It is this time of year that Belize’s cultural spotlight begins a gradual turn toward Garifuna history and tradition. If visitors should choose the final months of the year to explore Belize, especially its villages along the Caribbean coastline, they are likely to stare with puzzlement and fascination at a circle of drummers entertaining a dancing gaggle of gyrating hips, strangely costumed dancers encircled by enthusiastic villagers, or a throng of women donning fronds, leaves and stems of native plants as they disembark from a “dory” on a crowded shoreline as drums pound a rhythmic greeting to those landing.
Though many choose to visit Belize during Easter, arguably the country’s largest shared celebration, or when the weather up north finally wears them down to their cold bones, which is usually December through March, a cultural education, indulgence and just plain fun await the tourist who chooses November and December to visit Belize.
The centerpiece of Garifuna traditions is Settlement Day on November 19, prefaced by smaller celebrations and recognitions that begin November 1 when the drums, dancing and singing start a noticeable crescendo toward the big day. That big day is one that marks the largest landing of the Garifuna (aka Garinagu) to Belizean shores in 1832. It is estimated that around 200 Garifuna stepped ashore in mid-November after spending years of refuge amidst Carib Indians on islands such as St. Vincent, where captured West Africans escaped from the bowels of a shipwrecked slave vessel sailing from Europe in 1635.
Brought Caribbean side by countries such as Spain, France, England, Portugal and the Dutch Empire to work as slaves in the sugar, coffee, indigo, tobacco, cotton and cocoa fields, as well as in the logging industry, the West Africans eventually mixed with Amerindian descendants, such as the Arawak, to give genesis to the Garifuna. For many years they were referred to as the Black Carib but their proper and preferred moniker is Garifuna or Garinagu.
The best places to see the Settlement Day re-enactment, a ritual known as Yuremi in Garifuna, is Dangriga, considered the capital of Garifuna culture in Belize. However, smaller villages such as Hopkins and Seine Bight on the coast hold on just as tightly to their Garifuna roots and festively re-enact the day with Yuremis of their own. A grand parade is held in Dangriga and the women can be seen in hand-tailored dresses that conform in color for the particular year’s celebration.
Food stands along the streets feature all of the native Garifuna cuisine, from cassava cakes and bread, to hudut (a tasty fish soup based in freshly grated coconut milk and accompanied by plantain mashed from large, carved, wooden mortars and pestals), to stewed beans with rice and various pastries.
Wherever the Belize visitor is based in the country, the trip to Dangriga or another coastal village is worth the time and effort for a firsthand view to a culture that has proven unsinkable, resourceful, contributory and always festive since its origin.
Soon after Settlement Day, the Christmas season embarks upon Garifuna communities, so the festivities segue into the spirit of this season. Gatherings of native drummers and singers dot the coastal villages to accompany a performance known as jonkonnu or wanaragua. This is the dance that mimics the early Spanish explorers who landed on Central American lands to exploit what the region had to offer economically to Europe and the New World.
Garifuna will don head dress and masks with faces exaggerating the features of early Spanish explorers. Often turtle shells and smaller shells that rattle will be strapped to legs and ankles while the dancers’ feet rapidly shuffle in abbreviated, rhythmic steps—usually one or two dancers at a time. Many of the accompanists, if not the dancers, are matriarchs and patriarchs of the village who have performed the ritual for decades and are called upon by fellow villagers to perform. It is considered a great honor to be chosen as an accompanist, whether singing or drumming.
When Christmas nears, many bands of drummers and singers will spontaneously collect and parade down the streets at all hours, just as they do leading up to Settlement Day.
So, if one thinks that the final months of the year are docile and inactive in Belize, think again. It may be just the right time of year to see some of Belize’s roots and soul up front and center.