Saturday, September 15, 2012

Maroons of Suriname

By Edith McClintock 

Photo: Tropenmuseum, 1952
I’ve been finishing my website this week for my first mystery, Monkey Love and Murder, which is being published January 16, 2013, so I thought it would be fitting to write about Maroons, as several of the characters are Maroon. And please go take a look at the new website and send me feedback as it’s a work in progress.

The word Maroon is used throughout the Caribbean for slaves (and their descendants) who fled colonial plantations and banded together, although in each country Maroons have their own history and unique culture. In Suriname, Maroons escaped into the rainforest and formed villages along the interior rivers as early as the 1500s. By the late 1600s, they became organized enough to fight guerilla warfare against the Dutch, eventually forcing them to sign a peace treaty in the 1760s that granted them territory and independence.

Two hundred and fifty years later, Maroons have, amazingly, retained a distinct identity based on West African languages, culture, and religion that they’ve adapted to the Surinamese rainforest. And it’s a fascinating culture. From another age, really. And that treaty came in handy in recent years when Saramaccan Maroons sued for and won collective rights to their ancestral lands, including the right to decide about logging and gold mining within their territory.

Maroons, who are only 10% of the population, weren’t highly regarded in Paramaribo, the capital, where I lived in the early 2000s. It was partly based on a general wariness of the interior and its remoteness. But it also had roots in the lingering civil war the Maroons (and some Amerindians) fought against Suriname’s military government in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The civil war destroyed the interior’s already limited infrastructure and a generation of Maroon youth didn’t attend school. Most schools in the interior are still run by the Moravian church rather than the government, meaning there is no real public education in the interior.

Photo:From Tropenmuseum
Traditionally, the Maroon economy was based on female subsistence farming and male hunting and fishing. Today, many men leave their village for extended periods to work in small-scale goldmining or as day laborers around Paramaribo. Traditionally, the men also made beautiful woodcarvings, which is what I always brought home for friends and family as souvenirs—and myself, of course. Most women still keep a plot of land to grow food such as cassava, but they also sell goods in the Paramaribo market.

Maroon villages are matrilineal but governed by a male Granman, a leader over many villages who is assisted by village Captains. They’ve been subject to a revolving door of missionary groups and are usually Christian, but many also continue to worship ancestors and gods through their traditional religion called Winti.

I didn’t live in a Maroon village during my Peace Corps days, but I did stay in a number of villages with Peace Corps friends. And after Peace Corps, when I worked on a monkey research project in Raleighvallen, most of the staff in the park were Saramaccan Maroons from nearby villages. In every village I visited, the women always wore a pangi (a cotton wrap skirt) which they often embroidered with designs and words. Above the pangi, some women wore nothing, others a bra or tank-top.

In more traditional villages the women moved into a “moon hut” once a month during which they couldn’t cook or touch their husband or visit certain parts of the village. Women are considered both powerful (they can perform spells) and dirty during menstruation. While I lived in Raleighvallen, even the western female researchers weren’t allowed to swim in the river (this might offend the river god) or cook for the Surinamese man (you could poison them) during their time of the month.

Cleanliness is extremely important—whether it be the body or pots and pans. Women cleanse—or washi gogo—each morning and night with boiled water and special herbs. And the women were always sure to ask me whether I washed properly. Since many villages didn’t have running water, in the evenings women carried their pots down to the river on their head, where they could spend up to 20-minutes scrubbing a single pan with sand until it sparkled—unlike the American women volunteers whose dirty pots were shameful and regularly commented upon.

Maroons are not a bashful culture (nor are most Surinamese). I was regularly told in the city: “Ooh you’re getting soooo fat, you like our food.” It was considered a complement. But Maroons will also tell you if they want your camera—or your sunglasses. 

And there was no alone time in a Maroon village. The kids arrived at the house at daybreak and didn’t leave until they were shooed home in the evening or sent to school. Peace Corps friends told me stories of being sick and just wanting to lay in their hammock and moan, but instead half the village would gather in their hut to laugh and talk over their hammock. Sometimes at them.

Villages are located along rivers and sometimes accessible only by dugout canoe with a small motor. More traditional villages had palm fronds hanging across each entrance to protect the village from evil spirits—who won't bow to pass under the fronds. In the 1960s, the government dammed and flooded a large chunk of Maroon territory and relocated villages in the flood zone. Oddly, the trees were left standing as the water rose, creating a lake that is either creepy and surreal or spectacularly beautiful depending on your vantage point. But the relocated villages are distinct from the non-relocated villages in having linear streets and tin roofs versus scattered huts with thatched roofs.

One of my vivid memories from visiting Maroon villages are the greetings. They’re important in village life, and we had to greet each person we passed—over and over again. In the mornings, it went something like the conversation below, although in one of the Maroon languages (Saramaccan, Ndyuka, Paramaka, Aluku, Kwinti, or Sranan Tongo—the lingua franca in Suriname) there is a rhythm and melody to it.

Hi.  Did you wake, woman?
Hi.  Yes, I woke.  Did you wake, woman? 
Yes, I woke. Did you wake well, woman? 
Yes, I woke well.  Did you wake well, woman?
Yes, I woke well.
Good, that you woke well, woman.  Where do you go, woman? 
I go to the river to wash.
Oh, you go to the river to wash, woman? 
Yes, I go to the river to wash.
Oh, I hope you wash well in the river, woman.
Yes, I will wash well in the river.
Then when you pass them on the way back: repeat the waking part. 
Where did you go woman? 
Oh, I went to the river to wash.
Oh, I hope you washed well in the river, woman.
Yes, I washed well in the river…and on and on.”

But above all, it was the Maroon drumming and dancing I loved best. It’s better experienced in person—in all its sweaty glory—but you can sample a taste when you read Monkey Love and Murder.

For more, visit my author website and/or personal blog, A Wandering Tale. Even better, order a copy of Monkey Love & Murder on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or the Book Depository (free shipping nearly anywhere in the world).

1 comment:

  1. so the maroons freed
    Suri from the oppressor and later was looked down upon whilst they are the hero's!!!!!!!!!!!!!