It took an extraordinary effort for Garifuna Belizeans to survive and preserve their culture over these past two centuries, since they were exiled, removed, from Yurumein (St. Vincent) by the British and dumped on Baliceaux, where nearly half of them died, after which those who survived were shipped to the island of Roatán off the coast of Honduras. Landing at Roatán was no prize; they were the defeated, crushed by the military might of their aggressors in 1796, but they were far from vanquished, and like good yeast they would rise.
Every November 19 in Belize, the story is retold of the many Garinagu who died while trying to scratch out a living on the barren island, Baliceaux, the trip across the Caribbean, their entry into Belize to find work in the mahogany camps, and their eventual settling down on uninhabited land on the coast going southward from the North Stann Creek River. They set root and carried on their traditions for decades upon decades in relative obscurity. Steadfast, hardworking, and brilliant in every endeavor to which they applied themselves, they triumphed.
The glory of the Garinagu is our glory. Their contributions in education and sports and music are appreciated across the country. They have not gone unnoticed in the greater world. In 2001, UNESCO declared their culture — their language, music and dance — a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Over time the more adventurous Garinagu settled all across this country, from the Hondo to the Sarstoon, and some left their villages and towns to go and live in other parts of the world. Those who left Belize live away from their cultural base, but wherever there are Garinagu, on November 19 they’ll be dreaming of home, eating the traditional foods, and listening to Paranda and Punta.
In Belize, all over, the November 19 celebrations are curtailed, as they were last year, by the Covid-19 pandemic. The drums will still beat, but not as loudly as in past years, and there will still be gatherings to honor the ancestors and give praise to God for His many blessings, but they will be smaller.
The pandemic is not the only cloud dampening this year’s festivities. Over the years, Garifuna leaders have worried that their youth are not learning the language sufficiently, and now added to that is the realization that Garinagu, too many of them, are losing/selling their land.
The Garinagu live on some of the most prized spots in Belize, and foreigners are willing to pay big bucks to get a piece of their share of the Jewel. Most Garifuna leaders welcome different Belizean tribes and foreigners into their villages, but they know that too much can result in a dilution of their culture. How can culture survive without land and some isolation? There is also the matter of securing good agricultural lands so that they can farm for sustenance and profit, and grow the crops and medicinal plants that are so essential to being Garinagu.
Two centuries and more of survival of the Garinagu, from the Caribbean to Belize, have shown their resilience and brilliance, so there is no doubt that their leaders will take the steps necessary to protect their rich difference.
On this blessed Garifuna Settlement Day, Friday, November 19, we join all Belizeans in saluting our Garinagu brothers and sisters. Let us savor the hudut and darasa, reflect when we feel the throbbing of the drums in our bones, and sing along with/dance to the Paranda and Punta. Let us give thanks together, all the while observing the protocols so we don’t fall victim to this fearsome pandemic that has gripped our world. Today we celebrate. Buidula Hafeduhani Haweyuri Garinagu!
Minister of Infrastructure Development and Housing (MIDH), Hon. Julius Espat, said the estimates are showing that there could be all of 50% savings on completion of a mile of road his ministry is paving from the George Price Highway to the Agripino Cawich Bridge over the Belize River. It’s possible the joy of accomplishing the paving of that rocky, rutty, dusty stretch of road might have the minister not thinking clearly – some hidden figures might yet come in, but if the savings turn out to be 20%, then privatization is stood on its head.
After that revealing and exciting statement, the minister quickly put in that our government wasn’t thinking of challenging the big contractors for the large projects. It’s possible that statement, obviously calculated to soothe the big private contractors, didn’t make them breathe easier. Action does speak louder than words. The MIDH shaved $28 million off the contract to upgrade the road to Caracol, and scaling down the grandiose design of a new bridge across the Belize River at Mile 5 on the Philip Goldson Highway will result in savings of about $18 million.
The proponents of privatization insist that publicly controlled utilities/ enterprises are inefficiently run. There are numberless studies that show where countries do much better on the bottom line when publicly controlled companies are sold to private entities. If these studies are true, then the insistence from some quarters that we keep our utilities/businesses under public control might be chalked up to jealousy, a dislike of seeing private individuals and families prosper. We’ve heard a lot about our crabs-in-a- barrel mentality, and how that strangles growth in our country.
But 50% savings off a mile of pavement does seem to blow privatization off the road. In fact, it does. The only time privatization yields better results than public ownership is under corrupt government—when there is no transparency and accountability in the handling of public funds and other assets; when, for ulterior reasons, deceitful politicians choose incompetent/dishonest persons to run the people’s businesses.
There is much room for private ventures – entertainment and tourism are prime areas where individual initiative must be allowed to thrive. There is space for private medicine, but we can have the best quality care at public hospitals too. What is so wrong for the government to use public monies to set up 10 first-class ICUs in Belize City, and 5 each in the district capitals and Belmopan?
There’s much space for individualistic persons to express themselves in agriculture, but the people’s equipment should be reserved at heavily subsidized rates for small farmers, so they can put in good roads and proper drainage.
There is room for privatized business to make a mint off grandma’s recipes. People need a choice of flavors. In the food industry, government must be about making equipment available at cost, so entrepreneurs can acquire the tools they need to make them competitive with producers from abroad.
The rich and famous and aspirants for such status shouldn’t feel threatened that there won’t be room for their businesses anymore, if the one-year-old government builds more roads, and defends our public utilities. There’s room for all. But some things belong in public hands.