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Professor heeds call to study, share life of spiritual healer

October 23, 2002

The dugu, an elaborate spiritual cleansing ceremony, is a highlight of Garifuna life in Central America. But while bearing deep reverence to ancestors and nature, practitioners have been forced to worship in secrecy, and studies on the Garifuna people who inhabit the area's coastal countries, have mentioned little about religion — until now.

Through a Tower Fund research grant, Dr. Nancy Dawson, associate professor of African-American studies at Austin Peay, spent 10 days this past summer living with the Garifuna in Belize and recording the experiences of “Mrs. Mano,” the community's senior spiritual leader and healer.

Born Isadore Arana, “Mrs. Mano” was 17 years old when she received her first visit by an ancestral spirit in a dream directing her to become a shaman—a calling the Garifuna heed seriously. However, as is the case with many Garifuna youth, she ignored the dreams and continued to disregard her spiritual guide until age 34, when she became gravely ill for several months—a consequence, she believes, of snubbing a calling.

Fifty years later, she dedicated her life to healing physical and spiritual problems
through herbal remedies and rituals, and she is only one of a handful of Garifuna shaman, or buyei, in the world.

“The buyei are vital to Garifuna existence,” said Dawson. “Not only are they the spiritual centers of the community but they also are its cultural keepers, passing on traditions through stories, songs and ceremonies.

“During my visits to Mrs. Mano, she told me I have a calling. I'm not sure it's as a healer, but I feel it may be to share the story of her people.”

Dawson has been researching and observing the Garifuna throughout Central America for nearly a decade. During that time, information about their religious beliefs and practices has surfaced slowly—a reflection of the only recent acceptance of the buyei.

“In the past, conflict with churches and Western civilizations meant the buyei had to do their work in secrecy,” said Dawson. “That's why studies have focused on other areas, like migration patterns and how the Garifuna merged their various origins, including African, Indian, Caribbean and Hispanic, into one identity.

“Finally their religion is an open terrain. We've only touched its surface, and I'm excited about the possibilities for scholarly research.”

Dawson's study, titled “Ten Days in the Life of Mrs. Mano—A Garifuna Buyei,” explores the daily duties of the spiritual healer including administering medicinal herbs to cure infirmities like infertility, arthritis and headaches or giving counsel to troubled families.

The study also delves into the art of the dugu, a two-week healing rite that is performed few times a year and requires months of planning. In addition to supervising the preparation of special temples and feasts by apprentices, senior buyei like Mrs. Mano—now in her eighties —shake rattles vigorously for hours in precise choreography during the exhausting ceremonies.

“The buyei are incredibly spirited and strong. Their stories must be encouraged and recorded to preserve the Garifuna way of life,” said Dawson. “Religion is a major part of who the Garifuna are and should be treated as a serious scholarly subject.”

Dawson, who is searching for funds to continue her study, plans to bring Mrs. Mano and a group of her apprentices to Austin Peay for a presentation on the Garifuna and multiculturalism. She also hopes to develop a study-abroad program to the Garifuna communities throughout Central America.