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Published: August 8th 2007
The music sounded traditional and festive. Although we were one block away, pedaling in Paramaribo's streets, we could hear the brass, the keyboard and the drums. Like ants to sugar, we were drawn
. A few feet off the road was a plain white building from which the music emanated. Dismounting, we inched inwards quite unprepared for what we would see. Inside was ablaze with colours
like the rainbow had descended here. The rainbow swayed to the beat and danced around. Then, a part of the rainbow dislodged itself and danced over to us. A human shape with a head, face and a friendly, welcoming smile appeared.
"Can I help you?” she asked. We were standing in the doorway.
Shanna spoke up: "We heard the music. We're on a world tour and we're wondering if we could look on and take some pictures".
Just then, the music reached its crescendo and crashed into silence.
"Ladies, ladies, these two world travellers would like to celebrate with us", she said in Dutch to the group. "Please let us welcome them". And just like that, with a big applause, we were in.
The friendly person who had invited us in turned out to be the
President of YWCA's Housewives Club, Mevr. Elsa Winter. She led us to seats and then introduced us to the patron of the club, The First Lady of Suriname, Her Excellency Liesbeth Venetiaan. The First Lady was likewise very welcoming and pleasant. She wore a big, radiant smile which perfectly complimented her bright attire. "Koto Misi"
was what the style of dress was called. What a scene it was!
Everyone, except the army band - the men in camouflage uniforms - was decked out to the fullest. Shanna was already off to one side in a huddle with about ten women who seemed really, genuinely interested in how we came to be in Suriname. Vibert stuck close to the band watching the guys play and soaking up the ambiance. And then, like magic, bowls of cassava soup appeared in our hands and bags of three delectable dessert cakes, home-made ginger beer in plastic cups and cookies. The soup disappeared in a hurry and we were too polite to ask for seconds. 😊 Mevr. Winter started telling us about the club and the reason for the celebration. It was YWCA's celebration of 'Keti Koti' just a few days ahead of the
real event. 'Keti Koti'
translates to 'Breaking The Chains' which symbolizes the emancipation of the slaves. The Dutch officially freed their slaves on July 1, 1863 some 29 years after the 1834 abolition in neighbouring Guyana 😞. It was also a celebration of the 65th anniversary of the YWCA which was established in 1942.The club currently has some 80 members. They meet twice a week; once for gymnastics and then for any other activity like sewing, knitting, group discussions, cooking and planting. We nodded and made mental notes while nibbling on little butter cookies which melted away in our mouths.
Action in the center of the circular room demanded attention and broke up the discussions. One member was, in Sranang Tongo, telling a riddle. She was surrounded by eager faces. When she finished, the entire group answered, cheered and applauded. Not to be outdone, the guitarist of the army band got up and offered his piece. The ladies heckled him good-naturedly before breaking into a "hip hip hip hip". The inter-play and back-and-forth was intermittent and funny and always ended with the "hip hip hip hip" chant which sounded more like "heap heap heap heap". The band struck the
right chord and roar went up from the crowd. Everyone got up and started dancing. Their faces lit up and laughter resounded throughout the building. Soon, we too were swept up in the crush of laughing, smiling, happy women. Waists jiggling, hands held aloft and wearing smiles as broad as the Coppename
, the ladies hugged each other as they moved shoulder-to-shoulder on the packed dance floor. Sweat glistened on a few of the more energetic ones but they didn't seem to notice. As a matter of fact, no one else did. They were far too busy revelling.
We extracted ourselves so that we could observe. Almost all these wonderful women had intricately tied head dresses made either out of the same fabric as their outfits or something complimenting their 'Koto Mises'. Upon enquiry we found out that the style of each head dress communicated a 'secret' meaning. One member said her head tie meant 'Let Them Talk' and another said 'Meet me on the corner'. The style of head tie was used as a secret communication tool between slaves as the 'massas' would never guess the meanings. With permission, we photographed the proceedings and then some individual members.
There was a warm, fuzzy feeling inside as we rode away from the YWCA celebration. The way we were welcomed and drawn into the group and the genuine care and hospitality we experienced truly made us feel like celebrities. But, in retrospect, we were just ordinary people and it was simply how Surinamese treat people
. Quick to engage in conversation or to go out of the way to assist a stranger, quick to offer a plate of food with a scrumptious smile as a side dish, quick to pump up a flat bicycle tire or stop the car for people to cross the street - these are what we came to expect in Suriname. And these were what we got.
The YWCA ladies, a huge, colorful Keti Koti day celebration in Palmentuin and good weather on the South Drain road all served to cap, in grand style, a rather captivating time in Suriname. We departed with promises to return for a much longer visit and we certainly intend to keep that promise. History, and our stomachs
, wouldn't forgive us if we didn't.
Very special 'thanks' to:
😊 Oom James, Tante Wine and Greg for outstanding hospitality,
The First Lady, Mevr. Venetiaan, Mevr. Winter, President of YWCA and the members of YWCA Housewives Club,
😊 STINASU, and
😊 The good people over at 'Klakos' Suriname rocks!!!
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