One of the most fascinating aspects of vacationing in other countries is the opportunity to meet indigenous people whose lifestyles, cultural practices and even languages are diverse and fascinating, and Belize is no exception. Commonly known as Garifuna, the true name of these people are Garinagu, a name they have worn with pride since they first arrived on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent centuries ago. Their story is typical of a people striving to find a homeland who never gave up hope that this goal would someday be successful.
Centuries of turmoil and homelessness
Having escaped from two Spanish ships transporting Nigerian slaves in 1635 when the sailing vessels sank off the coast of St. Vincent, survivors swam ashore and found sanctuary among the island’s Caribbean Indians. Peaceful co-existence ensued, as all of these cultures intermixed, intermarried and eventually evolved into one merged people calling themselves Black Caribs or Garinagu. But that peace only lasted until 1773 when waves of Europeans brought not just their influence but their wars to Central America.Tenacious and independent, the residents of St. Vincent survived battles waged between the British and the French until June 10, 1796, when a final battle lead to British victory, whereupon the people of St. Vincent were exiled from their homeland, aided by the Brits who literally deposited the Caribs on the island of Roatan, Honduras. Unable to sustain the standard of living to which they had been accustomed, the Garinagu again sought refuge on the mainland where they once again became allied with another culture: Spanish settlers living in a town called Trujillo.
A homeland, at long last
Sadly, peace continued to elude the refugees. Once again, Caribs found themselves in the midst of a civil war and were again forced to flee to neighboring British Honduras. They could not have known it at the time, but this would be their final migration. Having arrived on November 19th, 1802, this date proved to be a fortuitous one that is celebrated as a national holiday annually by a people grateful to have a home at last.
Maintaining the integrity of their culture was a huge priority for people who had survived so much to find a place to call home, and as cultures do, the Garifuna settled in close proximity to each other to maintain their heritage. These days, you will find concentrations of Caribs in Punta Gorda (Toledo) and the villages of Barranco and Punta Negra. Maintaining a distinct cultural presence is important to members of this unique society. Garifuna are proud to continue to practice the folkways, rituals and practices of their Afro-Caribbean ancestors, even as the world continues to interject itself.
A melding of old and new
Although many members of this community converted to Catholicism, they have not necessarily abandoned “the old ways.” Rituals overseen by Buyei (shaman) call forth the spirits of ancestors revered for their wisdom. Families look forward to community and family Dugu celebrations that include feasting. Every aspect of this celebration delights attendees who spare no expense to prepare for this event. Dancing, drumming, spiritually communing with ancestors and even healing rituals take place during these festive occasions.
In addition to a vibrant history of faith and celebration, Garifuna contribute significantly to the musical arts, maintaining a unique artistic sensibility throughout this colorful society. Singing, dancing and making music are important parts of everyday life, which is why visiting a Garifuna hub usually includes visitors being invited to learn to do the Punta dance or getting in on holiday musical performances that serve as reminders of how far Garifuna have come since they first came to Belize as slaves and yearned to be free and autonomous.
One people; many cultural roots
What can you expect to see, taste and do when you visit Garifuna neighborhoods? Traditional foods featuring ingredients like coconut milk, banana, plantain and cassava, a potato-like tuber prepared to exacting directions in order to produce the local bread that is a culinary mainstay once it is prepared and baked. Art and artifacts for which the Garifuna are known include colorful clothing, hand-made wood crafts, dolls, paintings, crafts and musical instruments like maracas that are used to accompany everyone’s favorite activity: drum beating.
Visitors eager to find out how much fun (and stress relieving!) this practice can be are welcome to taking drumming lessons during their Belize visit. Filled with hope for the future while respectful of the past — even the worst aspects of the history on which the foundations of the Garifuna people were laid — have kept these people going through wars, occupations and moves. Because those roots are deep, the Garifuna remain a people of faith and hopefulness. No visit to Belize is complete without meeting some of these remarkable, friendly and welcoming people!