Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Insights on the Garifuna Culture in Belize

Its been a long time since Ive written. I was so blown away by every thing in Asia that I just had to absorb it and not write about it but, the last almost three months now of traveling have been truly amazing. I learned so much in Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and I surely need to catch up this blog with all of those tales, but I will have to do that a little later.

For now, I want to write about Belize and the Garifuna culture.I just spent two weeks in Belize in Belize City, Caye Caulker, Dangriga and Punta Gorda diving and studying the Garifuna culture.

The Garifunau people lived on the northern coast of South America. They settled there after recovering from shipwrecked slave ships from Africa. The Garifuna expanded into St. Vincent Island in the Carribean. The Spanish, French and English all wanted to colonize Carribean islands including St. Vincents, an area rich in spices and resources. The Garifunau are tough and were able to fight off the Spanish and French but surrendered to the British. The British made all of the Garifuna move from St. Vincents to Roatan Island in Honduras in terrible conditions and many died. After around 20 years in Roatan, the Honduras army ordered the women and children to leave and they brutally massacred the rest of the men. Anyone who escaped moved to Belize and formed several Garifuna communities. Some also now live in Guatemala in Livingston and some still live on the Carribean coast of Honduras and Nicaragua.

I stayed at Vals in Dangriga the center of Garifuna culture and music. I took this opportunity to take a drum class from the Dangriga drum school with some local kids. It was really fun, and I recommend it to anyone who goes to Dangriga. I learned the punta and the paranda rhythms. The punta is the music more internationally known thanks to Andy Palacio, a garifunau man from Belize who popularized the music in the last few years.

Because the Garifunau are a mix of two different ethnic groups, they men killed all of the men from a local tribe to marry all of thier women, Garifuna is the only language that has words reserved only for women and others just for men.

Once the Garifunau arrived in Belize they were given a curfew by the British and the local creoles. They had a bad reputation as baby killers and canibals even know they werent. They were told they must not practice thier rituals and must blend into the culture. Instead they continued to live thier lives in private, contining thier ceremonies to celebate and keep in touch with thier ancestors and making cassava bread and keeping thier own language. Today very little is left, but Andy Palacio and his punta rock music have made the youth proud of thier black garifuna roots and thier is a rivival of the culture and music going on today. There is an effort by local mothers and a newly created National Garifuna Council to try to preserve the culture as much as possible and teach the language in schools. The language was excluded from the school curiculum until recently. Many efforts are being made to preserve the culture including a Garifuna Museum, programs to teach kids the culture and dance. Each year Belize celebrates a national holiday called Garifuna Settlement Day on Nov. 17 where the whole country celebrates with a week long festival of Garifuna music and song. I wish I could see that...I will have to plan a future trip around that. It is truly amazing that any of the culture still exists today. Now more Garifuna live in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York than in Belize. The entire country of Belize only has 300,000 people. The Garifuna makes up maybe only 50,000 or less of Belize. There are estimates that over 250,000 now live in the U.S. Nicaragua has supposedly lost most of its Garifuna language. A Belizan Garifanau traveled there and could no longer speak with his ethnic group and they no longer retain some of the same ritual.

Belize is such a melting pot of cultures. Besides the Garifunau, Belize is home to Maya, Menonites, yes like German Amish and many Asian people. Belize City seems to be a stop over point for people to work before accessing U.S. visas.