Life and Play in the Garifuna Culture of Dangriga, Belize
Erin M. Casey
School of Education, Louisiana State University
“Here, the sweet water is close at hand” is the meaning of Dangriga, the name of the third largest city in the Central American country of Belize. Although located on the Caribbean coast, Dangriga is not usually a tourist destination featured on cruise ship excursions. “Sweet water” refers not to the ocean, but rather to the fresh water flowing through the North Stann Creek River, which divides the town as it empties into the sea. The river water is valued for its good taste and abundant life. Because it muddies the beach shoreline and consistently floods the town during the rainy season, however, tourist resorts do not consider Dangriga a sound investment. It is consistently ranked as one of the most economically depressed regions in Belize, with some of the highest unemployment and poverty levels (Halcrow Group Limited, 2010).
Even though the beaches do not attract many tourists, locals consider Dangriga to be the “Cultural Capital” of Belize because of its rich history and still-present traditions of the Garifuna people. The Garifuna culture, dating back to the early 19th century, draws heavily from its African and Caribbean roots and is guided by respect for ancestors and spiritualism with rituals and celebrations that feature dancing and drumming (Thompson, 2004). The Garifuna people of Dangriga are friendly and eagerly welcome visitors to their town to share their culture with all. This culture, the environment, and the economic conditions of the region have a significant influence on the play practices and toys of the children who live there.
Until recently, commercially produced toys were too expensive or unavailable (now, there are more opportunities to buy cheap Chinese imports). In an investigation on Garifuna play practices, Casey and DiCarlo (2015) found a common theme characterizing the traditional construction of toys. Because resources are limited and there is no consistent manner for collecting refuse, people invent creative ways to reuse discarded objects, leftover materials, and trash. Girls and women make Pechanga dolls wearing the traditional Garifuna dress, using scraps of material that can be passed from generation to generation. Children make toy boats from natural or cast-off objects, which they use to play in the river water or at the beach in games that mimic the stories they have heard about their ancestors crossing the sea in canoes. Older children make drums and masks from discarded items to recreate the drumming and dances featured in the Garifuna’s traditional Jankunu (also known as John Canoe) celebrations.
The repurposing of discarded objects in this manner is similar to the current makerspace movement that inspires children to create new objects through hands-on engagement in a constructivist environment (Kurti, Kurti, & Fleming, 2014). Although considered novel and trendy in some more advanced countries, creating new items from old things is a normal way of life for many children around the world. This natural way of playing and learning should be embraced by all for the possibilities it holds for developing higher-order thinking.
In May 2016, I spent the day with 3-year-old Glendale and different members of his family, and thus was able to experience the Garifuna hospitality and witness the children’s play firsthand. Glendale lives with his 20-year-old mother, elderly great grandmother, and teenage uncles in the upper story of his great aunt’s home. The apartment is sparsely furnished and they do not have running water. Glendale’s mother, Aisha, was to graduate soon from a local high school where former dropouts are able to return to get their diplomas. An aunt in the United States sends her a monthly income of $400 Belize ($200 US). Although Aisha has an up-to-date Samsung phone and the house has a wireless internet connection, only a few old, commercially produced toys are available for Glendale’s play. At first, I was disappointed by the lack of play supplies. As I followed Glendale throughout the day, however, I realized that he is frequently engaged in wonderful, creative play because he is able to find inspiration for play in almost any nearby object.
As we walk from his home to his paternal grandmother’s house, many neighbors wish us a good morning. One older lady yells to Glendale, “Glendale, you going to school? You better hurry up and graduate tomorrow!” Once at his grandmother Angela’s house, Aisha leaves to go to a graduation meeting. Angela scrambles eggs and makes toast for Glendale and his 2-year-old cousin John. The two play for about 30 minutes, making toys out of the objects found discarded on the veranda. At first, they use disconnected electric and cable chords to make pretend seatbelts and drive in their imaginary car while making sounds of a motor and squealing brakes. Then, Glendale inverts the broken off base of a floor fan to make a steering wheel, adding more detail to the imaginary driving. He narrates the driving events to John and even pretends there is a crash, prompting both boys to fall over onto the floor. Later, they fight over a handheld video game that has no batteries until John picks up a discarded remote control and pretends it is another game.
Soon, we walk to Aisha’s friend Michelle’s house, so that she can babysit Glendale for two hours before he goes to afternoon school. She lives on the busy, main street in town. The covered area under the balcony is a popular place for neighbors to gather at night to visit and talk. We sit on the chairs while Michelle consults her smart phone. Glendale eats an orange and then begins to dig around in the dirt with a stick. As he digs, he finds bottle caps in the dirt and starts digging them up and collecting them on a table. In a matter of minutes, he has found about 20 caps. When he is satisfied he has enough, he starts working with them on a table. With no guidance at all, he sorts the caps into different arrangements. He describes each arrangement to me as he finishes. “I put all shiny ones here and the scratched ones here!” I offer scaffolding by asking him the traits he has used to form the groups. He also creates shapes and pictures with the bottle caps. It’s a wonderful example of how learning can result from play with discarded items. When he is done, Michelle scoops up the bottle caps to throw them away. Glendale doesn’t worry; he knows there will be more the next time.
Later at preschool, Glendale is able to play with such commercially produced items as Mega-blocks and other manipulatives that have been purchased or donated to the school. The children sing songs and repeat prayers, and the teacher leads them in a lesson on letter sounds with a short book. He and all the children follow along, excited about being together and learning more. Here, just as the sweet water is close at hand, so is the promise of the future through learning and living with whatever materials are present.
Casey, E., & DiCarlo, C. (2015). Play traditions in the Garifuna culture of Belize. IPA/USA e-journal. http://www.ipausa.org/pdf/IPAEJournal_01_12_2016.pdf
Halcrow Group Limited. (2010). Government of Belize and the Caribbean Development Bank country poverty assessment final report. Retrieved from www.caribank.org/uploads/2012/12/Belize-2009-Report-Vol1.pdf
Kurti, R. S., Kurti, D. L., & Fleming, L. (2014). The philosophy of educational makerspaces: Part 1 of making an educational makerspace. Teacher Librarian, 41(5), 8-11.
Thomson, P. (2004). Belize: A concise history. Oxford, England: Macmillan Education.