November 19, is a special date in Belize. An official holiday. But behind that regular “day off” is one of the stories that better illustrate what the Caribbean is all about. Because in order to talk about the Garifuna it is indispensable to talk about freedom, music, joy. Because Garifuna culture has an everyday spirituality that gives daily life a touch of fantasy. The November 19 holiday officially commemorates the arrival of the Garifuna to Belize. But the Garifuna didn’t come empty handed, they brought with them that extraordinary history of them and that human treasure that are their traditions.
The Garifuna, as their oral tradition has it, are the only black nation in the Americas who never were slaves. This, which may sound odd, is explained with one fortunate accident occurred in 1635, when a ship carrying a shipment of people to be slaves capsized near St. Vincent. The survivors settled in the island and little by little got mixed with the Caribs and the Arawak, who were originally from the region. In time, that mixture created a unique culture, language and set of traditions, which would eventually be recognized as Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
But centuries before the recognition, the Garifuna were always a nation that knew how to resist cultural domination. During the warring years of the eighteenth century, when the Caribbean was constantly disputed by several empires, the Garifuna abandoned St. Vincent and relocated to Belize. With the move, which took place in November 19, 1823 – the date now marked as Settlement Day- the Garifuna found a home where their culture was able to bloom. Today, the Garifuna are a joyous, proud and open people with a very particular view of the world, and their history is one example that local cultures can survive the biggest challenges and flourish.
One of the most widely acclaimed albums recorded in Belize has a title that perfectly sums up Garifuna musica: Paranda, Africa in Central America. The record features 15 songs that are a perfect token of Garifuna music. Haunting melodies, soothing rhythms, rhythmic guitars supporting the voice. It’s a record that is both sophisticated and simple. Natural. It’s the best way to take a first approach to the unknown cultural treasure that Belize is keeping for us all.
Garifuna food is an essential chapter in the Caribbean recipe book. Fish. Coconut. Plantains. Beans. Spicy touches, unexpected combinations. It’s the perfect food to go along with the perfect landscape of the Caribbean. With a little research, one can find unbelievable surprises, such Guifiti, a spirit made with rum and assorted herbs that is the traditional Garifuna drink.
The Garifuna, heirs of an African legacy combined with original beliefs from America, give utmost importance to the voice of their ancestors. They keep an ongoing contact with their deceased relatives through the Buyei (Garifuna spiritual mentors, or “priests”) and they often organize celebrations where the dead can mingle with the living. That familiarity with the dead, which many people call “magical realism”, is something that Garifunas simply call reality.
By Alantl Molina