Learning to Listen in Belize

“Good Morning!” “Buenos Dias!” “Gud Mawnin!” “Buiti Binafi!” A morning greeting comes in many forms in Belize. Located in Central America nestled between Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras, Belize is rich in cultural diversity and its residents speak one or more languages including: English, Kriol, Garifuna and Spanish. It has a particularly interesting cultural history that has been at times difficult to define. One of my roles here has included assessing the cultural landscape while I work on initiatives to help preserve the traditions of the Garifuna, an indigenous group of African decent.

My educational background as a fourth year Tourism Management student has prepared me to assess and implement particular strategies while developing tourism within an area. In addition to my education, I have been exposed to an array of cultures within Canada, during my own travels and in my personal life, as a child of Chilean mother and Québécois father. However, despite my background, it has been challenging to assimilate into a community struggling to preserve its cultural identity.

As students focusing on international development we enter into new environments within foreign countries in hopes of helping local communities find solutions to the problems they face. We come with our university education and perhaps a preconceived idea of how to address these complex problems, for example: through the implementation of Cultural Tourism.

However, there are an array of political and socio-cultural complexities that exist within a country, which can cause for a landslide of information as to why communities are struggling. One of the greatest challenges in this journey has been identifying what is ‘most’ important to know and narrowing my sights on accomplishing meaningful work. This is what I’ve learned so far about entering into new communities in an international development setting:

LISTEN AND FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF

It is everything you thought, didn’t think and more. Put your preconceived notions and experiences aside and take every situation for what it is before making any concrete plans.

SET MANAGEABLE GOALS

Developing countries have an array of social, political and cultural complexities that come along with deeply rooted issues that may challenge your ability to contribute to meaningful change. It is easy to get discouraged in what at times feels like an unsolvable puzzle in an unrealistic amount of time. With that being said, take into consideration your projects and pursue the ones that have the greatest chance of longevity within the community.

ENLIST KEY MEMBERS OF THE COMMUNITY

In my experience, there are many who are aware of the various issues at hand but only a few key members that actually effect change. Get to know those people, give them a place in your projects and work alongside them.

In short, you are going to encounter an array of uncomfortable situations. My best advice would be to remain true to yourself, to be unbiased and to develop a support system during your time abroad. There will be discouraging days but the test of your strength will be in how you handle it all!

Melanie Messier, Tourism Management, VIU

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