Edited by Karla Heusner
I have the unique opportunity to introduce my people to you. It is one that I do not take lightly. I have sat here trying to find a balance between an angle that will engage you and content that is presented honestly while remaining true to my people.
Should I sing you one of our many songs, an oral tradition passed on from generation to generation? Of course I cannot speak of songs without first introducing you to our music, our drums, the base and percussion pair and the maracas that accompany most of our songs. And what is music and song without dance? For it is next to impossible to hear the resounding beats of drums and the call of our gayusa without jumping into the various foot motions that have been left to us by our ancestors.
Should I tell a story as in the pre-television age when our storytellers who simultaneously transferred history, perspectives and beliefs to our younger generation would entertain us? Allow me then to take you back to the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. There in the mountainous terrain dwell two Amerindian groups, the Arawaks and Caribs, who have left the jungles of South America's Orinoco on their own exploration of the world. There on St. Vincent, these groups intermarry and, with the arrival of the Europeans, fight to defend their homeland against the French and British who seek to impose sovereignty. There on the island of St. Vincent, the hybrid Amerindian group intermarries with escaped and shipwrecked slaves. There on the island of Yurumein, now legendary and endearing to my people, we, the Garinagu of the Garifuna nation, are born. There on the island of our Yurumein our fates are sealed as our Chief, Joseph Chatoyer dies in battle and we are driven from our motherland, set afloat in canoes.
History books, unaware that the legacy of the Arawaks had been transferred to us the Garinagu, would later report the extinction of the island Arawaks. Very little, if any references would be made of the valiant Caribs whose resistance kept the French and British at bay, except when accompanied by adjectives suggesting savagery and incivility. And this would have been the history, if not for the "deportees" who arrived on the shores of Central America, bringing with us our food, dance, rituals & beliefs, language, struggles and memories of our beloved Yurmein. So in an existence parallel to Alex Haley's Roots, 207 years later we returned to our immortalized St. Vincent Yurumein, the place songs and stories had told us was our home by birth right. St. Vincent is no longer a legend, existing only in the dying words of elders, being passed on to the young, but very much a tangible reality with a tragic lesson of culture lost.
What can we learn from our cousins, the ones who stayed behind on the provision that they not speak our tongue, wear our clothes, eat our food, practice our traditions? Is this to be our fate as well? Or is this too personal a discussion for me to share with you on our first meeting? Yet I cannot help but be concerned. Before my very eyes we are being assimilated. Some say it is our destiny, that small groups have met the same fate in the natural order of things for generations before us. "But we are a rare species!" I argue. A threatened culture, corrects UNESCO, which in May of 2001 recognized the Garifuna Language, Dance and Music as a Masterpiece of an Oral and Intangible Heritage, worthy to be preserved for the ensuing 207 years and beyond. This was the news, the hope; we shared with our cousins on our return trip to our homeland.
In its attempts to understand the mysteries of our belief system, Western philosophers have coined Sir Edward Burnett Taylor's definition of animism, called it ancestral worship and have likened it to the Yoruba traditions of candomble and Santeria. Whatever truths these theories hold is of little consideration to us in the moments we invoke the guidance, request the approval, honor the traditional practices of and reconnect with our ancestral spirits. You see, my friend, we live in a world our ancestors did not imagine, one for which they could not have prepared us. We live in an age where our subsistence agriculture and fishing, basket weaving, and drum making cannot compete with commercialization and globalization. The simplicity of our traditional lives is constantly challenged by modernization, forcing us to choose a path. Those of us who attempt to keep up the pace may be doing so at the cost of the one treasure entrusted to our care. Those of us who choose our traditional lifestyles, as honorable an endeavor as we have undertaken, face economic realities of marginalization. How do we find the point of intersection between these two parallel and opposing realities? This is the challenge we face daily.
At times like these the best we can do is to draw inspiration from our accomplishments:
the rebirth of the Garifuna nation on the shores of Central America after our exile from our motherland Yurumein
the yearly celebration and this year's bicentennial of our arrival to the shores of Belize on November 19th
the deep sense of pride instilled within us by our parents
the dedication of our past leaders Alejo Beni, Thomas Vincent Ramos, and others
the struggle for our culture to be recognized within Belize and beyond
the retention of our language, dance and music and its recognition by UNESCO
the commitment of present day leaders and youth to the continued efforts
Today in Belize, we are no longer a group of refugees, deportees seeking to find a place to put down roots, settle our families, or find peace. We have become a vital part of every district in Belize, every sector of the economy and society. Our settlement day is a national celebration, enthusiastically awaited and shared by all Belizeans and even celebrated by Garifuna communities in the United States.
We are setting the example for the Mayas, the Mestizos, the Creoles who want to examine their own culture, to acknowledge their own ancestors, their own accomplishments. We are showing them that strength lies in community, that pride in your heritage can help you face whatever the future may bring.
Garifuna musicians and artists have not only captivated the Belizean audience, they have become cultural ambassadors for Belize, traveling all over the world, welcomed all over the globe.
All Belizeans dance to our drums, the drums of our fathers.
And so today, my forefathers, I am honored to have introduced you to our new friends. It is my hope that I have done so with the honor, respect and pride which you have passed on to me.
Special Thanks to:
Pelican Beach Resort
Images Courtesy of: