Protecting youth from violence through a cultural dance

How cultural preservation is helping to keep children safe from violence.

Brent Toombs
28 September 2019

Jaheim Jones sings quietly to himself while using a nail to poke tiny holes into hundreds of sea shells. On this beautiful late September weekend, the 16-year old could be with his friends playing basketball or football. Or, like many teens his age, he could choose to stay inside and log countless hours playing video games. Instead, Jaheim is helping a group of young children from his neighbourhood make costumes for an upcoming Jonkunnu competition.

A dance performed primarily during the Christmas holidays, the Jonkunnu is a cultural staple in Garifuna towns and villages throughout Central America and the Caribbean, as well as diaspora communities in the United States.

A group of boys prepare sea shells to be used as part of their Jonkunnu costumes.
©UNICEF/2018/Brent Toombs
A group of boys prepare sea shells to be used as part of their Jonkunnu costumes.

The Garifuna originated in the mid 17th century when African slaves brought to the eastern Caribbean intermarried with local populations of Arawak and Carib Indians. Despite making up less than 10 percent of Belize’s current population, their cultural influence leaves a much larger footprint on the country. Punta Rock, a fast-paced percussion driven style of dance music that has dominated Belize’s local music scene for nearly three decades, was born of traditional Garifuna drumming rhythms. Belize observes a public and bank holiday, Garifuna Settlement Day, to commemorate the arrival of the Garifuna some two centuries ago following their exile by the British from the island of St. Vincent. In coastal communities such as Dangriga, Hopkins, and Seine Bight you will still see Garifuna women going about their day wearing traditional cultural dresses and head coverings. UNESCO declared Garifuna language, dance and music in Belize to be a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in 2001.

The origins of the Jonkunnu date back over 200 years; from the time of slavery, through post-emancipation and colonial rule by the British. In Belize the particular style of Jonkunnu performed is the Wanaragua. Male dancers are adorned with elaborate headdresses, bands of shells around their knees, and masks on their faces. The masks are all identical, painted pink with pencil thin moustaches to resemble European colonial-era masters. Wanaragua has become a celebration of Garifuna culture, but the dance was originally a mischievous way for workers to surreptitiously mock white plantation owners.

Jonkunnu dancers from the Ugundani group of Belize City. Their masks are painted pink to mock white plantation owners.
UNICEF/2018/Brent Toombs
Jonkunnu dancers from the Ugundani group of Belize City. Their masks are painted pink to mock white plantation owners.

In Belize City, Jaheim continues his painstaking work of preparing shells for the Jonkunnu costumes he is helping to make. He is singing Ayo (goodbye), a tribute song for one of Belize’s most treasured musical icons and cultural activists, the late Andy Palacio. His voice is beautiful; his pronunciation of the Garifuna lyrics perfect. Jaheim is not Garifuna, but says he was attracted to the culture at first because of Garifuna music. Digging deeper into the meaning of lyrics sung in a language he did not understand, Jaheim discovered a sense of pride he feels is lacking in his own community. “They are always showing love. (The Garifuna) are always proud of their culture”, he says. “No matter where they are they are always showing that they are Garifuna”.  

Jaheim lives in the neighbourhood of St. Martin de Porres, a notoriously violent area of Belize City’s infamous south-side. The barbed wire fencing surrounding the perimeter of the pre-school where the costume making is taking place speaks to the reality of life in this community.

“I am showcasing what I’ve learned so people will think good of me.” Jaheim Jones, 16-years.
UNICEF/2018/Brent Toombs
“I am showcasing what I’ve learned so people will think good of me.” Jaheim Jones, 16-years.

Jaheim is no stranger to armed violence. “When I was younger I was playing in my yard and I saw a young man on a bike being chased by police. Then he just stopped, turned around and shot at the police” he recalls with a matter-of-factness that comes from growing up in a world where violent crime is commonplace. “Another time I was playing basketball and a guy rode by on a bike and I could see he had a gun. A few minutes later he shot one of my friends from the neighbourhood.  For me it’s like normal. I don’t think anything bad will happen to me but I guess you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”      

  
Creating opportunity for youth to be in the right place at the right time is the Habinahan Wanaragua Steering Committee. Led by Major (retired) Gilbert Swaso, the organisation has expanded their mission from cultural preservation to finding unique ways to keep children in engaged in positive activities. With support from UNICEF Belize’s Community Partnership for Violence Reduction programme, Habinaha Wanaragua has introduced a 14-week program where young people in communities throughout Belize are taught the various aspects of the Jonkunnu; including costume making, drumming, singing, and dancing.

Major (retired) Gilbert Swaso with UNICEF Belize Country Representative, Dr. Susan Kasedde.
UNICEF/2018/Brent Toombs
Major (retired) Gilbert Swaso with UNICEF Belize Country Representative, Dr. Susan Kasedde.

“Crime and violence are prevalent in our society and the Garifuna communities are not immune” explains Major Swaso. “We believe that starting at an early developmental level is the best way to deal with this situation. Wanaragua is one way that we can positively engage children. It involves life skills. It teaches concentration, patience, and teamwork.”

For Jaheim, participating in Wanaragua is about more than just staying busy and out of trouble. He sees an opportunity to tear down stereotypes and change pre-conceived ideas people may have about youth like him. “Sometimes when I am on the street people look at me and I know they are judging me. They don’t even give you a chance. They shouldn’t do that because it brings you down if everyone assumes you are a bad person” Jaheim explains. “I am showcasing what I’ve learned so people will think good of me. For others, if they engage in something like Wanaragua then people will think good of them and the negativity from others won’t matter.”

Ugundani dancers performing during the Habinahan Wanaragua Jr. Jonkunnu competition.
UNICEF/2018/Brent Toombs
Ugundani dancers performing during the Habinahan Wanaragua Jr. Jonkunnu competition.

The opportunity to showcase is the Junior Jonkunnu competition in Dangriga.  Just weeks before Christmas, the outdoor auditorium at Ecumenical High School is packed with spectators. Jaheim is too old to compete but he is there to support the children from the Ugundani Dance Group of Belize City that he has been mentoring for nearly four months. For several hours the dance contest goes on. At times the roar of the crowd threatens to drown out the sound of the drums.

When the judges finally tally their scores, first place is awarded to Holy Ghost Primary School from Dangriga. As parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors shared hugs and hive-fives with exited children from all groups it is obvious there were no losers on this night. For Major Swaso it’s a moment to bask in the feeling of a mission accomplished.

“I was elated to see the support from the community. It means a lot to the kids to be able to show people they are in fact worthy of praise” beamed the major. “The amount of hugs and kisses they got when they came off stage, who would not want that?”

The Ugundani group from Belize City did not manage to crack the top three this year, but as Jaheim points out success is not measured by medals. “This is a very good program. By the youths doing this they are showing that they are not the type of negative people that some they think they are. These are just young people who want to see the best for their community

Jaheim Jones backstage with the Ugundani singers.
UNICEF/2018/Brent Toombs
Jaheim Jones backstage with the Ugundani singers.