Sun. Oct. 10, 2021
About two decades ago, an old retired fisherman, who would spend his days recalling old times and entertaining friends at a popular local bar/restaurant on Handyside Street, made a very profound statement, in light of the repeated news of violent crimes, especially murders of young combatants in the various city gangs. The nostalgic veteran seafarer wistfully declared, or lamented, really, that “Belize gaan!” And he repeated it, “Belize gaan, bwai!” He has long passed on, but would he be surprised to hear a grieving mother declare when things seem to have become much, much worse in 2021, that “Belize noh gaan yet!”? The hope of our nation indeed rests in the resilient spirit and undaunted resolve of our Belizean women; “Bembe” women, who may be the real revolutionaries now needed at the helm of our floundering ship of state.
A few generations ago, fishermen were regarded as among the struggling poor of this backwater British colony, where the ordinary folk ate fish of various types and conch on most days, with some beef or pig tails thrust in between on other days, with the special for “Sunday dinner” being reserved for the backyard chicken, plucked and stewed for that special day along with the national dish of rice and beans with potato salad and fried plantain. Lobster, or crayfish as it was called then, did not cause a stir when it appeared on the market stall, as it was not a popular item, often considered as good bait for fish.
For decades, various foreigners had engaged in ventures where some local fishermen were paid a small fee to provide lobsters for them to export. These businessmen gained most of the profits.
But when the new credit union movement also encouraged the formation of the first fishing cooperative in Caye Caulker, Northern Cooperative, in 1961, suddenly fishermen were seeing huge earnings from lobsters which were a prized commodity in the U.S. market.
The world was slowly changing, and fishermen who dived the lobsters while also collecting conch and striking fish, were now earning top dollars, enough to “kick up some dust” at the local bars after their week long trips at sea.
Next, enterprising fishermen began learning to build traps, “crayfish pots,” and their collection of lobsters increased many times over. And, as they say, the rest is history. Soon, other fishing cooperatives were formed in San Pedro, Belize City and Placencia. The earnings of fishermen became such that they were no longer looked upon with scorn or sympathy as “los pobres;” fishermen were now making big money, building new homes, buying cars, enjoying the fruits of their labors, and the most successful were even being considered among the wealthy class.
While the 1960s and 70s saw the drive to nationhood for Belize, which realized our Independence in 1981, a lot had also changed in the eating habits of Belizeans. With the Mennonites launching the “frozen chicken” industry in the mid-1960s, the price of chicken had dropped significantly; whereas, with the high prices fishing cooperatives were fetching for lobster and conch and fish also on the international market, these commodities were becoming much more expensive for local consumers. By around the year 2000, when our fisherman friend was reminiscing on the good old days, seafood had become a delicacy, with high demand also from the growing tourism industry; and what was once a Sunday treat, chicken, had become an everyday affair, the cheapest source of protein on the dinner table for most Belizean households.
But our fisherman friend was not shedding any tears about the turn of events in the food line. He could still capture a piece of the seafood action from generous associates in the thriving fishing community. What bothered him most was the state of crime and violence, making the streets of Belize City no longer safe for galavanting fishermen, who had traditionally thought nothing of spending their couple days on shore after a long sea trip, “rackling bottles” in the various bars and night clubs until the wee hours of the morning. It was no longer safe to be staggering home alone, or to be suspected of carrying a large amount of cash in your pocket.
The world had changed. While the earning had increased tremendously for fisherfolk, and many Belizeans had anticipated great life improvements for everyone following Independence on September 21, 1981, things were becoming “dread” among a certain class of citizens; and by the turn of the century, we were reaping the bitter fruits.
In the slight drizzle on the night of Independence Eve in Belize City, Albert Street was alive and exciting with bustling crowds waiting for the flag raising ceremony; but a lively little gang of kids, not more than ten years old, dashed back and forth across the street in frenzied enthusiasm, brandishing their own brand of the new musical genre of dancehall rap, and their words were eerily premonitory of our current social predicament: “A gat noting fi eat; a gat noway fi sleep ….”, their words trailing off into the noisy crowds.
Our social scientists have a lot of material to cover, starting with the Belizean exodus to the U.S. which began in earnest after Hurricane Hattie in 1961, and continued thereafter until long after Independence, including the effects of a U.S. declared “Amnesty” in the early 1980s. The effect? Many splintered Belizean homes and a number of child victims. The Peaceful Constructive Belizean Revolution did not have these children in mind.
Television was indeed “like an army of ten thousand men,” as then PUP education minister Said Musa had warned. And, when the UDP took over in 1984 and the weed fields were burned, even as crack cocaine invaded, soon there was a gang problem in Belize, and the wayward, neglected children were ready to be recruited.
Before it got really bad, wise heads got together for a Crimes Commission in 1990 and again for a Political Reform Commission in 2000, with many great ideas and recommendations to halt this runaway crime and violence train. But our male government leaders have routinely cherry-picked what suited their motives to try and implement. And here we are in 2021. It is no longer just gang members killing each other in battles for turf; the problem has spilled over into the whole community, where even females, elderly males and young children with no gang affiliation are falling victims to gun violence.
In desperation, a large group of social partners got together and proposed a revolutionary move, the enacting of a Constitutional Assembly to draft a new Belize Constitution. No, our leaders will instead appoint a Constitutional Reform Commission, so that again they can cherry pick from their recommendations.
Our male leaders have consistently fallen down in their task of safeguarding the lives of the Belizean people and our assets; they have not acted like revolutionaries. They are not serious. They say they decriminalized weed but made selling it illegal for the small street corner hustlers who could not legally have more than ten grams; and the gang wars continued.
A female reporter braved the elements and brought all the visual details of the tragedy and outrage being committed to our precious watershed Chiquibul Forest Reserve. Silence from our leaders. Another female journalist goes deep into the Mayflower Bocawina National Park to expose the damage, destruction and illegal exploitation of our precious hardwood trees, and shares the pain and frustration of a park ranger whose words indict our political leaders: “…no one gives a damn but the park rangers!”
But, when all seems lost, and we’re sliding into the abyss, a woman gives us hope. A mother’s love knows no bounds. And when a Belizean mother has lost her innocent fifteen-year-old son to a reckless and callous gun-toting fool, and she can still say, “Belize noh gaan yet,” we all have to hang on to that hope. Maybe what Belize needs now is a woman prime minister to turn things around.