POPULATION: 410,000 in Suriname; 200,000 in The Netherlands
LANGUAGE: Dutch (official); English; Spanish; Sranan; Hindi; Sranan Tongo (Taki-Taki)
RELIGION: Christianity; Hinduism; Islam
Suriname became a British colony in 1650 and a Dutch colony in 1667. The Dutch made what has been called the worst land-swap deal in history. They took Suriname in exchange for Nieuw Amsterdam—or New York, as the British called it.
The Dutch imported west African slaves to Suriname to work on sugarcane and coffee plantations. Later indentured workers (contract laborers) were brought from Java, China, and India to work in the fields. It is in this rich ethnic mixture that the modern Surinamese have their roots.
Suriname's journey from independence in 1975 has been marred by military coups, political repression, and guerrilla warfare.
Formerly called Dutch Guiana, Suriname is the smallest country in South America. It also has the smallest population, estimated at 410,000 in 1990. Located on the north-central coast of South America, it has an area of 63,251 square miles (163,820 square kilometers). Suriname has a narrow coastal plain. Much of it is swampy and requires drainage systems and dikes. Low, forested mountain ranges cover 80 percent of the country.
The official language of Suriname is Dutch, but many people speak English. Sranan (a Creole language), Hindi, and other Asian Indian, African, and Amerindian languages are also spoken. Altogether, twenty-two languages are spoken. The most common language is Sranan Tongo, also called Taki-Taki. It combines elements of English, Dutch, and several African languages.
Many Surinamese folk tales are based on African traditions. They emphasize the African belief in the unity between all forms of life. They also stress the continuing link between the living and the dead. Many of the stories take place in Africa. One particular type of folktale involves a cunning spider who outwits humans and animals. Riddles play an important part in Creole folklore. Despite European influence, the lai tori riddles are overwhelmingly of African origin.
The main religion in Suriname is Christianity, followed by Hinduism and Islam. Some Christian groups also follow traditional African practices such as Obeah and Winti. Winti is a largely secret religion from West Africa. It recognizes a multitude of gods and ghosts, each having its own myths, rites, offerings, taboos (forbidden acts), and magical forces.
The Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr celebrates the end of fasting during Ramadan. The Hindu festival of Holi Phagwa is a lively event. Water, paint, and colored powder are thrown into the streets at people passing by. Independence Day, a major national holiday, is on November 25.
Naming ceremonies at birth are important among Surinamese of all religions. Wedding ceremonies are elaborate and colorful, with generous feasting. Circumcision of males is practiced by Muslims.
Hindus practice a birth ceremony called jatakarma . Traditionally it takes place before the umbilical cord is cut. The naming ceremony occurs ten days after the child is born. The different Christian sects baptize children according to their own religious traditions.
Hindus in Suriname do not observe the caste system of the villages of India. However, Brahmins (people of the highest-ranking Brahmic caste) retain their special religious role, interpreting sacred rituals and Sanscrit texts.
Anyone visiting a friend or acquaintance is expected to call on everyone they know in the same neighborhood. Not to do so is considered extremely rude.
Life expectancy is sixty-eight years for men and seventy-three for women, among the highest in South America.
The country's economy suffered during the 1980s because of political instability. Health is generally good. Sanitary conditions and nutrition are generally adequate.
Many of the Maroons (who are descended from escaped black African slaves) have more than one wife. Care of their children is entrusted to one parent at a time. Children spend their first four to six years with their mother. Many are then given to the father or another relative. There may be further shifts at later ages based on the child's developing needs or the parents' situation.
Many of the Javanese women in Suriname still wear sarongs as they would in Indonesia. The Creole women continue to wear the kotomissie , a traditional costume. It includes a handkerchief called an angisa.
The food of Suriname reflects the country's ethnic diversity. Warungs— Javanese food stalls—serve bami goreng (fried noodles) and nasi goreng (fried rice). Creole food uses tubers, such as cassava and sweet potatoes. Plantains, similar to bananas, are eaten with chicken and seafood, including shrimp.
Rice is the staple diet for most people. Pom is puréed taro root, spiced and served with kip (chicken). Moksie alesie is a rice dish with meat, chicken, white beans, tomatoes, peppers, and spices.
Education is free and compulsory from the age of six years to twelve years. Most students leaving primary education continue into secondary school. Higher education is provided by the government at the Anton de Kom University. Literacy rates (percent of the population who can read and write) are about 95 percent for both men and women.
Drums are used to accompany the intense dancing during competitions known as "dance feasts." The drums of the Maroons must never be touched by a female.
At night the mellow sounds of metallic music are heard in the capital city, Paramaribo. This is the famous traditional Javanese "gamelan" music.
The Asian Indians are mostly small farmers. Creoles in urban areas work mostly in retail, politics, and the professions. The Javanese work mainly on Dutch-owned plantations. Many families depend on relatives in the Netherlands who send home money. Some Surinamese add to their incomes by working illegally in neighboring Guyana and French Guiana. There are no unemployment benefits or other social welfare benefits.
Soccer is played in towns and villages everywhere. A great hero of the game is Ruud Gullit, of Suriname descent. He became the captain of the Dutch national team. Another popular sport is swimming.
Birdsong competitions are held in parks and public plazas on Sundays and holidays. People carrying their songbirds (usually small black tua-tuas) in cages are a frequent sight on the streets of Paramaribo. They may be on the way to a training session or simply taking the bird for a stroll.
Young people enjoy outings, sporting events, and movies, as well as dancing.
Many of the Maroons' huts display the fine woodcarvings for which they are famous and that adorn furniture, tools, and boots. The Afro-centered Maroon culture is also known for its sculpture.
Certain parts of the interior are controlled by groups of armed rebels. Warfare has driven many refugees from Maroon villages across the border into camps in French Guiana.
The country is also undergoing a continuing economic crisis. Inflation was around 54 percent by mid-1993 and was heading toward 100 percent.
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Sedoc-Dahlberg, Betty. The Dutch Caribbean: Prospects for Democracy. New York: Gordon and Breach, 1990.
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