Traditional Dugu Ceremony in Barranco, Belize

There probably has not been as much public attention in Belize on the dügü ceremony as within the past two weeks, thanks to the statement said by a high level manager within the Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) about the “dügü dance”. What was said at a joint press conference between the Government of Belize and NCL about the Memorandum of Understanding on the proposed investment at Harvest Caye opened the floodgates for opinions on the dügü ceremony and its potential insertion into large scale cruise tourism.

This certainly was not the scenario in southern Belize when the Cayetano twins – Sebastian and Fabian – and their siblings decided to build a dabuyaba, which they called the Marcelo Cayetano Complex a short distance from the cliff in the village of Barranco in 1996. Most of the materials came from the surrounding bush. The main circumstances leading to the construction were not unusual compared to the preparations for other dügüs in Garifuna communities. The family members had been having recurring bad experiences, such as illnesses and car accidents. The spirits of the ancestors appeared in dreams stating that they wanted a celebration. Some spelled out the details of what they expected at the feast. Buyeis were consulted and through their divination confirmed that indeed a dügü lasting a few days was needed by given ancestors. But where would this take place for there was no dabuyaba in the village at that time. The spirits directed that a new one should be built. Hence the beginning of the Marcelo Cayetano Complex (MCC)!

As the largest, best built and best appointed dabuyaba in Belize, the MCC attracted much attention from within Belize and neigbouring Guatemala. After 1996, dügüs have been held there almost every year usually between June and late August, a period which has now been dubbed as the yearly village dügü season. Interestingly, the ceremonies are getting bigger from the sheer numbers of participants. Nobody keeps an exact count but in what was certainly one of the largest, taking place this year, villagers estimated that between 300 to 400 persons came, certainly quadrupling our normal population of 100. At least for its small population Barranco can boast of itself as the Dügü Capital of Belize.

Why is this so? Because dugus are a function of history, the reason has to be found in the life pattern of our ancestors, who had lived in Barranco three and more generations ago. Many of those honoured had lived in Barranco, even if their descendants had migrated afterwards. Our research has shown that between the 1860s and the early 1900s several men and women had moved to the village. The in-migration was again repeated during the 1930s pulled by the banana boom. Unlike other Garifuna communities, Barranco was not first settled on a Carib Reserve or immediately adjoining large private landholdings, such as estates near New Town, the precursor of Hopkins. Barranco was first settled, according to accounts by the British themselves, on lands not owned or used by them. Land availability, therefore, became a beacon attracting many to the village from Guatemala and Honduras as well as further north in Belize.

Land is a major resource needed for a successful dügü to produce cassava bread, pigs, chickens, leaves, dyes and other accessories that are needed. Although most of these prerequisites have to be brought into the village at this time, it was the reality of a previous era of abundance that continues to remain in the memory of the ancestors being honoured.

Another main attraction of the village to the living as well as the spirits of our ancestors is the small face-to-face nature of the village setting. Having driven into the village, one can leave one’s vehicle and walk around, going house to house chatting with the residents as they sit by their verandahs. In other words, the overall ecosystem that lends itself for the dügü extends from the available land together with its bounty to the small rural village setting. A dügü in the village absorbs the attention of everyone, resident and visitor alike.

This brings us back to the debacle of the NCL allusion to the “dügü dance” they would like to feature at their property at Harvest Caye. The historicity embedded into the MCC and the intimacy of the small rural community cannot be repeated within the artificiality that NCL will reconstruct at Harvest Caye.

On the other hand, the NCL incident has opened the larger debate on the role of culture within large scale tourism, which is taking place all over the world, especially where indigenous peoples are found. In the case of the Garifuna we have a self-conscious culture that is diverse, vibrant and photogenic, which we have been sharing with others, including visitors to our shores. But as a nation we have the capacity to define what we will share with what visitors. The press release from the office of the National Garifuna Council President said it quite clearly, “The dügü is a sacred ceremony and is not performed as entertainment for any audience.”

Indeed, it was the combined work of many of us that led to the UNESCO 2001 Proclamation of Garifuna language, dance and music as masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity. In accepting the Proclamation the government of Belize re-affirmed its commitment to maintain the dignity and integrity of Garifuna culture. Fortunately, the Garifuna have not waited for the government but have gone ahead to articulate their position.

To a large extent the basis for this has been the dedication of our people in communities, such as Barranco, that has given all of us the collective strength to uphold the dügü as the most sacred component of our spirituality. The MCC and other dabuyaba are performing a function extending far beyond our communities; and reaching out to all indigenous peoples and similarly marginalized peoples wherever they are.

Reprinted with permission of Dr Joseph Palacio and The Toledo Howler, the voice of tourism in southern Belize.