Those who sail on the Upper Suriname River today 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 dishes in a basin on their heads, the women climb the stairs to their upper village: a collection of simple houses, made of planks, the roof of plaited palm leaves or zinc. The villages are surrounded by overwhelming greenery and can only be entered through an entrance gate, the 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 work their agricultural land, fields that are within walking or sailing distance of the villages. Ocher, cassava and rice protrude from the ground between sawn down and blackened tree trunks. For daily consumption, the women grow Asian white rice, but on almost every agricultural plot 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, completely different from the golden yellow culms of the 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 land of the ancestors 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 African west coast as bulk food for the enslaved, who were crammed into the hold. Enslaved women had to peel and cook the rice on board and were thus able to collect unshelled seeds, braid them into their hair and plant them around the slave huts upon arrival in Suriname. On their flight from the Surinamese plantations, the women took as many rice seeds as possible with them.
Returning to Africa was impossible. By hiding from Dutch slave traders in the deep rainforest, the Maroons tried as much as possible to restore 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 societies. 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 within Maroon culture; historiography is based on oral tradition and handed down rituals. Because there are different Maroon tribes, there are also different traditions about how rice from Africa ended up in Suriname. It is said among the Okanisi that Sapali, an enslaved foremother, 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 one variety that is still grown in western Ivory Coast.
Contrary to the traditions of the Maroons themselves, the punitive expeditions that the colonial authorities undertook 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 took part 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, but in the interior it is mainly used for herbal baths to cleanse 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 the granman, also called gaaman or gaama, the head of the community and spiritual leader, months. The embalmed body is placed in a special place in the village, with gifts such as drink and cooking oil around the coffin, and people who watch over it. Women are not allowed to go to the cemetery, but grind black rice very finely before the burial 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 frantic efforts by 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 tramp, in search of Suriname’s resilience is her most recent book.