Saramaka - Marriage and Family

Marriage. The application of complex marriage prohibitions (including beè exogamy) and preferences is negotiated through divination. Demographic imbalance owing to labor migration permits widespread polygyny. Although cowives hold equal status, relations between them are expected to be adversarial. Marriages tend to be brittle; men average seven wives and women four husbands during their lifetime. The Saramaka treat marriage as an ongoing courtship, with frequent exchanges of gifts such as men's woodcarving and women's decorative sewing. Although many women live primarily in their husband's village, men never spend more than a few days at a time in the matrilineal (home) village of a wife.

Domestic Unit. Each house belongs to an individual man or woman, but most social interaction occurs outdoors. The men in each cluster of several houses, whether beè members or temporary visitors, eat meals together. The women of these same clusters, whether beè members or resident wives of beè men, spend a great deal of time in each others' company, often farming together as well.

Inheritance. Matrilineal principles, mediated by divination, determine the inheritance of material and spiritual possessions as well as political offices. Before death, however, men often pass on specialized ritual knowledge (and occasionally a shotgun) to a son.

Socialization. Each child, after spending its first several years with its mother, is raised by an individual man or woman (not a couple) designated by the beè, girls normally by women, boys by men. Although children spend most of their time with matrilineal kin, father-child relations are warm and strong. Gender identity is established early, with children taking on responsibility for sex-typed adult tasks as soon as they are physically able. Girls often marry by age 15, whereas boys are more often in their twenties when they take their first wife. Protestant missionary schools have existed in some villages since the eighteenth century; such elementary schools came to most villages only in the 1960s. Schools ceased to function completely during the Suriname civil war of the late 1980s.

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