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Twenty Questions - The January Interview

with Nuri Muhammad

Nuri Muhammad is a radio commentator on Belize's radio station Love FM and the director of the organization 'Youth for the Future' Please tell us where and what year were you born. What was it like as a child, growing up in your home town? How has the town/district changed since your youth?

Nuri Muhammad: I was born on August 1, 1948 here in Belize City. Of course tremendous changes have taken place, since that time. Both physically and to a great extent the culture has also changed since that time. My early memories of Belize are how close we all were to each other, we seem almost to know everybody. And we seem to be very connected to each other although we were not necessarily of the same family. I see that as one of the major differences today to what existed when I was growing up. I think Belize has also changed in the sense that we had a greater interfusion of cultural influences from outside, which we seem to have adapted, which has to a large extend made those early memories of me of closeness and sharing, sort of collective responsibility that we had, a lot of that to me seems to have disappeared.

However I had an opportunity in my early life to leave this country and to live in the United States and to go to school in the US and in many ways that has also influences as to how I look at Belize. Because having lived in the United States, I got a jump over many of our people to see the culture in the United States that would eventually be coming to Belize. So by the time I had come back to Belize to warn the people "you don't want to get into that culture", people were sort of looking at me and saying "it's because you have already been there, that's why you are talking in this critical way. But we like it, we want it". So I had to observe upon my return many Belizeans adapting some of the American styles not realizing what will be the outcome of that adaptation until years later now that we are seeing the results of that adaptation. I, having lived in both worlds, I was very much prepared to deal with what Belize has become now. Belize has become simply a little bit more of that culture that I experienced when I lived in the United States.

I did not live in the US for a long time, I think it was about 10 years but it was during a very critical period during the 60s. The 60s was a time of great ferment, the Vietnam war, the assassination of John F Kennedy, the assassination of Malcolm X, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the rise of the student movement. I was a student at the university and was able to experience black students fighting for concerns that were affecting them in America as well as in the university environment. To great extend I think that influenced me also. When I returned to Belize I did not swallow the culture of America sort of line, hook and sink, but I was very critical.

I think, though I grew up in that innocent period in Belize and then having left and gone to the United States and coming back to Belize, having lived in both worlds, made me better prepared for some of the trends that I see going on in our country today. You are a well known radio commentator on Belize's number One radio station 'Love FM'. How did you start your radio career?

Nuri Muhammad: I was a commentator on social events in Belize long before. In fact my commentary on the radio is really just an extension of what I had been doing prior as a social activist. All my adult life I have been a community activist. I have been involved in social work, human development work, and so the radio was merely another form for doing that. I was never trained in broadcasting and never had a job as a broadcaster. I am not employed as a broadcaster. I do that show in the morning and I was invited by owner of the station to come on not because of my broadcasting skills, but because I was know in the community as a community activist. What does working for 'Love FM' mean to you? Can you tell us a highlight of your work at 'Love FM'?

Nuri Muhammad: I look at my work at love FM as a privilege. I don't step in the studio in the morning thinking that I have a right to be there. I recognize that it is an opportunity and that it is by the decision of the owner of the station that he is permitting me to be on his radio station.

Of course he also benefits by us having such a popular show in the morning. But I don't look at it through any kind of arrogant spectacle that makes me feel "Oh I am popular and people like the show and because of the popularity that is why I am here". I did not go there for that purpose. The things I say on the radio are the things that I have been saying in the various capacities as a community worker for many years.

The highlight of having worked at this particular station and I have had an opportunity to be a part of a very popular radio magazine that was produced in Los Angeles about ten years ago - that show was likewise very popular throughout the southern California area of Los Angeles, San Diego etc. - and in many ways I looked at that show very much as I look at this show, the forum of discussion issues, for hopefully influencing people's opinions on issues. The highlight of what I do is the feedback that I get from so many people when I travel the country, be it Punta Gorda or Corozal, wherever I go and people recognize me, they match the voice with the face and they tell me "Are you Nuri? I really enjoy the show, it is really informative" I guess that feedback of appreciation is the highlight. And I appreciate when people say that they sense my effort to be fair and non-partisan and my interest in young people. Your commentary might influence the opinion of many Belizeans on any given subject. How do you deal with this responsibility?

Again, in a very sacred way. I recognize the power of the word, and I recognize that thoughts that are not well thought out can influence people in a wrong way. I have a sense of responsibility that I make sure what I say is factually based. I try to make it a habit that when I put out information that is not correct that it is corrected. I am interested in making sure that what I say I can stand on and that I don't put out half baked ideas, or opinions that cannot be substantiated. In that sense I take it as a sacred trust and I go up to this work in the morning with that idea in mind. In other words I am not a disc jockey, I am very sober, conscious and aware, very engaged during those three hours that I am on the show. Likewise the show that I do Wednesday nights, I take it as a trust. I don't look at myself as a broadcaster, it look at myself very involved in the development of Belize from the forum of the radio. You are also the Director of the organization 'Youth of the Future'. How did this involvement come about? What are your goals? What are the rewards of a work related to the youth of Belize.

It came about when the prime minister who I know and who knows of the work I have been doing for years with young people, invited me to a series of discussions out of which came this concept of how he wanted to implement a set of objectives that he had. He has expressed as a prime minister for some time the interest to move the youth agenda to the front burner of development, as opposed to a back burner issue which it has been in Belize and throughout the Caribbean. As Prime Minister he wanted to advance the effort of the youth and he also wanted new and innovative ways to approach the issue of youth and it is out if this that this initiative 'Youth for the Future' came about approximately 2 years ago.

In terms of what we are striving for: Youths are the majority population in the Caribbean, certainly within Belize they are the most significant number. They are in fact, as all our people our most important resource and while many of our children and young people are doing fairly well, we have over 81000 children in schools, many of them have access to opportunities for education, health care and many of the other things that when compared to other countries we see young people not having, it yet remains that we have some challenges for young people in this country that, if not addressed, and not paid serious attention to, could make Belize a very uncomfortable place to live in years to come.

These areas are youths governance which is one of the areas of focus of 'Youth for the Future'. By youth governance we simply mean the need for young people to be a part of the process involved in the decision making. Having opinions of issues affecting the country. We don't only mean them being prepared to go into government or politics but rather wherever they are, that they are engaged in the discussion of what is happening in Belize. This is our broad definition of this concept of youth governance.

Another one of our major areas of focus is youth involved in enterprise development. We feel that even if we were to provide all the jobs available in Belize for young people, we would still have a significant number of young people without work. And so it is necessary that we cultivate as much as possible an entrepreneurial culture so that young people can see their possibilities in engaging in business, and seeing that if they are working a job, they don't work is as if they will be there for forty years, but to work the job to gain experience so that they can improve. So an aim of 'Youth for the Future' is to cultivate in our young people this attitude of working for themselves and working the economy in a realistic way, that will give them benefits and spill off benefits to the community.

Another one of the areas of 'Youth for the Future' and one of our goals is attacking this issue of youth crime and violence which is a very dangerous trend. Not only youth involving in actual crime, which is perhaps a small sector of the society, but nonetheless a troubling sector, because many of our young people get caught up in the cycle of criminal behaviour, end up many times going into prison loosing rehabilitative opportunities and coming back out into society and becoming even greater problems not only for themselves and the society but in general making Belize a place that our visitors will not want come here, if we do not arrest this problem as quickly as we can. So one of the issues we work on, we have developed a rapport with youth at the street level, the so called gangsters, who have been marginalized by their criminal activity. This is the only such program inside this country. 'Youth for the Future', through our violence reduction unit, works along with these young people at the street level, within the prisons and other areas to bring them back in some sense of their responsibility but also to engage them in opportunities for turning back their experience and trying to stop youngsters who are coming up trying to be like them from going in this direction. We also try to attach them to these possibilities of enterprise and development, so they have a way to turn their skills they were using in criminal ways to positive ways of making good money, legal money. We also try our best to engage them in sort of keeping and maintaining a level of peace within the community.

The next thing that we do also in this violence reduction unit is we work towards trying to get the information to not only the young people in the city, but we recognize that outside, out in the districts, that many of the patterns that we see in the urban areas of Belize are also manifesting themselves. We are involved in trying to expand this effort and initiative into the villages and the districts so that we can cut it off in its early stages rather than allow it to grow and becoming as dangerous as it has become in certain parts of the city.

We have also embarked on an aggressive effort to bring the information about HIV/Aids to young people. We have realized that again, because we have this rapport with the marginalized that while other partners in this struggle against HIV/Aids in Belize works with the more standard young people, those in schools who we call attached, that we have focused on the unattached and we are very much involved in taking this information out and engaging these young people as peer educators. In other words, having the same street youth that were involved in violence and crime, who are to reform their live, we have given them purpose to go out and work with other marginalized youth bringing the information about HIV/Aids. Can you tell us a highlight to date of your life in your position as Director of 'Youth of the Future'?

Nuri Muhammad: That is almost a daily. We have been involved in this kind of work for many years and I think perhaps every time we can influence this these young people to come from a negative pattern of behaviour to something that is positive, and we don't judge that in any uniform way, because as human beings, positives are very subjective and personal, but we have a way of detecting when a young person is no longer in the negative that they were in. Every time I see that, it is a kind of booster shot. Makes us feel that what we do is worth it. Can you tell us a highlight of your personal life?

Nuri Muhammad: I am a father of six children and I am the grandfather of five and I look at them as my highlight. I love my children and I love my grand children, maybe that's why I work with youths because I have this love for young people and I have this experience of my children all of whom I am so proud of. None of them have disappointed me, they are all are an improvement of myself and even my grandchildren, I see them even as a better improvement. My highlight is my children. Having two occupations is obviously demanding, both mentally and physical. What do you do to keep in shape? What is your favourite past-time occupation?

Nuri Muhammad: I run three miles a day and that helps me to deal with the demands on my body. I am conscious of what I eat and I am a very spiritually focused person. I do not mean overly religious, but I mean that know my purpose and am reinforced daily of what I am about. I don't take myself overly serious in the sense that I can't look at my mistakes and laugh at my mistakes. I also have people around me that are not afraid to tell me when I am making an error. So in that sense I do not have the fears that I used to have maybe 25 years ago when I used to be very caught up in thinking that I can't make mistakes, I don't want to be criticised. I think my maturity has brought me to the point where I am able to laugh at myself.

My favourite past time - listening to music. I like music, I like jazz, avant-garde jazz, jazz all the way through, and classic music. I know all symphonies by Beethoven by heart, I have been listening to them so long, still learning from them because they are so deep. And I like Reggae. I listen to music regularly. I also enjoy reading. Music is always in the background as I am reading. What is the greatest outdoor adventure you ever experienced in Belize?

Nuri Muhammad: I guess the most beautiful outdoor experience that I had in Belize is around the Cayes of Belize, sailing a boat, stopping by the reef, jumping in the water. The waters of Belize, almost any part, I also love the river and enjoy swimming in the river, riding up the river. What is your most favourite Belizean food dish? What is your most favourite locally grown fruit, what is the most favourite vegetable?

Nuri Muhammad: My favourite dish is probably Cere, probably because I love Cere. I love food if it well cooked, specially if it is uniquely done. I love fish, so I love all kinds of fish dinners. Of course the standard rice and beans is what we all get used to in Belize. I always like food if it is prepared at home in a unique way, a new way of tasting food, I love that.

My favourite fruit would be papaya, mango, watermelon, craboo. I love the fruits that are very Belizean. Fruit that I eat every day and look forward to eating is papaya.

My favourite vegetable would be a mixture. I like it cooked this way: spinach, callalou, and okra. Have you ever had the luck to see any of Belize's exotic wildlife such as a jaguar, tapir or the like? Have you ever been bitten by a snake or spider or stung by a scorpion?

Nuri Muhammad: I never really experiences those exotic animals, only in the Zoo. I have never really gone out and adventure in the jungle, but I hope one of these days to get that experience. I have never been bitten by a snake or a spider, but I have been stung by a scorpion. Which lit me up like an electric bulb. I will never forget that experience. It was in the dark, in Placencia. I had gone down into this bath house to take my night bath and the soap was on this edge, and in the dark I was feeling around for this soap and I tell you, I danced bajanga for quite some time. At first it felt like electricity, but I knew there was no electricity out there, then I realized that what got me was the scorpion. Which of the Maya archaeological sites in Belize have you visited? Which site was the most fascinating for you?

Nuri Muhammad: I have been to Altun Ha and Xunantunich I have not had a chance to go to the others like Caracol. I think I am always fascinated by the historical relevance of any of the Maya sites and the one that has effected me the most was climbing up Xunantunich and looking across and realizing that so long time ago here was this concept of elevating a building way off the ground to such a high peak so that one can look over the entire area, the terrain. I was always fascinated with that in terms of what constitutes eternity, if we think we are so modern, as to having achieved all this things in this day, when in fact many things have been achieved a long time ago. I have also great interest in the Pyramids of Egypt, so Xunantunich fascinated me to know that we had that kind of building structure right here in Belize. What would you consider to be the greatest asset of Belize?

Nuri Muhammad: That is its people. I say this because not only are we an intelligent people when exposed to knowledge and information but I think I that Belizean people, when we are our best, I have not met a people that is as unique, resilient, creative, outstanding in their compassion and concern for the underdog. There are so many unique aspects of Belizeans and I am not talking about just one of our ethnic groups. Since I had the opportunity to travel the country and to interact with every ethnic group in Belize, I find that there is a commonality that runs through the culture and as I say that communality has a lot to do with our unique flavour. We need in Belize to emphasize that communality, that shared experience. We need to share those things that bind us, because we could be effected by the ethnicity drawing us each into an attitude of difference. Emphasising our differences in the long run would not serve Belize well.

I recognize at the same time, and I coin this in a phrase "Belizeans are people who don't clap and who don't tip". By that I mean simply that we are not a people that easily acknowledges and recognizes each other. And for that reason we do not acknowledge who we are, until somebody comes from outside and acknowledges and then we join the acknowledgment. For that reason, there have been a lot of unsung heroes in Belize who have passed away without being recognized for their contributions.

We don't tip, means we don't reward you for your little good that you do. In other cultures a tip can be a handshake, a 'thank you', a pat on the back. We tend to reserve ourselves from that and in my opinion that effects our culture, particularly young people who need affirmation, who need a sense of being and purpose. I have not yet discovered the reason why we don't easily clap or tip, but I do know, if there is a culture negative this is an aspect that I have seen north, east, south, west, that describes our culture. What are the top three books we should all read in our lifetime?

Nuri Muhammad: I cannot come up with three, but I can tell you the one book that I think everybody should read because of the effect it had on my life 35 years ago, and continues to have on my life. That is the Koran. I will say only one thing about that: what I came to recognize in that book is that god is one with many prophets. If we understand that humanity has a common ground in that concept. Who would be on your list of favourite Belizean artists, writers and musicians? Who would be on your list of favourite non-Belizean artists, writers and musicians? What kind of music do you like to listen to?

Nuri Muhammad: On the Belizean side, I have so many people that I appreciate in different forms of music. The person, that I have always recognized for his great contributions in music in Belize has been Frankie Reneau, he is versatile, and I have followed his career from the time when he was a student to now where he is a maestro. In that sense I would put Frankie Reneau on the top of my list of artist. I also think that we have a number of other artist that are popular musicians and I would probably put them all under the same umbrella of being diverse and popular and I like them all. I nurture the fact that they are expressing the different forms of music but it don't think any of them have gone as deep into their music as Frankie Reneau has.

As far writers, I think that there are many good writers, but my favourite writer is my wife who is a poet but who also writes many other good things that have not been published yet. I love her profound simplicity and her communication skills. In terms of writers, she is not yet discovered for the great qualities that she has. Her name is Sakinah Muhammad. Of course I don't let a week go by without reading Evan X Hyde at the level that he writes. I think that he can do much more with his writing than what he has been doing, but no one can take away the fact that Evan X Hyde is a very skilful writer. He has only been writing public commentaries, but I look forward to one of these days reading more in-depth of him. Of course Zee Edgell has, to my mind, a very deep core set of values that reflect particularly the Creole culture of Belize and I think she has kept that alive for us. Of course there are many others.

In terms of international artists, there are so many. There are some that stick out, such as the late John Coltrane, who I grew up on appreciating his music and who's repertoire is so broad, He played great music when he was more into fast jazz and before he died he involved into a kind of spiritual music, which I also felt very important.

I like the experience of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, especially their words and their ideas are also profound. I like many of the symphonies that have been done, and there are many artist that have lead philharmonic orchestras, that I enjoyd. But I am not sure, I probably choose the classical music based upon the performer as much as I choose the particular piece of work that is being played. How would you answer the question "What is Belizean Culture?"

Nuri Muhammad: I think culture in Belize has to be seen as something very dynamic. I am not of the school of thought of rice and beans and dress and dance. That's not my definition of culture. To me culture is a dynamic and I see what I am doing, my involvement with young people, as being a reflection of the Belizean culture. I think culture is a dynamic that propellers the people of their norms and customs and idiosyncrasies, in the struggle of their development. I see that we do that through various forms or attitude towards work, our thinking towards business, the way which we deal with our government, the way which we deal with sufferation, which exists in certain pockets of our culture. The way in which we deal with the whole issue of globalisation, our attitudes, our beliefs, our reflection, are Belizean culture. I know people like to highlight the Punta of the Garifuna or the Brock down of the Creole, or the various kinds of dances and dresses such things, I am not of that school of thought. Those are very circumstantial, but if you look at a culture as dynamic, always existing, always reflecting, always growing, advancing or sometimes receding, that is a better picture of a culture of a people Belize is so ecologically diverse with natural beauty abundant. What do you consider the most beautiful spot in all of Belize?

Nuri Muhammad: An easy answer would be for me again the Cayes, traveling along, observing the barrier reef. I spent some time in Placencia, I was living there for a couple of years when I was the manager of the fishing corporative down there, and I always thought that Placencia was so beautiful. But then I started to travel down to other areas, I went to Toledo and thought "This must be the most beautiful", and I went up to Corozal and thought it the most beautiful. So I kind of concluded that the entire coastline of Belize reflects its beauty. I also have spent time in the bush and have come to realize there is a tranquillity out there likewise. What is your favourite vacation spot outside of Belize?

Nuri Muhammad: My family for many years, our favourite spot is Merida. We went to Merida as a family year after year after year such that my children have grown to know Merida, and then my grandchildren came alone and they have grown to know Merida. So Merida has become for my family the yearly retreat, I am talking about over a 27 year period, we have gone to Merida yearly except for a period when we had gone back to the states for a while.
When our annual holidays come along, you can be almost sure to see the Muhammads in Merida. What do you consider the biggest challenge for Belize and Belizeans in the 21st century?

Nuri Muhammad: There are many challenges but if I am to choose one it would be an issue of attitude change. We simply have to work towards getting our people to think differently and by that I mean that we have truly been effected by what is know as dependency. I believe this is one the most important challenges of our future development.

We need to recognize that if we don't shift the way we think and the behaviours we have, that keep us in a state of waiting for someone else to come in and help us, or waiting for someone to give us a helping hand or waiting for someone to pull us up. If we don't change that mindset, a good sector of our population will be adversely effected by the present trends that we see and the trends that are sure to increase in the near and distant future. Our colonial past can best be described as a period of dependency, a time of waiting for one who we perceived as being better to intervene in our affairs and to give us that direction or to help us up. And to a great extend that has become a kind of a national problem. In many ways people continue to wait for the government to provide for them, not only to enabling sort of an environment for their own production but to actually be dependent of the government to provide them with what they need. And that dependency thinking is a retardation of the kind of spirit that we need to make progress. I see particularly among young people, and it is one of the major efforts that 'Youth for the Future' has been making, that if our youth is prepared for the future, they must be prepared by changing the way that they think to accept challenges not as problems but to accept them as opportunities. If they forge through those challenges, that they see ways to open up for them. So I guess our greatest challenge is changing our attitude and making our people thing productively and make them think that your worth is in what you are producing as opposed to what you are consuming. What would you most want someone reading this article to remember about what Nuri Muhammad has to say?

Nuri Muhammad: I think that I would want to be remembered as a person who met a situation and made a difference after he was gone. A person who saw many opportunities and while some of those opportunities might have slipped him by, he took advantage of most of the opportunities that came his way. That he was a person who loved god, respected people and gave his life to ensure that human beings, not only human beings in Belize, but everywhere, would be in a better frame, better thinking than before they had met him. I would want to be remembered as a person who was involved in one major field of endeavour, which was the development of my people for a consistent period of time, over 35 years, and never changed though he tried to approach those goals though different vehicles, he never changed direction and he never stopped and he was always seen as moving in those same directions, when he was in his late years as he was in his early years.


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