The hour before dawn, we make our way through the darkness along the edge of the sea heading toward the persistent beat of distant drums. Orange streaks begin to widen across the horizon as we climb over a half-fallen wooden bridge spanning a creek, cutting a muddy path to the Caribbean. We are on our way to Dangriga  on Garifuna Settlement Day, one of Belize’s lively national holidays, celebrated each year on November 19 to commemorate the arrival of the Garifuna people to Belize.
Rains that had been pouring down for a week subsided only a few hours ago, and by the time we reach the center of town and the river shoreline, crowds of revelers are beginning to gather in the breaking dawn. This is a day of reflection and good times in Belize, a severe contrast to the Garifuna beginnings that for decades were filled with misery and tragedy.
Settlement Day is a happy celebration. Everyone dresses in colorful new clothes, and while waiting for the “landing,” family, friends, and strangers from all over Belize catch up on local gossip, make new acquaintances, and enjoy the party. Sounds of beating drums emanate from small circles of people on both sides of the river, from the backs of pickup trucks, and from rooftops. In lieu of drums, young men push through the crowds shouldering giant boomboxes that broadcast the beat. Excitement (and umbrellas) hangs in the air as the assemblage waits for the canoes and the beginning of the pageant.
Now, in the early dawn, the crowd cheers. It spots two dugout canoes paddling from the open sea into the river. Years ago, the first refugees from Roatán crowded into just such boats along with a few meager necessities to start a new life in a new land. Today’s reenactment is orchestrated according to verbal history handed down through generations. Leaves and vines are wrapped around the arrivals’ heads and waists. Drums, baskets that carry simple cooking utensils, young banana trees, and cassava roots are all among the precious cargo the Garifuna originally brought to start their new lives in Dangriga.
The canoes paddle past cheering crowds. Each November is a reminder of the past, and even outsiders are swept along in the excitement and thoughts of what this day represents to the Garifuna citizens of Belize.
The canoes travel up the river and under the bridge and back again so that everyone lining the bank and bridge can see them. When the actors come ashore, they’re joined by hundreds of onlookers. The colorful procession then winds through the narrow streets with young and old dancing and singing to the drumbeats; they proudly lead the parade to the Catholic church, where a special service takes place. Dignitaries from all over Belize attend and tell of the past and, more important, of the hopes of the future.
The Catholic church plays a unique part in the life of the Garifuna: Some years back, the church reached an unspoken working agreement with the Garifuna. It’s nothing formal, just a look-the-other-way attitude while the Garifuna parishioners mix Catholic dogma with ancient ritual. It wasn’t always this way. For generations, the people were forced to keep their religion alive in clandestine meetings or suffer severe punishment and persecution.
Rain, much like time, has not stopped the Garifuna celebrations nor the dancing that is an integral part of the festivities. Street dances (traditionally held along village streets for many nights leading up to Settlement Day) continue and are moved indoors to escape the flooded streets. Small bars and open palapa (thatch) structures are crowded with fun-lovers and reverberate with the pounding of exotic triple drums (always three). Drums bring their magic, and parties continue with both modern punta rock and traditional dances into the early hours of the morning. The Garifuna are a people filled with music. The songs sung in the Garifuna language tell stories—some happy, some sad—and many melodies go hand in hand with daily tasks.
At an open palapa hut, three talented drummers begin the beat. The old Garifuna women, honoring their African beginnings, insist on marshaling the dances the old way. The first tempo is the paranda, a dance just for women. A circle is created in the dirt-floored room and the elderly women begin a low-key, heavy-footed, repetitive shuffle with subtle hand movements accompanied by timeworn words that we don’t understand but are told to tell a tale of survival.
Every few minutes a reveler filled with too much rum pushes through the circle of people and joins the dancing women. He’s quickly chased out of the ring by an umbrella-wielding elder who aims her prods at the more vulnerable parts of his body. If that doesn’t work, she resorts to pulling the intoxicated dancer off the floor by his ear—a little comic relief that adds to the down-home entertainment.
The paranda continues, and little kids energetically join in the dances on the outside of the “circle” or watch wide-eyed from the rafters near the top of the palapa roof, entranced by the beat, dim light, and music—the magic of the holiday. The recurring rain adds an extra beat to the exotic cadence of the drums; dance after dance continues.
The huguhugn dance is open to everyone, but the sexy punta is the popular favorite, with one couple at a time in the ring. Handsome men and beautiful women slowly undulate their bodies with flamboyant grace and sexual suggestion. This is the courtship dance born from African roots. If you miss Settlement Day parties, stop by a bar or nightclub anywhere in Belize and you’ll see locals doing a modern version called “punta rock.”
During Settlement Day, a walk down the narrow streets takes you past small parties and family gatherings under stilted houses where dancing and singing is the rule; others enjoy holiday foods (including cassava bread) and drinks. You may very well be invited to share a rum-spiked cup of coffee dipped from an old porcelain kettle. If so, enjoy!
(Contributed by Chicki Mallan, who wrote the first edition of Moon Belize in 1991)