For a small country with a population of just over 300,000, Belize has a remarkable diversity of ethnic groups. There’s the Creoles, descendants of African slaves and British colonists, with their distinctive patois of English. Mestizos are people of mixed Amerindian and Spanish descent, who are found all over Central America and make up the country’s largest ethnic group. The Mayans are the original inhabitants of the region, having been here before the arrival of the Spanish, building their now-deserted temples over two thousand years ago. And in the south of Belize there are the Garifuna.
In the 17th century, shipwrecked African slaves washed ashore on the Caribbean island of St Vincent. They bred with the indigenous Carib and Arawak peoples, and their descendants became the Garifuna. After Britain acquired St Vincent from France the Garifuna, who were considered to be enemies of the British, were deported. After several years of being shunted around the Caribbean, they ended up in Honduras. From there they spread throughout coastal Central America, arriving in Belize at the turn of the 19th century. The biggest migration took place in 1832, when some 200 Garifuna reached Belize in dugout canoes on November the 19th.
Most Garifuna live in the south of Belize, so it’s to the southern town of Dangriga that I’ve come with my new housemate Mark on my first weekend in the country, to celebrate Garifuna Settlement Day, which takes place every year on November the 19th. The day’s a national holiday, so I don’t have work even though it’s a Friday. On the night of the 18th there’s due to be a festival of Garifuna music and food, and on the 19th itself they re-enact the first landing of 1832.
After driving several hours through an almost continuous sheet of heavy rain, we park up in town, check into the hotel, and follow the sounds of drumming and the aroma of cooking food. Garifuna cooking makes extensive use of cassava, which the immigrants brought with them on their first sea voyage, and Garifuna music is famous throughout Belize as Punta Rock. Punta is a musical form found throughout the Caribbean, appropriately the word is a latinization of a West African rhythm called Bunda, meaning buttocks! People dancing to Punta somehow manage to move their hips and bottoms rhythmically, sometimes frantically, whilst simultaneously keeping the rest of their bodies perfectly still. Punta is mainly percussive, and features extensive use of various animal-skin drums. In the 1970s Belizean artists mixed electric guitars with traditional Punta music and added lyrics, and Punta Rock was born.
Sadly, the inclement weather has put something of a dampener on the evening’s musical events, so we retire to the nearest bar for a few local Belikin beers and a dinner of something called ‘Boil Up’, which seems to consist of everything the chef couldn’t sell during the week, and in tonight’s version contains, amongst other mysterious meats, pig tail and armadillo! After dinner the bar has a Punta band playing, and if you ever thought that drums were boring instruments you should’ve listened to these artists, I’ve never heard such musicality come from a few percussion instruments. The rhythmic pulse of the drums is only matched by the natural rhythm of the rain hammering on the metal roof.
The next day the rain has finally stopped. For the time being. At the crack of dawn (6am to be precise!) we get up to go and see the re-enactment of the first landing. I’ve cheated somewhat by going to bed the previous night – apparently the festivities normally last the whole night and into the morning. If the weather had been better, various sound-systems would’ve set up around town with bands playing and loud music pumping out of speakers, and food and drink stalls would’ve fed and watered the masses. Rather like an all-night rave mixed with a fairground mixed with the Notting Hill Carnival. In the tropics. But the constant rain has had its effect, and, like many other, less hardcore participants, I went to bed last night for some sleep and to give my sodden clothes a chance to dry. But, judging from the state of some of the locals, there’s a few people who’ve stayed up all night and are still going strong this morning. Most of them seem to be bleary-eyed, rain-soaked teenagers who I suspect may have been more interested in an excuse to party all night than to witness the cultural aspects of the morning. I join everyone else on a bridge and look out to the mouth of the river and the sea to see several distinctly un-seaworthy-looking craft bobbing about on the water. Over a period of about an hour the boats, which must have slipped out the night before, ride the surf and travel up the river, the occupants dressed in traditional clothes and waving palm fronds and banana leaves to symbolize the foods that sustained their ancestors. After disembarking to much fanfare, they form a procession that travels slowly through the town to the local church, accompanied by the beating of drums and the chanting of traditional songs. And followed by what seems to be all of the town’s residents, all of the Garifuna who’ve travelled here for the festivities, and a selection of camera-toting tourists. We arrive at the church just in time, as it’s started to rain again. Having slept for no more than six hours over the last two days, I’m starting to get tired again. And as the entire liturgy will be given in the Garifuna language, I’m not sure how much of it I’ll be able to understand. So, as the locals pack into the church for the service (or just to escape the weather), I head back to Belize City and a few good nights’ sleep before I start work on Monday.