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Home Features From British Honduras to Belize: one family’s drama

From British Honduras to Belize: one family’s drama

a novel written by the late Chrystel Lynwood Hyde Straughan

Continued from page 28 of the Friday, October 18, 2019, #3314 issue of Amandala

Chapter 4 – “That kind of thing …”

I believe that anyone who pays attention to such things will agree that the greatest obstacle to genuinely good relations among the people of this country is racial prejudice, and that this has been so as far back as anyone can remember. It is ever present, although very subtle. Everyone is affected by it, either directly or indirectly, yet it is rarely acknowledged. The people who speak for us tell the world that there is no racial discrimination in the country, and the opinion of the rest of us is never even sought. “We don’t have that kind of thing here,” they assert.

One striking example of how racial discrimination is practiced here is in the job market, an area of significant relevance, having a bearing on the means of survival and earning one’s livelihood. Someone might lose out on a job or some opportunity which one believes was awarded on the basis of colour preference but, without evidence, one foregoes protest, which, in any case, is unlikely to bring about change.

People know that it is not coincidence that the most menial jobs fall to the lot of those lowest in the colour hierarchy, schools being one testing ground to evaluate ability. Dark-skinned young men doing well in school compared to their lighter classmates are sidelined for well-paying jobs time and again.

As one example, there was a time when jobs as shop assistants, especially in the big stores, could not be obtained by people of my complexion, and I would probably be described as midway on the scale. Nurse, Primary School Teacher, Seamstress and Clerical Staff in the Civil Service were the most to which we could aspire, regardless of academic record. Privately owned banks and other businesses catering to the elite and to visitors were staffed exclusively by white or light personnel.

The humble and peace-loving nature of our people inclines us to accept and abide by what is handed down by authority. The laws are obeyed without question as to their fairness or the methods of their application. The powers-that-be, secular, religious or whatever, interpret and apply written and unwritten law without any opposition. If one day, for instance, someone in authority told people not to bathe in the sea in a certain area, without giving a reason, they would willingly comply. Should someone later discover that the purpose of the order had been to accommodate some favoured person or group wanting privacy on public property, no protest would ever be made. Often, jobs or promotions would be given to someone light or white, allegedly on the basis of formal qualification, after a black had performed competently or even with distinction in the post. The dark-skinned applicant who had experience might be told that formal qualification was required, losing out to someone white or light with the qualification but no experience. On the other hand, if he had qualification but little or no experience, the reverse might be cited as the requirement for the post.

Then there was what people called “family certificate.” For instance, in a country where government is the major employer and job opportunities are scarce, someone might discover that being a member, friend or protégé of an influential family was more valuable in securing a post than a good qualification might be.

One common practice was the arbitrary selection and placement of someone in a post, allowing him to perform for a year or two then invite formal applications to fill the vacancy. The person who has performed the job is eligible to apply and, in due course, is confirmed in the post. Who will protest? Who even knows what has taken place?

As regards the private sector, they were under no obligation whatever to hire on the basis of merit. The employer had free rein to discriminate for reasons of colour, religion, gender, etc.

As a black person growing up, I was often puzzled by what some people thought of as “good-looking,” “admirable,” or “proper,” in terms of appearance or behaviour, as often as others expressed surprise at what I considered so. Sometimes in the “eyes of the beholder,” the subject was “too dark,” had “tough head,” “too broad” a nose, was “too upstart,” “too forward (‘for’rard’),” or “didn’t know his place!” and so on. It appeared that features and deportment most approved of and considered acceptable were those found in people who were highest in the colour hierarchy, no doubt because assessment is based on standards established by the dominant world culture – that is, the group publishing the books, magazines, and newspapers, producing the films, having the most money and influence, or who were employers – especially this.

In most colonial situations, as well as in the majority of independent countries, the dominant culture is that of whites, who create the standards. Precedence over merit, effort, or other qualification was observed in the operation of the “hierarchy of colour;” and acceptance of the standards passed down by the rulers was taken for granted.

When Matron related the incident of Mr. Stanley and the water pump, she revealed the prejudice of inhabitants of their area against the Caribs among them. This was nothing new, as this attitude was prevalent countrywide, except that it was more noticeable due to the larger presence of that ethnic group in the southernmost district town. Her father, as an outsider (for so he was regarded all his life) could detach himself from the situation and diagnose what, in his opinion, was the underlying cause of the conflict in this instance: ex-slave against newcomer competing for status and survival. Mr. Stanley, being what is called “brown-skinned,” probably resented the idea of having to borrow anything from one he considered his inferior, so felt the need to reduce his status further by citing his connection to her ethnic group.

Caribs, nowadays called “Garifuna,” (or in the plural “Garinagu,”) have gained recognition as a permanent part of the social, cultural and economic make-up of the citizenry of this country. On their way to this status they had connected with and were reinforced by their ethnic counterparts in the wider Caribbean, including those populating parts of the surrounding mainland republics. This contributed to the confidence born of “safety in numbers,” since they were in the minority in this country.

Economic and educational achievements, too, played an important part in creating self-esteem and went far in weakening the prejudice between the two black groups, the Creole and the Garinagu. The emergence of the colony’s independence movement is also credited with a major role in this enlightened attitude, although some now believe that encouragement of tension between these two groups, seen as one more tool of the divide-and-conquer strategy of neo-colonisers, threatens to re-surface in the economic progress of selected and competing groups.

Of all the people I have come across in my lifetime, Matron is the most militant in resisting all prejudices, whether racial, religious, gender, social or what-have-you. Having personally experienced most, if not all, of them, her personal position has been that they should all be uprooted and discarded, by her alone if no one is willing to join her. She certainly resisted them all during her lifetime, yet did so in a dispassionate and impersonal manner, remaining serene and even sympathetic to her fellowmen’s weaknesses. Still, she never allowed a chance to pass to challenge any prejudice if the occasion arose.

Of the many accounts of her “doings” that circulated around the hospital where she spent her professional life, the most striking was that of the incident of the poor, dark-skinned Creole versus the white, expatriate patient.

The story is that while she was working in the Casualty Department one day, attending to a mother of nine with ulcerated sores on her foot, the expatriate matron at the time brought in one of her friends in great pain from an ankle injury sustained playing tennis. Matron, who was only junior staff at the time, was ordered to leave what she was doing and transfer her attention to the new patient.

The current patient, sensing trouble, attempted to efface herself by sliding down from the table on which she was seated; but a quiet but stern warning to “Keep still, Miss” had been issued by Matron, who continued with her work. Thereupon, the matron instructed her to do as she was told immediately or she would “box” her ears. Octavia’s response had been to raise her head from her activity and mildly remark, “You wouldn’t make that mistake.”

This lady, we were told, was a slight, reputedly hot-tempered redhead, while Matron is what in the local idiom would be described as an “able Creole,” a term implying she was able-bodied, physically strong – as dark-skinned blacks are perceived to be – and, thus, not to be trifled with.

Fortunately, for all concerned, on hearing her response the matron had opted to stalk off to the office of the Chief Medical Officer to lodge a complaint rather than follow through with her threat. In the meantime Matron had completed her attention to the Creole lady then turned to the new patient, who had stayed behind, helped her to the table and, on examining her ankle, discovered that the injury was not as simple as first appeared but required the attention of a physician, to whom she had referred her.

By this time a member of the office staff had appeared on the scene with instructions for Matron to report to the office of the Chief Medical Officer right away, which she did.

At his request Matron had related the details of the incident to the CMO, who enquired whether she had used “threatening words” to her superior. Uttering threatening words to anyone was a criminal offense according to the legal statutes of the time, possibly left over from slavery days, so the intention of the matron was clearly to exact maximum punishment for what she regarded as a serious offense to her person. Matron’s reply had been that, just the opposite, it was she who had been threatened, in a public place and in the presence of patients and other onlookers. This could not be denied.

Another subordinate might without question have replaced the current patient with the expatriate one on the instructions of her superior, as, in those days natives were easily intimidated by authority and quick to give up their rights. By nature, however, Matron was not one to countenance or submit to injustice, regardless of its origin, and this had led to her taking the stand that she did.

There are some features of the situation which she admitted having taken into consideration. For instance, the earlier patient could not afford the attention of a private physician and should really have been kept off her feet for a period in order to allow for healing to take place. But how practical would it have been for a poverty-stricken mother of nine to take advantage of such a prescription in the unlikely event of a government medical officer, serving in a public institution, making such a recommendation? On the other hand, the expatriate could afford private medical attention, had been injured during recreational activity and, significantly, could afford time off her feet for maximum healing.

Some thought and voiced the opinion that it was not Matron’s prerogative to make such an assessment; but she would not hesitate to tell anyone who did, that, as a health professional she thought it her duty to provide her services where it was most urgently needed.

The Chief Medical Officer at the time, Dr. Maurice Jerome, although a British subject, had been born in a French Caribbean colony of a light-skinned native father and English mother. He had lived most of his life in the British Caribbean, trained in the United Kingdom and spoke English fluently. He was not considered a typical colonial administrator however, who might have supported the matron’s stand as a matter of course.

After separately interviewing Matron and her superior, he had concluded that both had been indiscreet; and each had been issued a letter of censure, copies of which had been placed in their personal files and formed part of their record.

The majority opinion of those on the hospital compound had been that the CMO’s decision was fair; but it should be noted that they were comprised of staff and administrators, staff being mostly black and more numerous, while administrators were white or light and in the minority.

There were rumours that the matron had taken exception to being associated with mere “staff” by reason of the penalty imposed, but not much had come of that. Some people took note of the fact that when Dr. Jerome’s contract had expired it had not been renewed; and he had moved on to another post elsewhere, raising the spectre of possible discrimination against him. This was one of those incidents that bred a lot of suspicion, speculation and comment, but had blown over eventually. One thing that had remained in everyone’s memory, however, had been Matron’s role in the episode.

Observers thought it unlikely that a letter of censure on an expatriate matron’s record was of much significance, since she would retire to the mother country in due course or be transferred to another colonial territory with little notice taken of it. On the other hand, it was predicted by Matron’s peers that she would be regarded as a trouble-maker by any expatriate successor to the post of matron or by superior officers in the Establishment. This had not fazed her, however, as she had held that, besides being accustomed to difficulties, strict attention to her work was sufficient protection against any attempts to undermine her position. She had therefore continued in her style of service and, while there were no further complaints, a stiff formality had crept into her superiors’ behaviour towards her since the incident, noticeable to patients and colleagues but ignored by her.

Being a loner by nature, Matron believed in self-reliance, so that neither the support of colleagues nor disapproval of the administration had affected her very much. When I heard the story from my mother years later, she told me that Matron had admitted regret that the expatriate patient’s pain had been needlessly prolonged, conceding that under normal circumstances she would have interrupted her attention to the earlier patient to give a quick look at the newcomer, if not for the interference and arrogance of the matron. The patient could then have been referred to the physician sooner.

One of the qualities we all admired about Matron was her willingness to accept responsibility for her shortcomings. She confided to Mama that she was sensible enough to accept the fact that, like everyone, she was not perfect, and was humble enough to try and correct her faults. It was unusual for her to make jokes but she had once claimed that because of so much practice opposing her father she had developed a pugnacious spirit.

(Chapter 5 in the weekend issue of Amandala.)

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