Horror Nursery Rhymes

Frequent readers of this blog, know that I love to write about my home-country Suriname. About all the ways in which mother Africa is still very much present in the souls of Surinamese people, hundreds of years after their ancestors were snatched away from her bosom. I write about our resilience, our music, our pride. However, I would go against who I am as a person, if I wouldn’t also mention the bad. Or at least some of it.

In my post, Letter to Cecilia, I hinted at the fact that some nursery rhymes in Suriname are not very age appropriate, and that is putting it lightly. But these were the songs that I would to sing in class, in the choirs I belonged to, and during music practice. Granted, the songs were never meant to be nursery rhymes. They were folk-songs. Some created during slavery, some created shortly thereafter, but all speaking about a terror and horror in a way that wasn’t fit for children.

Please think of our children!
Here are some examples of the horror nursery rhymes. The first example is Basya Fon! or Overseer, whip!, a song we would sing in two groups. One group singing the verse of the ‘master’ ordering his overseer to whip the enslaved woman he was once somewhat romantically involved with, but who had now apparently scorned him. Another group singing the pleas of the enslaved woman, begging him to think of the time when he was calling her ‘his sweet Yaba’ and to think of their children. Just typing this out is, well.. bizarre. I don’t think anybody unfamiliar with the language would guess the horrific meaning behind the lyrics by just listening to the music. The melody is a waltz, and the association I make when hearing a waltz is that of Disney movies, and silk ball gowns and European aristocrats dancing the night away in the olden days. You know, good times. Well, this waltz is the exception, I guess.

Litho from Slaven en vrijen written by Wolter Robert baron van Hoëvell (1854), source https://bukubooks.wordpress.com/antiquariaat/
Basia Fong, Max Woiski sr, source Youtube

Basya fon
Basya fon…!
Mi taki fon…!
Da wentje mek’ mi ati bron!

Memre taki yu,
ben kari mi,
Mi moi Yaba,
Mi swit’ lobi

Basya fon…!

Pardon meneri,

Memre da pikin,

Di sori yu,
mi lobi krin

Basya fon…!


Overseer, whip
Overseer, whip…!
I said whip…!
That wench made me angry!

Remember that you,
would call me,
My sweet Yaba,
My sweet love,

Overseer whip…!

Have pity on me mister,
Remember the children,
who showed you,
my pure love.

Overseer whip…!


The redheaded child
The following example is that of the mother calling all her children to come and eat, except for Koprokanu. This in itself is sad, but the story gets even more horrific once you learn the true reason why this mother was singling out Koprokanu. You see, roughly translated the name Koprokanu means ‘coppermane’ or ‘redhead’. According to oral tradition, Koprokanu was the child conceived through the rape of this black enslaved mother by a white man, with Koprokanu possessing a reddish, somewhat light hair color typical for some children with biracial heritage. The mother, unable to show any form of affection to this constant reminder of the crime committed against her, would command Koprokanu to just ‘tan de!’.

What’s usually told is how in a pigmentocracy, the goal for most darker hued people was to ‘go up in color’, securing through this whitening of their lineage either a ticket out of slavery for their offspring and/or themselves, or just better social economic chances. This story offers a different perspective. Not that of a coveted lighter-toned offspring, but that of a despised one. Poor Koprokanu.

Mini Mini kon nyan,

Fremanbonya kon nyan,

Fremantanya kon nyan,

Koprokanu tan de!
Mini Mini come and eat,

Fremanbonya come and eat,

Fremantanya come and eat,

Koprokanu stay there!

Ham’s Redemption by Modesto Brocos y Gómez (1852 – 1936) Painting depicting a Brazilian family consisting of a black grandmother, a mulatto mother, and quadroon baby, symbolyzing each generation becoming “whiter” , collection Museu Nacional de Belas Artes

Mr. Jantje and his fire-stone
Now for the following song I’m familiar with two explanations. One where the fire-stone is symbolic for the slave branding iron used to burn a permanent stamp on black human flesh, and another one where Mr. Jantje is actually raping people, and the fire-stones are symbolic for his testicles.

Faya ston

Faya ston, 
no bron mi so 

Adyen masra Jantje 
e kiri suma pikin


don't burn me like this 

Again mister Jantje 
is killing people's children
Mannenkoor Maranatha, Fai si ton, johndoerock, source Youtube

To add to the lurid aspect of it all, this song is meant to be accompanied by a children’s game. The children, while singing this song, would pass around a stone by sliding it across preferably another stone surface. The friction would cause the stone to heat up, and whoever ended up with the stone at the last note of the song, would literally get burned by the stone, and get eliminated from the game. When I was a child, this game was already known as a fosten prei, an old, historic game children from passed generations used to play. Even though I’m relieved I had other entertainment avenues, it’s still sad to realize that maybe by great-great grandmother didn’t.

The good
Even though these songs have a horrific meaning, they do remind me of simpler times. Of times when my sister taught me how to play the recorder, and due to their easy melody, these songs would be the first I would play. Times when I still had a good voice, and would sing in school choirs. I loved to sing! I need to sing more. And not all songs were a constant reminder of slavery. Some were about the beauty of Surinamese nature, or talked about the pranks of Anansi the spider. Some taught us our African names. So there was some good as well.

See also:
Letter to Cecilia
Nursery Rhymes Nostalgia

2 thoughts on “Horror Nursery Rhymes

  1. This was so intense to read. As an African I grapple with so much that has resulted from slavery in Africa but did not grow up on any nursery rhymes related to slavery. It’s such a privilege to see your perspective as a child of Suriname.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, writing it was also very intense and very surreal. It’s crazy that this many years after slavery was abolished, we are still so indoctrinated by it that we would have children singing about it like this. It’s even crazier that no one or at least not enough people really thought it was wrong! But like I sad, we also had other songs (see post Nursery Rhymes Nostalgia), and in other aspects the Surinamese education system didn’t fail, and was even ahead of its time (see post Children of one father). So that’s a plus ;-). Thank you so much for stopping by..:-)

      Liked by 1 person

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