The Garifuna

Along the east coast of Central America there is a very unusual group of people.  There are over 300,000 of them and they are all black.  They live in villages’ right against the ocean.  There are some in Nicaragua , some in Guatemala , a few in Belize , but most live in Honduras .  They mostly live off of food from the sea…….fish, crabs, oysters and also cassava root.  And they have a most unusual language.  Many languages like Latin, Spanish, and even Arabic have male and female endings for their words.  However, in the Garifuna language the male and female are totally different words.  That makes it a really hard language to master. 

The history of these people is so interesting.  There were many tribes across West Africa over the centuries, but by far the fiercest were the Ashanti .  They lived deep in the forest in what is now central Ghana .  They were quite wealthy, deriving most of their wealth from raiding neighboring tribes and selling slaves to the Muslims. 

The British conquered and subdued all of the tribes across West Arica, but not the Ashanti .  They were so fierce that they were never scared or “cowed” by the British rifles or cannon.  The Ashanti were never conquered until the British were able to bring in modern machine guns in later years. 

Occasionally, though, from the early 1600’s to the middle 1600’s the slave ships would wind-up with a few groups of Ashanti on them.  They would be captured by Muslims coming around to that part of Africa and raiding inland to capture slaves.  But that is when certain slave ships “messed-up”.  Like I said, occasionally a ship would get some Ashanti on them.  Those Ashanti warriors would either take over the ship or die trying, and were apparently often successful.  They most all wound up in the islands off the coast of Venezuela, mostly on St. Vincent by sailing there or drifting there.  Those that were taken to Jamaica didn’t stay, not the Ashanti .  They captured boats and sailed or rowed west to the same islands. 

Most all slaves brought to the Caribbean on these ships were men.  The plantation owners wanted strong workers.  Thus the Ashanti who got to St. Vincent and surrounding islands were mostly all men.  So they just married the local, indigenous women.  That is how their language developed.  The men spoke one word for an object or action, and the indigenous women spoke another. 

For a time, the Afro-Caribbean Garifunas lived peacefully alongside French settlers who reached St. Vincent later in the 17th century, until being exiled by British troops in 1796 and eventually shipped off to Roatan, one of the Honduras Bay Islands in the Caribbean Sea .  After successfully developing a healthy crop of cassava, a mainstay of traditional Garifuna diets, on Roatan, Garifunas branched out to the Caribbean mainland to establish fishing villages.  According to one source, the Spanish agreed to transfer the Garifunas from Roatan to the coastal mainland of Honduras , effectively consolidating their claim on Roatan and the other Honduras Bay Islands . 

Garifuna culture is closely identified with music and dance.  Garifuna music styles are known for their heavy use of percussion instruments and distinctive drumming, which combines the beats of primero (tenor) and segunda (bass) drums.  Garifuna drums are typically made from hollowed-out hardwoods such as mahogany or mayflower that are native to Central America .  

   Punta, an evolved form of traditional music played using traditional instruments, is the most popular and well-known genre of Garifuna music and dance.  Punta lyrics are typically sung by Garifuna women and often relate to one gender or the other.  Energetic punta dancing has been described as “consciously competitive.” 

On one mission trip I did a one day clinic just for the Garifuna.  It was one of the most fun clinics that we have ever had.  They were so very grateful too, for the attention paid just to them. 

  In a coastal town about and hour from San Pedro Sula where our medical teams often stayed I met a young missionary named, David.  He and his wife were originally from Arkansas .  He wandered around Central America for some time seeking what he thought God wanted him to do.  

When he encountered the Garifuna people he became intrigued that no one had ever learned their language.   There had been many Catholic missionaries in past years, but none had ever learned the language. 

So David decided that he should learn their language and be the first missionary that we know of to them other than the Catholics years ago.  When I met him, he had a new small church and was working on mastering their language.  He even had a radio show in their language.  It had a really large audience of Garifuna, mostly because they found it great fun to hear all the mistakes that he made trying to speak Garifuna on the radio show. 

David asked if he could show the Jesus Film in Spanish to the congregation in his new church.  It was on the same night that I had the electrical trouble with the old bob-tail truck, so I got there only at about the end of the showing. 

David and I visited afterward, mostly discussing these interesting people.  I asked him what would happen if we ever got the Jesus Film into their language.  He was overwhelmed at the thought.  He said thousands and thousands of them would find God and come to know Jesus and be saved into Heaven. 

I came back to the US and called Paul Eschelman about it.  As I mentioned earlier, up until that time we thought that the Jesus Film only had to be translated and produced into 89 languages.  However, Paul had discovered that words like “love” and “forgiveness” only have real meaning in a peoples’ heart language, not just the 89 trade languages that are mostly spoken around the world.  

Paul agreed to do it, and what was so interesting time wise, was that this would be the first making of the film into a “heart language”……….Garifuna.   

So we started making plans.  To save money it was decided to only lip-synch Jesus’ words in the film and have a narrator talk over the other parts.  They had done it that way before, and the way it turned-out, it really did not make that much difference.  So I really only needed to get two Garifuna speakers to California . 

David selected the two that he considered the most appropriate that could also speak fairly good English.  I went down to Houston to meet their plane to make sure that they got on the right flight to Los Angeles . 

We did real well until we got on the driverless rail train that circles the Houston Airport .  When that voice came on with no driver, I almost lost them, but finally got them on the plane to LAX. 

I had coached the folks at Campus Crusade who do the Jesus Film about how these Garifuna live mostly on a protein diet of fish and cassava.   We did not want them to get sick and delay the translation project, so the Campus Crusade folks had a diet all prepared for them.  

About two days later I got a call from California .  The Crusade people said that they had it all prepared what the two Garifuna speakers were to eat, but that all they wanted to eat was cheeseburgers.  I asked if they were doing OK on cheeseburgers, and the answer was “yes”.   So I said:   “Just give them cheeseburgers.”  

So, the Campus Crusade film team finished the Jesus Film in the Garifuna language.  It was now time to take it there for its Premiere.  

Paul Eshleman liked to go to as many premiers as he could manage, and he for sure wanted to go to this first one in the first Heart Language as he called it.  We coordinated with the young missionary down in Honduras and set a date.  I also recruited a really fine Christian oil man to go along with us too, Bob Foree, Jr.  His father had been on the Board of Dallas Baptist University with me when I was Chairman of the Board.  Uncle Bob, as we called him was one of the first Texas oil barons.  He was the one who drilled the well that off-set Dad Joiner’s that established the East Texas Oil Field. 

Previously when we were down in Honduras and speculating about getting the film into the Garifuna language, I had lamented to the young missionary, David, what a shame it was that we did not have a bible in their language to go along with the film.  David said, “Man, you can forget about that.  It is not even written”. 

In those days it was really hard to get a phone call back to the US from that part of Honduras .  David lived in the town of Tela on the east coast.   That was the town where United Fruit Company had once had its headquarters that I mentioned before.  To get a call out, you usually had to get an operator recruited to set up the call and then call you back when she had it all ready.  So, when you got a call from there it was usually to announce something really major……like someone had died or something. 

Three days before we left, I got a phone call from David.  I was so worried that he was calling to report some tragedy had happened.  Instead he said, “Ron, you won’t believe what has happened.  This lady has walked out of the jungle up in Guatemala and come down here with a bunch of bibles in the Garifuna language.”  I said, “How can that be”?  David explained that she had started with Wycliffe Bible Translators 27 years ago to put a bible into the Garifuna language.  With Wycliffe they had a rule that you are supposed to stop if you lose your partner, and even though she lost her’s, they let her stay on in their compound and finish.  I later learned from the Wycliffe people that if you can start with a language that has never been written, and put it into written form for the first time, you can use the phonetics of the language.  In this way, when it is done correctly, the speakers of that language can learn to read very easily. 

Just consider this timing.  This lady shows up with bibles she started on 27 years before, just one week before the premiere of the Jesus Film in that language.  You can call it a fortuitous coincidence.  I call it the amazing timing of God. 

David wanted the first showing to be in a Garifuna village down the coast from Tela.  Many Garifuna lived there, but it was so remote that it could only be reached by going over the mountains with great difficulty in a four wheeled drive vehicle with a very high center.  We loaded the generator and projector and film into a dugout canoe with an outboard motor and all piled in as a preferred way to go.  

We finally reached the village, and beached through the surf.   It was amazingly beautiful.  All the ground was covered with a vivid green grass that only grew about an inch high and appeared to be perfectly mowed in all directions.  The whole place was shaded by tall coconut palms, and there were beautiful little waterways meandering through the whole village. 

 We rested in hammocks until it got dark.  We brought food for dinner, but one of the kids in the village caught a big iguana to roast for us. 

As was expected, they were just amazed to have a film in their heart language.  Like we did with the Hispanics, we showed it on a big white sheet so they could sit on both sides of the sheet for viewing.   You could just feel God’s Spirit there permeating the crowd. 

The lady from Maine who had spent 27 years translating for the Garifuna a Bible into their “heart language” wanted to be there for this first showing of the film in this very remote village.  David’s wife was able to get her there over the treacherous mountain roads in their 4-wheel drive jeep. 

There is that part in the film where Jesus has Peter throw out his net on the right side of the boat and Peter and his fellow fishermen bring in so many fish that the boat is just filled.   Wow!  That caused a huge commotion among those fish conscious Garifuna.  There is another place in the film where this cute little girl looks right into the camera and says some words.  The folks in California had her use a special idiom that is unique to the Garifulna language.  The crowd just couldn’t stop laughing at that. 

At the end when the film gives you a chance to ask Jesus into your heart and life, most all the crowd sincerely wanted to do so.  With one of the English speaking Graifuna translating, Paul Eshleman himself did the counseling, and those people were so filled with God’s Spirit that they did not want to stop.  They wanted to start a Christian church, right there.  David promised to come back and help them do exactly that.  

Lady from Maine teaching the Children who wanted Jesus in their Hearts after the Film. She was able to teach them in their own “Heart Language”.

 By now the surf and waves were much higher, but we managed to get back to Tela safely, although at some Campus Crusade meetings later, Paul accused me of trying to drown him that night. 

We showed the film several more times to different Garifuna groups, but the last showing in La Ceiba was the most dramatic.   La Ceiba is farther down the coast from San Pedro Sula and Tela, toward Nicaragua .  It has a port and limited commercial air service.  It also has a large Garifuna population, concentrated on its western side.

African Style Garifuna Homes in La Ceiba

 We arrived fairly early before dark and had plenty of time to set up the big white sheet/screen and get the projector and speakers well positioned.  We selected a big open soccer field for the showing. 

The lady who translated the bible into Garifuna went with us.  She brought a supply of those bibles. 

I was fascinated watching her visit with a large group of mostly Garifuna children.  She was teaching them to read their language right there.  But those kids kept looking at her mouth.  They just could not believe that their language was coming out of this very white lady’s mouth.  She was originally from the State of Maine , and she was very white from being closed-up inside all those years doing the translation. 

White Lady from Maine Teaching the Garifuna to Read their Heart Language

While waiting, I kept going over and over in my mind that she had started translating 27 years before, and here she was at what turned out to be a crowd of Garifunas at one of the premiere showings of the Jesus Film in their language with her just finished bibles.  This would be the primary place and optimum time for their distribution, and their printing had just been finished on time for this occasion after 27 years.  I just know that was God’s plan working as I mentioned before. 

The showing was a huge success with hundreds of children sitting right up front on both sides of the screen.  I don’t know how many prayed to accept Christ and come forward for counseling, but it was hundreds.   Paul and David handled the counseling.  The young man with the blue shades who spoke Jesus part in this version of the film was also there and helped with the counseling.  He had acquired these treasured blue sun-glasses while in California. He had gotten much closer to the Lord as one would expect after living those weeks in California with those wonderful Campus Crusade folks. 

As we were finishing up late that evening, I saw something that I had never seen before and have never seen since.  Paul Eschleman, standing out in that field, broke down in a wave of tears.  Sure, there had been a lot of pressure counseling all those people, but that was not why.  Later he told me. 

Paul had thought that the young man with the blue shades would go on and pastor some of the Garifuna groups.  He had expressed a desire to do so, but out in that field, in the dark, he had asked Paul how much money Paul was going to give him to do it.   Maybe it was because of the occasion and all those people accepting Christ, but that just devastated Paul.  Paul had assumed that the young man had higher or deeper motives in his heart. 

A year later I was back in Tela, two days in advance of another medical team.  With the help of the only local doctor we needed to select the optimum sites for the clinics.  That afternoon after the doctor and I had finished, I was walking back to that compound that had formerly been the headquarters for United Fruit.  It was now a hotel/resort on the beach where we stayed so many times and was great for housing the medical teams with its great food and contiguous beach as I have mentioned.

I hope Paul reads this.  I know he will be thrilled and gratified to find that this dude had “really come around” after all. 

But, unfortunately, there is more to this story.  Before we left for the States, I said to the group:  “We had better be careful.  We all know how powerful the Devil is.  He has had a strong hold on these people for many generations.  And here we are down here breaking his hold on them.”   He will not be pleased! 

Little did I know! 

When we arrived back in the Dallas airport Paul got the message that his daughter had been overcome by a strange infection and was dying.  It later took Billy Graham, his whole staff, Dr. Bill Bright and a host of Campus Crusade folks to pray that girl back from death. 

The fine Christian Dallas oil man had told us on the trip how thrilled he was that his wife had finally recently conquered years of alcoholism.  He had been praying for her for years.  But she was not there to meet him at the airport.  She was drunk again and passed-out on the floor at home. 

And my wife was not there to meet me.  She had run off with a homeopathic doctor to Oklahoma with our four children and filed for divorce. 

Welcome home from ministering to the Garifuna! 

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