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LOCATION: Suriname
POPULATION: 475,996 in Suriname; 200,000 in Holland (the Netherlands)
LANGUAGE: Dutch (official); English; Spanish; Sranan; Hindi; Sranan Tongo (Taki-Taki)
RELIGION: Christianity; Hinduism; Islam


Suriname became a British colony in 1650 and then a Dutch colony in 1667. The Dutch made what has been known in history as the worst land-swap deal ever—taking Suriname in exchange for New Amsterdam, or New York, as the new British owners called it. The Dutch planted sugarcane and coffee, importing West African slaves to work on the plantations. But, the brutality of the owners drove many slaves into the interior, where they successfully evaded capture. In 1863, slavery was abolished in Suriname and former slaves were placed under government supervision for a period of 10 years, in order to perform important tasks under contract. Indentured workers were then brought from Java, China, and India to work in the fields. It is this rich ethnic mixture that influences the modern Surinamese society.

In 1954, Suriname was granted autonomy in its internal affairs, receiving aid and resources from the Netherlands. Ten years later, in 1964, Suriname became an associated member of the European Economic Community (EEC) and started receiving aid from the EEC's development fund.

Suriname's journey from independence in 1975 has been marred by several military coups that led to the brutal repression of opposition and a rebellious uprising by the Maroon communities, evolved from Black African slaves, within the rainforest interior. The military, then under the leadership of Desi Bouterse, prosecuted citizens who were accused of plotting against the government. The National Army was accused of carrying out raids on their villages, killing and detaining large numbers of them, which resulted in the flight of 10,000 to 20,000 Maroons to French Guiana. During the military dictatorship, Suriname was cut off from aid by the Netherlands and America. The loss of $800 million of aid badly damaged the economy.

In 1987, elections were held and a new constitution was adopted, returning the country to civilian rule. However, the political agreement allowed Bouterse to remain as the army commander. Bouterse's power began to wane after the 1991 elections. That year Ronald Venetiaan became president and, in 1992, a peace accord was signed with the two main guerrilla groups, the Surinamese Liberation Army and the Tucayana Amazonas. In 1996, Jules Albert Wijdenbosch was elected president of Suriname. His administration was marked by deep economic problems. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) declared the country virtually bankrupt. During his administration, Wijdenbosch also had to face the political instability generated when the Netherlands issued an arrest warrant against Bouterse on charges of drug smuggling. Even though Suriname failed to extradite Bouterse, the former dictator was sentenced to 16 years in prison in 1999.

In 2000, the mathematician Ronald Runaldo Venetiaan was elected president of Suriname. His first term as president was from 1991 to 1996, but he lost the reelection to Jules Wijden-bosch. In 2005, Venetiaan was reelected to serve a third term as president.

Suriname's economy has been dominated by the mining industry, accounting for 55% of the GDP. Aluminum, gold, and oil represent about 85% of the national exports and 25% of government revenues, making the national economy highly vulnerable to international mineral prices. Even though Suri-name's economy has grown during recent years—in 2007 GDP growth was 5.1%—national wealth has remained highly concentrated. In 2002 more than 70% of the population was living under the poverty line. In 2004, the unemployment rate was 9.5%.


Formerly Dutch Guiana, Suriname is the smallest country in Latin America with the smallest population, estimated in 2008 at 475,996. Located on the north-central coast of South America, it has an area of 163,820 sq km (63,251 sq mi)—but 17,635 sq km (6,809 sq mi) remain as disputed territories with neighboring Guyana and French Guiana. Suriname has a narrow coastal plain near or below sea level, much of it swampy and requiring draining systems and dikes. A central massif of low, forested mountain ranges covers 80% of the entire country.

Suriname has a humid tropical climate throughout the year, tempered along the coast by the northeast trade winds. Rainfall is over 300 cm (118 in) annually in the rain forests and averages 193 cm (76 in) along the coast. The country is rich in wildlife, including monkeys, anteaters, armadillos, sloths, tapirs, deer, jaguars, pumas, and ocelots. There are also snakes, birds, and a wide variety of insects, and the rivers teem with fish.

The capital is Paramaribo, an Amerindian name. Many place names are taken from the Amerindians, as are the names of rivers, animals, plants, and common tools used by everyone.

The population is principally composed of Asian Indians, who make up 37% of the total, and Creoles (mixed African and European stock), who also make up 31%. The Javanese population represents 15%, Maroons (African ancestors brought in the 17th and 18th centuries as slaves) account for 10%, while Amerindians and Chinese represent just 2%. The white population account for 1%. It is also a youthful country, with about 75% of its people under 30 years old and 40% under 15 years of age.


The official language of Suriname is Dutch, but many people speak English. Other languages are Sranan, a Creole tongue; Hindi; and other Asian Indian, African, and Amerindian languages. Altogether, 22 languages are spoken. The most common language is Sranan Tongo, also called Taki-Taki, which combines elements of English, Dutch, and several African languages. The main working language is Spanish.


The African slaves who escaped into the wild forest recreated the myths and legends of the West African culture from which they had been torn. They reestablished the tribal hierarchies, customs, and polytheistic beliefs that had governed their lives in Africa. The Maroons of Suriname, as the Black descendants are known, form the largest Maroon population in this part of the hemisphere, and their culture has influenced the thinking of many of the urban Creoles. There are six main Maroon tribes, each with their own chieftain or Granman.

Many Surinamese folk tales are based on Afro-centered traditions and emphasize the persistence of African belief, the organic unity between animals, and between humans and nature generally, as well as the continuing link between the living and the dead.

There is a particular folk tale about a cunning spider who outwits humans and animals. Many of the stories take place in Africa. In Creole folklore, riddles play an important part. The lai tori riddles, despite European influence, are overwhelmingly of African origin.


The main religion in Suriname is Christianity, followed by Hinduism and Islam. Some Christian groups also practice traditional African beliefs, such as Obeah and Winti (which means "wind"). Winti is a polytheistic and largely secret religion of West African origin. It recognizes that there are a multitude of gods and ghosts each having their own myths, rites, offerings, taboos, and magical forces. Obeah is a healer god, who can also be invoked to bring illness and other calamities to one's enemy. The cult of Obeah exists not only in Suriname, but also in neighboring Guyana, formerly a British colony, and in several Caribbean islands, such as Jamaica.


The Muslim holiday Id ul Fitr, or Lebaran or Bodo in Indonesian, celebrates the end of the fast of Ramadan. The Hindu festival of Holi Phagwa varies each year and is a lively event when water, paint, talc, and colored powder are liberally thrown into the streets at passersby. The Maroons celebrate with their "dance feasts" in the interior. These are competitions between men or women and are accompanied by songs and rhythmic clapping and chanting from the audience.

Another important holiday in Suriname is New Year's Eve, called Oud jaar, which means old year. To celebrate this day, waves of Surinamese inhabitants go to the historical downtown to watch fireworks demonstrations. These celebrations start in the morning and finish the next day.

Independence Day, a major national holiday, is on November 25.


Naming ceremonies at birth are important in all the diverse religious cultures in Suriname. Wedding ceremonies are also considered to be major occasions and can be elaborate and colorful, with generous feasting. Circumcision is practiced by Muslims.

Among Hindus, the birth ceremony traditionally takes place before the umbilical cord is cut. This ceremony is called jatakarma. The naming ceremony occurs 10 days after the child is born. Among the Christians there are Catholics, Lutherans, and Moravians, who baptize their children according to their own religious traditions, as do those of the Reformed Church.


Generally, status is based not on race or creed but on a person's education, profession, and economic position, as well as on how much political influence that person is able to wield.

The familiar Hindu caste system is a highly localized phenomenon in the villages of India. So when low-caste people and twice-born Brahmins were thrown together on board ship to become jahagis (shipmates) on the sailing boats from India to Suriname in the 19th century, that system soon became irrelevant. Today, there is more or less only one common caste for all Hindus in Suriname, although Brahmins do retain their special religious role in interpreting the sacred knowledge of the rituals and Sanskrit texts.

Anyone visiting a friend or acquaintance at their home address is expected to call upon everyone else that they know within that neighborhood. Not to do so is considered extremely rude.


The birth and death rates in Suriname are lower than the average for Latin America as a whole. Life expectancy is 70 years for men and 76 for women, one of the highest in Latin America.

The gross national product (GNP) suffered a sharp decline during the troubles of the 1980s because of political instability caused by military coups. It was the ensuing reign of terror against the Maroon uprising that led to Dutch and American aid being withdrawn. The loss of one-fifth of its GNP caused havoc in the country's economy.

Since then, the GNP has nonetheless become one of the highest in South America. Health is generally good, although many doctors emigrated to the Netherlands after independence. The majority of the populations have health insurance. The state provides to the unemployed and workers in the informal sector with free medical care once they have obtained a "certificate of poverty" from the government.

There is a poor transport infrastructure, with only 25% of the roads paved and fewer than 160 km (100 mi) of railways. Navigable rivers and canals are important for freight and passenger transport.


The Maroon men are close to their children, passing on ritual knowledge to their sons and playing an active role in the raising of the family. Many of the men have more than one wife, though few have more than three wives at a time. Care of the children is entrusted to one parent rather than two, and children spend their first four to six years with the mother. Many are then given to the father of another relative, and there may be further shifts at later ages in order to accommodate the child's developing needs, or changes in the parents' marital status or residence patterns.


Many of the Javanese women in Suriname still wear sarongs as they would in Indonesia, while the Creole women continue to wear the kotomissie traditional costume and the angisa, the handkerchief.


The food of Suriname reflects the ethnic diversity of the country. There are the warungs—Javanese food stalls serving bami goreng (fried noodles) and nasi goreng (fried rice). Creole food uses tubers, such as cassava and sweet potatoes, and plantains with chicken and fish, including shrimp.

Rice is the staple diet for most people. There is also pom, which is a purée of the taro root, a relative of cassava, which is tastily spiced and served with kip (chicken). Moksie alesie is a rice dish with meat, chicken, white beans, tomatoes, peppers, and spices.


Suriname's education system is modeled on that of the Netherlands, and Dutch is the language of instruction. Education is free and compulsory from the age of 6 years until 12 years. Most students leaving primary education continue on into secondary school, while higher education is provided by the government at the Anton de Kom University, which has schools of law, medicine, social sciences, economics, and engineering. Literacy rates are high, about 89% for both men and women.


Among the Maroon tribes, children are expected to learn or participate in the world of artistic production, performance, and appreciation from a very early age. Many of the Maroons' huts display the fine woodcarvings for which they are famous and that adorn furniture, tools, and boots. They also carve their drums, which must never be touched by any female. These drums are used to accompany skillful and intense dancing during the dance feasts.

At night in the capital city, Paramaribo, one will hear in the distance the mellow sounds of metallic music. This is the famous traditional "gamelan" music played by the Javanese to accompany their dances.

Hindu weddings and religious plays are elaborately ceremonial and make use of exquisite costumes. The cosmopolitan mix of the country means that everyone, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, frequently attends these ceremonies.


Much of the farmland has fallen fallow as a result of the civil war between the government and the Maroons during their uprising. Low wages and sharp price increases (tenfold for gasoline) set off a series of strikes in post offices, banks, and offices early in 1993. Many families depend on relatives in the Netherlands who send home money. The Asian Indians are mostly small farmers, while the Creoles are concentrated in retail, politics, and the professions in urban areas. The Javanese work mainly on Dutch-owned plantations.

In 1975 approximately 40,000 Surinamese fled to Amsterdam, expecting racial unrest with independence. That exodus continued throughout the 1980s as nepotism, corruption, and lack of central planning hindered economic development. Today there are some 200,000 Surinamese living in Holland—almost a third of Suriname's population.

The majority of Surinamese work for the government or in the service sector, such as banking, insurance, education, and medical institutions. Others supplement their incomes by working illegally in neighboring Guyana and French Guiana. There are no unemployment benefits or other social provisions, and the unemployed must obtain a "certificate of poverty" to receive free medical care.


Soccer is a popular game played in towns and villages everywhere, and a great hero of the game is Ruud Gullit, of Suriname descent, who went on to become the captain of the Dutch national team. Another popular sport is swimming, and the country took great pride when Anthony Nesty won a gold medal for Suriname in the 100-meter butterfly event at the 1988 Olympic Games.


A distinctive pastime practiced throughout Suriname are the birdsong competitions held in parks and public plazas on Sundays and holidays. People carrying their songbird (usually a small black tua-tua) in a cage are a frequent sight on the streets of Paramaribo as they set off for a training session or simply to take the bird for a stroll.

Young people enjoy outings, sporting events, and the cinema, as well as dancing.


The Afro-centered culture of the Maroons makes a distinctive contribution to the arts and crafts of the country's museums and galleries in the form of woodcarvings and sculpture.

The Hindu and Javanese cultures are reflected in their religious festivals, dress, and ceremonies.


Certain parts of the interior are still off-limits to visitors as they are controlled by groups of armed rebels. The violent reprisals inflicted on the Maroon villages during the war drove many refugees across the border into French Guiana where they were put into camps. Since the signing of a peace treaty, the French authorities have been persuading or compelling the refugees to return to Suriname, increasing tension in some war-devastated areas.

Meanwhile, the government has been forced to take action to try to resolve its continuing economic crisis. Inflation was around 54% by mid 1993 and was heading towards 100%.


Although the country ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1993, there are still discriminatory laws in effect. Although article eight of the constitution protects against sexual discrimination, daily realities show that women still have a long way to go before gender equality is achieved.

Gender policy is embodied in the 2006–2010 Integral Gender Action Plan. The main policy priorities include institutional arrangements for improved gender policy development, poverty reduction from a gender perspective, macroeconomic planning to increase the participation of women in the labor market, equal participation in decision-making, and the development of legal and policy instruments that enhance human rights.

An increasing problem is the AIDS epidemic affecting the Surinamese. Poverty, especially among women, is one of the main driving forces behind the epidemic. Women comprise almost half of the total population with HIV and there has been a clear and alarming trend in greater numbers of young women becoming infected with HIV. Suriname is one of the Caribbean countries in which newly infected women are significantly outnumbering newly infected men. In 2000–2001, women account for 63% of the HIV positive in the age group of 15–19 years old, 81% in the age group 20–24 years old, and 62% in the age group 25–29 years old.

Regarding politics, the average participation of women in the various government bodies, from the national assembly to local councils, has gradually increased from 12% in 1988 to 18% in 1996. As of 2008, there are 13 women in the 51-seat national assembly, and the cabinet includes three female ministers. In 2001 the first female judge joined the Court of Justice and in 2006 a woman was appointed head clerk of parliament. However, senior positions in business, unions, and the media remain firmly in the hands of men.


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—Reviewed by C. Vergara