Garifuna Settlement Day

One of the biggest celebrations of the year in Belize is Garifuna Settlement Day, celebrated every November 19th across the country, but especially in the Garifuna heartlands of southern Belize.  For most people it’s an excuse for a day off work, but for the Garifuna it’s a celebration of their culture, and more specifically, their successful landing on the Belizean coast 180 years ago.

I’ve talked about the Garifuna and their culture in more detail in a previous post, but, to recap, they’re the descendants of slaves from West Africa and Carib Indians (who were originally from South America) from the islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, who intermingled with each other after the Garifuna’s slave ship was wrecked on St. Vincent in 1635.  As a result, the Garifuna culture is (broadly) a mix of Caribbean fishing and farming with African music and dance.  With some European and South American influences thrown in for good measure!  After being booted out of St. Vincent by the British in 1796 (for having the audacity to take sides with the French), the Garifuna were shunted around the Caribbean, finally landing in Belize in the early 1800s.  There are now Garifuna communities along the Caribbean coast of Central America, from Belize to Nicaragua.  Garifuna Settlement Day celebrates their largest single migration to Belize, in November 1832.

Having attended Settlement Day in Dangriga in 2010 and Hopkins in 2011, the only large Garifuna town I’ve not visited for the 19th is Punta Gorda (known throughout Belize as PG).  So I make my way down to PG on Saturday the 17th, splurging on a comfortable one-hour flight, instead of a painful six-and-a-half-hour bus journey.

On Saturday night, PG hosts The Battle of the Drums, an annual competition between Garifuna bands from around Belize and abroad, which showcases the different styles of Garifuna drumming, singing, and dancing.  As enjoyable as it is, you really have to know Garifuna culture to be aware of all the subtle differences – as an ignorant Westerner who barely knows the difference between the punta and the paranda (let alone the chumba and the hugu-hugu!), after a while it all starts to blur into one continual round of public announcements, drumming, singing (in the Garifuna language), and dancing.  The music, songs, and dances represent different aspects of Garifuna life, from daily chores like harvesting cassava and building canoes to celebrations such as weddings and births – although, needless to say, these subtleties are lost on me…

One part of the evening that I do remember is where several male performers dance the wanaragua – they dress similar to English Morris Dancers, wearing white shirts and gloves, black trousers, and with ribbons criss-crossing their chest.  Their heads are wrapped in cloth and they have white or pink masks on their faces.  Their convulsive capering amuses me – until I’m told that they’re actually mocking white people (the dance was originally a way for the Garifuna slaves to ridicule their European masters).  Watching the spasmodic twitching and jumping (imagine a breakdancer having an epileptic fit) reminds me just how badly us white people dance…

After the drum ‘battle’ we return to our accommodation – we’re occupying several rooms in a house owned by a friend of a friend of a friend (three is probably the most degrees of separation people have in Belize).  The house is in a quiet suburb of PG, in an area where the roads are unpaved, the streetlights are few, and most of the lanes don’t even have names.  So getting to and from town proves to be an adventure in itself, even with a hand-drawn map and basic knowledge of all the local points of interest (the pool hall and the bar).  But in Belize, you can always rely on the kindness of strangers – on the way into town we got slightly lost and asked a random woman in a school bus for directions.  She not only gave us directions, but fired up the ancient-looking vehicle (Belize is full of old school buses from the States) and gave us a lift (it turns out she’s the principal of a village school, and being a small school with few staff, she’s also the bus driver!).

So getting back at night, even by taxi, involves telling the driver the name of the person who owns the house you want to go to and roughly where it is, as very few people in that suburb have a conventional address.  But in a town like PG, everyone seems to know who (and where) we mean.  But even the most helpful taxi driver can’t get us into the house – we don’t have any keys and our landlady appears to have fallen asleep while listening to country and western music at full volume (country music is inexplicably popular in Belize, and you often hear it on the radio or on the bus, where it makes an unusual change from reggae and rap).  We have to wake up the landlady’s grandson (who lives in another part of the house), and he spends a good 15 minutes banging on every available exterior surface of the house, while the sounds of Hank Williams and Merle Haggard drift into the night.  Just when I’m starting to think she might’ve had a stroke or a heart attack, or drowned in the bath, she finally appears and apologetically lets us in.  We insist on a set of keys after that.

On Sunday, my friends have a drumming lesson with Ray McDonald (husband of my ex-BCVI-colleague Ruth) at the Warasa Drum School, and I (having already had a drumming lesson with Ray, and one which proved conclusively that I possess the rhythm of a stick of celery) decide to take the bus out of PG and go for a hike through some of the nearby Maya villages.  The last time I travelled through this part of Belize was on a bus in early 2011, and it was an achingly slow journey, as, once you leave the highway (at the unfortunately-named village of Dump), the main road was unpaved, not to mention rutted and pot-holed.  But now this road (or at least the first part of it) has been surfaced.  So if I’d come on a bus, my journey would’ve been fast and convenient.  But as I’m walking this part (village buses only travelling on certain days, and Sunday not being one of them), the paved road has the opposite effect on the vehicles – they all zoom past me and don’t even slow down, let alone stop.  It doesn’t help that there are only about five of them.  By the time a pick-up truck finally stops and I climb in the back (after about 30 minutes), it turns out I’m already there – as soon as I thank the driver and tell him where I’m going, he slams on the brakes, nearly catapulting me into a breast-feeding Maya woman, then everyone in the back (including the Maya lady whose boobs I very nearly ended up in) points at the junction on the right.  That’s the dirt road I have to go down to get to my first village.  So, after the shortest-ever lift (the driver never made it out of first gear), I walk down the path to the village of San Pedro Columbia.

From San Pedro Columbia I walk to the village of San Miguel, and then finally on to Silver Creek village, and back on to the highway, about 10 km further north than where I started, but after nearly 20 km of walking.  There may not be any major tourist sights, but it’s still a nice day out of PG – the villages are all pretty and well-kept, the locals are friendly (which is helpful if you’re walking on your own, without a good map, and in an area with no road signs!), and the views of the forested Maya Mountains are as beautiful and natural as anywhere in Belize.

On Sunday evening, Ray and his band are drumming at a local bar, and, with the addition of keyboards and guitars to the drums, the resulting punta rock soundtrack is much more varied than the previous night’s drumming – and although there might not be any funny dancing, there’s still plenty of entertainment, especially when an excited Japanese woman appears (with a melodica of all things!) and joins in the band (I’m still not sure where all the Japanese expats in Belize live, as I’ve hardly seen any in two years of travelling all over the country, but they’re all here tonight, drinking, singing, and generally carousing in an exuberant, un-Japanese way).

On Monday the 19th, I’m up at sunrise to see the re-enactment of the landing.  Unlike in Dangriga (where they cheat, by using boats with motors!), in PG the boats are paddled by hand to the dock.  In addition to people, the boats carry cassava, plantain, and sugar, symbolizing the foods the Garifuna brought with them.  And they’re flying the Garifuna flag of black, white, and yellow (representing the Garifuna, peace, and prosperity).  Twice they ask permission to land (from a man representing the British colonists of the 19th century), and twice they’re turned back, before finally being allowed in on the third time.  To much fanfare, the boat-people alight, and commence a slow-moving procession of drummers, singers, dancers, flag-bearers, local (and other Belizean) Garifuna, camera-toting tourists, a couple of stray dogs, and (rounding off the eclectic mix) the crazy Japanese woman from the night before.

We don’t even get to the end of the road before there’s a hitch – the lead vehicle (designed to clear the way for the procession) is bloody great fire truck, and it’s travelling down a narrow street with cars parked on each side.  And sure enough, it’s now stuck, wedged in between two parked cars.  So the procession goes on a detour, which in a town the size of PG isn’t far, and continues slowly winding its colourful, noisy, and celebratory way to the church.

At the church, the processioners go inside for their service, and I (being neither Garifuna nor religious) go to have some breakfast, wake myself up, and fortify myself for the six-and-a-half-hour bus journey back to Belize City (as it turns out, we don’t stop in Independence or Dangriga, so it only takes six hours!).

This will be my last post of the year (but not my last post ever, as, despite the various interpretations of the Maya calendar, the world didn’t end on the 21st).  Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and see you all in 2013.


2 thoughts on “Garifuna Settlement Day

  1. Hi John hope you’re well

    Very interesting blog Annick and i were wondering when you found time to fit work in!!

    Got the chocolate, thanks haven’t tried it yet, we are all well Daniel came home for Christmas and has just gone back to Nottingham, i think he has got used to his own space. Luke is still job hunting but has a third interview for a job in the new year. Oliver & Joe are OK and Abbey and Lois are over tonight (New year) we are walking up the pub with Deb and John.

    Have a good new year, see you soon


    • Hi Brian,

      Thanks for reading the blog, I have a 40-hours-per-week job and not much of a social life, so that’s where the writing time fits in!

      I hope you enjoy the chocolate, I thought it would be a more popular gift than spicy chilli sauce, and the younger children might not appreciate a bottle of rum ;-).

      Happy New Year to you, Annick and the boys.



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