The Walagallo: Heart of the Garifuna World
The rite of the Walagallo is at the center of the religious experience of the Garifuna people. It is also a source of their historical resistance.
Religious ceremonies are one of Latin America's most visible and dramatic forms of grassroots expression. In many of these ceremonies, the various ethnic groups and peoples have mixed their traditional rites and beliefs with Catholic rituals. All over Latin America, indigenous, Afro American and peasant groups invoke their saints, maintain contact between their living and their dead, acknowledge the passage from one stage of life to another, and thus strengthen their family, ethnic, regional and national ties.
For the Garífunas of Nicaragua's Caribbean coast, their Walagallo rite is a collective struggle to deal with major illness. In this ritual experience, Garífunas demonstrate that their ancestors' intercession and an alliance with God are the keys to the enigma of an illness that could lead to death. In the walagallo, Garífunas both struggle as an ethnic group to cure an ill person and radically proclaim their identity and cohesion around their ancestors. Through the rite and its symbols the supplicating prayer, the dancing, the drums, the food they not only try, as a single body of the living and the dead, to protect the life of one member of their group, but also to strengthen the vital link between their ancestral past and the present. In addition, the rite is a shout of unity and protest in the face of the socio racial injustice and oppression they have suffered throughout their history. Like Dom Pedro Casaldáliga, we could say that God is present in the walagallo rite with "an autochthonous, Indo Afro Latin American face."
Born of a ShipwreckThe Garífunas' history begins on the coast of West Africa in the mid 17th century, by which time Europe's governments already had a highly organized slave trade. Between 1640 and 1670, two slave ships it is not known if they were Dutch or Spanish went aground off the tiny island of St. Vincent, in the Lesser Antilles. The history of the African survivors, who had been brought to work in the cotton and cane plantations on those islands, changed unexpectedly: they are the ancestors of the Garífunas.
In St. Vincent, an island disputed by France and England, lived what were known as Red Caribs, a cross between Caribs, the original indigenous inhabitants of the island, and Arawaks, who had migrated there from South America. When they learned of the shipwrecks, the Red Caribs rescued the Africans, though with plans to enslave them themselves. But those who were "saved from the waters under God's protection," as today's Garífunas tell it, resisted. It was the first stamp of Garífuna identity: an ethnic group that in the ensuing 300 years would forge a resistance to all forms of domination.
The conflicts between those Africans and the Red Caribs were frequent and cruel. The Red Caribs decided to rid themselves of those black upstarts, who were physically stronger than they and had such different customs, by killing all the men, including the newborn. When the Africans discovered this plan, they fled to the island's northeastern mountains, where they founded cimarron communities. That new "liberated territory" attracted many other runaway African slaves. The word garífuna by which these cimarrons soon came to be known is a derivative of the words karibe and galibi, which evolved into karibena galibina (child of Carib, native of Galibi). The term went through more morphological changes until becoming garífuna. They are also known by some as Black Caribs.
War, Peace, DeportationAt the beginning of the 18th century, the Red Caribs, convinced now of their relative weakness, requested French support to deal with the Africans. But a French naval force sent from Martinique to evict the Garífunas from the mountains had to withdraw in the face of their astute ambushes and intrepid attacks.
The French then tried another tack: persuasion. Missionaries came from France to "pacify" the Garífunas, converting them to Catholicism. With that emerged another stamp of this people: they converted, but, in so doing, were as bold as they had been in war. With an easy naturalness, they incorporated the Christian symbols into their own religious beliefs, forging an active and interesting religion that mixed African and Catholic traditions. When, some years later, English Protestant missionaries tried to convert them to Protestantism, they failed to uproot the Catholicism that had already gone very deep. The Garífunas have been tenaciously faithful to their syncretistic religion now for 300 years.
The 1763 peace treaty between England and France annexed the nearly 400 square kilometers of St. Vincent to the British Empire. The British immediately tried to forcibly evict the Garífunas from their extensive and fertile highland territories, but they had become very numerous. They had also cemented a firm ethnic and religious identity which gave them the conviction to defend those lands, given them by God and fertilized with the blood of their ancestors. They declared war against the British.
After a decade long stand off, the Garífunas made peace in 1773, but it was a fragile peace; in April 1797 the British deported their adversaries by force to the uninhabited island of Roatán, off Honduras' Caribbean coast. The British had a dual objective: rid themselves of such a rebellious population and foist it off onto the Spanish, their enemies in the region. Many Garífunas died on the trip due to epidemics and insufficient provisions.
The Spanish soon discovered that the Garífunas were peaceable and hardworking, and allowed them to set up communities the length of Honduras' mainland coastline. Their new territory was centered in the city of Trujillo and extended to Stann Creek in what is today Belize. They came as farmers and fisherfolk and had extensive experience dealing with Europeans, indigenous and French or English speaking blacks. But despite the hundred years that had passed since their arrival in the Caribbean, and despite these multiple contacts and interracial mixtures, they came with their language and traditions intact.
Expert Alliance MakersAt the time the Garífunas were shipped off to Honduras, that Spanish colony was embroiled in a war between Spain and England; both were anxious to control the Honduran coast and the rest of Central America, which was strategic for trade. Thus began another chapter in the Garífunas' history of pain. But it was also another chapter in the salvation actions of God, who cares for His people through their ancestors.
The Spanish discovered quickly that the Garífunas were good soldiers. The Garífunas discovered, equally quickly, that they would have greater possibility of survival if they allied with the Spanish, more numerous in those territories than the British.
In 1807, when England decided to stop participating in the slave trade, many emancipated Africans in the region dispersed, provoking a labor shortage for the Spanish, who tried to put the Garífunas at their service as slaves as well as recruit them for their army. This brought an abrupt end to the Spanish Garífuna alliance, leading to a hostile atmosphere and mutual distrust between the Garífunas and the Spanish.
The Liberal reforms of the late 19th century particularly land tenure changes with the elimination of communal rights again threatened the Garífuna people's survival. The Liberals' hostility to the Catholic Church legitimated Garífuna opposition to liberalism even more. To defend both land and religion, they fought alongside the Conservatives, who were nonetheless defeated by the Liberal army commanded by Morazán. This set in motion another of the cycles in Garífuna history; they again formed cimarron communities, this time in Honduras, and began to seek new lands going as far as the southern reaches of Nicaragua's Caribbean coast.
Nicaragua: A Hard New BeginningGarífunas had first come to Nicaragua in 1832, but they did not set up permanent residence until 1860, when some settled near the port town of Greytown, at the mouth of the Río San Juan. In 1880 they began to settle on the western shores of Pearl Lagoon, north of Bluefields. The following year, the religious leader Juan Sambola founded the first permanent Garífuna village there, baptizing it with the historic name of San Vicente (St. Vincent).
In those years, the Mosquito Reserve, with its capital in Bluefields, was a virtual enclave of North American companies (lumber, gold, bananas, rubber). The long time commercial hegemony of the British had passed to US hands and, already by 1880, over 90% of the region's trade was controlled by US investors. The coast's Creoles another ethnic mixture of Africans, Europeans and Amerindians had developed the closest ties to the coast's new masters and Creole English soon became the zone's lingua franca. This rise of the Creoles went hand in hand with the decline of Miskito political and economic hegemony. The key to the Miskitos' domination had been their 300 year military alliance with the British, during which time they had obliged other indigenous groups in the area to assimilate into their culture or be chased to outlying areas of the Miskito dominion. These tensions between the coast's different ethnic groups, closely related to the social and economic changes the region was undergoing, prevented the Garífunas from creating stable settlements upon their arrival.
Pedro Vado, a patriarch of Pearl Lagoon's Garífuna community of Orinoco, recalls and interprets those difficult beginnings. (Except for the suquias and several other sources, all names used here are pseudonyms at the informant's own wish.) At the start it wasn't easy to find a peaceful place to live. We had to flee from one place to another to avoid problems. My great grandfather told me that people disparagingly called us 'Trujillanos.' But everything that happened to us had already happened before to Jesus and happened just the same to our ancestors, in San Vicente and in Trujillo. Jesus also suffered. They humiliated him, wouldn't give him a place to be born and even finally killed him. In those difficult years the first Garífunas also began to die in Nicaragua. Sickness, epidemics, these things always hit us quickly. When our ancestors began to be buried in Nicaraguan ground, we Garífunas began to feel a love for these lands of the Nicaraguan coast. When someone has a relative buried in a place, one feels more love for it, as if one has something in that land that belongs to him.
THE WALAGALLO: THEIR RELIGIOUS CENTERPIECEFrom the very beginning, religion was the energy that fed Garífuna resistance. And the centerpiece of their beliefs and rebellion was the cult of the ancestors. In turn, one of the chief expressions of that cult, celebrated as early as the times of their cimarron communities, is what Garífunas of Nicaragua call the walagallo, or dance of the roosters (gallos, in Spanish); the same rite is known as dugü by the Garífunas of Honduras and Belize.
In most cases, the rite's central objective is to cure a person who is on death's bed due to possession in an apparent contradiction, given its otherwise kindly role by a gubida, or ancestral spirit, which can be that of the ill person's mother, father, grandparent or some other close relative. In other cases, the rite can be performed to cure illnesses "sent directly by God" in other words, those caused by the natural physical limitations of the human condition. Once the afflicted person has exhausted all common cures, the walagallo becomes the last recourse to save the person's life.
The celebration of the rite and its success are subject to a series of norms framed by Garífuna tradition. The sick person and his/her relatives turn to the suquia, the Garífunas' most important religious leader, who has the authority in their religious rites and the power to communicate with the ancestral spirits through dreams. They tell him whether the walagallo should be performed or not. "The spirits of the sick person's relatives are the ones who indicate to me how I should proceed," states Isidro Zenón, the suquia in Orinoco. As the main celebrant, the suquia is responsible for the rite's correct performance and for transmitting God's desires, as expressed through the ancestors.
Illness Due to Deviant BehaviorThe walagallo mainly seeks a longer life on earth. This can be achieved either because the sick person is cured by appeasing the ancestor and changing his/her wayward behavior, or, in the case of illnesses "sent directly by God," because the gubidas have obtained God's permission to prolong the person's life span. Augustín Casaya, a Garífuna from Marshall Point, details the first cause that leads to performing the walagallo:
Illness falls on a person whose conduct has become wayward. It's sent by the spirit of a relative who doesn't like that bad conduct. That happens when one does bad things provokes fights between neighbors, within the family, or is envious. And they can even kill him and he can kill others. It's like when someone doesn't pay any attention to his parents and is punished for that bad conduct. The person doesn't know where the illness came from, but the angry spirits are the ones who have gotten into that person, causing that illness."*
(* Houtart and Lemercinier (1987) define this view of illness as a rupture between the human and the divine as: "the fruit of a disequilibrium, provoked by the fact that one has transgressed, in one way or another, the norms that preside over the harmony of the universe and where the divinities are also authors. The disagreement of the gods and the misfortune that this provokes translates into a break with equilibrium in the health of individuals." )
In this case, the deceased relative's spirit has a clear social control function: it governs and sanctions its living relative's behavior, and tries to protect the relative by provoking an illness that leads the individual to change his/her life. It could be said that, by making the person ill, the gubida is trying to scold and change the actions of either a wuribati (wicked person) or a person who has temporarily deviated from normal good conduct. Such behavior affects the life of the family and goes against the ethnic group's unity and cohesion.
This way of understanding illness implies the conviction that the ancestors, even in death, have authority over their children and grandchildren. And it proves the level of incidence the ancestors have in Garífuna personal and family life.*
(* Staiano, in her 1986 study of the Garífunas of Punta Gorda, Belize, sustains that, in societies such as Punta Gorda, where legal or political sanctions have never existed for cases of inappropriate behavior, models that interpret irresponsible conduct as causing illnesses and death function to assure correct personal actions and good community relations: "The gubidas execute clear sanctions against disrespectful conduct toward the dead." )
The objective of the family and the ethnic group is to please their ancestors with the walagallo rite. Once appeased, the ancestors transmit their living relatives' supplications to God that the ill person be cured and get started on a new life. Through the ancestors' mediation, the family and the group rescue an individual who, by changing his/her life, becomes an idehati (servant of the ethnic group).
Illness "Sent by God"The case of an individual who falls ill from natural causes is different, as a bush doctor from Orinoco explains:
This illness is not due to bad behavior; it is a serious illness from God, that seems like death but isn't. The gubida spirits protect the sick relative, and can ask for the walagallo to see if the person can be saved.... If everything goes well, the person can be saved. The walagallo is like a medicine for the Garífunas. The spirits of our ancestors are close to God. He listens to them and they thus protect our lives.
Faced with the ill person's anguish and chaos, the ancestors become the last recourse in the struggle to relieve the person and neutralize the illness. The person at risk of death finds in the gubida spirit the most effective interlocutor with a God who is the life source. In this case, although the ancestors do not directly participate in provoking the illness, they intercede with God to cure their relative.
Here as well, the gubida spirit is introduced into the sick person's body. But in this case, the motive is different: the ancestor is not reprimanding the ill person, but is protecting and accompanying him or her *. This is always the ancestors' function with their living relatives: to help them survive history's terror, giving them hope against all hope. It is a hope in which awareness of life's precariousness coexists with a refusal to admit that this illness could become definitive.
(* There are various kinds of gubida spirits, according to Garífuna tradition: The spirits that protect are called ounigirey. It's like an angel of the guard that accompanies and protects. Then there are the spirits that accompany the person who dies. Those are called uvaraluma. They are the gubidas who come to take the sick person who dies and accompany him (her) on the journey to heaven. )
Death in "Good Law"If death appears despite everything, the walagallo rite prepares for a death in "good law," a death full of meaning in the ethnic group's socio cultural environment. By following the ritual, one can achieve life in the hereafter, but not complying with the ancestors' petitions risks angering them and losing their protection. That could mean losing the opportunity of reaching life in the hereafter, at the side of God and the ancestors. As a descendant of Juan Sambola, the founder of San Vicente, explains:
If the gubida spirits ask you to do the walagallo and you don't do it, it's dangerous. That could irritate them, and the evil spirits could grab the person's soul. Then the illness can make like a chain in the family. If you do the walagallo and the person dies, you suffer for that relative who died, but feel more at ease because the gubida spirits are protecting him [her]. That person saved his [her] soul because what the spirit had asked was done. The gubida is in the body of that sick person, and his [her] soul is saved so you won't go around grieving because it's going to be with God.
The walagallo rite offers the person who does it a sense of security. By thanking the ancestors this way, the person is convinced that it will have a dual effect: longer life on earth or eternal life in the hereafter.
Faced with illnesses that culminate in performing the walagallo, Garífunas draw a clear conclusion, as Jorge Mena of Marshall Point explains:
We can't ever lose if we do the walagallo. The spirits of our parents and grandparents always protect us. They suffer when we have bad conduct or are in some danger. When the spirits ask for a walagallo, everything depends on faith that the person will be cured, or that one will win eternal life. Without faith it's better not to do the walagallo, because it won't turn out well. You have to comply with what they order.
A Call for Group CohesionOnce the suquia confirms that the gubida spirits are soliciting the walagallo, the sick person's family members begin a series of activities that involve the ethnic community as a whole. Even the presence of family members living outside the country is requested.
The support of family and group members could be with money, giving the food offered in the celebration, providing the roosters and hens sacrificed during the rite, offering transport and materials for building the place where the ritual celebration will be held, or participating in the dance, the chorus, the beating of the drums, etc. This group mobilization overcomes family divisions, marital conflicts, tensions between neighbors, etc., as suquia Isidro Zenón describes:
The participation of friends and relatives is very important. This is a work of all Garífunas. One who is very poor and doesn't have anything can still help with many things. But we all have to help with something. The spirits of our deceased ancestors are the ones who are asking this of us, to cure the sick person.
As a norm of the rite, the ill person must have a godfather and godmother (ebénenei). In general, the spirits communicate to the suquia who these godparents should be; in other cases, the ill person chooses them. These godparents are not only an essential part of the rite's development, but also, by their closeness to and trust from the sick person, represent the community's acceptance of and support for the person and his/her family. As members of the suquia's team, they are interlocutors between him, the sick person and the participants, and are in charge of receiving the family members and friends, as well as the food and gifts brought to the sick person. Their mission is to express solidarity with the sick person and the family, and to be faithful to the ancestors' requests.
The success of the rite depends largely on the combination of this work and support by the family members and the ethnic group, the ritual action itself and the ill person's own faith.
By responding to the ancestor's call to celebrate the walagallo, the sick person and the ethnic group also express their faith and their commitment to go forward. The following explanation by Leonardo García of Orinoco is best understood in this context:
The walagallo is a celebration of all Garífunas as a family. The whole race meets with the gubida spirits. There we feel among brothers. If you're fighting with a brother or a relative and aren't speaking to each other, the friendship returns there. There's no hate, no fighting in that moment. The annoyances and angers are forgotten. There the spirits of the deceased are joyous. All of us Garífunas are helping the ill person. Relatives of the person, who were perhaps away for many years, come from other places. The important thing is that we all collaborate and that the sick person have a lot of faith.
It is very important for Garífunas not to be excluded from the group for bad behavior, because this could mean for them condemnation to a lonely death. The walagallo is also an occasion for older Garífuna generations to get together with the current ones, and, in some sense, with the future ones, since the children's participation in one moment of the rite is very important.
In synthesis, the ancestors' call for the walagallo is a means for strengthening family ties and consolidating ethnic identity, an "act of thanks" in which the living and dead celebrate life.
Constructing the Ancestors' WorldThe sick person's cure and life are the ethnic group's regeneration and life. By creating their own world for the performance of the walagallo precisely according to the likes of their ancestors, Garífunas take responsibility for maintaining and renewing their life as a group just as they do for curing the sick person until he/she reaches total recovery. This symbolic world encompasses three key elements: a sacred dwelling, earth and heavenly light.
Building the DibasenTo perform the rite it is necessary to build a rectangular house (dibasen) in a place that has not been inhabited by human beings. Its measurements can vary, although they are generally 5 meters wide by 5.5 meters long. This construction, symbolic of the Garífuna universe, is efficacious in that it reproduces the "world of the ancestors." It is the ancestral space converted into hope for the sick person who is disoriented by the possibility of death. This place is a kind of inexhaustible source of strength and sacredness. Just by stepping over the threshold of its main door, Garífunas participate in this ancestral ethic and mystique. In this way, as Durkheim has said, what is sacred becomes "something added to what is real and more elevated than that." Re creating the Garífuna world by building the dibasen thus symbolizes regeneration and the beginning of the new life that both the person and the ethnic group seek to attain through the rite.
Any construction and any inauguration of a new dwelling is in a certain sense equivalent to a new beginning, a new life. And any beginning repeats that primordial beginning in which the universe saw light for the first time. The ill person's health can only be recreated by symbolically repeating the creation of the world, the exemplary model of all creation, which makes the connection between heaven and earth possible. As Juan Ruiz of La Fe explains:
When the sick person is cured we all rejoice. The whole race feels full of life, because the person has recovered. Death could have come, but after the rite the person continues with us. And the gubida spirits rejoice because we pleased them; we made the things that they taught us. They struggled like that against illnesses and that's what we have to do. God in heaven listens to our prayers, the songs, the drums and all the things we use in the walagallo. God hears us and sees us. He is in the heavens and sees that what we do in the walagallo is pure of heart. God sees that we ask from our heart that the ill person be cured. For that reason the evil spirits must not enter the dibasen. The gubida spirits are with us there. They live with God in heaven, but when we build the dibasen they are especially with us. That's what we Garífunas believe.
This gives an idea of the structure's importance to the success of the ritual action. The dibasen is effective to the degree that it reproduces the "world of the ancestors." The building of it represents for Garífunas the effort both to put order into the chaos produced by the nearness of death and to sanctify the Garífuna universe by making it to the ancestors' liking.
The Earth: Base of the Ancestors' WorldThere is a strong association between ancestor and earth for Garífunas, who believe that the ancestors are mystically connected to the earth they walk on; their remains are in that ground. The earth thus has a preponderant place in the dibasen. As one of the focal points of the Garífuna universe, it plays a fundamental role in curing the ill person. It is the source of life for both that person and the ancestors, while it is revitalization and regeneration for the ethnic group (understood as communal cohabiting by the living and the dead). As such, the earth becomes the coveted objective of the evil spirits (or guibatimafuya) who want the group's death and destruction, which explains why it is the fundamental element the ancestors and the whole group struggle to defend in the rite.
An essential rule of the rite is that the dibasen's floor be of earth, and in the center of it two mounds of dirt are erected, in the form of a tomb; these are the heart of the walagallo (or lanigi walagallo). Garífunas believe that, during the walagallo rite, the voices of some of the ancestors emanate from those two lanigi walagallo.
Dominga Velásquez, a midwife from Justo Point, explains the significance of the earth as the base of the Garífuna universe within the dibasen:
The two little hills of earth are called mua and have the form of a tomb. That is the Garífuna belief and they can't be lacking in the walagallo. The place where the mua are is the key place of the dibasen. There the suquia blows bubé smoke with his pipe to distance the bad spirits from this earth. If those two tombs aren't there, that means that the walagallo isn't being done well. That earth is important for curing the sick person. On top of that earth are put gourds of chicha, liquor and food, which the gubida spirits drink and eat. The people who dance, sing and help in the work of the walagallo also eat and drink. The dancing has to be on a dirt floor. There's dancing around these two tombs. The spirits don't like to go up into a house with a wood floor because it makes a lot of ruckus and the spirits don't enter when there's ruckus. The earth is what pleases the gubida spirits and it's very important for us Garífunas. That's why I'm telling you that if those two mounds of earth are missing the walagallo isn't being done well. All these things are secrets that the Garífunas who already died taught us. And those rules have to be fulfilled so that the work is done well.
Mother earth symbolically contains all the elements that are life. The ancestors' remains are kept and protected in the earth as the source of life. In the walagallo rite, the earth not only protects and keeps the gubida spirits and the whole ethnic group, but also continues nourishing them. This explains why the food and drinks that the ancestors and their living relatives consume are placed on top of the earth mounds. The fact that the dance is performed around them can be understood in the same way. In short, nothing that is life can be separated from the earth in the walagallo rite.
The earth is also the battlefield between the good spirits and evil ones that struggle to take control of the ancestral land. The dibasen is thus the place around which a battle is waged to defend the ancestors' earth.
Dominga Velásquez also explains why there are two earth mounds:
One represents the place that belongs to the gubida spirits and the other would be the place where the sick person would go if he or she dies. So the suquia has to defend the mound of earth where the sick person would go. He blows bubé smoke with his pipe to keep the evil spirits away from those earth mounds. He has to expel the evil spirits from the dibasen. They can cause death because they have disobeyed God. And everyone dances around where the earth is and the evil spirits go away. We only want the spirits of our relatives! We must expel the bad spirits.
The whole ethnic group, together with the spirits of the deceased relatives, struggle to expel the spirits that represent the devil's project from the world of the ancestors. They are death and go against the life of the ill person and of the ethnic group, thus the need to defend the mound of earth where the ill person would symbolically go in case of death. Expelling the evil spirits means health for the sick person and regeneration for the ethnic group in sum, God's victory over the devil's project.
The earth is also a means through which the spirits communicate with the suquia. Since it is the place in which the ancestors' remains rest, it becomes the closest point of contact and communication, thus the food and drink are placed on top of those earth mounds. The gubidas rise up spiritually from the earth to consume the food and drink that their relatives have offered them.
Garífunas in Honduras also understand the earth as a means of communication for the gubida spirits. Fausta Marín, from the Cristales neighborhood in Trujillo, offers the following example:
There are cases in which a relative who dies is revealed in dreams and says that he [she] wants to bathe. It may be that the person has died violently and there wasn't time to bathe, so the spirits ask for the bath. When that happens, a hole is then dug in the ground, which can be in the yard of the house. It's through that hole in the ground that we can please them. Once it is dug, we call the neighbors and relatives, then all go to the river and bring water in a bucket. We also grate cassava, which is the Garífuna's bread, and we put that cassava juice at the side of the hole. Then each of us grabs a little water from the bucket with a gourd and throws it in the hole. We put a comb, a towel and soap there; everything the deceased person used when alive. And then these words are said: 'Here we offer you what you requested, in the name of God Father, the Holy Spirit who lives and reigns through the centuries of the centuries. Amen.' At the end the hole in the ground is closed. This is a Garífuna custom that our grandparents and great grandparents did. We Garífunas shouldn't lose that. That's how they taught us."
In the same way, the gubida spirits appear through those mounds of earth in the dibasen. Since, in the illness, a gubida spirit had taken over the sick person's body, it is the spirit's departure and return to the earth that will cure the sick person. The earth again becomes a means of communication and regeneration. According to the suquia from Orinoco:
The earth is like a sign in the walagallo. The spirits spiritually consume the jiyú the liquor and drinks that are put on the ground. Once that happens, those foods and drinks don't have the same flavor any more because the spirits have consumed their essence. That's how it is. Other gubida spirits appear too, and share in the food and drink, the dance and everything we do. They come out through those mounds of earth. You don't see them, but they're there.... For that reason, one must have faith in the walagallo. Without faith, one can die because that of the gubida spirits is no game. When the person gets ill, it's because the gubida spirit is in the person's body. When the gubida spirit leaves the sick person's body, it returns to the earth. That means the spirit isn't angry any more, and then the person begins to feel better. But no one can rest until the spirit returns to the earth, because we've pleased it. This gives everyone joy, because we see that the work has been good and the spirits are pleased with us. That's the Garífuna belief in this work.
In a certain sense, the return of the gubida spirits to the earth is symbolically analogous to the Garífuna immersion in the baptismal water. Both rituals contain a symbology that represents a second birth, in one case of the infant and in the other of the ill person and, through them both, of the ethnic group. Both have the same immanent utilitarian function (life birth of the child, the ill person and the ethnic group) as well as a transcendental utilitarian one (salvation of the spirit of the child, the ill person and the ethnic group).
The earth, created and provided by God, the earth mother, as a symbol of fertility, gives birth to a new life with the gubida spirit's return to it. Thus a second birth of the sick person and of the ethnic group is produced. In cases in which the ill person dies, salvation is obtained for that person and for the ethnic group, both of which have struggled to please the ancestors, and through that have achieved divine protection.
The relationship between Garífunas and things created by God, source of life, is found in this close contact with the earth, from which they come and to which they return at death. Del Cabral, a Caribbean poet, expresses this intimate relationship: "I have walked the earth so much that it is now the earth that moves."
Heaven: Light of the Ancestral WorldSince the walagallo, performed in the ancestors' world, is the search not only for terrestrial life, but also for eternal life, the doors to the transcendental are in effect opened. The dibasen is designed in such a way that communication between the earth and heaven is made possible.*
(* Elíade points out that: "The habitation is a microcosmos just as the body is. Inhabited territories church, house, body are cosmoses. But all these cosmoses, each according to its way of being, maintain an opening, whatever expression is chosen for it by the diverse cultures. One way or another, the cosmos that is inhabited body, house, tribal territory communicates on high with another level that transcends it.")
Its main door must face east (nuru), where the sun rises (lalüdun weyu). The other door faces west (üñabugienti), where the sun disappears (labauchun weyu). In the suquia's words:
The main door has to face east because that's where the sun comes up in the morning. The dancing begins then, with the first rays of the sun, which heat the house and give clarity. The evil spirits go out through the west door with the dancing at night. They seek only darkness. At night we have live fire that lights up the house. And when there's a good moon it also gives some light. In the house there's only one window; in that place are located the people who play the drums. The evil spirits can't enter by that window; the noise of the drum scares them. And in the other places I spread bubé smoke to keep the evil spirits away.
The doors and windows thus make heaven's presence possible, through the sun that lights up the day and the moon that lights up the night. Heaven, symbolized by the sun and moon, contributes to the struggle of light against darkness, life against death, and, in sum, between God (Bungiu) and the devil (uinani) who wants to appropriate the ancestral ground.
Porfirio Norales, a suquia (known by Honduran Garífunas as a buyei) from the Cristales neighborhood of Trujillo, explains the profundity of this same symbolism for the Garífunas in that country:
The placing of the doors isn't done just any old way. Garífuna belief says that the evil spirits, those that are with the devil, go out the back door, and at night. They can't be seen in the daylight. The people who have these evil spirits within are those who killed Jesus. Those who killed him seized him at night, because those people went around doing the work of the devil. If you read the Bible, there you will see that the devil works in darkness. That's why, in the dugü, we get rid of the evil spirits with God's help. That's why the gubida spirits rejoice, because Satan is removed from our place."
Ana Avila, from Punta Gorda, Belize, confirms this significance for the Garífuna community of that country as well:
The light for us Garífunas is something very important. We're Catholics like our parents were. And they gave us faith in God so He would light our way. We don't want to leave our children in darkness. What we do in the dugü is make the darkness go away. Many people don't understand this Garífuna belief and say false things. But the truth is that we want to leave our children in the light of God. God is light and in the dugü we Garífunas pray, we dance, so the light will come to this house and cure the ill person.
In this rite, the ancestors in their land and with their heaven, supported by God, help produce life in their struggle against the devil's project. The ancestral sun in the day and the ancestral moon at night represent the power and sovereignty of good against darkness. In darkness is concentrated all that is anti God, anti ancestor and anti ethnic group.*
(* In the solar religion perspective, Elíade notes, darkness appears in open opposition to life and intelligence, the symbol of all that is not God. Many heroic mythologies are of a solar structure. The hero, like the sun, struggles against darkness and emerges victorious when he descends to the world of death. With respect to lunar symbolism, it reminds the human being not only of the close linkage between life and death, but mainly that death is not the end, that there is always a new birth.)
The earth is directly connected with heaven. If the earth is a sacred place because the ancestors' remains are deposited there, heaven is the sacred dwelling where the gubida spirits share spiritual life with God the all powerful creator. In the words of Felipe García from the Nicaraguan community of La Fe:
If we read the Bible, we see that God made us out of earth. And when we die, our bodies return to earth. But if we were good in life, our soul goes to heaven. And God is there, and our ancestors are there. If you were bad, your soul is condemned and goes to hell. I heard my great grandfather say that the spirit makes a long journey to get to heaven. That's a Garífuna belief. Our body remains in the earth, but our soul goes with God if we were good.
Through building the dibasen, Garífunas express their profound conviction not only that they have been made of earth but that to be born or to die, to enter into the family of the living or the ancestral family, a common threshold exists between the natal ground that is the earth of the ancestors and heaven, as the creation and dwelling of God and the ancestors.
The Hamalijani Dance: All the conditions are now prepared to begin the final battle: the earth and its mother's heat, heaven and its light, the sick person and the ethnic group as a community of the living and the dead who are present. In this battle, waged through the hamalijani dance and the sacrifice of the roosters or hens, the ancestors and the ethnic group make use of all the resources belonging to Garífuna tradition. The drums, singing and dancing will, like a single Garífuna shout, expel the evil spirits and obtain the sick person's cure and the ethnic group's regeneration.
The Ancestors' Battle for Life
This dance is the central part, the peak moment, of the walagallo rite. (Hamalijani, or mali, means to placate, thus this word could be translated as "we appease the dead relatives.") To achieve their objective of curing the sick person, the ancestors put the whole ethnic group in motion in this decisive battle to expel the guibatimafuya, or evil spirits, from the sick person's body and from the Garífuna world. But to make this expulsion effective, the sins of the sick person and also of the ethnic group must be expiated or purified. This requires the expiatory sacrifice of the sick person's rooster or hen and those of the ethnic group, as two key moments in the dance.
Sacrificing the sick person's rooster or hen is an anticipation of the ethnic group's own path in its struggle against the evil spirits. Thus the expiatory rite is not centered in the sick person as an individual; it makes sense only to the degree that it extends to the whole dibasen, with all the utensils it contains and what it represents in the Garífuna world. That explains the suquia's care to keep the Garífuna universe and the things it contains immunized against impurities.
Cleansing the Garífuna WorldCleansing the Garífuna universe is the objective in the first song of the hamalijani, which is the link between the sick person's expiatory sacrifice and that of the whole ethnic group, carried out in the second song. As part of the preparation, the suquia cleans and protects the four cardinal points of the dibasen. As Isidro Zenón explains:
This is a moment when I must be very careful. Everything has to be clean and the evil spirits far away. Everything has to be ordered and clean before the moment in which the roosters are killed. To do that, I blow smoke into the four sides of the house, on top of the mounds of earth, near the windows, on top of the drums. I also blow smoke on the sick person's body, and on the place where he [she] is. Thus the evil spirits cannot enter and they go away. I also say prayers and consult the gubida spirits. It's important that they be happy with the work.
Regarding this part of the rite, Porfirio Norales, the buyei from Trujillo, Honduras, adds:
While I fan the smoke all around, I say the following prayer: 'May your blood and your pain, my Jesus, purify our sins and may we always enjoy the grace of God.' I also say: 'I pray to you, my Jesus, for the souls you have put in my charge, so that I will help them be sanctified and saved.' Those prayers are important so that everything goes well.
Eliminating the evil spirits' dirt and impurities is an effort to implant order within the Garífuna universe. In this way, hygiene appears linked to order and dirt to the disorder and chaos provoked by the evil spirits. In this sense, "illness as a consequence of wayward conduct" can be understood as dirt, disorder or chaos that can contaminate the ethnic group's life. This explains the ancestors' anger and the group's fear when faced with the presence of a wuribati (or malevolent person), or of some member of the ethnic group who at a certain point creates conflict within it. If an offense has been committed, there is a consequent need to atone for it through individual and collective sacrifice. The virus of the evil spirits that spiritually and corporally affects the sick person and the ethnic group is expelled through the expiatory sacrifice.
One song that the Garífunas of Belize intone in the first singing of the hamalijani reflects this desire to cleanse and purify the sick person and the ethnic group. According to Ana Avila, a member of Belize's Garífuna delegation in the October 1992 Continental Encounter of Indigenous, Black, Grassroots and Traditional Medicine, held in Estelí, Nicaragua, the song says:
I'm going to grab the roosters in my hand
To dance with them
I'm going to clean and arrange my guli (altar)
The sick person will be cured
And we will all be cleansed as well.
Singing, Dancing and DrumsThe family and ethnic aspect of this stage of the rite are stressed through the singing, dancing and drums, in which the whole ethnic group closes ranks to expel the evil spirits from its territory. As a drummer from Orinoco, who has been in charge of the main drum (lanigi garawon) in the walagallo rite for many years, narrates:
The walagallo is fellowship, a union of the whole Garífuna race to cure the sick person. In the first song of the hamalijani, one song we sing says this: 'Organize the great party, the great party, the great party uniting everyone.' We all dance and sing, and the sick person knows he [she] is not alone. The women and men dance, making turns around the earth mounds, and nobody leaves until the three days and two nights that the walagallo lasts have ended. By then the person will be cured. Those who don't understand the customs of the Garífunas think this is some sort of craziness or thing of the demons. The dance with the drums and the singing is our Garífuna custom. One gets tired in the days of the walagallo, but that makes the gubida spirits happy. And it has to be done, because when they were alive, they also did it like that. They sang and danced and the people were cured. That's how our Garífuna custom is.
The dance, songs and drums are part of that ancestral mystique with which Garífunas face life's difficulties, the means by which the ancestors express joy and pain, the cry and shout of Garífuna unity in facing history's adversities. They express the terrible suffering of expulsion, the pain of deportation, the acts of rebellion, etc. The oral tradition, singing, dancing and music are testimonies to Garífuna resistance and justifications of their unwritten history. They cannot be absent from the Garífuna struggle to expel the evil spirits from the dibasen.
Garífunas attribute curative effects to the sound of the drum, the singing and the dancing, in addition to their being means to please the gubida spirits. The drums are also associated with life, and protect against death. The following explanation by Juan Ruiz, from La Fe, another drummer who has also had this responsibility during the walagallo for many years, seems to indicate this:
The sound of the drum is similar to the bubé smoke the suquia uses to scare away the evil spirits. With the drum noise the evil spirits don't enter the house. The three drums are placed in the window and the evil spirits can't enter there. That helps the suquia keep the evil spirits away before the roosters are killed. The drums are life for Garífunas. A celebration without a drum isn't a Garífuna celebration. The gubida spirits like that sound. It's the sound of the Garífuna. With that sound of the drum, with the songs and with the dancing, the sick person gets up. We Garífunas bear up dancing and singing all those days of the walagallo because there the spirits are singing and dancing with us. That's life and it cures, but you must have faith. A Garífuna who doesn't dance or sing, or doesn't like the drum, isn't a Garífuna. We Garífunas carry the singing and the dancing in our blood. That's how our custom is, that's how our ancestors did it.
Of the three drums, the central one is known as lanigi garawon, which means heart drum. It is said that the term suggests that the rites symbolize heart beats. (Some ethno musicologists sustain that the Garífuna drums are similar to a form used in West Africa; in the province of Sokotó, Nigeria, these drums are known as bundula.) Orinoco's chief drummer says that his ancestors brought the heart drum he has from Trujillo, Honduras. According to his estimates, it dates from approximately 1880. In his opinion:
The central drum plays an important role in curing the person. The other two drums help in the rhythm but don't have curative powers. The sound of the drum maintains the body's movement. And the way the sound goes is the way to dance. All the people are kept dancing and singing with the noise of the drum. It's like we all get animated and feel strong, so the evil spirits go away; we don't let them enter. In the hamalijani songs the suquia is telling us what moment to beat the drum with more or less force. That way the people get more animated and follow the rhythm, and the gubida spirits like that. That's how this Garífuna celebration is. We know the sick person is suffering, but we all get energetic. We know that with the singing, the drums, the dancing and everything we do in the walagallo, the sick person will get better. When a Garífuna suffers, we all suffer and we all get excited.
His description of the drumming, singing and dancing clearly expresses the Garífuna way of being: obedient to the rhythm of the drum and rebellious toward the forces of the evil spirits; defenders of their land and their ethnic group and implacable toward the threats of their aggressors; threatened by the forces of evil and injustices, but happy to deal with them. In this sense, the drumming and singing are a medium to drown the pain and anguish and to achieve physical and mental health. Marta Sánchez notes the following:
One who doesn't know our culture could say that it's disrespectful to dance and sing when someone is sick or dead. But it's not like that; that's our custom. In our singing, we sing of our suffering and joys. That's what our ancestors did. It's as if someone cries and cries, and afterward you feel different, with less weight. That's what happens with the singing and dancing; it's like you struggle so death won't win. And that's the Garífuna secret.
Ansela Bermúdez, from Santa Fe, in Trujillo, Honduras, explains the relationship of the drum and dancing to the sacred:
The drum is an instrument we use with love, because our ancestors dance with those instruments. The drum is something special for us Garífunas. Our ancestors didn't leave their drums when they were expelled from San Vicente. For us it's offensive when they tell us we can't use the drum. In the Bible it is said that God must be praised with dance and drums; that's in Psalm 150. And our ancestors who believed in God and were very Catholic did that. So we do the same. Our dancing and our singing are very respectful toward God and with love for our ancestors.
The drumming, singing and dancing also have a clear ascetic and penitent sense for Garífunas, since they lead to contact with the ancestors, which requires prior purification or sacrifice as an acknowledgement of the transcendence of what is sacred. The penitent aspect is made manifest when the joyous acceptance of fatigue occasioned by three days and two nights of dancing is expressed. At the same time, however, it also expresses the unbreakable decision not to give in to this exhaustion, as Isidro Zenón, the suquia, explains:
You often see a person who's dancing differently from the others, or who's inspired by other singing, which means that a gubida spirit has gotten happy and is dancing in that person's body. And, though the people are tired, they find new energy and keep on dancing. I also animate the drummers and a long period of strong dancing can happen. But we know that the gubida spirit is enjoying itself. And that's good for the sick person. The important thing about the walagallo is that we all make it to the end. All that is what helps the sick person get better.
These songs that result in the gubida spirit dancing in a person's body are known as abaimahani, and are used by the Garífunas of Trujillo as curative and psychotherapeutic songs in their dugü rite. It is believed that a person can be possessed by any gubida present in the celebration, not only by the one to which the walagallo or dugü is dedicated. This moment, in which the body of the living becomes a recipient for the gubida spirits, which can follow the drum's rhythm as they did in life, is one of maximum relationship between the living and dead of the ethnic group. The singing, dancing and drumming are testimony to the ancestors' interior shaking, a demonstration of their resistance to the possible destruction of their people. This explains the importance of these elements in preparing for the expiatory sacrifice of the ethnic group's roosters or hens.
Sacrifice of Individual ExpiationOnce all the conditions of cleansing the dibasen's interior and ritually preparing the ethnic group are met, it is time to proceed to the second song of the hamalijani. The sense of performing the walagallo in general, and the expiatory sacrifices of the sick person and the ethnic group in particular, are synthesized in the following words of Juliana Castro, from Orinoco:
Thanks to our ancestors, God does not forget to help our Garífuna race. And because of them, God does great things for us and pardons our sins.
This statement is of major importance in that the ancestors' interests and the ethnic group's search are condensed in them. In effect, the ancestors' logic is to find a way to put their living relatives and the ethnic group on the road of God. For their part, the living relatives seek order, security and self sufficiency, which can only be attained in harmony with the divinities. Only through the gubida spirits, situated beyond the precariousness of the human condition, can Garífunas aspire to that new world where security, fertility and abundance reign.
The dancing begins on a Friday at midnight, the hour at which the sick person's rooster or hen is sacrificed. According to Isidro, Zenón, the suquia:
The sick person's rooster or hen must be killed on Friday night at twelve o'clock, the hour at which the evil spirits want to enter the dibasen. These evil spirits want to molest the first night of the walagallo, so they have to be expelled. We only want the gubida spirits in the dibasen. The blood of that rooster is curative. It is the blood that puts the sick person on his [her] feet. That blood serves the spirits and that's what cures. If this norm isn't complied with, it could endanger the sick person's life.*
(* According to Zashan's 1990 study in Africa: "The rooster, the first being of the house to announce the arrival of the day, is believed to possess the `science' of time; with its song it indicates the rhythm of duration, which turns it into the equivalent of the successive movement of days and nights for many African peoples. In this way roosters, and chickens in general, acquire a dimension that puts them in the category of cosmic values, bearers of a destiny on which human beings feel dependent. Thus, for Africans, the sacrifice becomes the act through which man is inserted in the very heart of the universe." )
The death of the rooster or hen has two, intimately linked objectives. The first is to expel the evil spirits from the sick person and from the Garífuna world, which will assure the gubida spirits' presence in the dibasen. (They make their entrance in the morning, when the walagallo is initiated with the dance that makes the sun come up.) The second is the sacrifice of expiation through the blood. With the bird's blood (or hitaü), amends are symbolically made for the sick person's sins. The expiatory blood signifies life for the sick person and for the gubida spirits that use it; it does not produce the expiation by itself, but carries life through the gubidas.**
(** The Old Testament clearly expresses that the expiatory power is not in the blood but in the life it envelops. Leviticus 17:11 states: "For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life." )
In the rite of sacrificing the sick person's rooster or hen, a close relationship is established between the gubida spirit and the sick person. Both need that blood as a life source and as an expiation of the sick person's sins, as the following explanation by Dominga Velásquez illustrates:
The blood is the cure for Garífunas. Garífunas believe that blood is vital. If you end up without blood you are without life, and get cold. That means that you're dead and are no longer breathing. But the sick person must have faith. None of these things work if you don't believe. The gubida spirits need the blood and use it. That's a Garífuna belief.
Within the walagallo rite, blood, like earth, is a source not only of life but also of unity between the living and the gubida spirits. For the Garífunas of Honduras and Belize, the ritual moment in which the bird's blood is sprinkled over the earth is extremely important within their dugü. Nicaraguan Garífunas do not explicitly do this fusion of the blood with the earth, but the significance is the same. Joaquín Prado, a Garífuna from Santa Fe, in Trujillo, Honduras, explains it as follows:
The rooster is killed and the blood has to fall into the earth. It is necessary to wait until all the rooster's blood is in the earth. We are of earth and the blood is melted into earth. The earth sucks that blood. The blood is the protection the spirits need. At the moment when that blood has entered the earth, it is assured that our message has reached the spirits. Although they are spirits, they always need blood. Blood and earth are life for us Garífunas. For that reason, our race tries not to poison the earth and we take care of our trees.
Blood, as a symbol of life, fertilizes the earth, which symbolizes fecundity. The earth, protector of children and the matrix in which the ancestral remains rest, is regenerated and again gives life by being sprinkled with blood. The strength manifested in the blood and in the earth is regenerated.
In the same way, the blood removes the nefarious consequences from sins. Sacrificing the sick person's rooster is thus an act that erases the person's sins when his/her illness is "the consequence of wayward conduct." And when it is an illness "sent directly by God," the sense is the same in that the sacrifice erases the faults committed by the sick person and prepares the way for beginning a new life. Thus the earth blood fusion is as a repetition of the creative act in which God gave life to human beings.*
(* According to Elíade (1981), a sacrifice done specifically to increase the harvest proposes to repeat the creative act that gave the grain life. The cosmogonic myth implies a violent ritual death and the victim's mangled body coincides with the body of the primordial mythical being that gave the grain life by issuing forth ritually from its body. )
Sacrifice of the Group's Roosters or HensWith the sacrifice of the sick person's rooster, the expiation of that person's sins and the resulting reconciliation with the divinities is carried out. But to fully reach the expiation of this first phase, it is necessary to expiate the sins of the entire ethnic group. This completes the ethnic group sick person expiatory cycle, as Dominga Velásquez explains:
In the second song of the hamalijani, everything is already prepared for killing the roosters or hens. In these dances, the people carry the chickens in their hands. There might be 12 or 14, depending on the families and on the presents. These roosters aren't now those of the sick person, because those were killed before. The gubida spirits use the blood of the roosters killed in this part of the dance, too; it is also important because it's curative. The people who are dancing raise and lower the roosters as they dance. They have to follow the instructions the suquia gives them. Those roosters have to die when they are dashed on the ground. That's the rite.
The ancestors sick person and ancestors ethnic group relationships are made evident through the expiatory blood. If the blood that cured the sick person was spilled with the death of that person's rooster and was beneficial to the gubida spirits, it is clear that the blood spilled by the ethnic group's roosters is useful for the gubidas and is expiatory blood of the ethnic group's sins. The ancestor blood sick person relationship and ancestor blood ethnic group relationship indicate that the blood has the same expiatory significance in both cases. The blood is life for the sick person, the ancestor and the ethnic group. (In Black Africa, according to Sedar (1970), the Ancestor is but the sign of a more profound reality: blood. This, in turn, is the sign of a still more profound reality: the community of a "call of life.")
The connection between individual sin and ethnic or collective sin is also clear. The bad conduct of one member of the ethnic group has negative repercussions in the life of the group itself. The destructive influence of the individual's bad actions on the group is expressed in the rupture of relations with the divinities. As a consequence, the expiation carried out through the substitute death of the roosters breaks the union between the sin and the misfortunes it causes within the ethnic group.*
(* In the context of expiatory sacrifices in the ritual traditions of Israel, the community's enormous interest in the sin of its individuals is also noted. The sinner was a danger for the community and his/her personal rupture with God brought negative consequences for the community. That explains why, in Lev. 16, Aaron performs four expiatory rites for his errors, three for the community and one for the sanctuary. )
The following explanation by the suquia Isidro Zenón can be understood with this in mind:
When the second song of the hamalijani begins, I continue blowing smoke above the head of the sick person, and in the corners of the house. This is to have greater security that everything is clean. While I do that, the people are dancing around the earth mounds with the roosters in their hands. One of the songs says: 'We are celebrating around with the drums, carrying the sick person with the roosters.' Little by little, the people get more heated, and I indicate to the drummers the moment in which the drum rhythm should be stronger. When a long period of dancing with the roosters has already passed, and the rhythm is very strong and the people are shouting and agitated, the moment has come to stop the music and the dance. The moment the drums are put on the ground, the roosters are dashed against the ground with force. This moment when the roosters die is the end of the hamalijani.
With the expulsion of the evil spirits and the illnesses, the sense of the ritual purifications is centered on eliminating the sins of the individual and of the group as a whole. In this sense, it is not a simple purification: it is a regeneration that implies a new birth. In effect, at the moment in which the ethnic group's roosters or hens are sacrificed, there is a symbolic uniting of the heart drum (lanigi garawon), the earth as the basis of the Garífuna universe, the expiatory blood of the roosters or hens and the ancestral spirits that make use of that blood. From that fusion, the sick person and the ethnic group are born anew and, with that, the Garífuna universe is regenerated. In this way, the walagallo rite in general, and the singing of the hamalijani in particular, possess an emancipatory dynamic that frees Garífunas of impurities and of the evil spirits' diabolical actions.
Sacrificial Communion between Living and DeadThis is also precisely the significance of the ritual organization of and expenses incurred in the search for the necessary food and drink. Once the Garífuna universe has been purified and the personal and ethnic sin eliminated, the ethnic group and its ancestors celebrate the sacrifice of communion through the banquet. In this food, the living and the dead celebrate the triumph of life over death, and light over darkness.
The events of the past are celebrated and the feats of the ancestors brought up to date in the walagallo, but future events are also symbolically created and anticipated. The excessive expense and apparent squandering of food and drink can be understood as a Garífuna protest against the hardships of daily life, and as a way to symbolically create a future. In the banquet abundance is made real and self abundance and ethnic solidarity between the living and dead are consolidated. In this respect, the suquia Isidro Zenón explains:
In the walagallo a table is placed on top of the earth mounds and all the food is put there. Garífuna foods and drinks must not be in short supply. That is what the gubida spirits like. The gourds of liquor and jiyú are put on the ground and the spirits drink that. Jiyú is of fermented cassava; only we Garífunas make it. For the work to come out well, it's necessary to get everything the spirits request. If the spirit asks for turtle and it isn't gotten, it's better not to do the walagallo.
The earth provides the foods of the Garífuna ancestors and, symbolically, they are put on top of the earth that has produced them.* The foods vary in each walagallo, depending on what the gubida spirits request. To obtain and prepare it, community collaboration is key. In some cases, the spirits may ask for turtle, fish, beef or pork, or even some other type of animal that could be difficult to get in the bushland. The food implies a concrete symbolism of life shared between the living members of the ethnic group and their ancestors after both have thanked God by expiating the sins of the former. Through the ritual action with the foods, Garífunas experience that, in their lives, they depend on what the earth and heaven provide. To share the same food is to share the same life.
(* According to Elíade (1981): "The collective banquet represents precisely this concentration of vital energy; therefore in both agricultural festivals and commemorations of the dead, a banquet is imposed with all the excesses that it implies. In olden times, the banquets were celebrated alongside the tomb itself, so that the dead person could enjoy the excess of vitality being unleashed at his (her) side." )
In the Garífuna culinary art, bahami (cassava bread) can not be missing from the banquet, nor can tapau (soup made with coconut milk, shellfish, and vegetables such as cassava, ñame, and green and ripe plantains), albundiga (made with cooked green plantains, coconut milk and salt), fufu (made with caladium, cassava, banana and yampi), feinlaofalon (coconut bread), rribimet (sweet rice) and bimen (banana tamale). Different kinds of thick drinks are also prepared, such as guentu (made with ripe bananas), and other drinks such as alauia (made of cassava flour and water), chicha (made with pineapple, ginger and sugar), and contibu or amargo, which is a stimulative drink, with curative properties for gastric problems. (According to Gullick's 1984 study, the medicines the Caribs of San Vicente island used during the 17th century had a lot in common with their culinary art. The women had the patrimony of the household cures, and the brews and substances they prepared reflected the area's ecology.)
Within this ritual action, the gubida spirits, as interveners with God on behalf of the living, have the privilege of being the first to taste the food, as Bernarda Zenón, the suquia's sister, explains:
The gubida spirits eat first. They spiritually eat the plates they ate when they were alive and among us. Then the sick person gets up and serves himself [herself] first. And afterward the people start serving themselves.
Within the walagallo, the food not only serves to give life in the spiritual and biological sense, but is also a means through which contact between the gubida spirits and the new Garífuna generations is made, as Juana Soza, a midwife from Brown Bank, narrates:
Once the foods have been served and the spirits and the adults have eaten, the children are called. They also eat these foods. The gubida spirits get happy when they see the children nourishing themselves with that food. That's a belief of us Garífunas.
In both Belize and Honduras, this part of the rite is known as abáiuhani or the "pillage of the children." It is said that in this way the spirits of the ancestors become familiarized with the new Garífuna generations, which will enjoy the protection of their ancestors. It is also believed that the gubida spirits enjoy this part of the rite a lot, upon seeing the enthusiasm of their grandchildren or great grandchildren. And according to some, a belief exists that this part of the rite should be short: children should not have too much contact with the dead "because their souls are too tender."
In the walagallo, the rite around the foods expresses not only the search for subsistence and group and individual life, but also the desire for union with the divinity. The human aspiration of attaining life in the hereafter and the ideal of sharing the same project and the same destiny as the ethnic group is ritualized through the food.
On Sunday, the last day of the walagallo, the food of that morning is shared without the presence of the gubida spirits. This is the moment in which ethnic unity is consolidated. The fundamental point of this meal is that the ethnic group, in the absence of the gubidas but in the presence of God, share the same project and destiny, with the same ancestral mystique that inspired them in the task of gaining the ideal of human coexistence for which the ancestors fought. According to the suquia:
On Sunday morning the sick person is visited. By that time the gubida spirits are no longer there. But we all celebrate joyously that the sick person has gotten better. We eat cassava bread and also drink coffee, punch, cacao or anything else that's prepared. People chat, others laugh, still others are tired, but the joy is the main thing. The sick person has been cured and the work has been successful.
The God Ethnic Group AllianceTo have a really clear idea of the walagallo's importance in Garífuna life, it is necessary to understand the Garífunas' God. And to do that, it is necessary to understand God's alliance with the ethnic group through its ancestors. The abundant statements that bring to light God's leadership within the ritual reveal the ethical religious content of the walagallo. As a religious leader from the Garífuna community of La Fe explains:
We Garífunas don't appear very religious, don't easily express our religious life. But when you live and participate in a Garífuna community, you begin to realize that we are more religious than you'd think. Our reserve or timidity to express our religious experience has a lot to do with the criticisms we've received about our beliefs. For example, it is said that the walagallo is something demonic, that we Garífunas do witchcraft, etc. There is no doubt, however, that the walagallo is an expression of the richness of our culture. There can be found Garífuna solidarity, respect for our ancestors, faith in God, the struggle for life, and a great number of theological anthropological values that make the walagallo an important element of Garífuna resistance."
These ethical religious values based on that alliance with God explain why the walagallo is not limited only to the ritual level, but has an impact on Garífuna daily life. The following quote by Francisco Mora of Orinoco illustrates the underlying spirit that holds together the structure of the walagallo rite:
The walagallo cannot be understood without God. He goes ahead of everyone, to expel the evil spirits. Without God we could do nothing in the walagallo. God helps us and pardons our bad behavior. God has always been accompanying our ancestors. He wants good for us, and that's why He helps us in the walagallo. In San Vicente, they wanted to kill our ancestors, but God didn't let that happen, and thanks to Him, they were able to get to Trujillo. Our relatives are from there. God is always with us, but when you behave badly and do incorrect things, then God's punishment comes. But it's for your bad behavior. That's what our parents and grandparents taught us. Many make an error when they say that the walagallo is a thing of the devil. It can't be of the devil, because the devil can't be where God is. And in the walagallo, it's God who's with us.
It could be said that the alliance is, above all, a gesture of God's solidarity with the ethnic group, an attitude of solidarity by a God who was present in the history of pain and hope that the Garífuna ancestors experienced. This presupposes God's fidelity as a protector. In this alliance, the protected ones run the risk of violating the accord, and therefore the accent falls on the ethnic group's obligations and commitment. That explains the clarity with which God's punishment is expressed as a consequence of committing an error.
What is implicit in the walagallo rite is the Garífuna world of values the idea of an alliance as an ethical pact that has been sealed between God and the ethnic group. As a consequence of this pact, God will always be there if the group behaves well. This harmony with God means life. Breaking the pact brings with it God's absence and punishment, and this distancing of God can lead to death. The walagallo, seen in this framework, is a call from the ancestors for the rectification or renewal of that alliance. It is an alliance that is realized and renewed with a concrete God: the God of life. In Dominga Velásquez's words:
God is who gives life, and it is of Him that we ask for the sick person's life. The walagallo begins on Friday; it can only begin on that day, because that's the day our Lord Jesus Christ died. And we end on Sunday, the day of the Lord's resurrection. That's when God resuscitated His son. That's how we celebrate the curing of the sick person. As you see, we fight for life, and God is the only one who can give it. If you don't have blood, you don't have life. And when a person dies, he [she] no longer breathes. Blood no longer flows there. That's why I told you that the roosters' blood is important. It's curative blood that the gubida spirits use. But all those things come from God. He gave us the blood, the body, the spirit, the breath and all that we have. If, despite everything, the sick person dies, God knows why. It means that it is no longer suitable for that person to go on living. Perhaps great evils were going to come down on him [her], and God wanted to take the person to his [her] glory. If He resuscitated Jesus, God will also help us. Jesus didn't disobey God; he complied with all that God asked of him. That's what we have to repeat.
The Afro Christian religious syncretism present in the walagallo fills the Garífunas' basic aspiration to seek order and meaning in things. Jesus appears as an archetype that must be imitated in a cyclical conception of history. He is the model of the human being who fulfilled his father's teachings when he lived on earth, and, as recompense, had life after death. Behind the walagallo's ritual structure is the experience of a God of life, who gives health back to the sick person, who accepts the death of His son on Friday and resuscitates him on Sunday. Just as the cyclical vision of history underlies the archetypal Jesus, so is history shown as an eternal repetition of the God ethnic group pact.
THE ELDER ANCESTOR
Jesus of Nazareth was not a Garífuna nor did he ever walk on Garífuna land. Nonetheless, the Garífuna religion has made the son of Mary into the archetype of the Garífuna forefathers,
the Elder Ancestor. For the Garífunas, Jesus is the model human being, obedient to his parents and to God, an idehati (servant) of his people. He struggled for justice for the most needy, never feared to say the truth and never did harm to his fellow humans. For those reasons, God did not abandon him to death, but resurrected him from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus is a sign of the triumph of life over death, essential to the Garífuna cosmovision.
This inclusion of Jesus in the ancestors' world is the key to understanding the Garífunas' syncretic religion. Garífunas feel themselves to be members of the Catholic Church and testify to their faith in Jesus Christ, but they do so from their African traditions, from their cult to the ancestors. By seeing Jesus as the Elder Ancestor, by making him into a model for Garífunas and including him among those to whom they make their cult, they fuse the central elements of Catholicism and the African religion and take on Catholicism without losing their identity.