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Twenty Questions - The January Interview

with Myrna Manzanares,
President of the Kriol Council of Belize.

Myrna Manzanares, President of the Kriol Council of Belize. 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?

Myrna Manzanares: I was born in 1946, in Gales point, a peninsula at the southernmost village in the Belize District. The village was almost surrounded by two lagoons, which we referred to as the front lagoon and back lagoon. My village was only about a mile long back then, with one main street. In most instances the homes were on one side of the road, facing the front lagoon. Looking back, I can honestly say that I had a very rich childhood. Rich in the sense that I grew up in a large extended family, and a small community where everyone looked out for each other. My mother was the craft instructress in the village and she was well respected by all, so if I did anything out of the way you know that she would know. I had two aunts and from the two of them ten cousins. I had several grand aunts, and grand uncles and many more cousins from those sides. My grandmother and grandfather were alive back then and my grandmother had a shop that catered to the villagers on our end of the village. I could remember that shop vividly, because she used to put me on the counter and I would dance as long as music was playing. I loved to dance. I still do.

I grew up playing with my brothers and cousins and we were in and out of each others homes. Any adult in my extended family, and indeed in the village could administer discipline, which was mostly in the form of a "lashing" or a good scolding. The thing was that you would get another dose of the same when your parents found out. Going to school and going to church had a high place in our little community. You had ultimate respect for the principals and teachers and for the priest. The saying goes, that it takes a village to raise a child and I can truly attest to the fact that my village raised me up until the age of eight when I went to the city to continue school.

I was the only girl child for my mother but I think that I made up for all the boys. There were times when I played hookey from school because I was bored and the teachers back then did not know how to deal with an inquisitive high energy girl child. My need for freedom of expression both verbally and physically got me in many problem which were in themselves wonderful experiences to remember. For example on those days I played hookey from school I went fishing. Back then I knew nothing about the sophisticated fishing lines. When I couldn't find a real fishhook the simple staples from the middle of an exercise book became the hook. Thread, which was cheap and common in every household in the village, was my fishing line. Just wrap that around a piece of stick and you have line ready to be used. I used to "borrow" any guinea sane that was available to "haul" bait. The guinea sane was a larger rounder version of a butterfly net without the long handle. This was used in the lagoon to catch the sand shrimp. You would push the sane in the sand and unearth the shrimp from their place in the sand. Most of the time I would eat half the shrimps before I fished. The larger ones I would just pluck off the head, take of the shell and plop it into my mouth - raw of course. The smaller ones would be used for bait.

Then there was the time I got in trouble in school and the teacher wanted to "lash me" I always hated the lashing, so my motto was if you want to lash me you have to catch me first. On many occasions the principal would get the older boys to catch me and take me back to the school. I can clearly remember what happened on one of those occasions. When the boys dragged me down the aisle of the church, (the school was held in the church building) all the children were watching because there were no walls only blackboards separated the classrooms. I was fighting and kicking as was customary when I was caught. The principal pulled the sash-cord strap and as he brought it down I grabbed it. I don't know what made that principal let the strap go, but he did and said to me. O.k. young lady, you want to be the teacher. What are you going to do with that strap? You want to lash me. I didn't answer, but you could just imagine my thoughts. I just felt my hand rising up and with all my strength brought the strap down to render vengeance to the outstretched hand of the principal. The whole building was quiet and you could have heard a feather drop. Before the strap touched his palm someone grabbed my arm. I was furious. You could just imagine what happened after that and of course my mother did justice to my behind when I got home.
As I look back on the freedom and fun and sense of love and security I had as a child in my little village, it pains me now to see the total difference of the path the village has taken today. High rate of teenage pregnancy, drug use, child sexual abuse, lack of community spirit and respect for each other that use to prevail all make the environment for growing up today almost unhealthy for the many children in the village. I truly wish that the community spirit, which helped to shape me as an individual, and made who I am today, would resurface in my village. The will not be divided, no one would be excluded, and people would continue to reach out and extend themselves for the benefit of all. How did you personally become involved with the concerns of the Kriol people of Belize?

Myrna Manzanares: As far back as I can remember I was concerned with the Kriol people. My family was very cultural and we grew up in a cultural environment. My Grandfather was a storyteller, and so is my mother after him. I became the story in my family today. In my village we jumped the Sambai during the period of the full moon, we brammed during the Christmas season, we had wakes at funeral, sung folk songs and did all of the traditional things typical of the Belize Kriol in those times. A sense of culture togetherness, and inclusiveness - typical of true community spirit - became a part of my psyche inherited from my childhood experience.

I left Belize in 1965 to join my family who had migrated to the states after Hurricane Hattie. In the states my family still maintained that spirit of community because the elder heads of the family were still alive. I missed the freedom of my country, and felt that I was beginning to loose some of the cohesiveness that kept our family together. The overwhelming culture of the US was taking a toll on our young members of the family. All the stories my grandfather used to tell us were getting lost so I began to write them down. As I wrote I felt closer and closer to the culture and since I was a teacher I use my gift of storytelling in my classes in the States. I knew this was the medium that I could use to engage any audience and share elements of my culture.

Although life was good in the US I was always haunted by the thought that I was loosing so much of who I was. In 1986, I gave up my home, my job and came home with my 8 year old and settled back home as though I had never left. I became involved with cultural activities,- storytelling, plays, Queen of the Bay pageant, 10th of September parade etc. I still didn't feel that satisfied that I was tapping into the culture. Then one night I saw a performance by Lila Vernon and her dancers and I heard her sing her now very popular song "Ah wahn no who seh Kriol no gat no kolcha". When I heard this song and saw the reaction of the audience I knew that there was work to be done and that it must be done to stimulate pride in the Kriol culture. I found people who were as concerned as I was about the Belize Kriol culture and Language and in 1995 because of those concerned people The National Kriol was incorporated as a not-for profit cultural organization. What do you consider to be the primarily challenges for the Kriol people?

Myrna Manzanares: I feel that the primary challenges are:
1. Attaining the levels of education that will translate into better choices,
2. Economic development - although many Kriols have put their skills and talent to work for the, many are still unable to break the cycle of poverty, and still others ar on the verge of poverty. The challenge is for the Belize Kriol to establish themselves as a strong economic powerbase so that they can help other to develop economically.
3. Personal empowerment through cultural identity. For too long the Belize Kriol have been made to feel that they are without culture and identity - whether by design or inadvertently. The Belize Kriol people, from black black to white white, need to be proud of who you are, and that includes accepting your cultural heritage, your national heritage and your language. None of these should be separated. The major challenge here is to leave a legacy for our children to be proud of not ashamed of, and not for them to feel less that other cultures but to walk tall beside them and walk in step as proud Belizeans What is the Kriol Council of Belize doing to educate the youth of the country regarding the challenges facing the Kriol people?

Myrna Manzanares: Over the past decade the Council has been involved in many activities in an effort to address the plight of its people. This includes periodic hosting of activities for cultural pride and presentation to schools, and students and teachers from foreign institutions We have a literacy program through the Kriol Langwij Project in which we use the Kriol language as a conduit to self appreciation, literacy, and economic development. Ms. Silvana Woods with help of Language consultants from then Texas Institute of Linguistics has been instrumental in teaching literacy in the Kriol Language and English Literature through the Kriol Language. We also have a number of books written in the language and have launched two calendars in Kriol. We have an established web site as a resource for teachers and students and anyone else who wants to now more about the Belize Kriol Culture and language. This web sight is updated periodically. We have also had the opportunity to run a successful summer program in the Mayflower are of the city with over 50 children in which we collected Oral History, and taught the children about their culture and language, The web site is How will the current governmental fiscal restraints challenge the Kriol Council of Belize?

Myrna Manzanares: Many of the 44% who are in the poverty level are Belize Kriol, consequently it will be very difficult for them to make ends meet. Things are already bad so it take even stronger measures to get out of the poverty cycle. Can you tell us a highlight to date of your life as the current President of the Kriol Council of Belize?

Myrna Manzanares: One highlight was the opportunity to share with the nation (at the Black Summit) the position of National Kriol council on issues of Language and the way forward for the Belize Krio, and more recently the Kriol Day at the House of Culture on September 9 of 2004, which was a joint event with the National Institute of Culture and History. Can you tell us a highlight of your personal life?

Myrna Manzanares: That would definitely be the birth of my daughter who continues to give me great joy. Having an occupation as President of a countrywide organization is obviously demanding, both mentally and physical. What do you do to keep in shape? What is your favourite past-time occupation?

Myrna Manzanares: There are numerous challenges being the President of the NKK simply because we do not have a secretariat or office for our work. We have to work out of our homes for meeting and activities. It is also very challenging because we volunteer out time because we want to see the work done. Some this can be consuming. I have to make a living like the rest of the Executive members of the council so it becomes difficult to attend to council business sometimes since we do not have a stable place of operation. I think that we have made progress in bringing awareness and self-pride to Kriol Belizeasn who believed the myth that Kriol Language is not a language and that the Bileez Kriol have no culture. And that this has happened in spite of the fact that we have not enjoyed financial backing. We have a Web site with information for those who are doing research. What is the greatest outdoor adventure you ever experienced in Belize?

Myrna Manzanares: I have had several outdoor adventures as an adult but the ones most vivid in my mind occurred when I was a child. There are two that are of equal weight.

As a child we used to visit my grandfather, who lived in MullinsRiver with My step grand mother at least twice a month. We would walk the nine miles through the motomores Pine ridge. In those days the trees would form an arch and you could just see rays of the sun streaming through the openings as you walk. We would leave around Saturday morning and walk back on Sunday. It was just awesome walking through the forest. My brothers and cousins would take turns frightening us with stories of Tata Dohende and other folk creatures. My mother would always say don't pick up anything because you never know what it will turn out to be. There was always excitement on those trips.

My next experience was going to Belize City from Gales Point to through the canal. My step grandfather had a motorboat that served as the only transportation into the city. The boat took practically all day to get to the city, so you would have to pack you dinner and fruits to sustain until you arrive. The boat would go back the following afternoon around two or three. Invariably night would catch us in the lagoon and that was the biggest adventure. It was dark and eeri, and to every time we heard a large splash into the water from the banks of the river or the canal the children would scream. Of course it was only crocodiles. Sometimes we would sing folksongs or somebody would tell a scary story, which would have us huddling together, feeling deliciously frightened.

Whenever I think of these adventures I am transported back to the excitement of my childhood. What is your most favourite Belizean food dish? What is your most favourite locally grown fruit, what is the most favourite vegetable?

Myrna Manzanares: I just love fish, coconut and ripe planting, so my favorite dish is fish sehre' (kriol spelling) with mashed ripe plantain (fufu). I love ripe plantains. My favorite fruit is mango and everyone who knows me knows that and the vegetable is chocho (they say it is good for pressure). 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?

Myrna Manzanares: I have seen the wild life at the zoo, and I have seen the Jaguar outside the zoo on a trip we made to the Mountain Pine ridge. I have also seen the Toucan outside the zoo as well. Of course I grew up with manatees in Gales Point. The Belize Maya have many archaeological sites, what are the historically significant sites in Belize for the Kriol people that should receive more focus and attention?

Myrna Manzanares: The moroon sites in Belize that came about because of slaves who ran away to get away from the slavery in Belize. Also the Belize River valley areas. These areas include: Freetown Sibun, Gales Point, More Tomarrow, Burrel Boom, Crooked Tree, St Pauls Band, Rancho Dolores, Burmudan Landing Which of the Maya archaeological sites in Belize have you visited? Which site was the most fascinating for you?

Myrna Manzanares: Xunantunich (most facinating), Altunha, Lubantunun, Lamanai What are the top three books we should all read in our lifetime?

Myrna Manzanares: 1. The Bible, 2. The Celestine Prophecy- James Redfield
3. I know why the caged birds sings - Maya Angelo. 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?

Myrna Manzanares: My list would include the following Belizeans: Sir Colville Young, Zee Edgell, My mom Iris Abraham, Bredda David, Mr. Peters, Lucio, Lila Vernon, Paul Nabor, Dell and the sensations, Pablo Clark, Lord Rhaburn, Methodist Praise Singers.
Non Belizeans: Maya Angelou, Deepak Chopra, Inynala Vanzant, James Redfield, Byron Lee, Calypso Rose, Natalie Cole, Tina Turner How would you answer the question "What is Belizean Culture?"

Myrna Manzanares: Belizean culture in my estimation is a mix of rice and beans, boil up, jonny cake, hudut, cassava bread, garnaches, tamales, panades and black dinner, with a pot of chicken caldo, corn tortilla and beans on one side and curry chicken, heart of palm and yellow ginger fish on the other; covered with a variety of Belizean fruits like mangos, bananas, oranges, maami, papayas and cashews, washed down with berry wine, cashew wine, Belikin beer, rum, orchata, and tied together by the kriol language.
In essence Belizean culture is a mixture of all the common elements from our diverse cultures and expressed primarily through the Belize Kriol language. Belize is so ecologically diverse with natural beauty abundant. What do you consider the most beautiful spot in all of Belize?

Myrna Manzanares: There are many spots that are most beautiful in Belize to me but one of mine is the view from the hill of the Stann Creek Valley. Awesome! What is your favourite vacation spot outside of Belize?

Myrna Manzanares: My favorite vacation spot outside of Belize would be Atlanta. Besides the fact that my beautiful and talented daughter lives there, it is comfortable and very cultural and I like that. What would you consider to be the greatest asset of Belize?

Myrna Manzanares: To me the greatest asset of Belize besides the people is its diversity - cultures, flora and fauna, land and sea. What would you most want someone reading this article to remember about what Myrna Manzanares has to say?

Myrna Manzanares: That Myrna Manzanares is a multifaceted, high energy, articulate, fun loving and a truly remarkable woman who has a genuine love and appreciation for family, culture, people, development and her beautiful country.


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