Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Mama Sranan's Children: Ethnicity and Nation Building in Postcolonial Suriname

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Mama Sranan's Children: Ethnicity and Nation Building in Postcolonial Suriname

Article excerpt

Paramaribo, June 2013: banners and giant posters congratulate the Surinamese population with the anniversaries of 140 years of Hindustani (East Indian) immigration, 150 years of the abolition of slavery and 160 years of Chinese immigration. The heading of the banner reads "As nation . . . forward together / However we came together here." This is the third line of the National Anthem of Suriname. The festive decoration of the statue of "Mama Sranan" (Mother Suriname) holding her five children, symbolizing the population of Suriname, seems to underline this message. What does this tell us about nation building in Suriname in the early years of the twenty-first century? Is there a genuine effort to create a Surinamese nation or are ethnic and cultural pluralism still defining forces in society?

In the historiography of Suriname, ethnic dimensions often are foregrounded, while class is frequently linked to ethnicity. Traditionally, skin colour, ethnic origin, descent and legitimacy, occupation, and thus financial assets, gender, educational and cultural background and individual comportment ordained one's place in society. A classic historical study is R.A.J. van Lier's Samenleving in een grensgebied, first published in 1949 (translated as Frontier Society: A Social Analysis of the History of Surinam in 1971). Van Lier's analysis is based on the concept of pluralism. He argued that "Surinam is probably one of the finest examples of a plural society."1 The colonial state functioned as the arbiter between population groups of African, British Indian and Javanese descent. Without this "neutral arbiter" chaos would ensue.

Suriname is a prime example of a Caribbean colonial creation, built under European hegemony by enslaved Africans and Asian indentured labourers and their descendants. As in many post colonial societies the state preceded the nation. History plays an important socioeconomic and political role, and in the words of Bridget Brereton, the past in Trinidad and Tobago is "a key arena for contestation" in a dynamic and complex society.2 In Suriname, original presence or the time of arrival, economic contributions, suffering and hardship, and loyalty are arguments to support claims on the nation by different groups. Ethnic hierarchizing and positive self-ascription, while disparaging other groups, are all part of ethnic strategies.3

The idea of a plural society is largely a colonial creation as well. Ethnicity was institutionalized through colonial policy as various policies by the colonial government and economic enterprises served to establish, legitimize and maintain ethnic boundaries, whether to "divide-and-rule" or to "safeguard the culture" of different population groups. The replacement of Creoles by British Indian and Javanese contract labourers after the abolition of slavery led to the emergence of a division of labour along ethnic lines. The state functioned as a recruiter of labour and a distributor of the spatial location of work and land.4 In colonial times, the state never acted as a neutral arbiter of interethnic relations, as the pluralists would have it, and in the postcolonial era the state remained an actor in ethnic conflict because of its varied institutions, including schools.

An important aspect of sociocultural policy is language. In Suriname, nineteen languages are spoken.5 The main ones, besides the official Dutch, are Sranan Tongo, an English-based Creole and the lingua franca, Sarnami-Hindustani and Surinamese-Javanese. Contract immigrants were at first not required to learn Dutch, rather officials were supposed to learn Hindi or Javanese. Language is used not just to communicate within the group but also to divide and exclude. In order to communicate with people outside their own language group, most people will speak two or more languages. Place, occasion and discussion partners often determine which language is used. Social class is an important element in the choice of language. …

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