Most non-West Indians know Guyana for being the place where American pastor Jim Jones and the members of the People's Temple from California drank cyanide poisoned Kool-Aid in 1978. It should be noted, however, that average Guyanese civilians had no idea that the Jonestown settlement was even there. The People's Temple had moved to Guyana from California in order to evade investigation by the US government. The Guyanese dictator at the time, Forbes Burnham, allowed Jones and his followers to quietly form their settlement, but again, the average Guyanese civilian was unaware of this until after the mass suicide made headlines.
Over the years, there has been much racial tension between the Indo-Guyanese (descendants of indentured servants brought by the British from India) and the Afro-Guyanese descendants of African slaves (although this tension has lessened somewhat in recent years), with most of the Indo-Guyanese voting for the People's Progressive Party and most of the Afro-Guyanese voting for the People's National Congress. In the 1960's and 70's, Guyana was ruled by the authoritarian grip of the economically socialistic PNC leader Forbes Burnham. Burnham, an Afro-Guyanese, was extremely racist towards the Indo-Guyanese, and was greatly resented by them. After Burnham died, another PNC leader, Desmond Hoyte took the reins throughout the 1980's.
Finally, in the early 1990's, fair elections were restored, and the PPP won the election, putting an Indo-Guyanese (Cheddi Jagan) in the Presidency for the first time. (The PPP has won national elections ever since).
In the late 1990's, a Jewish-American, Janet Jagan (nee Rosenberg) became President for a short time after her husband, President Cheddi Jagan, died in office. Janet Rosenberg had met Cheddi Jagan when he had been studying dentistry in the United States, married him, and moved to Guyana with him. The next President was Bharrat Jagdeo, Jagan's former finance minister, from 1999 to 2011.
As the culture is a Caribbean-based culture, soca, chutney (a popular musical form created when Caribbean nationals of Indian descent blended Indian and Caribbean styles), calypso, and reggae are popular in Guyana. Cricket is the national sport; Guyana is represented at Test level through the West Indies team.
Foods popular in Guyana include roti, dhal, chicken curry, and (at least among the Christian Guyanese, who have no restrictions on eating beef) pepperpot, a spicy beef dish.
One of the most fun and distinctive cultural traits of Guyanese people is their accent. They speak English, but with a VERY distinct dialect. The dialect is formally referred to as Guyanese English, or sometimes simply as Guyanese (occasionally it may be referred to as Creole, or Creolese). Basically it's a very deep Caribbean accent, although with a different, faster cadence than the Jamaican accent. The speech is usually peppered with a few surviving Hindi/Bhojpuri words (particularly if the Guyanese person is descended from Indians) and/or African words (particularly if the Guyanese person in question is Black), although there is overlap. It should be noted that almost nobody in Guyana speaks fluent Hindi/Bhojpuri (except for the Hindu priests) or any African languages, but again, some words have survived from those languages to get passed on into modern Guyanese speech. Guyanese English also tends to be VERY fast-paced, and can be quite confusing for outsiders.
Many Guyanese-Americans and Guyanese-Canadians, despite being raised in the USA and Canada, have consciously chosen to continue speaking Guyanese English at home and among relatives (and among other Guyanese friends) in order to preserve their cultural heritage. In public however, they generally speak in American or Canadian accents unless they want to amuse their non-Guyanese friends.
It should be noted that Guyana (along with Suriname, and French Guiana) is NOT considered part of Latin America, since it has a different culture (basically, that of the Anglophone Caribbean), and most Guyanese people tend to get rather annoyed when people mistakenly assume that it is.
The most populous religions in Guyana and among the Guyanese diaspora are Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, in that order. The majority of Indo-Guyanese are Hindu, with roughly ten percent following Islam, while a minority of Indo-Guyanese and virtually all Afro-Guyanese are Christian.
Guyana in many ways can be considered a sister nation to Trinidad and Tobago, as the two nations are located very close to each other, share cultures that are almost identical, have the same religious and ethnic demographics, listen the same music, and the fact that there is significant intermarriage between Guyanese and Trinidadians.
Famous People who are Guyanese or part Guyanese:
- Mark Teixeira, first baseman for the New York Yankees, is Portuguese-Guyanese from his father's side.
- Leona Lewis, whose father is Guyanese and mother is British.
- Rihanna, whose mother is Guyanese and father is from Barbados.
- William Austin, a white Anglo-Guyanese and British actor whose appearance inspired the iconic design for Alfred Pennyworth, Batman's loyal butler. Prior to Austin's appearance in the 1943 Batman serial, Alfred had been drawn as pudgy and with no facial hair. After Austin's portrayal of the character, the now-familiar image of Alfred as a tall man with a thin mustache became the norm.
- The late Norman Beaton, famous for the titular role in the sitcom Desmond's
- Guitarist Dave Baksh of the Canadian band Sum 41 is Indo-Guyanese
- E.R. Braithwaite, the real-life teacher whose memoirs formed the basis for Sidney Poitier's character in "To Sir with Love" is Afro-Guyanese.
- Raymond Ablack, who plays Sav Bandhari in Degrassi: The Next Generation, is Indo-Guyanese.
- Melinda Shankar, who plays Alliah Bhandari in Degrassi is also Guyanese.
- Model Shakira Caine (the wife of British actor Michael Caine) is Indo-Guyanese.
- Cricketer Shivnarine Chanderpaul is Guyanese, and was former captain of the West Indies cricket team.
- Pro Wrestler Ezekiel Jackson.
- R&B singer Melanie Fiona.
- Big Brother Canada contestant Aneal.
- Actress C.C.H. Pounder.
- Actress Letitia Wright is a Guyanese native, emigrating to the United Kingdom as a child.
The Guyanese flag