The River Returns: A Garifuna Tale

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It is a ceremonial feast, held to please the gubida when they seem to be angry at a living relative. The sign of this anger usually is illness.

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A dugu lasts from two to four days. It is attended by friends and relatives of the affected person. Sometimes that person will come all the way from the United States in order to be healed. Participants engage in ritual song and dance, led by a buwiye, who calls forth the gubida. After the food prepared for the feast and rum have been ceremonially offered to the ancestral spirit, all of it is either thrown into the sea or buried in the ground.

Many Garifuna ritual observances are held on the holy days of the Christian calendar, but some occur on the dates of nonreligious holidays as well. Festivities usually include processions and street dancing, often in masks and costumes. John Canoe Yankunu dancers named for a Jamaican folk hero perform at Christmastime and receive money, drinks, or homemade candies.

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On November 19, the Garifuna of Belize celebrate Settlement Day, marking the beginning of a larger Garifuna presence in that country in It was then that their ancestors who had been forced out of Honduras, arrived in the area to join the small band that had already settled in the town of Stann Creek. In the town of Dangriga, the center of Belize's Garifuna community, there is a ceremony on Settlement Day. It reenacts the settlers' arrival. Some people row in from the ocean in dugout canoes. Their cargo is the same as their ancestors'.

It includes simple cooking utensils, drums, cassava roots, and young banana trees. When they land on the shore, they are joined by hundreds of spectators. There is a lively procession that winds through the streets of Dangriga.

The River Returns: A Garifuna Tale

The people go to the Catholic church for a special service. Afterward, the crowd enjoys dancing and feasting on traditional foods. Major life changes such as birth, becoming an adult, and death are marked by religious ceremonies. They combine Catholic traditions with rites from the ancestral religion. Physical violence is rare among the Garifuna. An angry person almost always uses such practices as name-calling, cursing, gossip, and mocking songs.

Sometimes a person who has been wronged will even use witchcraft obeah to gain revenge.

Houses are either wooden or made of wattle and daub woven sticks and twigs plastered with clay. They have thatched roofs. Wooden houses are raised several feet off the ground on posts. Many villages still have no electricity, and even in the towns with electricity there are frequent power outages. Garbage is often thrown into the sea or into open ditches and streams.

In some cases, it is tossed out of the back door. Most houses have no toilet facilities. With the increase of "junk food" in developing areas, the Garifuna diet has become less nutritious.

Garifuna History in Belize

Obesity has increased, especially among women. Pre-school children do not get enough protein. The Garifuna use both modern medicine and traditional remedies. But they hold to their belief that the most important thing determining people's health is the power of the spirits of their ancestors. Among the Garifuna, many women bear children without having a permanent or legal relationship with the children's father.

Legal marriage occurs in a minority of households. The Garifuna are generally seen as a matrifocal society where women are central to family life. Family lines are determined by the mother, rather than the father. In the past, households often had three generations of women. Increasingly, however, only the oldest and youngest generations remain. Working-age people often go away seeking better jobs. The grandparents stay to raise the children. Since the s, many women have gone to major cities in Central America or the United States. There they find jobs in the textile industry or as maids.

Garifuna mothers are not as directly and physically involved with their children as mothers in many similar cultures. Some observers connect this fact with a tendency toward independence and individualism among the Garifuna.

Miskito people

Mothers wean children early and in some cases do not breast-feed at all. They also feel comfortable in leaving them with caregivers for short or long periods of time. In keeping with the nonviolent nature of the Garifuna, children are raised with little or no corporal punishment—they are not punished by being hit or spanked. Fights among children themselves are frowned upon and broken up. Violence among family members is also extremely rare.

Most Garifuna wear modern Western-style clothing. Even among the older women, very few still wear the traditional costumes trimmed with shells. But they do wear brightly colored full skirts and kerchiefs, making them look very different from younger women, who wear jeans, tee-shirts, and tight skirts, much like young women everywhere. The men also wear jeans, and the traditional straw hats have been replaced by baseball caps.

Young people's clothing has been influenced by the places where their parents have settled. In the towns one can see some young people in the latest fashions from New York, paid for with money sent by relatives living abroad. Dietary staples include rice, fish, green bananas, plantains which resemble bananas , and coconut milk. Coconut milk is used to prepare many dishes, such as hudut, in which it is mixed with crushed, boiled plantains.

The green bananas are boiled and served as a starchy vegetable. Manioc, or cassava, plays an important role in the diet of the Garifuna in Honduras, who eat it boiled as a vegetable. But it is important throughout the culture as the basic ingredient of areba, the flatbread. This food, and the customs for preparing it, have helped to unify Garifuna.


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Their name is based on the term karifuna, which means "of the cassava clan. Cassava roots were traditionally grated by hand on stone-studded wooden boards, a tedious job. Today, people often use electric graters. Then the pulp is strained by hand in bags made from woven leaves.

The bags are hung from a tree and weighted at the bottom. This squeezes out the starch and juices which are poisonous.

The River Returns: A Garifuna Tale

The white meal that is left dries overnight, is sifted and made into flatbread. The most popular beverages are coffee and various "bush teas," sweetened by generous amounts of sugar. Desserts include cakes and puddings made from sweet potatoes, rice, and bread scraps. A very popular dessert is the candy called tableta, made with grated coconut, ginger root, and brown sugar. The mixture is boiled, poured into a greased pan to cool, and cut into squares. Children sell this confection, a favorite among tourists, at bus stops and in other public places.

School attendance is generally low after the primary grades. But the basic ability to read and write is valued, and most Garifuna do get enough schooling to learn that much. Many Garifuna in Belize are well educated and have become respected schoolteachers. The Garifuna have a rich heritage with roots in both African and local cultures.

Their traditional music includes work songs, hymns, lullabies, ballads, and healing songs. It shows an African influence in call-and-response song patterns and complex drum rhythms. Some songs are sung during daily tasks, such as the baking of cassava bread areba.

The most typical Garifuna dance is the punta, which has its roots in African courtship dances. It is performed by couples, who compete for attention from spectators and from other dancers by making fancy flirtatious moves. The paranda is a slow dance performed by women, who move in a circle performing traditional hand movements, and sing as they dance. A sacred dance, the abaimahani, is performed at the dugu, a feast held for the spirit of a deceased ancestor. The dancers—all women—form a long line, link little fingers, and sing special music.

The Wanaragua, or John Canoe dance, performed at Christmastime, includes sad songs about the absence of loved ones. While holding on to the older cultural traditions, the Garifuna are also developing some new ones. Modern musicians have transformed the ancient music of the punta, creating the popular "punta rock. The paintings of internationally acclaimed artist Benjamin Nicholas depict aspects of Garifuna history and culture in bold, modern styles.

The Garifuna have traditionally lived by fishing and by basic small-scale farming. In the twentieth century, the banana industry became a major employer. This created jobs both in agriculture and in the major ports that sprang up along the coast. However, the largest of the work force consists of underemployed wage laborers. The Garifuna who live in towns but still farm often travel 5 to 10 miles 8 to 16 kilometers to their plots, leaving early in the morning by bus and returning late in the afternoon.

The civil service, especially the teaching profession, has been a major employer of Garifuna in Belize.