Letter 4 from Belize: Ethnic diversity

October 18th 2008

I was much amused by an article in Amandala, Belize’s biggest national newspaper. Talking about the global

economic crisis, it lifted the following quote from the Telegraph: Even the Queen was worried. “Prime Minister, one’s money is invested in Coutts. Is it safe? My parents, grandparents, even Queen Victoria put their savings into Coutts, but one’s bank is now part of the Royal Bank of Scotland!”. Belize may not be in the thick of the crisis like the developed world, but their tourist industry and property sales to foreigners have taken a severe blow, as have the highly valued “remittances” from the USA. Like many Central American countries, workers migrate to the US to find better-paid employment and they send money back to support their families. This would normally attract over $100 million pa into the country, but Belizeans abroad will be amongst the first to lose their jobs in a downsizing America.


Belize is a country of large families. It is not uncommon to see families with more than 12 children.  George Higinio, who was buried yesterday, had 17 children, six of whom were adopted. Because of the ever-growing population, the schools are bursting at the seams, and accommodation is always a critical issue. While discussing the construction of a new school with Fr Dominic (to replace the one burned down) I was shocked to discover that to save money, they have to partition classrooms to fit two classes into the one room. But children are the most resilient of human beings. They adapt to their environment and are invariably cheerful. Wherever I go in the villages, I get mobbed by the children, desperate to have their photos taken.

Spiritual outreach

The most vital part of the Claretians’ work is to serve the Catholic communities scattered across southern Belize, the most distant of which is over 70 miles away. To get to most of them, a 4×4 truck is essential, and even then you may still get into difficulties. One Sunday we went out to Maya Mopan where there was a tiny community with no church. So mass was celebrated in the outhouse of a palm-thatched home, chickens and dogs wandering in and out, using three languages (Mopan, Spanish and English) for the assembled 15 worshippers. The ethnic diversity is staggering. Although English is the ‘lingua franca’, there are five other languages of major ethnic groups, and Fr Dominic has learned enough of each to be able to conduct most of the liturgy, switching languages if necessary. He can preach in English and Spanish, but uses an interpreter for the other languages.

Fr Gerry

Fr Gerry, on the other hand, is relatively new on the Dangriga scene. While Fr Dominic is back in the UK enjoying a well-earned rest, he and I are ‘holding the fort’ for a month. Last Sunday I drove him the 50 miles to Seine Bight (pronounced ‘Sane bite’), and half the journey was along a very rough dirt track. Seine Bight is a poor community, situated on a long narrow peninsula, only 4 miles from Placencia, a fast-growing smart beach resort. The contrast between the two communities couldn’t be more extreme. The church at Seine Bight, however, is idyllically situated right on the beach. In fact, sitting strategically in the church, you can gaze out over the Caribbean while listening to the full gusto of the Garifuna hymn-singing. An important focus for Fr Gerry is the training of lay ministers in each community, to encourage a more proactive leadership within each church, to take greater ownership of the community’s own spiritual needs. In some cases, the priest may only visit a community once every 4-6 weeks.

Supa G in Dangriga!

You mean you’ve never heard of Supa G? Surely you’ve heard of Punta Rock? Well, if you haven’t, it’s probably because it is a purely Belizean Garifuna phenomenon, blending the essentials of Punta with traditional Garifuna musical idiom. I discovered Supa G was present amongst the congregation of mourners at George Higinio’s funeral, but his attendance was obviously low profile. There were no gatherings of eager fans, he just blended in with the crowd. Belizeans might, of course, just be very ‘cool’ when a rock star appears in their midst.

Two people I’ve met recently

Let me introduce you to two recent acquaintances. John J I met on the local jetty while he was fishing for crabs at dusk. He immediately struck me as one of Dangriga’s local characters, full of stories, philosophical insights, and a mine of local wisdom. He earns a few $s down at the market ‘scraping fish’, he once tried his hand at making his way in Honduras, but is happy with his relaxed, but modest, way of life in Dangriga.

Last Sunday, I met Javier in the village of Pomona. He is Guatemalan, classed as a ‘mestizo’, surrounded by a community of Garifuna speakers, working at the local citrus fruit company where he earns BZ$26 per 9 hour day (£8). When I asked about his family, he said his wife and daughter are living in Guatemala, and he only gets to see them every 6 months because of the cost of transport. In the meantime, he lives in very basic hut-accommodation provided by the company. I wanted to ask him what his dream was for the future, but I feared he might just shrug his shoulders. He appreciated a listening ear, and I promised to look out for him when I was next in Pomona.


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 October 18, 2008, in Letters from Belize and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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