The Garifuna World in Belize
Belize is a small country but ethnically diverse and culturally rich. Belize culture reflects the peaceful harmony between the various ethnic groups such as the Mayas, Creoles, Mennonites, Mestizos and Garifuna. And, Garifunas are a perfect example of a community devoted to their roots and who have successfully kept their culture alive by retaining many rituals and traditions from their rich Afro-Carribean heritage, having their own language, food, crafts, music and religion.
The epic story of the Garifuna begins in the early 1600’s on the Carribean island of St Vincent when West African slaves were brought on the island by the Spanish. The slaves who survived found shelter in the existing Carib Indians settlements and over the next century the two groups intermarried and eventually fused into a single culture, creating the Black Caribs or Garinagu culture, commonly referred to as Garifuna. Over the next 100 years, broken treaties, defeat and conflicts defined the beginnings of the Garifuna culture. The Garifuna were shipped from St Vincent to Roatan, Honduras, where barely 200 Garifuna survived to make the landing. Unfortunately, a civil rebellion forced many Garifuna to flee north to the shores of Belize. On November 19th, 1832, a large group of Garifuna landed on the coast of Belize at what is now considered one of the most important Garifuna settlements in the Caribbean. The site of their historic landing is the town of Dangriga which means “sweet running water” in Garifuna language. Garifuna Settlement Day is now celebrated annually on the 19th day of November to honor the arrival of Garifuna to the shores of Belize.
Since then, Garifunas have been able to preserve their fascinating heritage by blending various traits of their ancestors to create a unique culture with a strong emphasis on music, dance, religion and spirituality. Their religion consists of a mixture of Indian, African beliefs and Catholicism. Central to the Garifuna community is the belief in and respect for ancestors. Garifuna believe that the departed ancestors have a direct impact on the lives of people in the living world. A spiritual leader, a Buyei, leads the contact of a family with the deceased. An important part of their religious ceremonies involve the use of songs, drinking and dance, accompanied by drums and other musical instruments, which sometimes induces a trance-like state during which time a person may enter the spirit world and communicate with the ancestors. These ceremonies, which are similar to some respect to Voodoo, are used to mourn the dead, protect family members from harm, help the dead achieve peace and happiness in the next world, assure good fishing and harvest, etc… .
Garifuna songs and dance styles display a wide range of subjects such as work dances, social dances and ancestral traditions. One of the most famous dances is called “Punta”, a dance that expresses a sexual dialogue between male and female dancers with seductive movements and rhythmic beats. Another favorite dance, the “John Canoe” or “Wanaragua ”is a dance of warlike origin and is performed during Christmas season. The dance is traditionally dance by men. The dancer wears a mask, which resembles an English face topped by a hand-made hat similar to the English naval hats of the 18th century. The dance displays the skills of warrior-slaves while mocking their British overseers. Other forms of dance music include matamuerte, gunchei, sambai, paranda, chumba and hunguhungu.
Tradional Garifuna foods are based on coconut milk, garlic, basil, black pepper, plantain, bananas, chicken and fish. Fish boiled in coconut milk, called “serre”, served with mashed plantain called “hudut”, is a delicious rich meal. Cassava (manioc) is also a famous part of Garifuna cuisine. Cassava is made into bread, drink, pudding and even wine. Cassava bread is served with all meals and is made in an ancient and time-consuming process that takes several days.
This may give a first insight of why the UNESCO proclaimed “the Garifuna language, music and dance, a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of Humanity”.