The Garifuna

The Garifuna people of Guatemala; culture, customs and traditions. The Garifuna are descendants of Carib, Arawak, and West African people.
Boasting a truly fascinating history which began just off the tropical shores of the Caribbean Island of St. Vincent in 1635, the Garifuna people have incredibly maintained the intriguing, mixed cultural traditions of their West African and Carib-Arawak ancestors despite successive threats of slavery, colonization, war, and deportation.

Almost four centuries later, and now primarily living in the Caribbean coastal towns of Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras, this unique Afro-Caribbean group still takes great delight in speaking their rare Arawakan language, in playing or dancing along to their distinctive drum-based Punta music and in satisfying their taste buds with their delectable age-old cuisine. Allegedly setting foot on the island of St. Vincent following the shipwreck of two Spanish vessels in 1635, the West-African slaves, believed to be the Garifuna’s earliest ancestors, must certainly have considered themselves fortunate to have experienced this unexpected interruption to their journey to the New World.

However, although initially successful in avoiding slavery thanks to their quick-thinking intermarriage strategy, the Garifuna people, as they are named by historians from this point onwards, would be constantly exposed to threats to their culture in the centuries which followed. Enjoying a temporary period of peace in the late 17th Century, the Garifuna were soon confronted with the power of multiple British forces. Impressively resisting their attacks until 1796 with the help of the French, the Garifuna were eventually forced to surrender to the superior British opposition.

Subsequently deported to Roatán, the largest of Honduras’ Bay Islands, the Garifuna people gradually dispersed along the coast of mainland Honduras, Belize and Nicaragua and finally founded the Guatemalan town of Livingston in the early 1800s.Still very much a Garifuna community, present-day Livingston continues to preserve the cultural traditions of its Afro-Caribbean inhabitants and most prominently its Arawakan language. As is the case with those living in the other Central American countries, nearly all Guatemala’s Garifuna people are bilingual or multilingual and speak both the country’s official language, Spanish, in addition to the indigenous Amerindian language.

Although predominantly based on Arawak, the Garifuna language also comprises French, English, Spanish and a small number of African words. Greatly influenced by the Europeans who have come into contact with their culture during their turbulent history, the Garifuna language’s basic vocabulary, in particular, should be recognizable to proficient French speakers. Days of the week such as Leindi (Monday), Wándaradi (Friday) and Samudi (Saturday), for example, are unmistakably comparable to the French equivalents, Lundi, Vendredi, and Samedi. As for the musical highlights of Garifuna culture, the Afro-Caribbean community takes great pleasure in listening to the energetic and captivating rhythms of Punta’s primero (tenor) and segunda (bass) drums. Naturally-gifted when it comes to dancing, the Garifuna people also partake in distinctive, and relatively competitive, chumba and hunguhungu dance competitions in which the majority of the movement revolves around a circular hip action.

Equally gifted in the kitchen, the Garifuna also relish the opportunity to serve up traditional cuisine. Typical dishes commonly feature green plantains such as Machuca, which combines the fruit in a mashed form together with coconut milk soup and fried fish and Dharasa, a Garifuna version of tamale which takes advantage of the versatility of the fruit to produce either a sweet or sour flavor. However, it is ereba (cassava bread) which is the staple of the Garifuna diet and is served as an accompaniment to most meals.

Remarkably forming thanks to the ingenious escape strategy of a multitude of 17th Century West-African slaves, the Garifuna are clearly proud to be descendants of such valiant individuals and seemingly display this respect through the conscious preservation of their long-standing cultural traditions.