Ambergris Caye: an atoll, resembling an island, that’s almost the tip of a peninsula, closer to Mexico but belonging to Belize and under claim by Guatemala. A Caribbean lifestyle, integrated with a Mestizo culture, but geographically part of Central America. Multiple languages are spoken, with English being the official language, but most San Pedranos, named after the only town on the island, San Pedro, speak a combination of English, Spanish, and Kriol. After you’ve lived here a while, if you love it as much as I do, the combination of these languages make you feel at home and become an integral part of life.
While many people not familiar with Belize think they know what Kriol is, the truth is that they don’t. English speakers, hearing it for the first time, believe it is Jamaican Patois. North Americans, who have never visited, believe it must be a version of their Louisiana Creole. Some dismiss it as “broken English”. But Kriol is the language of the Creole people of Belize. It has an official dictionary, or Dikshineri. It resembles English but no English-speaking person visiting Belize for the first time would be able to understand much of it, as it’s spoken fast and furiously by people of all ethnicities who have grown up in Belize.
As there are so many other cultures living here that make up the rich diversity of Belize, aside from Spanish you will hear Chinese speakers, Arabic language speakers, Yucatec and Ketchi Maya speakers, the unique language of the Garifuna, and Low German Mennonite speakers – all moving swiftly between their own languages and Kriol smoothly and easily. I must admit that my favourite part of Kriol is the sayings, that when spoken in true Kriol, carry the weight of immense wisdom and humour. For example, “If dah no so, dah naily so” means, “It’s close enough to the truth to pass muster”.
I present you with this background on language to help you understand my excitement when I received a Jehovah’s Witness booklet in my little wooden mailbox, written completely in Kriol. The title was, Gud Nyooz Fahn Gaad. May I first lay this on the line: I am one of the faithless, so I have absolutely no interest in religions, except in the way they affect me and my community on a day to day basis. Understanding a little bit about them is important too in terms of being culturally sensitive and appreciating traditions that my friends and neighbours enjoy. Having people knock on my door to evangelize though… not so much.
Fortunately, when we built our home, we built a big fence that has a lockable gate and we have dogs so they can never quite make it to our door to knock (you can’t knock them for not being persistent though). As soon as they saw our new little mailbox, they posted their booklet. (Before you get jealous, please let me point out that we do not have postal deliveries here, but our local electricity company randomly decided that they wished us to have a mailbox so they could deliver our bills directly.) When my partner discovered the pamphlet and presented it to me, my first reaction was to head for the bin, but no… wait a minute… then I saw it was entirely written in Kriol, and now I’m hooked. I have been giving Kriol Jehovah’s Witness sermons in my home for the past two days. My Kriol is terrible, sure, but I think that’s all part of the experience.
Fortunately, the fun of learning about their theology in Kriol overrode my general cynicism about churches here. Ambergris Caye, like many islands, has unsurprisingly attracted a wide range of evangelical churches. Hey, if you’re going to become a missionary and save souls, might as well do it in a warm climate where it’s sunny almost all of the time and no one frowns upon drunken Christians demanding 10% of your income, right? Oh, but wait a minute – the main religion is Catholicism actually. No worries, we’ll just override local culture and fight with the traditional church for that tithe. Their souls are better off with us anyway and our heaven is so much better! Then we can build fancy buildings and bring down more missionaries to live on a tropical island and bring down hoards of teenagers to “volunteer” in between their snorkeling trips and zip-lining!
Anyway… I better get back to my Kriol Jehovah’s Witness booklet. According to their booklet, “Gaad hav wahn aaganaizayshan”. Translated, that means, “God has one organisation” and by that, they mean that there is only one legitimate church, which happens to be theirs. I must say that were I looking for a stairway to heaven from this little island, I’d be terribly confused, as there are so many to choose from now and they all claim to be the one and only.
Over and out from my favourite rock.