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Belize: Garifuna – The Rich African Tradition

Each year, on the 19th November, the Garifuna community in Belize celebrates its rich African tradition, struggling to keep their culture alive.

Belize is on the north-eastern coast of Central America. It is the only country in Central America where they speak English, even though when you arrive at the Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport in Belize City, you can hear many people speak Spanish, Creole, and a particular strand of German.

The second smallest and least populated country in Central America, Belize has a variety of cultural groups – mestizo, maya, creole, and Garifuna. These people possess common characteristics, distinguishing them from most other people from Belize. At various times, Belize has been described as a melting pot. It is also known for its great biodiversity and distinctive ecosystems.

Among the ethnic groups, the Garifuna people are descendants of Africans brought to the West Indies as slaves. They managed to escape from the slave masters when a ship wrecked on St. Vincent in the Windward Island in 1675. On November the 19th in 1823, a group of Garifuna arrived in British Honduras (Belize).

The Garifuna re-enact that long historical journey every year. They look back on the past while celebrating these people’s current rich traditions. Today, like many other ethnic groups the Garinafuna struggle to keep their culture alive. In recognition of Belize’s important Garifuna history, in all the nation 19 November is National Garifuna Settlement Day. On this day of feast, many Garifuna settlements are filled with the sounds and the rhythms of drums. Drumming, singing, and dancing are an integral part of most Garifuna celebrations.

Just as the drums are an inseparable part of the Garifuna, the colourful Garifuna outfits add another rich aspect to their culture. Traditional Garifuna colours are yellow, black, and white. Women often wear long dresses sewn from checked material along with colourful head pieces. Men don their colourful “dashiki” – a long shirt made from materials similar to those of the women’s outfits. The shirts are not buttoned up, but drape elegantly. These colours and outfits shine best when in movement, and the Garifuna people can certainly make them move!

Punta Rock, the traditional punta rhythm, leads the way as the most popular Garifuna music style, especially with its seductive moves and rhythmic beats that almost hypnotize people to begin dancing. The rhythm of the drums accompanies all sorts of Belizean music and that may explain the spontaneous dance moves in the Belizean people, whether in an office, a kitchen, or somewhere else, once there a drum beats the Belizean beat.

Another popular, more traditional, dance is the Jankunu. Performed during the Christmas season, the Jankunu dancer wears a mask resembling an English face topped by a hand-made hat like the English naval hats of the 18th century. The dance displays the skills of warrior slaves while mocking their white British master. Garifuna music is a creative blend of all cultural traditions in Belize.

The rich culture of the Garifuna people extends deep into the kitchen with some of the most delicious traditional food. Meals are based on coconut milk, garlic, basil, and black pepper; bananas and plantains are grated, mashed, boiled, or baked. Fish is boiled in coconut milk and called “sere,” but when served with mashed plantain, it is called “hudut.” They are both delicious and rich. Another traditional food is Tapau, a green banana cooked in coconut milk and served with fish.

Equally important to the Garifuna people is “Ereba”, which is made from cassava. The cassava is a woody shrub which resembles a potato with its tuberous roots. Unlike potatoes, the juice between the fibres of the cassava root is poisonous. The secret to extract the root involves a very long two-day process which eventually gives a flour used to make a bread-biscuit. Food plays a big part in Garifuna culture, not only in day-to-day life, but also in celebrating various important events in their lives.

While many Garifuna profess to be Catholics, they have also retained numerous traditions and rituals from their ancestors. Central to the Garifuna community is the belief in and respect for their ancestors and they maintain a powerful spiritual connection with that past generation. One of the main cultural rituals they have maintained is the “Dugu”, a ceremony where the ancestors communicate with the living. A spiritual leader called a “Buyei” or shaman presides the ceremony. An important instrument for the ceremony is the drum – the Garifuna believe the drum can summon the power of the ancestors.

The Garifuna drummer beats the drums to summon the ahari – the ancestor spirit. Through a unique process, the dancer and drummer communicate. We can see when the dancer naturally flows with the rhythm of the drums. The vibration of the drums, shaka (sisira), singing voices, and lyrics heightens the spiritual senses. It is a phenomenon where humans and the divine spirit meet in music. In the process, the participants acquire strength from communicating and being touched by the ancestors.

Garifuna music cannot be separated from dance, which is thought of as life expressed in dramatic terms. It was and is the only language in which a Garifuna person can converse. The tradition continues. In the sacred ritual space, the ancestors and the individual’s energies come together in dance. The sacred space is where the people completely capture and experience the true meaning of the rituals. Each year, on the 19th November, no expenses are spared as fresh seafood, pork, poultry, and cassava bread are prepared for the day of healing, dancing, drumming, and communicating with the spiritual world.

– Pedro Ibarra