Six Degrees of Suriname — Written and illustrated by Norman Macdonald on Saudi Aramco World| A diverse country with Christian, Muslim, Hindus and others live peacefully side by side

Suriname is a country the size of Florida with a half million souls living with Guyana to the west, French Guiana east and giant Brazil south. Paramaribo, its capital, gives the impression of a peaceful coastal town back in the 1950s—until new cars and pickups bring you back to the present. Road signs are in Dutch, but driving is on the left, just as it was in the Netherlands before Napoleon invaded and switched it, but his decree never reached this Dutch colony.

Six Degrees of Suriname

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.

 

Flag of Surinam

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.

 

(…)

Robert Bipat

physiologist

 

Robert Bipat

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.

 

Food in Surinam

(…)

Read full and view all on:

https://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/201504/six.degrees.of.suriname.htm

 

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