Sunday, July 22, 2012
Miss Bertie's Library
I noticed the building and its bright colors on our arrival in Hopkins as we made our way south to find our hostess Ingrid. It stood alone on a large parcel of land that also contained a school and playground. We'd been in Belize for nine days by that time and I'd seen a number of schools. Each village had its own primary school, which corresponds with our version of a K-8 building. All pretty much the same: long low buildings with door and window openings for each classroom in the row; scrubby playgrounds with little or no equipment; two-door outbuilding for the bathroom; a feeling of age and fatigue radiating from the grounds.
It wasn't until I saw Miss Bertie's Library that I realized I hadn't seen any other libraries in any of the many villages we passed through. And I certainly hadn't seen anything school related that was that bright and inviting. The decorations had a distinctly American flavor, which intrigued me as well.
Because Hopkins is a village itself, we either drove or walked past Miss Bertie's several times during our week there. To my disappointment the library was never open. My heart lifted a bit every time I saw the bright building though, and I was curious about the story behind it.
Strangely, it didn't occur to me to ask anyone during our week in Hopkins. In part I think because I continued to struggle with my feelings of unease about being in Belize as a prosperous American. Nothing in Hopkins did anything to alleviate those feelings.
I had decided it wasn't the poverty that was the source of my disequilibrium. I grew up poor (wood for heat and cooking, no washer or drier, most of our food from the land we lived on). There is still comparable poverty in America, and while I don't necessarily see poverty that extreme every day, I'm aware it exists, I care, I do what I can to help. I don't walk around wearing my awareness like a wool shirt on a hot day. And I certainly don't feel like that aspect of my childhood hurt me in any way.
I considered the possibility that the discomfort came from being "clear" (what light-skinned people are called) in a country full of every shade of beautiful brown imaginable. Except for our hosts who were primarily clear, our fellow guests at the lodges where we stayed, and our fellow travelers on the excursions we took, we rarely saw other clear skin. Not driving around, not walking the streets of the towns we visited, not even in the occasional gift shop. But no, that wasn't it either. I like being surrounded by people who look different from me, who have different life experiences, who have different world views. That's a big part of why I love to travel.
Although the travel guide described the people of Hopkins to be warm and welcoming, we did not find that to generally be the case. They were warily civil when we said hi first. But no one of color ever initiated a greeting or a conversation. Often our waves or greetings were ignored completely. Even when we ate at restaurants owned by locals, there was no sense that the people who served us were actually glad to have our business. I engaged everyone within conversational distance, and while my many questions were answered politely, and I even managed to elicit smiles, I never felt like I broke through a really tough reserve.
On our last day we were talking to the caretaker, a cheek-kissing French-Canadian chiropractor named Yves. He asked how we'd liked our time in Hopkins, and was visibly shocked when I told him of our feelings of discomfort.
"No one has ever said that before. Everyone tells us how polite the locals are when they're spoken to." Then after thinking for a minute he continued. "The locals have seemed less happy in the last couple of years. Things have gotten harder for them. They have less money than they had before. Maybe that's what's going on."
And at that moment I got what was bothering me.
We as American tourists brought our money into a country where most of the citizens would not benefit from that largesse. The enormous homes we saw being built on the seashore did not belong to the locals, but rather to Americans who saw a chance at less expensive luxury. The travel guides which invited us to come and enjoy the incredible resources of this edenic country did not ask the locals if they wanted tourism to become the number one industry in their country. And there seemed to be nothing in place, at least that we could see, that could break the dam separating the very rich from the very poor.
While I grew up in poverty, I always knew of the many opportunities available to me to move out of poverty. I knew that if I worked hard and got a good education, my life could be better. My parents worked hard to provide a life where a good education was the primary goal, the highest expectation. I nourished myself with endless books, and found both hope and salvation in magical combinations of words. My inherent sense of curiosity thrived in those conditions, my need to ask questions, to know whatever is unknown.
Shortly after our conversation with Dr. Yves, we found Ingrid, our German hostess, to pay our bill. I asked about Miss Bertie's Library.
"Oh, that's kind of a sad story," Ingrid answered. She went on to explain that Miss Bertie was a 72 year old Peace Corps volunteer who had been working with the primary school in Hopkins. Miss Bertie was appalled that there were no books for the kids, so she created the library I'd asked about. Then just a couple of years ago she'd been found dead in her home. Since that time local women had taken over.
When we got home I did some research on education in Belize. While their system might not be as sophisticated or developed as ours, the stated purposes are very much the same. At the highest level, it is understood that a good education is the key to helping the citizens of Belize to find a way to a better life, to help them have hope, to diminish the huge discrepancy between the many poor and the few rich.
Miss Bertie clearly understood that when she created the library that the locals gave her name to after her death. While Ingrid didn't say, I'm guessing Miss Bertie was a retired American school teacher with a passion for reading and children. A passion so strong she was willing to spend her last days in a village that was surely difficult to become accepted into, working with children who had little experience with books or hope of a brighter future.
Another thing my research revealed was that Belize has a public library system with 18 branches serving a population of just over 350,000. The system in Clark County, where I live, has 13 branches serving around 430,000 people. A country that cares that much about books is going to be okay.
I am left with great hope for the people of Belize, along with a respect and admiration that continues to grow in these weeks since our return. Books and education—two of the things most central to my own life—are the key. And the willingness and heart of just one teacher to provide those, no matter the circumstances.