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Marianela Mejía: ‘Without Our Land, We Have No Culture’

Yearly the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) brings together, apart from official UN delegations,  thousands of women human rights defenders, activists and feminists, either online or in person. WO=MEN publishes the stories of some of these amazing women. 
This is part 4: Activist Marianela Mejía from the Garifuna community, an indigenous afrodescendant people living in Honduras. If it weren’t for OFRANEH raising the alarm and bringing worldwide attention when these two activists who were wrongfully detained, and the community camping outside the station, we do not know where the two of them would be today.

Also read part 1: Mela Chiponda, Our lives are tied to the land, part 2: Lara Jesani: 'For those who fight this system, there are consequences', part 3: UN Representative Enaam Ahmed Ali: ‘We All Want to Feel At Home’, and part 5: Kholi Sisonke: 'Consent Should Not Be Illegal'.
Stories by Makena Ngito
When you dedicate your life to fighting for what is right, and fighting for your people, you don’t do it for recognition. You do it because you know and believe everyone should have equal rights and access.

But let’s also not lie to ourselves. Being recognized for your effort feels great. You’re human. A little pat on your back, a push forward, some motivation, an, "I see you, and your work.” Is nice.
So imagine being awarded, a big ceremony outside of your country, and not being able to attend it, because your government arrested you and thirty-four others for defending what is rightfully yours, threw a criminal record on you, thus preventing you from getting any well-paying jobs, have you report to a police station every few days and prevent you from leaving the country.

I sat down with Marianela Mejía yesterday, and there are times when as a writer, you truly feel that all the words in the world couldn’t begin to cover the grief, and the pain, caused by a system so corrupt. So I will try. In between the lighter moments of our conversation, talking about our hair, what it means to us as black people and its historical significance, there were times when I had to switch off my video so that my reactions weren’t visible, because you think you’ve heard the worst of governments. You know the script they all read from, but to antagonize someone as much as the Honduran government has, it’s just too much.
Grab a coffee, and maybe, maybe some tissues, because here’s the story of Marianela for the Garifuna people.

Marianela is from the Garifuna community, an indigenous afrodescendant people living in Honduras. Their ancestors had a legacy of fighting for the land they rightfully own today, as they were granted ancestral title deeds about a century and more ago by then President Manuel Bonilla. Today, their descendants keep fighting for this land. 

They use this land to plant seeds that give them their food for sustenance. It’s not enough to sell, but it keeps them fed. They perform traditional dances, practice their belief systems like prayer on it, and recently, have opened up health centres to cater to the people. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the people started brewing a special tea, using a recipe passed down to them by their ancestors, that actually helped alleviate the virus’ symptoms. They were able to sell this tea to people outside their community and make a bit of income.

It seems like I’m taking you on a little tour of the community, a happy tour, and its purpose is to show you how important the land is to the Garifuna community. 

In this era where ‘modernization’ is taking over a lot of places, black people and persons of colour are continuously losing their traditional ways. We can call it a sort of modern day erosion.

And the leaders who govern these people should do everything in their power to preserve these cultures and ensure they are passed down from generation to generation. Respect indigenous communities, their ways, and their land.

But instead, the narco-dictatorship that ruled Honduras up until last year did the exact opposite. 

In Mesoamerica, 24 women human right defenders have been killed, with 9 of them being from Honduras.

There have been 46 attempted killings, and 35 of them have been from Honduras.

Being on the right side is clearly dangerous here. And leaving is not an option, because where do you go when this is the only place you called home? How do you leave your community, your ways, your beliefs… how do you leave the sacred grounds your ancestors fought so bravely for?

Marianela has been arrested before, as I mentioned earlier. And in a cruel twist of life, he had once to bail out his sister, when the cops took that opportunity to take him in too. If it weren’t for OFRANEH raising the alarm and bringing worldwide attention to the two activists who were wrongfully detained, and the community camping outside the station, we do not know where the two of them would be today. Because before international organizations demanded for their release, the police had tried to drive them off to an unknown location in a kidnapping attempt. And we know what happens when the state takes activists to undisclosed locations. Aa lot of times, their loved ones never get to see them again.

I have mentioned community a lot. Let’s talk about them for a bit.

Despite us clearly seeing that our governments are always in the wrong, sometimes, the hate they spew seeps into us.

Marianela is queer. In a place where the government will use a public event to carry out homophobic discourse, saying that the queer community is corrupting the country. Where trans people are denied access into education facilities because of how they are dressed and how they choose to express themselves.

Where same-sex marriage is prohibited, and queer folk have to escape the country to avoid persecution and in fear of their lives.

And when the government incites people with hateful speech like this, the people react. And queer people are beaten up and killed.

And even in death, they are not accorded respect. People use their deadnames and lay them to rest in clothes they think is appropriate for them. The homophobia follows them to their graves.
Marianela and his partner have an eight-year old son. And at some point last year, he started getting violent with other kids in school. This is the reason why…

The other kids would bully him in school, asking why his mother dressed like a man, or why he had two mothers. And Marianela could explain to his son why he dresses the way he does, but also painfully enough had to explain that the other children got these hateful ideas from their parents and the adults around them, and there’s little they could do about it. 

When the pandemic hit, the queer community received no support, till Marianela heard about OFRANEH and paid them a visit. This organization was there for the community when no one else was, opening up three shelters for queer people to live in, since during the pandemic, people had a lot of time on their hands to observe things around them, and observe other people too, so a lot of families found out about their children being queer, and kicked them out. OFRANEH took them in. Gave them food, internet access, and organized for them to have training sessions and study so that they could get a job and sustain themselves.

Now, despite the LGBTI+ community being persecuted by their own people, they would still go around to people’s houses distributing foodstuffs and other essential household items to survive the tough times.

And slowly, the community became more accepting of them.

I guess when you see the people you judged and harmed for no reason still extending a helping hand to you, despite not having much themselves, you kind of re-evaluate your decisions.

Before the pandemic, Marianela ran a business and was also studying, but because of the government having very absurd laws for small business owners, like not allowing them to have invoices (which you know will chase away a lot of clients), and issuing constant bans on them, the business didn’t do well. I should also mention that homophobia stopped a lot of people from conducting business with Marianela.

This, all while having a son you need to keep fed and taken care of, and fighting the authorities who were trying to take away his mother’s house and land, drove Marianela to near suicide.
Now, you may be asking a very important question: why is the government so hell bent on taking this land away from the rightful owners? Why has it committed genocide against the Garifuna people for years for this land?

Well, they want to give it to big corporates who will turn the area into a business centre. From a tropical paradise to a concrete mess.

They want to sell the land to millionaire tourists who will build resorts and earn so much from land that is not rightfully theirs, and maybe they will hire the locals to work with these resorts, and pay them peanuts. We know how this goes.

The land is also mineral-rich, and the government wants to dig it up and reap maximum profits, whilst destroying that land for good by using unethical mining methods and leaving the land and water dry and filled with harmful chemicals, displacing the locals and not giving them even a dime from this mineral fortune.

In the past, women have been excluded from these conversations, whiles still being put at the frontline of the wars. So Marianela hopes that with their new president being a woman, and with forums such as the CSW by the UN, women’s voices will be heard, finally. Because women are powerful, and strong, and willing to do the work.

Most importantly, Marianela hopes that the same land he played football on as a child, and picked the neighbour’s coconuts on, running away by the beach screaming in joy and laughing, is the same land their children and descendants will get to do that on in future, regardless of who they are, their status, their orientation.

He hopes the land and its cultures,
The land and its ways, 
The land and its beliefs,
Will be passed down, not eroded, not harmed, not criminalized, not persecuted.

For him, for his child, and for the Garifuna people.
About the author:
Being a writer is basically hearing the softest of words and noticing the little things that go unsaid. Because words for me exist outside of letters and speeches. They’re in the air we breathe and carried by the wind just like the songs that birds sing. Words are still words even when they get caught in our throats or trapped in our minds. They’re an escape when we need to create new realities and the fuel for uprisings and revolutions. I guess that’s why I write, because these little letters on a page hold more power than we could ever know, and I am honoured just to deliver their message.
Atria and WO=MEN are jointly responsible for the coordination of input from civil society to the governmental delegation during the 66th session of Commission on the Status of Women in New York. Follow us on Twitter: @AtriaNieuws and @genderplatform.
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