It’s difficult for a Creole to talk about people and things Garifuna. The history between the two groups of black people is so delicate. Myself, in the beginning I had thought I could discuss matters freely in these pages, because I had come out of the Roman Catholic educational stream here, most Garifuna in Belize being Roman Catholics, and because the UBAD organization I led had emphasized the African ancestral commonalities between the two groups, or tribes. At the time of Dr. Ted Aranda’s removal or resignation as UDP Leader in late 1982, and his subsequent political moves in 1983, however, there was an extraordinary atmosphere, and my sense was that I could not say what I thought about this situation. (Dr. Aranda had become the first Garifuna leader of a major political party in late 1979.)
As a relatively educated nationalist, I am much aware of how dangerous tribalism and ethnicity have been in the post-colonial Third World. A terrible civil war was raging in Nigeria when I was going to school at Dartmouth, and I remember that there were two Dartmouth students from Nigeria who did not speak to each other as a result of that war. One was Saleh Jibril, and I believe he was Muslim, and a non-Ibo, which is to say, he was either Hausa, Fulani or Yoruba, or some mixture thereof. The other Nigerian was a bearded, post-graduate engineering student by the name of Joseph Mhoude, who was definitely an Ibo.
As a result of massacres of the Ibo people, who controlled the eastern region of Nigeria and were considered too successful by the other tribes in the northern and western parts of the country, the Ibos declared their territory a separate nation in 1967 and called it “Biafra.” An ugly and tragic civil war took place. Many children died, and many Ibos starved to death.
I recently read Chinua Achebe’s account of that civil war. Perhaps Africa’s greatest novelist, Achebe was a nationally and internationally recognized Ibo who ended up having to flee to Biafra to escape violence. Put it another way. He decided that if he and his family had to be killed, then it would be in his Ibo homeland. Achebe’s There was a country is a book you should read sometime.
In Belize, the northern region is Mestizo and Maya, the central region is Creole, and the southern region is Garifuna. I am painting with a broad brush in such an ethnic analysis of Belize. The situation is made more complex because of religion. The north is Roman Catholic, the center is Anglican and Methodist, and the south is Roman Catholic.
We are all Belizeans. Those who desire certain materials out of our country are foreign capitalists and imperialists. They have their Belizean collaborators. If interested foreign interests and forces decided to divide us, they would do so along tribal, ethnic and religious lines. We Belizeans are conscious of our ethnic differences, but we do not discuss these differences openly and seriously. I think we should. We should not bury our heads in the proverbial sand.
In knee-jerk mode, Belize’s mainstream politicians condemned UBAD in 1969 as a racist organization, when what we wanted, yea demanded, was a knowledge of our Belizean people’s ancestral history. Today, the leading educators in our young nation have recognized that such ancestral history is important, relevant, and helpful. There are other prominent Belizean educators, however, who continue to believe that we should ignore the African and Indigenous past which brands the majority of our citizens.
Because the Roman Catholics have now taken the lead in recognizing African and Indigenous history, the relationship between Kremandala and Belizean Roman Catholics should now slowly become one of reconciliation. I know that many of the Garifuna people are Catholics, and they have felt a great deal of educational gratitude to the priests and nuns. So it was, once the dispute about African and Indigenous history began in 1969, there were Garifuna leaders who must have felt themselves caught between Scylla and Charybdis, if you will pardon the hyperbole. The classic example of that took place in 2003 when the National Garifuna Council did not participate in Belize’s first, and so far only, Black Summit.
There were personal and party politics which complicated matters where the Belize Black Summit was concerned. I am not speaking carelessly here. I speak as the publisher of the newspaper which has been the leader in Belize for 32 years. We have stood the test of time, and our discourses have been accepted and blessed by the Belizean marketplace.
Garifuna leaders have earned, and they demand, their respect. Colonial British Honduras discriminated against the Garifuna for almost a century. The Roman Catholic clergy shattered the educational aspect of that colonial discrimination early in the twentieth century, and you saw some of the shining lights of the Jesuits’ revolutionary commitment when you saw that historic photo of the St. John’s College football team of 1950.
Osmond P. Martin became our first Belizean Roman Catholic Bishop. He lives in Dangriga, attended to by his sister. Austin Flores was a legendary educator in Griga; he died a couple years ago. Charlie Arzu became a high ranking Barclays Bank executive. He and his wife, a teacher, had retired and were living in Houston when they died together in a car crash. Clifford Palacio, father of Belize’s first NBA player, Milt Palacio, was himself a famed educator who migrated to California a few decades ago. It was he who sent us the aforementioned photograph, and all we can say to Mr. Palacio, with respect, is: what took you so long? Eugene Hernandez, who died a few years ago, was another legend in education and community upliftment. He joined the late Father Martin Avila in working with Dr. Leon Sullivan’s Opportunities Industrialization Centers (OIC).
I salute these great Belizeans.
Power to the people.