“It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.”
- Maya Angelou
I am back in Suriname, land of my birth, for just a week (glorious spring break) to connect again with family and soak up the heat that brings healing to my winter-weary heart. I have written before about the love and warmth of family I enjoy when I make the trip down, and so it has been this time, too.
Today, my mother and I drove to the market to pick up the spices and hot sauces with which I must return back to the Philadelphia area -- for the cooking I do in the US depends on it! I love driving through the dusty, bustling city where too many cars share narrow roads with surprising civility, despite the occasional burst of car horns that pollute the air. (Let me be clear, however: I believe it takes a special kind of courage to be a driver in Suriname. I am merely suggesting that those who understand the country’s particular unwritten rules can navigate through the streets without too much danger.)
Once in awhile, a beautifully restored wooden house catches my attention and I wonder who so lovingly trimmed the shutters the traditional dark green of yore while the rest of the house gleams white. And there, around the bend, is a large institutional building with peeling paint and broken windows that our taxi driver reveals as a high school. Incredulous, I shake my head and I think of the gorgeous school in which I work and I wonder about what the teaching and learning in this school is like. This is Suriname: a nation in which the juxtaposition of these realities -- the beautiful home and the dilapidated school -- raises nary an eyebrow and never represses the indomitable pride that permeates its citizenry.
While the official language of the country is Dutch, upon establishment after establishment, I see languages that for the most part I don’t understand: aside from the globally ubiquitous English slogans, Portuguese phrases announce the Brazilian owner, and Chinese and Hindu lettering proudly display a heritage that is deeply ingrained, despite the fact that the families of those who ordered the lettering have been in this country for generations.
At night, we visit my aunt and cousin -- others stop by too -- and food items appear in steady succession: samosas, warm, crusty bread with nuts, pineapple, and cheese, deviled eggs with hot sauce- and curry-laced filling, and of course, cake. We talk, this group of women across generations, about our relationships, shake our heads at the escapades of children and grandchildren, and reminisce about times gone by. And that is when it strikes me: this gorgeous land is made all the more so because of the great diversity of its people.
Sources describe Suriname as one of the most ethnically and racially diverse nations on the South American continent. It is not hard to see why. With a population of slightly more than a half million people and, geographically, the size of Ohio, in Suriname live, side by side, those of African, Indian, Chinese, European White, Indonesian, and, of course, indigenous descent. Each of these groups have strong, dual identities; the one that reflects their origin, and the other that is undeniably Surinamese. One does not usurp the other; in fact, they appear to strengthen each other.
That night, with women in my extended family gathered around food and connected by stories, it strikes me: each of us, even in this family, has a different history of which we are proud. My mother, as the eldest of the group, tells stories that revive characters that have long since passed. My aunt tells the story of her “Boeroe” heritage, but proudly claims her loyalty to and love for Suriname, too.
This complexity of identity, this celebration of different backgrounds is not unique to Suriname, but I believe that because of its small population, it is always at the forefront of consciousness. For me, as a citizen of two countries, with a mix of races and ethnicities coursing through my veins, it simply underscores that we can be more than one thing, and we can be so with pride.
While I was away, basking in heat and humidity, a group of AIS students and a group of Nightingale Bamford students were enjoying a much colder time during the inaugural trip of the Girls Schools Traveling Consortium to a school in the Pine Ridge reservation of the Lakota tribe.
The brainchild of head of school Paul Burke of Nightingale, this trip to the Pine Ridge Girls School in South Dakota highlighted the powerful connection of intersecting, yet individual identities: the travelers were all girls, attending girls schools (and yet how different these schools are), all American, but with different cultural histories, all learning from and celebrating with one another their unique journeys.
In reading the blog the girls maintained on their trip, I am struck by one powerful notion, explained to the travelers by a Lakota eductor, the notion of wotakuye, described as the foundation of Lakota life. Loosely translated as “kinship,” this principle connects the Lakota people through the generations and sustains their hope even in times of challenge and heartache.
While I am by no means an expert in the history of culture of the Lakota people, I find myself connecting this idea to my evening conversation in Suriname. Kinship, in this context, can simultaneously transcend and sustain our individuality, our identities.
We should not fear the diversity of identities in our communities. We should embrace them, claim our own, and delight in others claiming theirs. Nothing else will enrich us in quite the same way.
Tuesday April, 10