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Making Cassava Bread in Dangriga, Belize

“It’s so hot! How do you handle all this smoke all day?”

A loud, piercing chuckle broke the crackling tempo of the burning wood. I paused and looked up from my Nikon.

I had tried approaching the burning fire hearth oven, to get a tighter portrait of Clotilda. But the bursts of flame and ashes made it near impossible to keep the angle I wanted.

“Well, right now, it’s all going towards you!”

Clotilda was laughing some more, pointing at me, and for the first time since I arrived an hour ago, pausing from her continuous sprinkling, spreading and flipping of the sifted cassava powder on a steaming surface. 

She was right. I had placed the sun behind me and myself smack dab in front of the fire hearth, close to swallowing billows of smoke, just to get a better shot of her in this dark, cavernous factory. I had to have her in my guidebook, one way or another.

Three miles outside of Dangriga, is Belize’s only cassava breadmaking factory, still standing after 25 years. A business passed on from generation to generation, and now to a brother and sister, Clotilda and Cyril, who continue to run it.

Every week, twice a week, Garinagu women workers gather here to bake cassava bread.

The process begins with peeling, and on one side of the tiled roof, concrete-walled open space, eight women sit in a circle. They peel the cassava roots, while chatting and sharing stories, and other times in silence. Five hours later, up to 12 bags of cassava will have been readied for washing and grating. The last step, would be baking – a six to eight hour process that two more women have mastered.  Clotilda is one of them.

By the end of it all, the bread is sent out to various stores across the country, from Belize City to Punta Gorda.

As we drive off from the farm, it hits me that this is more than a business. It’s a culture. It’s a purpose. It’s a symbol of independence. It’s about being your own boss, and preserving your freedom and independence.

I knew a thing or two about that.

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