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The big picture

(Excerpt from the book: Insights into Gang Culture in Belize…Essays on Youth, Crime, and Violence by Nuri Muhammad)

Let’s face it. Collectively, we blew it; our youths do not respect us! When we see them acting out their distorted perception of manhood in the streets of Belize City today, we really should look at it in a bigger context, and we should be willing to accept responsibility for not providing a culture of high esteem that told these youths who they were and where they came from.

The problem began in the home, or because of the absence of one. Many of these youths were deprived of a healthy, nurturing environment that every home should provide.

During childhood, most of the rapid growth of the physical, mental and emotional selves occurs. We begin to experience ourselves and the world around us during childhood and the predominant aspects of our personalities are formed here. The events and persons that are impactful during childhood will strongly affect us throughout our lives and will largely define out responses to people and to life in general. (U.N.I.C.E.F. 1994)

It is known that if there are too many emotionally traumatic experiences in the early development of a child’s life that this will continue to affect that child psychologically, until that trauma is reconciled; but if it is not reconciled it continues to persist in new, sometimes distorted forms. What we see being acted out in the streets is a reflection of this trauma in its later stages referred to by some psychologists as ‘post-traumatic stress syndrome’.

Numerous studies have proved the relationships between childhood experiences and adverse behavior in later life – school drops-out, discipline problems, early sexual initiation, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, violent and risk taking behaviors are all said to be caused at least, in part, by dysfunctional family structures. (NHDAC Study)

To understand the root of the problem, we also have to ask ourselves what kinds of cultural influences were impacting our youths during the years before our independence and the early years after, (1975- 1985). What was the state of our culture and the institutions that were to support it?

We did not extend to the Belizean youth a historical root to hold on to; his ‘story’, to define himself as a youth coming to maturity in modern Belize. Marcus Garvey said that a people without knowledge of their history, is like a tree without roots. From the very beginning of our so-called nationalist movement in the fifties we have maintained an argument about our history. During the seventies, just before independence, when we should have been promoting our own unique brand of Belizean nationalism and patriotism, incorporating the uniqueness of our history and multi-culture as a way of life and a stimulus for development, we were instead still caught up in arguing about the myth or non-myth of the Battle of St. George’s Caye; a leftover from earlier days when the People’s United Party (P.U.P.) challenged the colonial status quo by questioning the veracity of the legendary battle. Decades of failing to reconcile a united interpretation of that history has left our youths victims of shallow political arguments on both sides and that failure to resolve the difference in historical interpretation of the so-called Battle has remained a divisive wedge in our national consciousness up to today. Youths don’t know who to believe; and over time they don’t care.

Again in the seventies and eighties, when we should have been stimulating a culture of our own uniqueness in our diversity as a people, using culture as an instrument of development, we were instead interpreting culture as art and dance exhibitions, ethnic dishes, colonial architecture, mystical ruins, and other unproductive idiosyncrasies all to the satisfaction of our supposed “tourist product”. As a result, today, the mental space of our youths that should have been filled with love for Belize and Belizean heroes, has been, instead, influenced by North American television images of plastic heroes and an inordinate love for consumer goods. In consequence of our collective neglect, our young people have formed their own values drawing from the plastic images they see on television, which, by the way, hitched a piggyback ride on our independence three decades ago, much like a master plan. In a way, we can see today’s youth as the children of independence, but we can also see them as the children of thirty years of television.

We also have to ask ourselves about those social structures that were supposed to provide healthy stimuli for personal and social development of the individual, i.e. the family, the religious institutions, the schools, and the government. What has been the state of these in the last thirty years? Certainly the first three have declined in importance and impact while the latter has inherited a role that it finds itself unable to fulfill. We are now expecting

from government what governments are incapable of fulfilling, given the nature of that institution. Responsibility for character development and implanting of values must go back to the first three institutions of family, religion and education. Government’s role is to create an enabling environment that supports the existence of these three as character building institutions

The Way Forward

While our approach to dealing with youths in Belize must be multi-fold two areas need to be emphasized: On the one hand we must address the social and economic conditions that affect the ability of a young person to reach their fullest potential as a Belizean citizen. At the same time, we must build upon those initiatives that promote the character of citizenship, encouraging and insisting on productiveness and industry. Our young people need a healthy dose of patriotism; a sense of love and respect for Belize, which comes from a healthy love, and respect for one’s self.

Clearly our local experience with youth, crime and violence are only the symptoms of a global social cancer that is affecting many other countries but it will not go away if our social intervention programs remain reactive. We must take the initiative and implement pro-active programs, based on our local circumstances designed to attract these derailed youths back to a course of self-development and national involvement. While this is a big job, it is entirely achievable. We are fortunate that we are experiencing a first generation gang crime problem, which can be reversed if we are decisive and concerted.

It is unfortunate that young people in Belize have no voice to lobby for better conditions for themselves as youths. More often than not, youth issues are presented through adult-run organizations and even when youths make decisions, those decisions are subject to the veto power of the adults in these organizations or government agencies.

Young people should be the center of the decision-making processes on those issues that effect change among them as youth, addressing their own problems and meeting the challenges of their own development. This should be the goal. Youth should provide the leadership and be facilitated by the institutional memory of those elders who should serve as their support. While some may have a dismal impression of the future of our youth, in fact, the situation for those of us on the ground is quite different. Many youths are engaged in addressing their issues and ready to work in partnership as long as their special and unique contribution is respected. Youths are ready to play their part in national development; it’s up to us to give them their due respect.

Real and lasting change can only be effective if it is comprehensive enough to cover the whole subject and involves every one of us. Clearly government has the major role to play, but the onus for real change rests with all of us, the people of Belize.

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