Aurelio Martínez & the Garifuna People: A History of African Resistance in the Americas

Repeating Islands

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A superb interview with Aurelio Martínez by Pablo Medina Uribe for OK Africa. Follow the link to the original report for photographs and videos.

Aurelio Martínez laughs every two sentences, even when he describes the crimes of colonialism and slavery. Maybe, he says, it’s because Garifunapeople are happy people. The Garifuna are a community of mixed-race people who inhabit Central America’s Atlantic coast, particularly in Honduras, where Martínez is from.

The Garifuna people originated in the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean. In 1635, the survivors of the wreck of a Spanish ship carrying people from Biafra, in modern-day Nigeria, to be sold as slaves in the Americas, were welcomed by the local Caribs. A few years later, another ship, this time Portuguese, suffered the same fate, and would-be slaves from Congo and Ghana joined their fellow Africans in St. Vincent.

The Caribs, originally from nearby modern-day…

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By Warasa Garifuna Drum School

Small Business Struggles in Belize

NOTICE: I have amended this from the original post, as the issue has been resolved honourably with the Facebook page in question.  However I think it is good to leave it up in some form, so that people become more aware of copyright laws and intellectual property rights.

I have previously written about some of the challenges of managing a business in Belize…well let’s just say the struggles continue!

There is of course the expected challenges of others thinking that we are making Big Bucks (oh if only…we barely break even!) and therefore also starting to offer Garifuna drumming lessons and related.  I’m sure they will quickly realise it’s not a booming business, but we hold no hard feelings…everyone is simply trying to make a living in a small town with few opportunities.

But today, I became very upset after finding out that one of our designs, which is used in our logo on our business cards, website, tshirts and more, had been taken and used on Tshirts by another organisation and Facebook Page.

Now here are our original designs, that were constructed from a full colour photo of Mario McDonald’s (my father-in-law’s) mahogany primero and segunda drums, that I then converted into black and white, edited in various ways to improve the look, posterised, and added the white outline to make it “pop” more.  I.e. it is no longer just a photo.  This (for a novice like me at least) was not easy, and very time consuming!

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Sadly, the Facebook page in question chose the black and white image of the primero and segunda to use on t-shirts they were printing and selling in celebration of November 19th 2015.

They did not ask, and our business name was taken off the image and mentioned nowhere on the t-shirts or in any of the Facebook posts: we would have gained no exposure or marketing from the t-shirts.  At first, they refused to take the images down, seemed to find our concerns amusing, and continued to share the photos of the t-shirts despite our requests to take them down.

This is a page, that up until this time, I had considered supporters of Warasa.  They had about a year or more ago, asked if they could share some of our photos on their page if they credited us, and we gave permission.  They claimed that they did not know the image belonged to us.  Now even if that were true, it is no defense.  It is common knowledge that you can’t simply use a design without first checking who it belongs to, and asking permission.

For those that are not aware: Copyright is automatic – you do not have to register it.  

In the end, the page in question did the honourable thing and did as we requested from the start, which was to:

  1. Issue a public apology for using our design without permission on their FB page
  2. Remove all photos that include our design/products that use our design
  3. Cease production and distribution/sale of all tshirts and other merchandise that include our design
  4. Advise everyone that already received a tshirt that it is not their design, but is in fact that of Warasa Garifuna Drum School

Quite a few professional photographers also messaged me to tell me their photos had also been used by the page, with their name/watermark on the bottom of it removed and replaced by the page’s own logo/watermark.  So it seems indeed they didn’t understand the concept of artistic intellectual property.  I think this was a harsh and upsetting lesson for both parties.

For the small number of people who are trying to make this somehow about me not being a born Belizean and/or not being Garifuna, then you have clearly never met me.  Garifuna drums and music belong to the Garinagu people.  But this particular image of Garifuna drums belongs to Warasa, the same way that PG town belongs to all its residents, but a photo of PG town belongs to the photographer.

Thank you as always for your support…

www.warasadrumschool.com

www.facebook.com/warasadrumschool

Hard-Work and Hammocks

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.

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My mother-in-law, Ms Dami, almost finished cooking the morning batch of conch fritters by the time I drag myself out of bed at 6am

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.

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Our house with windows made by the local X-Ray technician, and burglar bars made by a local road construction worker.

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.

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This week’s appeal for help

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.

http://www.warasadrumschool.com

Now excuse me as I go lay in my hammock before preparing for another early village journey tomorrow.

A Chronology of Muddy Walks

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Things have moved on…I have graduated from daily chicken bus runs to the Belizean “Banana Belt” to monthly muddy walks to Machakilha Mayan village, and our drum school has been promoted from a small, cluttered spare bedroom in a rented house to a beautiful thatch palapa behind our very own house that we designed and built ourselves on the edge of Punta Gorda town.

Yes, there is a lot to catch up on.

But in some ways, my life has not changed THAT much from when I was 7 years old, and my dad would take my brother and I for weekly walks in the Scottish hills.  In between grumbling, I would unfailingly manage to fall into a bog (a muddy trench that is usually cunningly camouflaged by heather or other foliage).

A young Ruth

(Me, looking surprisingly cheerful after falling over during a walk up a Scottish mountain)

Now, my muddy walks are only once a month, and (due to pride) I don’t grumble, but still regularly manage to almost lose a boot/shoe by misjudging the nature of a particular patch of mud and sinking in knee deep (whereupon all feelings of pride have to be thrown away as my colleagues have to pull me out).

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The Rural Health Nurse Elbia and the Caretaker Juan Ishim walking through a flooded creek on our journey to Machakilha

Machakilha is a Kekchi Maya village which you can only reach by driving for 90 minutes down a very bumpy dirt road to Dolores village, and then walking for two hours through the mud and jungle.  Once you get there, you are greeted by friendly families and children, and if you are lucky you are invited into a local home for some fresh chicken caldo (spicy soup) with freshly baked corn tortilla.

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Arriving in Machakilha (population approx 90)

Then, it’s time for work.  The Rural Health Nurse and Caretaker weigh and measure children under 5 years, provide immunizations, de-worming medication and vitamins, and I coordinate a child nutrition project.  Which on this particular visit meant cooking fortified corn flour over a fire hearth while the local women and children giggled at me as I struggled with the smoke going in my eyes while trying to explain the importance of good nutrition.

For some reason, despite clearly not being a born-Belizean, I get on well in the villages.  Maybe because I’m naturally quiet and unassuming, and am quite happy just sitting in a corner watching and listening, who knows.   But instead of being asked the usual rather yawn-worthy questions revolving around where I’m from, the local women often spontaneously divulge things to me.  One young mother sat outside the community centre with me while I let my smoky eyes recover and told me, out of nowhere, that she has one baby.  “I only want one” she confides in me with a little smile.  Considering many Maya women have four or more, quite a daring statement.

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Young teenage girls in Machakilha

A new Community Health Worker in another village tells me “that was the first time I slept outside my village” after attending her first training session in Punta Gorda town.  In two weeks her horizons will be broadened further as she will spend two nights in Belmopan, the capital city, to meet the new Peace Corp volunteer she will be working with.

I try to prove myself to the male Community Health Workers and Rural Health Nurse with my ability to walk for ten miles in mud.  “I’m from Scotland.  I know about mud” I joke.  And indeed, the mud is no challenge.  Scotland, however, does NOT prepare you for 30 degree heat, with the occasional smouldering bush fire to walk through to add to the temperature scale.

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Bush fires on the way back from Machakilha at the end of dry season

So I left my former student-teachers in the Banana Belt, but am happy to say most of them are now fully trained primary school teachers, and one young teacher, Ashley Torres, just played for the Belize national football team in the CONCACAF Cup in the USA.

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With 4 of my star students at their graduation dinner in Independence, the Banana Belt

I’ve switched them for Rural Health Nurses, Community Health Workers, Health Educators, and Maya families working against the odds to secure a healthy future for their children.

And I come home to a new home, surrounded by hummingbirds, butterflies, parakeets, a naughty dog, and beautiful thatch with the sounds of drums coming from underneath….but more about that next time.

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Flowers in front of our new drum school

My next muddy walk will be to Graham Creek – another remote village.  I’ve done that walk before, but only in dry (i.e. non-muddy) season.  I promise to report back on any loss of footwear and/or erosion of pride.Image

http://www.warasadrumschool.com

http://www.facebook.com/warasadrumschool

Observations from A Belizean Chicken Bus

I spend four hours a day, five days a week sitting on Belizean “chicken” buses on the commute between my home town of Punta Gorda and the “banana belt” villages where I work.  If it wasn’t for my finely honed ability to sleep anywhere, anytime, I’m not sure I could handle it. 

 Those who have never ventured south of Texas on the American continent may wonder what happens to retired US school buses.  Those who have ventured south know all too well: they are pimped up and forced down every kind of road imaginable, packed full of every variety of person and produce under the sun. 

A Panamanian Chicken Bus

A Panamanian Chicken Bus

Belizean buses don’t get decorated as creatively as some of their Central American counterparts, but they are everywhere, and carry every kind of character.  I am sitting on the bus as I write, surrounded by:

Two Garifuna & 3 Mayan women breastfeeding; 3 other babies of various ages and hair arrangements; a smiling old “Spanish” man in a hat, who I took to the eye clinic 2 years ago for cataract surgery, two traditional very blonde Mennonite families in blue and green dresses and overalls; a young Mestizo man selling “golden plum look nice taste nice with salt an peppa”; tens of young Mayan men returning from a week’s work at the banana or shrimp farms; Paul Mahung, a reporter for national TV and radio and the man who conducted our wedding ceremony; some local NGO workers; a nurse; some Belize Defense Force soldiers; various other children, young men and women; plus one backpacker who looks like he is losing the will to live as he adjusts his too-long legs that are jammed in to the seat meant for school children. 

Inside a Belizean Chicken Bus

The view outside is a panorama of tropical jungle dotted with Mayan villages with the Mayan mountains and setting sun behind them, and the Caribbean sea visible in the distance in the other direction.  I am given a few seconds extra to enjoy and replay the view as the bus reverses for 30 metres in order to pick up a passenger the conductor just noticed running out of a small thatch house as we thundered past. 

The view to the Mayan villages from the southern highway to PG

Indeed, they may not be comfortable, or timely, but for customer service, Belizean buses, or at least good old James bus line of southern Belize, excel.  They drop you outside your front door, carry your bags inside, wait for you if you forgot something in your house, and ensure all needy people get a seat: “come now man I know yu tired afta yu di pick banana all week, but yu cyahn expect her to stand with a lee baby deh”.  And they are cheap, especially for a country where petrol is $6USD a gallon, they are for most people, the only affordable way to travel. 

My James Bus home to PG

And so, my four hours of daily chicken bus commuting will continue, until someone invents and donates a 60mpg supercar.   All donations welcome.

I will leave you with a link to a rather lovely poem all about James busline of Belize (below the timetable!), and of course the Warasa Garifuna Drum School

www.hickatee.com/belize_bus_times.html

www.warasadrumschool.com

I’ll do it right now….

Since moving to Belize, if I need something done urgently, and someone tells me they’ll do it “right now”, I get an uncanny sinking feeling in my stomach.  In Belize, “right now” can be roughly translated as meaning “at some indefinite, potentially distant time in the future”.  It certainly doesn’t mean “now”.

The time in Belize is -6 hours GMT.  But “Belize time” is a far more subjective and fuzzy concept.  Work begins on time (unless it is raining, in which case if you don’t have a car, then it is perfectly acceptable at many workplaces to not show up until the rain stops).  Meetings begin 15-30 minutes late.  Parades, weddings and other big events start one or two hours after the “official” start time.

My own wedding had an “official” written start time of 3pm.  So, at 2.55pm, my dad arrived at our house to drive me to the wedding venue.  I was wrapped in a towel, with wet hair, in the middle of sticking on my false nails.  I’d forgotten to tell my dad about Belize time.

While the official start time ticked on by, Ray’s extended family whisked around frantically finalising the wedding arrangements.  Dresses were being sewed, hair braided and beaded, lamb stewed, chicken barbequed, tortillas baked and drum skins tightened.

Platting of palm leaf arch...1 hour before "official" start time.

But by 4.30pm, spot on for Belize time, everything was ready, and down the aisle we walked to the beat of drums, shake of shakas, and the sound of Ray’s dad singing.

Walking down the aisle

Organising things here is as different as imaginable from the micro-managed, minute-by-minute “story-boarded” events that I used to be involved in when I worked in London.  But the amazing thing is, it always works out in the end, albeit to Belize time.

I have been a very busy bee recently, and for that reason, my next blog entry will be along right now….

www.warasadrumschool.com

Better step back cos I might pee on you!

So concludes the sign in front of one of the tapirs at Belize Zoo…

 

Scotty the Tapir

I recommend everyone that comes to Belize visits the Zoo, because it’s great fun, the animals are all in their natural habitat, there is no cement or perspex (so your paws are your own responsibility!), and it’s the only guaranteed way to see a jaguar, toucan, and all the other animals of Belize.

My first physical encounter with animals in Belize was even less pleasant than being peed on by a tapir.  Six days after arrival, two pit bull dogs took objection to me walking down the street, broke off their chains and feasted on my ankles.  I could hardly walk for two weeks, and the scars will never disappear, but while I am now far more wary of unknown dogs, my friendship with the animal kingdom was soon repaired.

Not too long after the dog incident, a fellow volunteer, Jess, came across some children about to throw a kitten down a slide, while a hungry dog waited at the bottom.  Jess yelled at them to stop, scooped up the kitten and brought it home.  Orchid, as we named her, was less than a month old, had a stripe of blue spray paint down her back, and looked generally dishevelled.

Orchid shortly after being saved

But after a few weeks she was a healthy, affectionate fur-ball who liked to sleep on top of my mosquito net.  Most Belizeans do not like cats, and don’t know what a pet cat is like.  One day, a Belizean friend came to the house, and Orchid promptly jumped on his lap and made herself comfortable.  She was tolerated at first, that is, until she started to purr.  Never having heard a cat purr before, the poor guy freaked out, said the cat was going to explode, and threw Orchid off his knee in a mad panic to everyone else’s laughter.

In Punta Gorda, howler monkeys and toucans live just minutes away from our rented house in town.  Once at 4pm, I was leaving work, and I heard howler monkeys nearby.  I took a 30 second walk across the cemetery, and found three howler monkeys at the top of a tree looking down suspiciously at the white girl being eaten by mosquitoes.

The land where we are building our new house has a fig tree in the garden where a group of over 20 parrots like to gossip over an all-you-can-eat fig buffet.  A toucan perches on a nearby tree every day; iguanas chill out on various tree limbs and lizards dance around the grass.  All only a 15 minute walk from the middle of town.  As my father-in-law says, “you got your own zoo back deh for free”.  I just need to work on some Kriol rhymes for it now.

www.warasadrumschool.com

 

What’s in a name?

Considering the name of my husband, I feel an entry on the general inventiveness of Belizean names is apt.  There is no McDonald’s restaurant in Belize (in fact there are no chains at all), and so Ray has not suffered too much as a result of his name, but there is a reason he introduces himself as Ray to all non-Belizeans.

My personal favourite name that I’ve come across in Belize is Al Gore Bo, a name belonging to a 7 year old Mayan boy I discovered while conducting vision screenings in the tiny village of Machaquilha,  a 3 hour drive + 40 minute walk away from PG, with no phone service or electricity.  If only I spoke Kekchi I would have asked the boy’s parents about that one.

Al Gore....Bo?

I think the parents of my former workmate Disraeli Socorro Bol, and her 10 brothers and sisters who all have the same initials (Diora, Davina, Delana, Diego, Descartes, Desiderius and 4 more that I can never remember) should get some kind of prize for inventiveness.  Some parents choose to combine their names to christen their dearest with, giving wonderful combinations like Rayanna (Raymond + Joanna), Darlisa (Darius + Lisa) and so on.

In addition, certain surnames are associated with certain trades, occupations or prestige.  If you have the same surname as somebody (other than through marriage), then it is highly unlikely that you are NOT related in a country where I would guess that there are no more than three degrees of separation between any two people.  I feel the need to be friendly to pretty much everyone in PG not only because I’m a friendly person, but also because I figure there is at least a 20% chance they are related to Ray in some way.

When I first came here, and people found out I was from Scotland, they would ask (perhaps thinking that the above logic could be applied equally effectively outside Belize) if I knew Kirsty that worked at Red Cross in Belize City, as she was also from Scotland.  Now you might think that I would have to point out that being a country of 5 million people, no I did not know Kirsty at the Red Cross.  Funny thing is, I did.  She was in the year below me at Balfron High School, and we both ended up in Belize completely independently of each other, and only find out about each other once we were both here.

www.warasadrumschool.com

Shilling Chips and Sweets

Being a former British colony and a current close neighbour to the USA seems to have caused some interesting idiosyncrasies in Belize. For several months when I arrived, I wondered whether Belize used British or American spelling. I would see “tires” for sale, but people of many different “colours”. It all became clear when listening to the annual Coca Cola National Spelling Bee (a very American event) on the national radio station. The judges announced that both British and American English spellings were acceptable. Belize has officially decided not to decide.

The same seems to apply to weights and measures. Locally bottled water is sold in 500ml, 1 litre, 1 gallon, and 5 gallon bottles. Speed limits are given in miles and kilometres. People ask for a pound of onions at the market, but the nurses at the hospitals record your weight in kilograms. Sweets are called sweets and a 25 cent coin is called a “shilling”.

A Belizean "Shilling"

But crisps are called chips and chips are called fries and they say “tomayto” instead of tomato. And so children here, instead of asking for a 20p mixture or a 10p bag of crisps, will ask for a “shilling chips”, or ask “how much sweet I cud get fu shilling”. A biscuit is a biscuit, not a scone like thing drenched in gravy.

The sense of humour is far more similar to British than American, in that you can take the piss out of your best friend and they know that that means you are good friends and you will all be laughing about it rather than getting offended. Since there are not that many British people in PG, the little similarities in language and humour to back home are my saviour many times. It is funny how little things can make you feel at home. My first Easter in Belize I spent in Hopkins with a fellow Scot, Kirsty. I bought a bag of shilling chips from the local ‘Chiney’. On sampling them, I declared that they looked like Wotsits, but tasted like Quavers, and was overjoyed to have someone with me who knew exactly what I was talking about.

www.warasadrumschool.com