Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Reflection of the Network of Afro descendent Women Meeting in Belize-September 2008

Reflection of the Network of Afro descendent Women Meeting in Belize
September 2008

To my Jamaican grandfather

Se Alaafia ni,

In continuing the Encuentro Diaspora Afro and Network of Afro descendent Women/Red de Mujeres Afro tradition, I share with you our most recent trip to Belize. These Reflections are written in the spirit of sharing and bridging. This one comes to you during the month of Hispanic Heritage Month where the Afro-Latino voice is greatly excluded in this society. As Christopher Rodriguez wrote recently, “I want to encourage Afro-Latinos to think about what will be your contribution to the education of our people, and serve as a bridge to Latinos and African Americans and highlight the commonalities of our legacies in the US and the rest of the Americas.”
Belize is the Central American country with a Caribbean twist!!It may sound cliché to say this again but Belize felt like home. It is so amazing even to me, to see how we truly are connected. I arrived to the International Airport and had to take a small charter to my final destination, Dandriga. I felt everything on this small charter. I thought I was brave at the beginning in enjoying the scenery then I found myself closing my eyes and chanting to Yemaya as we flew over this open space of beautiful ocean water.

Dandriga is the district capital and the cultural center of the Garifuna people (of Ameridian and African ancestry).The population is mostly a mixture of Garifuna and Kriol. The Kriol/Caribbean presence is seen and strongly felt in the sound of the people.
We were welcomed by our wonderful host and a woman I truly admire. Ms.Phyllis Cayetano is a vision of strength, grace and commitment. To be around her is to feel empowered and at peace. There is such clarity in her purpose. This trip was to bring more women from Belize into the Network/Red de Mujeres Afro. It was an opportunity for the women from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and the Diaspora to share their common Caribbean roots. This was the first meeting/workshops held completely in English or I will also add, Kriol, in Central America.

The Pelican Beach Resort was nature’s full expression of LOVE. The landscape made everything fall together. The palm trees move in a dance. The trees and the water made us feel that all our troubles and worries were going to be lifted by the natural blessings of this land.

When the meeting began, I reached over to Dorotea the Netwok/Red General Coordinator to say, we may need to do an ice breaker. I then caught myself and said I am among Caribbean women, the love comes out of our pores. There was never discomfort in the air. Once we shared our work the connection was made deeper than any ice breaker. Dorotea then said the energy around us is doing the work. We all looked over to the elegant movement of the waters.

As I do in any place I travel, I went for a run. This makes others nervous but I always feel safe, at times, safer than I do running in Boston Streets. Everyone greeted me with “good morning maam”. How loving, how comforting to know that there is still genuine love and respect among our people. These gestures reminded me of my own upbringing. I was not allowed to call anyone outside of my immediate friends, by their first name, it was either auntie or Ms or Mr.
After my run, I found some of the women in the waters for a morning dip. We did not worry about fancy bathing suits, or anything that would get in the way. It was about the pure pleasure of soaking in this warm refreshing water. What better cleansing of the spirit and the soul than this. I found myself going in fully clothed. We sat for an hour sharing stories about home and our Caribbean upbringing. This would then become our morning ritual. Our rooms were no more than 20 feet from the ocean. So with no hesitation, I fell asleep and woke up daily to the sounds and depth of Olokun.

The first day began with breakfast at Ms.Phyllis’s and Mr. Roy’s home. It was a true Kriol, Garifuna breakfast. Fish, casaba bread and the best mango juice, EVER! Belize was hot, that Caribbean heat where every takes its own form including my “fro”.

I found myself finding a comfort both inside and out. The Kriol words made me feel grounded. I did not have to pretend to “yank” as we called it at home because my tongue was a sound of pride. This brought back memories of being told, we need to speak proper English when the gringo was around. This was a point of fascination and education. How the people of Dangriga, Belize found pride in this language not only spoken but written.
The meetings and workshops fed our intellectual spirit. You gather new creative ways to do the work with Black women. How the program POWA, which Michele is very involved in, distributes condoms in the community. How generations pass down the language, dance of the Garifuna and Kriol community.
It also feeds your spiritual soul. You feel at peace with yourself, your purpose in life and your direction.
We did not spend time on why we are connected, what we gain from being a part of the Red. This goes beyond any material gain. It all makes sense because we are Black women and that is our common thread. As I shared in the Diaspora presentation, Black women are under attack now and have always been. When we are articulate, intelligent and strong we get categorized as aggressive and hard. In these meetings, we take care of each other and empower each other to be true to self.

The workshops were highlighted with such issues as HIV/AIDS, sex education, reproductive justice, identity, leadership development , politics and cultural awareness. The presenter for Belize was Ms Flores who is a legend in Dandriga and Belize for her work in the community and the empowerment of women. She moves with such wisdom and knowledge. When she began to speak the room became silent as we all took in her every word. She spoke of the importance of getting the youth involved, the need for women to work together and the ups and downs of getting involved in politics. Ms. Flores spoke of her spiritual work. She shared,” We are spiritual beings, we cannot divorce ourselves from the spirit. We need to exhibit selflessness for the well being of our organizations. We need to be enlightened to get clarity in seeking something deeper.”

Ingrid from Costa Rica shared how the organization Projecto Caribe gets people from Limon involved in land and rights issues. One historical point that she shared was there was a time when people from Limon who are predominantly Black, could not travel outside of this area.

Zada did the Nicaraguan presentation. She spoke of the fairly new project she directs called OMAN in the Coastal community of Bluefields. Areas of focus are poverty and marginalization. Trainings and presentations are done on history, identity and gender. They currently have a girl’s project that has a weekly radio program.

The meeting/workshops ended with songs and dances from a Local Garifuna group and some songs and storytelling of the Kriol culture from Ms. Mryna. I asked Ms. Phyllis to share the name and history of these dances. The first dance was the ‘Hungu-hungu’ - semi-sacred, used in rituals and semi-formal occasions, memorials for the ancestors. The second one was the 'Combination' - using the 'hungu-hungu' along with the 'punta' which is a type of courtship dance sensuous, fast paced and very energetic. They also did the Chumba - a mime dance in which they depicted the every daily activities of our people such as fishing, farming, pain. The big item was the Juanaragua / John Kunu which is a dance done mainly during the Xmas season and which depicts the strides and struts of the 'Master' as he ruled on the plantation. This dance is done by males only though of late a few young women have been getting in to it as well. The pink and green ribbons are used for Xmas Day but on New Year's Day they use black ribbons.
The Kriol celebration of the evening came from Ms Mryna who told Caribbean tales through song. She is a member of the Kriol Council who works to retain the Kriol culture in Belize. One night at dinner, Ms. Myrna began singing Caribbean songs. One of the songs she sang we all knew and I loved when I was young girl in Rainbow city. It went, brown girl in the ring cha la la la la, brown girl in the ring cha la la lal la,she look like a sugar in a plum.

We took a trip to Hopkins, a Garifuna community known for its fishing and citrus landscape. Our host was Ms. Phyllis’s brother and sister-in-law. The meal was cooked by Terese one of the women from the Belfuna Project. Belfuna is a group that brings together women who are Belizian and Garifuna to create economic opportunities and empower women in the community. They have been around for fifteen years.They recently received funding to build a space where they will cook and do cultural activities.
We made another stop while on a driving deeper into Hopkins to look at items being sold by a group of Mayan women. They spoke Kriol were from Big Falls. This was another high point of education because I expected them to speak Spanish and they only spoke Mayan and Kriol.
I had the opportunity to engage in a longer conversation with Mr. Roy who is considered an expert of Garifuna culture but also has extensive knowledge of the Kriol culture and issues of race and identity for Afrodescendents.
Our last evening in Dandriga, was spent at the Cultural Sunday celebration. It is a way for the community to celebrate through dance, spoken work, Punta Rock and empower young people to get involved in the arts.
Before arriving to Belize, I had already felt a connection through the sounds of Andy Palacio. Now I was given the opportunity to see this community and I have fallen in love with the beauty of the Belizian people. Since returning, I find myself moving to the silence of the early morning.
I hope you all take the time to learn more about Belize and that we use not only this month but every chance we get to share and celebrate our rich history.


Learn more about the Network/Red de Mujeres Afrolatinoamericanas, Afrocaribenas y de la Diaspora at www.mujeresafro.org
Learn more about Encuentro Diaspora Afro at http:// www.northnode.org/encuentro.htm and coming soon www.diasporaafro.org.

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