Dügü – Garifuna Spirituality

Barranco Dabuyaba

Here is a wonderful first-hand narrative of one women’s experience of Garifuna spirtuality in 1996 taken from http://judylumb.com/dugu.html.

An Extended Family Reunion

I was honoured to be invited to a Garifuna dügü by my friend, Sebastian Cayetano (Sab), because it is a private family affair, not a cultural event to which the public is invited. In casual conversations, the Garinagu translate the word “dügü” into English as “family reunion.” Indeed, families gather together, but not only the living relatives, the spirits of ancestors also attend. I have also heard it compared to our Thanksgiving. It is true that a feast is prepared, but it is done for the ancestors.

The Garinagu believe that unhappy ancestral spirits cause bad things to happen to people, such as making them sick, to get their attention. The purpose of the dügü is to appease the ancestors, to make them happy, and to heal the living of illnesses and other adversities.

This particular dügü had been long delayed. Twenty years ago Marcello Cayetano, Sab’s great-grandfather appeared to Sab’s father asking for a lesser ceremony, a Garifuna Mass. But Sab’s father was a well-trained Roman Catholic teacher and had left the Garifuna traditions behind, so the request was ignored.

Then two years ago things began happening in the Cayetano family. Sab’s identical twin brother, Fabian (Fab), had a serious accident, but he recovered completely. A niece was run over by a truck, but was not hurt badly. At another dügü Sab was asked to hold a dügü for Marcello Cayetano and his wife, Loretta Palacio Cayetano. Loretta Palacio was born in 1860, the first child born in Barranco and the granddaughter of the mother of Barranco, Magaruda, who had come to live there with her two sons.

Sab knew a dügü would be a tremendous effort for the entire family, but Fab was in Jamaica finishing a degree that year. Sab accepted the challenge to plan a dügü, but negotiated a two-year delay so they would have time to prepare after Fab returned. That was acceptable to the spirits, so no more bad things happened to the family.

Indeed, preparing for the dügü was a huge job. They had to build a temple (dabuyaba) in Barranco because there was none. The dabuyaba was built to face east, with doors in the north and south. At the closed west end was the priest’s inner sanctum (dugeirugu) where the family retired whenever anything important was happening.

In addition to the dabuyaba, they also built a kitchen, a family house and a shed for the pigs, all made of natural materials with a dirt floor and thatch roof. They are located on the cliff overlooking the black sand beach with a view of the Bay of Honduras and the mountains of Guatemala and Honduras.

They also had to arrange for all the food. Cassava had to be planted and grown. Pigs and roosters had to be raised. The family members were assessed to cover the cost, a total of $40,000 BZ.

All 250 participants had two outfits made, one in green check for the Cayetanos and one in bright orange for the Palacios. All the descendants of Marcello and Loretta are both Cayetano and Palacio, so on Thursday everyone wore green check and on Friday the orange. The costumes were beautiful full skirts with coordinated blouses. The men wore dashikis of the same fabric.

The dügü was conducted by a traditional Garifuna priest (buyei) and his entourage from Livingston, Guatemala. Buyeinu (plural of buyei) are identified very early in life and serve as both priest and healer. The buyei was Esteban Palacio, one of the descendants of Marcello and Loretta. The entourage included a second buyei, a messenger, three drummers, eight singers, two shaka (sisira) players, and three cooks. The messenger was not a buyei, but had many functions in the dügü. He kept an eye out for the appearance of ancestral spirits, kept the copal burning, and carried messages to the buyeinu from the spirits.

One unusual thing about this dügü was the marriage of the Garifuna with the Catholic tradition. Sab and Fab are both lay leaders in the Catholic church and also very active in the movement to preserve and celebrate the traditional Garifuna culture. They have a brother who is a Catholic priest, Father Cal.

Twenty years ago, when Marcello first asked for a Mass, Father Cal was a newly ordained priest, fully steeped in the Jesuit tradition and did not believe in the traditional Garifuna religion. He was injured in a car accident and only recovered after a long period of time.

About that time Father Richard Hadel, a Jesuit priest who was an anthropologist, did his research in Belize and attended several dügüs. He convinced the Jesuits to soften their position. Father Cal described his own return to the Garifuna tradition, saying that Sab was always inviting him along for Garifuna events, so he has gradually gotten involved. He now believes his accident twenty years ago was caused by the ancestors whose request was ignored.

The dügü began with a Mass on Sunday night when the temple was blessed, both by the buyei and by Father Cal. The buyei dug a hole in the center of the temple, poured rum and then covered it up again. This became the point of power in the dabuyaba. Father Cal sprinkled holy water all around. Copal was burned at all times in the temple. Usually it was in the center, but sometimes the messenger smoked all the corners of the temple, too. Once the dabuyaba was blessed, everything brought in was blessed, like the luggage belonging to the people coming from out of town, who would be sleeping in the dabuyaba. Everything was placed in the center of the dabuyaba and blessed by the buyei by blowing smoke from a big hand-rolled cigar.

Termite nests were burned, too. They make a heavy smoke with a strange, but not unpleasant smell. I was told that the burning of termite nests keeps away the evil spirits.

Rum was used only for anointing people. It was never drunk. I was anointed several times with rum. If someone seemed to be in trouble with a trance, they were sprinkled with strong rum to bring them out of it.

There were a number of prohibitions. No one was allowed to come into the dabuyaba if they had been drinking alcohol of any kind. The drummers were required to abstain from sexual activity. No menstruating woman was to come into the temple. It was considered a desecration. Sab said that if one were to come, she would be embarrassed because the spirits would know and publicly chastise her.

The central event of the dügü is a feast for the ancestors. A group of people representing the family, called “adugahatiun,” went out to the cayes to gather fish, crabs and conch for the feast. Monday morning they were sent off in a beautiful ceremony, starting with a Mass in the dabuyaba. All the items that were to be taken out to the cayes, down to the motor oil, were blessed. Then the drumming and dancing started and the entire crowd, led by two women carrying flags, the solid orange for Palacio and the green check for Cayetano processed along the cliff and down to the beach. It was beautiful in the early morning light as everyone helped the four men and four women get the dories loaded and head out to the cayes.

Meanwhile in the dabuyaba there was quiet singing, some drumming, and a little dancing. Each day began with a Mass and all prayed that the dügü would be successful. One afternoon the entire congregation walked reverently around the village singing hymns and praying as they went. I fasted during that time, my own spiritual practice.

By Wednesday night the excitement was building. During the dancing I saw my first spirit possession, “onwehani” in Garifuna. “Onweha” is the verb meaning to go into a trance and act as a medium for an ancestral spirit. There were several onwehani that night. The singers are mediums for spirits who were buyeinu during their lifetimes. The lead singer’s spirit had much to say. I saw her speaking to several people who were listening respectfully and nodding to indicate they had received the message.

One young woman onweha right in front of me, but she did not say anything. There was another woman who fainted often and fell on the person nearest her, but she never talked either. Everyone just supported her and continued dancing, usually with her behind them, arms around their neck.

I wondered if my ancestors could hear these drums. I thought of my grandmother’s great-grandmother, Grandma Hollenbeck. I finished a quilt that she started, one I called the “six-generation quilt.” I was told that she owned a shop and smoked a pipe. The next night we were all warned that there was smoke in the corner where I was sitting. Everyone vacated that corner and my attention was drawn elsewhere for a time. When I looked back to the empty corner, there was a woman smoking a pipe and looking straight at me, legs spread apart, one hand on her hip and one on the pipe. It was just the way I imagined Grandma Hollenbeck. But the tobacco she was smoking was so strong, so awful smelling, that I immediately got sick and had to leave. Still, I was impressed. I got exactly what I asked for, a sign that I was participating at a real level in this dügü.

The return of the adugahatiun from the Cayes was like the send-off in reverse. The day began with a Mass in the church. Then everyone went to the seaside to watch the dories return. In the stillness of the early morning they paddled in, each showing a flag, one the Cayetano green check and the other the solid orange for the Palacios. As they got close, everyone waded out to greet them and unload the fish, crabs and conch. To the beat of the drum and the sisira, the entire group, all in green-checked costumes, danced up the cliff to the dabuyaba.

The most powerful part of the dügü was the mali, the opening to the four cardinal directions. The whole group faced each direction, beginning with the west, and the drums played a slower, deeper beat. The singing stopped, but the sisira continued slowly and deliberately. As one, the whole group began to very reverently lean down toward the ground. The space from the center to the door was cleared and the buyei probed the ground with his wand, backed up by the singers and the drummers with the entire crowd behind.

Then suddenly the beat speeded up, the singing resumed and the whole group raised up to move to the next cardinal direction. Malis invited the spirits into the dabuyaba several times during the day and night for the rest of the dügü. The first mali took about 30 minutes, but they got longer and even more powerful as the dügü progressed.

On Thursday the preparations for the feast continued from the time the dories were unloaded and the procession brought everything to the dabuyaba. Two pigs were killed and dressed. The two carcasses were hung at the north and south doors to the dabuyaba for some time.

Everyone was asked to bring a rooster as a gift for the feast. All these roosters were tied to posts in the dabuyaba, so their “cock-a-doodle-doo” was a constant sound throughout the dügü. Occasionally two of them would get into a fight and have to be separated. There was one dance in which everyone held roosters by their two wings, casually down at their sides. The roosters were presented at the altar in the dugeirugu. Then they were killed one by one in the front of the temple with a very dramatic chop.
On Friday a 30-foot banquet table was placed in the middle of the dabuyaba. The cooks came in with the prepared food and filled everyone’s plates. Each person reverently placed their plate on the table and prayed silently that the ancestors would enjoy their feast. They also brought soft drinks, opened and stoppered with cotton. The food was left out for several hours for the ancestors to eat.

Banana leaves were spread on the ground with some food from the table. All the children encircled the leaves and, at a signal, they went for the food. Some of the food was buried; some was dumped at sea and some was distributed. No other food was cooked that day. Everyone was supposed to join the ancestors in their feast. Several people asked me about our Thanksgiving, wondering if it was the same as this. I said that families gather and a feast is prepared and eaten, but Thanksgiving has no spiritual depth, no drums, no dancing.

The marriage between the Catholic and the traditional Garifuna was always evident. Father Cal was always there dancing. Each day began with a Mass and there was often another one later in the day. The most beautiful symbol of the integration of the two traditions was when three young men were baptized in an evening Mass in the dabuyaba. Their parents had waited to let them make their own decisions, so this was their choice, to embrace both traditions and be baptized at a Catholic Mass during a dügü in a dabuyaba.

The dancing and malis continued day and night with only an occasional rest break. The hypnotic drum beat, the shushing of the sisiras, and the chanting of the singers accompanied the continuous shuffling dance flowing around the center of the dabuyaba and then reversing direction. Sometimes they danced one by one; sometimes two or more together, but always they danced.

On Thursday night a woman dressed as a man in khaki pants and shirt, a red bandanna, and a huge sombrero appeared carrying a machete. It turned out to be Sinerial, a spirit who comes often to dügüs through Sab’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Martinez. After she goes into trance, Sinerial demands these particular clothes, so she brings them along.

Sinerial was like a drill sergeant, ordering people around and chasing them with his machete. I took his picture with a flash and he turned to glare at me. He split the crowd into two halves with a big gap down the middle, and ordered the drummers to play a different rhythm, a punta. He said he wanted to dance. He grabbed Sab on one side, Fab on the other and promenaded them up and down. Then he added their children to the promenade. Later he settled down to lecture the crowd. He said there should be no more electronics in the dabuyaba for the rest of the dügü. I obeyed and left my camera at home.

There were other onwehani. Sometimes they screamed, sometimes they just slumped. I was told that if the spirit comes from the front, you see it coming and that is when people scream. Otherwise, they just faint. Soon they would begin talking in a different voice. Afterward, they remember nothing of the experience.
I saw someone onweha in front of me. I thought at first it was Ms. Petty, my friend from Caye Caulker, but it was her sister, Josephine, and she was speaking for their grandfather. That morning their brother, Augustine, was heard screaming and then found lying on the ground. They took him to the temple and he came around, but he did not know what had happened. Later, when the grandfather came, he said that he had done that to Augustine. He chastised Augustine about leading a wild life.

Friday morning Josephine’s daughter, Jocelyn, onweha and spoke for Mimi, Ms. Petty’s grandmother. Mimi was vexed. She wanted her pipe and said she would not eat the feast until after she smoked. Sinerio had warned them the night before, “your grandmother is coming and she will want her pipe, so you had better get ready.”

But they ignored it. So, Ms. Petty had to go running all around trying to find a pipe. She first got one from the woman who had been impersonating my grandmother’s great-grandmother, but Mimi rejected it, saying it was not nice. They finally found another one which she smoked. I was sitting with the older generation that day. Several of them had known Mimi when they were children. They said she was just like that. They remembered being sent for her pipe so she could smoke.

It is easy to believe in ancestral spirits. They all had ways to prove who they were, like Mimi’s pipe and Sinerio’s strict manner. Besides, we all want to think that our loved ones live on in spirit after they have died.

The last night I went home after the midnight chicken soup, leftovers from the feast for the ancestors. I fell sound asleep for the first time since the dügü started. Then I woke up feeling this smooth, cool sensation all over my skin. It felt like chills, but I was not shaking. At first I was afraid, thinking I might be going into anaphylactic shock or something. Then I wondered if I was going to onweha. I wanted to see what would happen, so I stayed perfectly still. But nothing more happened. The smooth, cool feeling just continued. When I first woke up, I thought I was sleeping in the temple, near the east door because I could hear a murmur of voices coming from the next room, which I thought was the hammock shed outside the temple. But I knew I was in our bedroom and only my friend Debra was asleep in the hammock next door. I went to the door and saw a ghostly woman sitting in a chair who looked like Ms. Petty praying, a very comforting sight for me. All around the room were puffs of smoke and murmuring voices.

The next night I kept waking up thinking I was in the hammock shed and hearing the murmuring voices. After I was awake, I knew where I was, but whenever I drifted off again, the voices would come back. Sab’s sister, Fatima was quite concerned about my spirits. She boiled a leaf and brought the hot water for my bath. She put copal smoke in my room so the spirits would leave me alone. It worked! From then I slept soundly.

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