In celebration of Amerindian Heritage Month
The Domingo sisters…
THE gripping, inspiring survival experience of two young girls lost in Guyana’s jungles is the stuff epic films are made of.
FLASHBACK: President Cheddi Jagan is flanked by Bernadette and Bertina Domingo on October 5, 2006 at reception held for national awardees at the Umana Yana in Georgetown. The two sisters, 14 and ten years old, had the previous year survived an epic 30-day ordeal in Guyana’s dense, virgin forest.
Bertina and Bernadette Domingo of the Wapishiana tribe, Apoteri Village in the Rupununi began travelling from 7th April 1995 with their uncle up the Essequibo River; an uncle who had been instructed by the father of the girls to take them direct to the family farm.
Instead he diverted in the opposite direction with them, paddling for ninety-five miles in a canoe, then forcing them to trek through the jungle, threatening to kill the terrified girls when they cried.
At Pakani Falls they watched in fear as their uncle died of malaria – an uncle whose motives for his actions are shrouded in secret, lost forever in the hinterland landscape that had been the undoing of men from a time even preceding the Spanish Conquistadors.
If that uncle meant harm to his innocent, trusting nieces, as his actions indicated he did, because terrible pictures come to mind of child and female trafficking, he paid a terrible price for his heinous betrayal of his brother and nieces.
But that was no real consolation to the two young girls, who were left alone and defenceless to fend for themselves in the dense, dark rainforest, with merely a cutlass, a hammock, and their traditional tribal skills to keep them alive.
They were forced to undertake a journey that would test all their survival skills, their resilience, their character, and their survival instincts if they were to live.
The older Bertina, at thirteen, would have to become the leader, transmitting her unshakeable faith that they would survive their ordeal to her frightened nine-yr-old sister. In turn, the response of the younger girl, and the faith she reposed in her older sibling, would bolster Bertina’s spirit and inspire and encourage her to greater feats of endurance.
Before their journey ended they would have traversed over 200 miles of virgin rainforest, at the mercy of the elements, with all the inherent dangers of the deep rainforests – from the remote reaches of Essequibo to approximately 190 miles up the Berbice River – a mile away from the Lindo tributary.
They ate what they could, but their knowledge of the land and basic survival skills, inculcated from birth by the traditions of their aboriginal tribe, came to their rescue, resulting in their finding the “haiwa” wood to produce the most crucial requirement for their protection at night – light.
The girls staved off hunger by eating berries, peppers and fish caught by the traditional method. They remembered their tribe’s ancient skill of lighting an area of water with the “haiwa” wood to entice fish to the surface, then spearing them with a spear – in their instance with a cutlass.
The girls also had a miraculous escape from the claws and jaws of a jaguar and were forced to keep their terror at bay when they encountered the large snakes, crocodiles, and other large and dangerous denizens that proliferate in Guyana’s rainforests.
At one point they thought that they were about to be rescued. Hearing the sound of an engine their hopes soared as they walked quickly toward the sound and what they hoped would have been the end of their ordeal.
But as fast as they walked it was not enough and the frightening sounds of the rainforest enclosed them once again.
Rescue seemed near at hand once more when they stumbled upon a porknocker’s camp, but the camp had long been abandoned and was empty of any human presence. At nights they slung their hammock high in the trees to protect themselves from the many ever-existent perils threatening their survival every minute, with every step they took, and even in their sleep.
Many nights Bertina stayed awake for hours watching protectively as the exhausted Bernadetta slept the sleep of the innocent.
Meanwhile the girls’ parents were frantically looking for them and search parties were organized. The parents, accompanied by members of one search party went as far as Kurupukari – 60 miles from the Potaro River, but had to give up, not knowing what direction to take in the vast, dense rainforest.
Frantic messages were sent to relatives living in Georgetown in attempts to locate the uncle and girls, but to no avail.
Finally, at 5.50 p.m. on the third day of May, 31 days after they had left home, covered with mosquito bites and weak with hunger, Bertina and Bernadetta stumbled into a porknocker’s camp.
The astonished miners fed the girls and then took them into the city, where officialdom took over, affording them medical and other care.
Their rescuer, a miner named Gonsalves, said that the area in which they were found was so remote that hardly anyone ventured there.
The indomitable will to survive, their stoic resilience in the face of betrayal and overwhelming dangers, and the epic journey of these two fragile little ones is the stuff of which legends are made.
This was triumph of the human spirit against all odds. These two little girls were imaginative, resourceful, determined, tenacious, and, above all, courageous beyond the parameters of normal human endurance of body and mind.
To honour their resilience and courage in the face of danger and adversity, the Domingo sisters were deservedly conferred with a special award for courage during the 1996 investiture ceremony by then Executive President of Guyana, Dr. Cheddi Jagan.
They had also been awarded with a plaque saluting their bravery by the South Ruimveldt Policing Group.
Bertina and Bernadetta Domingo represent the best of the indigenous peoples of this land.