The celebration of our 40th year since we got independence, much contained because of the pandemic, is now behind us, and we have entered the 5th decade of our existence as an independent nation. Some have hopeful hearts, for through the years they have experienced success: their finances have increased, they have good homes and vehicles, good food on the table every day, and health insurance, and their children are getting a good education.
Some of those successful people have been blessed by inheritances and “good” skin color, and they continue to advance; some got university degrees or with pluck and luck they have advanced, some came here with money and a good understanding of the system and they have advanced; and some came here with only the shirts and blouses on their backs and through hard work they have increased their lot, gotten a good share of the blessed gifts in our land.
For many Belizeans though, Afro-Belizeans in particular, it has been a steady slide. Forty years ago, when Belize got its independence, this group was on the margins, with the hope of the majority of them being to escape to the USA. Today, for too many of them, an exit to the USA is still their hope, and while they wait for the opportunity, they watch many of their children land in jail, or die in the streets. Such was their story before the pandemic, and with our economy in the grip of the pandemic, the story is worse now.
Afro-Belizeans, as a group, are at the bottom of the ladder, and anyone who disputes that needs to get checked, and anyone who questions any focus on uplifting, directing assistance to, this group, might be hostile to people of color. If you are in doubt about which group has fared worst since independence, go to the Kolbe Foundation (Belize Central Prison) and see who is there, or just look at the newscast and newspapers and see who are the murdered and who are suspected of the crimes.
In Matthew 18: 10 -14, Jesus the Christ told His disciples the parable of the lost sheep. In the parable, Jesus explained that the shepherd left the 99 sheep to go look for one that was missing, and when he found it, he rejoiced more over the sheep that was found than he did for the 99 that hadn’t gone astray. The parable was intended to show how God feels when a sinner is saved, but we, a nation of believers, can apply the lesson to life here. It is proper that Belize works overtime to address the needs of Afro- Belizeans, and all citizens who are deprived in our independent nation.
The situation isn’t insurmountable. First, the leaders of government must see, accept that there is a problem, must accept that in a good country no group can be left behind, and they must act sensibly to right the ship. Secondly, those who are living below the poverty line must believe they can turn things around, and must be willing to make the changes in their lives so that they and their children can enjoy the fruits of a country endowed with wealth untold.
When you are going forward, you keep on the path you’re on, and when you’re going backward (And how much farther can we slip?) you have to strip down. We must look without, and try to change the things that are holding us back, and we must also look within ourselves to see in what ways we are our own enemies. We have to hold on to what is good, good culture, and we have to root out what is bad, bad culture.
There’s much history behind the economic woes of marginalized Belizeans, and looking at Afro- Belizeans, staying away from the horrors of years long past, we see a people who developed a dependency on the USA as an outlet; we see a preference for office jobs, a preference to seek employment instead of creating businesses; and of late we see the development of gangs.
Looking at escape to the USA as an option, the bottom dropped out of that, and gangs are a literal dead end that suffocates all legitimate enterprise. While other countries aspire to be great again, we must put priority on making our streets safe again, because small businesses, the engines of every economy, can’t make it on violent streets.
Unemployment is the biggest problem in marginalized areas. Gravitating toward white-collar jobs hasn’t paid off well; there are limited opportunities, partly because too many of our leaders had self-interest and/or lacked the vision to create them. Because only few of their parents own businesses, most of the youth in marginalized areas haven’t grown up in a culture of work.
Many of the youth who go to school can’t find jobs after they graduate, and the youth who haven’t yet developed the skills to get jobs, are also out of work. Without the safety net of family-owned businesses, our youth are literally at the mercy of the world, prime bait for the Devil’s workshop.
Our country invested little in the creation of sound institutions that guide children and young teenagers so that they grow up disciplined. In the modern state, every young person must be involved in some properly organized activity – sports, book clubs, bands, scouts, guides. There are many retired teachers, public servants, artisans in our country with enormous talents, and the heart to give to our youth to help them to develop, but there is no energy to get them organized. As it stands right now, especially in marginalized areas, all Belizean youth have is American television.
There are investments that must be made, and changes that must be made, to better the lives of marginalized citizens. Community leaders have to come together, get talking about the problems and the solutions. One thing that absolutely must stop is the standoff between the security personnel of the state and citizens. For that to happen, those involved in gangs must put away their guns and open shops and other legal businesses, and they must be supported. Security personnel must use their training to lead youth in sports and other wholesome, disciplined activities.
We must stop spending on frivolous goods, and businesses in our communities must know or be made to know their responsibility to the people who support them. This 5th decade after independence, there must be a change. And it must start now.