True nation building starts with appreciating our diverse cultures:
It was in the spacious thatched roof kitchen of my grandmother Jane V. Enriquez that I, as a little boy, first learned to appreciate the beautiful diversity of Belize’s various cultures. I always remember it as a special place that drew friends and relatives together – elders and children alike – for sharing stories and for constant renewal of bonds. (The main dwelling, an upstairs wooden, metal roof two bedroom structure, remained as a private space for immediate family members.)
Having lived in various Belizean communities throughout the length and breadth of the country for about forty years when she accompanied my late grandfather who served as school principal, my widowed grandma and my two single aunts who lived with her, took pleasure in cooking on their fire hearth, a wide variety of meals from almost every Belizean ethnic group. There was a delicious surprise at every meal – caldo, tamales, panades, escabeche, chirmole, hudut, bundiga, tapow, pakaya, various stewed meats, chicarones, cohune cabbage, coconut seasoned rice and beans, freshly baked handmade corn tortillas, and so many other varieties of foods. Her kitchen also contained cooking implements such as the lek, the gourd that Mayas used to store freshly baked corn tortillas. There was also the metate for grinding roasted cacao beans and comal for baking tortillas. As I grew older, part of my chores (along with my late brother, Wado) included grinding corn on the hand cranked corn mill, beating hudut in the hana, and cutting waha leaf in the surrounding PG forest for my Aunt Olive to make tamales.
Since those childhood years, I have never seen or tasted such variety of foods from every Belizean ethnic group coming from one family kitchen. The rich history that she shared about living in various communities opened my childhood mind to the colorful diversity of Belize. What I learned since then was that when we can truly appreciate the culture of others, we connect with our common humanity, and we become better and happier human beings.
Grandma’s kitchen also served as her clinic. As a well-known traditional healer and midwife in P.G., she often saw a constant flow of Garifuna, Mayas, Mestizos, Creoles and East Indians for pregnancy consultations, counselling, herbal treatments, or massage. Waiting patients, especially from remote villages, were often served a hot cup of tea made from fever grass, cacao or roasted corn. As children we also got our dose of her herbal brews. No matter how we tried to dodge, it was inevitable that once grandma towered akimbo over us lining in front of her, we had to down the bitter cleansers.
What was most remarkable, however, was the various languages that were spoken by family members every day. Because they had lived in various communities all over Belize, each member of my father’s family fluently spoke five Belizean languages: Garifuna, English, Spanish, Mopan Maya (and some Kekchi) and Creole, with the proficiency of the native speaker. Depending on the language of their friends and visitors, they accommodated from one language to another with ease. Somehow we the children also understood that when my grandma, father, uncle and aunts, suddenly switched from speaking in Garifuna or English in conversations amongst themselves, to speaking in Maya, they were discussing something confidential that we children were not to know about. It was not surprising then that my late father served as an interpreter of Maya at the Supreme Court.
I also used to admire my mother and maternal grandmother’s various conversations in fluent Garifuna, English and Spanish switching from one to another as needed when they hosted various family members and friends at home or whenever I accompanied them to the market or other informal gathering places in P.G.
Such diversity existed even while there was still an active school “policy” and decades of historical practices to try to rid the people of their Garifuna language and culture. Many Garifuna persons could recall that as children they were ridiculed and scorned, or were whipped by teachers, some so severely as to leave painful rope marks on their backs and bottoms, for speaking Garifuna.
Historically, the Garinagu have always showed interest in the language and culture of others wherever they went. In St. Vincent before their brutal expulsion in 1797 (and where their language has been totally exterminated) they not only spoke French, but adapted some French words into their language. In Roatan where they were dumped and as they spread across Honduras, they learned to speak Spanish. As they moved to Belize, and while they safeguarded their language, they learned English, Creole, Spanish, Maya and the languages of others they lived with.
Interestingly, while the Garinagu embraced the languages of others, most would not even bother to learn a word or phrase of Garifuna. On the contrary, others throughout their history have tried, in various ways (through ridicule, shaming, corporal punishment and discrimination) to forbid them from expressing themselves in their own language. That is what the people have quietly had to resist and endure over time. In May 2001, Garifuna language and music was proclaimed by UNESCO as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity.
There are a remarkable examples, such as Dr. Luis Zabaneh, who demonstrate an admirable depth of enthusiastic connection with Garifuna culture as it were in his blood. As former President of Galen University, he by his own initiative promoted Garifuna music through Galen Eagles Band and spread this endangered culture worldwide through the foreign students. I always admired Mrs. Alda Noble-Waight, a Mestizo woman, (whose husband was a bank manager in Dangriga) for enthusiastically immersing herself among the people to learn how to speak Garifuna and cook Garifuna food. Longstanding programming through KREM TV, Love FM Belizewatch and other programs all serve to demonstrate genuine interest in connecting and promoting Belizean cultures.
All across Belize, there is the rich connection, appreciation and celebration of our unique diversity as well as our common identity as Belizeans. Our nation will become a happier, more unified when we learn to step out of our comfort zones and explore and learn to appreciate each other’s culture. This starts with our individual connections with others in our schools and across communities in this jewel of ours. Go and visit other villages. Stay with a host family, participate in their daily chores and learn to cook their traditional meal. Learn some common phrases in their language. Building such connections among each other’s cultures, even from childhood, are all ways to enhance our appreciation, reduce discrimination and foster nation building.
A few years ago, for example, I temporarily withdrew one of my sons from his Std 4 class in Belmopan for one week and placed him with a Maya host family in San Antonio Village to experience the life and culture of the family, community and school. That experience with his Maya host family, his new school, and classmates was most positively profound. U.S. students from various universities with whom I have worked have also had the most positive life changing experiences when they lived with Belizean families in various communities. Belizeans, especially from the rather insulated urban schools, can also experience this.
Learning experiences among high school and Junior College and UB students have become too disconnected from in depth knowledge of their own country. More students ought to venture out to gain direct experience of other Belizean cultures and environment. We learn to deeply appreciate others not by separating from them but through our positive interaction. That’s what I also learnt early, starting in my grandmother’s kitchen and, in later years, visiting or living in various Belizean communities.
While barriers of the past are gradually breaking down across Belize, we must never tolerate retrogressive, discriminatory and degrading actions by any foreign person who come to Belize and try to dictate through “policy” that Garifuna people or any other Belizean cannot speak their language or express their cultural traditions. We live in a beautiful country. Where any such discriminatory foreign entity tries to divide our country, it is time for us Belizeans to stand up and say to them, “Beiba yagei” (Go frah ya). We will tolerate no tyrants; despots must flee. As our Belizean poet Philip Lewis wrote, “da time fi si di new Belize.”
(first published in Amandala Sept. 14, 2014)