I never intended on writing about this place.
The big story, the token article for Suriname was supposed to be the much anticipated Carifesta XI taking place for 10 days in Paramaribo during August 2013. I would have never known of the existence of the Maroon people and their villages if not for picking up travel tips and advice from every traveler we meet – which has been a rare occasion since arriving in Guyana. In fact, I came to the Maroon village of Santigron, hardly a drive from the capital city of Paramaribo, without much knowledge of what or whom I was coming to see.* Mr. Gilles and the most helpful Ms. Bianca at Access Suriname Travel made every neccesary arrangement to bring us to the village despite our unscheduled, last-minute request. This would only be the beginning of many delightful surprises and exceeded expectations.
*(Surprise guests are not welcome in the villages without a local guide.) Before we even arrived in the village we began to understand what this ‘tour’ was all about. A man, who fell in love with this community, and has spent years of his own sweat, tears, money and provided a voice for people here. He opened up a channel so that tourism could come here – profits going to the people and proliferate the traditions of a dying culture. The children are once again learning the dances of their elders so they may perform them for visitors with an invigorating energy. Mr. Gilles has founded the ‘eco park’ within the village but every single person associated with it is a local Maroon. The park itself is a tiny and exemplary resort where tourists can come spend a single day (or a multi-day tour where you sleep in the eco park) learning and interacting within the village and jungle — and it all benefits the community! Several beautiful cabins adorn well groomed grounds around a kitchen/dining room area. A ‘relax lounge’ holds eight hammocks at the creek side, directly under the looming jungle that surrounds this village. Inside the cabins continues to impress, as so far it has been the nicest accommodation I’ve had in Suriname. Simple but spacious, comfortable and clean.
I can’t speak highly enough of the staff here, the ladies running the kitchen (always with a smile), Stanley, the park host, and especially our guide Kenneth whose unparalleled knowledge of the life, culture, languages, history, environment and even the local gossip made our visit spectacularly interesting and welcoming. There are 6 different groups of Maroons here in Santigron village each with its own chief, its own language and other cultural differences. There is also the influence from multiple religions, but mainly a belief in spirits and afterlife which is taken very seriously. Oracles and medicine men in the village help interpret the needs of these spirits (human or animal) and what they demand in order to achieve peace with the living. Every family here, polygamous units traced matrilinealy, has one or more pray houses which they dedicate to appeasing the spirits. Other traditional aspects of life for these grandsons of escaped slaves are still evident and set very much in superstitions believed here. Amongst the traditional thatch roof homes also stand more modern concrete homes, some even with a television, built by individuals returning to the village life after years or even decades of working in their former colonialists nation of Holland.
The national language in Suriname is still Dutch. Children as young as six are already well versed in 4 different languages as they begin with the language of their tribe. They are then taught the common language that ties together the village community. By primary school they are conducting classes in Dutch. Many more are also learning English independently or begin lesson in secondary school when they are sent away from the village for education.
After another excellent home-cooked traditional meal in the park you make your way to the Santigron disco to drink and party along side the locals. The party goes late but remember you still have to wake up in the morning for the jungle trek. Truthfully, the trek is more about getting to know how the Maroons connect with their environment and other tribes around them such as the Amerindians; the natives of this land before the Europeans came to America. The Amerindians are actually know to have helped African slaves escape plantations and taught them to survive in secret in the jungle – the way of the first Maroon people.
Our initial walk through the village began within Kenneth pointing how every tree and flower around us has use in the village life or has medicinal qualities. It is truly impressive. These are people who until recent years all lived off the land independently. A man’s worth was and still is measured by his ability to provide for his family by fishing and hunting for their meals. Others pick fruit or make medicinal remedies to take to the markets outside the village. The females are still sent to the “women’s house” where they are separated and prohibited from entering the village during menstruation because the blood is considered unclean. The men are forbidden to cry even during the long designated mourning periods lest they risk being called homosexuals – clearly something that is still unacceptable within the community. There are simply too many interesting, rare and wonderful facts that I learned in a single day here.
This is to be experienced with the people – once they warm up to you that is. There are strict rules that you must respect as a guest here. Photography is only allowed with expressed consent outside of the designated park. Children may still scream and cry if you approach them and many children and adults may be only half dressed or bathing from a bucket beside their homes. The people are joyful and calm though and the children are impossibly cute and very talented dancers. Perhaps the highlight of the entire journey was the traditional music and dance presented by Santigrons youngest inhabitants. More than 40 people gathered to celebrate and move in a presentation just for the two of us, their special guests. Following that, we were taken into the jungle by boat to explore more wildlife (we saw a very large Anaconda!) and another small Maroon village known for its handmade canoes. Every piece of the day is filled with enlightening new information and entertainment that can also be yours if you find yourself in Suriname. Plus if you choose to spend a second day in village, the adventure continues in the evening.
The tour wrapped up with a goodbye lunch that truly felt like I was saying goodbye to people that touched my heart. It is the people here, the love and feeling of welcome that was first initiated with sensitivity and community empowerment by Mr. Gilles, is what sticks out to me. I feel special myself to get the opportunity to learn and listen and play with the people of Santigron.