The Garifuna spread along the Atlantic coast of Central America after being forced to flee Saint Vincent in 1797. They are a population of mixed origin, incorporating elements of the culture of indigenous Latin American Caribbean groups and populations of West African origin. Today, they have communities established in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua in addition to Belize. The Garifuna language belongs to the Arawak group of languages and has survived centuries of persecution and linguistic domination. It is rich in tales (raga), which originally served as an activity during wakes or large gatherings. Nowadays, this story-telling art is being lost at the same time as the language is in retreat. There is a very strong link between the Garifuna language and the songs and dances which are associated with it. The melodies bring together African and Amerindian elements and the texts are a veritable store of the history and traditional knowledge of the Garifuna, such as cassava-growing, fishing, canoe-building and the construction of baked mud houses. The dances are generally accompanied by three types of drum and the onlookers mix with the dancers during the ceremonies. There is also a considerable amount of satire in these songs, which is particularly directed at certain forms of behaviour.
Economic migration, ethnic discrimination and the complete absence of the Garifuna language in the school system in Belize are endangering its survival. The language is still widely spoken but it is now taught in only one village. Consequently, the young no longer have mastery of their language and are no longer aware of their history, this then makes them vulnerable to the influence of the dominant culture. The National Garifuna Council (NGC) has put together the Garifuna agenda and has signed a memorandum with the Government of Belize, which commits itself to according proper recognition to the Garifuna culture. With families no longer being able to ensure the continued use of the Garifuna language, it is the language itself which must make use of schools (and particularly primary schools) to recover the prestige which the school system has previously denied it. At the same time, there are plans to create research grants in higher education and to form a Garifuna Cultural Centre which will organize festivals. Likewise, there are plans to create a Garifuna Heritage Park and to encourage young people to participate in the life of the community.
Series: Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity
Credits: NHK Enterprises 21 Inc (publisher), Ortus Japan (publisher), UNESCO (producer).
Published in: 2002
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