by: Jacob Brunell
When it first became apparent back in April that there was a possibility I might be spending my summer working at the U.S. Embassy in Paramaribo, Suriname, I racked my mind for what I knew about the country. I had a rough idea of where Suriname was (on the northeast coast of South America) and what language was spoken there (Dutch), but beyond that, I had nothing. At that point, I decided to spend a bit of time reading up about the country and its culture, history, and politics, figuring that if I ended up traveling there, with such knowledge I would hopefully be better equipped to converse with locals and adjust to daily life.
Fast-forward to today. I accepted the internship position, and have been living in the country’s capital and working at the embassy here for a little over two weeks. In the short amount of time I’ve spent here, however, I’ve had some unforgettable experiences, and the chance to speak at length with a number of interesting people from almost every imaginable sector of society. This past weekend, I visited one of the many massive illegal gold mining installations in the jungle here with a group of students from Tulane University, who are here to study the environmental and health consequences of the mercury-heavy method of resource extraction used by the miners. Last week, I joined the ambassador at a lunch with a number of local LGBT activists who are campaigning for some level of recognition—or at least protection—of their rights by the government. The week before, I participated in a meeting between the ambassador and a widely-known and respected medicine man from a tribe in the country’s interior jungle region. Beside these experiences, I have also had the chance to work on a number of issues of concern to both the embassy and to these members of the local community. Indeed, at the moment my primary area of focus here at the embassy is on the issue of land rights for indigenous groups like that of the aforementioned medicine man, and I’m in the process of drafting a cable to be sent to the headquarters of the State Department in Washington D.C. detailing recent developments on this topic.
The interactions with locals and experiences I have had here so far have allowed me to see that a good number of assumptions that I had about the country and its people before I arrived here were way off-point. A few examples: Suriname may indeed be located in South America, but it shares few characteristics with the other South American countries in terms of language, culture, and history; Suriname does have a history of political violence and military governance, but you would never know it from the people here, who are among the most friendly and upbeat people I’ve encountered anywhere; the lingua franca here is not in fact Dutch, but rather Sranan Tongo, a uniquely Surinamese creole language that has a base primarily in English, but blends together elements of Dutch, Portuguese, and a number of African languages as well (everyone I’ve met here speaks it, from government officials to local university students); everyone here also speaks English, the majority quite fluently. This is all not to mention the current state of the country’s politics, which I won’t get into in this blog, but is quite interesting and you can read more about here.
A colleague of mine at the embassy provided perhaps the most apt characterization of the country that I’ve heard so far: “Suriname is a Caribbean nation not on an island, a South American nation that doesn’t speak Spanish or Portuguese, and a Dutch-speaking nation that would prefer that weren’t the case.” An obvious question arises from all of this: if Suriname indeed “isn’t” any of these things, then what is it? Although I don’t have all the answers yet, I think that the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met here so far have helped me get a much better sense of what defines Suriname.