Suriname is one of the most vibrant and dynamic societies in the world. The country's population is a medley of distinct ethnicities such as: Indigenous Amerindians, Africans, Creoles, Hindustanies (from India), Javanese (from the island of Java in Indonesia), Chinese, and Europeans. There is an assortment of cultures in Suriname, one that generates friendship between neighbors of varying backgrounds, while preserving the separate identities of different groups.
The Amerindians were the first inhabitants of Suriname. In the 16th and 17th centuries during colonization, the Dutch and British brought Africans to the country to work as slaves on the coastal plantations. The African slaves who escaped fled to the interior where they re-established their western African culture in tribal villages. After the abolition of slavery, Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian laborers were imported to work on the plantations as indentured laborers.
Some of the Indigenous Amerindians, the first people to inhabit Suriname, live a primitive, tribal way of life deep in the rainforest, while others can be found by the coast, practicing a few traditions and sharing their heritage with visitors.
The descendants of escaped African slaves (Maroons) live in tribal societies along the main rivers that cut through the rainforest. Their small villages consist of wooden houses and a small number of shops that are connected by dirt paths, and have little modernity with the exception of a few power lines. These communities retain most of their original habits and customs, continuing to grow, hunt, and fish for food, fabricate their own products from materials found in nature, and practice forest medicine.
FACT: The Suriname African tribes come as close to maintaining their African way of life than anywhere else in the African diaspora.
There is a huge cultural disparity between the Africans of the interior and the offspring of former slaves, the Creoles, who live in the north along the coast. The Suriname Creoles are of mixed African-European descent. During the colonial period, Suriname had a shortage of white women and many Dutch planters took African slave women as mates. The Creoles have maintained many of their African traditions.
FACT: The koto, a dress consisting of many layers of colored fabric, was developed during the slavery period in Suriname to protect the Creole females from their masters' sexual interest. Today, Creole women wear this traditional dress on special occasions.
The Hindustani, also known as East Indians, are of Indian decent and began arriving in Suriname in 1873 as indentured laborers on the plantations. After obtaining their freedom, most chose to remain in Suriname. Today, Suriname’s population is approximately 40% Hindustani. Many Hindustani are farmers, some owning extensive farmland, while others have become involved in other sectors, including trade, transport, and civil service. About 75% of Hindustanis are Hindus, 20% are Muslims, and 5% are Christians.
FACT: Holi, or Phagwa, may be the least religious of the Hindu holidays. It celebrates spring, commemorates various events in Hindu mythology, and can be a time to disregard social norms and indulge in general merrymaking. Hindus around the world, including in Suriname, hold an annual festival on the day after the full moon in the Hindu month of Phalguna (early March).
Life in Paramaribo, also called the Wooden City due to its abundance of Dutch-influenced colonial wooden buildings, is quite different than in the interior. Government offices, hotels, and businesses sit adjacent to a bustling commercial section with a very lively vibe and many compelling sights such as the restored Fort Zeelandia, featuring African and indigenous Amerindian objects and other exhibits, and historical architecture that has been on the prestigious Unesco World Heritage list since 2002. This might be the only city in the world where you’ll find a Mosque built in 1932 right next door to a restored Synagogue that dates back to the 17th century, which is a prime example of the unique respect and harmony that exist in Suriname between groups with different beliefs.
FACT: The Jewish community of Suriname is one of the oldest in the Americas. The first Jews arrived in Suriname in the 1630s, descendants of those who fled the Spanish Inquisition and came from Holland, Portugal, and Italy via Brazil around 1500. Today, the community is found primarily in Paramaribo. Despite their relatively small number (about 200 individuals), the influence and presence of the Jewish people is felt throughout the country.
Suriname is a multi-facetted society inspired by a spectrum of ancestors—Indigenous, Indian (Hindustani), Javanese, Chinese, African, Jewish, and European. The country radiates culture and tradition as demonstrated in its Dutch architecture, African rites, Amerindian folklore, Hindu customs, Javanese costumes, and Chinese dances.
The people speak a broad range of languages, including Dutch (the official language), English, Sranan Tongo (Creole language), Hindustani, Javanese, and even English in many shops and hotels.
The cuisine is rich and diverse, just like the culture itself, nodding to the many immigrants who came through. The culinary highlights include: Amerindian, European and Jewish, Afro-Surinamese, Chinese, Hindustani, Javanese, Lebanese, and Creole.
FACT: While the distinct cultures remain intact when it comes to customs, language, art, objects, and architecture, the cultural mix shines brightly through food and modern music.