Drumming on the beach, moving in time with junkanu dancers and eating heaping plates of mashed plantain soaked in coconut stew — more than likely these aren’t the experiences you imagine while planning a trip to Belize. In fact, you have to venture off the newbie trail, and head to the southern Stann Creek and Toledo Districts to experience Belize’s unique Afro-Caribbean Garifuna culture. November in the coastal towns and villages of southern Belize means one thing: the sound of Garifuna drums. But what do the rhythms of the drums mean and who are the people behind them?
Though commonly referred to as “Garifuna”, these people are properly called “Garinagu” and the culture and language are “Garifuna”. The Garinagu are recent arrivals to Belize, settling the southern coast of Belize in the early 19th century. One of the smallest ethnic groups in the country, they make up just 4% of a total population of around 325,000. The epic story of the Garinagu begins in the early 1600’s on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent.
The Garinagu people are believed to be descendants of West African (Nigerian) slaves who ship wrecked from European slave ships in the Caribbean in the 17th century and found their way to the nearby island of St. Vincent. There they mixed with the native Amerindians, known as the island Caribs who were actually descendants of Arawak and Carib Indians from South America. Over the decades the Garinagu people came to be a blend of cultures with the dark skin, drumming and singing of Africa, a language dominated by Arawak, and a tradition of fishing and cassava farming mastered over the centuries by the island Caribs.
Over hundred years after the first arrival of their African ancestors the Garinagu people’s time on St. Vincent was cut short by the intrusion of colonial European powers. Throughout much of the 18th century the French and the British fought over the island. Without sufficient numbers or firepower to deter the colonialists the Garinagu chose to side with their trading partners the French. Ultimately this cost them their homeland as in 1795 the British won the war and expelled over 4,000 Garinagu people from St. Vincent to the small island of Baliceaux and then onward to Roatan, Honduras. Those that survived the canoe journey, the disease, hunger and other hardships ultimately settled coastal towns and villages along the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and of course Belize in the early 19th century.
On the 19th of November every year in Belize the rising of the sun from the East represented in the yellow stripe on the Garifuna flag warns those waiting on the seaside ready to welcome those paddling to shore in their traditional dugout canoes with their drums, cassava, plantain, banana and coconut fronds, and flags flown high. This is Garifuna settlement day celebrated as the anniversary of the arrival of one of the largest groups of Garinagu settlers in Belize. The day begins with a reenactment of their arrival on Belizean Shores.
You can hear drums throughout November, but throughout the night on 18th November until daybreak and beyond the passion and excitement increases. As the crowds waiting on land watch their comrades paddling ashore only to be turned back several times by stern actors playing the part of the British Governor General there is a sense of solemnity mixed with the excitement as those watching are reminded of the struggles of their ancestors. But as soon as permission is granted to come ashore all sadness evaporates into a joyous celebration and the settlers are welcomed with an explosion of drumming, dancing and singing which follows them on parade around town and culminates with celebration and thanksgiving at the Catholic Church.
While drumming and music is the most well-known aspect of Garifuna culture it would be a mistake to assume there is nothing else worthwhile learning about this culture. The language is an intriguing mixture of Arawak, Carib, English, French, and Spanish. Ask any Garinagu person to count to 10 and ask him to say cheese in Garifuna for a photo and you’ll hear the French influence. Garifuna food can also be a real treat with most dishes featuring some combination of fresh fish, plantain, banana, cassava and coconut.
While few short-term visitors will directly experience it, the traditional spiritual beliefs of the Garinagu people also hold much interest. These beliefs revolve around the deeply held respect for their ancestors which is reflected through ceremonies such as the Dugu, a week or more long traditional family healing ceremony and events such as the masses to celebrate the lives of those who passed away.
The Toledo district boasts two large Garifuna communities; the town of Punta Gorda which was founded by Garinagu settlers but of course is now a delightful mixture of all Belize’s ethnic groups and the Village of Barranco. In both communities there are many opportunities to learn more about Garifuna culture including the Warasa Garifuna drum school in Punta Gorda and the House of Culture in Barranco. There is also a Garifuna Museum located in Dangriga.
Today the Garifuna struggle, however, to keep their culture alive. It is the devotion of the Garinagu to their roots which sets them apart from the other ethnic groups in Belize. While many Garinagu are professed Catholics, they have retained numerous traditions and rituals from their Afro-Caribbean heritage. About 15,000 remain in Belize, primarily in Dangriga, Hopkins, Seine Bight, Punta Gorda and Barranco. Passing through these areas, it’s difficult to tell that this culture has an endangered status. Signs of African ancestry are evident, whether in the thatched roofs of ceremonial temples, frequent echo of drums, fishing canoes dotting the sea at sunrise or girls having their hair braided under a tree on a hot afternoon.
“Many of the kids are losing the language; they’re embarrassed to speak it,” says Marva Augustin, a Hopkins Village native and owner of Laruni Hati Beyabu (“Under the Moonlight”) Diner. Partially a reaction to language erosion, a community-wide effort has taken hold to preserve and share the Afro-Amerindian heritage, particularly through music, dance and food.
As stated above, central to the Garinagu community is the belief in and respect for the ancestors. The Garinagu retain their powerful spiritual connection with past generations of any family group through the ritual “Dugu”. A Spiritual leader called a “Buyei” or shaman presides over family members, who travel from all over the world to gather at the dugu meeting place called a “temple”. No expense is spared as fresh seafood, pork, fowl and cassava bread are prepared for days of healing, dancing, drumming and communing with the spiritual world. This spiritualism spawns a wealth of creativity among Garinagu in the form of music, dance and art. Punta Rock is a modern musical interpretation of a Garifuna cultural dance. The Punta dance accompanying the music – with its seductive movements and rhythmic beat – is Belize’s most popular dance.
The Garifuna flag expresses much of what they believe and stand for as a culture. The Garifuna flag consists of three horizontal strips of black, white and yellow, in that order, starting from the top. This flag has long been accepted internationally as the flag of the Garifuna Nation and the colors have been used in any forum where Garinagu people assert their Garifuna identity.
What is the significance of the colors of the Garifuna flag? At one level, the colors of the flag represent the three principal races, with the black and yellow representing the African and the Carib/Arawak elements respectively, which fused to become the Garifuna. At a deeper level, the black symbolizes the hardships and injustices that they managed to survive in the course of their history, the yellow symbolizes hope and the prosperity for which they continue to struggle, and the white symbolizes peace.
Starting in January 2015 the United Nations has declared the “International Decade for People of African Decent” to run until December of 2024. The theme of this decade is to promote recognition, justice, and development for people of African descent through implementation of programs and activities to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, and restore the rights and dignity of people of African descent. The impetus for this decade comes from the acknowledgment of the untold suffering and evils that were inflicted on millions of men, women, and children of African descent as a result of centuries of slavery, the slave trade, colonialism, apartheid, genocide, economic deprivation, and other past tragedies. Many believe that we have yet to find ways to contribute to the development and restoration of the dignity of these people. Part of the present and future integrated sustainability plans for the country of Belize should be to embrace this decade declaration and implement sustainable development programs for the Garinagu populations in our communities.
Excerpts of this post are taken from the Toledo Howler, Newspaper of the Toledo Chapter of the Belize Tourism Industry Association, Fall/Winter-2014, Year 8, Issue 1.
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