September 20, 2020

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

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guyanaBy Shawnette Brandt From Peace Corps Volunteer, Guyana

I was born in the United States to Guyanese parents. 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.

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

Upon my arrival to St. Lucia, I experienced what many Peace Corps 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 culture.

In St. Lucia, family gatherings always included treats made from fresh-baked bread, coconuts and plantains. Reggae and calypso frequently played in the background while adults and children alike swayed their hips to soulful beats. All of these aspects were familiar as I acclimated to my new life in St. Lucia, as they were like scenes from my own childhood. 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.

shawnettebrandtGuyanese people live all over the world, and a significant number reside in the United States, Canada, England and throughout the Caribbean. 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. 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 welcome. The vast majority of my interactions when Lucians learned of my heritage were positive. However, the negative reactions, which mostly occurred when the individual didn’t know of my Guyanese parentage, were unexpected.

For the first time in my life, I lived in a country where the vast majority of the people looked like me and 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 or deeds. I may not have changed minds, but perhaps I planted seeds for further growth.

As time passed in my Peace Corps service, I still had not made it to Guyana! Being in an environment similar to what I had as a child only increased my need to seek a greater connection. I live just a short plane ride away, so eventually I packed a bag and bought a ticket.

Living in St. Lucia prepared me for the visit. The rush of the Georgetown market, bucket baths, reggae playing into the wee hours of the night (and morning) – all were things I had experienced for the last 19 months. I got to see and interact with family members that I’ve 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 Guyanese family member also worked with the Peace Corps to train new Volunteers.

Living in the Caribbean, and my trip to Guyana, have made me 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 bathe (or “go bade,” as they say): “You’re a real Guyanese. I can’t even do that!” Hearing the voices, the English Creole widely spoken all around me, felt in many ways like coming home. And in a sense it was.

I consider myself 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 is a unique perspective indeed.

Shawnette Brandt is a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in St. Lucia, Eastern Caribbean (2013-2015, EC #85). Born and raised in New Jersey, Shawnette joined the US Peace Corps in order to serve her country of birth and the larger global community.

IMAGES: Peace Corps Volunteers

For more on this story go to: http://passport.peacecorps.gov/2015/02/09/how-living-in-the-caribbean-helped-me-understand-my-west-indian-heritage/

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