Suriname steps to an African beat in an exquisite Western setting Remembering yesterday while guarding tomorrow

October 08, 1995|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ASINDOOPO, Suriname -- Clad in a bright patchwork toga, Humphrey Amoeda dances the steps of his ancestors, stomping and swirling to the eager clapping of young women gathered in the thin light of a gas lantern.

On the fringes of the crowd, old women, their chests marked with the intricate patterns of ritual scars, watch the spectacle from hand-carved wooden stools. On the slow river that flows past this village, boatmen in their dugout canoes pause to listen to the sounds of Africa, brought to life in a far different place.

This is one of the best-preserved traditional African societies on earth, and it is in the middle of the South American rain forest.

"It's the purest African culture in the Americas, maybe purer even than West Africa now," said Russell Mittermeier, president of Washington-based Conservation International, which is working to preserve the forest culture of these people, the so-called Maroons of Suriname.

Three hundred years ago, the West African forefathers of these forest dwellers were brought to Suriname in chains, to work on the coastal sugar plantations owned by Dutch and Portuguese settlers.

Hundreds of thousands died of tropical diseases, overwork and brutal treatment. By the time slavery was abolished in Suriname in 1863, only 50,000 Africans had survived.

But almost from the day they arrived, some of the slaves began to escape. They fled upriver into Suriname's wild interior, piloting dugout canoes past treacherous rapids or slashing paths through unfamiliar forests. Thousands were hunted down and killed.

But gradually the small bands of escapees grew in numbers and in strength. They raided plantations, carrying off axes and cooking pots. Slave owners came after them, only to discover that the forays were not only expensive and dangerous but also were teaching other slaves, brought along to row the canoes, the escape routes.

By 1760, the two sides agreed to peace.

Today six major tribes of Maroons -- the word comes from "cimarron," a Spanish term for runaway cattle or horses gone wild -- live in the deep forests of this former Dutch colony, living a life little changed from that of their forebears in Africa.

The oldest and largest group are the Saramacca, gathered in villages of a few hundred people each, spread along the upper reaches of the Suriname River.

Still unlinked by roads, the villages are reached by dugout canoe, sent through the swift current with handcarved paddles or, increasingly, a purring outboard.

The villages are a vision from another time and place.

At the landing in Asindoopo, young girls wrapped in bright cloth skirts clap and chant an impromptu welcome, as an old woman stomps a traditional secati dance beside a palm-leaf archway, believed to brush away evil spirits from those passing under it.

In the doorways of thatched wooden huts, women pound palm nuts to free their oily kernels, or grate cassava, as their ancestors have done for centuries.

Young girls, sprawled in the shade of mango trees, braid one another's hair using intricately carved wooden combs. Boys, some wearing ragged Chicago Bulls T-shirts, gather at the edge of the forest to chop at a log already taking the shape of a new canoe.

In spirit houses hung with tapir jaws, flags of colored cloth fly to honor village ancestors and the gods of the earth, of fire and of water.

"The Western clothes don't matter," Mr. Mittermeier said. "What matters is that their ceremonies and artifacts are still intact."

Suriname's 20,000 Saramaccaners speak a distinct language, an odd mix of Portuguese and English words set in a grammar, tone and cadence that is purely West African.

The language and the mix of faces in the villages reflect the diverse origins of the people, drawn from a variety of African countries and thrown together on the slave ships.

But much from Africa has survived intact. Around cooking fires at night, families still tell the spider fables of Ghana. Families are organized in matrilineal groups, tracing their roots through their mothers, not their fathers. And snakes still are revered in thatched spirit houses.

The Maroons also have learned from their adopted country. Incorporating botanical knowledge from Africa with that learned from the indigenous Indian groups of Suriname, the Maroons are considered the best herbalists and woodsmen in Suriname.

Frits van Troon strides through the forest, machete in hand, pointing out lianas that he says can heal burns, and telling stories of healers who can rebreak the bones of crippled people and help them walk again.

His people are considered the best boatsmen in South America, effortlessly piloting the dugout canoes through rivers laden with submerged boulders and teeming with piranha, caiman and electric eels.

"These people are very proud of their culture and with good reason," Mr. Mittermeier said. "They've gotten through a lot."

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