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close this bookThe Courier N 152 - July - August 1995 - Dossier: NGO's - Country Reports: Belize, Malawi (EC Courier, 1995, 104 p.)
close this folderCountry reports
close this folderBelize
View the documentSurprising Belize
View the documentA history against the tide
View the documentGender language for black Amerindians
View the documentInterview with Prime Minister, Manuel Esquivel
View the documentInterview with opposition leader, George Price
View the document'The Queen's man'
View the documentStill images
View the documentEU-Belize cooperation - An end to isolation

Gender language for black Amerindians

At every international meeting on the defence of indigenous peoples, there are always some journalists who are surprised by the presence of black Amerindians. They have obviously never had the opportunity to meet Felicia Nunez. Although they might not recall everything they were told about the origins and history of this group, after one hour in her company, they would certainly have heard a great deal about it. What they would remember, without doubt, would be the warmth, passion, commitment and fighting spirit of this woman. They would learn that there are a considerable number of publications in Garifuna, including the Bible, books of poems, collections of songs and dictionaries, full of soldiers and folk heroes. This literature, crucially, forms the basis of the aspirations of a small population which has overcome fate despite the many attacks made on it.

Felicia Nunez is an employee of the Social Development Department. In her work, she helps underprivileged families cope with their day-to-day existence and enables them to meet their responsibilities. She deals particularly with women who have been left as head of the family and who are out of work, of which there are many in Dangriga and throughout the rest of the country. She acts as vocational adviser, teaching sewing to some and the rudiments of administrative organisation to others, and she also has a role as social assistant. She is a strong feminist and devotes her time fully to this, her professional work coinciding with the task she has set herself of improving the conditions of deprived women. When she is not with one of these women, she works in her small wooden colonial house, which is still sound despite the ravages of the humid climate. She is wholehearted in commitment to all of her activities but what really inspires her is speaking about the Garifuna people, recounting their history, defending their pride and speaking fighting words when she recalls their long suffering.

The Garifuna people, (the black Amerindians in Belize), are also to be found in Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala, as well as in their original land, the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. However, it is in Belize that their future is to be found. This is because they are relatively numerous there, numbering about fifteen thousand. They also represent a sizeable proportion of the country's population and have been relatively successful within the society and in organising themselves. Right or wrong, the Garifuna suspect the current government of being unsympathetic to their cause, seeing evidence of this in the fact that the monument to their people, erected under a previous government, together with the neighbouring land, (in principle an integral part of the monument), were the subject of a government real-estate operation in favour of the Creole population. They have condemned acts of vandalism against the monument and have sharp words about the apparent laxity in dealing with the perpetrators. They imply that enquiries made were not followed up.

Theodore Aranda, one of the main leaders of the Garifuna cause, and one of its most dynamic representatives at international meetings, was an influential minister in the previous government. In considering the merits of some of their complaints, one must, of course, take care to remain objective.

Gender in speech

It is not entirely correct even to speak of a 'Garifuna people'. The word 'Garifuna' refers only to the language, the inhabitants being Garinagu, a word derived from a Caribbean expression meaning 'manioc eater'. However, we will take the liberty of using the word 'Garifuna' since this is what appears in the press even in Belize. Language is currently the battle horse of those who defend the people's cause. The Garifuna Language Workshop has set itself the target, firstly, of reestablishing Garifuna as the mother tongue in the six Garifuna communities in Belize. At present, only one of these communities really speaks the language on a daily basis, although language-linked culture is still alive and well in the others. Secondly, the Workshop aims to promote it in other Garifuna communities abroad. 1995 is an important year for them, being the bicentenary of what they refer to as the assassination of the Chief of Chiefs, Joseph Chatoyer, founder of the first Caribbean republic on the island of Yuremein (the old name for Saint Vincent).

The earliest traces of the two Amerindian peoples who were to populate the Caribbean, the Arawaks and Caribs, date from the pre-Christian era. They first settled in the north of South America, along the Orinoco and Magdalena rivers. During the second century AD, the Arawaks migrated towards the Caribbean islands and principally towards the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and Puerto Rico). In the 13th century, the Caribs used to invade islands in the south of the Archipelago, wiping out the male Arawaks and taking the women captive. The unions formed as a result of these abductions gave rise to the 'Caribbean/ Arawak' language, but, above all, to the bizarre phenomenon of the genderisation of the language. With the possible exception of Japanese, where male-female speech differentiation essentially is found in the accent, this is a unique phenomenon. Men and women speaking Garifuna are mutually intelligible but use different words and turns of phrase to denote the same meanings. Thus, for example, depending on whether the speaker is male or female, the word 'woman' is either 'wuri' or 'hiyaru', while the subject pronoun 'we' will be either 'amuru' or 'buguya'.

The arrival of Christopher Columbus put an end to the Carib raids to capture Arawak women, the people having, then, to concentrate their energy against the new enemy. As pacifists, the Arawaks and their descendants, the Tainos, were to disappear entirely. The much more bellicose Caribs survived, although in limited numbers. Having attacked the Caribs several times, up to the beginning of the 1 6th century, the Spanish subsequently left them in peace. The French also became discouraged and, in 1660, signed a treaty, acknowledged by the English, granting these indigenous populations perpetual sovereignty over the islands of Dominica and Saint Vincent. Shortly afterwards, the English reneged on the treaty and mercilessly hunted down the Caribs. This was to last for over a century, ending in the death of the Carib chief, Joseph Chatoyer. This episode sounded the death knell for the Carib presence in the islands which still bear their name.

'The last of the Mohicans'

A quarter of a century before the 1660 treaty, two Spanish vessels carrying slaves from Africa, principally from Nigeria, were shipwrecked on the shores of Yunumein (Saint Vincent). The prisoners who escaped were taken in by the Indians and ended up adopting their language and culture, retaining only a few religious practices and their music, together with the colour of their skin.

After the British victory in 1795, five thousand Caribs were deported to a small island off Honduras. Only two thousand survived the voyage to arrive at their destination. It is their descendants who are now to be found in Belize and the neighbouring countries, having moved to the mainland some years later. Today, there are probably about 300 000 of them worldwide. Their long suffering in recent years is marked, above all, by two huge massacres in Honduras, the more recent having occurred in 1937. It has principally been the benevolence of the Jesuits that has saved Garifuna culture. They were quick to begin teaching the new arrivals and, from the beginning of this century, they allowed members of the Indian community to instruct their own compatriots. It was one of these instructors who was to set up the first Caribbean cultural society in Central America, which began to crystallise Garifuna claims. In 1941, the 19th of November, which is the anniversary of the arrival of the Caribs in Belize, was made a Day of Celebration in the district of Stann Creek, where most of the people currently live. In 1977, the date was declared a national holiday. Currently, the Belize National Garifuna Council jealously monitors the community's interests. 'The last of the Mohicans' have survived.