|A lone fisherman in a dugout canoe paddles offshore in southern Belize.
The waters are calm, so the spirits|
of the sea are as well. But if the winds kick up, beware! Photo courtesy of douglas reeser.
“Oh, there’s lat’a ghost down deh.”
“A lot of what?” I asked, wanting to be sure I understood the statement in Kriol.
“Ghosts – I ‘fraid fo go down deh.”
Thus went my conversation with Dhir, a young East Indian boy I had met earlier that evening. I had traveled over six hours that day, for a meeting in a town in the north-central part of Belize. My meeting ended in the late afternoon, and I hadn’t been to this town in about five years, so I decided to stay the night. I found a room in an old wooden converted house still run by the original family. After freshening up, I decided to take a walk around town, take some pictures and find something to eat. During my walk, a young boy approached with the ubiquitous bucket.
“Do you want to buy sir?” he asked, talking with me first in English.
I love Belizean bucket food – breads, cakes and snacks sold out of a bucket, usually by children – and it almost always directly supports a local family, so I asked what he was selling.
“Fudge sir. It’s the best fudge in Belize! You won’t get anything like it anywhere else. My mother made it sir. Do you like fudge?”
I bargained a little bit, and bought a few pieces that I ended up bringing home to give some children in my neighborhood. Town was pretty quiet, so I dropped some things off in my room and ventured back out to find some dinner. I ended up at the only restaurant that had some customers, and sat out by the sidewalk so that I could people-watch. After a little while, Dhir came walking by.
With a big smile on his face he asked, “You want to buy some fudge sir?”
“It’s slow out there tonight. Are there usually more people around?” I asked.
“Yeah. It’s slow. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the heat. Just need to sell this fudge in the next 15 minutes so I can take the last bus to get home.”
It turns out that Dhir wasn’t too concerned with making that last bus, and maybe he was just hoping that I would buy up the rest of his fudge. Either way, I said he could sit down with me, and after I explained that I was living down in the southern part of the country, he brought up the ghosts. His family of mixed descent – his mother was Maya, his father East Indian – had told him of the spirits that are alive in the South. This is a common perception of the region held by Belizeans from other parts of the country. In fact, the spirits in the south are quite active.
My research on health and healing in southern Belize has revealed a world that remains hidden to the casual observer or visitor. There persist various beliefs across ethnic groups about the spiritual origin of illnesses. Q’eqchi’ Maya healers seek to appease certain spirits when they work with patients. Garifuna healers go into trance to communicate with ancestor spirits who give advice on how to properly treat patients. More importantly, people from across ethnic groups maintain that spiritual forces are active around us and can be influential in our health and well-being.
These beliefs are part of what shapes how people view the south of the country. For instance, officials from within the State health system believe that it is the belief in spirits that keep many rural and indigenous people from using the State-provided health services. They hold that certain beliefs about the spiritual aspect of health and illness are barriers to the uptake of what is in turn believed to be more effective biomedical care. However, this spiritual side of health and illness is not always a factor in health care seeking behavior, as sometimes an illness simply has a physical cause, which can be dealt with through the pharmacy or doctor. But in some cases for particular ailments, the spirits must be consulted so that they may aid in the healing process.
But the belief in spirits is not limited to the realm of health and illness. Spirits are said to populate the sea, and when it is very windy, I have been warned to be careful, as I could be taken by the spirits on the wind. I have also gone hiking to caves with some Maya friends, where our conversation has turned to the spirit that resides within jade. While resting at the mouth of the caves, my friends began talking about jade artifacts. Jade has a spirit of its own they explained, and sometimes it will reveal itself to someone. However, when someone finds a jade artifact who is not the proper person, the jade can cause trouble for that person. It can also vanish on its own volition, and stories abound about jade artifacts found and brought home, only to disappear and return to their original resting place. The artifact can then be found in that same place at a later time. People may know of these places, but when a piece of jade “acts” like that, they advise that piece be left alone.
There are many Belizean folktales that involve ghosts and the spirit world, many that date to the early 18th century. Ritamae Hyde (“Stoan Baas People’: an Ethnohistorical Study of the Gales Point Manatee Community of Belize,” Belizean Studies 2011) documents a few stories with ghosts or spirits that were told to her during her research in Gales Point Manatee, a village south of Belize City. In particular, she notes a story common throughout Belize and elsewhere in the Caribbean about a character called Ole Heg: “an old woman who possesses the power to transform herself into an Ole Heg, who, like a vampire sucks the blood of her victims.” This creature reportedly searches out children, especially young boys, adding a touch of heightened fear among the story’s youth listeners.
The ghosts and spirits have been friendly to me during my time here in the south of Belize. My research has steadily progressed, I have made some good friends, and I have not been sick for the entire year that I’ve been here. Perhaps this is because I have been friendly and open to people, while eating a healthy diet and continuing to exercise. Or perhaps the copal that I occasionally burn is enough to appease the spirits and leave me be. I told Dhir the same, and encouraged him to come to the south to visit his brother who is there as a part of his duty in the Belize Defense Force. However, I’m pretty sure his fear of Ole Heg will keep him away until he’s a little older.
This article also appeared in the May 2012 Anthropology News.