THE FIRST MAROONS

The Aluku are one of six groups of Maroons living in French Guiana and Suriname. They are the descendents of slaves who escaped from the Dutch plantations in the 18th century and took refuge in the forest. The Boni were one of the last groups to be formed, around 1769, under the leadership of Boni, who had been born in the forest to a runaway slave. Another, older chief called Aluku looked after the life of the village and women and children, whilst Boni led the men off to war (Hoogbergen, 1985).

Between 1776 and 1777 the Boni crossed the Maroni and settled on the French side, on Sparouine creek. They ran into hostility from the Ndjuka with whom they entered into conflict. After various bloody episodes they went back up the Maroni in 1791 and settled along the Lawa. The Ndjuka settled along the Tapanahoni and a peace treaty was signed, placing the Boni under the tutelage of the Ndjuka. The Franco-Dutch agreement signed in Albina in 1860 freed the Boni of the tutelage of the Ndjuka, placing them under French protection. When in 1890 the Lawa was recognised as the official border between Dutch and French Guiana, the Boni chose to live under French authority. The establishment of the French département of French Guiana in 1946 and then the establishment of districts in 1969, brought about a change in their status, and they are now French nationals (De Groot, 1984; Romny, 1861).

SOCIAL STRUCTURE AND MATERIAL LIVING CONDITIONS

Their social structure is based on a matrilineal system. There are eight lineages subdivided into clans who choose a captain (edeman) and spokesmen (basia) to represent them in the Council of Elders (lanti kuutu). The great traditional chief (gaan man) is invested with political and religious powers. Each lineage has a place of prayer (faaga tiki) where the ancestors are worshiped.

Traditional Aluku country is on the upper Maroni, on the stretch known as the Lawa, between the confluences with the Tapanahoni downstream and the Marouni upstream. The largest village is Kormontibo-Papaïchton, which became a district in 1976. There is also an Aluku village on the lower Maroni, created in 1882 by Apatou after his return from France. Apatou became a French district in 1976, when the district of Grand-Santi-Papaïchton-Apatou was split up.

All the villages are to be found on the rivers and the Maroons have specialised in making dugout canoes and pirogues (boto) that they fit with outboard motors to travel around rapidly. They have also specialised in transporting goods between the various villages and the coast. They trade as far as St Laurent du Maroni, a sub-prefecture of French Guiana, where Maroons are in a large majority, especially since the 1987 Civil War in Suriname which saw the influx of a large number of refugees from across the border.

The Aluku practice slash-and-burn agriculture with a preponderant place going to bitter cassava. The women turn it into a form of roasted flour called kuaka which forms the basis of their diet. This flour can be kept in dry conditions for a very long time and is well suited to a way of life in which people move around frequently. The Aluku frequently have several places where they live, including the traditional matrilineal village, agricultural dwellings, seasonal workplaces for men, and an official place of residence where their children attend school.

ANCESTOR WORSHIP

Their religion is based on ancestor worship, which plays a preponderant role in both social and religious organisation. All the traditional villages have a faaga tigi where prayers and libations are held for the Ancestors.

Whilst the Aluku believe in a Creator (Masa Gadu) and a certain number of divinities (Ampuku , Kumanti, Papa Gadu, Kantaasi, and Tone to name but some), the main acts of worship relate to the Ancestors who continue to oversee relations between the Living from the beyond. Their conception of human beings is complex, including not just to a physical body (sikin) but also a divine part or akaa which remains attached to a person throughout their life before returning to the divine. The nemseki comes from the reincarnation of an Ancestor and is responsible for certain character traits. The yooka, man’s ordinary consciousness, is constitutive of his personality. After death man returns to join the other Ancestral spirits (gaan yooka) who continue to watch over the living; they can even come and possess members of their lineage (Hurault, 1961).

The ancestors are thus highly respected. Prayers and offerings are regularly performed to them. Mourning festivities underline the important role played by the Ancestors and include a certain number of rituals which have to be carried out in an organised manner.

THE END OF FORMAL MOURNING: PUU BAAKA

“Puu baaka is the last meal we share with the departed. His spirit then goes and joins the world of the Ancestors, that is why it is the most important of the mourning festivities and the one for which we prepare the most food. Louis Topo, 1987.

Mourning festivities are a way of commemorating life when fleeing slavery, the “first days” when the Ancestors fled into the forest pursued by the Dutch and their allies, the pacified Ndjuka Maroons.

The first stage is the preparation of a fermented drink made from sugar cane juice (kien). The men proceed to cut the cane (koti kien) and then crush it (fon kien). The crushing takes place at night and they turn around a dugout hewn roughly out of a tree trunk (kien boto). Some of the juice is put aside for the libations and the rest is boiled (boli kien) to be kept until the feast. This juice is then left to ferment for a week or two whilst they get the other things are ready.

The men then go into the forest (busiman e guwe) for about one week. They are accompanied by a few fairly young women who look after preparing the meals and cleaning the game. It is a matter of hunting and fishing enough to be able to feed the many guests who will be invited to the mourning feast. These hunting and fishing parties normally take place in the Abattis Cottica (cf. Article p. 78). They offer an opportunity to return to life in the woods, and only basic foodstuffs are brought with them – kuaka, salt, oil and suchlike. They spend the days hunting and fishing and the game and fish they catch is consumed on the spot but mainly to taken back in sufficiently large quantities to the village for the coming festivities. The meat and fish is dry-smoked.

In the dry season they fish using piscitoxic plants that they shred up in the water so as to paralyse the fish. It is then a matter of picking them out by hand or else using a harpoon sphere (lansi). Neko, a thick forest creeper (Lonchocarpus spp.), is appreciated due to its strength. It needs to be cut down the day before fishing and left all night surrounded by small fires so as to maintain an ideal temperature. At dawn the following day it is “woken up” by hitting it once again.

This life in the forest enables the group to relive the old ways and experience the time of the ancestors. It is therefore a lot more than just a hunting and fishing party, and it is a genuine “return to their roots” that takes place along the saults* of the Abattis Cottica so laden in history.

While the busiman are in the forest the women and older men stay behind to clean the village and prepare the festivities.

Firstly the village is meticulously weeded. The women prepare cassava cakes. Everything is done collectively – the peeling of the cassava, washing it, grating it, and cooking it on discs that families pass to each other for the occasion.

When the busiman return to the village (busiman e kom) it is a time of celebration. They are welcomed as heroes. An aisle is created by hanging loincloths (pangi) as a sign of respect, and rifles are fired repeatedly to announce the return of the hunters as well as to ward off evil spirits. The busiman dances are then performed, and so as to show their invulnerability and courage they dance on pieces of glass or else thorny palm leaves such as Aouara palms.

The rice is ground up the day before the formal end of mourning. This takes place towards the end of night before dawn. The pestles (lolo mata) are taken to the village square where the women turn around the mortars. The men come and replace them from time to time. Afterwards the rice is winnowed by hand in great wooden pan-shaped trays (te) that are carefully sculpted by the men.

The next day the ritual bathing of the widows or widowers is held in the river, accompanied by the family of the departed. They can then take off their mourning clothes and dress in red.

This is also the day of the doo udu: the young people go and cut wood to cook food as offerings and for the great fire that will be lit that evening in the village and which needs to burn all night long. The women wearing their finest loincloths sing and dance to the rhythm of the drums while on pirogues weaving in and out of the river. In the afternoon the women from the village come and place their cassava cakes (kasaba) in front of the open-air mortuary shed (ke osu) with the mounds of drink brought by the participants. All of this is then placed in the basia osu, before being handed out to the guests. In the evening the facility starts with the recital of tales (anansi toli), improvisations (mato), and riddles (odo) in the mortuary shed. Traditional dances are then performed to the rhythm of the drums and always in the same order: songe, susa, awasa. The festivity is held on a Friday evening and lasts all night (booko de).

The following day, Saturday, tortoises and farmyard chickens are sacrificed in the morning near the mortuary shed (ke osu) where the widowers and widows sleep for the week. The women take the sacrifices away to cook them. In the afternoon food offerings are made in the same place next to the ke osu. Food is placed on a banana leaf on the ground while prayers are said imploring the ancestors to accept the newly departed.

The final community meal is held on the last day (Sunday). In the morning there are libations (towe wata) with prayers near  the faafa tiki. All the food is then taken to the centre of the village and placed on a great table (gaan tafa). All the dishes prepared by the women of the village are placed there, many of which are rice-based. Their everyday diet is tending to become more Western, but traditional dishes based on sauces made from groundnut (pinda), sesame (bongila) and okra (oko) are served primarily during these mourning festivities. Calabashes are used as plates and rice straw as sponges, in an attempt to commemorate the way of life of the ancestors back in the “first days”.

It is important to underline how important rice is in these offerings. Unlike kuaka which forms the basis of their daily diet but is virtually absent from their offerings, the race is prepared in colossal quantities. For this occasion the rice has to come from the clearings (nenge alisi), which is clearly distinguished from rice bought in shops (agina). The rice grown in the clearings is a mountain variety requiring special treatment to protect it from weeds especially. Amongst the varieties grown is a species of rice from Africa (O. glaberrima Steud.) that has become very rare as it is less productive than the Asian species (Oriza sativa L.) (Fleury, 1996).

CONCLUSION

The mourning festivities act as a way of conserving certain traditions which tend to be forgotten in daily life. In particular traditional food is served which is highly reminiscent of the dietary customs of West Africa with its sauces made from groundnut, okra*, and palm oil. The rites performed during the festivities are a way of returning to the way of life that used to be that of the Ancestors when they were runaway slaves. In addition to being a symbolic way of accompanying the departed to the other world, puu baka is also a way of paying homage to their rebellious Marron Ancestors.