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Commentary: Garifuna communities in Belize face major crisis
Published on June 21, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Wellington C. Ramos

When the Garifuna people first arrived in Belize in 1801 and thereafter from Roatan, Honduras, they went to Belize City first and then settled in Dangriga Town. From there they scattered to other southern parts of the country of Belize in the Districts of Stann Creek and Toledo to establish villages and towns. Today, the Garifuna communities in Belize are Dangriga Town, the largest; Hopkins; Georgetown; Barranco and Punta Gorda Town, the second largest. Another village where Garifuna people lived in the past was Bomba, which is located in the Belize District in the area of Maskall Village.

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Born in Dangriga Town, the cultural capital of Belize, Wellington Ramos has BAs in Political Science and History from Hunter College, NY, and an MA in Urban Studies from Long Island University. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science and History
Most of these Garifuna people have completely lost their culture and all they have left is some of their names, like Elijio, Parchue, Ramirez and Castro. Some of them accept their Garifuna culture but others prefer to be described as Creoles.

Why did the Garifuna people decide to leave Roatan to follow the British in Belize, when they were the ones who waged war against them and removed them from their native land “Yurumein” to Roatan in 1796? This is a question that we the Garifuna people must try to answer because it is puzzling to me up to this day. Common sense dictates that they would have avoided these ruthless people.

When they got to Belize, the British were occupying a territory that Spain had claimed due to the landing of Christopher Columbus in this part of the world in 1492. They gave the Garifuna people permission to settle in the southern part of the country only. They were also given strict orders not to move from the south to other parts of Belize because the British had African slaves cutting mahogany and logwood for them. Also, they did not want these free black people to be seen by the slaves or to have any form of contact for fear of a slave rebellion. Despite this fear, there were slave rebellions that took place in the country of Belize.

The Garifuna people were allowed to manage the affairs of all their communities by themselves. They established councils and appointed their community leaders to make all the decisions for their villages and towns. Farming, fishing, hunting, arts, crafts and other activities were the main economic activities that took place in most of these communities.

Since they were isolated from the other cultures in Belize, there was no acculturation with their culture and it remained intact. From time to time the Garifuna people would move throughout all the other villages to meet with relatives, friends and conduct trade among themselves. This practice was extended not only within Belize but also to Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, where they all have relatives.

Some of these people decided to live in these other communities and countries and this led to Garifuna people having relatives in all these countries up to this day. The Garifuna people would still travel from one country to another to visit their relatives in boats that were making weekly trips to these communities and countries. When I was growing up in Dangriga Town there were boats like O.C.L. Heron H. Honduran, Ilda, Suyapa Santa Maria, Lonette and many others whose names I cannot recall. There were Garifuna shipwrights who knew how to build boats for themselves and for sale. Others were captains for these boats and knew the coastline well.

Every Garifuna family I knew in Dangriga Town had a home for all the members of their family and a farm to produce the food for everyone. I am almost certain that this was the way it was in all the Garifuna villages and towns in Belize. When my family used to cook, it was a tradition that they would leave extra food in their pots just in case a relative was to come by hungry. Nobody in these communities would starve or go homeless on the streets.

A house was built on their lots and everybody in the family was allowed to sleep in that house. The farmland was for everyone as well and they would allow the family members to cut out a piece for themselves and plant their own food crops. Some of the lots and lands were leased and others who had money purchased theirs. The leased lots and lands were problematic because some members of the family began thinking that they had a right to them because they grew up there. This is a problem not only for Garifuna people in Belize but other ethnic groups as well.

Employment was not an issue because all the people in the Garifuna communities had to go to their farms. Later on, the banana and citrus companies came into the valleys of Stann Creek District in Middlesex and Pomona. Some people left their farms completely to work full time with these companies. Others decided to work part time with the companies and their farms. Gardening became a way of convenience for some to plant some of their food crops on their lots in town. This allowed some people to steal their crops because they did not want to go all the way to the farms that were located in the outskirts of Dangriga Town.

Education was a must for most Garifuna families because there was a competition to see who would speak perfect English. They would sometimes make fun of one another when they would not pronounce an English word perfectly. In a way this was good because it allowed that person the time to go and sharpen up his or her English skills.

The Catholic Church was always the closest church to the Garifuna people from the time they lived in “Yurumein” St Vincent, their native homeland. Belize was a British Protestant country but I cannot remember any Garifuna family that were Anglicans in Dangriga Town only Methodist. Garifuna people excelled in primary schools and junior colleges and became the majority of school teachers in the country for many decades. This is what it was like in the past when I was growing up in Dangriga Town, Belize, and visited the other Garifuna communities.

Today, unemployment is rampant among all the Garifuna people in the villages and towns where they live. It is so high that, if you were to visit one of these villages and towns, you will see young healthy Garifuna men standing around with nothing to do. The farms are now abandoned but they do not want to go to the farms.

The sea is there for them to go and fishing but they do not want to go fishing. If you see them in a boat, do not expect them to come back with any fish and don’t go and waste your time by the beach side for their return because it will be in vain.

Some will tell you that they are looking for something to float in the sea so that they can go and sell it and become rich. Some are lucky but many are not as lucky as them but are still holding out hope that they will find something one day to become rich. For those who found something, after it is sold they only last for a few years with their money and they end up being broke again.

In Belize, lots and lands are being sold cheaply by many of our people who are desperate for money. They do not intend to go to the farms but would rather sell their lands for a few dollars and go to the market to buy their food crops from the people who are taking over their lands from Guatemala and El Salvador that are now the farmers in Belize. How long will they be able to afford to keep their monies in their pockets if they have to constantly buy what they need?

No individual or nation can survive if it does not have the capacity to feed itself. This is a fact of life that history has proven time and time again in the building of civilizations. China has a large population and is running out of land to grow food to feed their people. This is why they are investing so much money in other countries to get their food and other raw materials and possibly will be sending some of their people to live in these countries forever.

Housing is needed in the south for Garifuna families. Yet, I have never heard of any government initiative in a long time that is being proposed to construct affordable housing for our people. Garifuna families still own plenty of land in all the towns and villages where they reside. They just need a housing development program to build the houses for them.

Plus, there are Garifuna people who live in the United States that have the capital to purchase these homes who are planning to go back home and retire. Even if they choose not to go home and live permanently, they still need a home for themselves to live when they go there to visit. The construction of these homes will also provide jobs to our unemployed citizens and boost the economy in these communities.

Education is in decline because when I look at the people who are topping their classes nationwide, I very seldom see a Garifuna person. I always look at the results of the examinations given and Stann Creek and Toledo District ranking is the lowest in the country. Economics play a major role in education today due to the cost of high school and college tuition.

There are many Garifuna families who do not have the money to pay for their children’s tuition. Some depend on their relatives in the United States and others are forced to drop out of high school and college to join the unemployment group.

The time for our people to raise these important issues is now. I am not seeing much progress and if you have seen significant progress on these issues, please point them out to me. It hurts me when I see the conditions that my people have to endure in Belize today, when I know we did better with less and we should be doing much better with more. Maybe some of us do not care but I do not think that it is all of us.

When I read recently about the situation in the village of Barranco, I was not surprised because I was told years ago that this village is worse now than in the 1950s by a person who lived there then, when it was a vibrant community. It is not only Barranco that is having problems but all of our Garifuna communities in Belize.

It is our responsibility to do something about these problems affecting our communities. I hope and pray that this article will ignite our people to act rather than to just sit idly by and do nothing but just wait and others with their outdated promises.
 
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Comments:

Mary Ann Moxon:

Julia Martinez and her family run a tremendous Garifuna educational and awareness program for tourists that we visited on Ambergris Caye. She calls it the Black and White Cultural Center. When she has more than 8 people make reservations, she includes a traditional Garifuna dinner for a nominal price. The Center includes a throwback to the Sixties black light theater with a few videos of Garifuna history and participatory Garifuna drums and dancing. After our visit, I reviewed it on TripAdvisor and quite a few found my review helpful. More programs like this could be helpful in spreading the amazing Garifuno story. It was our first exposure to the name and the culture.


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