Margaret and Dick   


April 2009: Garifuna

The village of Seine Bight is an unlikely destination for American tourists in Belize. Yet we're here to tell you it should be at the top of your list. 

Two drummers and a gourd-shaker led the procession, which started at the Seine Bight church and was ambling toward a tent structure in the center of the village.  Middle-aged and older women were the most noticeable, dressed in bright African prints and head scarves or bright western dresses.  

 Under the tent, the party began in earnest. The drummers settled in for the afternoon, and the beer keg was tapped. The town drunk, in scruffy jeans and dreadlocks, appeared to have started partying much earlier. Singing was in the communal call-and-response style that is characteristic of Garifuna music. Most of the dancing was done by the women, with the men standing aside to express their appreciation. Did the chanting get louder as the dancing got hotter, or was it the other way around? A portly middle-aged woman danced over to the drum, opening her knees around it, and gyrated her hips as if humping the drum. The crowd cheered their approval. These ladies can really shake it!

It was a fascination with Garifuna culture that had brought us to this ramshackle village. The Garifuna are descendents of would-be slaves, who escaped when their ship wrecked off the island of St. Vincent. The Africans mixed with the local Indian culture, eventually settling along the east coast of Central America. We initially learned about the culture through an NPR “driveway moment”, riveted by the music of the late Andy Palacio.  Garifuna music, barely recorded before 1990, was proclaimed one of the masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO in 2001.

There are two Garifuna towns in Belize, Dandriga and Punta Gorda, and four villages, including Seine Bight. We chose the adjacent beach town Placencia as our base camp and inquired about Seine Bight at the tourist office. No brochures, almost no clue. They suggested we go to Seine Bight and ask at Wamasa Bar, the one with the bright colors. We found the tiny stools-outside-a-hut bar easily, one of the few businesses in town.

We ordered our Belican beers and then noticed a vile-looking concoction in a bottle behind the bar: twigs and whole cloves of garlic steeping in a cloudy amber liquid. “Whoa, what is this?”  Homemade bitters, good for indigestion, hangover, or just a good time. We ordered one glass to split – strong stuff! – and struck up a conversation with our new friend, bar-owner Franz. We grumbled that the tourist office in Placencia had no information about Seine Bight. “Those people think they are better than we are. But they served de white massa. We never served de massa.”  We ordered another beer and Margaret started cooking up a new business plan for Franz who, she recommended, should run “Garifuna heritage tours” from his bar. He could sell CDs too. Just start with a web presence and line up some good storytellers from the village, do a walking tour that would include a “photo safari”. White folks can’t exactly wander around snapping pictures, after all.  And by the way, would he have any interest in our being his guinea pigs?
The next day, cameras in hand, we returned to Seine Bight for our tour. We were lucky, happening upon the one-year anniversary of the death of a village leader. In Garifuna culture, you drum and chant for both births and deaths.   We were told that the chanting for births is sad, since life will be so difficult; the chanting for deaths is happy, as the person is now freed from suffering.

Franz gave us a fine walking tour of the village, complete with plenty of stories. The main drag, just a bit inland from the sea, is currently a dusty dirt road that was to have been paved several years ago. Streets, mostly sand, lead off in both directions from the main road. Buildings are mostly wood and usually on stilts to allow residents to sit underneath to escape the midday sun. Most are unpainted, but villagers with greater means paint their houses in bright colors.  Hurricanes are frequent, and wooden shacks can be quickly rebuilt. Some villagers returned from North America have cinder-block houses.

 Franz pointed out one simple structure as the village dugu, or African temple, where families can work out difficulties by channeling ancestors and soliciting their input. Errant villagers straighten up quickly when they’ve been chewed out by their late grandmothers, and I suspect I would do the same! The main religion of the town is Roman Catholic.  We met the lay minister Dora, a woman who says Mass in the absence of a priest and also serves as the village midwife. She’s been birthing babies since the 70’s and now has the pleasure of delivering the children of babies she delivered. She’s kept busy delivering over twenty babies a year.  

Because we were touring with a local, we had the opportunity to talk with villagers and observe the close-knit culture. Girls take turns braiding hair for hours. Could we take their pictures?  “No, no!”  We explain that we will be sending the photos to Franz to distribute, and they smile and pose coyly.  “I need two copies, one for my boyfriend.”
Dora told stories of the old days. Twenty years ago the village had only one telephone. When a call came in, they would say, “Call back in an hour.” Through the bush telegraph – shouting from house to house – the intended recipient would learn of the call and go to the phone to wait for the callback.

Now the village has water and electricity at each house. Many villagers have cell phones, and at least Lola the artist has a computer, but as yet the village has no internet café. Nobody is a stranger. Franz says that when outsiders like us happen upon Wamasa Bar and appreciate the culture, “We give them a lot of love.”
We visited the studio of Lola, the local folk artist who is mentioned in various guidebooks. When we admired the beautifully illustrated books in her studio, she announced that she printed them herself. She unwrapped the color printer from the scarf that covered it. “I have to keep it wrapped up. Once I printed something and a little gecko rolled out all flattened on the page. I was upset all day.”

While our Garifuna heritage tour was in many ways the highlight of our trip, there is much more to enjoy about Belize. The scenery is gorgeous. Mayan ruins are tucked into remote jungles. Rivers meander through caves. The coast has fine beaches. The cays are snorkeling- and diving paradise – or so we hear. (High winds cancelled our snorkel outing.) The wildlife is diverse and spectacular: birds! crocodiles! bats! tarantulas! manatees! howler monkeys! green iguanas! jaguars! The list goes on. Ask Margaret how the termites taste.
  But if you happen to drive down the Placencia peninsula, you absolutely need to stop at the Wamasa Bar – the one with the bright colors – for a Belican beer and a glass of bitters.  And just maybe take a Garifuna heritage tour with its friendly owner Franz.

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