Ebony and ivory in Suriname

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John Attard Montalto, a Labour member of the European Parliament, reflects on a recent visit to Suriname.

One of my favourite songs is by Paul McCartney. He sings about a piano, whose ebony and ivory keys sit side by side in perfect harmony. The message is obvious.

At the end of November I was in Suriname attending a joint parliamentary session of ACP-EU (the ACP is the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States). The social history of Suriname’s diverse people, brought together by colonisation and slavery, but today forming a multi-ethnic state, is a history that is both dismaying and heartening for anyone who hopes for a world of greater solidarity.

I attended to address the meeting dealing with multiculturalism in Suriname. The conference almost got cancelled at the last moment. It has been alleged that the president of Suriname, Desiré Bouterse, is governing undemocratically. There was a suggestion for the EU delegates to walk out of the conference centre when the president addressed the gallery. I made it clear, during our prior discussions, that we could choose not to go to Suriname at all, but walking out when the head of state was addressing us was not an option. The issue was neatly solved since the conference fell on the same date as the National Day. For the first time, this was to be celebrated outside the capital, where we were, and consequently the president could send his apologies for being elsewhere.

Suriname is in South America but there is little of South America in Suriname, with the exception of the rain forest. It is part of a largely Christian and Catholic region but the country is a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. It is grouped with the Caribbean but then there is little even of the Caribbean, except for a few descendants of the indigenous population.

Historically colonised by the Spanish, English and Dutch, Suriname lacked human resources for cultivation and mining. The colonists turned to African slaves. Around a third of a million were shipped to Suriname. Many escaped and became known as Maroons. Needing more workers, the colonists turned to imported labour, resulting in two other large ethnic groups, Indians and Javanese. Others followed for various reasons.

Social cohesion is not easy to attain nor is it easy to detect for an outsider. I resorted to some rules of thumb. The road from the airport tells you a lot about a country. On the way to Paramaribo I could see evidence of religious tolerance through the presence of mosques, churches and brightly lit Hindu temples.

Next, I acquired an official government calendar of events. I could see that all the special days of the different cultural groups were highlighted.

Cultural co-existence is not only obvious but advertised in tourism brochures.

Denis, a driver from the hotel, was a Maroon. I went to Suriname having read that the Maroons were getting a hard deal. I tactfully broached the subject with Denis. He looked at me as if he was going to throw me out of the car.

“I… emarginated!!” he ex­claimed. “Today we even have two Maroon ministers.” He continued: “This party in government is the first which is not based on the basic ethnic groups.”

Downtown, I entered an Indian shop. I got talking and asked the owner many questions, including one about who he would employ if he needed another employee. “My son,” he said. I asked him what he would do if his son was not available. “My other son.” At this point, I gave up.

On another occasion I spoke to a Javanese manager. She gave me a reasoned answer why investment in education and health was unequally spread across the country. Suriname has a population of 500,000, which mostly lives in the capital Paramaribo and on the Atlantic coastline. The investment is not based on ethnic groups but mostly on population density.

“But what about those who do not live in the extended urban belt?” I asked.

“Yes,” she admitted. “The interior is mostly inhabited by descendants of indigenous populations and these are indeed marginalised. The lack of infrastructure does not help.”

But then I suppose politicians have priorities. Was the marginalisation of the indigenous deliberate or as a result of priorities? I was unable to reach a conclusion on this one.

Of course, the one thing that smoothes the creases of different ethnic groups is mixed marriages. The Macedonian Alexander the Great, a long time ago, well understood that mixed marriages in his extensive empire were the best way to fuse West with East. In Suriname, one in eight marriages is mixed. Not a bad proportion. Even the president is said to be of mixed ethnicity.

What lies ahead? I believe, taking everything into consideration, that the majority of ethnic groups are able to have a harmonious relationship. I sympathise, of course, with those who are marginalised and weakest in Suriname, mainly the descendants of the indigenous people. Here more needs to be done in most spheres.

But, all in all, in Suriname ebony and ivory manage to live side by side. Not in perfect harmony, perhaps. But almost.

For the original report go to http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20121214/opinion/Ebony-and-ivory-in-Suriname.449523

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