Garifuna – A Holistic Approach to Fight HIV/AIDS in Honduras

By Danielle Duran Baron, Senior Communications Specialist

Read the story below and watch the short video to learn more about how youth are using music and theatre to increase awareness about HIV and AIDS in the Garifuna community.

In the villages of the Garifuna* people, a native Afro-descendent group in northern Honduras, you can see traditional architecture, such as houses made with wild cane or palm leaves and taste their unique food, such as machuca – mashed green plantains with coconut milk soup and fried fish – in addition to many different types of bread, such as cassava, banana and pumpkin. They are also known for their Guifiti, a drink that consists of many different plants soaked in rum and is used to treat different ailments and also enhance sexual performance.

But it wasn’t the famous Garifuna cuisine or the beautiful landscape that brought us to Tornabé, in the outskirts of Tela, today. We have come to learn how this community of approximately 3,000 is successfully fighting an HIV/AIDS epidemic that was a major threat to their people, ten years ago. Among Honduras’ Garifuna population, about 8.4% of adults are HIV-positive, the United Nations reports. A study conducted by the Honduran Health Department found that HIV prevalence could be as high as 14%. Some studies show that 15-to 49-year-old Garifuna have HIV rates comparable to heterosexual transmission rates in regions of sub-Saharan Africa.

In Tornabé alone, local community leaders estimate that there are at least 50 people living with HIV and currently there are 160 children orphaned by HIV receiving assistance from CEPROSAF, one of CHF International’s local partners in Honduras, which to date has reached more than 10,058 Garifunas in 11 communities in the north coast of the country. Through the program, in addition to antiretroviral treatment, people living with HIV receive counseling.

garifuna_groupPHOTO: A community youth theatre group in Tornabé

“In the beginning, we encountered a lot of resistance and misinformation, but we decided to tackle the [HIV/AIDS] issue head on, and we got together as a community,” recalls Andrea Valeria, project coordinator for Uniendo Voces (Uniting Voices) program. “HIV and AIDS here are a social problem and we need to raise awareness in the community. The incidence is still high and we have orphan children and adults living with HIV and in absolute poverty,” she explains.

The solution the Garifuna found was to adopt a holistic approach that took into account some of their customs and culture to engage the main stakeholders, not only in Tornabé, but in the other nearby Garifuna communities. The “Patronato” or Community Council plays a vital role in this effort and the fact that the association includes different groups representing the communities ensures “buy-in.” “This is a grassroots initiative and we need to engage different audiences within our community. Through our work with CHF, the Global Fund and CEPROSAF, we have received training and understand how to run our organization and how to better interact with other stakeholders. Our goal is to strengthen our local community response through education and prevention,” says Jorge Castillo, Patronato’s president and community leader. “We aim to reach different people in our community and have to come up with different activities to target them.”

PHOTO: meetingCommunity leaders meet to discuss strategies to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS

One of the most serious issues the Garifuna have to face is migration. “Many people leave to look for work in urban centers. Some of them are infected when they return home and if they refuse to get tested or get treated, this is a never-ending problem. We need to make them understand that we are all part of the problem and together we will work toward a solution,” explains Luis Zunia, Patronato’s former president and current advisor.

And together the Garifuna have found different ways to engage different audiences and convey important messages to their community. Theater groups, mostly focusing at teenagers and youth, meet weekly to rehearse and talk about different ways to protect themselves against HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The groups are headed by older members of the communities. Volunteers also conduct home visits to ensure people living with HIV are receiving medication and adhering to treatment. They also distribute condoms, which now have started to see a much higher demand among community members.

A youth group, founded by 27-year-old community leader Edwin, has also started to address environmental and health issues in Tornabé. “Our group, Unidos por Amor (United in Love) has cleaned our community because we understand HIV/AIDS is part of a much bigger picture, it is a public health issue. We keep busy and we work to improve the quality of life here, while keeping our distance from drugs and alcohol, also very serious issues affecting our people. We keep our community clean and learn about living a healthy lifestyle,” Edwin explains.

Although the HIV/AIDS incidence continues to be a very serious problem not only in Tornabé, but in all the Garifuna villages around Tela, community leaders see a brighter picture. “People are talking about it now. People are demanding information; they are asking for protection and learning more about safe sex practices. As a community, we have identified the problem and have incorporated it into the vision and mission of our organization (Patronato). Our message has been heard and resonated not only in this community but in other Garifuna communities around us,” said Castillo.

Despite acknowledgement of the richness of the Garifuna language and heritage, globalization, poverty, AIDS, and lack of educational and employment opportunities are a threat to the survival of their culture. These challenges have certainly taken a toll on the current generation of Garifuna. By working with community leaders and addressing the specific needs of the population regarding HIV/Aids and public health, CHF International and its local partner CEPROSAF are improving the lives not only of those living or affected by HIV, but the Garifuna people as a whole.

*About the Garifuna
Descendants of Carib, Arawak and West African people who live in the coastal regions of Central America, the Garifuna first came to the Americas herded aboard slave ships from West Africa. They were likely destined for New World mines and plantations when they wrecked off the island of St. Vincent in 1635 and found refuge with the island’s Carib Indians, immigrants from South America.

After two centuries of successfully defending their freedom against colonization, they were exiled from island of St. Vincent by the British in 1797, and came to live in the coastal regions of Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize in Central America, where they can be found to this day. In 2001, UNESCO proclaimed the language, dance and music of the Garifuna as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.