Saramaccans

10 03 2009

 

Before I travel, I generally conduct some background reading to ensure that I not only get the most from my visit but also that I don’t miss anything special while there. The research doesn’t have to be exhaustive, but I would be upset if I only discovered too late that around the corner from my hotel was the delicatessen in which Neil Armstrong first tasted green cheese or the shop where Betsy Ross bought her sewing machine. But even with that basic research you can still be completely surprised…and that’s one of the great pleasures of travel.saramaccan1-mw

 

My knowledge of Suriname was fairly limited before I landed at Paramaribo Airport late one evening. I knew it was on the northern coast of South America and was predominately jungle. I had learned it had been a Dutch colony that Holland had acquired from Britain after trading a small island further north in the Americas called New Amsterdam…later re-named Manhattan. And I knew that some of Holland’s greatest footballers came from there. I was actually quite proud of myself…but over the coming days I realised I didn’t know much at all.

 

After we were seemingly abandoned on a burnt-grass airstrip in the middle of the jungle, we were led to motorised canoes and taken downriver to our camp. Along the way we passed isolated villages and were greeted by waving and shouting children playing along the river’s edge. After a hearty dinner we were told that the following day we would go for a jungle hike that would include a visit to a Saramaccan village, which I assumed was one of the many Amerindian tribes in the area.

 

The next morning we set off on our trek and along the way learned more about the Saramaccan people. They were not Amerindian as we had thought, but were actually runaway slaves who had settled in the jungle centuries earlier and remained ever since. Originally from West Africa, the Saramaccans were Maroons who had risen up against their captors and fled deep into the jungle not only defying all attempts at recapture but actually continuing to raid the plantations to take tools and weapons and liberate other slaves. This had happened throughout the New World including Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti, but Suriname was one of the few places in which large populations of Maroons had managed to retain their own traditions and culture and continued to live in relative isolation.

 

saramaccan2mwMany of the original Saramaccans had been born into freedom in Africa before being captured and shipped across the Atlantic in the brutal slave ships. After escaping from the plantations, they took their African traditions and languages with them into the jungle to start their new life and had thrived. Before we entered the village, we had to walk through a curtain that swept away the evil spirits of the jungle and kept the villagers safe. Just beyond the curtain was an altar on which sacrifices were made to their animist gods. 

 

The village was tidy and orderly with the ground around the huts carefully swept and a great deal of pride evident. Unlike nomadic people who continually move and whose settlements are often purely functional rather than homely, the Saramaccans were clearly settled and their homes were simple but comfortable. We were greeted warmly with drums, singing and dancing and offered a tasty lunch of manioc and catfish.

 

Although more than happy to share their lifestyle and culture with us, there was no sense that they would ever be threatened by outside influences as has happened with so many indigenous people. Some Saramaccans had moved to Paramaribo and other centres, but the jungle communities seemed strong and contented in what was undoubtedly a hard life. As we headed off back into the jungle, we all felt as though we had been given a privileged glimpse into a unique culture and a very special people.

 

 

Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan

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