Garifuna Settlement Week

The sights and sounds of Garifuna Settlement Week in Punta Gorda featuring a sunrise settlement re-enactment and PG’s own Battle of the Drums!

It’s the SECOND rainy season here in Southern Belize, and an unusually wet one at that. As such, we’ve been hunkered down for the past three weeks, enjoying the occasional sunny day, but more or less learning to live in the new [very wet] “normal.” Cayo district up north has experienced record flooding — many bridges are out and travel off of the main highway is next to impossible in numerous communities throughout the country.

This week in PG is Garifuna Settlement Day festivities, so it’s a good weekend to be here. We caught the much hyped five-hour long Battle of the Drums last night, which was a good time but definitely not what we expected–much more civilized of an affair than we had planned for (we imagined drum circles, hands and dreadlocks flying through the air, dirty hippy backpackers camped out and diggin’ the scene) but it was much more like a county high school music competition. Nonetheless, the drumming was incendiary and we got to witness some pretty extraordinary talent and a slice of Garifuna culture.

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It’s hardly a secret that many tourists end up in Belize’s deep-south to experience Garifuna music, food, dance and people at their best — and indeed during the month of November in particular the Garifuna culture seemed to be at the forefront of every visitor’s plans in PG. Regardless of the fact that the Garinagu people (for whom the Garifuna culture and language are named) constitute but a small minority here in Toledo district and the rest of the country, for all intents and purposes November is Garifuna month here in Toledo district, and very few Belizeans will dispute that.

But what is Garifuna anyway? Why has their culture become so influential and towns like PG become meccas for music-lovers, hippiefolk and other curious souls the world over? Afterall, the Garinagu people only number about 14,000 in all of Belize (about 4.5% of the population), vastly outnumbered by other African-origin peoples in Belize who make up about a fifth of the population of Belize. It might be in the unique language, dance and music of the Garifuna culture which was deemed unusually significant by UNESCO in 2011. It could also be the willingness of the Garinagu to share their culture and traditions with outsiders. The fascination with Garifuna culture could also be linked to their harrowing settlement story, which is marked each year by a national holiday.

Garifuna Settlement Day is a public holiday in Belize that is celebrated each year on November 19th. The day marks the settlement of the Garinagu people after their exile from the Grenadines by the British army in the early 19th century. It was first recognized as a public holiday in Toledo and Stann Creek districts in 1943 and declared a national holiday in 1977.

There are two main events in Toledo marking Garifuna Settlement Day/Week: Battle of the Drums and the Re-enactment/parade.

Merrymakers forming a procession leading to the site of the Garifuna Settlement Day re-enactment in Punta Gorda.

The Story of the Garifuna

The week of celebration essentially kicks off with PG’s own Battle of the Drums and ends with the re-enactment at sunrise of the first Garinagu in Belize coming ashore. At first glance, however, the arrival of the Garinagu in Belize seems hardly a cause for celebration.

The Garinagu people are descended from mostly West African and Carib/Arawak peoples. Their story begins in 1635 when two Spanish ships carrying Nigerian slaves ran aground and sank off the coast of St. Vincent. The survivors of the wreck spent the next 150 years on the Grenadine islands, during which time they intermarried with the indigenous Arawak people — resulting in the creation of the distinct Garifuna culture as we know it today. However, things did not end happily ever after for the Garinagu, as the British took control of the island in 1796 and forced the Garinagu (and the French inhabitants who had also made the island their home) off the island.

Expelled from what had essentially become their homeland the 5,000 Garinagu made the voyage to the Honduran island of Roatan (about 2,000 miles from St. Vincent), losing half of their population in the hellish journey. Roatan, however, proved inhospitable and the Garinagu petitioned the Spanish government to settle on the mainland beginning their settlement up the Caribbean coast of Central America into British Honduras (present-day Belize).

Reaching Belize marks the end of a very long and arduous journey, but also a new beginning — the Garinagu trace their heritage, lineage and cultural traditions back to this critical moment in their history, marking the beginning of the Belizean-Garifuna ethnicity.

According to legend (and some historical record), the Garinagu arrived in British Honduras in the early morning hours of November 19th, 1802. Towns and cities with significant Garinagu populations throughout Belize (particularly PG and Dangriga) celebrate this important moment every year at sunrise (around 6am). In PG this year, we awoke early to stake out a good spot near the Fishermen’s jetty to watch the live re-enactment. Three small boats sat bobbing in Amatique Bay waiting for the procession of merrymakers to reach the jetty, signaling the beginning of the re-enactment.

Lori and I, along with Hillside students and volunteers watched from the shore. It is customary to stay up through the previous night until sunrise, which may be evident in the faces of those in some of our photos…though Lori and I were totally lame (or very wise…) and left the previous evening’s festivities at a reasonable hour.

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Garifuna boats await their cue.

The procession has reached their mark: Release the boats!

So basically, this is how it all goes down. The boats approach the jetty three times. Each time, they pull up to the aging British dude (seen in the photo above) to ask for permission to come ashore. The first two times the British officer chuckles and sends them back out to sea. Yet, the Garinagu are persistent people and finally get their way with the old man on the third try, though the Brit makes it very clear that they need to head south (mind you, this is all happening in Belize City in 1802, though the Garinagu ultimately settle in places along the southern coast like Dangriga, Hopkins, Punta Gorda and Baranco…they also settle in Georgetown, which is decidedly not on the coast, but that’s another story).

Garinagu coming ashore after the third and final petition, thus beginning their stay in Belize.

Our attempt at a Garifuna Settlement Day selfie…

Battle of the Drums

A few days prior to Garifuna Settlement Day and the accompanying re-enactment, we attended PG’s famous Battle of the Drums. We didn’t know what to expect, but had a picture in our minds of a large unruly crowd sitting on blankets or standing in a soccer field around a couple of Rasta-looking individuals madly thumping huge drums in the night, with dirty hippie backpackers milling about, smoking and drumming themselves, drunk locals harassing women and throwing beer bottles, defacing property and so on. I don’t know how such visions pop into one’s head, but we couldn’t have been further from reality.

Battle of the Drums, now in its eighth year was started by our landlord’s husband (who appears to be somewhat of a big deal around here) and inspired by Andy Palacio’s call to preserve the Garifuna culture — specifically the language and music of the Garinagu people. It ended up being an extremely well-organized and civilized affair — and I want to stress here that my assumptions of a raucous and unorganized event was not based on any assessment of Belize, but rather experiences with such affairs in other parts of world, from the U.S. to Africa. I suppose it reminded us more of a high school band competition or county-wide awards presentation as everyone was seated in chairs in a large multipurpose auditorium, complete with MC, sound system, lighting and sponsors.

But the drumming took center stage of course, as it should, and all of the groups were outstanding — though some were absolutely amazing. For the first time in its history, they invited a promising high school drum group from Dangriga to compete, given that only seven teams had signed up and they needed an even number. The young team from Dangriga blew the others away with their energy and charisma and seemed to take nearly every award, but the big one.

We also didn’t realize prior to the competition how far teams traveled to this event. We assumed it was mostly a Southern Belize, Toledo-centered competition, but in fact teams not only represented every corner of Garifuna Belize but also Garifuna Central American, including Guatemala and even Honduras. I suppose this isn’t as crazy at it sounds, given that Guatemala is a 40-minute boat ride from PG and Honduras is a 2-hour water taxi from Placencia, but it still surpassed our expectations.


We also didn’t realize there would be singing and dancing, which was half of the entertainment, particularly the dancing.

There are essentially two parts of the competition (which lasted in excess of four hours): The head-to-head portion in which two teams play one after the other for 7-8 minutes each (spending at least three minutes on two different types of music styles); and the dancing portion in which each team plays for 3-4 minutes. The first half of the dancing portion has a member from the team mime-dancing a story to drumming; the second half has a dancer from an opposing team doing an improvised dance to drumming, anticipating the rhythm of the drummers while the drummers try to trick the dancer. This latter portion was perhaps the best part of the entire evening.

We’ve had the opportunity to hear a handful of really good Garifuna drumming performances since Battle of the Drums, but nothing quite tops the intensity and energy of this particular night. I believe it’s about 20 BZD to attend and if you happen to be in the area I’d say it’s just about a must-do activity as any.

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 T. AjirT. AjirShirley Northcraft Recent comment authors
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T. Ajir
T. Ajir

Always so very enjoyable and interesting, thank you for sharing your exiting travels with me!!! I especially enjoy little Noe’s wonderful smiles and expressions

Thinking of you often! GM/T

 T. Ajir
T. Ajir

Always so very enjoyable and interesting