if this will help
our home-grown liquor corporations to take up the challenge of themselves
becoming more responsible corporate citizens and lead the way in campaigning
against the abuse of their products. The custom of a toast to one's health
and success should be just that-not an opening bid for drunkenness, death
and disaster. The pleasure of the product need not be the pain-filled
poison it has become in our society today. The article this week by Macsood
Hoosein, Guyanese environmentalist, educator and community worker, is
a particularly welcome and timely one. Woman's-eye View will be dedicating
its columns to follow-ups on this issue over the next few weeks. We take
this opportunity to salute Macsood and the Berbice Group for putting this
topic on the national agenda.
Rum Shop Rendezvous: My neighbour did not have a steady job ever since
he stopped working as a 'hymac' operator with the ministry. We were also
affected by this change, for he couldn't bring us crabs and kokerite fruits
by the load-full any more. No longer having an 8:00am to 5:00pm routine,
he did odd jobs at home and in the 'coconut walk.' With more time for
recreation, he was lured into joining the club for the most popular recreational
activity in the area - rum shop rendezvous. It did not take very long
for this to become routine.
In the mornings his brother would pass by his house and the two of them
would join the other men at the rum shop for an 'eye opener' before 'tea'
(breakfast). These were the men who, in popular parlance, "opened
the rum shops" in the mornings. And so, when not at work or play,
which was often, they would spend the greater part of the day at the rum
shop, breaking only for meal times. Hot pepper and fried fish sold equally
well with the rum during those binges.
The rum shop was the social centre for many a rum drinker, but occasionally
drinking would take place under bottom houses, rotating among houses.
The norm was to drink until drunk. After all, isn't that the reason for
drinking rum? Being drunk mentally drowns out one's 'problems' and, in
any case, what else was there to do in a place as forgotten and inconsequential
as a rural, farming village? There were four rum shops to choose from
in the village, each had its own clientele, hooked by the credit they
owed and a few other reasons. The two villages flanking mine had two and
none rum shops, respectively. The distribution pattern of rum shops in
the region worked out to about one shop per village. And so the routine
of my neighbour developed. When he came home drunk, there would be quarrels.
These would be over trivial or real issues - food, money, sometimes just
about anything. The first two usually led to violent outcomes, with the
wife at the receiving end. Then the consequences extended to the lives
of other members of the family. The children, out of shame and fear, would
leave the house, they would lose sleep, or their studies in the light
of the kerosene lamp would be interrupted. The compromising of their future
Liquor Numbs Body, Mind and Soul: My neighbour, who ate fresh hot
peppers with his food, once told me that the peppers were necessary to
give the food taste since the liquor "numbed" his tongue. Sometimes,
in coming home, he would miss the bridge and fall into the drainage ditch
in front of the house. That would be another reason for a flare up and
a volley of blasphemous remarks. At other times, he would trip over a
log, or some other object in the yard, or the stairs. And the routine
was maintained. As these otherwise productive men spent daylight hours
in the rum shop they ran up many bills for which they became indebted.
With working hours spent drinking, they earned credit from the rum shop.
But this credit was for rum which they could not pay for because they
were not earning an income. In the meantime, their families suffered and
family life continually slipped. My neighbour, when his liabilities reached
a certain amount, "borrowed" or "took" money from
his wife to clear some of his debts. And so, he became a financial liability
to his own family.
If the rum was "numbing" his tongue, little did he know, or
care, that the rum was also working on his liver. Progressively, the alcohol
perforated this hidden, vital internal organ. There is no reason to think
the same was not happening with his circle of rum shop colleagues. If
only they did know or care. If only the social state of affairs offered
more opportunities or encouraged the generation of productive thoughts.
If only the culture frowned harder upon the incubation of the drinking
habit from young. He and his friends of the rum shop, eventually wasted
away, would not have lost so many years from their lives. None of them
would have died from cirrhosis.
Vicious Cycle: The above is based on a true story, the like of which
is replicated in many rural communities of East Berbice. Regarded as providing
the largest regional off-take for rum in the country, rum drinking is
heavy and widespread in the region. A number of causes have been suggested
for this. Among them, though not necessarily in the order presented, are
culture, inadequate social and recreational services, poverty, and low
awareness and education. This problem is a vicious cycle of social and
economic degradation and is aided by the factors mentioned as well as
the force of addiction. Alcoholism has been associated with no less than
eight other problems in the region, including poverty, domestic abuse,
child abuse, manslaughter, cirrhosis, impaired youth development, suicide,
and road fatalities.
Ad Campaigns Lead the Way: Unfortunately, Berbice at present is the
object of intense marketing by the local rum industry. This is the context
within which social and educational programmes for change will have to
operate. One of the companies involved was written to, pointing out the
social sensitivity of promoting the use of rum in the region and seeking
a withdrawal of an advertisement. The latter objective was unsuccessful,
Berbice is Guyana's second largest geographic constituency and many people
holding key positions and performing key functions in Georgetown have
Berbician origins. The human resource potential of the region is threatened
by social problems such as alcoholism, suicide and lack of social opportunities,
all of which are related, as pointed out previously. A number of Berbicians
are united in a campaign to bring the region's alcohol problem into the
open. This group includes private individuals, community, youth and religious
organizations from the region. Their aim is to increase awareness of the
problem and to motivate action towards its management. More will be heard
about this effort soon.