As soon as I began my fieldwork in Guyana in July of 2014, I started to hear hushed discussions and whispered warnings about something the locals were calling “the sickness.” While I assumed that they were referencing something like malaria or the flu, I soon discovered how wrong I was. “The sickness,” sometimes mentioned explicitly and other times only alluded to in conversation, was an ever-present undercurrent during my time in Sand Creek, a village in southern Guyana populated by the indigenous Wapishana people. I encountered discussions about it throughout the community — at the shop, on the farm, or while working as a voluntary teacher at Sand Creek Secondary School, where young women living in the boarding school dormitories experienced an emergent form of spiritual crisis. While medical doctors were consulted on the matter, they found this baffling illness difficult to diagnose. However, through speaking with local indigenous people about how they treat the symptoms of “the sickness,” I came to understand a distinctly Amazonian way of perceiving the body and how this perception underpins the meanings of remaining physically healthy and living well.
“The Sickness” in Sand Creek Secondary School
When I arrived in the village to conduct ethnographic research for my Ph.D., the school was cripplingly understaffed, and the village council requested that I volunteer as an English teacher. As my research was focused on education and boarding schools, I eagerly agreed to the arrangement.
On one sunny morning in September 2014, a month after I started at the school, I walked into a sweltering classroom on the second floor of Sand Creek Secondary. As I took attendance, I immediately noticed something was different. The normally smiling eighth-grade students were today a sea of frowns. I asked the students how they were, and they quietly said, “Miss Courtney, we are sad.” Concerned, I asked why they were feeling that way. They all began speaking at once, repeating that they had lost their friend. My mind jumped to the blank row in the attendance book–a young lady named Anna had yet to make it to a single class that whole term. One of my particularly precocious students, Justus, spoke up to confirm my suspicions. He said, “We lost our friend Miss. We lost Anna. Granny got her.” Later that afternoon the other teachers took me aside to explain that she was suffering so badly from “the sickness” that her parents took her back to her home village.
“The sickness” has affected school girls of Amerindian heritage in boarding school dormitories throughout Guyana. It began in Sand Creek in March 2013, when young girls started going into “fits” nearly every night that could last anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours. The girls writhed on the floor, arched their backs, and threw their limbs in every direction. At this point typically one or more of the girls would attempt to run up the mountain behind the dormitory. The dorm caretakers and other students tried to prevent this, as the mountain is deep rainforest and can be dangerous, especially in the dark or during the rainy season. They barricaded the doors, but the girls ran to the windows, broke the glass, and jumped out. When the girls eventually “caught themselves,” they claimed to have no memory of the events that took place during their fits.
When the school girls began experiencing these unusual symptoms, the headmaster called the doctors from a nearby town. Upon arrival, the doctors witnessed the young girls’ fits and brought a few of the students to the hospital to give them a full checkup. The doctors kept the sick children overnight and administered a battery of tests. The students did not have any fits or present any of the symptoms in the hospital, however, and the doctors were unable to diagnose any physical illness.
Sociality and Separation
The Wapishana elders of Sand Creek and other surrounding villages have another way of understanding “the sickness.” While all the accounts vary to some degree, the girls and members of the community agree that a “Granny spirit” is the cause. There is a mountain directly behind the school dormitory, and the people of the community explain that someone climbed the mountain, disturbed a sacred cave, and released the spirit of an old woman. As a result, she now comes down from the mountain and enters the bodies of adolescent girls. But why are these adolescent girls in such a spiritually vulnerable state?
In order to answer this question, it is worthwhile to take a step back and explore the myriad of ways that the boarding school education system impacts Amerindian young people, their families, and their communities, particularly in regard to patterns of residence, issues of social memory, and understandings of kinship. This form of education is leaving smaller communities nearly devoid of adolescents and is affecting family and community structure.
In the not-so-distant past, parents relied heavily on their older children for help on the farms and with cassava work, with daily chores, and with providing childcare for their younger siblings. More importantly, such intimate kinship networks were considered crucial to the dynamics of mutual care, so often noted in the Amazonian literature through concepts such as “consubstantiality,” the idea that sharing space and substance provides the basis for producing “real people” and a “community of similars.” Amazonian theories of sociality have consistently posited that subjectivity and personhood are created and recreated in embodied ways through intimate, long-term co-residence with kin and other members of the community.
In other words, Amerindian bodies are not merely individuals, but are alive through and maintained by kinship networks. The production and reproduction of these relationships, achieved through the sharing of food, space, and stories with family and neighbors, are crucial aspects of maintaining a sense of self and physical well-being for Amazonian peoples. A good life revolves around maintaining these relationships with kin and other members of the community. Drawing from these foundational ideas, I argue that the separation brought about by boarding schools is jeopardizing these important social dynamics, leaving Amerindian youth in a spiritually vulnerable state. This understanding is also demonstrated by the only consistently successful treatment of these symptoms: sending the girls back to their families and their home community.
But this leaves us with a very important question: what is it about young female bodies that makes them so much more susceptible to “the sickness”? Throughout lowland South America, gender structures social life. Production, social interaction, and all aspects of everyday life are informed by a distinction between female and male agencies. Women are associated with the space inside the village, so they exercise their agency by transforming forest products into useful items for consumption. Men, on the other hand, participating in hunting practices that take place outside the village, are associated with predatory relationships with outsiders, be they animals, humans or spirits. Women’s interactions with outsiders are typically mediated by their male relatives. In other words, men bring products in from the outside, and women transform them into proper humans, food, and things, thus constituting the inside of the village.
It is important to look at the social history of Amerindian people in southern Guyana and how this particular understanding of gendered agency informed mobility in the not-so-distant past. Prior to the widespread attendance at boarding schools, young Amerindian men of school age were expected to travel to forge relationships with outsiders and bring new knowledge back to the village, while young women left their home communities less frequently, focusing on the work of maintaining kinship ties and sociality within their villages.
With the relatively recent shift in the number of young people attending boarding school, however, there are a record number of young women leaving their home communities. In other words, young women are moving from the inside to the outside in unprecedented ways in the Rupununi, and, as a result, these young women are disconnected from vital female relationships with their kin. These historical gendered expectations of mobility shed light on the sharp difference between the ways young women and men experience boarding schools. In other words, young men are still leaving the village to acquire new forms of knowledge, but young women are left without the constant production and reproduction of the intergenerational relationships that promote embodied knowledge of kin and community. While men still build relationships with outsiders, young women no longer produce sociality as they would in their home community, and here the gendered difference of experiencing the separation of boarding school emerges.
“The sickness” in itself marks a contradiction in the ideal of daily life in Amazonia, found at the crossroads between the positive aspects of schooling and the health of the young people who are forced to live away from home. Although in one sense the value placed on formal education seems to be ever increasing in Sand Creek and throughout Guyana, a tension nonetheless remains between this value and its costs. Can formal education and the accompanying benefits be worth the loss of spiritual wellness, the care that only familial co-residence can provide, and the memories that are created in the process of being cared for?
Conklin, Beth. Consuming Grief: Compassionate Cannibalism in Amazonia. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2001.
Gow, Peter. “Kinship as Human Consciousness. The Piro Case.” MANA 3 no. 2 (1997): 39-65.
Overing, Joanna and Alan Passes, eds. The Anthropology of Love and Anger: The Aesthetics of Conviviality in Native Amazonia. New York: Routledge, 2000.