From Ghetto Brownstone to Brown Hut
By Henry Mulzac, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Belize, Latin America, 1975-1977
An enduring image that signaled the end to the Vietnam War was the rooftop landing of a helicopter evacuating Americans from Saigon. It was April of 1975. Halfway around the world, I began my Peace Corps service in Belize, Central America. Whenever I reflect back, those two seemingly short years spent in the Peace Corps were undoubtedly, some of the most important and rewarding years of my life.
Fresh out of junior college, I longed for an opportunity to travel, to meet new people, experience new cultures and to ply my skills as an apiculturist. By joining the Peace Corps, I was to fulfill all those things and more. According to my Peace Corps job description (sometimes likened to: 4 rms. w/a vu), I was going to be stationed in the southernmost portion of Belize, the Toledo District. Moreover, I was going to be living in the rural village of San Antonio among Mayan Indians. The ancient Mayan civilizations were empire builders in Mesoamerica and were the first beekeepers in the New World. Ironically, 1200 years later this young African-American from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn would be teaching the Maya, how to raise the European honeybee.
Shortly after arriving in Belize City, some of the new PCV’s in my group became apprehensive about staying. Their trepidation concerned the country, their proposed jobs and even their own commitment. My only lament was to learn that some PCV’s would be living in Victorian style homes in the city, whereas I was slated to live in a thatched “house” in the rainforest. Imagine, going from a ghetto brownstone to a jungle brown hut. Two years later, however I could say that I was not cheated, but rather it was I who had received dividends for the experience. A matter of fact, during my entire tenure it seemed I received special treatment by the host country, perhaps as much for my work ethic as it was for my being an African-American. Belize has many ethnic groups, represented by people of African, Hispanic, Asian and Indian decent. To the Mayans, I later discovered, I looked to be Creole but I confused them with a distinctive “Brooklyn” accent. For weeks on end, many of the San Antonio’s villagers did not believe that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. The only Peace Corps Volunteers the Mayans ever knew or saw had been White Americans.
Perhaps it matters little that the Mayans and I accomplished more than what had been expected. We increased the number of beehives in the country five-fold, built a honey processing plant and exported tons of honey to England.
Never lost, was the fact that the Mayans now had a new dependable cash crop to purchase seed, soap and kerosene. Still, some of my fondest memories are of the Mayan children who would come to my village extension office by the droves and inquire about every conceivable thing off my desk. I can still hear the short staccato sounds of their Mopan language, “Qua bail teck Mista Hendree?” “hat’s a magnifying glass,” I would explain and then proceed to demonstrate. ”Qua a bail adaMistaHendree?” “That’s a label maker,” I would say, then spend an hour or so making everyone a label of his or her name.
But the most amusing recollection of all was when one of those kids picked up my calculator, and started to peg away at the buttons as the whole group of seven watched and giggled. Peering over at the calculator’s display, I had to say, “Oh…let me turn it on for you.” These were just a few of the thousands of vignettes that personify the Peace Corps experience. It includes, the kind of discourse and disbelief surrounding a brightly lit night sky and my assertion that men walked on the moon. And about the time I wished for and told the toiling women who were washing clothes in the green tea of a river, about a time saving device called a washing machine only to be asked, “Do hands come out?”
I was the outsider let in, a confidante, a translator of technological mumbo-jumbo, an unraveler of red tape, an advance man for the nation’s Premier, and a friend the Maya called, Mr. Hendree. I do not know, if it was from growing up in Bed-Stuy or if it was from my village in the Mayan mountains, that I came to realize, “One is content until he sees better, one isn’t appreciative until he sees less.
Epilogue: Henry Mulzac (Belize 1975-77) is an entomologist and recently retired as a Detective from the NYPD’s Crime Scene Unit. Henry, and his wife Karen (whom he met as a PCV in Belize) reside in South Salem, N.Y.