Waltzing with Big Ease
In August 2006 I was literally dancing with ancestors. I have been privileged to participate in indigenous ceremonies of the Garifuna culture, which has both Amerindian and African cultural roots. In fact, several years ago I was healed at a dugu in Barranco, a Garifuna village in the south of Belize. A dugu is a thanksgiving ritual performed to honour ancestors, and the ancestors attend in the form of spirit possession, onweha, which is translated in English as “fainting.”
That is indeed what happens: someone faints and then recovers with a different personality and voice, usually announcing who they are, ancestors known to the family members that have come to the celebration. The ancestor speaking through this person gives advice to their gathered descendents, often scolding them for the way they live. They sometimes ask for specific things, such as, clothes to wear, food that they liked, alcohol to drink, a pipe, musical instruments to play. Those who liked to dance may ask for specific music and grab partners for dancing. When the “host” wakes up, they have no memory of what the ancestor said or did.
I am so very grateful for my healing at a dugu—a reprieve after 13 years of the severe symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome—that I go back often to Barranco to say, “thank you!” The villagers expect me to be there whenever there is a dugu and often ask me to tell the story of my healing. They say it shows that their cultural practices can have an effect on someone from outside the culture.
So, again in August I was in Barranco for a dugu given for an ancestor that was nicknamed “Big Ease.” Big Ease was probably born in the 1860s or 1870s because we know he was fathering children in the 1890s. He is said to have been fun-loving and always ready for a party.
Big Ease came to the dugu through a woman in her 40s who has had a stroke and can barely walk now. True to his nature, Big Ease was grabbing young women as partners and to dance with him. He was rather rough with them, throwing them this way and that trying to waltz or swing. I stayed far back in the crowd because I didn’t want to get thrown around like that.
Suddenly my arm was grabbed and I was pulled into the center of the circle. However, I am old enough to know how to waltz and do the old jitterbug (swing). I gripped his hand strongly so he couldn’t throw me around, but I followed his lead. After some waltzing and swing dancing, he started the punta, the traditional Garifuna dance, which reminds me a bit of the limbo of the 1950s. Fortunately, I had also learned to punta, so again I followed his lead. After that he took me by the waist, pushing back into the crowd, and whispered in my ear, “thank you.” The crowd around was cheering and laughing, and all week folks said to me, “I see you had a waltz with Big Ease.”
At times my scientific training goads me into being skeptical and I wonder what this all means, especially in light of my Quaker beliefs. For years I had trouble reconciling my spiritual and my scientific sides until I read Howard Brinton’s introduction to Friends for 300 Years. He explained that mysticism and science both reject beliefs handed down from a human authority and accept only that which comes as a result of one’s experience.
I have had direct experiences with spirits at Garifuna dugus and in other contexts, which I have accepted as great gifts without trying to analyze them too deeply. A Friend who is an anthropologist described his experience at a Santeria event in Cuba that is very similar to the dugu. Again, spirit possession is a central feature, but in Santeria the interpretation is different. Instead of the spirits that are channeled representing specific ancestors, they represent African gods who introduce themselves just as the ancestors did in the dugu. Like the ancestors, the different gods have individual personalities that are well known to the people. In both the Garifuna and the Santeria belief systems there is one God, the Creator, but other spirits exist that help to do God’s will.
My conclusion is that there are spirits all around and that they will fit into any belief system to help us. This is not contradictory to my Quaker beliefs, but comes as a result of my experience.
Judy Lumb is still a member of Atlanta Friends Meeting (Georgia) even though she has lived in Belize since 1987. She edits, writes, and creates newsletters and books from her hammock, mostly for Belizean cultural and environmental organizations. She is currently on the editorial teams of What Canst Thou Say and Quaker Eco-Bulletin and served on two Friendly Woman editorial teams: Atlanta (1985-87) and SAYMA (1999-2001).