Straddling Central American jungles and the Caribbean sea, tiny Belize has it all – pristine rainforests, ancient Mayan ruins, wildlife galore and miles of white sand bars surrounded by crystal clear waters. This melting pot of Central American and Afro Caribbean cultures attracts tourists from all over the world, however, the reality of city life here is a world away from the serene beauty of the Cayes. Belize has the third highest national murder rate in the world, with its capital, Belize City, being mostly responsible for that ugly statistic.
Mahogany Heights: the plan for change
Created out of the dreams of the previous government, the new settlement of Mahogany Heights was supposed to represent new hope and a new life for Belize City dwellers whose impoverished living conditions left them struggling to survive. A bureaucratic mess up regarding land rights and a change of government later, the now dilapidated village has an air of ghost towns past. Over the past 5 years resident nurse, Rachel Vega, has set out to singlehandedly change this.
Mahogany Heights residents bought into the idea of peace, space for their children and the dream of owning their own land. However shortly after moving in, they began to notice that their pre-fabricated houses were already falling into disrepair. Over time the road and the services also began failing, but by this time the government had long forgotten them. A land dispute meant that the new occupiers could not buy the deeds to their houses and then a new government failed to continue with the redevelopment project. The mass exodus which followed left a crime-filled vacuum behind it; violence and drugs soared and Mahogany Heights became synonymous with all the same things the city dwellers had tried to escape from. Many of the houses are now derelict and occupied by squatters, and criminals find it a convenient resting place. Drugs are rife, gruesome murders and arson a part of its history and gangs the normality.
One woman, one fight
During the height of the bad times, one resident refused to retreat back to the city and instead decided she alone would tackle the issues left behind. Miss Rachel, a local health worker, rose to become the leader of this doomed community. Armed with nothing more than sheer determination she set about making some changes, beginning by persuading the government to station a police post here in order to decrease local crime. After convincing a local oil company to donate a tiny pre-fabricated building, she then set up a health post, staffed once a month by a volunteer doctor and an immunisation nurse. When hungry children arrived at her door she fed them, when teenagers in need passed by she counselled them, and when sick people arrived she got them treated. “The kids just kept coming back” she says. “I always keep Jam and peanut butter in my cupboard for them.”
Nowadays inside the 3 miniscule rooms, Miss Rachel manages to squeeze a doctors surgery, immunisation clinic, sewing class, sex education lessons for teenagers, a homework club, a library, a summer camp and a feeding programme. During the sewing classes she educates the teenage girls about contraception and during the homework club she tries to give children access the books and computers they so desperately need.
Miss Rachel is now the beating heart of this small underdeveloped community. “ I don’t call it a building or a surgery”, she notes, I call it “the little house with a huge heart”.
Supporting the children: more than love
The families originally relocated here were by definition the ones with lots of children. Unemployment is high and opportunities are low. Many families cannot afford to clothe or feed their children, let alone educate them. When doctors recently informed her that many of the children were undernourished, Miss Rachel began a feeding programme.
Two years ago a UK school group built a shelter for her clinic patients to wait in and also donated a tiny wooden kitchen, but without any government funds, she struggles to afford food to cook in it. Her goal is to provide all those who need it one meal a day. Not satisfied with that, she also allots time in her precious kitchen to those teenage girls who have been forced to drop out of school due to pregnancy, giving them space to prepare food and a place to eat together. “I wanted to reach out the children who were brought here”, she says.
A few months ago she gratefully received three donated computers which she wanted to give the children a chance to do their homework each evening. There they sit crammed in-between books, toys and medicines on a desk waiting for electricity to bestow them. Sharing electricity with the next door police station seemed like a good option until Miss Rachel realised that no internet company would supply her.
The future looks bright
With precious little resources, Miss Rachel has only dreams and creative ideas to make sure the next generation change the story of this forgotten town. Amongst her current plans are to start a vegetable garden for her feeding programme and train the community’s young people to maintain it, secure funds to build a storage room so she can expand her programmes, and source two more computers so that internet providers will be able to supply the little health post for free.
She is the light of the community, comments Efrain Perez a local development project specialist, “working so hard to really make a difference for the kids, youth and adults of this area – she has a piece for everyone”.
A sad product of politics, what could have been a symbol of hope destroyed is now a symbol of human tenacity and creativity. Whatever happens next in this story one thing is for sure, Miss Rachel will be right in the middle of it.
For more information about this story, how you can help or how to see Belize for yourself, contact me!