Garifuna Settlement Day started out in 1941 among the people for whom it was eventually named, as their way of remembering the hardships forced on their forefathers, exiled from their homeland of Yurumein, now independent as St. Vincent and the Grenadines, to the nearby island of Balliceaux, and then to the small dependent island of Roatan, Honduras, from which some made their way to the northeastern Honduran coastline and eventually Belize.
The first migration, led by Alejo Beni and his family, was in 1802, but the observation of November 19 “memorializes” a later, larger migration that took place on that date in 1823.
Led by Thomas Vincent Ramos and his cohorts, the Garinagu fought for that date to be recognized, and it was made a public and bank holiday in Stann Creek in 1943. A National holiday was endorsed more than 30 years later, in 1977.
With the recent cultural explosion, both inside and outside of Belize, of knowledge and recognition of Garinagu culture and tradition, the 19th has become a centerpiece, and many other cultures take time out on this date to reflect on the common destiny of Belize, and of its people generally.
Among the Garinagu themselves, however, the battle continues to ward off the encroachments of excess and modernism that have begun to infect the younger generation, in particular, and that threaten to wipe out the very existence of this proud, self-reliant ethnic nation.
So it was that the people of Dangriga, and their brothers and sisters in Seine Bight, Hopkins, Punta Gorda, Belmopan, Belize City and elsewhere today, including overseas in the USA, once more took up the charge to remember, and to project that struggle onto the common face of the Garifuna experience today.
Here, in Belize’s “Culture Capital,” where more than 50% of the population is Garifuna, celebrations began at the riverside around 7:00 a.m. with the annual reenactment of the first boats of Garinagu people arriving safely onto Belizean shores.
The group then proceeded to the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church along the seaside for the official Mass of Thanksgiving celebrated by Father Larry Nicasio, and then to the Alejo Beni Park, back on the south end of town, for the official ceremonies, which kicked off at around 11:00 a.m.
Representing the Government of Belize were Leader of the Opposition Francis Fonseca, who commended the Garinagu people on their continued fight for cultural preservation, and UDP Dangriga area representative Arthur Roches.
Mayor of Dangriga, Aaron “Jake” Gongora, in welcoming the gathering, reiterated, among the aspirations spoken of in this year’s theme—Gibememegili wayumahan; wabaronguoun meme wama – “Our aspirations are still many; let’s keep going forward”—the need to “make Dangriga and other Garifuna communities safe and economically viable.”
Be that as it may, culture was on the minds of the main speakers, National Garifuna Council (NGC) Dangriga president Phyllis Cayetano and guest speaker Dr. Peitra Arana, M.D., a scholar with 10 years of experience researching Garinagu history and a graduate of the Harriet Tubman Institute at York University, Toronto.
Cayetano warned the gathering that if the Garinagu are not careful, in as little as 20 years, her people could lose the spirit and designation of the day, leaving it only as a “cultural day.”
She reminded of the history of the forced exile of the Garifuna nation and the slaughter of their chief and leader, Joseph Chatoyer, on St. Vincent. She urged that more should be done to encourage remembrance.
By means of a story about two rats who find stored cheese and react differently to its use and their plans for when it runs out, Dr. Arana pointedly illustrated some of the prevailing attitudes among Garinagu to change. She maintained that change does come, often gradually rather than all at once, but when it does, one must be ready for it and prepared to make adjustments, rather than curse and complain.
The term “Culture Capital,” she noted, was not bestowed on Dangriga for a limited time; cultural practices must be nurtured by all, and one cannot stand on the sidelines and watch as the older generations die out and their knowledge is lost. The Garinagu have the choice to preserve the culture—or watch it die, helpless to stop it, she said.
Representative of the Garinagu of St. Vincent, Nelcia Robinson, was a special guest at the gathering. She brought greetings from the Garifuna remnant on the island. The Belizean population, and those in neighboring Central American countries, as well as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, she said, form “another St. Vincent”—a tangible link to the history of the formerly named Black Caribs and their descendants.
She registered her “excitement” at both the extent and tenacity of the wider Garifuna nation, and particularly in Belize, where the Gulisi Community Primary School in Dangriga has served, she said, as a “training ground” for both local and international students of the culture.
Robinson reported on continued efforts at exchange between Belize and St. Vincent, including a pen-pal program between Gulisi and the Garifuna schools in the Eastern Caribbean, and promised assistance to local efforts by the Garifuna people in the areas of education and women’s issues, among others.
The ceremony closed with the crowning of Nickey Casimiro as Ms. Garifuna Dangriga 2011-12, succeeding Wahrisie Elijio, who was also last year’s Ms. Garifuna National.
The official Settlement Day parade kicked off from St. Vincent Street, at the Havana Bridge, passing through the center of downtown Dangriga, before swinging back to finish where it had started.