Those who sail the Upper Surinam River today will see maroon women, dressed in colorful shawls, washing their pots and pans sparkling clean. Children jump from rocks into the green-brown river water. With the clean plates in a basin on their heads, the women climb the stairs to their upper village: a collection of simple houses, made of planks, roofed with plaited palm fronds or zinc. The villages are surrounded by overwhelming greenery and can only be entered through an entrance gate, azan pau. This is a low horizontal stick on which fringes of palm leaves hang, intended to keep out evil influences.
Growing crops is also a woman’s business. They cultivate their agricultural land, fields that are within walking or sailing distance from the villages. Ocher, cassava and rice stick up from the ground between sawn and blackened tree trunks. For daily consumption, the women grow Asian white rice, but on almost all agricultural land they also clear a few square meters for matu alisi, forest rice; known in Sranantongo as blaka aleisi: black rice, with the scientific name Oryza glaberrima.
At harvest time, this rice variety has a dark brown to black husk around the grain, quite different from the golden yellow ears of consumer rice, Oryza sativa. Although matu alisi is cultivated on a limited scale, the rice variety has an important emotional and spiritual meaning in maroon culture. In addition, because of its dark skin, it is a clearly recognizable physical remnant of the ancestral land in Africa, which the Maroons were forced to leave more than three hundred years ago.
Dutch slave ships in the 17th and 18th centuries bought up rice on the West African coast as bulk food for the enslaved, who were crammed together in the hold. Enslaved women had to peel and cook the rice on board and thus could collect unhusked seeds, braid them into their hair and plant them around the slave huts on arrival in Suriname. On their escape from the Surinamese plantations, the women took as many rice seeds as possible with them.
It was impossible to return to Africa. Hiding from Dutch slave traders in the deep rainforest, the Maroons tried as much as possible to recreate the life they or their ancestors had led in Africa. The enslaved refugees came from different parts of the African continent with their own specific cultural expressions. In their new, hastily built settlements, they were forced to form communities. This led to the emergence of six different maroon communities, of which the Saamaka and Okanisi are the largest groups, each with its own language.
Written sources are lacking in maroon culture; historiography is based on oral tradition and handed down rituals. Because there are different red-brown strains, there are also different traditions about how rice from Africa ended up in Suriname. It is said among the Okanisi that Sapali, an enslaved concubine, used to braid grains of rice in her hair. Among the Saamaka, Ma Paanza, as the guardian of the rice, is honored with a special gathering every few years. It is almost certain that Sapali and Ma Paanza brought two different varieties of Asian rice and that these varieties have been cultivated in West Africa since 1450, brought from Asia by the Portuguese. DNA research also shows that the black rice is exactly the same as a variety still grown in western Ivory Coast.
Contrary to the traditions of the Maroons, the punitive expeditions undertaken by the colonial authorities against them were accurately recorded. As in colonial records and on a 1737 map drawn by the Prussian soldier and cartographer Alexander de Lavaux, who participated in two such expeditions. In addition to the exact location of plantations, Lavaux also drew soldiers with firearms, dogs, burning huts and maroons running away in panic. The Africans went behind the rapids that were difficult for the Dutch to navigate and founded settlements in the jungle, where even today dogs are not exactly loved; you don’t see them anywhere.
Nowadays, black rice is hardly eaten anymore, but in the interior it is mainly used for herbal baths to purify the spirit and for offerings to the ancestors. Black rice still plays an important role during funerals. Mourning activities for the dead can take weeks, depending on the status of the deceased. In the case of granman, also called gaaman or gaama, the leader of the community and spiritual leader, months. The embalmed body is placed in a special place in the village, with gifts such as drinks and cooking oil around the coffin, and people watching over it. Women are not allowed to go to the cemetery, but grind black rice very finely before the funeral and give the rice flour to the men. At the grave they mix it with water and sprinkle the mixture. Asian rice is also offered to the ancestors during funerals.
Matu alisi, black rice and other rices native to Africa, are tangible evidence of resistance to colonial rule, despite the frantic efforts of the Dutch to erase all African features.
Tessa Leuwsha is a writer and cultural attaché at the Dutch Embassy in Paramaribo. Her literary work has been nominated for several awards. Fansi’s silence, a grandmother and slavery is edited by her into a documentary. The vagabond, in search of Suriname’s resilience is her latest book.