Livingstone and Garifuna Culture


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Published: January 6th 2006
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On arrival in Livingstone, on first sight there seemed few of the Garifunas about which were meant to populate the town. In one of those typical tourist type ways, development gives you some of the services you want but by doing so removes what you came to see. There´s is no real reason why this has to be the case but through rampant Capitalism and lack of sustainable development this is often the case. It´s the eternal search of many a backpacker to find the place of great interest, largelly unspoit which isn´t virtually impossible to reach or overly expensive. More on this later.
The history and the politics of the town is very interesting and surprisingly their is a real lack of information posted in the town about it. As a result I came across three different versions of historical events, all differing.

Version 1:
I got talking to a friendly old Garifuna guy who was passionate and blunt with his opinions on issues in the town which had apparently given him a spell inside at one point, as a result of the repressiveness of the government at the time.
The Garifunas are blacks from pre-Columbian times essentially West-Indians. Therefore they were not slaves and there apperance in Guatemala is subsquently some what puzzling, in much the same what the Aboriginales apperance in Australia is. This is sort of backed up by the way they have managed to keep a unique language and culture unlike other Blacks. He told me this was a controversial viewpoint and it seemed that.
There was a great irony to this conversation, we had agreed about the segration in the town and how the Garifunas gained none of the benefits of the tourism; as with sat in a Mexican owned restaurant which he was leading customers to, with me enrolled a tour ran by a Latino owned tour company for the following day.

One thing which soon becomes clear in the place is the segregation. Near the entry point it´s heavy with tourist and Latinos, away from the main street the Latinos and tourist thin out and the Garifuna population dominates, almost exclusively, in the lower quality houses. I walked through the latter seeing a completely different town to touristville.
As I said before the reason for the tourist is the Garifunas yet they run none of the shops and gain little of the benefit of the tourists who have come because of them. They are ones seeling the Coconuts on the streets and braiding peoples´hair.
The man felt supression and racism had lead to this situation though he admitted a lack of education (i.e. literacy) made changing the situation difficult - though once again this could be because of the above. Who´s to say? More historical info is necessary, but either way another example of ruthless Capitalism giving the rich and educated everything and the ones who don´t play game, nothing.
It´s easy to see how it happens, following the ´food chain´of Western Companies - Latinos and Mestisos - Garifunas and indigenous. Each dominating the one below.
American companies have profiteered and control Central America for some time now. United Fruit Company virtually controlled Guatemala, farming on Indigenous land with the Indigenas forced to work for them; to rub salt into the wounds. A hint of trouble with a left-wing government promising to give justice to the suppressed and mis-treated Indigenous folk (virtual slaves) and the UFC cried communism and CIA promptly assisted in over throwing the democratically elected government and ensures years of civil war and instability.
Next step down the ladder can be seen in the Livingstone example and in Chipas, Mexico.
Australia has tried to reverse the trend and mend the crimes of the past yet the problems are firmly fixed there and it´s the stain on the memory of Australia in what otherwise is possibly the least trouble free country in the world. Mexico amongst others have a long way to go and South Africa has only just started on what is definetly a long rocky path.
Here the tourists are both the solution and the ´problem´. They create the loss of tradition by ironically taking a interest, yet because of their interest the tradition will remain, to an extent.

All of this must make me sound like a traditionalist, while in fact I´m quite progressive minded and I enjoy the multi-cultural nature of England, with no good tradition to protect or which is in danger (we´re one of ones exporting it, plus we are not suffering due to immigration but gaining from it in many ways). But when it comes to Zapatistas and Garifunas I am, especially the Zapatistas who are in poverty, it´s different. While the Garifunas are much better off and possibly a little indifferent about maintaining their heritage.

Version 2:
The following day having signed up for a Jungle tour, of sorts, with a young Garifuna guide I received more information about the history of the town, amongst other things. His simplified version of events seemingly completely contradicted the old man´s. He said the Garifunas arrived in about 1800 as shipwrecked slaves at which point his emphaised the harmonous nature of the three main groups: Indigenous, Garifuna and Latino (Mestizo mainly) despite slightly differing religions and beliefs. Apparently partying in the graveyard is popular, particularly for the Day of the Dead.
A little confused on how to accounts could be so contradictory I decided more investigation was necessary and hence used the good old WWW.

Version 3:
(Probably the correct one) Actually this makes the seemingly contradictory first two seem both coorect in part, but with neither telling the full story. In the 1600s natives to the mainland of Central Am. invaded St. Vincent island (Carribean) killed all the local men and intermarried with the locals (also indigenous) this combined beliefs and languages. Around 1800 a ship of full of slaves of Nigerian origin ended up on the island and more mixing took place. Taking elements of their culture from Africa and darkening the skin colour created this unique culture which only exists in this one town in Guatemala and several in Belize and Honduras.
Various armies from Britain, France and Spain all fought with Britain eventually taking control, it was agreed to let the Garifunas to be freed but with other slaves now on the island this posed a bit of problem. Therefore they were forcibly removed and ended up settled in the above countries until the present day.
The Garifunas had been friendly with the Spanish and when Central America (as one nation and seperately) took it´s indepedence from Spain they found themselves out of favour and subsquently outsiders in their own land and hence open to years of resentment and suspicion. In Guatemala they were supressed and unsupported up until 1996 when an official agreement gave them reconition, though many of the problems still remain and it was an official statement but this is Latin America. As is well known in politics, what is said and what actually happens can often be two very different things.

Most of the younger generation seem fairly unconcerned, to the annoyance of the older generation, immitating Gangsters or Bob Marley.
I met the old guy once more and he offloaded some Garifuna music on to me. He said how he was arranging meetings with parents to discuss how to make sure the culture is kept, but on this small scale it´s going to be difficult.
In Bhutan they successfully did for many years (admittably through a lack of human rights) but once restriction of cable TV were lifted it didn´t take long before the average child watched nearly 10 hours a day of the stuff.
Westernisation seems inevitable in many a place as it´s culture often appeals to the young, although the Indigenous youth here seem very resistant. The argument over maintaining tradition versus the virtues of progress and freedom is a long one. But whatever your views I feel those wanting to keep culture strong are struggling and sadly it might disappear. The Zapatistas of Mexico have given hope to this, showing that people do care, in theory at least, and that highlighting the problems to the masses is half the battle.

Later on in the tour we visited the waterless waterfalls (dry season) and then did the long walk back along the attractive, if a little littered, Carribean beach.
That morning I had had a rather surreal experience. I needed change (of the dollars and cent variety rather than anything more philosphical) which is big problem here, after trying in several places the old man working in the hostel convinced me to buy a drink to get the change. Through his mumbled Spanish I didn´t realise by drink he meant drink drink. Being 8:30 in the morning I wasn´t feeling the love for drinking all the spirits he bought us with my money. Having to depart for the tour I left him with about 6-8 shots worth left which he was wasting no time in downing, after going on about the Beatles to me repeatably because there are also from England, and hence I must of been interested in the topic; I wasn´t.

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