If you happen to visit the Rupununi region of Guyana, and take a hike with a local guide, it is likely you will hear plenty of fascinating stories and legends, as it happened to me. At the end of January 2014, I travelled to the south of Guyana with a group of researchers and had an opportunity to visit a place called ‘Skull Mountain’. During the trip, our local guide shared many tales and stories about the rivers, and valleys that surrounded us. It felt like being walked through an old town, with its church, its streets and its main square. The place was buzzing with memories and legends, evidencing the close ties between local communities and their environment. Of course, this is a subtle relationship, one that does not immediately spring to the eye of the foreign observer. It is without material evidence, marks or scars. Instead, it is deeply spiritual and largely invisible. What appears as thousands of hectares of wild savannah, forests and mountains is in fact the result of a mutual relationship, where human beings shape their environment and their environment, in turn, influences who they are and what they believe in. No wonder Indigenous territories also happen to be amongst the most preserved habitats on earth.
Oral storytelling has traditionally been the main vehicle for the transmission of beliefs in the Indigenous communities of the North Rupununi, Guyana. It allows these communities to transmit their worldview and reinforce their sense of community. But the absence of writings also makes these social values particularly fragile to the test of time. With the arrival of new information and communication technologies, and the avalanche of cultural content they provide access to, the practice of oral storytelling comes under increasing threat. Yet, these technologies also present new opportunities. Thanks to recent developments, new possibilities for capturing, broadcasting and safeguarding oral stories have emerged, as discussed here by Grace, a Makushi storyteller:
“Over the last few months, I have been visiting some homes to gather traditional stories from community members of different ages. Gathering stories of our customs, traditions, and beliefs from the elderly who are still alive in our communities is important for me as an individual. This time, however, I am very proud of two young boys, aged 8 and 9, whom I found debating about a story they had heard from their teacher in school. When I met them, they were both arguing about who knew the story right and who got it wrong. It was a great opportunity for me to explain to them how important it is to document these stories. They both liked the idea of recording the story and they both agreed to share it with me. They told me that one of their interests is listening to stories told by elders and teachers at school. As I started recording, I could see their excitement growing and they soon couldn’t stop telling story after story.”
Pantani – pronounced ‘pan-duh-nee’ — means “stories” in Makushi, the language of the Indigenous peoples of the North Rupununi, Guyana. It is also the chosen name for a digital storytelling project, which took place be- tween June 2014 and May 2015 with the help of local storytellers Lakeram Haynes, Grace Albert, Abigail Allicock, Kenneth Butler and Janissa Roberts. All stories were originally published online, on a blog called www.pantaniblog.org. This book proposes a selection of the best ones. It is a tribute to the wiseness and the kindness of the Makushi people of Guyana, with whom I have had the privilege of living and working in 2014 and 2015.