Our Story, By Us
< Current local time in Suriname – Paramaribo
PARAMARIBO–The history of the Sa’macca people needs to be preserved; in a tangible manner and somewhere people can visit to learn from it. A group of Sa’maccans has taken this believe to heart recently and started a museum in the Pikin Slee village. Not in town or in a village that’s easier accessible … Pikin Slee lies at a three-hour boatride from Atjoni up the upper Suriname river; Atjoni itself is at a three-to-four hour drive southbound from Paramaribo. Not to worry, the museum initiators say. “It’s a museum about the history of the Sa’macca people; folks will come to see it, because it’s an important part of our Black history. There is not another one like this museum anywhere in the world,” says Berry Vrede, the spokesman of the Totomboti foundation. After almost a year in operation, the museum opens officially on Saturday October 15th.
The Sa’macca people are one of several tribes of decedents of Africans who during colonial times chose freedom in Suriname’s thick forest above slavery on Dutch plantations. For centuries these people retained their distinctive identities based on their West African origins and desire for isolation. But still, Mando and Edje Doekoe, woodcarving artists from Pikin Slee, felt that their culture was slipping away, as modern day developments creep further and further into Suriname’s hinterland.
“You can notice a lot of changes in the way our people live these days, the way they dress, eat, sing and even build their houses. A lot is different from the traditions of our bigi sma, our old people. We felt we had to do something before our culture is totally lost,” Mando says, with Edje quietly listening but eagerly agreeing. “We have to preserve their things, before they’re lost to us all. There are important things that they have left behind for us to know.”
Totomboti is the Sa’macca name for the persistent woodpecker bird; probably because just as the bird knows to hammer determinedly toward tasty insects in a tree trunk, the foundation works persistently toward its goals.
Mando and Edje, the dreadlocked woodcarvers, went scouring and collecting old time effects to show in the museum; they found woodcarvings, benches, tables and doorframes (doo buka paw), some discarded by people who weren’t aware or didn’t seem to care for their value. “We went to all the villages to see what we could collect. We even bought stuff that people weren’t using anymore. To us it was important to show how our bigi sma used to live in the past,” says Mando.
Pikin Slee was chosen as location for the museum, not only because Mando and Edje hail from this village, but also because –with close to 3,000 residents- it is one of the largest Sa’macca villages alongside the River. “It is at a distance from Paramaribo and yes, you do have to pass some sulas (rapids) on your way there, but if you go up-river and you don’t pass any sulas, you haven’t really been to the hinterland, have you?,” Berry Vrede says. Together with jurist Justine Eduards, this outspoken, fatherly man has taken the task of representing the foundation in Paramaribo. In the Netherlands, a steering group Totomboti, was able to help secure funding to start the project.
Vrede says the museum is important beyond the obvious reasons of preserving culture. “The history of the Black people is nowhere as preserved as it is here, so now, by displaying it for the world to see, we hope the museum brings employment to the people of Pikin Slee, and of course education for our young ones who need to know how our people lived,” he says.
The museum has already attracted international attention. Mando and Edje travelled to French Guyana in the weekend of 16 and 17 September, to attend a conference of Caribbean museum curators. “They were invited to attend, which we already consider quite the acknowledgement,” says Mr. Vrede.
He says now it’s time for the “world to come and see the museum.” The grand opening will likely be quite the event, with a program that’s wrapped around the official ceremony on Saturday October 15th; there will be the showing of a documentary on Pikin Slee on Friday and a sportsday on Sunday. “We want to make it a big event, to show off our museum, but also to present the possibilities for vacationing in our midst,” Mr. Vrede says.
Tour operators that bring tourists to the nearby Pasensi (patience) resort, already know to make a stop at the museum. Vrede is quick to snatch the opportunity at wordplay the name of the resort offers: “Yes, it takes pasensi to get to this museum, but it’s worth it.”