LOCATION: Eastern coasts of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua; United States; Caribbean islands
LANGUAGE: Spanish; English; Garifuna
RELIGION: Catholicism, incorporating aspects of the traditional religion
The Garifuna live in Central America along the coast of the Caribbean sea. Their territory spreads across the borders of four different nations—Belize (formerly British Honduras), Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. They are descendants of the Caribs, a people of the island chain known as the Lesser Antilles. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Caribs on the island of St. Vincent intermarried with captured or escaped African slaves.
These people tried to prevent Great Britain from colonizing the island of St. Vincent, but they failed. The Garifuna were deported to the island of Roatan off the coast of Honduras in 1797. The deportees, about one-fourth of the total Garifuna population, survived and rebuilt their culture in this unfamiliar place. They eventually returned to Central America. They settled mainly in the coastal lowlands of the area that would become the four present nations.
Over the next two centuries, Garifuna population and territory increased greatly. Garifuna formed a major part of the work force on the Central American coast for over a hundred years. In 1823, additional Garifuna migrated to Belize, fleeing a civil war in Honduras. In spite of moving to new places and taking in other peoples, the Garifuna have preserved their cultural identity. They have kept their language and many of the customs, beliefs, and ceremonies of their island ancestors.
The Garifuna live in a chain of villages and towns along the eastern coast of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. These Caribbean lowlands have a varied terrain. It includes mangrove swamps, tropical rain forests, river valleys, coastal plains, and grassy plains with some pines and palm trees. Many Garifuna have moved to large cities in Central America and the United States. Those in the United States live in communities in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other major cities. There are also small groups of Garifuna on the Caribbean islands of Trinidad, Dominica, and St. Vincent.
Because of their migrations to other countries, it is impossible to arrive at exact population figures for the Garifuna. (In addition, only Belize counts them as a distinct ethnic group.) Their total numbers have been estimated between two hundred thousand and five hundred thousand. Some estimates figure the Garifuna in the United States alone at around one hundred thousand.
Spanish is the official language of most of the countries in which the Garifuna live. In Belize and the United States, the main language is, of course, English. The native language of the Garifuna (called Garifuna or Garinagu ) comes from the Arawak and Carib languages of their island ancestors.
Although it has been illegal for a long time, obeah, the traditional witchcraft of the Caribbean, still exists. Some Garifuna still practice it secretly. Its rituals involve dances, drumming, and trances for contacting the spirits of the dead. It is generally used either to harm one's enemies or to ward off spells that others may have cast.
An object used in such spells is the puchinga doll. It is made of cloth stuffed with black feathers and is buried under the doorstep of the intended victim. Crosses are sometimes painted on children's foreheads to ward off the evil eye.
The Garifuna practice a version of Catholicism that uses many aspects of their traditional religion. It combines belief in saints with reverence toward gubida (the spirits of ancestors) and faith in shamans or "spirit helpers" (called buwiyes ). Their religious practices—including dancing, singing, drumming, and use of alcohol—have long been considered suspicious by outsiders. Established churches and people living nearby have accused them of paganism and devil worship. Some buwiyes, however, have served as Roman Catholic priests or nuns.
Among the most important traditional religious practices is the dugu. It is a ceremonial feast, held to please the gubida when they seem to be angry at a living relative. The sign of this anger usually is illness. A dugu lasts from two to four days. It is attended by friends and relatives of the affected person. Sometimes that person will come all the way from the United States in order to be healed. Participants engage in ritual song and dance, led by a buwiye, who calls forth the gubida. After the food prepared for the feast and rum have been ceremonially offered to the ancestral spirit, all of it is either thrown into the sea or buried in the ground.
Many Garifuna ritual observances are held on the holy days of the Christian calendar, but some occur on the dates of nonreligious holidays as well. Festivities usually include processions and street dancing, often in masks and costumes. John Canoe (Yankunu) dancers (named for a Jamaican folk hero) perform at Christmastime and receive money, drinks, or homemade candies.
On November 19, the Garifuna of Belize celebrate Settlement Day, marking the beginning of a larger Garifuna presence in that country in 1823. It was then that their ancestors who had been forced out of Honduras, arrived in the area to join the small band that had already settled in the town of Stann Creek. In the town of Dangriga, the center of Belize's Garifuna community, there is a ceremony on Settlement Day. It reenacts the settlers' arrival. Some people row in from the ocean in dugout canoes. Their cargo is the same as their ancestors'. It includes simple cooking utensils, drums, cassava roots, and young banana trees. When they land on the shore, they are joined by hundreds of spectators. There is a lively procession that winds through the streets of Dangriga. The people go to the Catholic church for a special service. Afterward, the crowd enjoys dancing and feasting on traditional foods.
Major life changes (such as birth, becoming an adult, and death) are marked by religious ceremonies. They combine Catholic traditions with rites from the ancestral religion.
Physical violence is rare among the Garifuna. An angry person almost always uses such practices as name-calling, cursing, gossip, and mocking songs. Sometimes a person who has been wronged will even use witchcraft (obeah) to gain revenge.
Houses are either wooden or made of wattle and daub (woven sticks and twigs plastered with clay). They have thatched roofs. Wooden houses are raised several feet off the ground on posts. Many villages still have no electricity, and even in the towns with electricity there are frequent power outages.
Garbage is often thrown into the sea or into open ditches and streams. In some cases, it is tossed out of the back door. Most houses have no toilet facilities.
With the increase of "junk food" in developing areas, the Garifuna diet has become less nutritious. Obesity has increased, especially among women. Pre-school children do not get enough protein.
The Garifuna use both modern medicine and traditional remedies. But they hold to their belief that the most important thing determining people's health is the power of the spirits of their ancestors.
Among the Garifuna, many women bear children without having a permanent or legal relationship with the children's father. Legal marriage occurs in a minority of households. The Garifuna are generally seen as a matrifocal society (where women are central to family life). Family lines are determined by the mother, rather than the father. In the past, households often had three generations of women. Increasingly, however, only the oldest and youngest generations remain. Working-age people often go away seeking better jobs. The grandparents stay to raise the children. Since the 1960s, many women have gone to major cities in Central America or the United States. There they find jobs in the textile industry or as maids.
Garifuna mothers are not as directly and physically involved with their children as mothers in many similar cultures. Some observers connect this fact with a tendency toward independence and individualism among the Garifuna. Mothers wean children early and in some cases do not breast-feed at all. They also feel comfortable in leaving them with caregivers for short or long periods of time. In keeping with the nonviolent nature of the Garifuna, children are raised with little or no corporal punishment—they are not punished by being hit or spanked. Fights among children themselves are frowned upon and broken up. Violence among family members is also extremely rare.
Most Garifuna wear modern Western-style clothing. Even among the older women, very few still wear the traditional costumes trimmed with shells. But they do wear brightly colored full skirts and kerchiefs, making them look very different from younger women, who wear jeans, tee-shirts, and tight skirts, much like young women everywhere.
The men also wear jeans, and the traditional straw hats have been replaced by baseball caps. Young people's clothing has been influenced by the places where their parents have settled. In the towns one can see some young people in the latest fashions from New York, paid for with money sent by relatives living abroad.
Dietary staples include rice, fish, green bananas, plantains (which resemble bananas), and coconut milk. Coconut milk is used to prepare many dishes, such as hudut, in which it is mixed with crushed, boiled plantains. The green bananas are boiled and served as a starchy vegetable. "Boil-up," or falmou, is a spicy traditional soup or stew containing fish, coconut milk, spice, and other ingredients.
Manioc, or cassava, plays an important role in the diet of the Garifuna in Honduras, who eat it boiled as a vegetable. But it is important throughout the culture as the basic ingredient of areba, the flatbread. This food, and the customs for preparing it, have helped to unify Garifuna. Their name is based on the term karifuna, which means "of the cassava clan."
Cassava roots were traditionally grated by hand on stone-studded wooden boards, a tedious job. Today, people often use electric graters. Then the pulp is strained by hand in bags made from woven leaves. The bags are hung from a tree and weighted at the bottom. This squeezes out the starch and juices (which are poisonous). The white meal that is left dries overnight, is sifted and made into flatbread.
The most popular beverages are coffee and various "bush teas," sweetened by generous amounts of sugar. Desserts include cakes and puddings made from sweet potatoes, rice, and bread scraps. A very popular dessert is the candy called tableta, made with grated coconut, ginger root, and brown sugar. The mixture is boiled, poured into a greased pan to cool, and cut into squares. Children sell this confection, a favorite among tourists, at bus stops and in other public places.
School attendance is generally low after the primary grades. But the basic ability to read and write is valued, and most Garifuna do get enough schooling to learn that much. Most are also interested in improving their Spanish (in Honduras and Guatemala) or English (in Belize). Many Garifuna in Belize are well educated and have become respected schoolteachers.
The Garifuna have a rich heritage with roots in both African and local cultures. Their traditional music includes work songs, hymns, lullabies, ballads, and healing songs. It shows an African influence in call-and-response song patterns and complex drum rhythms. Some songs are sung during daily tasks, such as the baking of cassava bread (areba).
The most typical Garifuna dance is the punta, which has its roots in African courtship dances. It is performed by couples, who compete for attention from spectators and from other dancers by making fancy flirtatious moves. The paranda is a slow dance performed by women, who move in a circle performing traditional hand movements, and sing as they dance.
A sacred dance, the abaimahani, is performed at the dugu, a feast held for the spirit of a deceased ancestor. The dancers—all women—form a long line, link little fingers, and sing special music. The Wanaragua, or John Canoe dance, performed at Christmastime, includes sad songs about the absence of loved ones.
While holding on to the older cultural traditions, the Garifuna are also developing some new ones. Modern musicians have transformed the ancient music of the punta, creating the popular "punta rock."
The paintings of internationally acclaimed artist Benjamin Nicholas depict aspects of Garifuna history and culture in bold, modern styles.
The Garifuna have traditionally lived by fishing and by basic small-scale farming. In the twentieth century, the banana industry became a major employer. This created jobs both in agriculture and in the major ports that sprang up along the coast. Since World War II, many Garifuna have worked in the merchant marine. However, the largest of the work force consists of underemployed wage laborers.
The Garifuna who live in towns but still farm often travel 5 to 10 miles (8 to 16 kilometers) to their plots, leaving early in the morning by bus and returning late in the afternoon. The civil service, especially the teaching profession, has been a major employer of Garifuna in Belize. Many children of Garifuna in the United States enter fields of medicine, engineering, and education. Some return home and others remain abroad permanently.
Soccer is a popular sport among the Garifuna. Young people organize games on flat open areas in their towns or villages, even on the beach.
Punta parties, named for the traditional dance that is performed at them, are a favorite form of entertainment. Pop musicians have developed "punta rock," which combines the beat of traditional punta music with the electric guitar sounds of rock music and modern Garifuna lyrics. This music, which originated in Belize, is becoming popular throughout the Caribbean. In a reverse development, the Garifuna have adapted the West Indian reggae music to a form of their own called cungo.
Today, many Garifuna households in the larger towns have television sets. A TV is also one of the first purchases of Garifuna who come to the United States.
Few of the Garifuna still practice their traditional crafts. These include hat-making, drum-making, basket-weaving, and the carving of dugout canoes. To prevent the loss of this heritage, the National Garifuna Council of Belize held a workshop in 1987. In it, young people were taught the crafts of their ancestors.
The lack of opportunities at home has led many Garifuna to go to other parts of Central America and to the United States. It has been estimated that as many as 50 percent of the men are absent from the average Garifuna community at any given time. With growing numbers of women also traveling, communities are losing a whole generation of working-age adults. The elderly and very young are left to survive together. They often live on money sent by absent family members, until the young people are old enough to leave as well.
There is increased concern about alcoholism among the Garifuna. Alcohol consumption itself has increased, a fact that some people relate to the social problems caused by unemployment and the absence of adults. Marijuana use, mainly by young men, has become common among Garifuna living in the towns.
Gonzalez, Nancie. "Garifuna." In Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992.
Kerns, Virginia. Women and the Ancestors: Black Carib Kinship and Ritual. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1983.
Olson, James S. The Indians of Central and South America: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.