February 12, 2019

My first Garifuna song

Written by  Tim Groff
Felix Mejia Jr. learns how to play guitar under Tim’s direction. Photo by Tim Groff. Felix Mejia Jr. learns how to play guitar under Tim’s direction. Photo by Tim Groff.

It’s no surprise that learning a new language is difficult. But add to that task the challenge of trying to learn an endangered language with no official written component that is spoken by only an estimated 200,000 people worldwide — and it seems overwhelming! Where to begin? EMM worker Tim Groff begins by singing.

“Mr. Tim,” says Felix Mejia Jr., my 15-year-old guitar student. “Can you teach me how to play this song?”

He plays me the song on his mobile device. I hear the simple guitar rhythms and easily identify the chords. This song will be “easy” to teach to Felix.

“I’m sorry Felix,” I say, “I can’t teach you that song, it’s in Garifuna.” He smiles.

“You will have to teach me the song first,” I continue, “And then I can teach you how to play it.”

“OK, Mr. Tim,” says Felix. “No problem.” And so my lessons begin.

Learning Garifuna

In the years before we arrived on the coast of Belize to serve among the Garifuna, we were already aware that language acquisition among the people here would be a challenge.

The Garifuna language is a complex amalgamation of an African language and a South American Arawak language, with Spanish, French, and English influences. And in Belize, it’s a dying language. Here, where English is the common tongue of business and education, the younger generations no longer use the Garifuna language outside the pockets of cultural villages like Dangriga, Hopkins, and Barranco. It’s a reality of globalization, one of the unintended consequences of the “Internet Age.”

And yet here I am, on a hard wooden bench in a church in Dangriga, my face illuminated by the light of a smartphone, gazing at a video and hearing the rhymes and rhythms of a Garifuna worship song. This is my opportunity.

Immersion

You have to acquire language by immersion. Two weeks later, I’m ready to immerse myself in the song.

Felix has downloaded the song, converted it into a file format recognizable by my phone, and borrowed a laptop to complete the transfer. Felix Jr.’s dad, Pastor Felix Mejia Sr., has donated his time and language skill to listen to and pen the lyrics onto a scrap of paper. I’ve transferred the lyrics to my Google Docs account and printed them out to see.

Iderabana

Buagubanaruguda lidan siyanti

Buagubanaruguda Naburemen . . .

Buagubanaruguda lidan nafiyen

Iderabana uguye nuguchile

Iderabana, Iderabana, Iderabana

Nabureme lun derebuguna

Now, as I ride my van around Belize, I can blast these lyrics through my Bluetooth loudspeaker into my eager ears and attempt to sing along. Those riding in my van can laugh at me and with me and sing along too. Some of them even understand the lyrics. When they say they “understand” the song — I begin to quiz them. “What does it say?” “What does this word mean?” “Am I pronouncing this word right?” And so I begin to piece together lyrics and sounds and a basic understanding of what the words I’m singing might mean.

Translation

After sitting down with Pastor Herdie Castillo, my number one mentor and a proficient Garifuna songwriter and preacher, I get a final copy of my rough translation. Rough because, as everyone should know, words from one language to another don’t always translate directly. I can really get into this song. It’s an emotional cry out to our Father God! I love it!

Iderabana (Help me)

Buagubanaruguda lidan siyanti

(I’ll call on You in the time of need)

Buagubanaruguda Naburemen

(I’ll call on you, Lord)

Buagubanaruguda lidan nafiyen

(I’ll depend on You for my faith)

Iderabana uguye nuguchile

(Help me today, my Father)

Iderabana, Iderabana, Iderabana

(Help me, help me, help me)

Nabureme lun derebuguna

(Lord, to be strong)

Singing together

Now, I can begin to teach Felix this song on the guitar. I show him a printed out copy with chords for our guitars. “It’s easy. D, G, A ... and a Bm and Em thrown in there, if you want to.”

Felix’s eyes light up, he catches the rhythm and studies my fingers and the chord progression with intensity and unusual energy. I continue to practice the lyrics, pacing, and enunciation.

A few weeks later we can sing through it, and I’ve got all the words memorized. Felix Jr. and I stand up in front of his church on a Sunday afternoon in Dangriga. We play Ten Thousand Reasons, singing it in English and in Spanish, and then we launch into Iderabana.

The response is incredible.

After the first verse, the congregation begins singing full-throated along with us. They cheer, and they clap. I’m actually embarrassed by the overwhelming response.

“Thank you, God,” I pray at the close of the song, “Thank you for helping us to be strong.”

And, I could add, for helping me learn my first Garifuna song!

Tim Groff, and his wife, Julie, along with their sons Simeon, Gabriel, and TJ, minister through leadership training and building relationships among the Garifuna in Belize. To support their work, contact Barry Freed.

This article appears in the January/February 2019 issue of Missionary MessengerSign up to receive more inspiring stories like this one in our magazine.