|The Courier N° 152 - July - August 1995 - Dossier: NGO's - Country Reports: Belize, Malawi (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)|
The Queen's representative in Belize is Sir Colville Young, a poet, musician and intellectual who pot litely greets the visitor with a permanent and completely natural smile. He is the Governor-General, representing the Crown in Belize. He is so affable that you continually have to remind yourself of the position this man holds. He, in the meantime, does his utmost to make you forget it.
His humility matches Belmopan, the modest capital, and his language harmonises with these calm surroundings. Sir Colville appears to be at ease in his comfortable, but not excessively luxurious, official residence, although he would appear just as comfortable, one imagines, in an even more modest setting.
A half-hour session is frustrating when you do not want to conduct an interview but rather to allow your interlocutor free rein. It is all the more frustrating when you rapidly discover that what he has to say is really worth listening to. And all the while, he makes it clear that he is quite prepared to listen to you.
Given his reputation as a connoisseur of his country's culture, the simplest thing was to ask him what constituted culture in Belize-a nation of 200 000 inhabitants divided into innumerable groups originating from all quarters. His calm replies are punctuated with the modest 'l believe ...', an expression characteristic of those who, in fact, know.
Each group still speaks its own language; the Chinese speak Chinese, the Mayas speak Mayan, the Garifuna speak Garifuna and so on. The lingua franca, however, is Creole, the tongue which emerged from the interbreeding of Europeans and Africans. It has become the common language of communication- an example of something originating in one group which has been accepted by everyone. There is also a degree of commonality in eating habits: the typically Creole dish, 'rice and beans' is eaten everywhere. So too is goat meat, which was originally 'Spanish' (brought by the mestizos). The empanada, a maize flour patty, is also widely consumed. As Colville Young puts it, 'there is thus an intermixing of our cultures'.
Unfortunately, this intermixing does not extend to matters of religion. There are a number of indigenous rituals, for example, when the Garifuna celebrate their settling in Belize, but generally there is little 'native' input, and European religions predominate. 'I think that is a great pity' says the Governor General. He continues, 'although the Bible's message has remained the same, the way in which the message is passed on, and the medium, could have been adapted throughout the world. For example, here, there could have been a Belizean approach, after the fashion of certain countries where music and local rhythm also play a part.'
The predominant religion is Catholicism, which may seem surprising for a former British colony. When the English first arrived, the religion was obviously Anglican, with a little Methodism thrown in. The trend towards Catholicism was natural, however, given the large numbers of immigrants who arrived subsequently from Mexico and other neighbouring countries and who all helped to forge the nation. The newcomers often came to escape political systems against which they had revolted or revolutions which had got out of hand. And as Mr Young observed, 'despite the fact that we were living under a colonial system, which was intrinsically bad, they appreciated the stability and peace of this small country.'
Immigrants do not pose problems of integration for the simple reason that they resemble and speak like a sizeable part of the population which is of the same stock. The people living in the North and West of the country were also originally from Mexico and Central America. In addition, those who arrive want to become Belizean. 'I am pleased about that,' says the Governor-General.
'They are loyal to Belize'. Immigrants tend to have little schooling and they accept very low wages. With unemployment rife, this causes friction, but there is not the same type of tension as in France, for example, between the local population and Algerians or other foreigners. But, as our interviewee wryly observed, 'when our people go to the United States, they face problems of prejudice, and this opens their eyes'.
Admittedly, Belize is not very well known abroad. The Governor-General agrees that it does little to advertise itself, but then, the country does not have sufficient infrastructure to receive large numbers of tourists He thinks it could be a mistake for Belize to sell itself too well- people would want to come and there would be nowhere to accommodate them. Also, too many tourists might destroy the simple way of life while, in environmental terms, species such as alligators and some birds might not be able to withstand too great an intrusion onto their territory.
By contrast, bringing tourists into closer contact with the people and through them, with the country, in a regulated way, could perhaps be promoted. This would provide some income for individual citizens instead of all the profits going to big companies.
All the contributions made by different groups have been melded together to forge a culture. It may appear to be threatened by Americanisation through the medium of television, amongst other things, but Colville Young 'believes that' the local culture is strong enough to resist, although he admits he does not know for how long or at what level. American culture, he observes, has made inroads everywhere, even in Russia where hamburgers are now commonplace. One of the reasons why American culture is infiltrating more and more into Belize, apart from the fact that approximately 60 TV channels are received there, is that tens of thousands of Belizeans live in the United States, where they have gone in search of better opportunities. When they return to Belize, these people import a lifestyle which seduces those who remained: these expatriates have an air of success about them and the USA thus acquires the image of being a paradise.
However, in country areas, tales and myths are still very much alive and these have not been diluted by American influences. 'We have to make a major effort to keep our myths, proverbs, traditional healing methods, dances, arts and artisans alive and well', says Colville Young. But who is to do this ? Sometimes, people think that it should be the government, but is it a good idea for it to interfere too much in cultural matters? On the other hand, if everyone wants someone else to deal with the problem, nothing will ever be done.
Approximately ten years ago, Colville Young wrote a stage play based on a Belizean story. In a sense, it was more like a short opera, including music that he composed himself. He sees this as his own modest contribution to this work of regrouping local culture which has to consist of using the country's legends in all areas of life. Even television could be used to this end.
The Queen's man in Belize has not only made this contribution to the defence of national culture: he has also written, published and recorded stories, a collection of proverbs, songs, traditional music and books of poems. The most recent was published in 1993 and was entitled 'From one Caribbean Corner'. It begins with a delightful composition in memory of Bob Marley in which he addresses the dead star thus:
'(...Beat for 1)
Mixing ingredients of your protest
Like pepper-hot bitterly bubbling:
Of an evil Babylon burning
And haunted haunting melodies
Where shanty-town black children
Bite in emptiness
Of bloated bellies that wondering
If throat cut above
And, under it all
The driving pulse
(O. Beat man, reggae-man, beat for 1)'
In a spontaneous gesture, Sir Colville Young gave us his book of poems, dedicating it with the simple words 'From Colville'. He is certainly a man of rhythm and style.