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Ancestral ties that bind.

GARIFUNA ARTIST Benjamin Nicholas stands in his small, cluttered studio in Dangriga, Belize, and surveys one of his works-in-progress, a large mural depicting the military exploits of Chatoyer, the legendary leader of the Garifuna. The canvas swirls with bold color and high drama, and draws the eye irresistibly to the dominating figure of Chatoyer. Nicholas points to each panel in the mural and explains the scenarios. Here, Chatoyer meets with representatives of the British King George III. Here, surrounded by village round houses and drying fishing nets, he speaks with his people and encourages them to fight against oppression. Here, he leads his followers into battle against a ruthless British army bent on subduing them.

The mural is a bit of a departure from the artist's usual work, which tends to depict the traditional Garifuna lifestyle in innocent, happy scenes that ache with nostalgia. But is also an outgrowth of Nicholas' basic admiration and emulation of his stubborn, proud and fierce ancestors. Indeed, he draws much of his artistic inspiration from the past--from his forebears who maintained their independence by keeping their culture alive and by refusing to compromise with the Europeans. Like them, he makes no apologies for being Garifuna, an ethnic identity that is both enigmatic and misunderstood.

A small, Central American ethnic group scattered along the coasts of five countries, the Garifuna have kept themselves apart from other peoples for centuries. From the beginning, their ancestors sought neither to conquer nor to assimilate the cultures around them. They asked only to be left alone. This penchant for disassociation still remains strong among modern Garifuna. Because of this, it is difficult for an outsider to know or understand them. They have a reputation for mystery and aloofness, a collective reserve that perhaps stems from their origins 350 years ago when strange and terrible events shaped the destiny of their forebears.

Much of Garifuna history is cloaked in lies or half-truths told by Europeans, and the Garifuna themselves are unsure of the precise details of their genesis. They do agree, however, that their history begins in the early 1600s, when two slave ships carrying West Africans to the New World ran aground near St. Vincent in the Windward Islands. According to various accounts, the Africans who survived the wreck were either welcomed by the Carib Indians who inhabited the island or enslaved by them. Whatever the Caribs' initial reaction to the Africans, the two peoples did eventually intermarry and create the Garifuna.

Called "Black Caribs" by the British to distinguish them from Native American Caribs, the Garifuna were a proud people who resisted colonization for more than 100 years. Together with the Native American Caribs, who were slowly decimated by European illnesses and by warfare, the Garifuna participated in a string of uprisings and wars against the British who were determined to colonize St. Vincent.

In 1795, led by their chief, the military genius Chatoyer, they gathered together for one last great battle. They had been armed and supported over the years by the French, and believing the French would remain their ally, they attacked the British, with muskets and deadly determination. Chatoyer was killed, however, and the French withdrew their aid, leaving the charismatic chief's followers bewildered. The British managed to capture many warriors, including Chatoyer's brother, and by spreading the rumor that huge numbers of Garifuna were killed in battle, they tricked many of the refugees into surrendering.

With the troublemakers safe in their grasp, the victorious British immediately banished the few remaining Native American Caribs to remote reservations on St. Vincent where they subsequently intermarried with other peoples and lost much of their culture. The defiant Garifuna, however, were not so easily dealt with, and the British decided to deport them to the inhospitable island of Ruatan near Honduras. From there, Garifuna refugees eventually made their way to the mainland of Central America, settling mainly in Honduras, Guatemala and Belize, which was known as British Honduras until its independence in 1981.

Today, the Garifuna in Honduras number about 200,000, with 15,000 more in Belize, 6,000 in Guatemala and a few thousand scattered amont the Windward Islands and in Nicaragua. Divided by national borders, the Garifuna are, nevertheless, united in their determination to preserve their culture--a heritage rich in both African and Native American influences.

Garifuna communities are brimming with music, art, crafts and religious beliefs that, together, make up a unique way of life. However, one activity stands apart as the very essence of this culture: the making of cassava bread. This dry flatbread called ariba is made from the root of the cassava--a shrubby plant grown as a food source in the tropics--and is a legacy of the Carib Indians. The cassava root was so highly esteemed by the Caribs that they originally called their speech Karifuna, "of the Cassava clan." Later, the Garifuna, or "Cassava-eating people," took their own name from the same word.

Making the bread is a time-consuming process, beginning with the harvesting of the root itself. Usually, a few women or children awake before dawn and walk out to their farm, which in Belize is most often located five to 10 miles away from the village, within the humid depths of the rain forest. In the shadows of the cohune palms and the guanacaste trees, they dig up 40 to 50 pounds of cassava roots and pile them in baskets, which theyc arry on their heads back to the village, arriving just in time to avoid the sizzling heat of the mid-day tropics. There, protected from the sun by the raised floors of their stilt houses, the women and children peel and wash the roots, and grate them by hand on wooden boards studded with sharp stones. The monotony of grating is relieved by group songs, in which the women ponder the sadness of life.

"The songs are sad, but the singing of them makes the work a pleasure," explains Benjamin Nicholas who frequently uses the making of cassava bread as a subject for his paintings. Nicholas' observation may seem like a contradiction, but perhaps the sad songs serve as a catharsis for a people whose life has not been easy.

Whatever the reason for them, the songs stop when the gratint is done, and the women move on to more pleasant work: straining the pulp in a hand-woven ruguma--a seven-foot-long cylindrical bag that is filled with grated cassava root, hung from a sturdy tree limb and weighted down with heavy rocks or sometimes by a woman sitting on the thick branch that pierces the bottom of the bag. As the counterweight stretches the ruguma, the bag tightens around the cassava pulp, squeezing it so that the poisonous liquid and starch within the root is expelled. The white, powdery meal that remains is left to dry overnight and then sifted. Coarse gratings that cannot be sifted are kept to make cassava wine and starch that is a byproduct of cassava processing is used in cooking or for laundry.

Although many Garifuna families have turned to modern electrically powered equipment for grinding the cassava root, the bread making process continues to be a mystical tie with the ancestors. This belief in the power of the ancestors is another crucial facet of Garifuna culture. Both the Caribs and the Africans who intermingled to form the Garifuna believed in the ability of the living to communicate with the dead. From the Caribs came the Garifuna practice of addressing the ancestors through the intercession of a buyei--a high priest or priestess--and his or her spirit-helpers, while the Africans contributed a sacred trio of drums to Garifuna spiritual rituals. These are played without sticks, in the African manner.

Although most Garifuna are nominally Roman Catholic, they have resisted pressure to abandon their original practices and have instead incorporated them into the Roman Catholic system, drawing strength from their unique mixture of Catholic saints, spirit helpers and gubida--Garifuna ancestors. Over the centuries, the established Christian churches persecuted the Garifuna for these beliefs, calling them devil worshippers and pagans, while even their most irreligious neighbors regarded them with suspicion and sometimes feared their "black magic."

Much of the persecution that the Garifuna endured in the past centered on the dugu, a feast of reconciliation with the dead that serves as a powerful affirmation of Garifuna beliefs and lifestyle. Its primary purpose is to appease the gubida who are angry with a living relative because that relative has slighted them or become too self-centered, refusing to share possessions with others.

Those who have angered the gubida inevitably become ill, the Garifuna believe, and to be cured they must hold a feast, or dugu. The feast lasts from two to four days, and relatives and friends of the sick person are invited to attend -- some coming from as far away as the United States and Canada. Led by the buyei, participants at the dugu sing and dance while the sacred drums pound, calling the gubida to the gathering. Once the buyei ascertains that the spirits of the ancestors are present, participants offer them a sumptuous feast of food and rum. At the end of the ritual, the sacrificial food and drink is buried or dumped into the sea, since it is a feast for the dead, nor for their living relatives. The sick person is cured, and the dugu participants return to their towns and villages.

"The dugu serves as a family reunion and a way to express solidarity. It brings the people together," explains Fabian Cayetano, education officer for the Stann Creek District in Belize and a leader of the Garifuna. A dignified, soft-spoken man, Fabian is held in high esteem by Belizeans of all ethnic backgrounds for his work within the Belizean school system. Now, he sits on a scarred wooden bench within a dirt-floored Garifuna temple known as a dabuyaba and smiles shyly as he earnestly discusses outsiders' misconceptions about the dugu. After years of persecution, Garifuna spiritually has at last been accepted by the community, and the Catholic Church has grown more tolerant, he says. "The Church now just ignores the dugu ritual, rather than openly condemning it."

Since his childhood some thirty years ago, Fabian has noticed an increase in the number of dugus held in Belize. During the 1950s and 1960s, for example, no dugus were celebrated in Dangriga, the largest Garifuna town, for fear that Belizean magistrates appointed by the British colonial government would disband the service, claiming that the buyei was misleading the congregants. Although people did hold their dugus, they were forced to gather secretly in smaller Garifuna villages where magistrates wielded little power.

Times have changed. These days, Dangriga, a bustling town of 7,000 people, boasts the only permanent dabuyaba in Belize. Garifuna people come from throughout Belize to openly visit the buyei for consultation and guidance. As persecution of their religious beliefs has lessened, the Garifuna have become more overt in expressing their spirituality. The ethnic solidarity fostered by the dugu, as well as other Garifuna rituals, has helped bind the culture together in the face of mounting pressures to conform to the modern, secular world.

Yet, theGarifuna, like so many other native peoples, are not untouched by external forces. Some of the small Garifuna villages are beginning to lose their sense of tradition; people no longer feel the powerful connection to history and ancestors that guided their lives in the past. Barranco, a Garifuna village in southern Belize, is a good example. Today the village, which once housed 800 people, has a population of from 200 to 250--mostly women, children and old men. Many restless young people have left. "The place is slowly becoming a ghost town," says Fabian, who grew up in Barranco, but has since moved away. "Twenty years ago the village was self-sufficient. People were happy; every month there would be merrymaking."

Fabian is a tireless leader in the struggle to promote the Garifuna language and culture within Belize. He heads the National Garifuna Council of Belize, an organization devoted to addressing the problems of Garifuna people throughout the world. Among other initiatives, the council has taken bold steps to establish the teaching of the Garifuna language in Belizean schools where students are predominately Garifuna, but progress is hampered by a lack of funds.

While the council continues its efforts to improve the economic and social status of Garifuna people, it is also working to pass on the skills and knowledge of Garifuna artisans to the younger generation. In 1987, it sponsored a craft workshop for young people from most Garifuna communities in Belize. At the workshop they learned the crafts of their ancestors such as drum making, basket weaving and dugout canoe carving.

The ancestors also gave the Garifuna their characteristic music, which incorporates both African and Native American drum rhythms and song patterns, and an expressive language made up of Arawakan and Cariban (the original languages of the Caribs) and Yoruba, a West African language. The Garifuna have remained faithful to the past by their continued observance of the egalitarian lifestyle that grew out of their forebears' brush with slavery and their familiarity with self-sufficiency. There are no rulers in Garifuna society, although there are heroes and wise people.

This insistence on equality has led to a musical tradition full of intensely personal observations about life. Both Garifuna secular and religious music dwells on the sorrows and triumphs of common individuals. Many of these songs center on travel: either the desire to leave or the sorrow of being separated from loved ones. The preoccupation with travel is not surprising for a people whose history has included many migrations and displacements. And today, the Garifuna are still a people on the move as the younger generation emigrates to cities, or even other countries, looking for employment or excitement. These expatriot young people, however, keep close ties with the communities they leave behind, and their anxieties and hopes continue to crop up in local songs.

Garifuna music includes work songs, hymns, lullabies, healing songs and ballads, but one of the most popular forms of entertainment is punta. This exuberant dance is performed by couples and is accompanied by lively music traditionally written by women. With sexy movements and flashy style, the dancers try to outdo each other for the crowd.

Another Garifuna dance and song type that is clearly derived from Carib Indian traditions is the semi-sacred abaimahani performed at the dugu. In this dance, women stand in a long line linked by their little fingers and gesture rythmically as they sing in irregular meter. The Garifuna call abaimahani their "soul music," since the words to the songs are serious and they are sung within the sacred context of the dugu.

While outsiders may never have the chance to attend a dugu and observe an abaimahani performance, they just might have the luck to participate in a punta party. If not, they can always drop into a Belizean nightclub or bar and hear a modernized version of punta composed by a young Garifuna artist named Pen Cayetano.

Cayetano is an artist first by inclination, and like Benjamin Nicholas, he paints pictures romanticizing and reaffirming the old Garifuna ways. But when he isn't mixing paints and dabbing at canvases, he's playing something he calls "punta rock." A mixture of the traditional punta drum rhythms and the guitar sounds of modern rock music, punta rock has become popular throughout Belize and is spreading to the Caribean countries. The lyrics are always in Garifuna and--like traditional Garifuna songs--they speak about everyday life.

Punta rock is a dinstinctly Belizean version of folk rock, and Pen Cayetano might be viewed as a Garifuna Bob Dylan. With a visionary gleam in his eyes, Cayetano quietly explains that his music is a rallying point for Garifuna youth who are torn between living a traditional Garifuna lifestyle and following a more modern path. "My songs give young people something to identify with," he says. "They keep tradition alive, and that's important; we've got to keep the fire warm."

Through the centuries, the Garifuna have, indeed, kept their cultural fire burning bright and warm. These days, they continue their age-old traditions, secure in the knowledge of their unique history. By freely practicing their Garifuna customs and lifestyle, they add to the cultural richness of their host countries--sharing the sacred beliefs and precious art forms of their proud ancestors.

Freelance writer Jacqueline Sletto and her photographer-husband, Bjorn, run their own company, Insight Communications, in Big Lake, Minnesota.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Organization of American States
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Title Annotation:the Garifuna, Central American ethnic group
Author:Sletto, Jacqueline Wiora
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Jan 1, 1991
Previous Article:Ernesto Sabato: a conscious choice of words.
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