Toledo BTIA used to publish The Toledo Howler. The interview below is with Don Own-Lewis who lived in Toledo from 1953 until his death in March 2018 at the age of ninety-three. Don was instrumental along with Garifuna educators in establishing the first primary schools and primary health facilities.

Below is the article from the Howler

Don Owen-Lewis: The Way We lived Then

Don arrived in Toledo in 1953.
“I was given this job as Maya Liaison Officer. I got to Belize via a West Indies plane and a banana boat from Jamaica… after two days in Belize they shuttled me down to Toledo. I passed by Punta Gorda and met Alec Frankson who was the District Commissioner. Then they took me up the Temash river and dropped me off in Crique Sarco. I was left there standing on the riverside with my bags at just about dusk…

“Eventually I built a wooden house in Crique Sarco, and had one in Otoxha and another in Aguacate but my headquarters was Crique Sarco. Crique Sarco was about thirty families, Otoxha about forty families and Dolores about thirty. If a village got too big they would migrate to another area… they were doing slash and burn farming and when it took too long to walk to the plantation they would relocate somewhere closer...it just happened spontaneously with no government involvement.”

Subsistence Living

“Going to Punta Gorda was an expedition. Probably the majority of people would go to Punta Gorda once a year...the alcaldes would go there when they changed...there was no reason to go there, they didn’t have much money...the only things they bought were things like shotgun shells, fish hooks, soap, kerosene; virtually everything else they got out of the jungle or from travelling peddlars, cobaneros. They were almost one hundred per cent subsistence farmers but when I went to Crique Sarco I employed men to put up the house for me and stuff like that. I started a cash economy I guess. They didn’t get much. I paid a $1.50 a day for labour. That was the going rate. There just wasn’t money in circulation. Most families did exactly the same things. The only barter they had was for their labour so that they would help their neighbours, with thatching for example, and when the time came the labour would be returned. The “fajina” system was them all getting together to clean the village and trails round about which was quite different. Maybe an old man would make hammocks and somebody would be extra good at making axe handles but families generally lived in the same way.

The odd person had a cow or two. They would grow beans and things like that that they sold to the Marketing Board. They had to take their produce down to Punta Gorda where they had their mill. The Marketing Board had little two-wheeled thrashing machines with a gasoline engine and if there was the demand they would bring up one of these machines and help to thrash their rice. Mostly they would take them to places like Pueblo Viejo and Columbia. There weren’t many villages in those days; there was a total of eleven. Crique Sarco, Otoxha, Dolores and Aguacate down near the Temash. The rest of them were up the San Antonio road. San Antonio, Columbia, San Miguel and Santa Cruz had just started. San Jose had not yet been established. Pueblo Viejo had been around for some time and of course Big Falls did not exist then.

Medicine and Health

Bush doctors used to serve an apprenticeship and an apprenticeship would be many years. Some bush doctors were very good but they often did not pass on their knowledge and it died with them. There was a belief among the Maya that a bush doctor as well as being a doctor and healer also knew something about the dark side, so if somebody died suddenly or something funny happened they would tend to look at the bush doctor. Quite a lot of them got run out of their villages and quite honestly I don’t think it was justified at all; it was just people’s imagination. Modern bush doctors do not know as much. Antibiotics and malaria drugs put bush doctors out of business because they were so much more effective and a lot of the knowledge has been lost. Some of them were exceedingly good and I have seen some remarkable cures using bitter medicines and leaves from the jungle, putting poultices on wounds and sores. Once I was paying a visit in Otoxha and I had a doctor along with me, an English fellow and somebody told us about a lady who was sick and we went to see her and she was in this bush house sitting in a hammock with her foot propped on a stool and a little boy was there with a fan keeping off the flies because the stink in this place was awful. She had given birth a couple of weeks before. Presumably it was gangrene, I don’t know but the doctor took one look at it and he says bring her down to the hospital. I said Ok I’ll get some men and we will carry her down. And she said, “No, I’m not going.” “Why?” “Because you will chop off my foot. What use is a Kek’chi lady with only one leg?” The doctor said to me “It’s the only thing to do. Amputation.” There was some bush medicine in a glass beside her and some leaves covering the sore because she was already being treated by the bush doctor who was a very good one. So we left and I saw her about a month later and she said “Look at my two feet”.

Courtship and Marriage

Sometimes a boy who liked a young woman would go to her father and ask for work but not insist on payment and there was a kind of mutual understanding that after a time the father might agree to the match.

Somebody would speak for the boy. He would never speak for himself. He would always ask an older person to speak on his behalf. He would probably tell his father about the girl and ask him to ask for her hand. Or perhaps the father would suggest that a girl was suitable because he was friends with her family.

They would always ask three times. The first time they would come and ask the girl’s father for her hand but he would not give an answer and only say he would think about it. All the houses had a little shrine, usually to Esquipulas, the black Christ. The father of the boy would leave a dollar bill by the shrine and then come back again the following week.

The two men would have a similar discussion and the boy’s father would check to see if the dollar bill was still there. And then he would return a third time and the first thing he would do would be to check to see if the dollar bill was beside the shrine. If it was then this was bad news but if the bill had disappeared then the match was approved.

They would then fix a date and the wedding would take place accompanied by chicken caldo for all the invited guests. It was not usually a church wedding because there was no priest but was considered just as binding. Priests would sometimes try to persuade the couple to legitimize their partnership but that sometimes had the effect of splitting up the couple because it disturbed the power relations between the couple. One priest told me that he had given up trying to persuade couples to get married because the result was often the opposite of what was intended.

The bride’s father would then help the young man build his house and help him thatch it and the boy would continue to work for his father-in-law for at least a year after the marriage took place.

Law and Disorder

In my day there wasn’t any alcohol in the villages. It wasn’t allowed except on Catholic feast days when everybody got drunk; men and women and there would be fights but most of the time it was pretty peaceful. Two or three times a year the alcalde or major domo (the leader of the local Catholic congregation)would go down to Punta Gorda and request the District Commissioner’s permission to buy five gallons of rum which would be brought back to the village for sale on the approaching feast day. They would invite the neighbouring villages to come and help drink it and they would keep on drinking until it was finished….women dancing with their poor baby hanging down their back. Chicha was an illegal local brew made from corn and sugar that was also made.

At other times the villages were harmonious places with law administered by the alcalde who could fine people up to twenty dollars that was a lot of money in those days and if they couldn’t pay they got locked up in the cabildo and they were given a job to do in the village digging drains or something of the sort and it was a very efficient system. The transgressions were often to do with women; looking at the women when they were bathing or going into somebody’s house when the man was away...but stealing didn’t happen. Nobody had a lock on the door and people just didn’t steal.

I had a room in the Punta Gorda rest house and I never locked it. I had a bed in there with sheets and blankets and a Primus stove (single burner gas ring) and tins of soup. I could come in at night and light my little Primus stove, peel a few potatoes, open a tin of corned beef and I had an instant meal. Nobody interfered. Now it’s getting worse and worse every year.”


Recreation and Leisure

When people were not working their farms they would spend their leisure time hunting and fishing. They were both good. They would paddle a dory down the river to look for gibnut. Perhaps they had a football from time to time but they would not last long. There wasn’t even any radio much. Perhaps one or two people in the village would have a little radio on which they would pick up Radio Belize and it was very good; far better then than now.

In the absence of formal education the young children would learn the prayers to say at planting and the conventions attached to it. The first thing we did was to get schools in every village. (Don Owen-Lewis played a central role in making this happen). We focused on two things: health and education. After I left nine years later in 1962 some of the things fell apart within six months because there was no continuity. We had an airstrip in Crique Sarco and a village boat that used to go up to Punta Gorda every two or three weeks but that thing sank; partly my fault for not delegating responsibility for it. The airstrip probably had no more than about twenty flights come in. The governor would occasionally visit me and he would fly in. The pilot Colonel Baker did not like to fly in there at all because he did not know what he was going to be putting his foot into. It was a shaky deal. It was made by hand with shovels and hoes and grazed by cattle. Looking back we should have taken a tractor down there; dismantled it and put it in a dory and then we could have maintained and mown it. Looking back there were many things I would have done differently.

Moving to Big Falls

After working for the government for ten years I thought it would be difficult to go back to civilization again. I bought myself a piece of land up in Big Falls; the road of course wasn’t built then. The only people living in Big Falls were four Spanish families who had come from Honduras. No Maya at all. I bought the piece of land from the Palmas a little bit further downstream from where Big Falls is now. It was all high bush; full of animals but no people and I invited three or four families from Crique Sarco who I got on well with to come and keep me company. They came. They prospered and half of Crique Sarco followed. Many of the Maya families here in Big Falls were originally from Crique Sarco

Don Owen-Lewis Part 2

Recreation and Leisure
When people were not working their farms they would spend their leisure time hunting and fishing. They were both good. They would paddle a dory down the river to look for gibnut. Perhaps they had a football from time to time but they would not last long. There wasn’t even any radio much. Perhaps one or two people in the village would have a little radio on which they would pick up Radio Belize and it was very good; far better then than now.

In the absence of formal education the young children would learn the prayers to say at planting and the conventions attached to it. The first thing we did was to get schools in every village. (Don Owen-Lewis played a central role in making this happen). We focused on two things: health and education. After I left nine years later in 1962 some of the things fell apart within six months because there was no continuity. We had an airstrip in Crique Sarco and a village boat that used to go up to Punta Gorda every two or three weeks but that thing sank; partly my fault for not delegating responsibility for it. The airstrip probably had no more than about twenty flights come in. The governor would occasionally visit me and he would fly in. The pilot Colonel Baker did not like to fly in there at all because he did not know what he was going to be putting his foot into. It was a shaky deal. It was made by hand with shovels and hoes and grazed by cattle. Looking back we should have taken a tractor down there; dismantled it and put it in a dory and then we could have maintained and mown it. Looking back there were many things I would have done differently.

1959 Moving to Machaca

Eventually the base in Crique Sarco became too remote and in 1959 Don moved to what he considered then the centre of Toledo district at Machaca. What is now the Forest Department office near the Laguna junction was built in four months as headquarters for Don as the Maya Liaison Office.
“It was when I was still down in Crique Sarco that the governor Sir Colin Thornley flew in to visit and he stayed the night in my little bush house. That evening I was swinging in my hammock and he was marching up and down and suddenly exclaimed, “This is not good enough! I have nowhere to sit.”
I said, “Sir, take my hammock.”
“No, no, no. I’ll get you some furniture.”
“But sir, there is nowhere to put it.”
“Oh, you want a better house do you?”
“Well it might be a good idea.”
“I’ll get you one.” He replied. So next time he flew in with an architectural drawing rolled up under his arm and told me he had the money. But it wasn’t just a house it was a compound with five buildings and my own house that was forty foot wide and sixty foot long; two storeys and made of concrete, an office building and separate clerk’s and visitors’ quarters. I just needed to find a location more central in the district and I saw Tony Thriff who was the head of forestry and said, “Tony I need to build a house. Give me a piece of land.” And he told me to get lost and go and bug someone else. I said, “Tony, listen. I only have three years of my contract to go and when I leave you will inherit it.” “Oh,” he paused. “Build it wherever you want.”
I looked at the map of Toledo. There was no Southern Highway but Machaca was half way along the San Antonio Road and seemed quite central so that was where we built it. It was probably the best building in Toledo at the time and was designated a hurricane shelter.
I went on leave to the UK for five months and when I came back the building was up. We did not build all the other buildings in the original plan but I was allowed to use the money saved to push a road from San Pedro Columbia to San Miguel. We opened it, cambered it, put up a hog fence and built the concrete bridge over the Columbia branch. We also used a bulldozer from the Phillips oil company close by to open a road all the way down to Laguna. The village did not exist then but was founded a short while later by families who moved from San Miguel. San Felipe was founded by other families from the same village.
During my time at Machaca we also put in a telephone line from PG to Machaca and onwards to San Antonio

1963 Moving to Big Falls

After working for the government for ten years I thought it would be difficult to go back to civilization again. I bought myself a piece of land up in Big Falls; the road of course wasn’t built then. The only people living in Big Falls were four Spanish families who had come from Honduras. No Maya at all. I bought the piece of land from the Palmas a little bit further downstream from where Big Falls is now. It was all high bush; full of animals but no people and I invited three or four families from Crique Sarco who I got on well with to come and keep me company. They came, they prospered and half of Crique Sarco followed. Many of the Maya families here in Big Falls were originally from Crique Sarco. I used to take whatever I grew down to Punta Gorda to sell on a trailer pulled by my Massey Ferguson tractor. It would take three hours each way at no more than ten miles an hour.

I met a man named Jackie Vasquez who had a somewhat controversial history and mothers with small children who misbehaved would tell them that Jackie Vasquez would get them. Anyway he had a jaguar caller that he showed me and I was able to copy. It was a long calabash with a three inch diameter hole at each end and across one end was pinned a piece of deerskin with a small hole in the centre through which he had threaded some long horse hairs he had plaited together

Medicinal Healing

These days there is a lot of competition for a bush doctor with antibiotics and malaria drugs and things like that. There was once an old lady lying in a hammock in Santa Teresa.
I said “ How are you feeling?” And she replied “Oh, I want to die, I want to die.”
I said “We can take you to PG. We’ll get a hammock to carry you”.
“Oh, no. I want to die in my village”
The local bush doctor said he could not do anything more so I went to Punta Gorda and spoke to the doctor who was a friend of mine and described the symptoms. He gave me half a dozen medicines for hook worm and malaria and I bought a bottle of a patent medicine called Parrishes Food that was an iron supplement for anaemia. I gave all this to the bush doctor in the village with instructions and told the old lady that she would be dancing when he next saw her. And the next time I called by the village she had indeed been dancing and she was in fact just thirty-five although she had looked like an old lady. And the other women in the village mobbed me and demanded the same medicine. But the lesson was that in this instance the bush medicine had no cure. In those days anaemia, hookworm and, malaria were three big killers. Infant mortality was horrendous.
I was once on leave in England in the late fifties just after San Miguel village had been founded by a migration of the whole village of Santa Teresa with the exception of the bush doctor. The rains began and the villagers were drinking water from the river and the children got sick with diarrhoea and dehydration and forty-two children of pre-school age died in that one village: all totally preventable these days with the right medicines.

What Has Been Lost?

Honesty seems to have been lost with creeping civilization. One did not need a padlock in those days. To me it was golden age.
The other thing that has been lost is the soil fertility because the soil was not over-cultivated and the bush wasn’t cut too often. When you did cut the bush you got a crop: now because the bush is depleted you can’t. I farmed my land for forty years. It was high bush, big trees, some of them mahogany. I cut it and made pasture and initially the soil was strong and fertile but little by little it lost it and the cattle lost condition and I had to give up on cattle after about fifteen years. I was just lucky that that was the time they had cold weather in Florida and citrus became profitable. But you can’t even grow citrus now because the fertility has gone and you can’t replace it except by letting the trees come back. That’s what I see as the future. The future of Toledo is trees.