Diasporas, pt. 3

Jaw Jaw, Suriname

Aside from the languages, there’s one other thing that inspired me to visit Suriname: the connection to West Africa. Suriname has a large Maroon population — that is, escaped slaves who fled further inland into the forest on foot, establishing their own communities with their own customs, using what they remembered of their home traditions. The largest of the Maroon groups is the Saramacca (Saamaka), and I wanted to take the time to visit at least one community. Having spent a memorable month in West Africa a few years ago, seeing everything from the big city to more rural areas, I felt a strong pull to compare the lives of those on both sides of the Atlantic. Same ancestors, different geography, hundreds of years of separation.

Past the end of the road, the Saramacca have established their villages along the shores of the Upper Suriname River (Dutch: Boven Suriname). Some of these villages are visited by group tours passing through and staying at isolated resorts, but I chose to visit Jaw Jaw (pronounced “yao-yao”), where returned former expat Bele has started a guesthouse in the centre of his village. Eschewing over 20 years of the hectic rat-race life in the UK and the Netherlands for a return to something simpler, he’s grown proud of his roots and was eager to share.

I couldn’t help but look at the region with a West African-tinted lens. Try as I did to find similarities, the most visible elements are different, and for the better. The village is utterly clean, for starters: little stray refuse, nothing burning. The only thing straw-roofed shacks are used for are the traditional cooking/hangout areas, and few traditional short-door houses remain. (Reasons for the short doors? Either guard from bad spirits, or block a cheating husband/wife from leaving easily when caught!) People live in simple but orderly houses, with the luxuries of satellite TV (though just around 5 hours of electricity per night). There’s a schoolhouse for the primary kids, a library, a soccer field, a town hall, a church, and transport to and from the village is by motorised pirogues.

As I don’t speak Saramacca (a creole related to Sranan) or Dutch (taught in schools), I wasn’t often able to talk to anyone without Bele translating. But when he introduced me and shared my intentions with some of the many villagers who often chose to join us for meals or simply chat while passing through, they seemed quite receptive, acknowledging the pride they have in their African ancestry and the traditions passed down. And as we walked around more the next day, I saw more commonalities: the giant mortar and pestle-like tool used to grind cassava or dehusk rice or make fufu (the pounded starch of choice from Ghana to Nigeria, a tradition abandoned by Jaw Jaw, but occasionally seen in other Saramacca villages), the shape of the pirogues and the heat process used to widen cut tree trunks to make them, the heavy load carrying women do on their heads, the few older women still displaying patterned scarification for beauty purposes, the washing in the river, the ancestral shrines for prayer…

Ah yes, religion. Like in West Africa, people are heavily Catholic *and* traditional. Over our meals at the guesthouse, other villagers would often sit down and join us, and one in particular was the village’s bush doctor, recently recognised nationally for his role in saving multiple lives, knowing when to call in for outside help based on touch with his patients. When another guest asked about his knowledge of folk medicine and traditional beliefs, the doctor explained that knowledge is only passed within generations of his family. Most intriguingly, he alluded to Ifá, a divination practice involving removing outside or spiritual forces that cause negative symptoms — this was something I saw in Benin.

These little hints of connection to the past were all I got in the short time I had in the village. Life otherwise, for those that choose to remain, is based on subsistence instead of growth. Villagers grow their own foods — cassava (used to make cassava bread), pumpkin, cucumbers, corn, peanuts, onions — or already have plenty of it growing around — lemongrass, palm nuts, moringa, marva, countless other things I can’t recall; there’s no real need to bring any of it from the city. (Aside from beer, or specialty stuff like cheese and confitures.) They raise chickens, go fishing in the river, and hunt for bigger game, like sloth, caiman, and hare and tapir, both of which I was lucky to have the opportunity to try. (Tapir in particular is a rare treat available maybe 5 times a year; I liked the meat but really did not enjoy the hard gumminess of the skin.)

There’s plenty of reason to go to the city though. As in basically any rural region in the world, most young folks take the opportunity to live in the city, pursue higher education, and gain some wealth, leaving a shrinking population behind — Jaw Jaw’s diaspora is larger than the village population, with many former residents in Paramaribo and the Netherlands. And even if you don’t move to the city, material possessions often come from there, brought in by boat. (This car though? No reason for a river-locked village with no roads…)

Upper Suriname is nominally the richest region in the country, but little of that wealth has trickled to its residents. Electricity is still limited each night from 6:30pm until the gas runs out, despite the fact that a large dam was built just down the river that now provides constant electricity for the rest of the country. (In fact, Jaw Jaw itself was established in the wake of the dam’s construction in the late 1970s. The founders came from villages forcibly evacuated and flooded by the dam.) Politicians have been promising the village solar panels for years, and they stopped by during my visit to check out the proposed space. Is it really, actually going to happen this time? Pessimism runs high.

And of course, there’s all the gold mined in the area, all by foreign companies including the US, China, and notably Canada — everyone asked me if I worked at the Rosebel mine when they found out where I was from. While they do hire local Saramacca, treat them well, and provide them an above-average standard of living, the upper management is all foreign, and the vast majority of this mineral wealth is taken out of the country.

So despite this rather unfair situation, why does it still seem to me that the Saramacca standard of living is still considerably higher than in West Africa? I never really got an answer to that — perhaps that’s a question better directed to the other side of the Atlantic. But as was alluded to me many times during my stay, these people come from centuries of resilience: from being shipped across the Atlantic, to slavery, to revolt, to walking on foot all the way down to where they are now, to surviving Suriname’s bloody dictatorship, and to reestablishing their traditions in peace, away from everyone else.

Regardless of what hand they’ve been dealt, it’s clear they can do well for themselves. Bele’s moved back. Several outsiders have moved in, with the permission of the village. This region is beautiful and pristine, and life seems pretty great if you’re okay with the pace of life. Binky here probably thinks so.

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