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Oct 3, 2018

The Journey to Graham Creek – the Teachers’ Story

The Belize National Teachers Union and Ministry of Education have been at odds about the re-categorization of hardship allowances and time off. The argument being put forward is that the ministry is making big decisions with no real information to support their decision to cut back on allowances from teachers who experience real hardship when doing their job. And while some schools are not affected, there are several whose allowances may be cut. The M.O.E. and B.N.T.U. are meeting for the next two weeks to decide what will be the outcome. And so, to see if the ministry’s hardship allowance categorization is justified based on what’s happening on the ground, the B.N.T.U. has embarked on a series of visits to schools that receive the allowance.  Their first school visit was an isolated village in the Toledo District called Graham Creek. The media took the trip with the B.N.T.U. to document the hardships the teachers face at the school. While their allowance of two hundred dollars per month is not being cut, they believe they deserve more. Our news team, Andrea Polanco and Rick Romero, went along on the seven-mile trek to the village. There they captured the arduous journey and the difficulties two brave teachers face in order to teach at the Graham Creek Government School. Here’s that story:

 

Andrea Polanco, Reporting

Graham Creek – it is the southernmost village located along the Sarstoon River in Toledo.  There are about seventy-five people who live in this remote community. It has no electricity, no potable water and no form of telecommunication. There are no streets, no roads – just seven miles of dense jungle with a network of trails, knee deep mud and countless creeks to traverse if you want to get there.

 

Germuel Choco, Teacher, Graham Creek Government School

“Heading out to Graham Creek. It is two hours journey.”

 

B.N.T.U. reps, including President Elena Smith, Teachers Jose Cuc and Germuel Choco, cameraman Rick Romero and I departed for Graham Creek by way of Crique Sarco village on Monday morning. What we expected to be a two-hour journey turned into several hours – and it started off slippery –walking on slimy planks to cross the first of many creeks was no indication of how grueling it would be. We used sticks to help guide the way through the mud and over the sharp rocks and thick roots. But that was not enough to prevent getting stuck in the mud and slip and slide through the thick forest. Walking through the muck, crossing creeks and climbing up and down slick, steep slopes were enough to make us question whether we wanted to go to Graham Creek and if we can make it to the village. We had to stop to rest many times and after about two hours of pushing on, we were exhausted. The rains came down and made our trek even more challenging – but thankfully, Teacher Cuc made a temporary Cohune leaf shelter for us. It is difficult journey that, during the rainy season, can be dangerous. But for decades, the sixteen Ketchi families who live there have been doing it. Sometimes they use horses to help – but sometimes even the horses need a little help out of the mud. And so it was that after more than five long, tiring, toe-blistering hours of walking through the jungle, we arrived in Graham Creek. Teachers Jose Cuc and Germuel Choco do this journey at least twice a week – and they will tell you, it is not easy even when they put their own safety at risk but the press on because they have a job to do.

 

Germuel Choco

Jose Cuc, Principal, Graham Creek Government School

“It is very rough; it is a very hard area. When they talk about hardship in the other community it is not really hard, but here it is really extreme. Sometimes my teacher would reach late but I understand. Sometimes he would sprain his legs and he would stop and fix it up a little and then continue. It is really rough. Especially like when the rainy season, like this one here, this creek, you have two swim to get to school. I need to bring my extra boxers, pants and so when I reach school I feel cold and I have to switch on and continue with my work.”

 

Jose Cuc

Germuel Choco

“When it rains it is really dangerous. Sometimes there are trees that almost fall on top of us. Sometimes there are thunders and lightning strikes. It is really dangerous to get here. Sometimes we find snakes and jaguars on the road.”

 

Jose Cuc is the principal and a teacher at the Graham Creek Government School. This is his seventh year teaching there. Every Monday morning he wakes up at four to get ready to take the school bus in Punta Gorda. He then gets off at this junction because the school bus takes a different route from this point forward. He journeys on to Crique Sarco sometimes by foot or by motorcycle – on a road that often times is difficult to travel on. And after he arrives in Crique Sarco, he treks for seven miles to reach Graham Creek where he teaches standard three through to standard six.

 

Jose Cuc

“I want to see what impact I had on my students because I am teaching the children of my students at the time. So, I want to see if there is a difference. So, here I am, I want to see if I did make an impact on the community.”

 

Teacher Choco teaches Infant One up to Standard Two – a total of sixteen students. He has been teaching here for six years with no complaints because he says the children need to learn and someone has to teach them.

 

Germuel Choco

“I am committed to my profession. So, the kids come in my mind first. So, I try my very best to reach here because I always think about the children first.”

 

The Graham Creek Government School, founded by Teacher Cuc in 2001, is this small wooden two class-room building made up of thirty-one students. Here they use an old and often times malfunctioning solar system to power on the lights and computer when needed. Fitted with black boards, chairs and desks, it is basic by most primary school standards – but this space is where these two teachers, who are unsung heroes to the people of Graham Creek, mold the minds of the future of this remote village. Inside these classrooms are Belizean children with big dreams who would otherwise not be able to get a primary school education.

 

Daniela Teul

Daniela Teul, Standard IV Student, Graham Creek Gov’t School

“I like Math, Science, Social Studies and HFLE.”

 

Andrea Polanco

“Mr. Cuc is your teacher? Tell me about Mr. Cuc, is he a good teacher?”

 

Daniela Teul

“Yes. He is a good teacher and I like how [he] teach me.

 

Andrea Polanco

“What do you want to be when you grow up big?”

 

Daniela Teul

“I want to be a teacher.

 

Principal Cuc and Teacher Choco are recipients of the hardship allowance from the Ministry of Education. They get two hundred dollars each month. And at a moment when the Ministry of Education is at odds with the B.N.T.U. over hardship allowances – these teachers feel undervalued. While their allowance is not being cut, they say it is simply not enough.

 

Jose Cuc

“It is nothing. Sometimes it is just for gas from here to PG because sometimes you have to pay insurance for your motor-bike, gas, wear and tear. It is absolutely nothing. It doesn’t value anything especially in these days.”

 

Andrea Polanco

“What sum would be good or would be a good hardship compensation for you personally?”

 

Germuel Choco

“Well, that two hundred is really small. I think that we should get triple on top of that because for us it is very hard, it is really hard.”

 

Jose Cuc

“I think the ministry is chancing us. Although we are the ones educating our children, our future leaders, I think we should be heard. They shouldn’t deprive anything from us.”

 

And with B.N.T.U.’s President Elena Smith’s first-hand experience of hardship that the Graham Creek teachers go through, it has cemented the union’s position to fight for the schools that the Ministry of Education are re-categorizing. Smith wants to see that if the categorizations are justifiable based on the reality on the ground.

 

Elena Smith

Elena Smith, National President, B.N.T.U.

“Gruesome. It was tiring, oh my gosh. So many times we wanted to turn back – well, I didn’t want to turn back because my mission was to get here. But just having to go through that muck, that mud, knee-deep in water, crossing over those little sticks. I don’t know. This is what you call hardship. This is hardship.  I do agree with them that they deserve more. What they go through, if you are to take any of those persons sitting in those offices in the Ministry and bring them here, none of them would make it out. So, if they are to come here, they will come in a helicopter because they won’t take that trek. And so just to imagine what these teachers have to go through just to experience that. We have to fight for them. We cannot not fight for them.”

 

Reporting for News Five, I’m Andrea Polanco.

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Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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