The Ndyuka people (also spelled 'Djuka') or Aukan people or Okanisi, are one of six Maroon peoples (formerly called "Bush Negroes", which also has pejorative tinges) in the Republic of Suriname and one of the Maroon peoples in French Guiana. The Aukan or Ndyuka speak the Ndyuka language. They are subdivided into the Opu, who live upstream of the Tapanahony River of southeastern Suriname, and the Bilo, who live downstream of that river.
They are the descendants of African slaves brought over from Central and West Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Dutch to work the many plantations in the coastal regions. Conditions on the plantations were often cruel and inhumane resulting in escapes of slaves into the jungle interior of the country where they would not be followed. The Aukaners set up their own societies, forming a unique culture, language and lifestyle. For over 300 years the Aukaners have lived in relative isolation from the outside world. This paper will attempt to explore and document who the Aukaners are and provide at least an initial look into how they view the world.
Slaves who escaped from their captivity to form independent people groups are known as Maroons. There are two Maroon groups in Suriname: the Aukaners and the Saramacans. Aukaners go by two different names depending largely on the location in which they live. Those Aukaners who live along the Tapanahony River and make up the ethnographic core of the people group refer to themselves as Ndjuka. Aukaners who live in the city as well as the coastal Cottica River region refer to themselves simply as Aukaners.
While these two groups of individuals go by different names, they share the same cultural, historical and family background and see themselves as the same people group. There are two other related groups that speak a very similar dialect to Aukans: the Aluku, and the Paramacca. These two groups today are considered distinct. Of these the Aukan/ Ndjuka is the largest group, numbering approximately 33,000. In spite of the their common kinship and language, the Aukaner sub-groups are not friendly with each other and do not necessarily cooperate. Within the last few years, a large but undetermined number of Aukaners have migrated to French Guiana.
Ndyuka also called Aukan, Okanisi, Ndyuka tongo, Aukaans, Businenge Tongo, Eastern Maroon Creole, or Nenge is a creole language of Suriname, spoken by the Ndyuka people. Most of the 25 to 30 thousand speakers live in the interior of the country, which is a part of the country covered with tropical rainforests. Ethnologue lists two related languages under the name Ndyuka.
Ndyuka is based on English vocabulary, with influence from African languages in its grammar and sounds. For example, the difference between na ("is") and ná ("isn't") is tone; words can start with consonants such as mb and ng, and some speakers use the consonants kp and gb. (For other Ndyuka speakers, these are pronounced kw and gw, respectively. For example, the word "to leave" is gwé or gbé, from English "go away".) There are also influences from Portuguese and other languages.
Modern orthography differs from an older Dutch-based orthography in substituting u for oe and y for j. The digraphs ty and dy are pronounced somewhat like the English ch and j, respectively. Tone is infrequently written, though it is required for words such as ná ("isn't"). The Ndjuká syllabary was invented by Afaka Atumisi of eastern Suriname in 1910. Afaka claimed that he had a dream in which a spirit prophesied that a script would be revealed to him. He went on to invented the Ndjuká or Djuka script, which is also known as the Afaka script (afaka sikifi).
The Ndyuka language has three dialects: proper Ndyuka (or Okanisi), Aluku, and Paramaccan, which are ethnically distinct. Kwinti is distinct enough linguistically to be considered a separate language, though it too is sometimes included under the name Ndyuka.
The Aukaners were slaves who escaped from plantations on the coastal part of Suriname in the 1600’s and 1700’s. After their escape, these freed slaves would form clans, which are the building blocks of their society even today; villages were located in the jungle interior. In an effort to free other slaves, the Maroons frequently raided Dutch plantations resulting in loss of property and some loss of Dutch lives.
A protracted guerilla war ensued ending only with a peace treat with the Dutch in 1760. The Aukaners were the first of the Maroon groups to be granted semi-independence as a result of this treaty. The Aukaners were free to live in isolation and received annual payments from the Dutch government to cease their raiding of Dutch plantations.
The Aukaner people remained relatively isolated until the 1950’s when the government in Paramaribo began to employ Ndjuka’s. This pace of migration continued in the 60’s and 70’s as tens of thousands of Surinamers moved to the Netherlands in the wake of Suriname independence in 1975. (About 1/3 of the Suriname population –200,000 people – migrated to the Netherlands.)
In 1986 a Civil War began in Suriname between the Maroons and the Dutch government. As a result many of those who had migrated to the capital returned home to renew their cultural ties and re-establish their loyalties. The war lasted until 1990 when a new peace treat was finally signed. It is important to note that the war was responsible for a renewed commitment to their own way of life and culture for the Aukaner people.
Even though today up to 50% of the population at some time or another lives in the capital (of these, 25% are permanent moves and 25% are temporary, employment moves), they still consider themselves solidly Aukaner and are proud of their history and heritage. The Ndjuka appear the most mobile and market-oriented of all Maroons. By the early 19th century, the Ndjuka had settled closer to the urban area, along the Cottica and Lower Saramaka Rivers. Ndjuka men marketed timber to Paramaribo customers and occasionally grew food for plantations along the coast and for Paramaribo (ThodenVanVelzen and VanWetering 1991). Since the 1960s many Ndjuka have moved to Paramaribo, primarily for economic reasons (Lamur 1965). Today, Maroons make up 4.6% of the larger Paramaribo area (Schalkwijk 1994: 22). Most urban Maroons seem to be of Ndjuka origin. If only half of the Maroons in Paramaribo are Ndjuka, then about 30% of the Ndjuka population live in the city today. The Ndjuka work more in mining than Maroons from other groups.
Agriculture is the main focus of the Aukan economy. Items grown, however, are for the personal use of those who grow them (as well as a small group of related family members). There are no markets. The main crop is dry rice; other crops include cassava, taro, okra, maize, plantains, bananas, sugar cane and peanuts. Hunting and fishing are also significant contributors to the overall economy of the region. Again, game and fish are shared with a small group of kinsmen; none are purchased in a market-style economy.
Also contributing to the Aukan economy today are items purchased in Paramaribo by Aukan men employed there. These items are then brought into the interior and include shotguns, tools, pots, cloth, hammocks, salt, soap, kerosene, rum, outboard motors, transistor radios, and tape recorders. Aukaners are also emplyoyed in the areas of forestry and gold mining. Gold mining is now employing many Aukaners , especially in the are of Sella Creek (a tributary of the Tapanahoni).
The primary family unit in Aukan society is the matriclan (“lo”). Matriclans originated from a particular group of runaway slaves of a specific plantation from which they derived their names. There are twelve matriclans; each matriclan contains kinsmen who are matrilineally related. These are the strongest family ties; marriage is important but does not produce as vital a family link.
Each Aukan village contains three groups of people:
Aukaners practice polygamy (more than one wife for a man) but only if the man can afford to maintain more than one household. About 1/3 of the marriages are polygamous. Marriage in the Aukan sense consists of an official meeting held of the woman’s matriclan resulting in a verbal contract. Basically, the woman agrees to bear the man’s children; the man agrees to provide materially for his wife.
Once married couples must choose where they will live. Due to the fact that 1/3 of the men have more than one wife, care is taken in making that choice! In a recent study the following was discovered:
It is not unusual for a man to own a house in his wife’s village, his lineage village and his father’s village. Divorce is relatively easy and frequent, some say as high as 40%. In order to obtain a divorce, the man informs his wife’s matriclan’s leaders that he no longer wants to be her husband. If the man has wronged the woman in some way, a fine is levied by the matriclan to appease the ancestral spirits. It is said that if a woman “overpowers” a man by her attitudes and actions that man should divorce his wife and go back to his own village
There are many family groups within each village in Aukan society. Families relate to each other on a competitive basis. Limited resources, game, fish and planting grounds lead to a competitive agenda. Most family to family meetings take place to settle disputes between the families. Friendships are few outside of the family.
Aukan society is egalitarian; no social classes exist for the most part. There are positions of respect, however. The hierarchy of respect for most Aukan villages is as follows: religious practitioner followed by gaanman followed by captains followed by basias followed by storeowners/teachers followed by matriclan leaders.
There is also a hierarchy in terms of levels of trust for an Aukaner. The following shows who an Aukaner would trust and in what order: Fellow villagers followed by Fellow clan members followed by Whole Aukan linguistic/cultural group followed by Fellow Maroons followed by Fellow Surinamers followed by Foreigners (white people – bakaa).
As can be seen, any white person or non-Aukaner is looked at with a certain level of distrust. Aukaners must always see themselves as being in the winning position when dealing with foreigners. They are very hesitant to reveal their true thoughts to foreigners, especially in the areas of religion and folk tales. This has obvious ramifications for the missionary, and every effort must be made to gain trust and acceptance.
There are four groups of authority in Aukan society: elders (including the paramount chieftain – the Gaanman); the captains (kabitens); kunu (avenging spirits of ancestors); and the priests (shamans, herbalists, funeral foremen, etc.). The elders make most of the decisions that are non-religious in nature in the society. Captains are local leaders; the primary captain (like a mayor in some sense) is called the Ede Kabiten. Each captain as two male and two female assistants called basias. Male basias act as village criers, announcing the beginning of village functions as well as other news. Female basias cook and serve food for large village functions and maintain mortuary and other meeting places. In reality priests have the utmost authority in that they interpret the wishes of ancestral spirits and kunu. More detail on this will be provided in the section on religion.
The principal political offices (Gaanman and kabitens) are determined through matrilineal lines. Successors of these offices are distant relatives (must belong to the next generation) of the preceding officer.
Religious taboos form the framework of law and order in the Aukan society. When a dispute arises among Aukaners, it is usually settled after an impasse is reached. Typically, there is much yelling and gesticulating. A mediator (who is usually an affine; i.e. one who has married into the family) is called in to keep grievance from escalating to the point of angering the matriclan’s ancestors.
In settling disputes, both sides must feel that they have achieved a cumulative gain in the decision-making process. The fear of kunu generally acts as a strong motivation to settle the dispute. If the kunu become angry, there will be sickness and/or death in some member of the village (not necessarily the disputing parties). As a result, it is in the best interest of the entire village to make sure that disputes are settled before matters escalate.
Physical abuse is uncommon; striking each other is a very strong taboo. The exception to this rule is a wife caught in adultery – in this instance the husband has the right to beat the wife within certain parameters. (He must not use a stick or other weapon; the fight cannot take place on river or in the fields.) Citizens in this case are expected to intervene and stop punishment (much like the intervention of adults in the discipline of children).
Unfortunately, in recent times there have been higher levels of physical abuse, perhaps resulting from the negative influence of gold miners in the area.If a member of a village refuses to settle a dispute, the common punishment is ostracism. It is important to realize, however, that the overarching theme of Aukan law is a pursuit of mercy over justice. If, however, the ancestral spirits demand justice, punishment is carried out swiftly out of fear.
Religion plays an extremely important role in the life of the Aukaner. The religious structure is one of animism and ancestral spirit veneration. There is a three tiered hierarchy of gods which plays a crucial role in every aspect of Aukan life. Some of the most significant gods are now discussed. The creator, the god who is most powerful, is called “masaa gadu.” One of the most powerful spirits is “father god” (“papa gadu”) which is an incarnation of the boa constrictor. This is a god of mayhem and evil and is invoked in witchcraft. Because Aukaners are polytheistic, they are often willing to add Jesus to their pantheon of gods, probably in the second tier.
Superstition plays a major role in the life of an Aukaner. Individuals live in fear that they will commit some sin that will upset their ancestral spirits. Avenging, ancestral spirits are called “kunu” and must be appeased (through libations and sacrifices) when a wrong is committed. All sickness (especially serious illness) is seen to be the result of kunu action. In sickness or death, the ritual of divining is undertaken to determine the cause of the illness (i.e., who is to blame for the sickness by their sin). This is accomplished through the use of oracles (often hair of the deceased) tied in a bundle and attached to a long plank. Two men hold the plank on their heads and then questions are put to the oracle. The way the plank moves, answers the questions. Aukaners also use charms, amulets, and fetishes to protect them from evil. Witchcraft is a reality in the Aukan society and is to be feared. Priests make decisions on whether someone is a witch. Frequently, when someone dies of unknown reason, the priest will mark them as a witch.There is a definite sense of good and evil in the Aukan mind set. Evil is associated with great danger, so it is to be avoided as much as possible. When a sin is committed, atonement is made quickly as directed by religious practitioners (priests and mediums). The concept of salvation by faith is foreign to Aukan thinking. There is the concept of mercy in their system of justice, but atonement must always be made to cover sin. Aukan mindset would be equivalent to a salvation by works. Converts to any religion (including Christianity) are seen as a definite threat to the Aukan way of life. Often, new converts move out of their houses into new homes away from the traditional village. Aukaners will intially listen to converts and try to add this new belief into their own religious world view. Syncretism is a real possibility and steps must be taken to ensure that true Christianity is presented.
The Aukaner sees God as stern, far-removed and a deity to be feared. The belief is that God became disgusted with mankind (especially the Aukan people) and removed himself from their presence. Prayers center around pleas for mercy for any accidental sins they may have committed.
Religious leaders hold an important place in society and have a great amount of power. Often the spiritual leaders are chosen by the ghost of a deceased ancestor or one of the gods to be used as a medium. The individual will then become possessed to give a message to the matriclan. The more this individual is possessed, the more of a spiritual leader he becomes. Eventually, after years of serving his clan as a medium, the person will be elevated to the position of priest. It is significant to note here that men alone can be possessed by the most important spirits. Women do act as mediums of the snake gods.
Ancestral shrines are important to Aukan ritual life, and, in fact, must be present for a settlement to be a true Aukan village. The two ancestral shrines of most significance are the mortuary (“Kee Osu”) and the ancestor pole/flagpole (“Faakatiki”).As stated earlier, Aukaners are mistrustful of foreigners and resistant to true Christianity. They are a strong-willed people who are very proud of their heritage. They are especially proud to be the descendants of runaway slaves whom they see as their brave and defiant ancestors. Acceptance of Christianity, in the Aukan mind, would involve turning away from their ancestors and rejecting their way of life. Pentecostal churches have made some breakthroughs in Aukan society. It is estimated that there are about 3000 Aukan Christians, the majority of whom live in Paramaribo or the Cottica region. Worship is led in Sranan Tongo. There are very few Christians in the interior.
The Aukan people have a very typical style of dress which distinguishes them from Western society. Aukan women often go topless or wear a bra only. The upper thigh, buttocks and pelvic area are always covered with a pangi – a one piece wrap around Aukan men often go topless or wear the camissa (a toga-like cloth thrown over one shoulder and caught with a knot). There are times when Aukan men wear a mixture of traditional Aukan dress and Western dress (especially hats) to formal occasions. There is a trend toward the wearing of more Westernized clothing especially among the young.
Aukaners enjoy producing art in a variety of ways, all of which are gender specific. Men make elaborate wood carvings including boat oars, trays, canoes, and houses. They frequently brightly paint the doors of their homes as well as their boat oars.
Men are considered to be the master artists of the Aukan people. Women, on the other hand, downplay their own artistic abilities. Women carve out calabash bowls, ladles, and containers. Women also sew and cross-stitch designs on their husbands’ camissa (a togatype of garment thrown over one shoulder and caught with a knot). The giving of artistic gifts having carefully been made are important expressions of love between spouses.
The biggest annual holiday in Aukan society is held to mark the end of the one year period of mourning (Bokode). Another holiday is celebrated in July to commemorate the end of slavery (Masipasi). Other celebrations center around cyclical family events. For example, women are required at each menstruation to be separated from the rest of society. Special menstrual huts are available for women to use during this time. When women return to their own homes following menstruation, there is a time of happy celebration. Also, three months after a woman gives birth, a woman and newborn are no longer believed to be ritually unclean and are released back into village life. A time of celebration and presentation of the infant ensues.