SEEKING EL DORADO, Guyana and Exxon: A Love Story in the Watery Wilderness


Guyana and Exxon: A Love Story

in the Watery Wilderness




Just last week, I wondered if there was anything that could bring the country together the way football seemed to work on other countries. Little did I know that all it takes is one carelessly worded New York Times article! All weekend my newsfeed has been awash with unusual cohesiveness and patriotism. It seems that nothing unites a people like outrage and offense. And there is much to offend. The opening paragraphs read:

Guyana is a vast, watery wilderness with only three paved highways. There are a few dirt roads between villages that sit on stilts along rivers snaking through the rain forest. Children in remote areas go to school in dugout canoes, and play naked in the muggy heat.


Hugging the coast are musty clapboard towns like Georgetown, the capital, which seems forgotten by time, honeycombed with canals first built by Dutch settlers and African slaves. The power grid is so unreliable that blackouts are a regular plague in the cities, while in much of the countryside there is no electricity at all.


While it is true that we are the land of many, many waters, that we do not have many highways, that many villages are connected by dirt roads and many are populated by houses on stilts, that in someremote areas children do go to school in dugout canoes and the heat is quite muggy at times and some children do play naked in public, that some houses are rather clapboard like, we do get a lot of blackouts and some areas don’t have electricity as yet, it is also true that:

  1. The majority of the population lives in Region 4 where it is less of a watery wilderness (except, perhaps, during an enthusiastic downpour) and more of an urban jungle with rather homely concrete structures cropping up all over Georgetown, such as this:

Photo from a blogger who writes about his stay in “fantastic” Guyana, particularly the “urban heart” of Georgetown.

The vast watery wilderness:

Photo by John Greene

Our clapboard capital:

Photo of Regent Street taken from Instagrammer @guyanaview


2. You can get to most places on the Coast via a paved road so perhaps our highways are long enough that we don’t need many (although a few more strategically placed roads would be appreciated). We are, after all, a population of less than 800,000 people. Scarcely the population of what would constitute merely a village in some countries living on 20% of the land – we do not have need for multiple highways.

3.Many houses in Guyana are on stilts to safeguard against flooding during heavy rainfall as drainage is not reliable and we are below sea level. The word “stilt” can convey an image of a thin, spindly piece of wood precariously holding up a house. However, most stilt houses are rather robust to withstand the ravages of weather. What’s more, the majority of villages are not to be found alongside rivers or by the rainforest, as Krauss rather romantically implies. I would have loved some riverain scenery in Ogle. Unfortunately, all I’ve got are roads, trenches, the Atlantic Ocean, an airport and the site of Exxon’s future office.

4. While in hinterland regions, particularly in indigenous communities, children do go to school via canoe, in other remote areas, like Linden, Essequibo and Berbice, the same cannot be said. In Guyana, far more children are transported to school via bus or car or their own two feet than make it there via dugout canoe. Of course, a minibus does not make for a quixotic picture.

5. Some children play naked in their yards because they’re children and it’s a tropical country and, if you can get away with it, why wear clothes? Clothes are cumbersome and overrated. But it’s not because they don’t have clothes. To be fair, Krauss didn’t say this was why but the tone of his introduction makes it a likely assumption.

I mean, these kids who build and (one assumes) play with robots and happened to come 10th in 2017’s Global Robotics Competition seem rather clothed:

Guyana placed 10th in 2017’s Global Robotics Competition


And these kids who came second in the Caribbean Junior Squash Championships this month seem to be wearing quite a bit:

Caribbean Junior Squash Championships

And these kids just playing some chess (as one does) are very un-naked:

Kids just playing chess

These kids go kart racing forgot to leave their clothes at home as well:

Kids go kart racing

6. After all, we are the country “forgotten by time”. Which time are we stuck in, I wonder? Doesn’t seem to be Victorian times (which is what my guess would have been).  Neither is it some 50’s through 80’s musical time warp (which would be another good guess). Rather, we seem to have time traveled to pre-colonial times to an untouched, uncivilized community on the verge of discovery (by Big Oil). We are – drum roll please – EL DORADO!

7. Guyana does have its humid moments. I am not the biggest fan of tropical climates, I’ll admit. But it’s also sometimes cool and breezy, sometimes grey and rainy and, yes, sometimes so hot you feel the skin is going to be burned right off of your body. Luckily, most evenings are breezy ones on the coast. Sometimes, it’s downright chilly (for us tropical dwellers, that is)! In any case, I’m fairly certain that scores of people, particularly people from places where it’s frigid and dark (see what I did there?) most of the year, would describe the weather here as some kind of glorious warmth and sunshine. But I guess muggy works as well.

8. I’m also not going to argue about blackouts. We have them. They’re the worst. Guyana Power & Light (GPL) needs to overhaul its outdated equipment and we need greater coverage. How we do this is a chat for another day. I’d just like to note that the company that managed and maintained the country’s power supply sources for two decades (ending only last year) was Finnish (Wärtsilä). I’m sure Mr. Krauss probably didn’t have time to learn about the solar farm being built in Mabaruma or the solar powered street lights in Bartica or the Norwegian supported solar power project in the offing but no doubt he’d be happy to hear about it all.

And that’s about it for those two paragraphs. There’s another amusing paragraph which claims that:

A plague of ethnic tribal politics has produced a fragile state with an economy propelled by drug trafficking, money-laundering, and gold and diamond smuggling. A vast majority of college-educated youths emigrate to the United States or Canada, while those who stay behind experience high rates of H.I.V. infection, crime and suicide.


9. Where is he getting his statistics from? The lion’s share of our GDP is derived from legitimate commodity exports as any cursory Google search can tell you. Yes, we are one of the poorest countries in the region but we’re far from being a fragile state. We’ve been economically and politically stable for decades. Although “ethnic” and “tribal” put together like that makes it seem like we’ve got literal tribes of savages clashing with one another, it’s really not much different from the tribal politics of the United States (Democrat vs. Republican) except obviously not along ideological lines (although in some cases, it’s basically the same thing). Maybe a little less vicious. We do socialize with one another, after all. And we don’t run people over with cars for their political affiliations.

10. The second part is obviously true though. As an educated youth who lives in Guyana, I can attest to constantly worrying about contracting H.I.V. My top priority when I leave the house every day for work is dodging H.I.V. infection. You just never know where it may leap out at you, you know? After all, we have a prevalence of HIV of just over 1%.

I aimed to make just five points and somehow got to ten but I think I’m being fair to Mr. Krauss (certainly fairer than he was to us). I found the parts of his article pertaining to the actual oil industry and our preparedness very enlightening. I hope that persons at the helm of this sector paid attention. Clearly there is much, much more to be done. But maybe some of it is already being done. I am not angrylike so many persons in the papers and on social media (check out the hashtag on Twitter #LifeInTheWateryWilderness for a good laugh). Because I understand what he was trying to do.

Clifford Krauss was crafting a Cinderella love story for us.

We’re going from rags to riches, people! We need Exxon and Exxon apparently really needs us. In fact, I had no idea Exxon was so desperate for this win. I thought they were doing just fine. But it’s apparently a match made in heaven.  Not a peep about the controversial signing bonus or the questionable royalty rates. Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) observed this year that:

“Existing production sharing agreements appear to enjoy royalty rates well below of what is observed internationally.”

But this is not on the radar for Krauss.

After all, we can’t have a cheap Prince Charming stiffing Cinderella.

Cinderella can’t be doing mostly okay but could use better opportunities in order to live her best life possible.

It can’t be that the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conspired to split a unified multi-ethnic political party at the dawn of independence which continues to this day to stand in Cinderella’s way.

Who wants to read about that?

All in all, I think that Foreign Policy magazine had the most fair coverage so far of this miraculous oil discovery. I’m sure there will be lots more international coverage of us in the years to come. I just hope that future journalists try to stick to the actual story.

Why does it matter? Because of this:

Everyone and their mother has trotted out Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk on the danger of a single story. Apparently, Eric here missed it.

Guyana’s story does have many subplots and layers but, unfortunately, Krauss has chosen to focus on only one narrative that makes up but a tiny percentage of who we are as a country and people.

I am not saying this as a “sensitive” Guyanese. Krauss is not writing fiction where a little exaggeration or tunnel vision is allowed now and then. This is not Slumdog Millionaire*. He is purporting to write the truth. He is a journalist. This is why I am writing about it. I am not upset. I am just pointing out that, far from journalism, what he is doing is marketing. He is trying to sell Exxon favourably and is using poverty to do it. A tried and tested method of appealing to sympathies.

Exxon had to publicly make a statement about not paying him to do it – even though no one asked. That’s how clear it is that this is what he was doing. Hey, journalists gotta eat too.

If Krauss manages to gain entry into the country again, I hope he gets to speak to a few more people and maybe see a little bit more of town. Or maybe he can take his article and turn it into a full blown novel. It might even get made into a movie. I’m sure he can find some producers for it.

And I hope that Guyanese find this as amusing as I do and don’t take it personally. It’s not us, it’s them. Some people have this need to be paternalistic and view “the other” as passive. Some can’t digest complex narratives. Some people see children and think of all that potential to learn and growth ahead of them. Some others see children and think “Hello, small, stupid humans!”

That’s fine. We’ll see what happens come 2020.

Walk good, Mr. Krauss.




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