The African Legacy in Guatemala: Black Guatemalans?
Several years ago, someone showed me a photograph of a Black woman walking along the beach. I asked him where it was taken and he replied, "Livingston, Guatemala." I wondered to myself, 'Black Guatemalans?' Through my studies at Howard University, I knew that the African diaspora was widespread but hearing about Blacks in Guatemala still took me by surprise.
Livingston, Guatemala, is home to over 6,000 Black Guatemalans, also known as Garifuna. During the 1700's, the Europeans brought Africans to the Americas as slaves. It is believed that this particular group of Africans was brought over from Ghana. In 1795, the African slaves on the island of St. Vincent revolted. Led by Marcos Sanchez Diaz, they fled to the island of Rotan in Honduras. From there, the Garifuna spread out along the Caribbean to Belize, Guatemala and Honduras.
The Guatemalan Garifuna, descendants of the African slaves and the Maya of Guatemala, have a distinct culture. They live mainly along the coast of the eastern tip of the country. They make up less than one percent of Guatemala's population. They language they speak is also called Garifuna. It is a mixture of French, indigenous languages, Creole, Bambu, and Patua.
As I walked down the streets of Livingston, I was surrounded by people speaking the Garifuna language. It was a strange experience for me because it was the first time since the beginning of our journey that I didn't understand anything that was being said. Luckily, I was able to get by because everyone is bilingual (Garifuna & Spanish). So, if I had a question, all I had to do was to ask it in Spanish. I was curious to know more about the Garifuna culture, so I started to ask the people around me if they could tell me more about it. A man on the beach told me that the best place for me to find out would be ONEGUA--he was afraid to tell me himself because he didn't want to give me any false information!
Two of the problems facing the Garifuna community today are poverty and drugs. Drugs are of special concern since there has been an increase in drug abuse among teenagers over the past couple of years. However, the problem here is not nearly as bad as it is in many major U.S. cities. On a more positive note, ONEGUA has succeeded in bringing together a supportive group of youth that are active in making positive change for the community.
One of the major efforts that ONEGUA is pushing for is national educational reform in school curriculum. It has been proven that students perform better when their culture is validated through their curriculum. Currently, Garifuna language, culture and history are not taught in Guatemalan schools. ONEGUA is fighting to have these subjects included in the curriculum. ONEGUA would also like to see more teachers come out of the Garifuna community to serve as role models for Garifuna students.
ONEGUA coordinates traditional celebrations and events relating to Garifuna culture. The most important festival celebrated is "Garifuna Settlement Day" on November 19. Garifuna music is based on traditional African rhythms. Drums are an essential part of the music, and there are different drums for different songs. Certain drums are sacred and are only used for rituals and religious ceremonies. The other day, I saw the group Bahia Azul perform at the local restaurant. They were great - music to my ears! To make these magical sounds, the band used two tambores, two maracas, par de tortuga (turtle shell), and caracoles (they make a cool sound when you blow into them).
After I departed Livingston for Guatemala City, I began to understand why people never want to leave the town. Livingston is only accessible by boat, and, as a result, air pollution is almost non-existent. The only cars in town belong to the police, and those are few in number. To get around, most people ride a bicycle or walk. With the beach only a few steps away from almost any part of town, life here is wonderfully laid-back. No one is in a hurry to do anything.
Being in Livingston made me feel at home. As an African-American, I find it amazing that I can travel anywhere in the world, yet I continually find people who share many of my cultural values and traditions. I feel that we connect because we have a shared history that began in Africa.
Jamila - Solo and Sore in Central America!
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