In Atjoni, where the road ends and the river begins.
And finally, one happy customer walking home with a mound of rice!
In Atjoni, where the road ends and the river begins.
And finally, one happy customer walking home with a mound of rice!
On July 13, 2013, Peace Corps Suriname will close it doors for the last time. My good friend and fellow PCV, Kyle Smithers (SUR 16 from Georgia), returned to Suriname for 7 months after he completed his two years as a volunteer to create a documentary film that showcases Peace Corps’ 18 years in Suriname.
We all hope that the legacy of Peace Corps Suriname will continue to inspire and empower long after the post officially closes!
Awesome work, Kyle! A huge success!
John has asked me to write a guest blog post for him, and I am happy to do so – it’s the least I can do to thank John for the incredible hospitality that he showed us, and for making our dream come true of returning to Ligolio with our kids.
Some context: my wife Anne Geissinger and I were Peace Corps volunteers in Ligolio, the same village where John is serving, from 1995-97. The two of us and John are basically the only three Peace Corps volunteers ever to serve in Ligolio (technically there were two others, a couple that replaced us at site in 1997, but since they quit and went home eight days after they arrived, we don’t really count them.). Further, we were in the first group of Peace Corps volunteers in Suriname, and, poetically, John is in the last group of volunteers in Suriname.
We returned to the US 16 years ago and have lived our lives since then, frequently thinking about our friends and our incredible experience in Ligolio, and have often talked about whether or not we could make it back there for a visit. We did return once, in 2000, for a short visit, before we had kids. But then Emma was born in 2001, and Beatrice two years later, and while we kept thinking about going back to Ligolio, the kids were not old enough, or the trip was too daunting, or we were just too worried about the very real dangers that come up when you take American children into the middle of the Surinamese rainforest. We really didn’t think it would ever be feasible.
Then two years ago, we happened to catch an episode of the Food Channel’s Bizarre Foods, filmed not only in Suriname and not only in a Saramaccan village, but with the help of a Peace Corps volunteer, Amber Tris Ray. We found Amber through Facebook, and she told us that there was a new Peace Corps volunteer going to Ligolio, which is how we connected with John.
John made this trip possible. Even with two (if I do say so myself) really well-behaved kids, it would have been impossible to go to the village without having John to set up the basics of housing, water, kitchen facilities, in-country transportation, bathrooms, etc. We just wouldn’t have risked showing up with kids and having something basic like “where will we get our water from?” not worked out in advance.
Even with everything in place, we were still really nervous going into this experience. Our 2000 visit had been OK, but frankly was somewhat boring and underwhelming. Without a role to play in the village, we floundered for the five days we were there. We had no real purpose or point. What if that happened again? We warned Emma and Bea that we might have some long, boring times, and packed extra books. We even discussed the possibility of how we might contact Gum Air to move our charter flight out of the village up a day or two if things got really bad.
Those fears were absolutely for naught. Our time in Ligolio was spectacular, and the days completely flew by. Having Peace Corps volunteers around (and here we have to give a HUGE shout-out to nearby PCV Christina Hansberry, who we also really loved getting to know), and being there with our children gave us focal points outside of our friends in the village. We spent hours and hours talking with John and Christina about the incredible, special, exhausting, challenging, breathtaking, life-changing, maddening experience of being a Peace Corps volunteer in Langu (the section of the river that includes Ligolio and Christina’s village of Stonhuku), and when we weren’t doing that, we could show our kids this remarkable tiny corner of the globe, and delight as they befriended and played games with the children of our Saramaccan friends. It was just a magical week.
In addition to thanking John and Christina for the role that they played in making it possible for us to return, and for hosting us and putting up with endless stories of 1990s Ligolio, I also have to express my deep admiration for them. Anne and I went through this experience together, as a married couple. I can’t begin to count the number of times back then that we said or journaled or wrote in a letter home, “I never could do this without my spouse here.” Sure, our experience was “harder” in some superficial ways. John and Christina have electricity (sometimes) and there is running water in the village (occasionally), and now there is more access to the city and (the big difference) everyone has a cell phone. But, fundamentally, the experience they are going through is at its core the same thing that we went through. And we have the experience to tell you this: it’s damn hard. We did it together, and neither of us thinks that we could have done it alone, even if you gave us a cellphone and electricity and running water. So: “Big ups to John and Christina.” (Yes, that’s an inside joke from our visit.) You two are rock stars, and this will be one of the most challenging things you ever do (at least until you have children!).
But I also know that while this has been a challenging experience for John and Christina — they have given up a lot of creature comforts, and been away from family and friends, and been confused and damp and itchy more than they will be for the rest of their lives — they are going to gain much, much more by going through this than they ever gave up. Being Peace Corps volunteers in Ligolio changed Anne and my lives in thousands of ways, big and small. It changed how we view the world and our role in it. It changed how we vote, what we care about politically, how we think about language and culture and money and relationships. It impacted how we raise our children, and what values we try to teach them. It taught us what we are capable of, alone and together. It gave us an undying love of mangos, a name for our eldest daughter, a direct path to my current job, the opportunity to write a book, perspective to get Anne out of a job she didn’t like, and a secret language that our kids don’t understand (literally and metaphorically). Our Peace Corps Suriname experience permeates every nook and cranny of our lives, and we think about it every day. John and Christina will, too.
This visit continued to change and challenge me. Since we got home from this trip I have been talking a lot with anyone who will listen to me about how different and in many ways better our lives were in the village than they are here in America. We spend a lot of time in the US thinking about stuff that doesn’t matter much at all. Life in Ligolio is a lot simpler, a lot more elemental. You’re tied to the outdoors and to the basic stuff of life every day. People there live and take care of the basics, and don’t do much else, and they do it all with a sense of self and culture, surrounded daily by their family members, in a way that we have gotten pretty far away from here in the US. It’s been a challenge, since coming home, for me to begin to think about how we can have those same priorities and simplicity in our lives here. And you know what? Our culture kind of makes that impossible. We’ve “developed” beyond that, perhaps to our detriment. These aren’t easy issues to grapple with, even 16 years after we left Ligolio. Those who know and love John and Christina need to know that they may struggle with these same issues of reverse culture shock when they return to the US, too.
John and Christina are going to come home this summer changed forever, and we hope they know that they always have a home in Grinnell, Iowa that has its doors open to them.
There was nothing we could do. And I hated it.
I had received the money generously donated by my friends and family to help start a rice milling business in Ligorio and was excited to begin working on my primary project. I called the village together for a meeting and they were ecstatic to hear that we reached our fundraising goal for the rice mill – no small sum of money for the Saramaccans.
At the meeting, an elderly man named Philippe (pictured below five from the left in yellow) respectfully interrupted to say how much these altruistic gestures mean to him, especially considering the donors were Americans who have never met Saramaccans but were still willing to help them improve their lives. It was one of the most powerful moments of my Peace Corps service and I was overwhelmed with pride.
But that didn’t change anything. We were in the middle of an intense dry season and the river was too low for the community to uphold their part of the bargain. We had already agreed; I would raise the money for the rice mill and they would donate all of the transportation, material and labor costs needed to build a shelter for the mill. Additionally, the community of Ligorio would provide transportation, room and board for the mill’s manufacturers who would travel to Ligorio to give technical trainings on how to install and maintain the mill.
And so for months and months we waited and waited for the river to rise. Thanks to the personal responsibility of a select few, in particular one man, Frank Majokko, the project gained momentum. Frank organized women to dig sand, a task that can only take place while the river is low, and carry it to the shelter’s location (the sand is required to mix with the cement to make the floor of the shelter). While the river limited our ability to bring heavy supplies, such as bags of cement and zinc roofing, out to Ligorio, Frank and I began meeting daily so that I could give business lessons, where we discussed setting goals and objectives, designing action plans, bookkeeping, pricing and marketing.
I loved those informal meetings. Frank’s desire to help his community is simple and genuine, pouring through his enthusiastic eyes and cheerful chuckle. The conversations were open, free to discuss anything that came to mind, and together, we discovered what it will take to properly run a business. We would give each other “bauxite” (the Saramaccan version of “pound”) as we came up with new ideas and I can’t tell you how many times we would walk away from those meetings with huge smiles plastered on our faces, both of us having learned something new and excited by the prospect of a successful business. Even more importantly, we were becoming good friends who could trust each other.
FINALLY! The rain began and I jumped at the opportunity to remind the community that the time had arrived to fulfill their promise. After receiving some money from the women’s organization of Ligorio, Frank dug into his own pockets to cover the rest of the costs, travelled to the city and bought all of the supplies needed to build the rice mill’s shelter. After transporting the supplies to Ligorio, Frank worked in the jungle where he cut all of the wood by hand and then carried it to the village with the help of some boys.
Since then, Frank and I spent three days building the house and we are now ready to transport the rice mill out to Ligorio!
Here are some pictures of the progress we have made:
Lucky (Frank’s son) was my little apprentice, much like I was Frank’s.
It’s amazing to remember that Frank cut all of these 2×4′s by hand from one tree.
During my parents’ first visit to Ligorio, my mother took a particular liking to a boy named August after he jumped up on a table, took her hands and started shaking his hips and knees like Elvis Presley. My mom, who at any moments notice is willing to partake in some fun, joined in on the dancing and neither my father nor I could wipe the smile off her face for the rest of the day. After the visit, my mom continually asked me about August and how he was doing.
Well, last week (one year later), my parents visited Ligorio for a second time and we walked over to the rice mill shelter; I wanted to show them the progress we had made on my primary project. My mom and I eventually split off from the group to organize an activity at the school before the day was over. The kindergarten class gets out an hour earlier so we saw some of the children walking back to their homes when suddenly August (who is in the Kindergarten) popped out from around the corner. I shouted, “August! Look! Someone came to see you!”
August turned to see my mom from about 30 yards away and without hesitation began sprinting to her with his arms wide open and his Cars backpack bobbing up and down behind him. My mom dropped to her knees, spreading her arms in a welcoming anticipation. August jumped into my mom’s arms as she lifted him into the air, twirling in circles while compassionately calling out “doooooooooooo” – a noise made by Saramaccans when embracing a loved one.
I rushed to ready my camera and was able to capture this special moment:
This past week I was the recipient of a good deed for the day and it felt great! We were wrapping up my parents’ second visit to Ligorio and were about to fly in a 6 seat airplane back to Paramaribo. I had left my camera in my hut and asked my father to borrow his Iphone so I could try to snap a few shots of Ligorio as we flew overhead. With the Iphone in hand pointed out the window, I was snapping away as we took off. We were taking off in the direction of Paramaribo so I knew I had only had a few seconds to get that shot. I was quickly confused because the plane was looping around.
Sure enough, the pilot knew I was living in Ligorio and could easily tell that I was eager to take a picture of the entire village. He dipped one wing down and looped around in a full circle just so we could get a better view of Ligorio. Above is a picture of Kajana (a neighboring village) as we were looping around. Kajana is the largest village in my area and has the nicest soccer field (on the right)!
Then from a perfect viewpoint, we saw all of Ligorio, a very special moment for me.
What you are looking at is a picture of a tiny Saramaccan village in an unknown corner of the world filled with people who face the same problems we do in America. What you are looking at is the place I have called home for the past two years of my life. Here I have lived and grown and, with a little luck, just might make it back alive to tell the story in person. Ligorio is beautiful in every sense of the word.
And below is the town of Atjoni, where Saramaccans, Peace Corps Volunteers and tourists alike drive to by car from Paramaribo (a 3 hour trip ending on the road in the bottom left) and then hop in dug-out motorized canoes and travel upriver (to the right)!
And for all of you Baba followers:
Baba beat me back to America and is quickly assimilating to life in Maryland!
In response to a request made by one of the “Sunny in Suriname” readers, I actively approached the older generation in my village, asking them if they knew any folk tales they could share with me. One day, I paddled my dug-out canoe to the airstrip in Kajana (a neighboring village) to say goodbye to a Dutch friend who had taught at school in Kajana for a year and a half. As I got back into my canoe to paddle back home, one of my neighbors in Ligorio, Albert Abia, was entering his canoe to paddle home as well. His brother-in-law had just sent him a package from Paramaribo by airplane so he went to pick it up at the airstrip. It looked like I had company for the paddle.
We were each paddling our own canoes, side-by-side down the Gran Rio, as he told me this Saramaccan tale:
“There once was a father who had two sons. The older brother was handsome and the younger brother was ugly. They lived together as a family until one day the older brother told his father that he was going to move to another village. The younger brother heard his older brother and said that he wanted to come along with him but the older brother refused.
The younger brother was determined to follow his older brother so when the day arrived for his brother to leave, the younger brother snuck out from the house and followed his older brother secretly. The younger brother tailed the older brother the entire way to another village.
Finally when the older brother arrived at the other village, the younger brother revealed himself. The older brother realized there was nothing he could do and it was getting dark so they searched to find a place to sleep. The only person who lived in this village was the devil, but the brothers did not know this at the time. The older brother knocked on the devil’s door and asked, “Can we come in and tie our hammocks in your house?”
“Of course! Come in!” replied the devil.
The devil tied hammocks for the brothers and said, “It is getting late. It is time to go to bed.” So, the devil left the room and the brothers got in their hammock. The older, handsome brother fell asleep right away.
At ten o’clock, the devil entered the room and said “Boys? Are you asleep yet?” The devil was ready to kill the brothers in their sleep but then the younger brother chirped up and said, “No I am still awake.”
The devil asked, “What’s wrong?”
“I am hungry,” replied the younger brother.
So the devil went to the cook house and took a plate full of rice to the boy and said, “Eat and then you will be able to go to sleep.” The devil left as the younger brother ate the plate full of rice. At eleven o’clock, the devil came back into the room and asked, “Boys? Are you asleep yet?” The younger brother replied, “No, I am thirsty.” So the devil brought the ugly boy a cup of water and left as the boy drank the water.
At midnight, the devil returned once again. “Boys? Are you asleep yet?”
“No, my stomach hurts. I need medicine.”
The devil fetched his medicine and gave it to the boy saying, “Now you can go to sleep, boy.” Once the devil left the room, the younger brother realized that this man was the devil and wanted to kill the two brothers. He rolled out of his hammock and woke up the older, handsome brother and told him that they needed to get out of the village before the devil killed them. The two brothers ran out of the devil’s house and ran and ran and ran until they reached the riverbank. But the river was too wide to swim across.
Meanwhile, the devil entered the room where the brothers had tied their hammocks. He asked, “Boys? Are you asleep yet?” There was no reply. He crept up to the hammocks but when he reached to grab the brothers, there was nobody in them. The devil realized the boys must have run away and began chasing after them.
Once the boys reached the river, they saw a flock of pigeons. They knew that pigeons have the ability to carry people to the other side of the river and asked the pigeons to do so. The pigeons carried the boys across the river and dropped them off safely on the other bank.
Finally the devil arrived at the river and saw the boys standing on the other side. The devil, however, did not know that the pigeons can carry people across the river. The devil took several strides back and then sprinted towards the river. At the edge of the river bank, the devil jumped up and soared through the air until he fell into the middle of the river with a big splash.
That is how all of the rocks in the middle of the river were created. Each rock represents where the devil tried to jump across the river but did not land on the other side.”
Another quick story:
In a recent post called Pleasant Surprises, I spoke of a man named Pompea. Well, after my family’s vacation over Christmas and New Years, I traveled upriver, sitting next to Pompea for a good 8-10 hours. With each passing village, Pompea brought Saramaccan history to life, recalling the villages’ original names and correcting my pronunciations of the current ones. Even more impressive, he identified names of rapids, large boulders in the middle of the river and areas of the jungle that had not been inhabited for years. As we talked, a random idea popped into my head.
“Pompea, when you were a boy, did you know what money was?” I asked.
He looked at me with a serious confusion. “What sort of…??” He attempted to reply but then masked his bewilderment by shaking his head and erupting into a disbelieving laughter. I sat there thinking about how my grandparents witnessed the birth of TVs, computers and smartphones but here, the man sitting next to me on the boat, is a man who did not know what money was when he was a boy. Money! Now, he has a solar panel installed on top of his house and uses a cell phone daily.
And finally… SUPERBOWL CHAMPS!!