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The Garifuna – A reconnection with the extended family

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The announcement by the President of the New Democratic Party (NDP) that if elected to office they would grant honorary citizenship to the Garifuna, who reside largely in Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, but with significant numbers in the US, became the week’s talking point. As usual, the debate became one largely influenced by one’s political colour.{{more}} The conversation, if we dare to call it such, has in some cases become totally absurd. The idea that they are going to come here to take away people’s jobs misses two things – first the title ‘honorary’ is a conferment of honour to anyone holding such a title. There is surely a marked distinction between citizen and honorary citizen. My understanding from listening to some of the releases and discussions is that the details of what ‘honorary citizenship’ means are to be worked out in consultation with their representatives. This, of course, will have to include an identification of who are Garifuna peoples. Secondly, why should we think that the Garifuna peoples are just waiting to flood Yurumein/SVG with their numbers? The Garifuna are a highly skilful and talented people who have made significant contributions wherever they reside.

I was hoping for a sober and sane conversation on this, especially since we are embarked on a process of seeking reparations. From our end, the Garifuna story will have to take centre stage. Their case has probably been the most documented and will be critical to any success with reparations. As Sir Hilary Beckles, the leader of the reparation debate, stated; ‘No legal claim is clearer.’ This, I thought, would have cemented the relationship between Garifuna peoples abroad and those who reside in SVG and with the broader society that has its claims through slavery. This hostility to the Garifuna peoples will do no good for the reparations process, which depends on building links and having a common agenda.

I gather from the releases and discussions that this is not meant to be simply an emotional issue. Those who have the means are going to be encouraged to invest here, in the same way that we welcome the ‘Syrians’ and Chinese. With their significant numbers, the tourist potential is there, along with the possibility of purchasing Vincentian goods and services. I visited the Garifuna village of Dangriga in 2000 when I went to Belize to deliver two lectures. These people had a sacred reverence for people from St Vincent, the home of their ancestors. They want to touch the soil of their homeland, as they call it. When the Garifuna artist Cayetano touched the soil of St Vincent, he was overcome with emotion and responded by beating his drums furiously. As a youngster, his parents had told him about their arrival in that part of the world after being exiled from Yuremein, with thousands dying at Balliceaux, even before they began that terrible journey.

There is a very strong relationship with Belize, especially because of the English language. But they have retained their language, affected obviously by the different influences to which they were subjected. I had the privilege of attending one of their religious ceremonies, held, I believe, on what they celebrate as ‘Arrival Day’. The total service was in the Garifuna language and the experience was truly a moving one. Our relationship, particularly with Belize, began to develop since 1992 when the Americas celebrated the quincentenary of the arrival of Columbus in these parts. Indigenous peoples took the opportunity to develop and strengthen links and to begin to rid themselves of the Eurocentric images that came as part of the colonizing process. The Caribbean Organization of Indigenous Peoples (COIP) was formed, strengthening then the links with SVG that had been forged. Our education system had paid little attention to the barbaric historical actions of the colonizer. Now that the information is more readily available, we have the opportunity to help to right an historical wrong and reparations, of course, is part of this. I had originally expressed some reservations about what could have been achieved because of our lack of power, but we have begun to build links and to make the call stronger. The Garifuna story is certainly a unique one that has much to add.

The Garifuna people in exile are a proud people, proud of their history and ancestry. Their fore parents defended this land, over two thousand dying during the period of their stay in Baliceaux. The move by Mr Eustace did not surprise me, because I have seen him at the opening session of, perhaps, all of the Garifuna conferences held here. His was not a photo op, since he sat sometimes almost unrecognized in the middle section of the hall. His is a move which should be applauded. Over the years we have recognized the importance of the diaspora in making a contribution through their expertise and skills. What is being done now is to extend our definition of the diaspora.

The Garifuna connection has some significance in building the self-esteem of our indigenous people here, who have lost their language and aspects of their culture. The recognition of Chatoyer as National Hero had begun the process, but we are still beset by Eurocentric historical images that had sought in the interest of the colonizers to define who they were. There are two other issues. The learning of the language has to be a part of spiritual identification and redemption, since its utility outside of these hardly exists. I have accepted the view of a well respected anthropologist that at some point the Black and Yellow Caribs, so called, became one. In this context, they are all Garifuna people. The Black and Yellow Caribs are one people.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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