From a Ghetto Brownstone to a Jungle Brown Hut
An enduring image that signaled the end to the Vietnam War was the rooftop landing of a helicopter evacuating Americans from Saigon. It was April of 1975. Halfway around the world, I began my Peace Corps service in Belize, Central America. Looking back more than 25 years ago, those two seemingly short years spent in the Peace Corps are undoubtedly, some of the most important and rewarding years of my life.
Fresh out of junior college, I longed for an opportunity to travel, to meet new people, to experience new cultures and to apply my skills as an apiculturist. By joining the Peace Corps, I fulfilled all those things and more. According to my Peace Corps job description, I was to be stationed in the southernmost portion of Belize, the Toledo District. Moreover, I was going to live in the rural village of San Antonio among Mayan Indians. The ancient Mayan civilization were empire builders in Mesoamerica and were the first beekeepers in the New World. Ironically, 1,200 years later, this young African-American from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn would be teaching the Mayans how to raise the European honeybee.
Shortly after arriving in Belize City, some of the new Volunteers in my group became apprehensive about staying. Their trepidation concerned the country, their proposed jobs and even their own commitment. My only lament was to learn that some Volunteers would be living in Victorian style homes in the city, whereas I was slated to live in a thatch hut in the rainforest. Imagine, going from a ghetto brownstone to a jungle brown hut. Two years later, however, I could say that I was not cheated, but rather it was I who had received dividends from the experience. During my entire tenure it seemed I received special treatment by the host country nationals, perhaps as much for my work ethic as it was for my being an African-American.
Belize has many ethnic groups, represented by people of African, Hispanic, Asian and Indian decent. To the Mayans, I later discovered, I looked to be Creole but I confused them with a distinctive “Brooklyn” accent. For weeks on end, many of San Antonio’s villagers did not believe that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. The only Peace Corps Volunteers the Mayans ever knew or saw had been Caucasian Americans.
Perhaps it matters little that the Mayans and I accomplished more than expected. We increased the number of beehives in the country five-fold, built a honey processing plant and exported tons of honey to England. Never lost was the fact that the Mayans now had a new dependable cash crop to purchase seed, soap and kerosene.
Still, some of my fondest memories are of the Mayan children who would come to my village extension office in droves and inquire about every conceivable thing on my desk. I can still hear the short staccato sounds of their Mopan language, "Qua bail teck Mista Hendree?" "That’s a magnifying glass," I would explain and then proceed to demonstrate. "Qua a bail ada Mista Hendree?" "That’s a label maker," I would say, then spend an hour or so making everyone a label of their name. But the most amusing recollection of all was when one of those kids picked up my calculator, and started to peg away at the buttons as the whole group of seven watched and giggled. Peering over at the calculator’s display, I had to say, "Oh...let me turn it on for you." These were just a few of the thousands of vignettes that personify the Peace Corps experience. It includes the kind of discourse and disbelief surrounding a brightly lit night sky, and my assertion that men walked on the moon. And about the time I wished for and told the toiling women who were washing clothes in the green tea of a river about a time-saving device called a washing machine, only to be asked, "Do hands come out?"
I was the outsider let in, a confidante, a translator of technological mumbo-jumbo, an unraveler of red tape, an advance man for the nation’s Premier, and a friend the Maya called Mr. Hendree. I do not know if it was from growing up in Bed-Stuy or if it was from my village in the Mayan mountains that I came to realize one is content until he sees better, one isn’t appreciative until he sees less.
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