Caribbean Beat Magazine

The beating heart of Suriname

Diverse in people and culture, Suriname is an undiscovered treasure of the Amazon. Simon Lee explores

  • The Suriname Museum in Fort Zeebrndia. Photograph by Simon Lee
  • Top: Godo Village, beside the Suriname River; Middle: imposing townhouses on Waterfront Street, Paramaribo; crossing the Suriname River to Commewijne; Below: the Suriname Museum in Fort Zeebrndia; Dutch sluice gate at Commewijne. Photographs by Simon Lee
  • Imposing town houses on Waterfront Street, Paramaribo. Photograph by Simon Lee
  • The imposing Synagogue in Paramaribo. Photograph by Simon Lee
  • Bush Negro hut in Asidonohopo. Photograph by Simon Lee
  • A women's Kawina group: welcome Suriname. Photograph by Simon Lee
  • Representatives of Suriname's different ethnic groups welcome visitors at the airport. Photograph by Simon Lee
  • Javanese dancers. Photograph by Simon Lee
  • Paramaribo: "the wooden city". Photograph by Simon Lee

On the bank of a slow sliding brown river, Javanese gamelan musicians play the halting melody of the Jarakapang, or Horse Spirit Dance. Their small hammers fall in hypnotic syncopation on the metal bars of the gamelans (like the western xylophone), following the lead of the double-headed kendang drum.

Young male dancers in ornamental headpieces, and make-up to match, straddle two-dimensional painted mounts. They move in measured, stylised steps to the gamelans, heads dipping and turning fluidly to peer backward over their shoulders. A two-man pakira or jaguar with spotted cloth body cavorts around the dancers, twisting its wooden head, snapping menacingly at spectators.

The mesmeric melody continues, floating on the brown water down to the ocean. Imperceptibly, it seems the horse spirit has entered the dancers. Their faces tighten, eyes losing outer focus. Now possessed, they fall and roll on the ground, chomp greedily on clumps of flowering elephant grass, or slurp thirstily from a large bowl of water.

After their trance has climaxed, they are laid prostrate on the ground until the gamelans summon them again with the music of the monkey spirit. Soon the whole troupe is on its haunches, chattering lewdly, ripping open coconuts with bare teeth, spraying each other with coconut water, soliciting cigarettes and kisses from bemused spectators.

 

This is not a scene from Indonesia, although all the musicians, and most of the dancers, are Javanese. We’re on the bank of the Commewijne River in Suriname. This country on the north-east coast of South America is such a well-kept secret that in a recent AT&T country code listing in the New York Times it appeared under “Africa”.

Suriname is unique by any standards. Historically and culturally it’s part of the greater Caribbean region, like its neighbours Guyana to the west and French Guiana to the east. Geographically and ecologically, however, it’s very much part of the great Hispanic subcontinent. More than 80% of its 163,000 sq. km. land area is covered with Amazon rain forest; Brazil forms the southern border.

The Guyana shield rain forest is recognised as one of the world’s top eight bio-diversity hotspots, and Suriname’s 1.6 million-hectare (6,000 sq. mile) Central Nature Reserve, established in 1998, is probably the largest area of protected rain forest in the world.

The Caribbean is famous for its ethnic and cultural diversity, a new world of riches such as neither Columbus, nor those obsessed with the elusive El Dorado, had envisioned. With a small population of only 430,000, Suriname can boast an ethnic and cultural diversity as varied and unique as its bio-diversity. Amerindians, Maroons, Afro-Creoles, East Indians, Javanese, Chinese, Europeans, Lebanese and Syrians live together in relative harmony. Fifteen languages are spoken, but the lingua franca for all is Sranam Tongo, derived from West African tribal languages, Portuguese and English. The official language is Dutch.

Around 12,000 descendants of the original Amerindian inhabitants who first settled some 6,000 years before Christ survive: Caribs and Arawaks on the coastal plain; Trio, Wayana, Warrau, Wayarekule and a few dozen Akurio deep in the interior.

The rain forest is also home to the Bush Negroes, tribes of Maroons or runaway slaves. Although there are still Maroon communities in Jamaica and a large number of Haitians are descendants of the Maroon army led by Toussaint L’Ouverture which wrested Haiti from the French, the Surinamese Bush Negroes are unique. Living in isolated forest villages since the 18th century, they have maintained much of their original African culture and lifestyle. Today the Saramaka, Aukan, Paramaka, Matawi, Kwinti and Boni tribes number 35,000, accounting for 8% of the population.

Bush Negro traditional decorative arts strongly influence the national iconography; their wood carvings beautifully combine function (seats, tables, paddles, plates, boxes) with striking design, while their sacred and secular drum-based music has profoundly influenced both Surinamese and Caribbean popular music.

Right across the Caribbean one of the most popular carnival and party songs of 1998 was the Barbadian band Square One’s soca cover version of Faluma, a kaskawi song by the Saramakan group Ai Sa Si (whose name comes from the proverb: the ears shall hear and the eyes shall hear). The original, with its complex polyrhythms and call-and-response choral vocals, is even more compelling than the hit.

Until the success of Faluma, Surinamese music was relatively unknown, largely because of language barriers — but it is as diverse as the cultures that meet in Suriname. In addition to the traditional styles of the Javanese, East Indians and Maroons, there are a number of indigenous forms. These include the sacred winti drum music of the Afro-Creoles; kawina, featuring drums and cuatro, which evolved during the 19th-century gold rush; kaseko, Suriname style calypso, originally introduced by escapees from French Guiana’s infamous Devil’s Island penal colony; aleke, a modern integration of Maroon drums with electric instrumentation; and kaskawi, a recent fusion of kawina and kaseko, popularised by Ai Sa Si.

 

It was the lure of gold which first attracted European explorers, including the ubiquitous Sir Walter Raleigh, to the “Wild Coast” of South America in 1600. But it wasn’t until 1651 that Francis Willoughby, the English Governor of Barbados, sent an expedition of 300 men to settle Suriname. They set up sugar plantations with Amerindian slave labour. The English were joined by Jewish settlers fleeing persecution in Brazil, Portugal and Italy.

Suriname can lay serious claim to being “the gateway for the Jews in the New World.” The ancestors of many prominent New York Jewish families are buried in the Jodensavanna, on the east bank of the Suriname River close to Paramaribo. At the end of the 17th century, this area supported a thriving plantation society, with 570 Jewish colonists and 9,000 African slaves. Today, the ruins of the oldest synagogue and Jewish cemetery in the New World offer unique possibilities for heritage tourism.

After the Dutch conquered Suriname in 1667, the ensuing peace treaty between Holland and England allowed the Dutch to retain Suriname in exchange for the most famous New Amsterdam of all, New York. By 1684 the Dutch had begun importing slaves from West Africa. Although slavery was to continue until 1863, many slaves were able to find refuge and freedom in the impenetrable forests of the interior. Following the abolition of slavery, the Dutch imported contract labourers, Chinese, East Indian and Javanese, unwittingly creating the basis for modern Suriname’s cosmopolitan society. The two largest ethnic groups today are the Hindustanis (as East Indians are referred to locally) and the Afro-Creoles.

Fort Zeelandia in Paramaribo, built by the Dutch to guard the Suriname River and their new territory, now houses the Suriname Museum. One of the upper rooms is hung with an invaluable collection of old photos covering the main ethnic groups.

Next to sections dedicated to the Amerindians and Bush Negroes, whose appearance and lifestyle seem unchanged since the photos were taken, is an intriguing series of Boer families who relocated to Surinam at the end of the Boer War. There is surely a story waiting to be told about the woman kneeling on a lawn clutching her pet jaguar to her chest, while she fixes the camera with a hunter’s eye.

 

Paramaribo, which sprawls along the west bank of the Suriname River 12 km from the sea, is a capital of immense charm, with a unique architecture which will be preserved if it is successful in its bid to be nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Despite fires and inevitable modernisation, Paramaribo retains its character as “the wooden city”. Many areas are dominated by elegant Dutch colonial neo-classical buildings, some three or four stories tall, with colonnaded porches or deep covered verandahs.

Along the popular Waterfront, with its bars, local food stalls and covered market, there is an unbroken line of particularly fine mansions. Dotted throughout the city are humbler houses with roofs that follow the classic Dutch clock gable lines. The Roman Catholic cathedral of St Peter and Paul is reputedly the largest wooden building in the Americas. The juxtaposition of mosque and synagogue on Keizerstrat perfectly symbolises Suriname’s ethnic diversity, racial accord and religious tolerance.

Streets are broad and often lined by towering trees; flower vendors bring vibrant colour to the pavements with stalls of giant heliconias, ginger lilies and orchids; cyclists are as common as cars, enhancing the leisurely Paramaribo pace which moves in time with the Suriname River.

One of the delightful aspects of this still largely organic city are the Sunday morning birdsong competitions, held in parks and plazas. Originally introduced by Asian immigrants, the competitions have proved popular enough to be taken by migrants to Holland. Trained birds, which are judged on plumage and wing display as well as the number of trills they can deliver, fetch up to US$2,000.

One of the benefits of Suriname’s cultural diversity is its unique cuisine, all on offer in Paramaribo. Sample spicy Indonesian dishes like rijsttafel, peanut soup, bami (noodles) and gadogado (vegetables); East Indian roti and curries or Chinese dishes. The local beer, Parbo, is a match for any European Pilsener lager.

 

The majority of Surinamese live either in Paramaribo or the coastal plain; but to truly experience the country you must venture into “the beating heart of the Amazon”.

A small plane takes off from Zorg an Hoop Airport on the outskirts of Paramaribo. Within minutes we’re high above the rain forest canopy, so tightly clustered it resembles broccoli heads. The forest stretches uninterrupted to all horizons, broken during the hour-long flight only by the brief expanse of Brokopondo Lake or the coils of a river. As we begin the descent to the Djumu airstrip at the confluence of the Gran Rio and Pikkin Rio rivers, almost in the centre of the country, the thatched and galvanised roofs of Saramakan Bush Negro villages are visible. The plane bounces to a halt on the long strip carved out from the forest. Waiting to greet us in the shade of a tree, which serves as the arrival lounge, are several village captains and the Basia or secretary of the Saramakan head chief. The Basia sports an American baseball T-shirt, but two of the captains wear traditional madras print wraps.

A short walk brings us to the river bank and the long koorjaal which expertly skirts the rapids, heading up the Pikkin River where bare-breasted Saramakan women are bent double, washing clothes in the shallows, pausing to wave. We make a quick stop at Kumalu Island eco-resort, where the guest rooms are traditional Bush Negro wooden huts, their thatched roofs reaching almost to the ground, doors ornamented with carved motifs.

Then it’s another koorjaal trip up-river for an audience with Aboi Koni, the Gaanman or paramount chief of the Saramakans in the village of Asidonohopo. The Gaanman receives us in his modern two-storey house, donated by a lumber company. Aboi Koni (whose name means “smart man”) is small in stature but immensely dignified under his black leather porkpie hat; intelligent humorous eyes assess his visitors from behind his large tortoise-shell glasses.

Protocol demands that the Gaanman is addressed indirectly through his Basia or one of the captains. After enquiring the names, professions and marital status of each visitor, Aboi Koni fields questions, telling us he presides over 72 villages and 50,000 Saramakans the length of the Suriname River. He lets it be known that he also “has responsibility for three wives”, although he’s quite happy for any of the single women in our party to remain in the village “as the Gaanman is a very strong man.” This last remark is met with appreciative roars of laughter.

The Saramakans, he says, survive by fishing, agriculture, boating and lumber work, but he’s anxious for suggestions on how each villager can share in the benefits of tours such as ours because, as he astutely observes, “the people and environment are part of the attraction.”

After a sumptuous lunch of agouti, fish, chicken and beans, a hammock siesta and a swim in the strong currents of the Pikkin Rio, we koorjaal down to Godo village which straggles alongside a track leading from the bank of the Suriname River. We enter the village through the palm leaf hung gate. The huts, some of them only big enough to sleep in, huddle together on both sides of the track.

First we visit an old woodcarver who explains the mostly erotic symbolism on his chairs and tables. Then village women treat us to a cultural performance of song and dance where the only accompaniment is their fast hand-clapping and the percussive rattle of nutshell anklets.

After the Sekete dance, which was used as a cover in slavery days to sing messages, comes the hip-thrusting sensuality of the Wadamba and the popular Awasa dance, “presenting the women’s beauty to the men.” By now the equatorial dusk is approaching along with our plane, and the women walk us to the village threshold to wave us “Adu! Adu! Adu!”

It seems incredible to be able to step out of a plane after only an hour and be welcomed into a community whose lifestyle and culture has remained intact for centuries; which has not only survived the horrors of slavery but has also learnt to survive in the rain forest.

 

Small tours to Bush Negro and Amerindian villages in the interior are becoming a recognised feature of Suriname’s nascent nature tourism.

The fact that the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s third annual conference on Sustainable Tourism was held in Suriname this year is a clear indication that the enormous potential of the country, in terms of cultural, heritage and nature tourism, will no longer remain a secret.

Suriname’s virtually undisturbed environment makes it a haven for nature tourists, whether birders or botanists. The coast with its mangrove swamps, wetlands and beaches is the habitat of a number of endangered species. The Coppename Nature Reserve at the mouth of the Coppename River was listed as a wetland of international importance for waterfowl in 1985, and is a habitat both of the manatee and the scarlet ibis, as well as numerous visiting North American waders.

The Galibi Nature Reserve at the mouth of the Marowijne River on the border with French Guiana is the most important nesting site for the Ridley turtle in the western Atlantic. Leatherbacks, green turtles and, to a lesser extent, hawksbills, are also found nesting at Galibi between February and July.

The creation of the massive Central Nature Reserve and existing nature reserves in the rain forest at Brownsberg and Raleighvallen (home to the spectacular and rare Cock of the Rock) are all evidence of the value Suriname places on its greatest asset: the lungs of the earth, the beating heart of the Amazon.