Visiting the maroon tribe in the Amazon Jungle

In French Guiana, the convicts who arrived at the “Bagne” were told that they were welcome to try and run away; if the Amerindians didn’t catch them, the jungle or the sea would get them – and kill them. In Suriname, the slaves had the same problem if they escaped, except that many of them had been used to surviving in nature before they were enslaved. So once they had escaped from slavery, they hid in the swampy and poisonous Amazon forest, making it impossible for the Dutch soldiers to find them again. In time, the runaway slaves in Suriname started their own tribes far into the forest, the Maroons. To this day, the maroons still live in their villages by the jungle rivers, far from the rest of Suriname.

We got in touch with Rudi, a local guide, and soon we were on our way to visit a maroon village up the Suriname River. The way to the interior goes along the “Chinese highway”, a present to Surinam from China. Some of the Surinamese wonder why the Chinese are so nice and build them a road, others see the connection between the road and the many trucks removing valuable tropical tree from the Amazon forest, which is then shipped to China. For us, it was a reminder of conversations we had with people in West Africa, where the locals told us how China pays for infrastructure in Africa, in return for the resources. In Africa they were angry, in Surinam they seemed to have given up – if it’s not the Chinese, it’s just somebody else.

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On the road in Surinam, we met truck after truck, transporting tropical tree to the coast, to the extend that the road was completely destroyed in the eastward lane, where the loaded trucks drove. This was quite the contrast to French Guiana, where France is in control and the rain forest is protected to a much larger extend. In Suriname, the government is weak, and the president is commonly known to take part in the drug traffic through the country. Since we left, the president was actually proven guilty of executing 15 of his political opponents back in 1982. Scary stuff, especially as it seems that a sentence doesn’t make a difference, he will most likely continue as the president. Rudi, our guide, explained to us that many Surinamese feel that the Dutch left the country much too quickly, when they were given freedom in 1975, leaving the Surinamese, who had no experience in running a country, to themselves. This let to civil war in the 1980’ies, and even now there is a lot of tension between the many ethnic groups in the country.

After a few hours of driving, we reached the end of the road, and the place of the ferries. Which are actually canoes. There are no roads to the interior of Surinam, so we switched to a canoe, and continued our trip up the river for another hour. Most of the time we sailed through green forest, but every now and then we passed some houses, some planted banana trees or some school buildings. The maroons live very spread out, and schooling is not easy. While some of the villages have their own elementary schools, the kids have to move to a common boarding school down the river when they are older.

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A delivery canoe, with empty gas containers

The ferry sailed in and out between the shallows, which were invisible to everybody else other than the experienced ferryman, and finally we arrived in the Jaw Jaw maroon village. Here, we were given a room, and then we went to swim in the river along with everybody else. The local kids seemed very used to the current in the river, while we were a bit more careful to not be carried away.

Later, dinner was served while sun set, and the insects in the jungle began to wake up. And this was the most amazing part of being here. The sound. So loud that we couldn’t imagine that it was insects, and just continuing for hours through the night.

The village was made up partly of the old huts, which were very similar to the Amerindian huts we had seen in French Guiana, a roof and not much else, and partly of newer wooden buildings. One house has the function of one room in a conventional western house, for instance a kitchen or a sleeping room, and a family thus owns a number of small buildings, with each a function. The village does have electricity, from a generator, but they have to sail the gas to the village in the canoes (like everything else). Rudi told us how he was trying to tell the villagers that solar panels would be practical for a place like this, but they weren’t interested. We agreed with Rudi, but then realized how solar panels would need expensive batteries, and batteries need to be monitored to not be killed quickly. (Many boat owners will attest to batteries being a bit of a challenge). So in the end, a solar panel system is probably too complicated and expensive, unfortunately.

We walked past the small medical clinic and saw the primary school of the village. A man was working next to the school, removing the forest for a new field. Before arriving, Rudi had warned us never to take pictures of anyone without asking, but now he reminded us about it again. The day before, this man had taken the camera away from a tourist who had photographed his naked kids, and had been very angry with her and her tour guide. I suppose nobody likes tourists who come to your house and treat you as a dead attraction who doesn’t deserve respect.

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The second part of our tour was a visit to an island in the new lake, which has been formed in the rain forest, behind the damned up Suriname River. The village ferry man sailed us back to the road, and after some hours of driving we were ready for yet another canoe trip. The trees that used to grow here can still be seen sticking out of the lake, and Rudi told us that many villages have been buried under the water. I suggested that someone should start making dive trips to the lake, but Rudi looked at me as if I was crazy; the Wintjies (spirits) would be angry if anybody were to do such a stupid thing.

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The island was quiet and beautiful, with hundreds of parrots flying around and the kids were soon fishing for piranhas. After a while Runa actually caught one, and when she took it to Rudi for him to see, he turned pale. It will apparently bite of your finger if you’re not careful.

We went to bed in our hammocks to the sound of the jungle, but soon Mattis woke up with high fever. So instead of spending a day exploring the island, we decided to go back to Chip-Chip. The jungle isn’t the greatest place to be ill.

It had been a really interesting trip. Partly because of the things we saw, but mainly because Rudi was so knowledgeable about Surinam’s history, and about what is currently happening in the country, and why. Not too many visit Suriname, but this little country really gave us something to think about regarding slave history, colonialism, the role that Europe has played and the responsibility that we probably should take more seriously than we currently do. The actions of our ancestors still has a big impact on people’s life around the world.

 

 

 

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