From the Field: Back in the ‘Nam

It’s impossible to describe how hot 3:00 is in Suriname. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a thermometer in all the years I lived here, so the relative shift from hot to scorching to beyond is difficult to quantify.

I spent all day out on the street koi-ing, socializing, meeting up with folks, hunting for upriver music in the big market. Everywhere there’s the usual hawkers of Rasta jewelry and CDs, the beggars and bums with varying degrees of originality; our personal favorite is the man whose sign proclaims he has no penis, and thus every day is a bad day for him. There’s the catcalls from the men, usually a loud kissing noise that carries across busy streets, and the women dragging small children looking uncomfortable fully dressed,  and the wagi drivers who bum-rush over to take your bag and carry you off wherever you want to go. Albina? Moengo? Nickerie? French Guiana? With the new government just installed, there’s a flurry of construction in progress, blocking streets, changing bus routes, causing the traffic cops to stand impressively all day in knee-high black boots and full uniform, including broad hats and white gloves.

After some phone tag, I met up with a good friend of mine from upriver, in town to buy some supplies for his gold mining camp.  Waka Boi is so named because he began walking at such an early age; his real name he only told me on the eve of my departure in January. I tease him that it’s actually due to the double- (triple, quadruple) meaning of the term waka boi–that it really means he’s a ladies’ man who gets around. I lived with his extended family in my village for almost two years and know about 6 of his siblings. Today I’m meeting the city contingent in Lelydorp.

We took the PL bus from the center of downtown, and settled into the jostling sweating ride punctuated by the horn blasts that comprise their own language in Suriname. As a very LARGE conspicuous white girl in a bus load of people, we weren’t the only ones snickering as I ducked below the seats to hide from the sun. Waka Boi offered to switch seats with me, so the late afternoon sun wouldn’t burn my face off, but I was content to duck and sneak occasional glimpses out of the window at the Hindu temples and Chinese bars and cows grazing the gutters.

The thing about buses in this country is that there’s no way not to be touching the person sitting next you. And given that you can’t help touching them, you can’t help feeling the heat radiating from their bodies. There is no aisle on a Surinamese bus; the bus doesn’t leave until all the folding seats that fill the aisle are occupied.  The bus is then jammed from window to window in an uninterrupted wall of flesh, row after row. Ironically, when it rains, the bus is so much worse–all the windows are closed, and it rapidly becomes a sweat bath. Give me the sun and the open windows, any day.

Buses in downtown Paramaribo, Suriname

To get from the city to his family’s compound takes an hour bus ride, a decent wait, a half hour car ride, and a switch from an evenly distributed panoply of ethnicities through a primarily Hindustanni and Javanese area, to the enclave of Ndjuka family. It also means switching languages from mostly Dutch and Sranan Tongo being spoken, through about four other languages, and landing with my folks, whose Ndjuka langauge is not understood by the other groups.

The rain started as we drove home. When I say we drove home, I mean we drove a ways, stopped for gas, flustered the poor attendant who was terribly surprised when the tinted window revealed a car full of Ndjuka jokes and stories, and the white girl who apparently (?) spoke Ndjuka? Then we drove home, by which I mean in the pouring rain with a warped reggae tape playing we stopped to put air in the tires, and tested the pressure by shoving them with one flip-flop clad foot. I also mean that we stopped to get another gas bomb (read: propane tank) and ginger candy. And then stopped at another store to get chicken feet, sugar, oil, cilantro, tomatoes, and all searched our pockets and bras (the Surinamese pocket) for the exact change, and dashed back through the rain one by one to the car.

Twenty minutes down a fairly decent dirt road we came to Waka Boi’s family’s plot. About fifteen years ago his father bought a piece of land, speculating that one of his 12 kids and numerous grandchildren just might someday want to stay in the city for some length of time.  Since then, they’ve built four houses going back from the road in a line that are nominally designated for certain siblings, but anyone and everyone stays wherever there’s room. It reminds me of my childhood, and camps in Maine.

By the time we got to the house, the rains had been pounding for a while, and the water hit my ankles when I got out of the car. Unfortunately, there’s no way to run in water in flip flops, so you just have to slosh as fast as possible while trying not to lose or break one.  When the rains come with a certain degree of urgency, there’s a general consensus about movement; as in, we were unlikely to make it back to the city that night.

The sisters began cooking, and we sat in the living room, painted with a bright mural admonishing, “Na Djalousou”, which literally translates to “Don’t Be Jealous”, but is a little closer to “Don’t be player-hating”. Fifteen kids between the ages of 1 and 12 years old were horsing around, smacking each other, imitating their teachers, making faces at the visitor. Maybe 6 of them normally lived there, and the rest were the extended cousins who had passed their yearly school exams and were moving on to the next grade.

The adult talk turned to Waka Boi’s work in the gold bush, how many men he had working for him, whether the location was good, the problems with employing local boys (nephews, cousins) vs men who have no family or girlfriends in the area. The nephew who went missing for three days until one of the sisters sent word from another village he was there, pining over a girl. Waka Boi wants to get a Brazilian trained dog to guard the camp; normal Surinamese dogs won’t do the trick, but the Brazilians have this dog they rent out for a percentage of the gold. The dog will recognize people pointed out to him and won’t attack, but if the Brazilians say not to let anyone in, no one passes. The dog gets paid 40 grams of raw gold, with free meals, which makes all of us guffaw.

Waka Boi

The uncle comes in from washing in the rain, and says the water’s now up to his calfs. Waka Boi and I go out to check it out, and sit on the porch enjoying the cool of rain-drenched breezes. Our flip flops are looking to float away, so we rescue all the footwear and pull it up onto the porch.

Thunderous rains at night lend a softness to the air in direct contrast to the din and force of impact on tin rooves and broad tropical leaves. We talk quietly about life on the river, people we both know, the time I’ve spent in America, my family, Marada and I’s work with Crown O’ Maine. He wants to know why I can’t stay longer, and I tell him what’s going on at home. This is a people that understands family, and work. He asks when I’ll come back, which I don’t know. Langa libi, he says, a benediction, long life so I may have time to come back.

We slap mosquitoes in the dark, and I idly speculate on the habitat range of the species that carry malaria and dengue, fairly certain I’m not at risk here. We talk about a mutual friend who does both gold smithing and farming. I tell Waka Boi, mi be kisi wan den f’eng, mi ede be soi mi wan sani. In Ndjuka language, I’ve gotten a dream about the friend, my head has shown me something. In my dream the friend is chasing after the gold work, as a boat full of men from Jamaika go by, grumbling distrustfully about the gold man, threatening action. Meanwhile, his garden is lush with pom tayer, cassava, eggplant, okro, corn, and rice, verdant in the early morning sun.

San wani taki dati? Waka Boi asks. What does it mean?

Well, I say, fa mi e sii eng, the way I see it, gold work is like a beautiful woman, intoxicating, you can’t help but look, follow the scent of it. But ground work, planting, farming, is like your mother, it will take care of you, provide for you, you can count on it. You’ll love them both, but you won’t love them the same way. A na toobi efu yu lobi ala den tu, of yu o lon go na baka fu a gowtu, ma yu mus sabi a waarde fu ala den tu. It’s not a problem if you love both, or if you chase after the gold, but you must know the worth of both. A beautiful woman can bring all kinds of excitement and danger, but at least your mother, when she disciplines you, still loves you and is consistent.

Waka Boi’s silent for a moment, then says, A tuu, it’s true.

I think of my great luck, which Waka Boi’s semi-jokes is my Gift from God, and how we have the shared language to speak of family, work, and farming, and dreams, and life, and how we can leave things unsaid and still hear them. My friends here have not been surprised to see me return; it feels natural to us. I tell them I feel close to my heart here, that I don’t know what lottery I won, but the Ndjuka people have made me feel like a child in the best of ways; held close, cherished, taught, shared amongst our people, and nurtured.

There’s a saying in Ndjuka when someone is leaving that goes something like, “Efu wi be sabi fa a libi be o waka, dan yu a be mus kon.” If we knew how life would go, then you shouldn’t have come.  In the subtlety of Ndjuka language, this means very clearly that it would be less painful to see someone we love leave if we had never known you.

Life ain’t perfect, not by a long shot, and my life in Suriname certainly hasn’t been easy. Waka Boi was with me when I found out Papa died. He saw me in those moments when I didn’t know myself. He’s been around through some of my other challenges here, too. So he hears the weight of it when I tell him I’m grateful for all of it, the surreal highs, the vertiginous lows, the soaring freedom of flying in a boat down a river, and the days of lying on the floor with a fever.

Efu mi be sabi a fesi sa be o pasa, mi be o kon ete. Mi be o gi Gadu Daa.

If I knew ahead of time what would have happened, I would have come anyway. I would have given thanks to the Powers-that-Be.

The Ndjuka River, home



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2 Responses to From the Field: Back in the ‘Nam

  1. We roll with the course we find ourselves on. Be happy now, not happy if, or happy when. Great detailed blog posts, imagery.

  2. Thanks , great blog . Good Information .

    Cheers Bill

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