Children of one Father

Suriname is far from a racial utopia. However, it is far better than most countries when it comes to race relationships, and that I know for a fact!

In previous posts I have already explained that in ethnically diverse Suriname a lot of the ethnicities have retained their original culture.  This post would become entirely too long if I would go into the specifics on how this became so.

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‘Wij en de wereld’, and ‘Ons eigen leesboek’, two series of elementary school level reading-books, developed in Suriname in the 50-tees

What I will do, however is highlight these elementary school reading-books box sets that were gifted to me by my mother. One is called ‘Ons eigen leesboek’ (translated ‘Our own reading-book’) and the other ‘Wij en de Wereld’ (translated ‘The World and us’)*1. These books were used to teach Surinamese children in the 50-tees and long after that, to read, and have been republished not too long ago. If these books can’t convince you that Suriname is a special country, than I don’t know what can…:-).

Now, I had always been familiar with these reading books. In fact, ‘Our own reading-book’ or ‘Loes and mama’ as it is popularly known had been my favorite reading go-to at home when I was was starting out to read, since we had the series at home. And even though these books were developed long before, as my mother would say,  ‘I thought about being born’, I can remember my elementary school teachers passing out ‘The World and us’ for us to read on those long afternoons, when we didn’t have any energy left to process new information.

However, flipping through the pages as an adult, I got a new found respect for these early attempts by the Surinamese government at nation-building. Not one where you’re forced to blend in and morph into something you’re not. But one where there is room for everyone’s ethnic individuality. An individuality that got highlighted through all these stories. Where else in the world did you have children’s book with names for protagonists like Kwassie*2 and Ram*3 while simultaneously featuring illustrations of little black girls, with typical little black girl hairstyles? Or featured life in a Maroon*4 village? And that in the 50-tees? Under colonial rule? Where they do that at?!

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The content of some of the ‘Wij en de wereld’ books, starting from the upper left corner: ‘An African narration’ about Udo the tortoise and Okuni the elephant; ‘The story of Kwassie’, a Maroon *4 boy. Surinamese Maroons are Africa’s best kept secret outside of Africa; ‘Kinderen van één Vader’, translation Children of one Father, a poem by Catharina van Rennes and also the title for this post, also appropriately featuring an illustration of children from various ethnic backgrounds; ‘The mythe of Shrie Ramtjander and Sieta’, how Shrie Rantjander found Sieta back.
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Some examples of the content of ‘Loes and mama’, with in the corner left a typical black family dinner scene from the 50-tees, followed by one of the books in the series titled ‘The book of old Nanie’. Nani is both the Hindi and Bhojpuri (which in Suriname developed to Sarnami) word for your maternal grandmother. Also an illustration showing Loes and Ram buying groceries at their local corner store. Last but not least, an illustration showing what still is a very typical Surinamese classroom scene, children of various ethnic groups passing out treats during their teacher’s birthday.

Yes, Suriname was still very much a Dutch colony in those days, albeit one with a autonomous government. Even though other aspects of Surinamese education like history and geography did suffer under colonial rule, and were very whitewashed, we must give respect when that’s due. And when it came to teaching children how to read, the then government did an amazing job by exposing them to characters and stories that were about them. Yes, the method wasn’t perfect since there were some colonial elements that were slipped into the stories. But overall, I could not be more proud and have to realize how fortunate we were in Suriname because of this.

*1: Translated and summarized from the cover of the box sets: When Bookstore Varekamp & Co N.V. (currently VACO N.V.) settled in Suriname in 1952, they quickly became  one of the most preferred schoolbook supply stores in the country. In that same period, the famous Dutch writer Anne de Vries (1904-1964), who had been temporarily residing in the country,  was asked by government to develop the reading method ‘Our own reading method’ popularly known as ‘Loes and mama’, which was followed by the anthology ‘The World and us’. The stories from ‘The world and us’ were compiled from a writing competition held by Anne de Vries, and also from stories he had written himself. For their 60th anniversary VACO N.V. decided to republish these bookseries.

*2: Akan (West African ethnic group) nameday for boy born on Sunday. Head over to Nursery Rhymes Nostalgia  to listen to a Surinamese children’s song about all these namedays.

*3: The name of the anthagonist of the Hindu epic Ramayan, is also commonly used as a name for a boy.

*4: In Suriname we were taught that the word Maroon was offensive, considering it stems from the word cimarron which was used to indicate runaway cattle. Because there is no single word for a (descendant of  a) black enslaved person who has managed to escape Translantic slavery in the English language, I will keep using this word when I’m writing in English. 

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