Why you should Travel to Guyana – Interview with Hanan Lachmansingh
After living abroad for three years in Ghana and another three years in Trinidad, Hanan Lachmansingh is back in her home country, Guyana, working for the Guyana Wildlife Conservation and Management Commission as a Research Assistant. With an intersectional approach focused on integrating questions of ethnicity and gender lenses into conservation work, Hanan has unique perspectives on Guyana’s remarkableness and why people should travel to Guyana.
She was also a former intern for Friends of Wallacea, so you might have read some of her work in the past! Check out our recent interview with Hanan to learn her unique insights into her country and why it’s such an exciting place to visit for wildlife lovers and conservationists. She shares some thoughts about wildlife, culture, travel, and volunteering in Guyana. Read more below!
Please tell us about your background and how you became interested in conservation in Guyana.
I think my first introduction to the conservation and nature world was when I was young. My dad would pick us to go fishing with him… that would be our bonding moment. I remember connecting very much with nature. It wasn’t about the activity, it wasn’t about catching fish. He would emphasize on being there and being quiet. In that silence, you always hear different things. Since my young age, I guess I have been able to appreciate nature.
Where I live in Guyana, I live on the coastline. For a long time, I could actually see the ocean from my house and the veranda. It would always be a very common thing for us to go for a walk along the ocean. There was a sea wall you could see from my house. But now, they had a mangrove project and huge mangroves have been growing. As a conservation person, that’s very exciting. You see birds flying in and out of the mangroves, and it’s beautiful. Where I live, I constantly connect with nature, I can see the ocean, I see the birds.
Conservation International Guyana’s Mangroves project is aimed at improving human well-being by preserving and reinforcing mangroves on the coastlines.
Another thing about me is that I actually spent three years in Ghana, which also influenced how I see the world and my experiences. When I was in Guyana, we were doing general sciences only. When I moved to Ghana, we were actually doing biology, chemistry and physics. Those are totally different subjects. Being able to get into biology when in Ghana got my brain moving into some more scientific and biological directions.
When I moved back home, I wanted to actually figure out what I wanted to study in university. I didn’t know what to do exactly. But I was with a group of people who were talking about Guyana, conservation and nature, and someone said “Guyana is so big and you do research on big mammals, but we have no idea concerning what Guyana has to offer concerning microbiology”. And that clicked in my mind. Somewhere along the line, it clicked that I would like to study the environment. So I studied Environmental Sciences at the University of West Indies in Trinidad. I was there for three years. I majored in Environmental Sciences and I minored in Anthropology. A lot of who I am now is because of that connection I made between environment and anthropology. Studying those two fields really allowed me to grab the bigger picture of environment and conservation in Guyana.
As an intersectional conservationist, what do you think makes Guyana so compelling as a place to study?
As an intersectional conservationist, I think Guyana is a really good place to study because we have so many different factors that are constantly stimulated. You’ve got the historical background, you’ve got race, politics. A lot of these social issues relate to what we study in the environment. This is why I was interested in studying anthropology, because to do environmental work in Guyana, you have to work with people. This is kind of what the British did in the past. If you wanted to find gold, you had to work with the indigenous communities on the ground.
And I have a huge interest in gender and in the environment in Guyana. Because when it comes to gender work, not a lot of research has been done. In Guyana, a lot of our GDP relies on natural resources. We have a lot of timber, gold exports, rice, sugar, and I guess tourism that we are now developing. Work in these sectors are male-dominated. So it’s really interesting to see that yes, our GDP is growing, but what is the role of women in these sectors? When you look at mines, when you look at logging, it’s easy to see that they are male-dominated and that women are not involved.
I’m taking the time as a young Guyanese that is working in the nature resources field to have self-reflection and observation.
Mining provides important economic outputs for Guyana, almost 10% of the GDP.
You also joined our sister organization, Operation Wallacea, a few years ago. What did you do with OpWall?
I joined Operation Wallacea’s Guyana expedition in 2019, in July-August. I was there for 4 weeks. It was a really fantastic field experience. We did several biodiversity surveys, and there were different groups. There were mammal groups, herpetology groups, bat groups. We set pitfall traps for Dung Beetles, as well as mist netting for birds and bats. We also did forestry work and a few fish surveys.
I was really excited, because this was the first time I was actually able to do any of those useful field techniques. It was a really great learning experience, because I had no idea this was how you actually did these kinds of surveys. For the mammals surveys, we would go walking during the day, looking for tracks. We did walks for amphibians and reptiles during the night. Netting for birds would happen from 5 in the morning to midday. Bats were in the evening, and the pitfall traps for beetles would also be set during the day.
With thousands of animal species, Guyana is the perfect place to study the environment and its wildlife.
How did this experience with Operation Wallacea influence your interest in conservation or career path?
This was actually one of the first field experiences I had ever gotten, and this is really important because up until this point all I ever did was theoretical. I was really hoping to have a more physical experience in order to decide if this was really for me. When I got accepted to go on the OpWall trip, I was excited, but I was also really anxious just because it felt like it was a test. I had no idea how I would react, I had no idea if this was really for me. I had a lot of thoughts going through my head. And I knew it would be a predominantly international team I would be going with. On my trip, I was one of three Guyanese. There were local guides, but most of the scientists were foreigners, mostly from the U.S.
It was a really great experience, and I was grateful to be able to learn all of these things. Because I really felt like I had an edge above all of my classmates when I went back to university after that trip. I also felt a huge sense of accomplishment, because I didn’t feel completely overwhelmed. That was when I realized this was definitely my field, I could do this. But also when I was there, it was really interesting looking into intersectionality like race dynamics, gender dynamics. I asked a lot of questions to know where the research goes, how does this research benefit local people, how can they use the information to rally for better representation… I really cared about this continuity. I wished with all my heart that more Guyanese could have had this opportunity, not necessarily to do these surveys, but I wish that all the biology students at our university in Guyana could have had the chance to be in the field, to actually experience things.
Friends of Wallacea’s sister organization, Operation Wallacea, organizes research expeditions around the world, supported by teams of volunteers involved in environment and wildlife preservation.
Since you have been able to travel all over Guyana, what is your favorite place in Guyana?
To start with this, Guyana is huge. Guyana is a giant country and I feel like I haven’t even seen half of it yet. But I have two favorite places. One of them is definitely the Rupununi. I have this one memory where I was driving from Lethem to Annai and on that drive you see the Pakaraima Mountains range. That’s one of the largest mountain ranges in Guyana. There are several folk songs about the Pakaraima Mountains. Lots of our national songs are folk songs. Pakaraima Mountains is one of those places that I’ve been singing about for years in school. And actually being able to see these mountain ranges was beautiful, it was amazing, everything was just perfect. It feels as if everything on the coast, in the city, just disappeared in this beautiful drive.
Another favorite place is by the sea wall. That’s simply because being able to sit and watch the ocean is so relaxing. There are a few papers on Green Spaces, or Blue Spaces. The ocean for us, that would be our blue space that is easy to access once you’re on the coast. On those days when I feel really overwhelmed, where I feel really tired, I know for sure if I’m driving home, I can just pull around the corner and sit on the sea wall and look at the ocean, even if it’s for ten minutes. Just being able to look at the ocean, to look at the waves, to feel that silence, to smell the ocean breeze, and look out.
Blue spaces – sea, lake, river, and the coast – are said to improve mental health and happiness.
What is a travel moment from your country that will stick with you forever?
A travel moment that would stick with me forever is when I was in Kamarang. Kamarang is an area in Region 7 in Guyana. It’s an indigenous community, it goes along the junction between the Kuyuwini and the Mazaruni rivers and there are several communities that live along the river, the Akawaio and Arekuna people, but they don’t speak English. They have a local language and a local dialect. And when we had arrived in Kamarang city, we took a flight from the local airport back to Georgetown. On the tarmac, there was a woman who was waiting to board and she was accompanied by someone. The person said she needed to go to the hospital, but she didn’t speak much English. “Can you please make sure she gets there?”
I was just in complete shock, because we’re in the same country and this woman is about to go on a plane, fly for an hour, and she’s going to land in a city where she is an alien, where she’s a complete foreigner. She can’t communicate with people in her language. And it’s a moment that stuck with me because it made me think about how diverse Guyana is. We have nine different tribes of indigenous people in Guyana. And I even forget about the language and communication barriers that people from communities who don’t speak English will face when they come to Georgetown. Or how hard it is when you try to do outreach and to connect communities. You need to connect with them in their languages, and their languages are even dying over time. It was a really sad moment, but it made me realize how large Guyana is and how different everybody is.
We have been told that you are quite knowledgeable in Guyanese cuisine. Could you tell us why food is so unique in Guyana? What are the primary things to try?
Guyana is a land of six peoples: we have a huge mix of cultures that came with our historical background. And you see that reflected in the kind of food we have. In Guyana, we’ve got indigenous people, then the Europeans came. They brought the Chinese to work, they brought enslaved people from Africa, they brought laborers from India and the Portuguese came along at some point along there. And you see that reflected directly in the kind of food that we have.
We have curry, that’s definitely from our Indian side. We have different kinds of sweet meats that typically come from our Indian culture. In terms of African food, we have metem, which is a soup. It’s a lot of one-pot meals in our African culture. We have cook-ups, that is rice with different kinds of meat, could be pigtail, beef, could be chicken foot. Guyana also has a lot of Chinese restaurants. But the Chinese food in Guyana, and I think in the Caribbean, is not “authentic” Chinese food. But we have things like Bao, which is definitely Chinese. When it comes to Guyana we have so many different snack foods you can try, like chicken foot, fried plantain… The main reason why Guyanese food is unique is because we have this constant mixing of cultures. It’s really hard to get bored with this food!
Among the six different ethnicities in Guyana, 40% are Indian, which makes it the largest group in Guyana.
What is your favorite Guyanese food?
One of the cool things about Guyana is that we have a lot of different snack foods, at least when I compare it to Trinidad. If you travel around Guyana, in the morning especially, you’ll see several small shops that are set up. It’s almost a routine for people on their way to work, they are going to stop if they need breakfast. There is always a small shop that is selling a variety of different food and snacks. It goes from heavy food, like pumpkin, which you would eat for lunch or dinner, to something smaller.
My favorite is cane juice and egg balls. Cane juice is made from sugar cane, you grind it, and it’s green. It usually goes together with egg balls, which are boiled eggs covered in cassava potato and spices, and it’s fried. It comes out golden, soft and delicious. And you eat it with sour, which is like a mango chutney, and it’s peppery and spicy. Those are my favorite foods.
What is your favorite Guyanese tradition? How do you celebrate it with your family and friends?
Our calendars are structured around Christmas and Easter as main holidays. So we get a much longer holiday break for these two Catholic celebrations.
Guyana has so many different holidays, simply because we celebrate the Muslims, the Hindus, as well as Christian holidays. But Christmas is, I think, my favorite. Just because Guyana changes. It’s the end of the year, the energy in the country is different. That’s also a time when the diaspora would return home. Because it’s Christmas, everybody is in a light mood, everybody sets up lights, there is a big main streetlight up. Last year they decorated it in a really nice way, and it opened a really nice way for families to come.
We also have a lot of Guyanese foods that are associated with Christmas time. There is pepper-pot, which is actually our national dish, it’s an indigenous dish. It’s made from cassareep, which is made from cassava. That’s our national dish, and at least, in my home and I guess in Guyana, it’s found a lot more around Christmas time. It’s like a stew, and you can put beef into it. And because of the property of the cassareep, which is actually a good preservative, once you have it in the pot you never have to put it in the fridge. You just have to boil it every day, and you’re good to go. Another Guyanese Christmas meal is garlic pork, we got that from the Portuguese. In my family, we usually make it two or three days before Christmas day. So you have different pieces of pork, you put that into a glass jar with several heads of garlic, as well as with thyme, vinegar, and water in different portions. You leave it there to settle down and on Christmas day, you fry it. And it’s delicious.
Those are the two main Guyanese Christmas foods that I have every year with my family. So Christmas is definitely one of my favorite holidays.
Have you enjoyed learning about Guyana through Hanan? Book a tour with us to experience cultural diversity and travel to Guyana, to try culinary delights, and to explore forests full of incredible and unique wildlife!