Impoverished perspectives

When we began planning this move to Belize, we knew sharing our decision would have to be well-and sensitively-timed. We knew to expect shock, disapproval and negativity. That wasn’t too surprising so we coached each other to see all the what-the-hell-are-yall-doin?-and-where-the-heck-is-Belize-anyway? responses as love in reverse. What the mouth spits is often a skewed way of avoiding what the heart wishes to say: We love you all…can you please stay near?

So we broke the news about a year before we actually left. We broke it after we sold our wonderful home (with the hardwood floors, three porches and fresh, fabulous paint job) and moved into an apartment. We broke the news to explain what some thought was insanity (“But I love your house! You’re selling it?!) and to give folks ample time to absorb the idea: The Tewogbolas were trippin’ all the way to Central America.

Some responses, though, shook us. Ones like, “Is Belize one of those places where things break and never get fixed?” or “Isn’t that a Third World country?” and – our favorite – “Be careful, man. I hear they have pirates in Belize!”

And there were the folks who insisted, despite our own research, that we couldn’t drive here. Somehow the thought of the U.S. being attached to other countries and, eventually, a whole ‘nother continent seemed geographically impossible.

But count it all love, right? What sounds like dissuasion is really a plea: Staaaaaaaay! Or perhaps it’s a query: Whhhhhhy? Why leave here? What can you possibly find out there?

Six months into our relocation, we’re less rattled by our loving friends and relatives. Now we’re inspired to consider the power of perspective.

Before we left a friend, who works as an anthropology professor, said she often returns to the States from research trips to India and excitedly shares photos with her friends. She shows shots of smiling children, vibrant textiles, verdant countryside. But her friends see none of that in her photography. All they see are bare feet, dirty linen and trash-filled fields.

Where she sees beauty and resilence, they see unsightly suffering.

Same picture; different perspective. Same scene; different lens.

I admit to being nervous about my mother and bonus father’s lens. They visited just after Azizah the Great (heeey, a mama has to swoon, true?) was born and I got deep into what one of my sister friend’s calls putting on the “Big Show.” I wanted to enchant them with signs of our good fortune. I wanted them to see we were safe and thriving in a country with other safe and thriving folks.

I did not want them to see bare feet. If they did, I worried, would they be able to see anything else? Luckily, my Alabama-raised mama (who heralds the great many uses of paper and leaves in an outhouse) and my Mississippi-based bonus father were unfazed. Turns out my own fears and lifelong need to appear healthy, wealthy and wise to my parents got the best of me. What really got them, though, were the folks who ride babies & toddlers, water jugs, rakes and weed wackers on their bikes – while sending text messages. Agility!

From what we know & see today, many of the neighborhoods around us do not have socio-economic barriers. There are zones of sheer opulence, yes. (Turrets, moats, private islands, security gates, central air, Range Rovers, stainless steel appliances, you name it) and there are zones with much less (glass-less windows, scrawny dogs, outdoor toilets, paper-littered yards, you name it). Still, many neighborhoods have both – big houses with basketball hoops next to small ones with sagging porches.

There is little illusion here; life and lifestyles are varied.

Several weeks after our arrival, our 7-year-old said, “I used to think that people who lived in small houses were P-O-O-R.” (She’s in that if-you-can-say-it-spell-it phase) “But now I just see them as houses.”

That comment came after a visit to a new friend’s home where chicken scurried across the dirt lawn and every structure appeared to be held together by plywood and prayer. Yemu ran right in the dust and began jumping rope with the other kids – some of them in bare feet.

She saw the feet but she also saw friends.

That’s the power of the lens. Can we see beyond a first glance? Is there any beauty to see in a family that lives in a shack? Or just struggle?

Is there anything to learn, to enjoy, to praise among people with less?

Is moving to a country where the average salary is below $20,000 US a year an act of romanticism? A la let’s-learn-something-deep-from-the-poor-people or can those people just be people…some with more, some with less, some with shoes, some without?

Can we witness how other people live without succumbing to pity or self-celebration? Is the sight of bare feet solely inspiration to look at your shoes and thank God for His favor?

Can we travel to new places and see different lifestyles without toting arrogance (“OhmyGOD! People live like this?!) or salvation (“What they need is Jesus!”) ?

Is happiness and fortune, abundance and blessings, gratitude and wealth only evidenced by Nine West and Hondas? 401Ks and cruises? Vera Wang and mini-mansions?

Can the look of living well actually be seen in bare feet and outdoor stoves? In clothing lines and bicycles? In street food and stilted houses?

Does the woman handwashing her clothes and burning the family’s trash feel she’s worthy of pity? Does she believe her life is destitute? Is there more to her picture than what she doesn’t have? Is there something to respect about what she does?

Someone pondered if we’re taking this trip to gain a romantic view of poverty. They figured this is an extension of our no-microwave-and-toaster-having-homeschooling-Birkenstock-wearing-apple-picking-farmers-market-and-tofu-family-values. This must be some strategy, they figure, to glorify simplicity – by living in the “Third World” in a place where some folks walk around without shoes. (Quick question: do you really have to travel miles from home to see folks struggling to make it? And what is “making it” anyway? Is it the same standard everywhere?)

And we won’t lie: life is not always easy here. There are beachfront condos, yes. The other day I saw a man leaning on the latest Lexus. There is luxury and there is lack. But there is more than either of those words can convey, too.

Where there is struggle, there is creativity, too. (Ever seen a railing made of pallets?)
Where there is stress, there is calm, too. (Ever seen someone survive midday heat by swinging in a threadbare hammock?)
Where there is crime, there is community compassion. (Ever heard of an organization that offers the respite of a sanctuary to a mother mourning her murdered child?)
Where there are limited finances, there is culinary wizardry. (Ever met a cook who can make 1,009 meals from flour, water, yeast, string beans, diced potatoes and onions?)
Where there are health hazards, there is help. (Ever met someone amped to share their skills and resources with someone who needs them because they believe they should? And because they know they can?)
Where there is life, there is curiosity. (Ever wonder if joy can exist without material comforts? Can you really know happiness if you have no car? Or medical insurance? Or money?)

Man, oh, man, we won’t lie to you: every snapshot of Belizean life is not about white sand and scuba or jet skis and yachts.

But here, under the Caribbean sun, there is so much more, so, so much more to see than bare feet.


Happy New Year from the ‘Bolas

Happy New Year friends and family! We welcome in 2011 with catch-up notes about our lives in Belize, Central America. It is about 6:30 a.m. as I write this. The sun is up, the clouds layer a blue sky and birds trill “Good Morning.” No mosquitoes or sand flies send my arms into propeller slaps so I am pleased. Of course, the girls, and Big Baba, are asleep – all of them, including the fourth wee one who joined the ‘Bolas 10 days ago, the dimpled cutie called “Azizah Grace.” (Then again, wouldn’t you be asleep if you awoke every 2-3 hours for 30 minutes of milky snacks?)

We have lived in Belize for nearly five months now. We have been here long enough to have friends to wave to as we drive down the main road of our neighborhood. We know the mailman well enough that he yells out , “Zeeeeee!” whenever he zips past Zuberi on his motorcycle. We know the principal at Zenani’s preschool well enough that we’ve driven over waterlogged roads to accept her invitation to a barbecue. I have enough new sisterfriends to have enjoyed a baby shower with a custom-made cake and, of course, the nerve-wracking don’t-cross-your-legs-arms-or-feet-or-say-the-word-baby clothespin game. We call our house “home.” We know the names of the folks who sell us our fresh fruits and vegetables. Slowly, slowly, we got people.

And we miss our people in the States too – those who know more about us than the fact that we’re from “States.” Those who know our nicknames, understand our humor and share our obsession with schedules and fast Internet service. Even though it is 83 degrees in January and we’re still rocking flip-flops and munching on melons, we miss our folks and the familiarity of home.

We miss people & things like: deli sandwiches slathered with Hellmann’s mayo; a sloppy, cheese-drippy slice of New York-style pizza; dancing at One Village; fizzy drinks at Red Robin; the clearance racks at Target; face-to-face talks and walks with homegirls in Barry Park; popping up at Muna’s house; Grey’s Anatomy on; swimming with the nieces, nephews and cousins; autumn leaves; shea butter from Khim & Wiley; apple picking; deeeeep conversations with Bro. J; running up Kimber Road; seventh-grade silliness with Gia; hanging with the Ogdens; attending free speeches at SU (Muhammad Yunus & Ben Carson among many); Indian lunch buffets (shout-out to Samrat)…

The girls miss: Titilayo; the indoor playground at Shoppingtown; swimming at Thornden Park, hanging out at Sis’ house; visiting at Uncle Carl and Auntie Zinga’s house; Pap-Pap at Nob Hill; Tillie & Jameelah; Maya High, our fabulous babysitter; Brother Mike, Sister Kathy and Bu-gee; all our family.

What they enjoy about Belize: Western Dairies Ice Cream; Jamboree’s Restaurant; Swimming at the YWCA; Vashni and Cecilia; Mikey; Tia; new “family”; Shopping for “Ideals”; Bicycling; Bliss Centre for the Performing Arts and playing in the sun.
Even as we develop routines and relationships, our lives here present daily freshness. This is why we came: to gain fresh perspectives on living; to embrace the comforts that grow from discomfort; to challenge our beliefs; to engage ideas about living with less stuff, less rush and more patience and simplicity and expose our daughters to a culture defined by melanin-rich multicultural heritage and pride.

Here are 10 of our most memorable of the past months:

1. We came here a family of five and now we are six. This is a wonderful time when Yemurai, 7; Asali, almost 5 and Zenani, almost 3, jostle to hold Azizah, burp Azizah and re-diaper Azizah. Zuberi even caught ‘Nani lifting her shirt and saying, “Azizah, you want some milk?” Ahhhhh, we pray this Azizah adoration lasts well into their teenage years. We are so thankful to have found Audrey Budd, an amazing midwife who came to our home on December 23, 2010 and helped Tasneem pussssssshhhh Azizah Grace Tewogbola into the world. She de firs ‘Bola Belizean fuh true mahn! Much respect.

2. Patience is our professor. Everyday opportunities find us with lessons in slowwwwwing our roll; reducing our speed and limiting our expectations. Everything takes about twice as long as our frenetic American minds imagine. And we’re learning that slow and steady will get us to wherever we’re headed just fine.

3. Long, dark hair means you’re Latino, right? And if you’re eyes slant, you’re Asian, yes? And if you have locks, you’re black, true? Not really. But – full of American insistence on race identification – we used to think so. While many Belizeans do have African, Mennonite, Mayan, Mestizo, Chinese and East Indian heritage, many use one common identifier: Belizean. So, what to do with our American tendency to label and stereotype? Ditch it and do what truly matters: get to know folks one-on-one.

4. Race Matters. One day, about two months into the first school term, Yemu approaches me with a question: “Mommy, why were all my teachers in Syracuse white?” Hmmm. We did not think our little Yemu had much race consciousness – those were our adult issues to wrestle. But here was our daughter wondering why, in Belize, her school administrators, teachers and classmates are all shades of brown. Here, she mirrors intelligence, professionalism, education and excellence. And she’s right: In Syracuse, despite the fact that her grandmother is a principal and I have worked as a teacher, few to none of her school teachers looked like her. We wonder: what is the impact of living in a community in which you are the “minority?” and the one whose hue carries the stain of American racism? And what will it mean to her to be in a country where the prime minister, minister of education, university president, cable guy, food vendors, tour guides, cyclists and poets – nearly everyone- all wear brown skin? This we know: we are thrilled that here her skin does not inspire assumptions of inferiority but endless possibility.

5. Fresh Fast Food. Not once have the girls mentioned missing McDonalds, Wendy’s or Burger King. They will ask for pizza every now and again but their new loves are local. Hook these kids up with some garnaches, salbutes, panades (all corn-based foods with various toppings such as cheese, beans, cabbage, tomatoes, chicken or fish) or burritos and they are snack-happy. They all – yes, even Zenani – know how to make fresh lime juice and their favorite junk foods are “Takis,” corn chips dusted with spicy seasonings that color their fingers red and “ideals” sugary drinks sold in plastic pouches. Bring chocolate in this house and it will vanish – trust. But they’ll do the same with pineapple slices too.

6. No more cocktail question. You know it, maybe even used it yourself. This is the query that follows a simple “hello” in the States: What do you do? We can count on one hand the number of times either of us have been asked anything about careers or academic pedigree. People mostly want to know why we chose to come to Belize. (A few folks have asked if we’ve chosen a church yet.) All else, we guess, are details and not the measure of our character.

7. The Croc. We live along a bay of brackish, brown water. It’s the kind of water you would imagine canoeing or kayaking or paddleboating in. But we don’t. We don’t do much more than toss fallen coconuts and branches in to see the splash. It’s cuz, deep in the water, occasionally rising to the surface, and seen only by the eyes of Zuberi and visiting in-laws is….a crocodile. So, we just look at the ripples in the water, birds flying low enough to wet their wings and the air bubbles of fish.

8. Living awe-natural. Other than the croc, we have other animals that remind us that we exist as a part of nature and not as a commander of it. Tony, the rust-brown iguana, (who Zuberi says is as big as a pitbull) and his grass-green homies greet us every day. They eat through our compost and let the girls get thissssss close before they escape into the water. Crews of stray dogs prowl the streets, howl at night and make a mess of our trash. Birds – in vibrant reds, yellows and white – whistle and sing all day…and all night long. Geckos scuttle across the ceilings and a couple of times baby frogs somehow leapt into our living room. We also have colonies of mosquitoes and sandflies biting to make our acquaintance every night.

9. Surviving Hurricane Ricky. On occasion we’ve read or seen footage of the power of Mama Nature but living through a hurricane is a humbling, fascinating, unifying experience. The winds from Hurricane Richard sounded like a moaning, wailing, saaaaad woman. “Ohhhhh, ahhhhhhhhhhhhh, ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” Some water crept under our doors but other homes along the sea were flooded with mud and silt. Our grieved the loss of electricity for three days but learned to count ourselves fortunate. Other folks had fly-a-way roofs, soaked beds and destroyed electronics. Two folks died (one from the storm; another from a storm-related jaguar attack) And this was only a Category One storm! We sent mental shout-outs to the survivors of Katrina. It takes fierce winds to remind us who is really in charge.

10. Libraries. Everyone who knows the Tewogs know the public library is their joint. Librarians greet Tasneem and the girls by name. They attend storytime, pajama storytime, craft time and movie time. We LOVE the library. And, yes, Belize has libraries. But we didn’t know to get a card you must get the signature of a notary (not a big deal; there’s one in the building) and – if you’re not a Belize national – pay $43 BZ/$21.65 US per card. Why? Because, as explained by the head librarian, so many foreigners come here and leave…with their books. Wow. It’s really not expensive, she said. And it’s refundable. Still. Belizeans pay $3BZ/$1.50 US for a card and just because I’m a “foreigner” I have to front more cuz I might leave the country with a book? Two things happened: I did not get a library card. (I’ve taken to re-reading everything on our shelves and my bonus father got me a Nook!) And I have an even deeper love for the libraries in Syracuse. Those were some good times.

2011 hits us with the spirit of Kujichagulia – the Kwanzaa principle of self-determination. How will we define ourselves this year? How will we work within our new community? How will we celebrate life and love? So far we pledge to work the power of intention and the necessity of prayer. We pledge to observe with open perspectives, to experience with enjoyment, to learn with humility and live with gratitude and wonder. All praises to the Creator who lifts our wings. Amen & Ashe!

Another side of Paradise

Relaxing at River House Lodge on the Sittee River

This is for the haters. And the lovers, too. For those who imagined our death and devastation on Mexican roads. And for those who envisioned us sunning beachside. This is also for me because don’t we all have a bit of hater and lover in us? Parts of us that lounge in illusion and dwell in fear?

Our lives here are real ones, not solo-steeped in fantasy or fright. There is sun and fierce hurricane winds. There is kindness – the kind of kindness that inspires suspicion and inquiry: Am I ever this nice? – and rude xenophobia. There are amazing sunsets and chirping mornings, moonlit loneliness and nights buzzing with blood-hungry insects. There is paradise and there is not.

This morning finds us on the Sittee River. It’s a still, seemingly motionless ribbon of olive green. Surely life teems below its calm surface. We slept at the River House Lodge, the only guests. It is us, a Canadian manger named Cheryl, a Belizean tour guide named Lucky and two dogs about the place. Palm and orange trees artfully dot the yard. They have an indoor pool! And a full riverside view. It is serene…and it’s a bit like camping. A strange woodsy smell in the room. (Praise God for mosquito coils – our new gotta-have staple) that disappears when we light the earthy incense of repellent. There are beds with thick floral duvets. A simple sink. Portable fridge. Staple cutlery.

And the cool air of a Belizean cold front.

We came to witness the celebration of Nov. 19 – Garifuna Settlement Day, a national holiday. It commemorates the day brave, determined Garifuna sailed to Belize after being kicked out of St. Vincent (where they traveled in the 1400s as seafaring, trading West Africans) by the British and Spanish Honduras by the Spanish. They came to Belize as Africans who were never enslaved; about 2,000 arrived as “free blacks.” The white slave owners in Belize did their best to ostracize them from the enslaved Africans. They called them wild “devil-worshippers.” They made Garifuna slink indoors after 6 p.m. They convinced the African Kriol that their brethren were war-like and a different kind of black. Today, the Garifuna celebrate their culture with radiating pride. Zuberi drove the Tewog crew two hours from home to feel some of that pro-African love.

The rain sent folk huddling under tents in Dangriga. It didn’t keep others in Hopkins from drumming on the beach. Of course the Atlantic beckoned the girls. They dipped their feet, wet their bottoms and enjoyed the water even on a gray day. We tried hudut, a traditional meal of pounded sweet plantain and fish stewed in coconut milk. We also chomped on fists of fried fish, drank strange-flavored sugar drinks and tortilla chips.

Indecision gripped us: Where is the party? Where do we find it? What’s going on? Zuberi made a great point: our American-ness makes us hunger for schedules, event lists and formal organization. Popping up wherever the drum sounds and buying meals from the roadside pots push us from our comfort zones into a “get-in-where-you-fit-in” mode. I am uncomfortable with it, Zuberi is waaay more adventurous.

Then we arrived here. In the quiet. Expected. Somewhat on schedule (“Oh, just pay when you get here,” advised Cheryl, the Canadian) The roads between this lodge and Ladyville were mostly good but when they were bad, they were horrid. A somewhat solution for those nearly nine months pregnant: Place one leg under your butt and pray your leg absorbs most of the jostling. Also: Praise the Guut Lawd every four minutes for the majesty of the amniotic sac that can protect life even while bouncing up and down, up and down along a road pitted with potholes.

The girls & Baba swam in the chilly indoor pool. We drank a pineapple grapefruit drink. We got the Belizean rate because we live here, in Belize! Cheryl made us French fries and popcorn. We all watched “Holes” and survived 30 minutes of the sexualized- potty humor of “The Nutty Professor.” We all zonked out by 8:30 p.m. Unfortunately, so did the mosquito coils. Zenani fell off the bed. My belly shook with discomfort. We all rose by 6 a.m.

A traditional Belizean breakfast awaits us at 8 a.m.: Scrambled eggs, mashed black beans, fry jack (Belizean beignets) and freshly-squeezed fruit juice.

Before then, we’ll slide on galoshes and walk around this jungly, rainforesty place. We’ll let the dogs bark and run around us. We will slap morning mosquitoes and sand flies, sleuthing for breakfast. We will stare at the Sittee as though it’s the only river we’ve ever seen. Zenani will insist she sees crocodiles. Yemu and SaSa may marvel at the greenish oranges on the trees. Zuberi may be landlocked with sneakers on.

We will do what ‘Bolas do: make the best of it all in this place that is paradise – and not.

And then we’ll head back to Dangriga and follow the sound of the drums.

yes i can swim


Asali enjoying the water in Placencia


Trying to Stay Cool

Settling in CD Victoria Hotel

Zenani meets a new friend at CD Victoria restaurant

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