AFRO-SURINAMESE RELIGIONS. The Republic of Suriname, formerly Dutch Guiana, lies on the northeast shoulder of South America, bordered by Guyana, Brazil, French Guiana, and the Atlantic Ocean. The ethnically diverse population—numbering about 380,000 in Suriname and another 180,000 now living in the Netherlands—consists of “Creoles” (descendants of African people), “Marrons” (descendants of African people who managed to escape from plantations, and formed their own communities in Suriname’s rain forest), “Hindustanis” (descendants of servitude laborers from India), “Javanese” (descendants of of servitude laborers from Indonesia), and smaller numbers of Jews, Chinese, Brazilian, Haitian, and Lebanese—plus American Indians (descendants of the Indian tribes already present in the Guianas). Most of the population lives along the coastal strip, with nearly half residing in the capital, Paramaribo.
The first large-scale permanent settlement of Surinam came in 1651, when one hundred Englishmen from Barbados established a plantation colony. The Dutch took over in 1667, and during the next century and a half imported more than 300,000 enslaved Africans, drawing on a remarkable diversity of African tribes.
Winti, through its interlocking beliefs and rites, provided the focus of slavery culture, binding individuals ritually to their ancestors, descendants, and collaterals; expressing a firm sense of community in spite of a crushingly oppressive plantation regime; and—on many occasions—serving as the inspiration and mechanism for revolt.
Coastal Creole Winti
Since emancipation in 1863, the great majority of Creoles have also been nominal Christians; the most recent figures show somewhat more than half to be Protestants (with Moravians the most numerous) and the remainder Roman Catholics. Afro-Surinamese differ from most other Afro-Americans in the extent to which their Christianity and folk religion are compartmentalized. In spite of the participation of Creoles in modern, Western-style Caribbean life, Winti continues to operate in contexts that are largely untouched by Christianity. Winti also plays a major role in the lives of many of the Surinamese who now reside in the Netherlands.
Winti provides an all-encompassing but flexible design for living. The everyday visible world is complemented by a normally unseen world that is peopled by gods and spirits of tremendous variety, who interact with humans constantly. Scholars have classified the great variety of Winti gods into four “pantheons”—those of the air, the earth, the water, and the forest.
The major gods and spirits include a variety of Kromanti (fierce healing spirits), apuku (fierce forest spirits), Aisa ([mother of all spirits and also] localized earth spirits), Fodu (boa constrictor spirits), Aboma (anaconda spirits), and a great host of others. Frequent rites, involving specialized dances, drumming, and songs, are used to honor and placate each type of spirit, and the spirits themselves appear on these occasions, through possession, to make their wishes known. Winti is a strongly participatory religion, in which every individual plays an active role, and specialization or special knowledge is widely distributed among the population.
There are six Maroon groups living along rivers in the interior of the country: the Ndjuka and Saramaka (each numbering about twenty thousand people), the Matawai, Aluku, and Paramaka (each about two thousand people), and the Kwinti (fewer than five hundred people). Their religions, like their languages and other aspects of culture, are related to one another, with the sharpest division being between the eastern groups (Ndjuka, Paramaka, Aluku) and the central groups (Saramaka, Matawai, Kwinti). Descended from slaves who escaped from coastal plantations during Surinam’s first century of colonization, they have lived in relative isolation from the world of the coast.
Maroons have always enjoyed an extremely rich ritual life, which is totally integrated into their matrilineally based tribal social organization. Christian missions have had differential impact on the Maroon groups: for example, the Matawai and several thousand of the Saramaka are nominally Moravians, but the great majority of Maroons continue to participate fully in religions that were forged by their ancestors, from many different African traditions, into a vibrant new synthesis. Resembling Winti in terms of many of the particular gods and spirits invoked, the Maroon religions stand apart in their more absolute integration of belief and ritual into all aspects of life. New World creations drawing on Old World ideas, these Maroon religions remain today the most “African” of all religions in the Americas.
Rituals of many kinds form a central part of everyday Maroon life. Such decisions as where to clear a garden or build a house, whether to make a trip, or how to deal with theft or adultery are made in consultation with village deities, ancestors, forest spirits, snake gods, and other such powers. Human misfortune is directly linked to other people’s antisocial acts, through complex chains of causation involving gods and spirits.
Any illness or other misfortune requires immediate divination and ritual action in collaboration with these spirits and others, such as warrior gods. The means of communicating with these entities vary from spirit possession and the consultation of oracle bundles carried on men’s heads to the interpretation of dreams. Gods, spirits, and ancestors, who are a constant presence in daily life, are also honored and placated through frequent prayers, libations, and great feasts.
The rituals surrounding birth and other life crises are extensive, as are those relating to more mundane activities, from hunting a tapir to planting a rice field. Among Maroon communities, funerals constitute the single most complex ritual event, spanning a period of many months, directly involving many hundreds of people, and uniting the world of the dead with that of the living through specialized ritual action such as coffin divination, and extensive singing, dancing, and drumming.