Some visitors to Belize may leave with the illusion that many of its residents are, shall we say, under-worked. Stores that close for two-hour lunch breaks, people lounging around in hammocks in the middle of the day, people that extend even the Belizean definition of “right now” to seemingly endless stretches of time. But just as you wouldn’t judge the overall productivity of Spain by observing their lunchtime siesta, or assume they never eat dinner just because none of the restaurants have opened by the time you go to bed at 10pm, take a pause for thought before you judge a country without knowing or understanding the culture and economic realities.
Most Belizeans I know get out of bed at 5am (or earlier!) every day and by 7am they have already been to the market, sold their morning supply of crafts/baked goods/snacks, cooked and/or eaten breakfast, and started making lunch, preparing their next round of wares to sell, or gone to their “proper” job.
My mother-in-law has built her whole house and put 7 children through school almost entirely on the proceeds from cooking and selling conch fritters. But if you catch her around the hottest part of the day, you may indeed find her snoozing in a hammock or sitting at her sister’s house having a chat. When you consider that she’s already been up and working for eight hours, you might think it sounds like a rather good idea.
Many families live entirely on informal trade, not documented in the employment figures or any other official reports. When I visit the Maya villages, mothers tell me they want to send a daughter to high school, so they start baking bread on the fire-hearth to sell. That same daughter will have to catch a bus at 4am every school day to get to school for a 7am start, and won’t get home until 5pm. Almost everyone I know, even those with a regular salaried job, has a back-up, as political, seasonal, or other unpredictable firings from such jobs are common. The x-ray technician also makes glass windows. The government driver also cuts grass and fixes lawnmowers and weed-eaters. The road worker also welds burglar bars. The nutrition coordinator also promotes a drum school and writes a riveting blog and the security guard also teaches and plays Garifuna drums to locals and tourists.
Office jobs, or indeed any job where you get to work inside all or most of the day, are considered a pretty sweet deal. Compared to working in a sugar cane, banana, orange or shrimp farm, or doing construction work or security work for $15USD a day, it certainly is. Living costs in Belize are high. My utility bills here are triple what they were living in London, food is also more expensive, and unlike back in Scotland, there is none of the security of free quality health care, free primary and secondary education or unemployment benefit. Instead, people have their families.
The young woman who found a day job saved up money to finish her high school education at evening classes. Now she has graduated high school, she is using whatever money she can spare to put her younger sister through university. Older brothers quit high school before graduating so that they can work and save money to make sure their younger sisters graduate high school. Mothers put food on the table by getting up at 5am every day to make snacks to sell by walking or cycling around in the hot sun all day. Fathers get up at 5am to go work on the construction site in the blazing sun till 5pm. Children are sent out after school to sell bread and buns to help make ends meet. Mayan farmers work the land around their village to grow enough corn and beans to feed their families.
Life in Belize is tenuous. You never know when you or a family member will get sick or have an accident, and if they do, how you will pay for treatment. Almost every week there is a radio appeal for donations to help the family get treatment for the mother who has been diagnosed with cancer or the family whose uninsured house burnt down, or for the family who want corrective surgery or a wheelchair for a disabled child.
Like any country, there are those who don’t pull their weight. And since the weather is good, there is a good chance you will see them as they hang about outside, instead of in cooler countries where they might be hidden inside their house, bar or gambling shop. But next time you see the mother relaxing in her chair at 2pm, or the shop owner reopening 15 minutes later than advertised, or the office worker seemingly doing nothing, count how many hours it is since 5am, ask yourself how many children or younger siblings or nieces or nephews they may be supporting, consider how low their income is, wonder how many other jobs they may have, and re-evaluate.
So bear with your drum school instructor and promoter as we juggle our day jobs and our budding business – if we don’t get back to your message right away, be patient, or give us a call.
Now excuse me as I go lay in my hammock before preparing for another early village journey tomorrow.