“Lions and Leos…”

We were invited to the Belize Lion’s Club dinner by our landlady and her husband. We didn’t know, until we arrived there, that she is the president of the club. From 16 clubs in Belize they’re down to four: Belmopan, Belize City, San Pedro, San Esteban. There’s been a convention all day, some of the discussions contentious, evidently.

While I managed to avoid having a Guinness in Northern Ireland, I’m not so lucky here, but I’m also grateful when I can find a lighter beer. I try the local brew, Belikin, for the first time and like it. It’s a warm, friendly crowd, and we’re served a delicious dinner. And introduced to the local custom of greeting people with the phrase, “Good night.”

Which works in Spanish but not in English. Yet there are strict rules for polite greetings in Belize, and they are observed even among strangers on the street: Good morning until noon; good afternoon until 3 or 4 pm; good evening after than; good night when it is dark.

Some people fudge the times a bit.

Each Lion’s Club has a queen, and the queen from the host club becomes the District 59 queen, so Miss Belize City will become the new queen. The girls are beautiful, and decked out in gorgeous gowns. They have each created fancy pins with their photographs, and the custom is to pin them on as many guests as possible by the end of the evening. T. and I are impartial, and accept pins from everyone who offers one, so we end up festooned with three of the four available pins.

Our collection of pins from the dinner.
Our collection of pins from the dinner.

The talent show starts out predictably enough, with a dance performance. Next comes a speech about the border conflict between Belize and Guatemala, and the conflicts and borders we create among ourselves — which links the decine in Lions membership and activity to petty conflicts and the inability to the members to communicate with one another. It was bold, I thought, and inspiring, that this young woman would confront her elders so openly.

A poetic, lyrical performance by a truly leonine woman followed, stalking the stage as if she herself were a caged lion, professing her commitment to the values of service, to this community within her country in which she had been brought up. Yet all of these are far too small to contain her power.

She talked about her hair, starting out with the statement, “My mother told me to fix my hair. By which she meant to straighten it.” She started with these words. And dissected the levels of meaning inherent in them, what her hair represents of her heritage, of the mixture of races, African slaves and Maya and Caucasian.

But what does that even mean, that hair texture and skin color have come to “mean” something, when we know that race is constructed? It means that she is encouraged to date lighter, not darker, to purify her blood, and I am taken back to a day when I am perhaps 14, my own hair long and curly and wild from a day outside in the sun and the pool and the humidity of the southern Arizona monsoon season, dressed in cut-off Levi’s 501s, and one of my father’s t-shirts, deeply tanned, very thin, a woman’s body hiding a girl who was afraid of the attention afforded to that body. And my mother’s bitter words when I entered the house: “Go do something with that nigger hair.”

A decade later and 2,000 miles away I am living with and engaged to an African-American man, a relationship my family would not accept. And so I ended the relationship, as I had straightened my hair, to please them. To conform.

And ended up alone.

I have only half the hair I once did; cancer treatments took the rest. But I revel in the days when my hair still curls wildly, am grateful for the effects of salt water and ocean breezes.

The final speech of the evening was delivered in the first person, in the form of a letter written after her own death by a dancer at a Belize club to her lover. To let him know why she had never come home, why she had simply disappeared. Telling how the bus had been late that night, and she had made the decision to walk home, the decision that had delivered her to her death. Sensing the presence behind her. Turning to meet the man who would chain her to an iron table, duct tape over her mouth, and begin to vivisect her body. Sliding in and out of consciousness. Understanding, in the moment when she realized she no longer had legs, that her life was over.

The duct tape off her mouth, warned not to scream as he began again to work with his knife, starting the incision at the side of her face. He told her he would kill her if she screamed. She could no longer stand the pain. The knife came toward her head, not to slit her throat, as she assumed, but to cut out her tongue. Her last memory would be drowning. She would die by drowning in her own blood.

I was older than her, at least 25, before I knew about snuff films and understood the more extreme forms of sadism and sexual violence in our world. The woman who delivered this speech is 19, dressed in an elegant white dress and rhinestone tiara. She is poised and graceful.

I wished so much that she did not know, did not have to know, of this violence against women in this world; that she did not have to know that this is the fate that awaits so many women in this world, to have their lives ripped open, sliced apart, that literally or figuratively they will end up in chains, their bodies and their spirits dissected, until they drown in their own feeble protests.

By all that is sacred in this world I wish she did not have to know that.

©2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced or used in any manner without permission of the author.


“…and my husband is in prison here…”

One afternoon, waiting for the bus, I walked over to the front doors of the Belize Central Prison to take a photograph of the wood carvings. A Caucasian woman was waiting on the visitor bench — the first Caucasian I had seen there. I suspect she is much younger than she looked; she had blue wool braided and woven into her blond hair and started to speak to me with the flat vowels of the Midwest as I was pointing my camera at the door.

What follows here is as close to verbatim as I could capture the conversation.

“It’s great that you appreciate the woodwork,” she said. “They all live with it all the time, so they don’t even notice it. My brother is in prison in the States in Minnesota and my husband is in prison here.”

“How long is he in for?” I asked.

“Maybe up to three years. Well, you know how nobody in this country claims their true identity until they absolutely need to? And see, he was applying for a passport and they ran his real name and found an old drug charge from 2008 and between Monday morning and Monday afternoon he was brought to the prison. But we’re hoping to appeal, because he wasn’t physically served, and I know the rules about that, because I’ve done lots of that kind of work. And he didn’t have any representation. So if his appeal goes through, he’ll only serve one year instead of three. I’m here today to pick up his baseball cap and shirt. I had the trip planned already, and there wasn’t any point in changing my plans because there wasn’t anything I could do for him by arriving a week earlier.

“My brother is going to parole soon but I don’t know if I am going to go up to receive him because he can’t parole to my house, because he paroled to my house last time, and you can’t parole to the same family home in 10 years. So he needs to go somewhere else, and he might have found someone else to receive him, but I don’t know if he can live there.”

“Why are you here?” she asked. I explained that we were teaching a course in the prison. I didn’t give a lot of details.

“I think the work you guys are doing is awesome, but I can’t do anything like that, because of this tatoo (a green shark on her neck), and when they see it they say I’m in a gang, and I say, yeah, a gang of one, but it’s a shark, and it’s above the collar, so I can’t teach in prison. It was supposed to be a larger tatoo, a small green shark with a larger pink shark curved around it but I had a horrible reaction to the green ink, it’s because of what they put in it, my neck swelled out to her (holding her hand about five inches from her neck, which was still well within the crown of her braids) and so I never had the other shark done. But I’m hoping to tutor some Belizeans in English, not to take away Belizean jobs, but American English, so they can compete for American jobs. I have an associate’s degree in sales and marketing so I’ve had all those English classes and such.”

At that point, the bus pulled up, and we boarded.

I never saw her again, and have no idea what happened to her husband. I do know she never receieved his baseball cap.

Below: Detail from the doors at the Belize




©2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced or used in any manner without permission of the author.

The Gang(s) That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

The shootout on Vernon Street was in the news the next day. It was reported that both of the boys, the shooter and his intended victim, were in custody, though the police had not been able to find the gun; that it was a personal dispute; that they were trying to mediate the dispute.

And for a few days, things seemed quiet in the neighborhood.

But then a women in our parents’ class arrived visibly shaken one evening. She had been in the funeral procession for a friend who had died, and, luckily for her, had moved away from where she had been standing to talk to someone else. While they were still lined up on the sidewalk, waiting to enter the church, an SUV pulled up, and someone started shooting. The grandson of the man who had died was shot in the head. A few moments earlier, she had been standing next to him.

She skipped the funeral and came to class.

When we returned home, M. had messaged my phone, wondering if we were OK. She had heard that someone had been shot in the head on Vernon Street, and was checking to be sure it wasn’t one of us.

And she commented that this was going to light up the gang war even more.

Sure enough, over the next few days, the newspapers report daily retaliatory shootings. The funeral shooting happened on a Thursday. On Friday, a 15-year-old walked into the courtyard of the Queen’s Street police station and opened fire, trying to kill the shooter, but hitting four other people instead, including a pregnant staff member and a police officer.

More shootings on Saturday, and on Sunday someone fired 19 shots into a crowd, trying to hit one person.

Putting aside the larger issue of the gang wars, the biggest problems, in my opinion, is that no one here is a very good shot. Including the police. There are a bunch of children running around this city with automatic weapons, and no one taught them how to shoot.

They literally can’t shoot straight.

The church where the funeral shooting occurred is on the same street as the building where we teach. We are scheduled to teach a CBCT class for the teachers at the school affiliated with the church.

We know we are not targets of the violence. In fact, we have been told that we are off-limits for the gangs in the neighborhood. I don’t take this seriously until we are having a conversation with some of the guys in our adult class at the prison, and one of them is talking about some things in our neighborhood, and I ask him, “Where do you think we live?”

And he tells me. He knows which street, which house, that we live upstairs. He has been in prison for 17 years, and he knows all of this. And tells me not to worry.

So, unless we do something stupid, like walking around wearing a bunch of jewelry (which I don’t have) or flashing a bunch of cash (don’t have that, either) we’re fine.

Except there is this wee small problem of stray bullets, and the very real possibility of becoming collateral damage.

Our plan had always been that T. would depart Belize on July 12, for a pre-existing family commitment, and that I would stay until the end of the month to finish the class for the teachers and to offer some ongoing classes for parents and at the prison.

I am grateful when T. gives voice to the concerns that are mounting in my own head and heart.

“I don’t think it’s safe for you to stay on here after I leave,” he said one night.

“I know,” I replied. “I don’t think I can go into the prison alone. And I can’t walk home alone at night.”

“It isn’t even safe for you to go to that school in the day. The funeral was in broad daylight.”

And then we try to think of all the ways we can make it work. I could stay, and take taxis everywhere I need to go, and just stay at home when I don’t absolutely have to go out? Or maybe we can reschedule the class for the teachers, do it on a more intensive schedule, and complete it before T. departs?

We suggest this, and Tina, our partner for that part of the project, tries to make it work. But we’re cutting into vacation time for the teachers, and registration is low.

Reluctantly, we agree with Tina that we should cancel the class.

I am deeply disappointed by this. I was looking forward to working with her foundation, and looking forward to working with the teachers, who are stressed, like most teachers, and need support.

And I had thought that, with a lighter teaching load for the last couple of weeks of my stay, I would have time to hop on buses and explore the country.

But this isn’t a country that an American woman should wander around on her own. I will soon find out why.

©2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be used or reproduced in any manner without permission of the author.


Things I have seen in Belize

I will describe to you what T. and I saw two nights ago, coming home from an Indian restaurant. We turned the wrong way down a one-way street/alley downtown, and in our headlights, before T. did a quick three-point turn to get us out of there, we observed the following:

Man A was handing a large, silver-colored, gun-shaped piece of metal to Man B. Man B was handing a large wad of cash to Man A.

Please note that I did not say that we observed a weapon sale. That is an interpretation. I am only reporting what we observed. And if I were to be questioned, I would report what everyone in Belize reports: I saw nothing.

But we have seen some of the things that tourists see, so here are some pretty pictures of Belize, the side of Belize that people here want you to know about:

The inland Blue Hole. Refreshing swimming spot on our drive south.
The inland Blue Hole. Refreshing swimming spot on our drive south.
The beautiful beach at Placencia.
A tapir investigating me with its wiggly snout. The zoo here is very nice, and only has local animals, most of them rescues who couldn’t survive on their own in the wild.
A better view of the tapir. There’s a tapir crossing on the way to the prison, and we drove carefully through several tapir crossings on the highway.
I didn't realize the toucan's bill is serrated.
I didn’t realize the toucan’s bill is serrated.
Grouchy George, the alpha male iguana at the Iguana Conservation Project in San Ignacio. We were able to hold and feed the iguanas, but not George. As a bonus, we saw a full-sized, six-foot long wild iguana in a tree.
Caye Caulker

© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced or used in any manner without permission from the author.

Over the Line

During one of our lunch breaks, we scan the Journey to Freedom books in the women’s dorm. And in Week 24, in a chapter on Reformation vs. Transformation, we come across a key passage. The author is talking about trading in one addiction for another (reformation) as compared to giving up addictions altogether (transformation) which is done by following the path that Christ has set out for us.

Some of the examples of reformation: a person might give up overeating, and take up yoga instead; a person might give up an addiction to television and substitute an addiction to meditation.

Now we get it. The key program taught in this prison, sponsored by Christians from the U.S., teaches that yoga and meditation aren’t transformative practices, just second-rate substitutions for even worse addictions.

No wonder so few people at the prison have embraced CBCT. I know that the open-minded people who have participated fully in the course have gained from it, and I am grateful that we have made a difference in their lives.

Yet it is clear that no one in the prison administration reviewed the materials I sent about the curriculum, or thought about the potential conflict with the other programming they provide, and I am deeply angry about that. Part of my anger stems from the fact that we could have spent more time with the other partners we are working with, deepening our programming with their organizations.

Part of my anger stems from the fact that I have been lied to about this project, every step of the way.

This is happening within the larger context of ongoing ugliness from people who were supposed to be helping us — ugliness that has now led to a place where we are unsafe.

I have a foolproof method for dealing with electronic temper tantrums: the delete button on my keypad. And that’s how I handle the nasty emails and messages I receive from people who don’t like what I am writing about Belize.

In my opinion, people who spew hatred in emails and text messages are communicating a great deal about their own current state of mind, and not much at all about anything else.

But then someone crosses the Rubicon. An email arrives that contains a threat.

I realize this communication comes from a privileged, spoiled woman who is accustomed to getting her own way in life by throwing around her family’s name and money. She’s certainly not the first such person I’ve encountered, and I doubt she will be the last.

I understand, as well, that she is not accustomed to having boundaries placed on her behavior.

She has now run up against a very firm boundary: No one is going to tell me what I can or cannot write.

I am not going to be silenced by a bully.

I can handle the challenges and will put up with the  environmental threats of working here. But I won’t tolerate a threat to my safety or well-being. So I make sure that key people in the U.S., people with power and influence, know that we have been threatened, have copies of the email, and know who is responsible.

T. and wish we were the kind of people who can blithely walk away from their commitments (and find some way to blame someone else for what they didn’t do). If we were such people, we would have gotten on a plane and gone home the second day we were here. But we’re not, and we’re going to do what we came here to do. We left extra time in our teaching schedule to allow for the unpredictability of teaching in prisons and outside of our own culture. So we have plenty of time to cover the curriculum for the classes we are teaching.

We have had to cancel one of our classes, because of the violence in Belize City. More about that later.

We funded this work ourselves, with the generous help of our friends. We are getting nothing in return for six weeks of work — six weeks we could have devoted to other projects, six weeks we could have been earning substantial money at home. We expected nothing in return for our work, except to see if the CBCT program might be helpful in this country with its many daunting challenges.

But I guess I did have one expectation: that I would not be subjected to interpersonal violence, along with the environmental violence.

And so, on a Sunday morning, while we are waiting for the bus home from the grocery store, I observed myself making a mental shift: I was no longer sorry to be leaving.

When we returned to our apartment, I started packing.

If don’t know if I will ever return to Belize. If you asked me to make a decision today, my answer would be, absolutely not.

I’m ready to go home.

This trip is costing us a huge amount of money. If you’re in a position to help us offset the costs, please visit this site: https://www.youcaring.com/teri-sivilli-and-tom-comstock-542222

Many thanks.

This quote from the Buddha appeared on the exit door of the Belize Central Prison. We have not seen any other quote that is not from the Christian Bible. I found the timing interesting: it was not there when we arrived in the morning, but was there when we departed in the afternoon. This happened after I was told to be careful about what I write about the prison, and yet continued to write honestly about my experiences.
This quote from the Buddha appeared on the exit door of the Belize Central Prison. We have not seen any other quote that is not from the Christian Bible.                                                                                           
       I found the timing interesting: it was not there when we arrived in the morning, but had appeared by the time we departed in the afternoon. This happened after I was told to be careful about what I write about the prison, and yet continued to write honestly about my experiences. It’s a threat. And it’s a threat that is not going to intimidate us.

© 2016 Teresa I. Sivilli. All rights reserved. No part of this material can be used or reproduced in any way without permission of the author.