Dancing with the Saramacca in Suriname

Dancing with the Saramacca in Suriname

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By Anna Kaminski
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Once a Dutch colony, Suriname sits on the northeast coast of South America and has a population of around a mere 550,000 people. Venturing deep into the jungle-clad interior, Rough Guides writer Anna Kaminski went to explore the ancestral territory of the Saramacca, descendants of seventeenth-century West African slaves. 

Our little Cessna plane rumbles over the jungle; from above, southern Suriname is a dense carpet of greenery, punctuated by bright pink jakaranda trees and bisected by brown ribbons of rivers. The open wounds of the land – the gold mines – have been left far behind.

Finally, the Cessna dips down and lands on a cleared grass strip that constitutes the runway. The “airport” is a tiny wooden building where a little boy hangs out with a wheelbarrow, ready to cart our baggage down to dugout canoes moored by the riverbank.

Several Saramaccan passengers have arrived with us from Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital. The women have a graceful, straight-backed walk, balancing their suitcases on their heads. Flying is a much quicker way of getting to and from the capital; in the old days, the one-way journey by dugout canoe would take a month.

There are five of us here, deep in Saramaccan territory – two Dutch couples and myself. We are staying at Awarradam Lodge, a group of wooden cabins sat on an island in the middle of the Gran Rio river, just upriver from four Saramaccan villages.

Suriname’s Saramacca number around 55,000; they are the largest surviving group of Maroon people and have been living along the Upper Suriname River and its tributaries, the Gran Rio and the Piki Rio, for over three hundred years. Their ancestors, largely from West Africa, were sold as slaves to Europeans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to work on sugar, coffee and timber plantations.

Fleeing the harsh conditions of slavery, many Saramacca escaped into Suriname’s impenetrable jungle. With the help of the local Amerindian tribes, they staged rebellions, sometimes carrying out armed raids on plantations.They became greatly feared by owners and, as a result, in 1762, a hundred years before Suriname’s slaves were emancipated, the Saramacca signed a treaty with the Dutch. This agreement gave them a degree of freedom and the rights to their land in exchange for returning further runaway slaves to their owners.

We meet some Saramaccans at the lodge. Their language – a mix of English, Portuguese, Dutch and the Niger-Congo languages of West Africa – is very musical to the ear and their greeting has a call-and-response element to it. This is one of the few parts of the world where Christian missionaries have failed to make great inroads; one of the villages is Christian, but the others hold on to the spiritual traditions of West Africa and practise something akin to voodoo.

It’s a threatened way of life. In the 1990s the Surinamese government granted timber and mining concessions in traditional Saramaccan territory to foreign companies. A 2007 Inter-American Court for Human Rights ruling in the Saramacca people’s favour has since given them control over their ancestral lands, but the danger remains.

Our guide Elton takes us for a walk in the jungle, showing us its smaller denizens: the vivid blue-and-yellow poison arrow frog, the cicadas, responsible for the racket in the afternoons, and the venomous bullet ant, the pain from whose bite lasts up to 24 hours. “Some of the Amerindians use it as an initiation rite for its men,” Elton explains. “They get bitten repeatedly until they hallucinate.”

After being told that the giant armadillo often shares its burrow with the bushmaster, Suriname’s deadliest snake, we give it a wide berth. The bushmaster eats armadillo poo, rich with poison from fireflies that keeps its own venom potent. Elton points out a plant with a thin stem – “The Saramaccans use this to treat snakebite, until the victim can get more help.”

We pass one tree that has enormous roots; if you hit it, the sound carries for a long distance. “This one is used for communication by those who live in the jungle; we call it the telephone tree or the what’s up tree.”

We emerge at a clearing where the Saramaccan men grow the villages’ crops. There’s a cassava squeezer made of straw, hanging by the gardening hut. Cassava, a starchy tuber, was introduced to Africa from South America by Portuguese merchants in the sixteenth century and is a Saramaccan staple. This variety is poisonous and has to be grated and have the juice squeezed out of it before it can be dried and made into cassava bread – it’s chewy and tasteless when fresh and tooth-breakingly hard when stale.

In the afternoon, we’re invited to one of the villages. Elton points out the palm fronds above the entrance: “This keeps evil spirits from entering.”

The settlement consists of a scattering of wooden houses with corrugated iron roofs; dirt lanes run in between the buildings, peanuts and cassava bread dry on palm fronds outside the houses and chickens peck in the dirt. One thing is immediately noticeable: there are no dogs at all. “Back in the days of slavery, they used to hunt runaway slaves with dogs so they’ve hated dogs ever since”, Elton explains.

One house stands separately from all the rest. “This is where women have to stay when they are menstruating. Though the men lose out, since there’s no one to cook for them.”

We pass a few children splashing in the river, an older woman pounding peanuts into peanut butter using a large pestle and mortar and another woman cracking the nuts of a particular palm tree using a hammer. There are hardly any men in sight, besides an old man tinkering with a dugout canoe and some teenage boys carrying firewood on their heads.

“Many men work in Paramaribo these days, or in the gold mines,” Elton tells us. “Sometimes they are away for months.”

As evening falls, we are ushered towards a communal area with a hard earthen floor. The women stand in a line, bent at the waist. Then they start clapping in unison; one woman starts singing and the rest pick it up. One woman steps forward and begins to dance, her movements fluid and sensual. They are looking at us expectantly; it’s clear that we’re supposed to imitate her. We do our best. One of the few men takes the dance floor and demonstrates a more boisterous dance; Elton picks it up and they fly at each other like attacking roosters. We dance for what seems like hours; for the villagers, we are the Friday night entertainment.

Our boatman takes us back upriver in near darkness, guided only by the faint starlight and his knowledge of the river’s every bend, every rock. Listening to the gentle lapping of the water, I ponder the strange fate that brought me, a Soviet kid from a small Russian town, here, to the Surinamese jungle on this particular night, the sky above glittering with a million stars.

Discover more of this vast continent with the Rough Guide to South America on a Budget.