In October of 2001, when I was a master's degree student in the Family Nurse Practitioner program at Prairie View A&M University, I had the opportunity to experience the adventure of a lifetime. I was part of a team of health care professionals who traveled to the Central American country of Belize for a one-week medical mission.
I believe traveling must be in my blood. My mother is a world traveler. She once told me that her dream was to visit every continent in the world, and today she has nearly accomplished that goal. My own desire to travel began in kindergarten when my teacher marveled on and on with such excitement about her trip to Hawaii. For every birthday, I would ask to go to Hawaii as a present—and on my 13th birthday, my dream came true!
So when my dentist approached me about the possibility of traveling to Belize, that adventurous feeling returned.
My dentist is part of a missionary group from our local Woodlands United Methodist Church that travels to Belize about twice a year to spread the word of God and provide free dental and medical care to school-age children in this impoverished Third World country. For some reason, she couldn't make this particular trip and asked if I could possibly go in her place.
I drove home from my dental visit wondering what I could offer the Belizeans. I was only a nurse practitioner student with over a year of training still to be completed. I discussed the idea with my husband, who has always been very supportive. He said that if I wanted to go, he would hold down the fort at home with our three children.
Before I knew it, I had received my passport and immunizations. I withdrew some retirement savings and was making travel arrangements. When I mentioned my upcoming adventure to some of my colleagues, friends and family members, I received responses like: "Girl, you can't speak Spanish," "You could get killed or raped," "Don't you remember September 11?" "Aren't you scared?" and "What about your family?" But when I called my mother, she was elated. The next thing I knew, I was boarding the plane with my passport, traveler's checks, bottled water, mosquito repellent and Bible at my side.
Belize (formerly British Honduras) is located in the eastern part of Central America, bordered on the northwest by Mexico and on the southwest by Guatemala. It is a country rich in natural beauty, culture and history. However, Belize is poor in health care resources. Its rural villages are desperately in need of access to quality medical care.
Belize is a multiracial melting pot of cultural mixing. According to the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, in 1998 there were approximately 170,000 people living in Belize. About 44% of the population is made up of mestizos (people of mixed Mayan Indian and European descent); 31% are Creole (African and Afro-European ancestry); about 9.2% are Mayan and about 6.2% are Afro-Amerindian (Garifuna). The remaining population is of European, East Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern and North American origin. English is the official language, and the language of instruction in schools.
Our group's destination was Corozal Town, which is located within the Corozal District of Belize. This area has a population of about 10,000. Our assignment was to work in the rural villages of Copper Bank and Chunox that surround Corozal Town.
From the plane, I could see miles and miles of moist, fresh green mountain peaks and aquamarine bays. They looked like they had been sculpted by hand. I thought to myself, "I must be in heaven." The scenic view was breathtaking.
When we arrived at the airport, I was mesmerized by the sight of the jubilant people who greeted us. With so many different shades of brown skin, it was like a candy store filled with flavors of caramel, honey, butterscotch, maple syrup, dark brown sugar, light brown sugar, deep chocolate, fudge and peanut brittle. Then my ears caught the musical sounds of whistling languages—Creole, Caribbean, Spanish, German, Chinese and, of course, our familiar English spoken with a slight twist. Some of the Belizean women and children had their hair braided like mine. But there were variations in the texture of their hair, ranging from shiny, fine-textured black and brown to coarse like lamb's wool to curly like a newborn's molded head.
We arrived in Copper Bank about 9:00 am. The villagers, who are primarily fishermen, lived in one-room tin-roofed shacks and huts made of palm leaves. They walked on cement or dirt floors in their homes. At night they slept peacefully snuggled together in hammocks. Their homes lacked running water, electricity and bathrooms. Hand-washed clothes hanging outside to dry were a common sight, as were nude toddlers playing in the dirt roads.
The villagers commuted along the roads by walking barefoot. The lucky ones rode bicycles. A crowd of women at the bay washed clothes on rocks while their children bathed in the water. Other women traveled down the road carrying baskets on their heads filled with clothes, food and other essentials.
In Copper Bank there was only one telephone for the entire village. The lines of communication are kept open through word of mouth and honking car horns. When a honking car drives through the village, the villagers run and gather around the car to hear the latest news report.
In addition to myself, our medical team consisted of a pediatrician, Dr. Shehaz Jacob; a family nurse practitioner, Susan George; a dentist, Dr. Gary Ricketts; two dental hygienists, Nellie Soria and Patricia Bissia; and an interpreter, Monroe Taylor. Our makeshift clinic was located in a dwelling with no air conditioning, electricity or plumbing. The doors and windows were open and there were no screens to prevent flies and mosquitoes from entering. The only protection we had from the tropical sun and occasional showers was a roof over our heads.
I came prepared with latex gloves, antibacterial hand gel, bottled water, stethoscope, penlight, otoscope and ophthalmoscope stuffed in my fanny pack and pockets. My job consisted of triaging, diagnosing, prescribing medications and performing pediatric assessments.
When we arrived at the clinic, the Belizeans were already waiting for us in a single line that stretched for about half a mile. The temperature was approaching 98 degrees. Smiling brown-skinned children with large brown oval-shaped eyes arrived barefoot, toothless and sucking their thumbs. Other children stood holding onto their mothers' skirt tails, dressed with pride in their Sunday best. Their freshly washed, braided hair was styled with bright rainbow-colored bows and they smelled like a newly opened bar of soap.
The women were sitting and standing, openly breast-feeding their infants while their other children remained at their side. Stray dogs were roaming through the crowd. Chickens were marching about to their own musical parade.
The villagers continued to wait patiently to have their children examined at the clinic. They stood in the long line for hours, never complaining and seemingly impervious to the mosquitoes, flies, chickens and stray dogs, as well as the hot sun, rising humidity and sporadic showers. The Belizeans kept coming in droves. Most of them had large families, each with at least five to ten children.
As I worked, the villagers observed me closely, their oval brown eyes following every tedious fine movement and gesture I made. I was often addressed as "Doctor." Even though I was only a student nurse practitioner, to the Belizeans I was considered a highly qualified medical professional.
To say that my experience in Belize changed my life may sound like a cliché, but in my case it is literally true. For the first time in my life, the color of my skin had become a positive attribute. My African-American heritage, spanning the generations from slavery to freedom, was viewed as special by the Belizeans. They admired my cornrowed hair and I gave them permission to touch it. One little village girl of Caribbean descent came over to me and smiled, then exclaimed, "You are just like me!" I felt so proud to be an African-American professional nurse.
This brief moment made all of the struggles I had experienced back in the U.S. suddenly seem worthwhile. I remembered the many occasions when patients had informed me that my services were not wanted, due to the color of my skin. But in Belize, the color of
I view my journey to Belize as a blessing and a spiritual rebirth. This trip allowed me to set aside any feelings of negativism, hatred, guilt and distrust I had accumulated as a victim of racial prejudice. The acceptance I experienced in Belize was an affirmation of my faith. As an African American coming from the United States, a society too often filled with an overabundance of intolerance, my experience in Belize was a breath of fresh air that helped cleanse my soul.
Belize is a country that has poverty from sea to shining sea, but has no color preferences, no cultural boundaries and no limits on personal acceptance. For one week, people of different races came together, broke bread, shared, listened, gave, cried, laughed and loved. I learned more from the Belizeans in one week than I would ever learn in a lifetime, and I received more from them than I gave. I found love, tolerance and peace of mind.
Because of my experience in Belize, I now look at life from a new perspective. In the future, I shall return to Belize for another mission. Because every now and then, we all need to be recharged with love.
I would like to thank the following people for their encouragement and assistance: Jo Ann Blake, RN, PhD, professor at Prairie View A&M University College of Nursing, for serving as my instructor for the independent study in Belize; Dr. Sandra Carrier, my dentist, who gave me the idea of traveling to Belize; Cameron Collins and the missionary group from the Woodlands United Methodist Church in Woodlands, Texas, for giving me the opportunity to be part of their medical team; and Dr. Shehaz Jacob, my preceptor for this international clinical experience.