BELMOPAN, Wed. Nov. 7, 2018–Sleepy Belmopan greeted us with a dense fog. The bus did not stop off at Xaibel for a bathroom break, so getting off the bus was fast, in a dash. Belmopan was going about its usual slow pace, with pockets of people at the terminal. Some ate tacos and tostados at the market square; others walked towards Belmopan Comprehensive School. Today, Belmopan welcomed acquaintances from all over the country: the teachers of Belize.
Belmopan is the nation’s capital, located along the Belize River in Central Belize. It is the seat of government, and those who sit in Cabinet to make decisions convene here every week. The National Assembly sits on Independence Hill, and those who pass laws must come to this “honourable house” regularly. Symbolically, politically, and pragmatically, therefore, the capital city is the best place for teachers to pay a courtesy call on November 7, 2018.
But today is Wednesday, a school-day in the middle of the week, so why not do the pilgrimage on a weekend? Some teachers are at school, ready to fulfil their obligation of educating the young. Yet, those at Belmopan seem not to remember that today is a school day. They must be mad.
Mad? Must! Rightly so.
They are members of the most powerful union in the country – the Belize National Teachers Union(BNTU) – who are here for a demonstration. This mammoth of a union is here to shake the political juggernauts of the present government – those political leaders who insist that teachers do not need a day off to collect pay, even if they are teaching in rural Belize, that teachers need not two hundred dollars for hardship allowance, that government cannot meet the 100 % pension scheme for grant-aided schools. So teachers wear the green T-shirt with the slogan, “Teachaz gat yuh back,” for they know this is a government that lacks respect for the teachers.
The demonstration organized by the BNTU is a wake-up call to those who sit on Independence Hill. In Belize, it seems that demonstrations and strikes – both legal forms of protests – are the only way to get the attention of those who fall victim to the dictum: power corrupts. The mammoth union is here to save “bread on the table.”
The rallying songs of Buju Banton filled the Civic Centre. Lucky Dube. Bob Marley. Hundreds of teachers conversed with each other in the humanly version of humming bees. The media interviewed the bespectacled lady president – Elena Smith. Not one word could be deciphered; the echo of music and conversations made the ceiling fans spin in eternal silence. The air was no longer its pure self: it was filled with militancy and courage, in the teachers’ way.
For the past hour, the crowd was marching on Ring Road, singing to the tune of “Solidarity Forever.” A green caravan of teachers and citizens who supported the cause halted traffic and waved to onlookers, as they demanded justice for all teachers of Belize. With a dose of sunshine, the teachers entered the Civic immersed in a sweat of unity.
It is in the spirit of unity that the teachers sang “Solidarity Forever” stronger than the Belizean National Anthem itself, when teachers joined hands upon singing the last verse of that song.
Elena Smith is a courageous soul. She stands on stage as a woman who had walked to Graham Creek Village for several hours, weeks ago, in mud and rain. She stands there as a woman who has faced a lot of verbal abuse from propaganda media organizations. She stands as a teacher who has served her nation for decades. Her address is simple yet profound – the power is in your hands.
Then more firepower. Mose Hyde, president of the Christian Workers Union and honorary member of the BNTU, questioned why there would be a quarrel over allowance for teachers who struggle daily in our country. He rallied the cry that sister unions join in the cause of the teachers.
As if by design, Doreth Cayetano, the president of the strike-shy Public Service Union (PSU), appeared, if not unprecedented, at the podium. She spoke of the PSU’s support for the plight of the teachers. This gesture, though small, can be considered one of the biggest victories of the day.
To round off the speeches, Pastor Louis Wade mentioned that the teachers were not a “national security issue.” He had a message to the pastors of Belize: to be like Jesus.
It was not until after 1 p.m. that the teachers finally made it to Independence Hill. They sang “Solidarity Forever” once more, and the president made her farewell speech.
The Belize National Teachers Union is a giant of a union – both in numbers and in might. As the Leader of the Opposition rightly said, “The BNTU does not need any party.” The BNTU is a people-powered institution, from the bottom-up, and its strength comes from members of 10 branches countrywide, teachers from primary and secondary schools. Those teachers who continue to be a part of the struggle must be acknowledged for standing up for the generations of today and tomorrow. Participating in a pilgrimage of action, whether through demonstration or strike, is a testament of will-power and people-power.