Letter 1 from Belize: First aquaintances

September 23rd 2008

Stepping out of Belize City airport was like entering a sauna. Hurricane Ike and its predecessors had triggered a prolonged spell of hot, sultry weather that was even being commented on by the locals. So glad I had invested in some wicking clothing!

Fr Dominic, now six years resident in Belize, welcomed me and whisked me off to the city to take the opportunity of doing a few errands and paying a visit to the Bishop of Belize. The journey to Dangriga, beneath the frequent tropical downpours, would have been 70 miles via the unpaved Coastal Highway, but it was impassable due to rain. Hummingbird Highway, one of only four paved roads in the country, took us across the Maya Mountains adding 40 miles to our journey, to the coastal town of Dangriga, with some 8000 inhabitants, that was to be my base for the next 3 months. The large house the Claretians are refurbishing was formerly the home to an order of nuns, standing close by the parish church of the Sacred Heart and its Primary School. Amazingly, 100 metres from the door is the Caribbean coastline!

Meeting the team Let me introduce some of the team:

Fr Dominic has been with the mission since its inception in 2002 and is now shouldering the heavy responsibility of managing the 15 primary schools in the parish, and building up a much-needed HIV support clinic.

Fr Gerry is from Nigeria and has been with the mission for almost a year. He is currently developing a vital programme for training lay ministers. Even he comments on the current heat wave!

Fabian is the Assistant Schools Manager, who spends a lot of time dealing with the many and varied problems of the 15 primary schools scattered across southern Belize, many in remote villages out in the plantations.

Maruca comes in mid-week to prepare lunch and do some cleaning, but more importantly she is a trained HIV counsellor, helping Fr Dominic with his clinics.

Felix is the handyman who can turn his hand to any repair. Strangely, everybody knows him as “Pilar”. He told me that, as a child, his favourite shirt had Pilar on the label. I wonder if anyone has told him it’s a girl’s name!

Cecilia is the office secretary. She keeps a steady eye on everything connected with the parish and schools and, most importantly for the teachers, makes sure all the salaries are paid.

Pablo is the master carpenter who has moved down from the hispanic north so that he can work full-time reconstructing the interior of the house. Most people in Dangriga speak Garifuna, Creole and English, so he enjoys a chat in Spanish when we meet.

Anthony is another handyman with a bright and breezy manner, who has recently been working on the church across the road.

Presenting the cheque

One of the pleasures for me of this trip to Belize was the opportunity to personally deliver a cheque for the Children in Belize Appeal. The Kimbolton Charity Rides had raised in excess of £10,200, and with some additions I was able to present Fr Dominic with a cheque for £11,000. Although its spending power is significantly greater here in Belize than in the UK, in reality it is still a drop in the ocean in terms of their needs.

San Juan. On my first day I accompanied Fr Dominic on a trip to San Juan, a small Spanish-speaking community 50 miles from Dangriga, where he was to say mass. En route we crossed a temporary causeway over a creek which rep laces a bridge that was washed away by tropical storm Arthur on June 1st. (As I write this, the causeway has been was hed away  by torrential rain last night, thus cutting off one of the four highways in the country). We offer a lift to a policeman who is taking an escaped prisoner back to prison (the police are short of their own vehicles because of accidents!). The mass is offered for a deceased man in the village, who we later discovered was murdered out on the plantation. Fr Dominic piles adults, children and bikes on the back of his truck to take them back to their homes (health and safety bells ring loudly in my head!). Some, including a mother carrying a 2 month old baby, have walked 2-3 miles along dark rugged tracks. I am deeply impressed by their commitment to their faith.

National Independence Day Sunday September 21st

The Belizeans celebrated the anniversary of their independence with fireworks, parades, dances and food. It is 27 years since they had to sing “God save the Queen” as their national anthem! In Dangriga the celebration is a little muted, because the Garifuna prefer to let their hair down on November 19th, Garifuna Settlement Day.  The Garifuna are a proud Black African Carib race who were hounded from the island of St Vincent by the British, and eventually established themselves in southern Belize in 1832. They have their own language, traditions, history and rituals, which blend curiously with their modern social and religious habits.

San Pablo. Fr Dominic and I set off at 6.30am to the most distant community in their parish, San Pablo, which was 70 miles away, 10 miles of which we drove along dirt tracks

through banana plantations. The village is a community of Q’eqchi Mayan Indians who were moved by the government to make way for the creation of a National Park. Fr Dominic conducted 7 baptisms, said mass in Q’eqchi, and afterwards helped to address the problems of absenteeism of the school’s teachers, most of whom do not want to live and work in such remote village. (In Belize, teachers can be placed, at a month’s notice, in any school where they have to fill a vacancy). Also, the only source of electricity to feed the school, the church and operate the water pump for their well, is a solar panel which ceased to function 4 months ago. Since then they have been using river water for their domestic needs, with all the dangers that entails. We offer to contact the American lady who installed the system to get the appropriate advice to fix it. Unfortunately nobody in the community has any knowledge of electricity, so getting the expertise in to help is going to be a challenge.

San Isidro. On the journey back to Dangriga, we stopped to visit the village of San Isidro, whose school was burned down by arsonists a few days before. One theory is that it was done by locals who wanted to force the government to put up some better buildings. I understand the British Army will step in and provide some tents so that classes can resume early next week.

Only five days into my 3 month stay here in Dangriga and I have been confronted with some of the raw challenges that keep the Claretians occupied in their mission. It is a privilege to be here sharing some of their workload, but I do appreciate that I will add only a grain of sand. If anyone wants to make a difference in the lives of others, Belize is a country that is in desperate need.

For more information about the Claretians in Belize, click here

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About Frank Burns

Looking for the extraordinary in the commonplace………taking the road less travelled……..striving for the ‘faculty of making happy chance discoveries’ in unremarkable circumstances. Click on the Personal Link below to visit my webpages.

Posted on September 23, 2008, in Letters from Belize and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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