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September 2001

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The Garífuna

By Susie Post Rust
Dancing through the streets of Dangriga, Belize, college students reenact the arrival of their Garífuna ancestors, who began trickling into Belize from Honduras around 1802. The Garífuna journey to Central America had begun long before—and was far from joyous.

Herded aboard slave ships in West Africa, a group of Garífuna forebears were likely destined for New World mines and plantations when they wrecked off St. Vincent in 1635. They found refuge with the island's Carib Indians, immigrants from South America. The two peoples blended through marriage, creating the Garífuna culture—Caribbean fishing and farming traditions with a mixture of South American and African music, dance, and spirituality.

The Garífuna prospered and coexisted peacefully with French settlers who came later in the 17th century. Tensions arose when English colonists began to arrive and demand land. Those tensions eventually turned to war. Hopelessly outnumbered by British troops, the Garífuna and their French supporters surrendered in 1796. The victors exiled the Garífuna to the island of Baliceaux. Imprisoned there in appalling conditions, more than half died. The following year survivors were shipped to Roatán Island off the coast of Honduras. According to legend, the Garífuna hid cassava, a mainstay of their diet, inside their clothes, where it stayed alive watered by the sweat of the tightly packed captives. They planted the cassava on Roatán, where it grew abundantly. Soon the Garífuna established fishing villages in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Belize. Each year in Belize, when locals reenact the arrival in that land, they slip out to sea in boats, then ride the surf onto shore, waving palm fronds and banana leaves to symbolize the cassava that sustained their ancestors. This ritual, rich in music and dance, helps sustain Garífuna culture.

Wooden dories rest on the shore of a lagoon in Nueva Armenia on the Honduran coast, where most of the Garífuna have settled. The sea still serves as a byway, grocery, laundry, workplace, and playground for the Garífuna people, much as it has for centuries. In Nueva Armenia, I was struck by the timeless rhythms of daily life. Fishermen rise before daybreak to head out to sea. Women work farms, raise the children, and prepare meals of fresh fish and cassava, plantains, pineapples, and coconuts plucked from village trees. Children help with family chores, scrubbing dirty clothes and cleaning fish hauled in by their fathers. This subsistence lifestyle, as well as physical isolation, has helped reinforce the Garífuna's cultural independence.

In recent years, however, there has been an accelerated shift toward a wage economy, according to Roy Cayetano, president of the National Garífuna Council in Belize. "We are not as self-sufficient as we used to be," he says. Many people have moved to larger cities and even to the United States in search of jobs, "seduced into working for wages."

In Nueva Armenia, José Vuelto Bátis has found a balance between the old way of life and the new. At midday he waits on the sandbar for fishermen to return from the sea. He buys surplus catch not needed for village families, then sells the fish to restaurants in La Ceiba, a nearby city of some 150,000 people. This business as a seafood middleman allows him to make a living and support his family while continuing to live in the village he loves—a rare straddling of two very different worlds.

Drumbeats for change first fell on deaf ears as Garífuna protesters met police near a government building in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. This face-off occurred when hundreds of Garífuna from around Honduras traveled to the capital city to protest a law that would make some of the Garífuna's coastal land vulnerable to tourist development.

The protest felt more like a party as people danced, sang, and beat their drums, but the message was solemn. "The land is like your mother. You don't sell her, nor do you rent her. In her we are born, and toward her we are returned at the end of our existence."

These words came from a video shown by Celeo Alvarez Casildo, president of ODECO, one of the largest Garífuna organizations in Central America. "The culture is at risk if the people lose their land," he says. The Honduran government has agreed to reconsider land sales that would affect Garífuna villages.

In Belize protecting language is also a primary goal. "We are beginning to make demands . . . that our spirit, our language, our history must be taught in our schools," says National Garífuna Council president Cayetano. "We have a reason to celebrate," he adds. "We are the children of survivors." Sacred Heart Elementary in Dangriga has taken up this cause. And at nearby Sacred Heart Catholic Church women display the brilliant colors and patterns of traditional Garífuna dress on holidays. But the quest to maintain culture seems to hang by a scarlet thread. "I think we're at a turning point," says Clement Flores, who returned to Dangriga after living in the U.S. "It's so easy to live by somebody else's standard."

With reverence, joy, and a sense of duty women from one extended family wade out to meet returning fishing boats as part of a ritual called the dügü—the most sacred ceremony of the Garífuna religion. When a family experiences persistent problems, the spirits of their dead ancestors request a dügü to reestablish spiritual, physical, and social harmony. All relatives must attend, whether they live on a tiny Honduran island or in New York City. At this dügü in Barranco, a remote village in southern Belize, family members also came from Guatemala, Honduras, and the U.S. After three days of fishing the boats return, and the family marches to a temple for two days of drumming and singing. During a dance called the malí, dancers believe they can summon healing by capturing the spirits of their ancestors. If the ancestors are appeased, the family will heal. This ritual brings family members together, strengthening the bonds that unite the Garífuna.


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