Written by: Jennifer Gleason
As Americans, we take public education—kindergarten through twelfth grade—for granted, but in Belize what we take for granted is considered a luxury.
Five VSU students traveled to northeastern Central America for a summer study abroad program in Belize. Dr. Matthew Richard, an anthropology professor, and Tom Besom, an archaeologist, led the trip.
“I chose to go because I wanted to push myself outside of my comfort zone,” Ashley Dailey, senior English major, said. “I’ve traveled abroad before, but always to tourist destinations that I was really comfortable with. Belize was a completely different experience.”
While in Belize, the group discovered that even high school education costs money; many villagers, particularly women, cannot afford the schooling. As such, the villagers take up crafts and skills to make an income.
The students met three women living in Santa Elena, Belize: Miriam, Christina and Dyna Choc. Their ages ranged from 25 to 36, and their source of income is basket and bracelet weaving.
“One thing that the Maya are known for in Belize is being extremely hard working and extremely tough,” Logan Hulsey, senior anthropology major, said. “While this was true for the men, it was equally, if not, more true of the women. They would take care of so many people and had an equal share in taking care of their family. And the fact that they would even attempt to take over the man’s role of obtaining the money just shows the persistence and strength of these women.”
Miriam and Christina Choc are sisters whose father died when they were young. Neither of the women had the chance to attend high school due to a lack of stable income in the household.
“I met (the women) during my time in the village performing everyday tasks like washing clothes or going to church,” Dailey said. “My first meal in the village was with Christina’s family, and I ate with Dyna’s family quite a bit.”
Dailey met Miriam Choc at a graduation party for a young boy in the village.
“Miriam and I made coleslaw for about 60 people, and we got to know each other very well in the time it took us to shred four heads of lettuce and three carrots,” Dailey said.
Dailey later learned that Christina Choc married at 17, and the man she married eventually became an alcoholic. She was left as the sole financial support for their children after her husband spent most of the family’s small income on alcohol.
Miriam Choc did not marry until the age of 22 and enjoys her life with her husband but still regrets never being able to attend high school.
“I was touched by how desperately Miriam wants an education,” Dailey said. “We take for granted our public school system here in the US. An education is not guaranteed to everyone everywhere.
“High school is not paid for by the Belizean government, and the poor families can barely afford to send the boys. In this male-dominated society, it’s unlikely that the families will choose to support the girls.”
For the women these five VSU students met, they still find ways to make money in a weak economy.
“What touched me the most about these women were what hard work and time they put in to these bracelets,” Hulsey said. “Each individual bracelet took an enormous amount of time, yet they would make several each day because it was their only lively hood.”
The bracelets are yarn woven with wooden beads and other materials tied into the designs.
“Some of the bracelets that we have—I think these are really special—are made from the clay at the bank of the river that flows through the village,” Dailey said. “The clay is shaped into things like leaves or flowers and then fired in their stoves.”
The group learned how to make the bracelets while on the trip and learned that it is not easy.
“For me, a very simple design took about five of six hours to weave,” Dailey said. “For a pair of expert hands, it might take three. It’s incredible to watch them.”
In Belize, the handmade bracelets sell for 10 Belize dollars, which equate to about five U.S. dollars.
The group collected bracelets and baskets the women wove to help support the women struggling to keep a steady income for their households.
“I was talking to Dr. Richard about how cheaply the women sell their crafts for in Belize and how people would be willing to pay so much more in the U.S.,” Dailey said. “Somehow, it sprang from there, and when we asked the women about selling them to VSU students they were so excited.”
The students hope to sell the bracelets for $10 each with all money going back to Christina, Miriam and Dyna.
“Belize was a life changing experience that I will remember for the rest of my life,” Hulsey said.