Youth convention celebrates 'mother earth'

The 2016 Youth Convention in Shulinab, Guyana
The 2016 Youth Convention in Shulinab, Guyana

A youth convention has taken place in Shulinab, Rupununi (Guyana), at which the central theme was ‘Preserving indigenous culture, rooted in protecting mother earth and nature’.

This convention was the first for several years and it was primarily organised to mark and give thanks for the Year of Mercy which concluded on the Feast of Christ the King. More than 170 young, indigenous Catholics – Macushi and Wapishana – gathered in the enormous village benab. Purposely built for community gatherings, the benab – a circular building made completely from natural materials taken from the forests of the nearby Kanuku mountains – provided an apt space in which to listen to presentations and stories on indigenous culture, identity and spirituality and to notice that the thread uniting each of these three dimensions is the affinity of indigenous peoples to ‘mother earth.’ The young people who took part represented 15 Amerindian communities spread across Central and South Rupununi.A young participant in the youth convention explains how Guyana's indigenous peoples are connected to ‘mother earth.’

“The convention lasted two days,” says Fr Jim Conway SJ, the Jesuit Co-ordinator of the Interior Apostolate in Guyana. “Torrential rains on Friday night didn’t dampen the spirits of those who’d travelled distances of up to 100 miles to reach Shulinab. After dinner, presentations from each of the participants, accompanied by a song or skit by their respective groups, generated the friendly and encouraging atmosphere that marked the whole weekend.”

Mining and pollution

The programme for Saturday and Sunday was packed full of interesting presentations. Four of them were given by Shulinab-based NGO South Central People’s Development Agency (SCPDA,) which shared with the young audience its award-winning work mapping out the traditional lands of the Wapichan people in Region 9. The efforts of the organisation had been recognised earlier in the year in Paris when SCPDA won the prestigious UN Equatorial Award at the COP 21 climate summit.

Nicholas Fredericks, toshao of the village and member of SCPDA, described how modern technology had helped to monitor mining activity in South Rupununi around Marudi Mountain. Photographs and video coverage, captured by a small drone flying across the Marudi area, showed how swathes of land and forest had been destroyed and rivers polluted. It highlighted how destruction in one part of the region had had an impact on another; the pollution of a creek in one part of the mining area had inevitably led to pollution further downstream in another part of the river.

"On various occasions over the weekend, elders shared nuggets of wisdom from the Wapishana and Macushi traditions,” explains Fr Conway. “They often drew upon the memory of stories that had been passed onto them by their ancestors. Many of the oral narratives disclosed a hidden world of beliefs and systems, customs and lore that, today, are quickly being forgotten and lost. Listening to the stories captivated the attention of the young people and ignited in some of them the desire to learn more about their ancestors and about their way of life.”

Fr Jim Conway SJ processes with the Blessed Sacrament during the youth conventionThe King walked alongside us

Another highlight of the youth convention was a procession with the Blessed Sacrament (left); while, on the Saturday evening, a huge bonfire was lit, which continued the sharing and became the focus for lots of singing and dancing. It was also used to bake bread by putting the dough onto the end of a stick and suspending it over the flames. Old and young alike joined in the ‘breadmaking’.

Fr Conway extended special thanks to the toshao and people of Shulinab Village for their generosity in hosting the youth convention, particularly Violet Eusebio, St Stanislaus Church chairperson and her team of cooks and helpers, for looking after them all so well. The celebration of the Mass was an appropriate way to end the convention, Fr Conway believes: “The Eucharist, itself a passing on of a memory, celebrated a king of mercy that walked alongside his people. Indeed, as he had done with the two strangers walking to Emmaus, our King, had walked with us: he had made our hearts burn over the course of the weekend through the stories told and the experiences shared. It was easy then, at the end of it all, to recognise him in the breaking of the bread.”

Guyana is a Region of the British Province, supported by Jesuit Missions. Read more about the contribution that Jesuits from Asia have made to the Church in the country in the winter edition of Jesuits and Friends.