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The SVG-Garifuna conversation

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I am quite aware of attempts to clarify the distinction between Garifuna and Garinagu, Garinagu referring to the collective people. But Garifuna is commonly used to depict the people and nation. I refer here to Belizean anthropologist, Joe Palacio’s 2005 publication “THE GARIFUNA: a nation across borders”. Palacio describes Garifuna “as a Caribbean people.” In fact, he says that “the Garifuna are the quintessential Caribbean people.” The debate which is raging here has reached the level of the absurd.{{more}} Everything continues to be seen in stark party political terms, nothing more. How can we proclaim Chatoyer as our national hero, but distance ourselves from his ancestry? Garifuna in Central America and elsewhere see Chatoyer as their national hero. It was their ancestors who fought with Chatoyer to defend this country. Chatoyer’s son was among those sent into exile and there are people who claim to be descended from his line.

Although I am reluctant to make any connection to the Jewish story, I am forced to do so, for Jews everywhere identify with Israel, become advocates and give that country tremendous support. I must state, however, that Israel is not a Jewish state. It belongs to all living there, including the Palestinians. Jews visit Israel as tourists. They also contribute to the economic development of Israel. This goes beyond politics, as we see in the US where Jews, regardless of their political affiliation, identify strongly with Israel. Some of them are even big critics of the Israeli state and its treatment of the Palestinians. The discussion on ‘honorary citizenship’ should involve the National Heritage foundation and other groups representing the indigenous people. It should be a broad conversation, honest and genuine and not the politically divisive scaremongering that we have been hearing.

Why scare those Vincentians who are uninformed into believing that to grant ‘honorary citizenship’ is to give them a licence to take away our lands, homes and jobs. This reminds me of the 1970s, particularly the period around the ’79 general elections, when the UPM was depicted by the governing Labour Party as a party that will, if given the opportunity, take away people’s land and homes. Why do we want to recreate that very sordid period in our history? I have heard that representatives of the Garifuna diaspora are going to address Vincentians at Sandy Bay. I have no problem with this, but it must not be part of a political meeting. This should not be imposed on them. The visitors should take the opportunity to introduce themselves to Vincentians and to show the long-standing connection, in a bid to make sense of what is happening.

We are into our 36th year of independence. Can we not rise above the level of debate that has been taking place in some quarters? What is interesting is that we, as Vincentians, are still in the process of identifying ourselves; getting away from the colonial images that sought to identify us and keep us divided as a people. The early Garifuna people in Central America had been subjected to different influences, based on the area of the world to which they were sent into exile. They went at a time when wars between the British and Spanish were taking place. Their language would have been affected by some of the influences they encountered. What is amazing is that while having to accommodate themselves to the dominant Spanish language, they retained their own, along with different aspects of their culture.

It is good that they still identify with what had been the homeland of their ancestors. Many of their ancestors died defending Yuremein, as they call it, from colonial takeover. Theirs was a historic struggle, started by the Kalinagos with whom they eventually became one people and fought to defend their country. Theirs was the last defense of the indigenous peoples, as the British, French and Spanish had already taken hold of their countries and decimated their populations elsewhere. Yuremein was the last bastion of the defense of the indigenous people. We honour Joseph Chatoyer for the role he played. In doing so, we are really acknowledging the role of these people, with thousands having died in the war with the British and also on Balliceaux, which was used as a holding port in the same way our slave ancestors were held in barracoons along the African coast. The Garifuna people consider Balliceaux sacred land, for many of their ancestors died there in horrible conditions as they awaited shipment, like a cargo of African slaves off Africa, or like bananas waiting to be shipped. The Garifuna people in exile are a very spiritual people and many of them would just like to touch the soil on Balliceaux. That means a lot to them. They do not want to live on Balliceaux or for that matter on St Vincent. They want to be able to identify with SVG and to do their part in developing the lands from which their ancestors were forcefully removed.

One of the earliest Spaniards to have made contact with them in exile left in his diary details of an encounter he had with one of their leaders. The leader said, “I do not command in the name of anyone. I am not English, nor French nor Spanish, nor do I care to be any of these. I am a Carib, a Carib subordinate to no one. I do not care to be more or to have more than I have.” This spirit of independence has certainly been around for a long time! If only we could recapture that spirit.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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