The Garifuna Culture in Belize

Part of the celebrations for Garifuna Settlement Day include a reenactment of their arrival via water. The yellow and black flag waves proudly in the wind as the “settlers” come ashore.

Making Hudut.

The drumbeats are a huge part of the Garifuna culture, and is the backbone of their music.

As a true melting pot of various cultures, Belize has woven bits and pieces of many ethnicities to make what we know as our beautiful country. With many cultures coming in, tradition and custom sometimes disappear as the days go by. However, a group that is not going silently is the Garifuna. With November 19th, being their special day and designated a national holiday, Garifunas countrywide live up to this year’s theme of Proudly empowering our children in their Garifuna heritage. On May 18th, 2001, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed the Garifuna language, music and dance a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity. Belize’s very own Andy Palacio, celebrated musician and singer was honored with the title of Artist for Peace by UNESCO. With much history, culture, tradition, song, food, religion, the Garifunas have certainly left their mark in Belize. For that, we feature them in this week’s Our Belize Community.

    Grappling with the ramifications of the end of slavery, a new ethnic group, the Garifuna appeared. In the early 1800s, the Garifuna, descendants of Carib peoples of the Lesser Antilles and of Africans who had escaped from slavery, arrived in the settlement. The Garifuna had resisted British and French colonialism in the Lesser Antilles until they were defeated by the British in 1796. After putting down a violent Garifuna rebellion on Saint Vincent, the British moved between 1,700 and 5,000 of the Garifuna across the Caribbean to the Bay Islands (present-day Islas de la Bahía) off the north coast of Honduras. From there they migrated to the Caribbean coasts of Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and the southern part of present-day Belize. By 1802 about 150 Garifuna had settled in the Stann Creek (present-day Dangriga) area and were engaged in fishing and farming.

The Flag

    Any country or entity has a flag which symbolizes their history and what they stand for. The Garifuna have their own with a black strip, which is located at the top. This black band 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. As tough as these experiences have been, they helped to strengthen the Garifuna spirit and shaped their spirituality which is based on the principle of reciprocity, mutually beneficial two-way relationship between individuals or nations.

    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 color of grated cassava, which is further processed to make ereba, one of the Garifunas’ staple foods. It is the color of cassava juice, a color that is further brought out in the process of turning it into dumari, an additive for enhancing sauces, soups and stews. Yellow is also the color 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 them 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.

Garifuna culture

    Garinagu are a resilient tribal people who have survived many years of extreme hardships. Despite these, ethnological studies show that they are the only black people in the Americas to have preserved their native culture. Because their ancestors were never slaves, they have been able to preserve their rich and unique Afro-Caribbean heritage. Also, the Garifunas traditions, deep sense of kinship and participation in community cultural activities have provided them with a sense of solidarity and cultural identity during times of turmoil.

Religion and spirituality

    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 their faith. The Garifuna 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.


    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. 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.


    Garifuna music is similarly different from the rest of Central America; the most famous form is punta. An evolved form of traditional music, still usually played using traditional instruments, punta has seen some modernization and electrification in the 1970s; this is called punta rock. Traditional punta dancing is consciously competitive. Artists like Pen Cayetano helped innovate modern punta rock by adding guitars to the traditional music, and paved the way for later artists like Andy Palacio, Children of the Most High and Black Coral. Punta was popular across the region, especially in Belize, by the mid-1980s, culminating in the release of Punta Rockers in 1987, a compilation featuring many of the genre’s biggest stars.

    Other forms of Garifuna music and dance include chumba and hunguhungu, a circular dance in a three beat rhythm, which is often combined with punta. There are other songs typical to each gender, women having eremwu eu and abaimajani, rhythmic a cappella songs, and laremuna wadauman, men’s work songs. Other forms of dance music include matamuerte, gunchei, charikawi and sambai. Paranda music developed soon after the Garifunas arrival in Central America. The music is instrumental and percussion-based. The music was barely recorded until the 1990s, when Ivan Duran of Stonetree Records began the Paranda Project. In the Garifuna culture, there is another dance called Dugu. This dance is a ritual done for a death in the family to pay their respect to their loved ones.

    In 2001, Garifuna music was proclaimed one of the masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity by UNESCO.

    Steeped in rich traditions and amazing ancestry, we join the Garifunas in celebrating Garifuna Settlement Day. They have joined our country and formed part of it; integrating themselves to our roots and have grown to prominent businessmen, entrepreneurs, teachers and have joined our Belizean workforce with such strength. Their music, their dance, stories, food, history – it all makes them a proud and much welcome addition to “Our Belize Community.”

Assistance provided by the National Garifuna Council of Belize ( and the people of Seine Bight Village (

For more information on the Garifuna, click here.

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