The Saramaka, people from the woods of Suriname, are the present-day descendants and living witnesses of an extraordinary epic. Their story began more than three centuries ago with the first runaway enslave who followed the Suriname River to lose herself in the midst of the virgin forest, where to her great surprise, she was aided by the Maroon rebels native Indians who lived there.
Although all the official observers thought the Saramaka were without a history, without any collective memory whatsoever, in fact, the Saramaka possessed a solid oral tradition that went back to their very beginning: to the very first enslave who, around the start of the seventeenth century, followed the Suriname River inland. In his magnificent book, First Time: The Historical Vision of an Afro-American People, Richard Price recalls this narrative.
It seems, from reading Price’s work, that each person interviewed was a living archive, each with a scrupulously faithful memory in keeping with the great African oral tradition. That is why some have dared to say, quite correctly, that: “In Africa, each time an old woman dies, it is as though a library has gone up in flames.”
According to oral tradition, as collected by Richard Price in the 1970s, the founder of the Saramaka was an African named Lanu, the husband of a slave from Dahomey. This woman worked in the manor of the Waterland Plantation and was called Osima of Dahomey (now called the Republic of Benin.)
One day, as she gave her man a glass of water, her masters noticed and said: “The woman has given Lanu sugarcane juice!” They beat her until she died.
Then they brought her body to Lanu and said: “Look at your wife here.” They whipped him until he passed out and was left for dead in a field.
But, Lanu recovered, ran away into the forest, looking for the spirit of his beloved Osina. He could not find her, but, legend has it that he came upon a forest spirit who took pity on him and led him to a place settled by Indians, who took him in, and looked after his wounds, and he stayed with them.
Lanu’s younger brother, Ayako, and his sister, Seei, had remained at the manor. One day as Seei was doing the laundry, with her baby strapped to her back, the child started crying. Seei was about to breastfeed him, when the white slave master forbid her to do it. Seei kept working, her baby continued to cry, so the master ordered her to bring the child to him. She did as he instructed, and she went back to work.
Meanwhile the master took her baby, and by the feet, dumped his little body, headfirst, into a bucket of water, leaving him submerged for a long while. Then he called for Seei and dryly said: “Come take your child and tie it on your back.” Seei did as she was ordered. She washed clothes until evening, when the ringing of the bell released the enslaves from labor. By then, the child was dead, stiff as a board.
When her brother, Ayako, saw this he railed and lamented that his family was finished. He cried that Seei had only one child left, and if that child cried, it too would meet the same horrendous fate, thereby leaving Seei with no surviving children. Thus, Ayako, fearing such a fate for the remainder of his family still living with him, that he took Seei and her baby and ran away.
There in the forest, they met with Lanu, and were reunited again.
The name of the place where they settled was Matjau Creek, at the junction of Sara Creek, in the area around the first third of the Surinam River. That is how it still is today.
Waterfall at the Corantyn River (Wonotobo): Photo credit – Dirk Blij
After having rested, Ayako returned to the Waterland Plantation to free people. His brother Lanu prepared for him this mission because he was himself a great obiama, or instrument of the spirits.
After Ayako’s arrival, the enslaves held a secret meeting in the forest. They decided to burn a plantation that might have the most iron tools—-the Cassewinica Plantation, the one with the most enslaves. They attacked it at night, killed the master, and, after having seized everything that could be of use, they ransacked the crops, burnt all of the houses, and ran off.
Before going into war, they gathered for a war counsel, these great men of yersteryear. Then they crept up and patiently waited until they saw the white master. They did not merely want to set Waterland on fire: they wanted to kill the master. . . .
Seei’s surviving child was about ten years old at the time of the incredible escape, of which we have no details. His name was Adjagbo and he was the son of Ayako’s daughter, who was also Lanu’s sister. Lanu, Ayako, and Seei left behind them nothing but shame and mourning.
But Adjagbo left behind him a little girl by the name of Paanza, with whom he got along very well.
This shaped the fate of the Kasitu clan, whose descendants now live in the village of Pikilio, while those who belong to the main branch, the Matjuas, live beyond the river. Both peoples are the children of Adjagbo, the children he was not able to forget.
Paanza’s birth had been a misfortune and her whole story stemmed from that: in other words, a white man had gotten Paanza’s mother pregnant.
Paanza’s mother was from Africa and had black skin. But Paanza’s skin was truly light, without being white, and when the enslaves saw the little mixed girl born from her mother’s black thighs, they were very unhappy. They did not want to accept Paanza’s mother as one of them and soon began to mistreat her and her child.
The whites, too, mistreated Paanza and her mother. Paanza’s white father could not stand the sight of the little girl, although she struck him as charming, so he decided to sell her to another white man. Paanza had a dark-skinned older brother whose name was Tjapanda, and a dark-skinned older sister, whose name was Lukenesi. The white man sold them all together: Paanza, her mother, as well as her older brother and sister. They were brought to Kasitu, a plantation adjacent to the Waterland Plantation, where Lanu, his brother Ayako, and his sister, Seei then lived. Paanza was like a bakaa, a white woman, and the white man purchased her to put in his bed when she turned ten. He made Paanza’s sister Lukenesi her handmaid.
He made her brother Tjapanda her watchman.
The Waterland Plantation and Kasitu Plantations were neighbors, and so it sometimes happened that the two children, Paanza and Adjagbo, worked side by side. Adjagbo liked to talk to Paanza, who liked her brother’s voice.
When it became known that the white man was taking the girl to bed, the black men turned their backs and said: “She’s no longer one of us.”
Adjagbo felt great pity. Although his uncle Ayako spat when he saw the child, Adjagbo still felt sorry for the girl. The way Ayako saw it, each time his eyes fell on Paanza, she reminded him of the white man’s cruel sexual atrocities. But Adjagbo found this shunning of Paanza for something she had no control over, as unfair and he remained a friend to her. On the day of escape, when Ayako dragged him and his mother, Seei, toward the forest, Adjagbo did not want to leave Paanza behind. Many enslaves followed their example and setled in fortified villages between the Surinam and Saramaka Rivers, among the inextricable web of currents, creeks, and swamps that link these two large bodies of water. From the coastal town of Paramaribo, the whites sent armed barges up the Suriname River, ushering in endless warfare followed by fires and massacres.
dent and fearful of her fate, his morose behaviour tormented his fellow escaped rebels, and the Sraramaka resolved that if Adjagbo was reunited with Paanza, that it would lift more than his spirits. Not wanting their leader to continue to be sad for his Paanza, they called a meeting and met with him, and discussed how to resolve his despair. He suggested that they go and get Paanza and bring her to him. They asked if they brought Paanza there to Adjagbo, would he cease causing chaos among the many rebels whose wives he had slept with, and he agreed that it would cease once he beheld his beloved Paanza. So, the Saramaka set out to take Paanza from her degraded servitude.
Ayako prepared an obia, a pot in which he boiled ingredients with which he meant to put the man guarding Paanza to sleep.
In those days, one would could not travel by canoe because the river routes were spiked with gunmen on the banks. Ayako walked all the way to the Kasitu Plantation, where he saw a group of slaves bowed over a rice paddy, cutting rice. Tjapanda, Paanza’s brother, was watching over the young woman as she cut the rice, bowed like the rest of the enslaves. Tjapanda lay down with his gun and machete, because he did not know that Ayako had already fed him his boiled dish, putting him to sleep. Ayako took his weapons and hid them. Then he came back to Paanza and said to her:
“One word, one word and I’ll kill you. Look, I’ve already put your brother’s spirit to sleep and my obia will also work its magic on you. I am the brother of Adjagbo’s mother and I have come to fetch you: get ready and let us leave from here.”
Paanza put her hands over her eyes and then against her ears. Finally, she let out her hair and hid seeds of rice in it, which she then tied with her angisa, the same scarf enslaves used to tie around their waists. That handful of rice was all she needed. Ayako brought her to the edge of the forest and said:
“You must stay here.Know that I have not really killed your brother. If you try and escape, nothing will save you from my obia: as for me, I’m going to wake up the fellow so that he may come along with his sister. Since the last time we have seen each other, I’ve learned that we must leave no one behind.”
With these words, Ayako went toward the sleeping man and hit him with the edge of his hand. Tjapanda started and made a move to defend himself, but Ayako said spitefully:
“Don’t even try beceause I’ve already got you—-where are your gun and machete? Look at me, and get on your feet. How can you still be here after all this time? You were sold a long time ago and you’re still here? Black man, my son, come with me into the forest. There we have anything your heart may desire. We have fought and run away; and now we’re back here for you and for your sister, who is awaiting our signal.”
When he heard these words, Tjapanda began to cry and jumped into the air, as if struck by a bullet. Then he ran toward his other sister, Paanza’s older sister, and ran away with her in the directionof Djuka, where he founded that people, such as we know it today.
The next day, the brother of Adjagbo’s mother arrived in Baakawata and said to the young man:
“Look, I have brought back the woman we had left, and she has brought us a large handful of rice.”
Adjagbo was overjoyed and lived with Paanza and loved her.
According to Richard Price, Paanza was born around 1705 and she died between 1775 and 1780 in the village of Pikilio, where she was buried. She was freed from slavery between 1730 and 1740, no one knows when precisely; in any case, she was young enough to give several children to Adjagbo, father of two great Saramaka nations.