Category Archives: Letters from Belize
After almost three months helping as a volunteer, I grew very concerned that my two
colleagues, Frs Dominic and Gerry, had never allowed themselves a day off in that time. They were working 7 days a week, frequently starting at 6am, and not finishing until well into the evening. Something needed to change before unwelcome change visited their doorstep. I suggested that we might all take a day off together and go and visit one of the many Mayan ruins that bestrew the Belizean countryside. To my surprise, they agreed!
Background to the Maya
Nomadic communities migrated from Asia, across the land bridge of the Bering Straits, and headed south. The first recorded appearance of the Maya in Mesoamerica dates from 2,600BC, and they rose to prominence around 250AD in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras. Building on the inherited inventions and ideas of earlier civilizations, the Maya developed astronomy, calendric systems and hieroglyphic writing. The Maya were noted as well for elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories, all built without metal tools. They were also skilled farmers, clearing large sections of tropical rain forest and, where groundwater was scarce, building sizeable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater. The Maya were equally skilled as weavers and potters, and cleared routes through jungles and swamps to foster extensive trade networks with distant peoples.
The Maya in Belize
I was reminded by a Mayan gentleman out in one of the villages that today’s national boundaries are merely a modern invention, and that during the Classic period of Maya occupation (200-900AD) much of Central America was dominated by Mayan kingdoms, each with its own city and systems of defence. These cities generally cooperated and traded with neighbouring Mayan kingdoms, but kingdoms rose and declined almost cyclically. For many centuries, Teotihuacán (near Mexico City) was the religious and commercial centre of Mesoamerica, but more locally in Belize there were numerous Mayan cities whose fortunes ebbed and flowed in the course of time. Some of these sites have been meticulously excavated, others (and perhaps the majority) have been identified but left in their natural state. Amongst the most spectacular are Altun Ha and Lamanai in northern Belize, and Caracol and Xunantunich in western Belize. We had the great good fortune of visiting Xunantunich, only a couple of hours drive from Dangriga.
Its name means “Stone Woman” in Mopan, a modern name given to the site, whose original name has never been discovered. Before entering the site, we had to cross the Mopan River on a hand-cranked ferry that carried only a single car. The “Stone Woman” refers to the ghost of a woman claimed by several people to inhabit the site, beginning in 1892. She is dressed completely in white, and has fire-red glowing eyes. She generally appears in front of El Castillo (the principal building) ascends the stone stairs and disappears into a stone wall. It is an impressive, well-excavated and accessible Mayan site, close to the town of San Ignacio near the border with Guatemala. Xunantunich was a thriving Mayan city during the Classic period, from about 600 to 900AD, and boasted a population of about 10,000 at its height.
What the eye can’t see
It is easy to be dazzled by the restored remains visible to the eye, but what still lies underneath the ground can be even more startling. Excavation has revealed an impressive number of intriguing structures, the most dominant being El Castillo, standing at 130 feet, and the second largest structure in Belize (after Caracol). But as you look around the site you become aware that you are viewing only a small portion of the total city. The humps and ridges in the ground are not natural contours. They hide a vast network of chambers and tunnels that stretch for up to 3 kilometres. This was indeed an impressive city.
Xunantunich is situated on a high hill, which gave it an almost impregnable position. But to climb a further 130 feet to the top of El Castillo is a lesson on how to cope with vertigo as you climb the steep steps to the summit. The vantage point at the top provides a breathtaking, 360 degree panoramic view over the jungle canopy of the Macal, Mopan and Belize River valleys, as well as a vast area of the Guatemalan Peten District, which is only a few miles away. You will also get a close look at two unique stucco friezes, which appear on the east and west sides of the upper portion of the pyramid. Look closely and you might guess that they are not the originals. In fact they are fibre glass copies, because the originals have been returned to their former covered state so as to protect their integrity.
Revival of ancient rituals
March 24, 1998: In a history-making event, Xunantunich was ‘reclaimed’ by her people and became, once again, the sacred ceremonial site that The Stone Maiden was meant to be. An international group of some 60 devotees gathered on the spring equinox to perform ancient rites, and to establish once again the historic purpose of such citadels. Hunbatz Men, the Mayan Elder, was clear about their purpose: “For us, the Maya, it is time to do rituals again, and we should do them in all the ceremonial centres. When we do the rituals, we have more respect for life, we have more respect for the land and the rivers. The Mayan Culture is bringing back this education. With love, harmony, ritual and respect, we can understand humanity.”
I have mentioned in previous letters the border problems between Belize and Guatemala. When Spain relinquished ownership of its colonies, Guatemalan sovereignty included much of the Belizean territory, but that was without the consent of the British occupiers. Wrangles have continued ever since and even though the current borders have been ratified by international agreements, Guatemala is still pursuing its claims via the International Court of Justice. The implications of this are filling column inches in all the national newspapers, and are a hot topic of conversation in any gathering.
Our border incursion
So we decided to get in first, and make an incursion across our neighbour’s border! The purpose of our incursion was to go in search of a vehicle. Why to Guatemala? Well, simply because the choice and supply of vehicles in Belize are very limited, and the after-sales taxes and importation duties are prohibitive. To get to our objective, Guatemala City, took us a day and half of hard driving and, once there, we got down to business immediately.
As this was an important purchase, Fr Dominic and I were accompanied by his trusted and knowledgeable mechanic, James, who also needed to buy spare parts in Guatemala. James cannily had a good business contact in the city, Juan de la Roca (a descendant of a Catalan family) who drove us everywhere, building into our schedule some welcome sight-seeing and interesting meals.
The vehicles the community currently has are fast wearing out, due to the tough driving conditions and the high mileages. (As I write this, of the five vehicles currently standing in the yard, only one is operational for a variety of reasons). Because of the varying needs of the parish, schools and HIV clinic, a vehicle that can cope with rough tracks and river crossings, can tow a laden trailer and carry up to 12 passengers safely, made the Land Rover Defender an obvious choice. The first one we viewed, however, was 7 years old with an asking price of nearly US$30,000, which was well over budget. Fr Dominic realised that the viability of such a vehicle was seriously in question if that was typical of the pricing. Another option would be to import a new one from the UK, actually costing less, and asking Fyffes to ship it out free of charge. That decision now is still pending.
Compared to Belize, Guatemala is a vast country of over 21 million inhabitants. Although its infrastructure (roads, amenities etc) seems modern and well-maintained, the poverty levels, especially amongst the indigenous Mayans, are extreme. Millions of families are living on less than US$2 a day, and the adult literacy level is only 65% in the general population, but as low as 5% amongst Mayan women. Social and economic inequality is endemic throughout the country, most of the wealth resting in the hands of a small percentage of ‘ladino’ citizens.
The bloody civil war of the 60s and 70s cost the lives of over 60,000 people, and the ruthless dictatorships of the 1980s saw a ‘scorched earth’ policy exterminate the populations of over 400 Mayan villages. Emerging from this traumatic period, they finally held their first peacetime election in 1999 and, almost ten years later, the country now has the air of stability and demilitarisation.
Lying 40kms to the south of the capital, this ancient colonial town was once the capital until it was razed to the ground by the earthquake of 1773. Overlooked by three volcanoes, one of them still active, its cobbled streets are lined with opulent buildings and crumbling ruins, some bedecked with sprays of bougainvillea hanging from terracotta rooftops.
Having spent our three nights in two different Claretian Houses, we decided to do the 450 mile return journey in one day, making another brief stop at the Claretian
House in Izabal near Rio Dulce. This parish had been established by the late Fr Chris Cutler in the 80s who, on arriving, was presented with little more than a vacant plot of land. He was followed by Frs Chris Newman and Paul Smyth, and today there is a bustling community with a complex of buildings that provide facilities for workshops, dentists and pharmacy, as well as providing for the varied needs of the parish and community. When we arrived, there was a large crowd of lay ministers busily renewing their promises of duty while some of the womenfolk in
the background prepared the tortillas and huge pots of meat and beans.
SUMAN 168 PILOTOS DE BUSES URBANOS ASESINADOS EN EL 2008
When I saw this headline in a Guatemalan newspaper, I knew there were certain risks
about driving through the country, and especially in the capital. Bus drivers and their assistants were being murdered at an alarming rate, and cars are frequently held up on the highways by armed robbers. I recalled the
occasion when Frs Chris and Paul ventured into Guatemala once, and were held up at gunpoint, robbed and a gun was discharged inside the car. Fortunately they were only ‘shaken not hurt’, and they found the cartridge casing in the car sometime after the event. I was glad we had James doing the driving for us. He had a reassuring command of his own space on the road.
Frank, Dangriga, Belize December 10th 2008
Having lived the teaching timetable all my working life, by early November I was
wondering what had happened to my half-term break! So self-indulgently, and to have a little break for my birthday, I slipped off to one of the Cayes for two days. This entailed a 40 minute ride from Dangriga on a high speed open skiff to Tobacco Caye, a tiny tropical island of only 5 acres (2 football pitches) that takes less than 5 minutes to walk across. There are no shops, one beach bar, lots of palm trees and hammocks, and the optional activities stretch no
further than relaxing with a book, snorkelling and scuba diving by the Barrier Reef (which is less than 50 metres away), or taking some early
morning exercise by watching the sunrise from a hammock. The cabañas, though very basic inside, had verandas picturesquely overhanging the sea, under the shade of coconut palms. My sleep one night was rudely interrupted by a coconut falling on my roof. The crashing sound made me leap out of bed! The bad news for the island is that, with the current rate of coastal erosion, the island could disappear beneath the waves within a generation.
Back at the ‘coalface’, I drove Fr Gerry out to San Pablo, a remote Q’eqchi Maya village
out in the plantations. We gave a lift to a mestizo lady heading for work on one of the banana farms. She told me she spends 10 hours every day sorting and packing bananas, and is paid BZ$20 per day (£6), just above the minimum wage. Once into the village, I discovered that their water supply and electricity have still not been restored. I wandered down to the river and saw womenfolk doing their laundry and collecting water for their domestic needs. Elsewhere in the village, a team of men were building a palm-thatched family house. On enquiring about their progress, they told me they had started three hours before and expected to finish it by nightfall. I told them, at that rate, they could make a fortune building houses in my country. They looked at me quizzically for some reason! During the school mass, I noticed a boy wearing a Thomson tee-shirt, and remembered the holiday company had given us their discontinued promotional lines (pens, shirts, caps….) when they changed their company logo, and we had sent them out to Belize. I have also noticed lots of the pens still in regular use.
Martin Teul and family
On our way back, we stopped by the Teul family house, on the banks of the Kendal River.
They have been looking after our red truck on the south bank of the river so that, when the river is in flood and the causeway is impassable, the river can be crossed by skiff, and the truck used to reach the many schools and communities down in the south. Martin Teul has a small 50 acre farm, and he is of Mopan Maya descent, though he also speaks English, Q’eqchi and Spanish fluently (putting the rest of us to shame!). He and his grandchildren proudly took us on a tour of his land, introducing
us to many new and exotic fruits. We sampled Mali apples, apple bananas, giant mandarins and cacao (cocoa). We saw breadfruit trees and Golden Beauty bananas, and every time we went “oooh….aaah” the grandson would shin up a tree with his machete, and lop off a branch of mandarins or a hand of bananas. We struggled to carry the booty back to the truck. Before leaving, I caught my first glimpse of a Belizean hummingbird, hovering around nectar-laden flowers.
An unexpected call
We dropped by Bella Vista (a Spanish speaking community) to deliver some documents to the school but, on seeing a priest in town, Fr Gerry was asked to pay an unscheduled visit to a dying gentleman. We eventually picked up the man’s son to show us the way to his house and, when I enquired about his family’s background, he revealed they had fled from El Salvador during the 12 year civil war there. I asked if his mother was still alive and he told me the very sad story of his home being attacked by militia and his mother being murdered. Stories like these always leave me wondering about the grim reality of life for so many of these people.
You have probably been wondering when I would ever talk about one of my favourite
topics! As China used to be, Belize still is a country of limited car-ownership, but everyone seems to have a bike. There is, however, only one make and style of bike, and they are all made by the same Chinese manufacturer. I love them for their sheer simplicity. They are single-speed Hurricane beachcruisers with a back-pedalling braking mechanism. Their handlebars seem to be designed so that a passenger or heavy load can sit comfortably up front. I have seen parents carrying up to 3 children, and men transporting heavy sacks of fruit or even huge gas canisters or car wheels for repair. There is no limit. Marcela, a diminutive lady from Guatemala, cycles her 50 kilos of goods each day the 4 miles from Sarawee village into Dangriga, where she works as a street vendor. She told me that she had been attacked a few months before by knife-wielding youths, who stole all her day’s takings. She is a wiry, undaunted character who looks set to meet any challenge, but I couldn’t help but admire the strength in those cycling legs! She made my pedalling efforts pale into insignificance.
Then there are these ladies who walk everywhere and use this ingenious load-carrying technique, and there seems to be no limit as to how much they can carry.
I mentioned in a previous letter a trip to Belize City. At the Bishop’s Secretariat, I met Bishop Dorick Wright, Bishop of Belize, who was coming out of his office, and he informed me that my surname is very common in Belize. It probably goes back to the days of the British Baymen and the logging industry, when many Scots came over and settled. I asked him if he was aware that his school managers were in a meeting in his office, and he looked at me in surprise and said mischievously “If you want to be kept in the dark about anything and everything, just become a
bishop!” Sadly, his diabetes has caused him to go to the US to seek treatment for his eyesight.
Holy Redeemer Cathedral
The whole of Belize is one Catholic diocese, and Holy Redeemer is its Cathedral in Belize City. This year they are celebrating the Cathedral’s
sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary, but the first wooden structure lasted only a few years before it was destroyed by fire. The present church was built using bricks that had been used as ballast by incoming empty ships from Britain, and much of the interior was constructed with locally grown mahogany. The hurricanes of 1931 and 1961 did considerable damage to the fabric, especially the Byzantine domes and Gothic steeples, so the present structure is not entirely original.
Happenings at funerals
I have witnessed an unfathomable number of funerals in the last two months. Births and deaths happen in copious numbers here. A 65 year old lady, who was recently buried, had outlived 6 of her 11 children. Garífuna funerals have a special quality about them. They are invariably packed, with people spilling out of the doors, and the singing and wailing both happen with great abandon. At a funeral in Hopkins, two young lads got up and sang plaintive, impassioned dirges over their mother’s coffin, which prefaced the spilling out of a deep sense of family loss.
At another funeral in Seine Bight, I was just standing innocently by outside the church when, suddenly, I found myself enlisted to help carry the coffin! I wasn’t prepared for the crippling weight we had to carry. Six men struggled to carry it the 50 metres to the waiting truck, and struggled even more to lower it into the grave. I never thought to ask them for their risk assessment! But I do like the words on many tombstones that describe the dates of “sunrise” and “sunset” of the deceased. I don’t know why, but the use of such euphemisms reminded me irreverently of the Monty Python
Dead Parrot sketch, which seemed to exhaust all known English euphemisms about death.
Encounters of an interesting kind
With my work here, I have been privileged to meet people from all walks of life, and during some of my meanderings about town, it has been easy to fall into conversation with local people. I met Harry after a cycle ride while relaxing on the beach. He lives out on the Cayes, and was spending time in Dangriga doing some fibre glass work for a boat owner. Infants are the most photogenic of creatures, and many golden moments present themselves. Some are swaddled on the backs of their Mayan mothers, while others peer at you playfully over mother’s shoulder.
Outside a PTA meeting at Bella Vista, I met this lad with his pet raccoon ‘Luche’, and my perception of the domestication of animals was expanded yet again. I’ve already mentioned chickens and dogs wandering in and out of services. Well this dog simply settled under a pew and went to sleep! Our own three dogs once wandered across the road into the church while Fr Dominic was saying mass, and immediately picked a fight with another canine attendee. The resulting squabble apparently brought proceedings to a sudden halt!
Perhaps the least understood, although most conspicuous, community in Belize, the Mennonites hold fast to their culture and strict religious beliefs while continuing to dominate the commerce, carpentry, engineering, and agricultural industries of Belize. The Mennonites emerged during the Reformation of the 16th century in Northern Europe. Persecuted throughout the ages for their beliefs, particularly for their refusal to pay land taxes or support the military, this Anabaptist group migrated from Holland to Germany, through Prussia to Canada, to Mexico and then Belize, continuously fleeing from the attempts of each government to regulate their communities and to draft their men into the army. Their unique language, an archaic amalgamation of Dutch and German, has persisted the 400 years since this move and is still spoken in the Mennonite communities of Belize. The old order Mennonites will only use pre-20th century technology, so cars, telephones, television and modern media do not play a part in their lives. The modern Mennonites, however, avail themselves of the latest technology, and with their Germanic work ethic, are respected leaders in the Belizean world of commerce.
Chicle If you were ever a gum-chewing teenager, I wonder if you had ever pondered the origins of chewing gum. The sapodilla tree is endemic in Belize, and one of its by-products is latex gum, imported extensively by Wrigleys at the height of its chewing-gum production. Highly skilled ‘chicleros’ would climb the tall trees with a machete, and score the bark to extract the gum, that would be collected in bowls or pouches at the base of the trunk. It was a highly profitable but dangerous occupation, frequently beset by theft and murder.
“Mach de wint senne emma enn jϋn Rigje” (‘May the wind be ever at your back’ in garbled Mennonite German!)
I have made much reference to the multi-ethnicity of Belize, but this was really brought home to me when I was in Belize City, and I paid a visit to the Museum of Belize. There, by chance, they were launching a new exhibition entitled “Belizean ID”. Several speakers addressed the issue, highlighting the preoccupation many have in determining their own ethnicity, and deciding exactly what it is to be ‘Belizean’. Many here can trace 4 or 5 ethnic connections in their family history, and struggle to decide which is the most dominant when it comes to filling in census forms, for example. One speaker, an archaeologist, suggested that ethnic origins
were not the key to identity, but rather the cultural environment in which people live. (For instance, Ephraim here looks like a Creole, but he lives in a Mopan environment which he has adopted.) The
speaker also maintained that the Creole culture is so strong now that children everywhere in Belize are adopting its language and lifestyle, and marginalizing their own.
Background to the Garífuna
Dangriga is predominantly populated by Garífuna (more correctly known as the Garinagu), though I would say much more Creole than Garífuna is heard in the streets. In the tumultuous history of Europe’s incursion into the Americas and the trafficking of slaves from Africa to its shores, there are few stories as dramatic or moving as that of the Garífuna. The group’s genesis can be traced back to the sinking of two Spanish galleons off the coast of the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent in 1635. The Africans who survived the shipwreck intermarried with members of the local Carib/Arawak tribe that was the dominant population on Saint Vincent at the time.
Adopting an Amerindian language from the Carib and Arawak families, the Africans’ discourse eventually gestated into the language that is today recognized as Garífuna.
Although it contains some French elements, Garífuna remains uniquely Amerindian in its roots, as opposed to African. In fact, before the Africans had arrived on St Vincent, the Caribs had invaded the island, killing all the Arawak males, and taking their womenfolk to bear their children. Today’s Garífuna betrays the fact that the language of the womenfolk was different to the men’s, with different words and expressions (of identical meaning) used respectively by men and women. Women would not use the men’s vocabulary, but men may occasionally use the women’s, highlighting the historically dominant role of the male in Garífuna society (much less evident today, of course).
Arrival in Belize
In 1797, amidst disputes between Britain and France over Saint Vincent, the Garífuna were banished from the island by exasperated British colonial authorities to the island of Roatan, today part of Honduras. Nearly 3,000 Garífuna and their descendants subsequently spread out to mainland Honduras and along Central America’s Caribbean coast, from Nicaragua to Belize. The irony is that those who eventually settled in Belize, victims of a British expulsion from St Vincent, found themselves once again in British occupied territory. As you can imagine, their presence was viewed with great suspicion by the British authorities.
An important figure in the development of Garífuna consciousness was the Honduran journalist Thomas Vincent Ramos, who migrated to Belize in the early part of the 20th century and established the first Garífuna Settlement Day Celebration in 1941, which celebrates the first arrival of the Garífuna people on the shores of Belize. As I write this, we have just completed the day of celebrations, which started with the re-enactment of the arrival of the first settlers, followed by a most colourful, deeply cultural, Garífuna mass led by Fr Dominic. Not only was the liturgy conducted entirely in Garífuna, but Fr Dominic even delivered his sermon in Garífuna (after hours of preparation the previous night!).
The Mass was followed by the Official Ceremony in a local park, with military march-past, national anthem, crowning of Miss Garífuna and guest speakers that included the Prime Minister himself, Dean Barrow. The underlying theme of the whole day was the “empowerment of our children in the Garífuna heritage”. When the formalities were over, the parading and partying started for real! The streets of Dangriga were alive with music, dancing and colour, and the Street Festival continued for many hours. This day of celebration takes the Garífuna people back to their Ameridian and African roots, and reminds them of their debt of gratitude to the perseverance of their ancestors, to whom they owe their very existence today.
However, there’s clearly been a lot of linguistic and cultural erosion. Young Garífuna today are being lured away from the traditional lives of fishing and farming. The youngest people are not learning the language any more, and the average age of the people who can speak Garífuna is getting older and older. Some steps are being taken to address this decline. The National Garífuna Council, for example, was formed in the early 1980s to help promote and preserve Garífuna culture, and recently was instrumental in helping to launch the Gulisi Museum and Primary School, where Garífuna is taught within the curriculum. In 2001, the dance, music and language of the Garífuna were declared “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO.
Darí aríñon me, wadunraguáyaba (bye for now, see you soon)!
Being a non-dog owner, caring for three very lively dogs has made me more aware of the canine population of Belize. There are times when it seems there are many more dogs than people. Some of the dogs are either fenced in or tied up as guard dogs, but the vast majority are scrawny neglected waifs roaming the highways and byways. Walking our dogs anywhere is like running the gauntlet. Attack and defence are the order of the day. Getting home unscathed is sometimes a miracle.
Domestic banana plantation
I never regarded being able to wield a machete a priority during this visit, until I learned that I had to look after Fr Dominic’s infant banana plantation at the side of the house. Before he left, he taught me how to recognize suckers and dying branches, how to deal with them, and when and how to feed the plants. The other day when I was tending them, I’m sorry to say the dogs had been out on a hunt and delivered a tiny little dead kitten. When they saw me clutching a machete, they thought we were about to play a game! I had to use all kinds of deceit to deprive them of their booty.
If you’ve seen any American movies made 30-40 years ago, the typical yellow school bus of that era will be immediately familiar to you. Well, those very same buses, when they were ‘pensioned off’, were not sent to the bus graveyard in the skies, but reconditioned and sold to unsuspecting countries like Belize. Coming back from my early cycle rides, I see children climbing onto these rusting hulks, which belch out diesel fumes that induce rigor mortis while you’re still pedalling. Belizeans have fine-tuned the art of eking out the usability of vehicles that should have been recycled years ago.
This highway is one of only four in the whole country, linking the Western and Southern Highways. In terms of size, they are about the same as a good country ‘B’ road in the UK, and although there is very little traffic on them, the nascent oil industry uses huge Mack trucks to transport the crude the length of the country. The Hummingbird Highway is a delightfully scenic road that cuts right through the Maya mountains, through moist forest and citrus groves, following the route of an old narrow-gauge railway that was built by the United Fruit Company in 1913. This was the route for transporting fruit to the port in Dangriga. Unfortunately, most of the bridges are the old narrow ones left behind after the closure of the railway. As you can see, these are major obstacles for the big Mack trucks.
African palm trees
The village of Georgetown was established by people from Seine Bight, who fled their coastal
town after hurricane Hattie hit in 1961. It caused such devastation that, those who remained behind, had to rebuild their small town from the wreckage. However, when we visited Georgetown, Fr Gerry pointed out the unusual presence of some African palm trees. These are a low growing variety that produce palm nuts (not coconuts) near the base of the trunk, the oil from which can be used in a whole variety of edible, domestic and industrial products. In fact the whole tree, including the sap, leaves and branches can be turned into a variety of products, making the African palm a fundamental natural resource. A little research has revealed that the first seeds of the African palm reached Central America in the 1920s, and after the Panama banana disease in the 1940s, which wiped out banana production throughout the Central American isthmus, they were planted as an alternative crop, especially in Costa Rica.
Dangriga Town Council election
You may have thought the American presidential election was the only attention-grabbing news at the beginning of November. Well, Dangriga had something to rival it with its own local Town Council elections. Posters appeared all over town beseeching you to participate in the UDP Convention, where candidates would be selected for the elections next March (a bit like a US Primary). When Obama and McCain were hopping from state to state in the last 24 hours of their campaigns, devotees of the candidates in Dangriga were hopping from street to street, vigorously canvassing the electorate.
As I walked the dogs through the thick of it outside the voting station, I heard this voice behind me say: “Faada, (they haven’t quite got used to the idea that I’m a lay volunteer!) wud yu goh du a blesin on dehn oava deh?” When I enquired “who over where?” he said “Dehn malingerers oava deh”. I noticed he was wearing a blue shirt, and he was pointing to the yellow shirts across the street, who seemed to be mouthing something back in their direction. I then revealed the truth about my status, and he seemed extremely disappointed!
As I ambled along a walkway in Placencia, I chanced upon this notice, which I found amusing. I make no further comment!
I make no apology for addressing some controversial issues here. Belize is a small republic that has struggled to discover its own identity. After more than 300 years of occupation, during which its indigenous peoples and natural resources were exploited by avaricious British colonists, we find today that some things haven’t changed.
Belize, like most of Central America, was the home of the Maya civilization for over 3500 years.
They were an advanced race, deeply rooted in their religion, with a sophisticated understanding of both mathematics and astronomy. Later, from the east, came the Garífuna, a hybrid tribe resulting from an intermarriage of escaped Nigerian slaves, with native Carib and Arawak communities on St Vincent. Also from the east came the Creoles, formerly African slaves in the West Indies. Then from surrounding Hispanic nations came the mestizos, most fleeing from internecine wars. It was Spain who first laid claim to rights of ownership of Belize, but it was the British Baymen who actually occupied the land, harvesting the rich supplies of logwood and mahogany. A fierce dispute raged between Britain and Spain until 1798, when the Spaniards were finally routed in the battle of St George’s Caye. This saw the beginning of nearly two further centuries of British occupation.
Never in the history of colonialism has a country been occupied for the benefit of its own indigenous peoples. In Belize, the Maya were driven out because they were an obstacle to the mahogany business. African slaves were shipped over to provide the colonists with cheap labour. Land was monopolized, raped of its natural resources, and the people made largely dependent on imported food because the colonists never attempted to create an infrastructure for local agriculture. The history of the occupation is an epic tale of suppression. Though I have yet to hear any criticism from modern day Belizeans about the British occupation, I do detect a strong sense of pride in their new-found independence. But the major struggle for them has been to lift themselves up from a state of dependence, and take full and purposeful ownership of their own destiny.
Independence eventually arrived in 1981, as a result of continued workers’ resistance to unfair wages and labour laws, followed by the emergence of a Nationalist Movement, which spawned the People’s United Party (PUP), led by the charismatic George Cadle Price. Their objective was “to gain for the people of this country political and economic independence”. But they also had to address the very tricky issue of the Guatemalan claim to Belizean territory. This is an ancient right originating from the terms of independence granted by Spain in 1892 to the newly freed territories. Guatemala had every intention of regaining this territory, thus opening up access to the Atlantic ports. In other words, Belize needed the continued British military presence to safeguard their sovereignty after independence.
Belizean politics is dominated by a typical two party democratic system, structured on the British
model of government. The PUP dominated for several years after independence, but has recently been challenged by the United Democratic Party (UDP), which is currently in power. Its leader and Prime Minister, Dean Barrow, is Belize’s first black leader. It is a very robust and confrontational political environment, debate frequently ignited and kindled by openly biased press coverage, which will highlight the corruption, fraud, nepotism and mismanagement of the opposing party. Especially confrontational is the biggest national newspaper, Amandala, whose signature catchphrase is “power to the people”.
Lord Michael Ashcroft
There remains a vestige of rapacious colonialism in the person of Michael Ashcroft, Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, and its major donor. Ashcroft has aroused much controversy over his dealings in Belize, from where he has run much of his international financial empire since the early 1990s. He holds dual British and Belizean nationality, and is rumoured to have made a donation of $1 million to the PUP when it was in opposition. When the PUP came to power again after defeating the UDP, it subsequently introduced several pieces of legislation financially advantageous to Lord Ashcroft. They included a law giving tax-exempt status to some companies, including Ashcroft’s offshore holding company Belize Holding Inc (BHI).
The Ashcroft-owned Bank of Belize was also granted the exclusive right to set up offshore companies in Belize for US and UK citizens. In short, Lord Ashcroft has been able to ruthlessly pursue his business dealings, making a huge personal fortune, without paying any tax to either the British or Belizean governments. What do many Belizeans think of all this? Click here. The leading Belize newspaper Amandala has been particularly critical of Ashcroft’s influence in the country.
To give you an example of his control in Belize; when I arrived in Dangriga, I asked about the availability of Skype, the free internet-based telephone service. I was astounded to learn that the facility is not available in Belize. Why? Well, Lord Ashcroft happens to have a controlling share in Belize Telemedia (BTL) and, to protect his profits, he has been able to disable the service. On the one hand he congratulates himself for “investing” in Belize, but on the other hand, he denies its citizens some of the basic services that everyone in the free world can access.
In the words of Amandala, he should give back “power to the people”!
October 27th 2008
My work here involves a variety of activities: lots of driving, helping with administration, producing a new parish hymnal, dealing with enquiries (especially from the Spanish speakers), translating documents into Spanish, and many other incidentals. There is seldom a quiet moment, but I do build into the routine regular dawn bike rides,
walking the dogs, going for a wander along the beach or the occasional slouch in the hammock. Time, in other words, to take in some of the surroundings.
In the UK, you get so used to sparrows, starlings and blackbirds visiting your garden,that you stop taking notice of
them. You can imagine the shock I had when I looked out of my bedroom here and saw several black vultures! Who or what was going to be their next meal? Then on one of my bike rides, my eye caught this striking little bird perched in an orange tree. When I saw it the next day, I could have sworn it hadn’t moved! I’ve learned since that the vermilion flycatcher is very
territorial. Being so close to the sea, there is an array of seabirds and waders. The ever present pelican, whose dive-bombing
fishing technique is devastatingly accurate, contrasts sharply with the Frigatebird (Man-o-war) that fishes in flight without ever entering the water. The most majestic of the water birds has to be the great egret, which stands motionless for hours waiting to pounce on its prey. But the most entertaining egret to watch is
This herd of horses roams around the town at will. They will invariably occupy ground where there’s grazing, but one morning shortly after dawn, I spied them down on the beach! Having an early morning swim?
When out driving one day this little pig was wandering the ditches along the highway. As there was no obvious owner within sight, I wondered if someone might take their chance and bag their next meal. On another journey we saw a dark mound on the road, and wondered what it was. The answer came very quickly when the appalling smell of skunk invaded the car, and stayed with us for several miles. And I thought a pit latrine was bad! And finally I must tell you about the gibnut. This is a rodent, in other words a ‘rat’. Well, our gracious Queen, who is the Head of State here, visited Belize in 1994, and at the banquet they served her gibnut! I’m not sure they told her that she was eating rat, but ever since, the Belizean gibnut has been re-named the ‘royal rat’! I wonder if the Queen is aware of this accolade.
The house dogs
For a small nation, Belize has a disproportionate number of light-fingered inhabitants. So much so, that the Claretians
have had several burglaries. So they ring-fenced their property, and Fr Dominic bought three puppies which, as you can see, have grown into big puppies.
Argus (in Greek mythology has 100 eyes guarding the island) is a hound mix, and is by far the fastest runner of the three.
Mafia (in Garifuna means a ‘bad spirit’) is a mixture of labrador, hound and German shepherd
Pantü (in Garifuna means a ‘ghost’) is a mixture of rottweiller, German shepherd and pit-bull terrier.
You might think Pantü would be the most aggressive, but he is the biggest coward. When he’s attacked by another dog, he just rolls over on his back! When I ‘walk them’, I let them chase me on the bike. Dogs running loose are the norm here. But these three have decided they are going to murder every cat and chicken in town! However, when they meet their canine match, they are quick to seek refuge behind my back wheel.
The one common feature shared by most houses near the coast is their elevation above the ground. They are generally built on stilts, to fend off rising flood water, and to minimize mosquito invasion. However, a feature that few of them share is their ability to stand up to a hurricane. Many of them are flimsy wooden structures, about the size of a big shed, where entire families will live. Outside of town, their water supply could be run-off from the roof, and the pit-latrine will be located several metres from the house, for obvious reasons. Bad luck if nature calls in the night! Some of these shacks are, in fact, no more than hovels. When you think one might be abandoned, on closer inspection you might see washing on a line, or a bicycle parked underneath.
Out in the bush, housing is very different. There the palm-thatched cottage is standard, with their compacted earthen floors, partitions to separate off rooms, and hammocks, which prove to be the ultimate in fold-away beds. From the outside, there is something pleasingly rustic about their appearance, but on the inside, the living is extremely basic. I am told that the thatches have to be fumigated periodically, to chase out snakes and scorpions that might be lodging up above. By the way, have you checked your loft recently? However, every nation has its moneyed elite, and occasionally you’ll come across a property like this. But not many.
October 18th 2008
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.
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, 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.
October 11th 2008
Belize does have a Ministry of Education, but I’m not sure what it does to earn its keep. Most schools in the country are managed by one of the many Churches, and they take full responsibility for overseeing their administration. The primary function of the Ministry is to pay the teachers’ salaries. Most of the other expenses have to be met locally, and that includes providing buildings, furniture and teaching materials. Hence a scene like this, where the British Army has stepped in to provide tents to replace a burned down school in San Isidro.
That’s why the money raised by our Kimbolton Charity Rides has provided a lifeline for some of these remote schools. In fact, I know of at least two new schools that were almost entirely financed by money from the UK. Sadly, that includes San Isidro.
To qualify as a teacher
Amongst the 15 schools administered by the Claretians, three are blessed with a variable percentage of fully qualified staff. All the others, mainly plantation schools, are staffed by teachers who have no more than an Associates Degree (A levels), and many with only a High School education (GCSE). The Government requires that all teaching staff should achieve about 45 credits per year of CPD workshops, but Fr Dominic has had to send out over 100 letters to staff in his schools who have neglected their duties.
Getting things into perspective
I’ve been trying to do that ever since I arrived here. The problems in UK schools, for example, are minuscule (let me repeat….M-I-N-U-S-C-U-L-E) compared to the stuff that is going on out here. Fr Dominic is desperately trying to do a rescue job on staffing, and bring some measure of discipline amongst the 200 or so staff. Yes, we are talking about the staff here, not the 4000 children in their care! Some of the teachers have secured their jobs through nepotism, favouritism, political affiliation or because they are simply willing to fill an unpopular post, and many of them do not complete the ongoing training required by the government. There are some problems of absenteeism, especially out in the bush, and teachers may take days off for the slightest excuse. If there is a funeral of a teacher’s relative in another school in another district, the staff may simply vote to close the school for the day and all attend the funeral. The question is: do all the staff then attend the funeral?
Out in the bush, they will sometimes cut a chunk off the timetable at the beginning and end of the day, starting late and finishing early. Out of sight, out of mind!
If you add all the natural crises, like bad weather and destroyed bridges, that can affect attendance at school, you can appreciate that a fully functioning school can be a rarity. The school at San Isidro, which was burned down, has been closed for over four weeks, waiting for their tents. The High School at Georgetown was inaugurated a couple of years ago, but without any buildings to house it. It is still camping out in an assortment of temporary sites, including the village church.
At the PTA in San Pablo (the most distant and remote of our schools) they have a major problem attracting staff and retaining them. The village currently has no running water or electricity. Items on the agenda included:
1. How to harness safe drinking water for the children. Guttering on the school roof to catch rainfall?
2. The importance of wearing ‘slippers’ (flip-flops) at school. Most children go barefoot.
3. Keeping the play area scrub-free, to minimise the chances of snakes and scorpions invading the area.
4. The issue of young teenage girls doing exercise. In the Q’eqchi Maya tradition, an intact hymen is a girl’s most important asset, so parents won’t allow 13-14 year olds to participate in PE classes.
5. The issues of sexual exploitation in a remote community in the bush, and how to handle suspected cases.
And the meeting was conducted in three languages (Q’eqchi, Spanish and English) which means everything was repeated three times/repeated three times/repeated three times!
After the meeting, the leader of the community persuaded me to have a look at their malfunctioning solar panels. These should generate electricity for the water pump, school and the church. And you can imagine the words of wisdom I could offer!! What on earth is a load controller? How do you put a water pump in reverse to de-silt it? If the surge protectors have been knocked out, how do you wire around them to get the system going again?
At a PTA meeting in the school at Seine Bight, the issue of teacher safety came up. Given that the village police officer was present, I should have expected something unusual. The principal was pleading with parents not to come to school and immediately accost teachers, either verbally or physically. They should seek a meeting with the principal first and talk the matter over. Further to that, he pleaded that parents should never come in brandishing a machete or a firearm! The police officer reminded them that it was an imprisonable offence. He also went on to highlight the importance of obeying the 6pm curfew for young children. Irresponsible parents (mothers gambling and fathers drinking) were letting their children run wild in the village.
So dear friends in the teaching profession, when the drinking fountain is running warm instead of cold, when the greatest hazards in the playground are the unsightly sweet wrappers, when the critical issue with girls’ PE is whether or not they have the right kit, or when a parent threatens you with no more than a wagging finger, remember to count your blessings!
October 4th 2008
Every nation has its own special patriotic symbolism, in the form of flags, national anthem and, sometimes, natural phenomena. When I drove Fabian, the Assistant Schools Manager, to the village of Bladen for a PTA meeting in a Q’eqchi Mayan community, I never imagined the meeting would be prefaced with a full rendering of the national anthem! And yes, everybody seemed to know all the words, even the Q’eqchi Mayans who had a very limited grasp of English.
Belize is a tiny country rich in natural phenomena, which are celebrated by four selected national symbols:
My first Belizean snake
Belize does have a fair number of snakes, but none more poisonous than the Fer de Lance, locally known as a “tommygoff”. This morning, as I came back to town from my dawn cycle-ride, I passed one that had been squashed by traffic on the road, measuring about 2 metres. I began to wonder how it had come to be so close to town, only to discover later that the heavy rains of the last few weeks have been driving the snakes out of the forests and plantations. As scary as they seem, the “tommygoff” does an admirable job of consuming vermin, but surprisingly, even it has its own predators amongst the snake and bird world.
Because we are still in the rainy season, the start and end of each day is usually heavy with cloud covering on the horizons, but occasionally the clouds reveal the sun. My room overlooks the Caribbean, so I can watch the sun rising as I get up. Being close to the equator, the sun tracks a course almost directly overhead, so little shade is cast by trees and buildings, which can be a problem in the middle of the day! Out on the jetty at about 5.30pm, you can get a perfect view of the sun setting over the Maya Mountains in the west, and with billowing clouds, it can cast a dramatic light.
The PTA meeting
The school I visited with Fabian in Bladen has been named in his honour, and financed almost entirely with money from the UK. The PTA meeting we attended was unlike any PTA meeting you or I would be familiar with. This one was conducted in a curious mixture of English and Q’eqchi, sitting in a small wooden classroom. When I asked to use the loo before the meeting started, I discovered the shocking reality of a pit latrine!
Being the first meeting of the year, the staff formally introduced themselves, said an opening prayer, and then proceeded to sing the national anthem, which occupied several minutes of the agenda! I believe in some schools the anthem is sung twice a day by the children. I wonder how many Brits know their own anthem in its entirety.
Because of the meeting, the children stayed at home and enjoyed some free time. Every time I emerged from the meeting, I was besieged by several of them, all tugging at my sleeves, wanting their photos taken.
A Belizean funeral
I have been reading a book on the Garifuna traditions surrounding death, fascinated at how some of their ancient practices are grafted onto current religious customs. Unfortunately, funerals are a very common occurrence here, and I witnessed one such exiting the Sacred Heart Church across the road. Everybody was smartly turned out, all wearing some combination of black and white. The coffin (in this case of an 83 year old gentleman) was lifted onto the back of a truck, and the procession solemnly walked to the cemetery, preceded by a van with loudspeakers playing prayers and hymns. I understand that just before being committed to the ground, the coffin is opened once again for a last look at the deceased. This usually encourages a final outburst of emotion as the coffin is then lowered to its final resting place, and the grave is sealed with cement as the mourners look on.
The jetty, only 200 metres from the house, has a community life all of its own. From before sunrise to well after sunset, there is a mobile population of visitors, some fishing for their next meal, others chatting idly in groups, yet others just gazing into the distance. I have found it a magnet, especially just before nightfall. I’ve met a fascinating cross-section of the local population, both young and old, easily falling into conversation as shoals of fish leap out of the water pursued by a predator, and pelicans observe lazily from their driftwood perches.
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.
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
September 1st, 2008
Retirement beckoned. Although I’d just enjoyed a long summer break (something members of the teaching profession are well used to), the summer of 2008 was a little different. Having cleared away all the debris from the last academic year, instead of doing the necessary groundwork to prepare for the coming year, I actually packed all my personal effects into boxes and took them home with me. There was a certain finality about it. I had just completed 28 years of my 32 year teaching career at Kimbolton School, the last 20 years of which my department had been situated on the top floor of the north-east wing of Kimbolton Castle, with the best views over landscaped parkland that any teacher could hope for. In fact, my department (Spanish) had been located in the two most important bedrooms of the castle, formerly belonging to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester. (You must understand that having separate bedrooms used to be a sign of social status amongst English nobility, but most would have had their own private connecting doors, as these two rooms did, to permit the honouring of conjugal duties. But say no more!). Not only did the Spanish Department occupy the two principal bedrooms of the Castle, but we also made use of the Manchester’s own private bathroom (not quite en-suite, since they had to share!), converting it into an audio-visual library suitable for conversation classes. What is more, it never ceased to amaze me that I would end up teaching Spanish in the very building where the first wife of Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragón, had died (and a natural death at that!) after a 20 month period of house arrest. Whether this was serendipitous or not, I went on to do a one-year teaching exchange in the town of Teruel in Aragón, thus igniting over ten years of pupil exchanges in that same area.
Belize called. But back to the business of retirement. Retirement celebrations and farewells over, I began planning a three month visit to the tiny Commonwealth Republic of Belize, in Central America (formerly known as British Honduras) to help a small team of Claretian Missionaries based in the coastal town of Dangriga (Claretians in Belize). To date, we had raised over £55,000 to support them in their humanitarian work, principally in the building and equipping of primary schools. But the time had come to “don boots and gloves” and go out there to be an extra pair of hands. What follows in the next several posts are the weekly illustrated letters that I sent back to the UK during my three month visit. As you will see, they embody capsules of experience and reflections on the huge variety of people, situations and events that touched me personally. But on arrival, I was very happy to be able to hand over a cheque for £11,000, representing the amount raised in the last of our series of Kimbolton Charity Cycle Rides, which had been running for the previous seven years.