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.
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