Features — 17 August 2019
50 Years to Reflect on

In 1969 I was born and that same year, just two days shy of two months later, the Amandala newspaper was officially established and its first issue hit the street. I like to check local, regional and world events that took place in the year I was born, because for me it’s a measure of the time I was born in and I then track how far we have come since. It is also a way for me to see what grew with me or what I grew with. No doubt the Amandala newspaper has grown over the years and is one of the most prolific newspapers in our country. It is the oldest one, the most circulated one, the most radical and the most reliable one. Yeah, from time to time it has taken its criticism, but it keeps standing and shaping lots of the social changes in our society. It has not feared to take a position on any issue and declared its own biases when it has one and not been timid about its political view on any and every issue. That is admirable! Happy anniversary, Amandala!

At a time when news is mostly obtained by electronic means, it is a newspaper which is still very much sought after in hard form, but not to be left behind, it has also done its electronic version and so now at the click of a button or the swipe of the phone screen, millions all over the world can read Belize news. Interestingly, the  Amandala newspaper is immediately associated with Evan X Hyde, one of the key founding members, who started it at a time when UBAD was on a mission to promote black empowerment. Although many things evolve, the mission of AMANDALA seems to be constant in principle, because while to date it largely focuses on news, it is still very much dedicated to black consciousness and empowerment, as can often be gleaned off the lines of the Editorial, the writings in “From the Publisher”, and the articles of many of the long-standing contributors and the special contributions from people across the country and varying walks of life. I have been privileged to be able to contribute to its contents since 2009 on a regular basis. I like that I get to write in the pages of history in a newspaper that was born in the same year I was.

However, I never forget that one of my first contributions to the newspaper was in 1986 when I entered a poetry competition promoted by the Amandala newspaper and won first prize and had my poem published in its pages then. Thereafter, I became a headline subject over the years, never thinking that I would be mentioned in the newspaper that was born in the same year I was. Of course, those old enough will know that one of the most prolific and sensational headlines I ever got mentioned in was the one entitled “Senator Bembe” — this was either 1999 or, but I know it was just before I resigned from the Senate and decided to read for my LLB. That is how I got the name “Bembe”. Going away to study is a decision I have never regretted and one that in full circle brought me back into the forefront of many social issues, many of which I have written about in the Amandala, whose views and mine seem to be more aligned on key issues, without me ever discussing these with the owners, publisher, editor, or any staff. In 1969 a revolutionary newspaper was birthed, and in the quiet corners of Corozal a revolutionary little girl was born. A girl who has defied so many gender roles, cultural norms, ethnic traditions etc. etc.

Progress of women

I was born in a time where it was not the norm for girls to be automatically sent to high school, and worse yet, not allowed an education beyond primary school. This was not only in the northern districts, but across the country, and maybe even worse in the southern part of the country were child marriages were the order of the day.  I bring this up because many of our young readers are not old enough to know that there was a time when education of our girls was not highly encouraged. Imagine if sending your son to high school was a major accomplishment, what would it be if a daughter was given like opportunity? Just a decade before 1996, it was less known of, especially in the districts, for girls to be educated and a decade even before that, it was almost not heard of. So you get my point! Often the girls were taken out of school by standard 2 or 3 and the family considered that enough education, sufficient to just read and write.

In those days of the 40’s 50’s 60’s a primary school education was enough to be a clerk, a teacher, a nurse, and so many things. Going to high school was equivalent to getting a Master’s degree now.  And if you got to go on to study abroad and do any degree, that was like getting a doctorate in today’s environment. Reading the Belizean novel, by Zee Edgell, Beka Lamb further gives a historical account of how education of girls was viewed, and more so, the struggles of the “non-white” girl child to be accepted in any of those schools, which then were mostly schools run by the Catholic Church. They were very discriminatory and biased in favour of those wealthy families that could contribute to the church’s coffers.

Access to education was also very much influenced by the various ethnic groups. This is my take on it, and some may not agree with me, but what I recall, the blacks, especially the Royal Creoles, were pushing education of their children heavily because they would then access jobs in the public service controlled by the colonial masters. Then the Mestizo families and Indian families were not really pushing education of their children, especially their girls, since they believed the girls would be provided for by their husbands, as marriage was the most natural path of a girl then. The sons could continue higher education if they want, but often the family business was already waiting for them, and so they knew they did not need much more education to do it, because it was often farming and trading. The Garifuna people pushed almost equally education of their girls and boys in my view. And it goes without saying that the expats were all about education of their children, and some even sent their children away to England to pursue further studies, even if only to send the girls to etiquette and grooming school, to become the perfect wife for their husbands.

The Ketchi and Mopan Maya and Mennonite girls were the least likely to go pursue an education then. But today, without doubt, the Mayas of Belize are big on education of their sons and daughters, and girls in that culture assert themselves more to be educated. Today we have come a long way, since there are more girls enrolled in secondary and tertiary institutions than there are boys! I personally don’t like that less males are seeking higher education, because I don’t want the men to be marginalized and be less viable partners for our daughters.

However, talking about the progress women have made in education is very important for me, because I was born in that era when there was a turning point, and at age 12 when it was my turn to go beyond primary school, where no other female in my family had gone, it was a major event for me. By the time I was 12 more women were educated and mostly held jobs as teachers, nurses, clerks. However, I came from a combination of two key cultures, where my mom was a Mestizo and my father an East Indian and both had not pursued an education beyond standard 3, and the truth is the talk in the household was always about educating my brothers!

My education

My father was very vocal about the fact that a girl did not need an education, and so he did not hesitate to take both my sisters out of school before they could even reach standard six (6).  Allowing them to stay home to help around the house or learn to cook and wash and do household chores just seemed so normal to him, and my sisters fell into the gender role. He got no protest from them that I know of. But if they were unhappy with the decision, they still went along because he ruled with an iron-fist.

I, on the other hand, was not complicit in those traditions and I would have none of it. Either out of anger or just mere machismo, my father in no uncertain terms told me he would not allow me to attend school beyond standard six, and he meant it! He said I had to learn to do work around the house and be ready to be a wife, as my husband would be able to provide for me. Serious talk that was. I would have none of that talk, because from then, in my own innocence, I could not see my brothers having anything over me or being better than me to deserve the right to a further education and I being denied one. Moreover, I enjoyed school more than they did and had a total devotion to school and excelled at it, and they on the other hand just went along. Of course at that time I did not appreciate that a person by virtue of being born with a penis automatically had more privileges and rights and support, than me, born with a vagina. That was the only biological difference in my view, because education-wise both of my brothers and I had the equal capacity to excel if we so applied ourselves. In my innocence I knew I could climb a tree faster and better than they could, was a better swimmer than they were, and hands down was the most academically gifted at school over them anytime! So I could not see why my father would think that my brothers should go to school, but I should not! No, I would not have it!

I think I was naturally born to questions things, and for some reason I just felt invincible and no less than my brothers, and I had a penchant to be slapped down cold by my father when I answered back and questioned his wisdom why the boys could and I couldn’t. So one day when my father said that as soon as I finished school he would marry me off because he did not want me to become pregnant, which I did not really appreciate what that meant, I replied that I wanted to go to high school. He became incensed at my “upstartness” and said he would choose a husband and marry off and that was final. If he meant it or not I do not know to date, but I took it seriously and I answered that when it came to getting a husband I would choose my own because I would have to live with him.  All I felt was a slap across my face and I fell in the refridge I was cleaning. And I swore that he would never get to do with me as he wanted and I would not marry. I nagged and negotiated and did all sorts of things to get my mother to agree that I could go to high school.

My father opposed vehemently, but I outsmarted him. He refused to pay for my educational expenses, and so I left home, and with the support of my mother, I started Pallotti High School! One day I will write the details of that, because it was not an easy life, begging lodging and not having money and living at the mercy of others and being a minor female. It is not easy! But I tell this story because I see now that women have far more liberties and opportunities now and some are just wasting it. I also tell that story because I worry how I see us as women not working to uplift each other.

Abused and abusive women

I see how our women are either subjects of abuse and suffer in silence and others are the abusers and are abusive. I say this not to bring down any of them. Abuse is a cycle and if women are being abusive it is a sign that they themselves have been abused. And if women are being tolerant of abuse, it is a sign that they grew up seeing abuse and accepting it as the norm. I also know that some do not recognize that they are abused and are abusive. This is because we like to narrowly look at abuse as hitting and physical assault, but the worst abuse we are suffering from is emotional and psychological abuse.

Ladies, mothers, sisters, aunts, daughters, friends, I ask you to step back and recognize that historically we have been abused. Some more abused than others, some lots of emotional abuse, seeking acceptance from our parents, then our friends, then mates and spouses, but we do not recognize it. We think because we were not physically abused or sexually abused that we are okay, and some even think they are better and more pious than other women. We have said some of the meanest, most hurtful things about other women, and many comments on social media are a testament to that. When I see those I see a hurt person, a hurt sister, a hurt woman. The reposts of the recent rape of a thirteen (13)-year-old child and a Belmopan woman have shown how hurt the women are by the nasty comments and attacks. I will write more on this, but for now, I say, search yourself and don’t forget the plight of us women! I have 50 years’ experience as a woman to reflect on, and I will share it all in a timely manner!

(Ed. NOTE: In 2013, Audrey Matura was Amandala’s Woman of the Year.)

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Deshawn Swasey

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