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Home Editorial Salute our Garifuna brethren and sistren

Salute our Garifuna brethren and sistren

On Monday, November 19, the Garifuna people, and indeed all Belizeans, will celebrate Garifuna Settlement Day, to mark their arrival on these shores in the first part of the nineteenth century. We take a lot of things for granted in this Jewel of ours, but there were no guarantees over 200 plus years ago when the Garifuna people were deported from St. Vincent by the British after a prolonged bloody battle with the greedy colonialists.

The story is that sometime in the first half of the 17th century, a number of Africans landed on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, by way of shipwreck. It is these surviving Africans who intermingled with the indigenous people of St. Vincent, the so-called Caribs, and it is their children who are considered the first Garifuna.

The British occupiers, goes the story, wanted to use the island for sugar cane plantation, and so they employed all manner of treachery, including violence, to steal the lands of the Garifuna. But the ancestors of present-day Garifuna were no pushover: they mounted a fierce resistance. That resistance against the overly powerful British cost the Garifuna dearly. Sometime between 1796 and 1797, the British rounded up well over 4,000 Garinagu men, women and children and took them to a small island named Balliceaux, a dependency of St. Vincent.

Almost half of them reportedly died from diseases and malnutrition, before the approximately 2,000 survivors were eventually taken to Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras. From there they fanned out to several Central American coasts, including Guatemala, Nicaragua, and later Belize.

It was the late Thomas Vincent Ramos who led the efforts to celebrate Settlement Day in British Honduras, an objective he achieved in 1941. Incidentally, the great T.V. Ramos was a prominent member of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which had a branch in Stann Creek Town, as today’s Dangriga was then called.

The Garifuna people are a phenomenal people in so many respects, but their arrival in Belize did not mark the end of their struggle. The British colonialists here were scared of them, the stories of their heroic and sensational resistance having preceded them. So, that while they were prodigious laborers, and legendary producers of food, and fisher folk, they were treated to all manner of discrimination and isolation at the hands of the British in the Settlement of Belize. They were confined to southern Belize, and at one point in the early 19th century, needed a permit to be in Belize Town, present day Belize City.

That discrimination continued into the 20th century as the colonial government, the biggest single employer in the then colony of British Honduras, refused to hire Garifuna men and women for the civil service. Instead, it was the direct descendants of the British and the so-called Creoles who were the beneficiaries of those jobs. Again, the Garifuna man and woman were confined to farming, fishing and laboring.

And that explains why in the early part of the aforementioned 20th century, their intellectual elite accepted the tough teaching opportunities in the far-flung villages of the country offered by the Jesuits. Today, we identify the Garifuna with cultural dominance and excellence, and even football prowess, but it was that singular sacrifice back then to teach the Maya and Mestizo children, why, arguably, all of Belize should be eternally grateful to the Garifuna.

It was some brilliant Garifuna men who made the treacherous journey to remote villages in the harshest parts of Toledo, and Cayo, and the rest of the country, to help establish schools and churches. They ventured where no one else dared – many times sacrificing their families in the process. There were no roads to village schools in those days, and many times they had to trek through thick forest trails for days, sometimes through deep swamps to reach their schools. Once there, they couldn’t leave, not until school was out for the holidays.

There were no cell phones in those days. No Internet and no Facebook. You were locked off from the rest of civilization pretty much. There was no postal service to those areas. These Garifuna teachers had to learn to speak Maya, Spanish, and English; and we weren’t talking any big salaries then. Not that any teacher today hauls home any huge salary to speak of. But, you get the point.

According to the educator Jerry Enriquez, due to the harsh living conditions in the Toledo village of San Antonio, none of the first five children of his late grandfather Andres Enriquez, who was the head teacher at the Roman Catholic school in San Antonio, and his wife Jane, were born alive. The couple went on to have six other children, born in more hospitable communities like Progresso and El Cayo, says Jerry Enriquez. Still, the late Andres Enriquez reportedly spent a total of 28 years in San Antonio over the course of two stints in the first half of the 20th century.

Today, as in the rest of Belize, all is not so well in some of our Garifuna communities. T.V. Ramos’ brilliant granddaughter, our very own Adele Ramos, in the Wednesday, November 14 issue of Amandala, quotes Sebastian Cayetano, a founding member of the National Garifuna Council’s Belize City branch, making a clarion call of sorts to the Garinagu.

But that aside, there is no gainsaying, the contributions of the Garinagu have been nothing short of spectacular, whether in education, culture, sports, and the list goes on. We join the rest of Belize in saluting our Garifuna brethren and sistren on this Settlement Day, here and in the diaspora. Maximum respect, from us here at Kremandala.

Power to the people! Power in the struggle!

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