A School For Others; The History of the Belize High School of Agriculture
George LeBard (Belize 1981-86)
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975-77)
MORE THAN a Peace Corps experience memoir, this is a story of redemption. Very few people honestly confront personal weakness and fewer change. I do not refer to the new found frugality we all learn as Volunteers but a physical and mental change. LeBard explains his sordid past, accepts full responsibility and then describes his own long journey towards change. His Peace Corps experience lasted longer than most for he served for five years. The fruits of his labor are quite extraordinary, not only for his host community but for him personally.
In 1981, LeBard reported as a thin thirty-one year old. In the book, he admits that prior to the Peace Corps his “life consisted of drinking, drugs and one-night stands.” A former gang member, he considered his biggest accomplishment prior to service “staying alive.” Unlike more than ninety percent of Peace Corps Volunteers, the author had never attended a university. Yet, assigned to the Ministry of Education, he helped with primary schools. He was told to plant school gardens and then to use them as a basic learning block.
His new home, an obscure, isolated village in impoverished Northwest Belize was not on the major highway system. It was contiguous to the Guatemalan Peten, an area then known for civil war and atrocities, today famous for drug smuggling. His district (on the Belize side) included a series of small villages that subsisted with one cash crop — sugar cane — and victory gardens planted on Mayan communal tracts. The area has a unique history. During prolonged racial warfare on the Mexican portion of the Yucatan Peninsula (north) between 1847 and 1901, the Mexican portion of this land mass was left almost uninhabited for the first time in nearly two thousand years. An insurgent Mayan chief and his army were exterminating all people who were not of “pure” Mayan blood while a Mexican army was exterminating anyone who looked “Indian.” Some Mayans fled south to what is today Belize. As a consequence, eighty years after the end of Mexican hostilities, the author encountered a population which mixed English (the Belizean national language), Spanish, Creole and Mayan.
LeBard adjusted to the rain forest, the diet, fer-de-lance snakes and even death. His neighbor’s son died from fever and he witnessed a murder while the area changed. What had been a sugar cane growing region, became a drug growing region when the price of sugar cane dropped during his third year. Foreigners began to appear with money and automatic weapons. Gangs formed. Turf wars began. While driving a motorbike, he was run off the road. He was caught in the middle of a shoot-out. On another occasion, a local gang had to intervene to save him from out-of-work pistoleros who wanted to pick on the gringo. His school had a clandestine landing strip nearby. Even ministers of government were involved. He explained, “Local newspapers labeled the district ‘Rambo Town.’”
That same year he found a nearby abandoned school which spawned an idea. Since most students could not pass the high school entrance exam or afford tuition, he proposed a local agricultural high school “for others” — the cast-aways. He finagled a ninety-nine year lease for $1 per year, garnered an international grant, convinced the host ministry of education, organized, supervised plans and even recruited teachers and students. The result was the Belize High School of Agriculture, founded by the author. Yet, it only happened because he was willing to extend for an additional two years (five total). The grant was dependent upon this: no George LeBard, no school. So even though his life had become nightmarish, caught between rival gangs, he stayed.
He survived in part because he made good friends. During those five years, he gave up tobacco and drugs, and limited his alcohol consumption. His service area gained a school while he was rewarded spiritually with self-confidence and physically with a transformation: he gained thirty-five pounds of muscle. As a former Volunteer in neighboring Honduras, I can attest to the fact that most male Volunteers in this part of the world lose ten pounds. He also found a local wife. Their three sons can brag that they are a family of nations.
Lawrence F. Lihosit is the author of several books about or inspired by the Peace Corps including: Peace Corps Chronology; 1961-2010, South of the Frontera; A Peace Corps Memoir, Whispering Campaign; Stories from Mesoamerica and soon to be released Years On and Other Travel Essays.
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