A Central American Country that Doubles as a Caribbean Island
Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photos by Victor Block
he large thatched-roof, sand-carpeted temple was barren except for the
obviously ill child curled up in the single cot by the wall. An old
woman could be heard chanting from within her sacred chamber, candlelight
flickering around the corners of the sheet separating her from the long
hall. Her healing incantations, I later discovered, were addressed to
the spirits who may have had reasons of their own to inflict the child.
Belize, an increasingly popular U.S. travel destination
that is part Central American country, part Caribbean island, is home
to a fairly large Garifuna population. Garifuna, you say? Never heard
of them. Part of the melting pot civilization which comprises Belize,
the Garifuna share the land with Creole, Mayan, Spanish, Mennonite,
Chinese and other neighbors but their language, customs, foods and religion
An amalgam of the Carib and Arawak Indians who first
migrated to the Caribbean and later intermarried with West African slaves
who escaped to St. Vincent in the 1600s, the Garifuna have a colorful
history combating the British before settling in Honduras and British
Honduras (now Belize) in 1832.
Although there are about 7000 Garifuna currently in
the country, the spiritual population is a lot larger. Our ancestors
are all about us, explains Lawrence Casimiro, our guide through
the village of Hopkins. Just as we must eat and drink to live,
so must they be nourished as well. This is something the ancestors
take very seriously.
If they perceive they are being neglected, the dead
return, most often through dreams, to remind the living that they are
in need of nourishment. If this message goes unheeded, the spirit may
get angry and make a family member sick - often with an illness
that defies modern medicine. The ancestors do not take kindly to being
In the town of Seine Bight, the task of healing falls
to 78-year-old Erdangela Polonio, the chanting woman behind the curtain.
As the village Buyei, or healer, she has been appointed by the spirits
to carry forth the practices and ceremonies that hopefully will appease
the ancestors and restore health to the afflicted. This is no simple
task. The ancestors are not easily appeased.
The Buyei knows whether the illness is of the spirit
world or the modern one, and if caused by an ancestor, what he or she
wants. This knowledge comes at a price but not a high one. When I asked
what happens if the ailing cant afford the costs of healing, she
replies that any kind of offering would do. She illustrates by holding
up a candle, a plantain, and finally a bottle of light-colored liquid:
The spirits love rum, she declares, with no hint of irony
in her smile.
In any case, a Dugu must be held, and that takes some
advanced planning. Before this ceremony, which will last several days
and bring together an extended family from miles around, much must be
done. The family brings more offerings to the temple, such as chicken,
coconuts and cassava bread, staples of the Garifuna diet.
The Buyei organizes the gifts, administers healing herb
baths to the sick, and prays over candles to chase away evil. Fishing
trips are made to provide the spirits with their favorite catch; pigs
are raised to supply the meat served during the celebration and special
foods consumed by the deceased over his lifetime are prepared.
But the Dugu is where it all happens. This is where
the ancestors will accept or reject the many attempts to appease them.
Food and drink, always appealing to guests of whatever world, are in
abundance. There is non-stop singing, drumming and dancing - all
of which, including the specially made drums, are uniquely Garifuna.
The music is so emotionally driven, so physically pervasive, so demanding
of appreciation that if I were a dead ancestor, I would not be able
to resist making an appearance.
And it is not unusual for the spirits to do so, often
through the body of one of the guests. Call it possessed,
speaking in tongues, or just an expression of vivid imagination,
the chosen person is thus revealed, to then be approached
by other relatives asking questions of the visitor -- and
apparently often receiving answers.
There is a strong emphasis on having fun, entertaining
the spirits - as well as imbibing them -- and promoting peace
and harmony among the family members. The ancestors, who are very social,
dont take kindly to dissension.
Santos Gonzales, a Hopkins resident, told me how skeptical
he had been of such primitive beliefs - until his 10-year-old
son contracted a serious skin condition that defied modern remedies.
His sister-in-law talked him into calling for a Dugu on the premise
of what he described as what-have-you-got-to-lose logic.
His son was cured, and now 24, hasnt been sick since. He became
The problem with developing nations is keeping them
from becoming over-developed and just as Belize is dealing with that
as a country, so are the Garifuna struggling to preserve their customs
and lifestyle. Their culture, like all unique cultures worldwide, is
being eroded by westernization in the form of media bombardment, inter-marriage
and yes, supermarkets which discourage the labor-intensive preparation
of native foods. There are efforts underway to preserve their dances,
music and spirituality as well as retrieve whats lost. The language,
existing only in spoken form up until recently, is now being recorded
into dictionaries and books.
We welcome visitors with an open heart,
assures Lawrence, but dont try to change us. Our music,
language, beliefs - we dont want to lose them to an encroaching
Still, he does recognize some of the drawbacks of living
within such a close-knit community. Caught walking hand-in-hand with
a new girlfriend, he was admonished by his mother to stop dating her.
Shes your cousin, she explained. When the same scenario
occurred again, he lamented, Everyones my cousin!
Which becomes even truer every November 19th when many
in Belize become Garifuna for a day during the weekend-long celebration
of Settlement Day, a re-creation of the arrival of these unique people
to Belize in 1832. They have survived and thrived since - a tribute
to their enduring customs and culture little known beyond the borders
of Central America. For more information call the Belize Tourism Board
at (800) 624-0686 or log onto travelbelize.org
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