Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How did you spend your Fourth of July?  Since it is not a holiday in Belize, I worked all day at the Education Center, as usual.  In the evening, however, I was able to watch celebrations of American Independence Day on the TV at home.  As I watched “A Capitol Fourth” on PBS, my heart swelled with a kind of pride that can only be described as patriotism.  I invited my host “mom” Miss Cas to watch with me, so together we listened while the Washington Symphony Orchestra played the 1812 Overture and fireworks exploded over the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.  She told me that two of her children and two sons-in-law have served in the US military.  She shared her experience of visiting the Pentagon, and proudly stated that her son even fought in Iraq.  We shared a very special moment together.
Mrs. Linda Castillo (Miss Cas) and grandkids in front of their home
Shermar, Jemeiah and Miss Cas
My host family

From July 11-15 one of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, DeShawna Porter, and I helped to organize a day camp at the Stann Creek District Ministry of Education Center.  The three truancy officers at the Education Center asked for our assistance and worked with us to bring the camp to life.   In the morning session there were from 30 to 35 children, ages 5-9.  Each day we had no idea how many students would actually show up.  In the afternoon we hosted from 10 to 15 older children, ages 10-13.  Our goal was to provide activities that would help to develop academic skills without repeating the same old “chalk and talk” that students would have experienced in the classroom during the school year.  We taught the children new songs, played academic games, told stories, read books, wrote stories, created arts and crafts and played games and sports outside.  It was exhausting, and more than a little challenging.  The kids attend different schools around Dangriga, so they are accustomed to differing forms of classroom management, and we had to establish our routines and rules in a short amount of time.  We also had no money to spend on materials, so we had to be creative with whatever we could find in the Ed Center to make crafts.  But all in all the children enjoyed themselves, and the parents appeared to be grateful that their children were provided with structured activities to keep them busy during the summer. 

DeShawna Porter playing basketball with the older camp kids
Angelita, the truancy officer, leading the kids in a game of "What time is it, Mr. Wolf?"
How many kids can we fit on a see-saw?
Miss Cas' grandkids, Jemeiah and Shemar, attended camp

Recently I purchased a bicycle, which has transformed my life.  It takes so little time now to get around Dangriga, and getting back and forth from work is so much more pleasant.  On Sunday, I went with my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, Cathy, Steve and Meghan on a long bike ride to explore Dangriga, but Meghan’s bike chain broke.  While serving in the Peace Corps, we must learn new skills like changing a bike chain and keeping a bike in working condition.
How many PCVs does it take to change a bike chain?
Cathy, Steve and Meghan

Besides lots of bike riding and walking, I have also begun another form of exercise:  zumba.  Every Tuesday and Thursday evening, Cathy, who was a fitness instructor back in the States, conducts a zumba class at the Alejo Beni park.  She teaches us aerobic dances to Latin beats, Bollywood hits, hip hop and Belizean punta rock.    It’s a helluva lot of fun for an activity that is so exhausting, but as you can see from the photos, the setting is magnificent.  We are on the stage right at the seaside, with the sea breezes cooling us as we sweat.  The Belizean women who have joined us are really enjoying this form of exercise, and we’re making new friends along the way.
Zumba class at Alejo Beni park
Caribbean Sea is on the right

This week I’m back in the office planning workshops and more camps.  I will help facilitate a workshop on nonformal education for a women’s group called POWA (Productive Organization of Women in Action) who will soon begin training their fellow Belizeans in Family Literacy.  I will also attend a two day in-service training in Belize City developed by the Ministry of Education’s Literacy Unit, in order to be able to conduct workshops in August with teachers in the Stann Creek District.  Next week I will help fellow Peace Corps Volunteers in other parts of Belize with day camps and one sleep-away camp for GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) clubs.  I have a lot of work ahead of me, and plenty to look forward to.  I hope the summer is going well for all of my loved ones back in the States. 
 Relaxing in the hammocks at the Pelican on a Sunday afternoon

Friday, July 1, 2011

Life in Dangriga

Four weeks have passed since we officially became Peace Corps Volunteers and now we are all acclimating to our new sites.  Let me tell you a little about my town, Dangriga.  It was formerly known as Stann Creek Town, and was settled around 1832 by Garifuna people (Black Caribs, as they were known to the British) who were exiled from their home on the island of St. Vincent, settled in Honduras and later moved to a few locations along the coast of Belize.  Since the early 1980s Garífuna culture has undergone a revival, and the town was renamed Dangriga, a Garífuna word meaning "sweet waters".  The Stann Creek River runs through the town and empties into the Caribbean Sea.  I have walked many times along the beautiful seacoast.  

The Lonely Planet travel guide writes that the town of Dangriga has “a funky vibe about it – tumbledown and mildly untidy – and for this reason it isn’t a major stopover point for most tourists.”  The town has around 10,000 inhabitants, but has the feel of a small village.  As I walk from home to the office every day with one of my colleagues, Miss Therese, we greet every passerby.  She has taught me the Belizean standard of etiquette, which requires that we “bid the time of day” to everyone.  Belizeans, especially in Dangriga, are very friendly and really look you in the eye when you greet them.  I have even learned to say good morning in Garifuna:  Buiti binafi.  The faces of the elderly Garifuna women returning home from morning mass light up when they hear that greeting.  I have also learned that from noon to 3:00 pm you must say “good afternoon”, from 3:00-6:00 pm you say “good evening”, and after 6:00 pm the greeting is “good night,” even if you are saying hello to someone.
     The main street of Dangriga
The monument, Drums of our Fathers, at the entrance of town

There are eight primary schools in town, 2 high schools and a junior college.  There is a small hospital and a clinic, and a fairly large outdoor market place, mostly run by Guatemalans, where one can buy fruits and vegetables.  There are many small grocery stores, mostly owned by Chinese immigrants, and several furniture, clothing and household goods stores, mostly owned by Lebanese and East Indians.  Dangriga is quite a cultural melting pot, and it is the spiritual heart of the Garifuna people (the Garinagu) in Belize.  

During the summer, since school is out, I am working 8-5 at the Ministry of Education Center, which is just 100 feet from the seaside.  As I complete research on and prepare for upcoming workshops for teachers, and prepare for upcoming summer camps, I am lulled by the sound of the waves, and cooled by the sea breezes flowing through the open windows.  I am indeed fortunate to have been placed here.

During training, Peace Corps trainers advised us that our first few months would be slow and feel rather unproductive to us Americans, who are used to a fast-paced lifestyle.  We were encouraged to spend our first months listening, getting to know our new home, co-workers, and new culture, before jumping into any major projects.  Some of my Peace Corps colleagues who are involved in Business Organization and Development were thrown headlong into projects right away, but those of us in Education are still floundering a bit.  Expectations and job descriptions are not delineated as clearly as they might have been in our former lives back in the States, so as Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs), we are called on to be flexible and adapt to the schedules of our Belizean counterparts.   

My first week in Dangriga I had the opportunity to visit one of the five schools that I will be assigned to when school starts up again next September.  The school is an hour and a half away in a little village called Bella Vista.  There are 1,000 students, Infant I through Standard 6 (K-8th grade), and the majority of students enter school speaking very little English.  Their parents are mostly Spanish-speaking workers on the banana farms surrounding the village.  The three vice principals explained that some teachers at the school have very little training and need some mentoring, especially in teaching language arts.  I really look forward to working with teachers and students in September.

At that time I will also be assigned to four other schools, but I was not able to visit them yet, since school let out for the summer.  Two of the schools are here in Dangriga, but the other two will require bus rides (mornings at 6:00 am!!).  In the meantime, I have had the privilege of attending a couple of end-of-the-year celebrations, one at a fascinating school here in Dangriga, The Gulisi Community School.  The teachers there are all Garifuna, and speak both English and Garifuna to the students.  The school is attached to the only Garifuna museum in Belize, and one of their goals is the maintenance of Garifuna language and culture.  I attended the preschool “Stepping Up Ceremony”, a kind of graduation to primary school.  20 adorable little 5-year-olds were decked out in their finest Garifuna dress as they recited poems and songs in Garifuna and English.  When they approached the principal to receive their “diplomas” they had changed into costumes of professions they hope to be when they grow up.  Miniature doctors, nurses, army generals, lawyers and teachers proudly carried their certificates back to their mothers and fathers.  The banner flying behind them read:  “Stepping up today.  Encouraging the leaders of tomorrow.”  

 Graduates of Gulisis Community Preschool singing in Garifuna

Another celebration I attended was the dissemination of certificates to the students in the two southern districts of Stann Creek and Toledo who achieved the highest scores on the PSE, the Primary School Examination.  This is the comprehensive exam given at the end of Standard 6, the equivalent of eighth grade in the US.  The mayors of both Dangriga and Punta Gorda were in attendance, as well as Education Ministry officials from both districts. These students will continue on to high school, which is not compulsory here in Belize; school is only compulsory up to the age of 14.  High school is not free, and many students, even if they pass the PSE cannot afford to attend.  There are many obstacles to completing a secondary education here in Belize.  
 The mayor of Dangriga awarding certificates to the highest scoring pupils of Stann Creek District

Over the last couple of Saturdays I was fortunate to be able to visit two lovely places.  I took a water taxi from Belize City to Caye Caulker with my PCV friend Linda.  The Cayes (pronounced “keys”) are islands in the barrier reef that are very popular with tourists.  We enjoyed swimming in the warm Caribbean Sea while listening to reggae music blaring from the outdoor bars.   
 Caye Caulker

The following Saturday I set out for the village of Independence to meet with another PCV, whose name is KC, and who has been serving here in Belize for over a year.  We took the water taxi (called the “Hokie Pokie”) over to the peninsula of Placencia, where the nicest beaches in Belize can be found.  We were there for Lobsterfest, a yearly celebration of lobster season.  I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to make these day trips by bus to such beautiful destinations.

But even in Dangriga there is a peaceful beach at the northern end of the town, at a small locally-owned resort called The Pelican.  The owners are Belizeans who are very civic-minded, contributing much to their hometown of Dangriga, and are exceptionally kind to us Peace Corps Volunteers as well.  They have invited us to use their beach any time we like.  It is quiet and peaceful, with a small dock and hammocks hung under a little thatch hut.  If any of you reading this come to visit, you can enjoy Belize’s beauty along with me. You would also enjoy the warm and welcoming people of Dangriga.
 The hammocks at the Pelican
The most common form of transportation in Belize