Paramaribo is six degrees above the Equator. Your shadow at noon is under your feet. The city is 23 kilometers from the mouth of the Suriname River and the Atlantic Ocean, and two-thirds of the country’s population live there in the city. The heart of this metropolis is commended on the un’s World Heritage List, as it “reflects the multicultural society of Suriname.”
I went out to stroll through the downtown, where men and women were, it seemed, from all over, the results of so many migrations. Asia, Africa, the Amazonian interior; Indonesian and Indian; foreign students on bicycles and Creole women in patterned dresses. The 2012 census showed just under half the country identified as Christian, 22 percent as Hindu, 14 percent as Muslim and two percent as Winti (an indigenous religion), with just 200 Jews. That means this country has the highest percentage of both Muslims and Hindus in the hemisphere, kind of a living diversity model. The wooden, colonial-fusion architecture may have caught the un’s gaze, but to me people were the best sight. The street language is called Sranantongo, from the time when slaves from different backgrounds had to find ways to talk with each other, so it uses words from African languages as well as English, Dutch and Portuguese. The official language, though, is Dutch.
Travel away from Paramaribo, and it becomes a quiet country lifestyle. People sitting on their porches wave as you pass. A hundred kilometers ahead, the road ends abruptly at a river bus stop. There is a petrol station, a convenience store and boats to take you farther upriver into the mystical jungle. Evening around the oil lanterns, and the conversation goes from the coming election to the corruption scandals to the dry season that “must end soon.”
As darkness falls, the conversation maneuvres to stories of snakes and insects as big as animals that creep around in the dark. “When I was up-river the last time,” one man says, “a local caught a huge snake in the dark with his bare hands. Don’t know how he did it.” Then the drums started. It was a funeral celebration in a nearby village, and it beat on until after dawn.
Spaniards came to what is now Guyana about 1500. Pizarro listened covetously as Indians—probably Arawaks and Caribs—told of a powerful Inca king who bathed in a holy golden lake and draped himself from head to foot with gold.
Sir Walter Raleigh published a book in 1596 with the long title, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich, and Bewtiful Empyre of Gviana, with a relation of the great and Golden Citie of Manoa (which the Spanyards call El Dorado). On a 17th-century map drawn by the mapmaker Willem Blaeu, Manoa appears somewhere between the Orinoco River to the north and the Amazon south. The gold rush was on, and it’s mined to this day.
By the mid-1600s, the British governor of Barbados, Lord Francis Willoughby, wanted to expand his sugar plantations. He sailed into the Suriname River, made a deal with the Arawak Indians to stay, and started building a fort at the river. Behind it, natives and 3,000 slaves built sugar plantations.
In 1664 the English and Dutch declared another war on each other over maritime trade. The Dutch told their navy to conquer all the English colonies they could. They sailed down the Suriname River, and after an hour of cannon fire, Willoughby surrendered. The war ended in 1667 with the Treaty of Breda, under which each country kept the territories it conquered: Suriname became Dutch, and the British kept New Amsterdam, which they renamed New York.
Labor at the time mostly meant slavery. As in much of South America, from the beginning in Suriname, slaves ran away into the rainforest and organized sabotage and rebellions.
Back in Paramaribo, a city of wooden houses, 400 were lost in a fire in 1821. In 1832 a group of slaves wanting to escape to the forest stole food for the journey and, to mask the theft, set a fire. They were arrested, and three of them were sentenced to death and burned alive at the spot where the fire started. Today, every school kid in Suriname can tell you they were Cojo, Mentor and Present, and they are official national heroes.
Another example of how much Suriname has changed starts with the first theater, built in 1775. No Jews or slaves were allowed inside. Then move up to January 1943, when the state announced to the world: “Every Jew who can escape Europe is welcome in Suriname.” They built houses for them and waited. Jewish refugees came, settled, worked their trades and sent their children to school.
Emancipation from slavery came on July 1, 1863, but independence not until 1975; this June there will be elections.
Historian and writer Cynthia McLeod tells it this way: “Slavery was a terrible system, but it was a system. Who survived? The strongest. Who are the strongest? We are.”
Two weeks ago I went back to Moengo [in the northeast] to see where I grew up. It is one of two towns Alcoa, the American aluminum company, developed. The other town is Paranam on the Suriname River. They came for the bauxite, the ore for aluminum. The company is now a joint venture called Suralco. They built housing for the employees and their families, and free schools.
My mother worked as a nurse. My father was a welder, and they lived there for 60 years until they both got their pensions and moved to Paramaribo. I went to Holland to study and work. When I got my pension, I started working for unicef.
In Moengo there were as many races, religions and cultures as here in Paramaribo: Javanese, Creole, Indians, Marrons, etc. They married each other. That’s why there can be no war between Muslims, Christians, Hindu or any groups. I’m sure intermarriage is a secret for peace.
In the beginning the colors in my paintings were very dull. In ’97 I got a scholarship to study in Jamaica. I learned there you have to paint from the heart and not for others. A tourist wants to buy a picture of Suriname, and that was where I was focused.
In Jamaica I started with a theme about death. I grew up without a father. He died before I was born. Now, as a father, I’ve got three kids, and I am experiencing what I missed.
My mother was poor. It was hard for a single mother. I was the oldest. What I wanted I never got. I made a lot of pictures about my life and my mother while trying to imagine the future. My life is now colorful. A wife and kids, nice people around me. Bright colors reflect my life now.
I’m working now for 23 years. Finally have an atelier and am a full-time artist. I do social projects as well. Not having a father, I’ve concentrated on kids that live in orphanages. I wanted to show them you can create something simple about themselves. I managed to get 800 wooden blocks and worked with 12 orphanages and organized an exhibition. The kids were at the exhibition, and they sold half their painted blocks. An experience in itself for the kids. The money went to the orphanages.
Then I made a chicken run with 200 eggs that hatched about the same time. It was placed at eye level for the kids so they could understand that a mother could not look after everyone. They understood it was really about them.
Suriname Islamic Association
After the abolition of slavery, the first contract workers were Chinese from Java. Then came workers from India. They were Hindu, Christian and Muslim. Then came the Javanese from Java, who were Muslim. We here are descendants of the first Indians. They came before the separation [of India and Pakistan] in 1947.
Our mosque is next to the synagogue. I visited the previous rabbi. They have a fascinating building. He came to visit us as well. We have a good relationship. They allow us to share their parking lot when we have an event, and they do the same here when they have something to celebrate. Not long ago we had a universal convention, and we invited them to come and speak.
The theme was “My Perception of Islam, the Religion of Peace.” The rabbi said that in the eight years he has been here, neither of us had thrown stones at each other. He also examined the archives and couldn’t find one negative comment about our relationship.
author, historian and daughter of Johan Ferrier, the first President of Suriname
Suriname is a real multi-cultural country in the strictest sense. You must accept and respect each other. If some groups are just “tolerated,” you are not multicultural because you think you are better. That’s my definition.
I was invited to give a series of lectures last year at the University of Berkeley in California, and one was about Elizabeth Samson. She was a 100-percent black woman who was one of the richest people in 18th-century Suriname, the time of slavery. She wanted to marry a white man in 1764, but it was forbidden by law. She wrote a letter to the owners of Suriname, the city of Amsterdam and the West India Company. There was, however, one reason why the marriage should go ahead: This woman was rich, and if she should marry a white man, her wealth would end up with white people.
She won. But by the time the good news arrived, her groom had passed away. However, she soon found another. In the archives of that time, no one really knew how she became so rich. Writers assumed she had been a slave woman who belonged to a white man and was his mistress, and when he died, he left her his money. It was so stated.
You know, one writes this, and the following writers copy it. When I was young, I was intrigued by this woman. I wanted to find out how Elizabeth became so rich and why she was so eager to marry a white man. I had lived in Europe before and promised myself, if I got the chance, I would research this.
Fate was on my side. My husband became an ambassador, and we were sent to Belgium. Brussels is very close to the [Dutch] National Archives in The Hague, so I went there and researched. There was so much information I started a novel about her, then decided to first make an accurate document about everything I found.
I wanted scientific recognition, so I sent my document to the University of Utrecht. The university was happy they finally had insights into the society of Suriname of that time and published it.
In the novel I was able to place her quite well in the society of her time. I know 18th-century Suriname better than that of today. I stated the truth with facts. She was 100 percent Negro, born free in Suriname, and above all an excellent businesswoman.
In those days they made quite a thing about all shades of color. In Suriname you were black or Negro only if you were 100 percent African. Every other shade had a name. Today everybody is black. Not in those days. Since blacks couldn’t marry whites, it meant that only 100 percent Africans couldn’t marry whites. If you had some white blood, you could marry.
From the beginning, white men had children with black women. There were more white men than white women. The ratio was 20 to one. The women were slaves and the children had the status of the mother, thus slaves. At times they were the father’s own slaves. Some white men were good fathers. Some freed the mother before the child was born, and then the child was free.
Born free, you had more rights. Sometimes the children inherited from the father. Those children were mulattos. A black and a mulatto produced a karboeger. A karboeger and a mulatto produced a sambo. A mulatto and a white produced a mesties. A mesties and a white produced a casties. A casties and a white produced a poesties, and that child was considered white. And so on.
By the time of emancipation in 1863, 80 percent of the free people were colored. In Suriname the mixture between black and white came on very quickly. 300,000 slaves were brought to Suriname— the same number that was brought to the United States. When we got emancipation, the number of slaves in the us had grown to almost four million, but in Suriname it had dwindled down to 30,000.
The English had “coloreds” in Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad from British-ruled India. The Dutch made an agreement with the Brits to bring Indians to work on the plantations. The British had rules for the treatment of these people. They were given a five-year contract and then a piece of land and some money if they stayed. They kept their own culture, religion and language and were not to be treated like slaves. A British official was appointed to see that these rules were adhered to.
The rules were badly bent. A lot died. Malnutrition and lack of medical care were the main reasons. England finally refused to send workers to Suriname. In 1882 a medical school was started in Suriname. That’s how our regional medical care started.
In 1942 Holland was not interested in Suriname anymore, something a lot of Surinamers don’t realize. They tried to forget about us and not give a cent to Suriname. I also think they were ashamed about what happened in the time of slavery. What we did get was obligatory education from 1876. Everybody had to go to school.
It was emancipation followed by education. Former slaves forced their children to go to school and learn the language, which was forbidden in their time. The colonial government told us we were free because the king of Holland, who was so noble and good, wanted us to be free. From the moment you are free, you must never speak about slavery again. Thank God and the king of Holland. That is what they told us, and we believed we had to be thankful.
When I read in Barbara Tuchman’s book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century that a nation that has no access to the source of its history becomes a folk with an identity based on stereotypes, I knew this is what had happened to us. The truth was in the National Archives in The Hague. I went on researching for 12 years.
Holland considered Suriname a weight they could not bear—until bauxite was discovered in 1916. The American company Alcoa was very interested, and in 1918 America proposed to buy Suriname.
The sale didn’t go through because of our educated intellectuals. It came down to a prestige question: You can’t sell people anymore. However, Alcoa could do here what it wanted. They paid 10 cents for a ton of bauxite. The import duty on that ton when it reached New Orleans was 60 cents. That is why bauxite developed so well in Suriname. It was virtually free.
When World War ii broke out, Alcoa was afraid they couldn’t get the bauxite out. The us sent 2,000 soldiers, and we had work. They built our roads, and we earned a lot of money. Those working on plantations moved to Paramaribo. They were Hindu, Javanese, Creole, etc. Their children were in the same schools. That is how we became an integrated country.
Suralco, which was the Suriname subsidiary of Alcoa, said they dammed the Suriname River that made Lake Brokopondo, and therefore it belongs to them. If they leave, the generators that produce hydro power are also theirs. Of the six generators, they shut down three. The result was too little energy. At a certain point, my neighbor, on another line, had electricity, and I didn’t. After several hours my electricity kicked in, and hers went out. Suralco said the water level in the lake was too low.
It could be a game the government is playing with Alcoa, but [President Desiré] Bouterse is doing popular projects so his party can be elected. He has his old buddies around him, and therefore a lot of rumors about corruption swirl about. Now he is talking about building a railway from Paramaribo to the airport.
He is still a suspect for the “December Murders” in ’82. Fifteen prominent members of the opposition to military rule were brought to Fort Zeelandia and executed. The time has come where this is holding back development. Others say justice must prevail. It is really sad for the families of the victims. I don’t know how this can end.
Before the military coup of February 25, 1980, we had a lively film culture. The coup included a curfew at dusk, when people would be going to watch the latest Hollywood thriller. Theaters had to close their doors.
In 2012 my husband and I started a film company, The Back Lot, to get the film industry back on its feet. The last film we helped produce was “The Old Man Who Read Love Stories,” filmed in French Guiana, our neighbor, and it starred Richard Dreyfuss. Here we made “Paramaribo Capers,” about the ’80s, a documentary about Dutch conspiracy with the military coup. The December Murders will probably not play a role in the elections. They were so long ago. It’s old hat.
Multicultural mingling is old hat too. We marry each other. We celebrate each other’s religious holidays. [The Hindu festival] Diwali starts tomorrow, and it’s a national holiday so everyone is free. People who have Indian friends will celebrate with them. If you ask a child why he isn’t going to school tomorrow, he or she will tell you it’s Diwali.
At the end of Ramadan, the last prayer is held on the lawn at Independence Square. People come to pay respects or pray. You can say, “I’m a Muslim, and this is what I do.” Bend your knees and pray what you believe. People sell food because after the prayer, everybody can eat again.
There is one belief in Suriname that is no longer a taboo. Winti is now an accepted religion like Christianity and Islam. In the last census, it was a belief you could belong to. It is performed when there is tension, sickness or death in the family. A trance feast is organized for the family. Tom-toms begin to play traditional music, and that’s when those involved become entranced.
We, from the interior, believe we have a protective soul. In nature there are different lassie [spirits], which have difficulty protecting us when bad lassies are around. That’s when the winti has to happen. It could be between a brother and sister, father and daughter, sickness or death.
The family members talk about their problems. The elders listen, evaluate the situation and discuss a solution. The bad lassies are brought to light, and the performance continues until the bad spirits are vanquished and harmony and good spirits are back in the family. Winti can last until after dawn.
In Paramaribo and surrounding suburbs, there are 17 mosques. In the whole country there is an estimated 800. The majority of people practicing Islam are from Indonesia. Some are facing west for prayer while others face east. The rule is you have to pray toward Makkah. The early contract workers from Java continued their practice of praying to the west. Indian Muslims came here before the Javanese and were already facing east. I think tradition was at work. My father and grandfather did it this way. Why change?
I was born in Paranam. My mother was a teacher and my father an agricultural engineer. They went to the Netherlands when I was born and left me here in Suriname with my grandparents, who were Muslim and lived in Paranam. When it was time to join my parents, I refused to go. I was three. So I stayed with my grandparents. My father’s parents were Hindu.
My father passed away when I was 14. I went to the mosque with my grandfather, grandmother, aunts and uncles. That’s when we moved to Paramaribo. My grandfather was a pharmacist at a hospital. He is why I studied medicine and then went to Belgium to study further. I wasn’t that keen to practice medicine and now teach physiology.
I’m married and have two children. My son is young, and my daughter is 18 and studies economics at the university. Every discipline at the school is full of women. In my physiology class when I started teaching, of the 60 students, 10 were women. Now of the 60 students, 55 are women.
I live in a neighborhood where none of my neighbors is Muslim. We live peacefully and celebrate Christmas, ‘Id al-Fitr, etc. It is now Diwali, and I helped with the family lights. My two sisters are Hindu and are married to Hindus. We celebrate each other’s holidays, and when food is prepared at a party, we are sure vegetarians can eat.
former gold miner
I always thought working in the forest would be like a vacation, but it was a survival contest. We worked with big machines day and night at 12–hour shifts and used 1,000 liters of diesel a day.
We start by removing the topsoil until we hit gravel. Gold is in the gravel and can’t go through clay. Gravel is scooped up with a backhoe and dropped onto the big iron grille over the sluice box. As it falls through the grille onto the mats, it is sprayed with water and washed down the sluice. Gold being seven times heavier than sand, it will stay in the mats.
When we have worked a week, we beat the mats and collect the gold. Sometimes you see gold, sometimes not. That’s when you add mercury. It doesn’t mix with sand but will mix with gold. There are a lot of robbers about, so you can’t lose time. Mercury is heated in the gold pan with a welding torch and evaporates, leaving gold.
The gold is then raw. We wash it with a magnet to get all the iron bits left by our own equipment. Then the gold is washed with powder soap. This dissolves the fat and diesel that collected. The gold is now pure.
It’s also dangerous. Cicero, a gold miner I knew, owed someone money and wouldn’t pay. One day he was sleeping in his hammock after a long shift. The others were working in the hole. A knife stabbed him in the chest two or three times. Dead. No witnesses. Police can only collect the body and write a report. Not long ago there was a shootout. Sometimes there are two or three who claim they own your mining concession.
Generally, I’m quite careful and can see if something is going to happen. It’s funny, but I often think the accident with my hand quite possibly saved my life. When I was in the hospital, we were robbed. Later I figured out [the robber] was an old foreman who worked for me. A Brazilian I had fired. He wasn’t happy about it.
Later, they found his camp high in the hills where he had kept an eye on us. He loved to eat canned corn. The empty tins were found in the camp with a shirt we knew belonged to his friend. When the crew was ready to leave, [the robbers] placed a big log across the road. If I was there at the time, he would have killed me. He could drink my blood. Shortly after, his friend was spotted in the city spending a lot of money. I decided to let it go. Maybe it was God’s plan that I only lost a couple fingers. I’m still here.
Gold mining now is big-time. I left the woods. Left everything behind except a few debts. A time went by, then a Brazilian came to see me, Bert, a former foreman who had taken advantage of me awhile back. I asked if he had solved all his problems. He replied, “Sorry. Sorry boss.”
“No problem,” I said. “I’ll give you $2,000 if you go into the woods and bring my machines out.” That was 35 kilometers through a rainforest. Soon after, he calls and says he had it all loaded and was on his way out. He drove to Brunswick, repaired the dozer and called me again.
“There is someone here who wants to buy something from you.” I went to the woods. A Brazilian bought the equipment for $8,000. Another wanted the trailer—sold. Most gold seekers end up with old iron. I always looked after my equipment. I rented my other machines. In no time I paid my debts, but I’m still not Rockefeller.
Most Suriname families have a history of migration somewhere in their past. Like living in two worlds—the present here and the past there, new and old worlds. A question can nag at some: Is life really better here?
To find their own answer, says Stephanie, some of her family members visited Java, where her family had come from. “Stay put,” they learned. “It’s crowded with people and no work.” So her family committed to staying in Suriname, and they started a wildlife lodge, built on stilts, on a lake at Bigipan.