The Garinagu

Who are the Garifuna?

Traditional Garifuna communities are mainly found along the Caribbean Coast of Belize, Honduras and Nicaragua. Out of an estimated 500,000 Garinagu world-wide, there are today about 15,000 Garinagu in Belize (about 7 % of the total population). In Guatemala there are an estimated 4,000 Garinagu and in Honduras the population is around 300,000. Garifuna communites are also found in the USA in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and New Orleans.

Garinagu (plural of Garifuna) or Black Caribs, are descendants of two ethnic groups, Carib Indians and Black Africans, that lived on the island of St. Vincent.

Arawak Indians, also called Yurumei, the original inhabitants of St. Vincent, were invaded and conquered by Kalipuna (Carib) Indians, a tribe from mainland South America. The Arawak men were killed and the warriors took the women as wives and the Carib Indians originated as a mixture of these people.
Around 1635 two Spanish ships carrying Black Africans destined for slavery, to the West Indies shipwrecked near St. Vincent. Survivors escaped and swam ashore to St. Vincent where they settled and lived amongst the Carib Indians.

Over the next 150 years, the two groups intermixed and the Garifuna ethnic group also called Black Caribs was formed. By 1750 the Black Caribs were the dominant population of St. Vincent and quite prosperous. French settlers lived on the island as well.

The Black Carib men hunted and fished while the women did most of the farming. The Black Caribs also traded with nearby islands: tobacco and baskets for arms and European manufactured goods. In 1763 the British invaded the island trying to take over land from the Black Caribs to plant sugarcane. This struggle for land resulted in the Black Caribs trying to establish independence and control of the island. They were supported by the French with whom they did considerable trading and many years of battles between the Caribs and the British ensued. After losing a major battle in 1795, the French and the Black Caribs finally surrendered and the British took over the entire island.

The British hunted down the Black Caribs, burned their houses and killed hundreds. Early in 1797 over 4000 Black Caribs were taken prisoner and sent to the Island of Baliceax where over half of them died from diseases like yellow fever and malaria. In 1798 the rest were exiled to the Island of Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras. From Roatan the Black Caribs migrated to the mainland of Honduras (Truillo) and settled all along the Caribbean coast of Belize (then British Honduras), Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

According to legend, the first Garifuna arrived in British Honduras on November 19, 1802. Today this day is a national holiday and the arrival of the Garinagu is celebrated allover Belize with drumming, dancing and pageantry in Garifuna communities.

How are they in Belize?

The Garinagu are people who came through the south of the country, specifically the Bay Islands of Honduras. Alejo Beni is the principal leader who helped them flee Honduras’ civil war. November 19,1832 marks the date they first settled in Belize, then known as British Honduras. Their home is mostly in the coastlines of Stann Creek and Toledo Districts. Their settlements are in Barranco, Georgetown, Hopkins, Livingston, Monkey River, Seine Bight, Punta Negra, and Punta Gorda Town. Though the Garinagu have found a home in the countries of Honduras, Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua, they have emigrated to other Central American countries and North America, only their ethnic culture is less noticeable there.

An International Personality

One important Garifuna personality in today’s media world is Andy Palacio. Mr. Palacio was born and raised in Barranco Village, Belize, and has dedicated his artistic skills in creating impacting Garifuna music that preserves this ethnic group’s beliefs and allows all to appreciate its people’s culture. He has released albums like Keimoun(beat on),released in 2002,Til da Mawnin, released in 2004, and his latest release in 2007 is Watina. Watina has won him the 2007WOMEX music award, transforming him into an internationally known icon. Mr. Palacio is definitely an ambassador for his Garinagu people and an example that the Garifuna culture is more predominant today.

French and English Interference

The three coming decades, 1730-1762, were characterized by the constant disputes between France and Great Britain for the desire of gaining power over San Vicente, Dominica, and Santa Lucia. The occurrence of these acts can be described as follows:

1730: San Vicente, Dominica, and Santa Lucia are declared to be free from European inheritance.
1742: British colony is established in Rattan (Roatan).
1748: Aix-La Chapelle Treaty is signed in which San Vicente, Dominica, and Tobago are declared of exclusive possession of the Caliponan natives.
1750: Peace Treaty signed between Spain and Great Britain.
1756: War between France and England begins.
1759: English attack Martinica, and take over Guadalupe Island.
1761: English take over Dominica.
1762: Martinica is taken over by the English (February 4th). In that same date Granada, Tobago, San Vicente, and Santa Lucia were ceded to Great Britain.
1763: Paris Peace Treaty is signed. San Vicente, Grenada, and Dominica were ceded to Great Britain; Cuba was given to Spain; Guadalupe, Martinica, and Santa Lucia were ceded to France.

Great Britain then declared war against the French; the disputing possessions were Martinica, and Santa Lucia. These acts of treason infuriated the French, who in reprisal, responded by exporting their revolutionary ideals to the Caribbean Islands in possession of the English. However, Garifunas understood that these philanthropic manifestations were not to be taken seriously, because most French wanted desired that Garifuna and English would destroy each other and consequently be force to leave the island. Therefore, Garifunas demanded sufficient warlike material from the French as a guarantee of their noble intentions.

Garifuna Cuisine

Traditional Garifuna foods are  based around fish, chicken, cassava, bananas, and plantains. Most of the meals are rich and hearty.

One of the staples of the diet is cassava. Cassava is made into a bread, a drink, a pudding, and even a wine! The cassava bread is served with most meals. The process of making the bread is very labor intensive and takes several days.

Hudut is a very common traditional meal. Hudut consists of fish cooked in a coconut broth (called sere) and served with mashed plantains or yams.

Mashing plantains for hudut
Dharasa is the Garifuna version of a tamale made with green bananas. It can be made either sweet or sour.
The foods are very labor intensive and used to be cooked over an open fire hearth. Today, stoves save time, but some families still prefer the taste of the fire hearth.


The Garifuna culture has fostered many talented painters, musicians and craftsmen. Art and handicraft play an important part in the documentation and preservation of the colorful and unique Garifuna culture. The drum- or basket makers traditional handicraft tells an important part of the Garifuna story. This is one of the reasons it is so important to pass on handicraft skills to coming generations. Similarly, the artists paintings document life of the Garinagu through times.

Benjamin Nicholas and Pen Cayetano are both famous painters. Examples of skilled craftsmen are Austin Rodriques (Dangriga) who makes traditional Garifuna drums and Victor Nicholas (Barranco) who makes traditional Garifuna baskets.


Perhaps their biggest contribution is through music; the Garifuna music, with its nostalgic sounds of traditional drums is impacting fanatics throughout Belize and European countries. They are also well-known for their dances and story-telling.  The Gariguna have used music to convey sentiments of their souls, of their history and present state of their lives.  The music and dances are greatly influenced by their African heritage, so drum beats play an important role. They use song and dance as a stress-release and healing technique. The form of dancing is mostly in moving the feet and hips, almost like when one is walking. Their most popular type of music and dance is known is Punta. There is also the paranda. One musical ceremony openly practiced by the Garinagu at Christmastime is the Wanaragua, or “John Canoe”, in which a man wears a mask and is dressed in funny clothes from head to toe, like a Spanish colonial slave master, and he dances in a funny manner in an open space to the rythms of drums.


Dance is an integral part of the Garifuna culture. One of the most wellknown dances is the Wanaragua.

Garifuna DanceThe Wanaragua is a masquerade dance with great social and festive importance that has evolved throughout the Caribbean for the last 200 years. Its pomp and pageantry is elegant, beautiful and full of finesse. The dance is traditionally performed by men. Their costumes involve elaborate headresses complete with feathers and mirrors. The wear bands of shells around their knees with white shirts and black or white pants. Black, green, or pink ribbons cross their chests depending on the time of year the dance is done. The wanaragua is one of the few dances where the drummers follow the dancer’s movements, and not the dancer dancing to the beat of the drum. This allows for an exciting show of skill by both the dancer and the drummer.

There are other mime dances that have social and entertainment value.  A significant one is the Jungai.  This mine dance demonstrates life skills and life events in the household and in the workplace setting.

These dances have taken a unique evolution path within the Garifuna culture.  Interesting and varying costumes, team management, and dance movement and step combinations have developed in the various Garifuna communities in Central America.   A diverse set of songs and drumming patterns have also evolved over time in the various locations where these dances are practiced.

The decline in the pomp and pageantry of Wanaragua and the display of other mime dances in the region can be attributed to the decline in the number of community elders with skills in and passion for these dances and changes in lifestyle.   The elders are the storehouse of the tradition and are the corner stone for passing on the history knowledge and skills of the great dancers, song composers and drummers.  They offer insight into the costuming and jumping dance movements that make legendary performers and the creative insight required for classic compositions and extraordinary drumming.

Changes in traditional lifestyle have had a negative effect on the sustainability of Wanaragua and other Mime dances.  As Garinagu enter the cash economy they spend less time in Garifuna communities and it becomes more difficult for them to practice all the elements of the culture.   The long-term result is that many Garifuna youth are growing up without exposure to and appreciation of the full significance of these dances.

Many of those who are skilled in the artistry of Wanaragua and other Mime dances do not live in Garifuna communities. They live where they can earn their livelihood and are not involved in maintaining the art form alive at home.   They come home to their communities to dance when they have the opportunity but they are not available to impart that passion to the youth around them.  This situation had lead to an inability to develop youths with historic prospective and deep knowledge of the elements of Wanaragua, that are willing to carry on the tradition and be the teachers of this art form within and outside of  Garifuna Communities.

Traditionally, Wanaragua is performed at Christmas time.  The traditional Wanaragua dancer spends some of his leisure time throughout the year preparing for this season.  He makes or at the very least decorates his mask and headdress and prepares his costumes as part of his life duties through the year.

Today?s lifestyle makes it impossible for many Garinagu to allocate time to prepare for Wanaragua.  The costuming of Wanaragua provides revenue generation options to Garifuna communities if Wanaragua is successfully revived.

The Flag

The Garifuna flag consists of three horizontal strips of black, white and yellow, in that order, starting from the top. This flag has long been accepted internationally as the flag of the Garifuna Nation and the colours have been used in any forum where Garifuna people assert their Garifuna identity. The flag of the National Garifuna Council is identical to the Garifuna flag with the addition of the NGC logo set in a white circle in the center.

This flag represents an evolution that commenced with the Carib International Society (CIS) whose flag was made up of horizontal strips of red, yellow and black.  Red (funati) stood for the blood of the Garifuna, black (w?riti) the skin of the Garifuna and yellow (dumari) the food of the Garifuna. T.V. Ramos added the strip of white (haruti) in the middle, substituting it for the red, when he formed the Carib Development Society (CDS). Carib International Society, as the name implies, was international in scope and its development appears to have been facilitated by the convergence of Garinagu from the various countries in places like Puerto Barrios where they flocked in search of employment with the United Fruit Company. The area of operations of the Carib Development Society, on the other hand, was limited to Belize although the influence of its initiatives spread far beyond the borders of Belize and laid the foundation for the later emergence of its successor, the National Garifuna Council.
What is the significance of the colours of the Garifuna flag? This question has been asked quite frequently and some attempts have been made to answer it although I am not aware of any written explanation. I will now try to piece together what I have heard, with the hope that this will evoke some reaction that can contribute to a full and complete documentation of the significance of the colours. It should also be noted that it is people who give meaning to symbols. We, therefore, have the option of expanding on whatever meanings have been handed down to us by the originators of the CIS and CDS flags.

It would be remiss of me not to mention an attempt made by Ruben Reyes to propose a flag for the Garifuna Nation. The colours are essentially the same. He also proposes a logo set in a shield in the center. I believe that it is a good effort and that the various country Garifuna organizations should respond to him with a view to its possible adoption.  Perhaps Ruben should circulate pictures by email so that we may resume the conversation that he proposed a couple years ago.

The black strip, which is located at the top, represents the black ancestry of the Garifuna people. The people have always acknowledged the African input into what became the Garifuna people, a phenomenon that occurred in St. Vincent starting in the seventeenth Century.

This colour, at another level, recognizes the hardships and injustices that the people have had to endure, their struggles for survival and the odds that they have had to overcome in the course of their history. Apart from the experience of the Middle Passage, which we share with other black people of the Americas, there was the imprisonment on Balliceaux, the exile from our Vincentian homeland after the so called Carib Wars and the replay of the Middle Passage in the form of the mass forced relocation to Central America.

Tough though these experiences have been, they helped to strengthen our spirit and shape our spirituality which is based on the principle of reciprocity captured in the Mal? song in the words ?Aura buni Iyaya wa?, am?r? nuni? ? I for you, Grandmother, and you for me.

The yellow strip at the bottom of the flag symbolizes the other half of the ancestry of the Garifuna ? the Amerindians or Yellow Caribs as they were referred to by Europeans. These were actually a mixture of Caribs and Arawaks and formed the host community in which the fusion of Africa and South America took place to give rise to the emergence of the Garinagu as a distinct group indigenous to the circum-Caribbean region.

In contrast to the hardships experienced in the course of history, the yellow symbolizes the hope and prosperity. Yellow is the colour of grated cassava, which is further processed to make ereba, one of our staple foods. It is the colour of cassava juice, a colour that is further brought out in the process of turning it into dumari, an additive for enhancing sauces, soups and stews. (It seems to have been an identifying feature of Garifuna people as it is the ?tumali? that is referred to in the racial slur ?Salt head Kerub, tumali water?). Yellow is also the colour of the rising sun, which brings new promise and much hope for a better life. Yellow, therefore, represents hope, plenty and prosperity, as well as the Carib/Arawak input into the Garifuna identity.

The white strip, located in the middle between the black and the yellow, reminds us of the role of the white man (Europe) in the history and formation of the Garifuna people ? the forcible removal and enslavement of the African, the seizure of Garifuna land, which precipitated the Garifuna resistance, and the forcible removal of the people from St. Vincent. Even after the arrival and dispersal in Central America, it was still necessary to deal with the white man.

At another level, white symbolizes the peace that has eluded the Garifuna people for most of their turbulent history – the peace for which they continue to yearn.

At one level, the colours represent the three principal races, with the black and yellow representing the African and the Carib/Arawak elements that fused to become the Garifuna. At a deeper level, the black symbolizes the hardships and injustices that we managed to survive in the course of our history, the yellow symbolizes hope and the prosperity for which we continue to struggle, and the white symbolizes peace.

Note: The relative position of the colours needs to be clarified or agreed. It is clear that the white strip is always in the middle.  The problem is with the black and yellow. I have referred to the black as being on top partly because of the location on the samples I looked at when I was writing this and partly because the colours have always been referred to as ?black, white and yellow? and we normally start at the top. However, I have since seen some examples in which the black is at the bottom.


The Garifuna language belongs to the Arawak group of languages. It is rich in tales, which served as an activity during wakes and large gatherings. Nowadays, because the language is being eroded the story-telling art is being lost at the same time. There is a strong link between the Garifuna language and the songs and dances which are associated with them. The melodies bring together African and Amerindian elements and the texts tell the history and traditional knowledge of the Garifuna, such as cassava-growing, fishing, canoe-building and the construction of baked mud houses.

One distinction of the Garifuna language is that male words are different from female words. In a conversation between a male and female they use different words to refer to the same thing.

Another unique thing about the Garifuna language is that it is spoken across borders of countries some of which do not have the same first language (e.g. Belize (English) and Honduras (Spanish).

The Sil Tradition

Unfortunately it has not been possible to obtain the phonemic analysis on which the SIL orthographic tradition is based.  Indeed, it does not appear that such an analysis has ever been published by the SIL, so that our examination of this tradition will necessarily be confined to the orthography itself as employed in some published Garifuna texts and the very brief orthographic note in “According to our Ancestors” edited by Mary Shaw.

Because the SIL fieldworkers did their study of Garifuna in Livingston, Guatemala, they use Spanish pronunciation as a basis for comparison when explaining Garifuna phonology, and the orthography of Spanish has a definite influence on their choice of symbols in writing the language.


Most Garifuna wear modern Western-style clothing. Even among the older women, very few still wear the traditional costumes trimmed with shells. But they do wear brightly colored full skirts and kerchiefs, making them look very different from younger women, who wear jeans, tee-shirts, and tight skirts, much like young women everywhere.

The men also wear jeans, and the traditional straw hats have been replaced by baseball caps. Young people’s clothing has been influenced by the places where their parents have settled. In the towns one can see some young people in the latest fashions from New York, paid for with money sent by relatives living abroad.

Religion and Beliefs

Garinagu are a proud people devoted to their roots and their religion consists of a mix of Catholicism, African and Indian beliefs.

Belief in and respect for the ancestors is at the very core of our faith. We believe that the departed ancestors mediate between the individual the external world. If a person behaves and performs well then he will have good fortune. If not, then the harmony that exists in relationships with others and the external world will be disrupted leading to misfortune and illness.

The religious system thus implies certain responsibilities and obligations between the living and deceased. Food and drink should occasionally be laid out for the ancestors who may also appear in dreams. A spiritual leader, a Buyei leads the contact of a family with the deceased. In preparation of these spiritual gatherings with healing, drumming and dancing, a feast of seafood, meat and cassava bread is prepared.

Garifuna spiritualism is creatively expressed through music, dancing and other art forms.