Communing with the Garifuna in Belize

by Fyllis Hockman

Garifuna healer, Erdangela Polonio. Buyei, Belize. Picture this. The large thatched-roof, sand-carpeted temple was barren except for the obviously ill child curled up in the single cot by the wall. An old woman could be heard chanting from within her sacred chamber, candlelight flickering around the corners of the sheet separating her from the long hall. Her healing incantations, I later discovered, were addressed to the spirits who may have had reasons of their own to inflict the child.

Intrigued? Okay, here’s the story. Spirits are big in the Garifuna community of Belize -- which by the way is a Central American country that thinks it’s a Caribbean island.  Garifuna, you say? Never heard of them. Part of the melting pot civilization which comprises Belize, the Garifuna share the land with Creole, Mayan, Spanish, Mennonite, Chinese and other neighbors but their language, customs, foods and religion are unique. So are their spirits.

Now there are only about 7000 Garifuna currently in the country, but the spiritual population is a lot larger. “Our ancestors are all about us,” Lawrence, our guide, told me: “Just as we must eat and drink to live, so must they be nourished as well.” This is something the ancestors take very seriously.

So if they perceive they are being neglected, the dead return, most often through dreams, to remind the living that they are in need of nourishment. If this message goes unheeded, the spirits may get angry and make a family member sick. The ancestors do not take kindly to being ignored.

The chanting woman behind the curtain? Now that’s 78-year-old Erdangela Polonio who is the village Buyei, or healer.  She’s been appointed by the spirits to carry forth the practices and ceremonies that hopefully will appease the ancestors and restore health to the afflicted. This is no simple task. The ancestors are not easily appeased.

When I asked what happens if the ill can’t afford the costs of healing, she replied that any kind of offering would do. She illustrated by holding up a candle, a plantain, and finally a bottle of light-colored liquid: “The spirits love rum,” she declared. Honestly, there wasn’t a hint of irony in her smile.  

Garifuna drummerIn any case, a Dugu is called for. That’s this huge ceremony which will last several days and bring together an extended family from miles around.  This is where the ancestors will accept or reject the many attempts to appease them. Food and drink, always appealing to guests of whatever world, are in abundance. There is non-stop singing, drumming and dancing –- all of which are uniquely Garifuna. The music is so emotionally driven, so physically pervasive, so demanding of appreciation that if I were a dead ancestor, I would not be able to resist making an appearance. On the other hand, I appease pretty easily.

And it is not unusual for the spirits to do so, often through the body of one of the guests. Call it “possessed,” “speaking in tongues,” or just an expression of vivid imagination, the “chosen” person is thus revealed, to then be approached by other relatives asking questions of the “visitor” -- and apparently often receiving answers. 

There is a strong emphasis on having fun, entertaining the spirits -– as well as imbibing them -- and promoting peace and harmony among the family members. The ancestors, who are very social, don’t take kindly to dissension.

Still, our guide did recognize some of the drawbacks of living within such a close-knit community. Caught walking hand-in-hand with a new girlfriend, he was admonished by his mother to stop dating her. “She’s your cousin,” she explained. When the same scenario occurred not long later with another woman, he lamented,   “Everyone’s my cousin!”

So want me to throw you a Dugu the next time you feel sick?


Fyllis Hockman is an award-winning travel journalist who has been traveling and writing for over 25 years -- and is still as eager for the next trip as she was for the first. Her articles appear in newspapers across the country and websites across the internet. A sampling of those stories can be found by and clicking on The Travel Adventures of Fyllis and Vic.

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