Garifuna Life in Belize

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Every year on November 19th, Belize celebrates Garifuna Settlement Day, the arrival of the first Garinagu to Belize.

The celebration includes parades, live music, drumming, dancing, prayers, and Garifuna mass.

Important to note:

Since 1943 November 19th has been a public holiday in the Stan Creek and Toledo districts called Garifuna Settlement Day. From 1977 November 19th has been a county wide public holiday.

To commemorate the event, we decided to share with you pictures and additional information of Garifuna Life in Belize.

Photos and captions courtesy of Lebawit Girma.

garifuna in belize

A thriving Afro-Caribbean community

Despite being declared endangered by the United Nations in 2001, the Garinagu -- one of the smallest cultural groups in Belize -- has managed to sustain its traditions through music, dance, food and worship. The Garifuna people are descendants of Carib Indians (South American natives who settled on the Caribbean island of St Vincent) and West Africans who were said to have escaped from Spanish slave ships in 1635 and made the island their home. Resistant to the arrival of the British to St Vincent in 1763, the Garinagu fought attempts to use their land for sugar cane plantations and many were killed or imprisoned. Those remaining were exiled to Honduras and eventually migrated by dugout canoe along the Central American coast, reaching Belize in 1802. Today, Garinagu communities make up only 4% of Belize’s more than 325,000 people, and most can be found along the country’s southern coast in the towns of Dangriga and Punta Gorda and the villages of Hopkins, Barranco and Seine Bight. (Lebawit Girma)

garifuna culture belize

Garífuna culture today

Barranco has just more than 100 residents, and travellers can take a tour of the small village for insight into the Garífuna way of life, visiting the impressive village dabuyaba (temple) and the traditional homes, which are still built with walls made of royal palm and sugar cane. You might also see an impromptu drumming session at the village shop, where a host of lively characters gather daily to exchange stories and jokes. (Lebawit Girma)

garifuna tradition belize

Traditional items

The Culture House, a small museum in Barranco, features displays of traditional women’s dress, consisting of long checkered dresses and head scarves; Garífuna language books, compiled and published by the National Garifuna Council to record and pass on the spoken language; and traditional Garifuna cooking instruments (pictured), such as cassava straining tools, used to extract the poisonous juice out of cassava roots. (Lebawit Girma)

garifuna food belize

A culinary legacy

Originally a farming and fishing community, the Garífuna came to Belize in canoes filled with their staple foods, such as cassava, plantain, coconut and sugarcane. Today, cassava plants continue to grow in the fertile Garífuna areas and men still go fishing -- though it is no longer a means of survival. Traditional cooking utensils such as coconut graters are a common sight, as is this mortar and pestle, reminiscent of the community’s West African ancestry. Local restaurants often serve Garífuna dishes, such as ereba, cassava bread, and hudut, fish cooked in coconut broth and served with mashed plantains. (Lebawit Girma)

garifuna drumming belize

Beats of the forefathers

Music, song and dance are a significant part of local life and the Garífuna drum – a connection to the group’s African ancestry -- is unique in design, made of hollowed wood logs with one string or wire in the middle to create a vibration sound. The Lebeha Drumming Center in Hopkins and the Warasa Drum School in Punta Gorda offer drum making and drum playing workshops, and lessons in punta dancing, a Garifuna dance style consisting of rapid, circular hip movements, reminiscent of traditional West African dances. (Lebawit Girma)

garifuna villages belize

Tourist hot spots

Located along Belize's Caribbean coast, Garífuna villages and towns (such as Hopkins, pictured) have beautiful, unpopulated stretches of beach and a laid-back atmosphere. As a result, they are fast becoming a favourite for those in search of a cultural experience and a tropical setting. Faced with this rising wave of tourism, the reserved Garífuna people are adapting to change. Local residents have opened beachfront eateries serving snacks like cassava bread, cassava porridge and darasa (green banana tamales), and visitors will also find live drumming shows and drum making workshops in beachfront bars and hotels. (Lebawit Girma)

garifuna festivals belize

Jankanu festivals

A centuries-old Garífuna tradition is the jankanu, a West African masquerade dance in which slaves would dance and mock their European slave masters by wearing pink flesh-coloured masks, white clothes and suspenders. In the Garífuna jankanu dance, which takes place on 26 December in every Garífuna town and village, the performer dictates the beat to the drummer with his movements: feet together, knees bent, arms raised, palms facing the drummers and hips rocking quickly side to side. The costumes also have special touches, including cowry shells strapped above the knee and feathers shooting up from the masks. (Lebawit Girma)

garifuna religion belize


Every major Garífuna village has a temple, where the dügü or family reunion, is hosted. This sacred ritual is rooted in West African culture, and entire villages gather together to pay tribute to the spirits of the ancestors and celebrate life after death. This mass, which includes drumming, praying, chanting and feasting, takes place about once every two years, or any time a Garífuna feels called by the spirit of the ancestors to host the event. Many travel to the villages for the occasion, both from abroad and other parts of Belize. (Lebawit Girma)


Girma, L. (2012, November 12). Garifuna Life in Belize. Retrieved from

Posted in Belize, Belize Culture

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