Wednesday, November 23, 2011

November 19, 2011       Garifuna Settlement Day

Before describing the celebrations of Garifuna Settlement Day, I offer here a brief description of Garifuna culture and history:   

Herded aboard slave ships in West Africa, a group of Garífuna forebears were likely destined for New World mines and plantations when they wrecked off the Caribbean island of St. Vincent in 1635.  They found refuge with the island’s Carib and Arawak Indians, immigrants from South America.  The two peoples blended through marriage, creating the Garífuna culture—Caribbean fishing and farming traditions with a mixture of Native South American and African music, dance, spiritual beliefs and language.

The Garínagu (Garifuna people) prospered and coexisted peacefully with French settlers who came later in the 17th century. Then English colonists began to arrive and demand land. The tensions eventually turned to war. Hopelessly outnumbered by British troops, the Garíngu and their French supporters surrendered in 1796. The British exiled the Garínagu to the island of Baliceaux.  They were imprisoned there in appalling conditions, and more than half died. The following year survivors were shipped to Roatán Island off the coast of Honduras. According to legend, the Garinagu hid cassava, a mainstay of their diet, inside their clothes, where it stayed alive watered by the sweat of the tightly packed captives. They planted the cassava on Roatán, where it grew abundantly. Soon the Garínagu established fishing villages along the coasts of Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Belize. Each year in Belize, when locals reenact the arrival of the Garifuna people in 1832 to Dangriga, they slip out to sea in boats, then ride the surf onto shore, waving palm fronds and banana leaves to symbolize the plants that sustained their ancestors. This ritual, rich in music and dance, helps sustain Garífuna culture.
Sunrise in Dangriga on Settlement Day, November 19, 2011

Reenactment of the landing of the Garinagu in Dangriga

Me in my Garifuna dress with Marie and Michelle

Me with Miss Cas, Jemeiah and Shemar outside the church after Garifuna mass
Drumming, dancing and singing Garifuna songs

The Garifuna language is losing ground to English and Kriol, but the National Garifuna Council and schools such as Gulisi Primary School encourage young people to maintain their language, culture and music.  Each year in November in preparation for the Garifuna Settlement Days, several towns with large populations of Garifuna people hold pageants to determine contestants for the Miss Garifuna/Belize final pageant.  The winners of each town’s pageant are young women who best exemplify the values of the Garifuna people.  The judges interview these contestants, who also must perform traditional dances, reenact scenes from daily life in short skits, and give a speech in Garifuna.  I was present for the final pageant in which Miss Garifuna/Belize was chosen for 2011.   
Miss Garifuna/Belize Pageant 2011
Garifuna Settlement Day Parade

Pen Cayetano and the Turtle Shell Band

During the week leading up to Settlement Day, November 19, there are many contests, musical presentations, feasts and celebrations in the schools.  However, I was unable to participate in these this year, as I was treated for pancreatitis in the hospital in Belize City for those five days.  My colleagues in Dangriga filled me in on what I had missed, and welcomed me back home when I returned on Friday, November 18.  That evening there were parties throughout Dangriga, with drumming, dancing and a lot of drinking.  Hundreds of visitors flock to Dangriga each year on that night to party all night long and stay awake until dawn on the morning of the 19th to witness the reenactment of the settlement of Dangriga. Due to my recent hospitalization, I was unable to participate in the all-night party, but I was present for the 6:00 AM sunrise reenactment, the parade and the Garifuna mass.  I hope to participate fully in next year's festivities.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Two Trips to the Cayes
This past week I was fortunate to have two opportunities to visit three cayes that are just off the coast here in Dangriga.  Cayes (pronounced “keys”) are ramparts that consist of chunks of dead coral and other debris that form on the windward edge of the coral reef platform.  Some have a small sandy beach, and grow coconut palm trees and mangroves.
Leaving Dangriga behind
Heading out to the Cayes with the students

On November 3 I was invited to help chaperone a group of 20 Dangriga primary school students on a field trip to the cayes.   About a half an hour by boat from Dangriga are several cayes, only a few of which are inhabited.  Our group traveled to three of these cayes with a young marine biologist from Canada, named Donald, who lives and works on the most densely inhabited, Tobacco Caye. 

Red Mangroves

We first landed on Twin Cayes, where there is a station for a couple of Belize Fisheries Ministry officials.  Their job is to patrol the waters of the Marine Preserve to insure that the fishermen take only the species allowed by Belizean law, and only the prescribed number of conch, lobster and fish so as to not upset the delicate balance of the ecosystem.  Donald led us around the caye teaching us about the mangrove forests and sea grass that filters the silt that travels from the mouth of rivers and empties into the Caribbean Sea.  He showed us the three types of mangroves that grow on Twin Cayes and the children were taught to identify them and describe the importance of the mangroves for the health of the coral reef. 
Brown boobie (in mangrove tree); the great frigatebird (flying)

Our next stop was Man-o-War Caye, which is a bird sanctuary.  Donald explained to us that we would not disembark, and we should not make any loud noises or sudden moves.  We had arrived during the mating season.  The two species of birds that inhabit this caye are the brown boobie and the great frigatebird, two birds that live in a symbiotic relationship with one another.  The great frigatebird does not dive into salt water, so it eats the left over parts of fish from the brown boobie’s catch.  We witnessed the mating rituals of the great frigate bird, especially the inflation of the male frigate’s huge red throat pouch that is especially designed to attract females. 

Tobacco Caye
The students from Gulisi School drumming and singing on Tobacco Caye
Time for swimming
A fishing vessel passing Tobacco Caye

Our third destination was Tobacco Caye, the most densely populated caye off the coast of Dangriga, with a population of around 20 people.  There are a couple of small tourist hostels, but no hotels, shops or resorts.  Tobacco Caye is about the size of an American football field, but only a few buildings have electricity from generators or solar panels.  The students found some drums and maracas, and immediately made their own music.  They also enjoyed swimming and canoeing for a few hours before we were whisked away back to Dangriga.
My Ministry of Education colleagues at our retreat on Tobacco Caye
Hanging out with my colleagues on Tobacco Caye

I returned to Tobacco Caye two days later for a retreat with my colleagues from the Office of the Ministry of Education in Dangriga.   Our retreat was facilitated by a Catholic nun, Sister Caritas, who led us in a workshop designed to improve our ability to work as a team.  We were fed a wonderful meal of red snapper and had a few hours of R & R together before we had to return to civilization.  I am fortunate, indeed, to have these opportunities to visit and explore the beauty that is Belize.