UF journalism students learn, grow during Belize trip

By MAGGIE MCCLELAND

Special to the Sun
October 11. 2005 6:01AM

SEINE BIGHT, Belize - In the early hours of her first morning in this Central American village, Emily Harris stood in a circle around a blanket spread with plates of beans, fish, cassava bread and bottles of rum.

She stood with a group of seven Garifuna women as they held hands and blessed the food prepared for their ancestors by singing "Our Father" in the language of their forefathers, a people who emerged hundreds of years ago as Arawak Indians and African slaves settled with the Caribbean population.

The smells of the food mixed together with the damp, earthy scents of the dimly lit room as Harris began to photograph the ceremony.

But one of the women stopped Harris and instead pulled her into their circle.

"It was interesting to witness their ritual although I didn't understand what they were saying," Harris later said.

It wouldn't be the first time this University of Florida student - or her classmates also in the country on assignment- set aside their journalistic mission to share an experience with their subjects, the Belizean people.

Students found that journalists do more than just take away a story - they also have an opportunity to give something back.

As part of a advanced journalism practicum nicknamed the "Florida FlyIns," Harris, 21, and 12 classmates spent last week in the Stann Creek district gathering information to tell the story of Belize and its people through words and pictures.

Each year, the Florida FlyIns program, under the direction of professor John Kaplan, travels to a different Latin American country to produce feature stories.

This year, the sixth in the program's history, was the second time Kaplan's students have visited Belize.

The students stayed in the coastal town of Placencia and broke off each morning into pairs to visit neighboring communities, in some cases catching rides in the back of passing trucks.

Some spent the day conducting interviews creekside among Mayan residents washing clothes, for instance. Others watched as fishermen netted sharks, mackerel and snapper from dories, or flat-bottomed rowboats.

In a village called Maya Center, writer Billy Shields, 30, and photographer Brad McClenny, 25, learned that one of their sources, a Mayan political activist named Julio Saqui, had his own ideas on what a story about his people should say.

"I would like to tell the story of the difficulties the Mayans have, because maybe people in the outside world will then read it and decide that they want to help our community," Saqui said.

Some residents in this Mayan community hoped that a story about them might increase tourism to the area.

Others wished that a story about Mayan culture would re-awaken young Mayans to their traditional way of life.

Personal relationships formed between the students and Belizeans, sometimes initiating an exchange that challenged the students' value system.

The subject of Jessica Crossfield and Jenny Wiley's story was a Mayan family living in the village of Santa Rosa. Crossfield, 23, and Wiley, 21, are pescetarians - vegetarians who also eat fish.

They were offered a lunch of barbecue chicken on their first day visiting the family.

A desire not to offend the family, which had been gracious to them, influenced their decision to eat meat, Crossfield said.

"We were in their home, had just showed up on their doorstep one day, and although they didn't have a lot of food, they shared what they did have with us," she said.

"We ate the chicken and it was great," she said.

The next day, the two were offered lunch again, this time corned beef, and again they accepted.

Other students in the group experienced similar bonds of friendship with the locals.

Sarah Kiewel, 28, and Morgan Moeller, 20, teamed up for a story about Garifuna fishermen.

During the course of the week, Kiewel, a photographer, and Moeller, a writer, shared long days with their story subjects, dining with them and even meeting their friends and family members. They exchanged gifts at the end of the week.

Kiewel said she will treasure the deep connection she made with the fishermen.

"Instead of just wanting answers to our questions and material for our project, we have cared about them as people, and in exchange they've given us a part of their lives," Kiewel said.

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