In addition to teaching at the prison on Mondays and Wednesdays, we’re scheduled to teach two additional classes, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One is for parents in a disadvantaged neighborhood, riddled with gang violence. The other is to be for teachers at a school in that same neighborhood.
It turns out they’re talking about our neighborhood. Walk up the Boulevard to the grocery store, turn right, and then, oddly, there’s a dirt road on the right, with two policemen stationed there.
The Bloods, The Crips, and The Mayflower Gang have been at war with each other for years.
I’m still not sure if we live on the Bloods side of the Boulevard, or the Crips side of the Boulevard. Or if Bloods and Crips live on both sides of the Boulevard. But we sure know where Mayflower (aka Ghostown) is.
On Thursday afternoon, the day after our first prison classes, we meet with Deborah from the Love Foundation. She and I had been in touch via Skype, and we’re happy to finally meet in person. She’s warm, and a savvy leader. At the foundation offices, she introduces us to Karl, the unofficial mayor of the Mayflower neighborhood — the “worst” neighborhood in Belize City. We talk about the issues confronting the population, and she asks if we’re willing to take a tour. Of course we are. I ask if it would be offensive if I take photographs, and Karl assures me it won’t be. I immediately like these people, and have confidence in them. I’m happy to be working with them.
It’s not the worst slum T. or I have seen. We’ve both spent a lot of time in India. Most of the people live in something that could be called a house, and most of those have electricity and indoor plumbing. But there are unpaved roads, dirt lanes barely wide enough for one person, amidst houses that are constructed on top of another, too close for comfort, separated only by rusted corrugated iron sheets.
Our class comprises mostly women, and a few men, mainly, but not exclusively, from Mayflower. And they don’t get along. There are several sub-groups; we identify three the first night and will identify more as the course goes on.
The women have a lot in common: Poverty. Only two of them are employed. Low educational levels (they read at about a sixth grade level, on average). Babies, but no men in the house. There are only two intact families in an area with 250 people.
One of the women who is employed, who has an associate’s degree, applied for numerous positions but was turned down for all of them as soon as she had to give her address to her potential employer. No one wants to hire someone who lives in Mayflower. Finally a woman at her school, who had been mentoring and encouraging her, put in an application at a bank on the girl’s behalf. In the interview, the young woman gave a fake address, and was hired.
And then she got a promotion, and there came a point where she could no longer hide her address. She expected to be fired. She wasn’t. It’s a huge step forward.
And yet, instead of coming together around their common challenges, the people in this neighborhood have found ways to create divisions among themselves. There’s hope that what we are teaching will open a bit of a crack in that, and also that we might identify some people who themselves could become teachers, or peer leaders.
The politician responsible for the area, who is well-funded to do community redevelopment, has stated publicly that he does not need the votes of these people to stay in office, and so he does not care about them or how they live. This is a man with a sixth-grade education, who worked as a laborer before he was elected. But now he is wealthy, having accumulated a real estate empire while in office.
T. and I arrive a few minutes early for our second class with this group; we’re scheduled to teach from 5 to 7 pm. We’re setting up, chatting, when we hear the gunshots. Close. Move to the window to see if we can figure out where they’re coming from. See a teenager running through the church yard next to our classroom building. And then we see the gun. He’s chasing someone, and firing, and the police are chasing him and firing. We dive for the floor behind a concrete wall.
We’re laughing, partly to release the fear and tension, partly because this is just so ludicrous: we’re here to teach a compassion meditation course, and we’re lying on the floor of our classroom dodging stray bullets.
The shooter disappears into the twisted shrubbery at the edge of the church yard.
More police. And a TV camera. The police back up a shiny blue pickup truck to the fence, and make a big show of climbing over the fence to get into the church yard — instead of walking through the open gate 20 feet away.
For one brief moment, before we hit the floor, I had thought about grabbing the GoPro, and filming the whole thing. Then I realized that I wouldn’t want any of these people — not the shooter, not the police, not the neighbors — to know that I had that footage.
Fewer than a third of our students show up for class. We check in with them, ask how they are feeling. Everyone says they are fine, until I admit that I am shaky. And then others acknolwedge that they are, too. We do some meditation to center and calm everyone. They ask us if we’re too afraid to keep teaching the class. We assure them we’ll be back.
And they ask if they can leave early, because the power has been cut to the neighborhood, and they don’t want to walk home in the dark. Not tonight. It seems it’s customary for the police to cut the power when there’s a shooting. Makes perfect sense to me. You’re looking for a shooter and his intended victim, and a gun that’s been hidden somewhere, and it’s so much easier to find people and guns in the dark. And besides, you get to inconvenience the residents of an entire neighborhood. Including us, because no electricity means no water pressure.
This is a little more than we signed up for. We truly weren’t prepared to have The Shoot-Out at the OK Corral re-enacted in front of our classroom building.
We still haven’t seen the beautiful part of Belize. But now we’ve seen the dangerous part. And suddenly I realize how vulnerable I am.
© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be used or reproduced, in any form, without permission of the author.