The Garifuna

Today, I hopped a tiny, twelve-person plane for a 20-minute flight. I was Dangriga bound. The largest town in southern Belize, Dangriga is the center of Garifuna culture, and before coming to Belize, I had never heard the word “Garifuna.” One of the exciting parts of travel is learning about cultures that are different than my own and, today, I’m in for an authentic Garifuna experience!

The majority of Garifuna people live along the coast of Belize and several other Central American countries, but their family roots are across the Atlantic Ocean and began with a random accident.

In the 1600s, two Spanish slave ships from West Africa crashed off the shore of St. Vincent. Those slaves that survived were brought to St. Vincent by the Carib Indians. What happened next is a little unclear, as most of their history was passed down through storytelling. We do know that the West Africans fought with the native Carib Indians at first, but soon had to join together with the arrival of French and British settlers. The West Africans soon mixed with and married members of the indigenous population and created a new ethnicity: the Garifuna.

Today, the Garifuna have their own customs, cuisine, and language, and their culture is celebrated throughout the country.

At my first stop in Dangriga, I learned to make cassava bread. This is a big part of traditional Garifuna cooking. Cassava is a root vegetable that is similar to a potato. To make the bread, it is grated, squeezed dry, sifted, and cooked on a flat stove. The result is a crunchy, bland bread that is much like a pita. Cassava bread doesn’t have a lot of nutrients. It’s best served with a traditional dish like fish in a coconut soup. Like a lot of breads and starches, it’s mostly used to help you feel full.

Music and dance also play an important part of Garifuna culture. For my second stop, I met with a group of dancers who welcomed me with the hungu-hunga or the ‘shake-shake’ dance. I shook-shook with them for a little while before they explained some of their traditional dances.

I most enjoyed the Jankunu dance, which is usually performed at Christmas time. For this dance, male Garifuna dancers wear brightly-colored headdresses, strings of shells on their knees, and white clothing. The costume is meant to represent a white colonial master. Dancing to a fast drumbeat, dancers mimic and mock the white European master. The dance mixes African dance and rhythm with the history of colonial rule in the Caribbean region. Each step and movement tells the story of the Garifuna.

Kat