Letter 8 from Belize: Garífuna

Garífuna dress

I have made much reference to the multi-ethnicity of Belize, but this was really brought home to me when I was in Belize City, and I paid a visit to the Museum of Belize. There, by chance, they were launching a new exhibition entitled “Belizean ID”. Several speakers addressed the issue, highlighting the preoccupation many have in determining their own ethnicity, and deciding exactly what it is to be ‘Belizean’. Many here can trace 4 or 5 ethnic connections in their family history, and struggle to decide which is the most dominant when it comes to filling in census forms, for example. One speaker, an archaeologist, suggested that ethnic origins

Creole dress

were not the key to identity, but rather the cultural environment in which people live. (For instance, Ephraim here looks like a Creole, but he lives in a Mopan environment which he has adopted.) The

Bishop Dorick Wright

speaker also maintained that the Creole culture is so strong now that children everywhere in Belize are adopting its language and lifestyle, and marginalizing their own.

Background to the Garífuna

Dangriga is predominantly populated by Garífuna (more correctly known as the Garinagu), though I would say much more Creole than Garífuna is heard in the streets. In the tumultuous history of Europe’s incursion into the Americas and the trafficking of slaves from Africa to its shores, there are few stories as dramatic or moving as that of the Garífuna. The group’s genesis can be traced back to the sinking of two Spanish galleons off the coast of the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent in 1635. The Africans who survived the shipwreck intermarried with members of the local Carib/Arawak tribe that was the dominant population on Saint Vincent at the time.

The language

Adopting an Amerindian language from the Carib and Arawak families, the Africans’ discourse eventually gestated into the language that is today recognized as Garífuna.
Although it contains some French elements, Garífuna remains uniquely Amerindian in its roots, as opposed to African. In fact, before the Africans had arrived on St Vincent, the Caribs had invaded the island, killing all the Arawak males, and taking their womenfolk to bear their children. Today’s Garífuna betrays the fact that the language of the womenfolk was different to the men’s, with different words and expressions (of identical meaning) used respectively by men and women. Women would not use the men’s vocabulary, but men may occasionally use the women’s, highlighting the historically dominant role of the male in Garífuna society (much less evident today, of course).

Arrival in Belize

In 1797, amidst disputes between Britain and France over Saint Vincent, the Garífuna were banished from the island by exasperated British colonial authorities to the island of Roatan,  today part of Honduras. Nearly 3,000 Garífuna and their descendants subsequently spread out to mainland Honduras and along Central America’s Caribbean coast, from Nicaragua to Belize. The irony is that those who eventually settled in Belize, victims of a British expulsion from St Vincent, found themselves once again in British occupied territory. As you can imagine, their presence was viewed with great suspicion by the British authorities.

Garífuna Settlement Day November 19th

An important figure in the development of Garífuna consciousness was the Honduran journalist Thomas Vincent Ramos, who migrated to Belize in the early part of the 20th century and established the first Garífuna Settlement Day Celebration in 1941, which celebrates the first arrival of the Garífuna people on the shores of Belize. As I write this, we have just completed the day of celebrations, which started with the re-enactment of the arrival of the first settlers, followed by a most colourful, deeply cultural, Garífuna mass led by Fr Dominic. Not only was the liturgy conducted entirely in Garífuna, but Fr Dominic even delivered his sermon in Garífuna (after hours of preparation the previous night!).

The Mass was followed by the Official Ceremony in a local park, with military march-past, national anthem, crowning of Miss Garífuna and guest speakers that included the Prime Minister himself, Dean Barrow. The underlying theme of the whole day was the “empowerment of our children in the Garífuna heritage”. When the formalities were over, the parading and partying started for real! The streets of Dangriga were alive with music, dancing and colour, and the Street Festival continued for many hours. This day of celebration takes the Garífuna people back to their Ameridian and African roots, and reminds them of their debt of gratitude to the perseverance of their ancestors, to whom they owe their very existence today.

Prime Minister Dean Barrow

Language erosion

However, there’s clearly been a lot of linguistic and cultural erosion. Young Garífuna today are being lured away from the traditional lives of fishing and farming. The youngest people are not learning the language any more, and the average age of the people who can speak Garífuna is getting older and older. Some steps are being taken to address this decline. The National Garífuna Council, for example, was formed in the early 1980s to help promote and preserve Garífuna culture, and recently was instrumental in helping to launch the Gulisi Museum and Primary School, where Garífuna is taught within the curriculum. In 2001, the dance, music and language of the Garífuna were declared “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO.

Darí aríñon me, wadunraguáyaba (bye for now, see you soon)!


About Frank Burns

Looking for the extraordinary in the commonplace………taking the road less travelled……..striving for the ‘faculty of making happy chance discoveries’ in unremarkable circumstances. Click on the Personal Link below to visit my webpages.

Posted on November 18, 2008, in Letters from Belize and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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