This semester break my friend Carl and I traveled to Suriname, South America. We spent a week in the country’s interior, slinging our hammocks in the huts of hospitable Peace Corps volunteers living in small villages and becoming immersed in and fascinated by Maroon culture. Both the volunteers and the villagers proved to be uniquely accommodating and friendly, affording us not a window, but a door into their culture. The villages we visited were full of interesting, organic and beautiful traditions. As a Sex & Health writer for The Big Green, I was particularly interested in the sexual traditions practiced by the Maroon.
The Maroon
[hut]It was Christmas in the jungle of South America. The sound of thumping bass and bouncing reggae pierced the quiet, dark village of Drepada. Loosely hanging light bulbs, reflecting off the tin roof of a centrally located shed, illuminated a makeshift dance floor where 20-plus children – their parents mostly having retired for the evening – moved their bodies in concert with the music.
A young girl, perhaps 13, turned and began dancing in my direction, her small, white tube top and baggy white pants contrasting sharply with her glistening black skin. She began to gyrate her hips and pelvis slowly, methodically and suggestively. As the beat propelled the song forward, she started to lightly brush her hand across her inner thigh.
I darted my eyes, searching for a more appropriate, non-pedophilic target. Finally settling on her face, I found relief: her broad smile and big eyes revealed not the slightest hint of sexuality. She simply was having fun. Her physical movements, overtly sexual in my mind, did not carry the same cultural weight for her. What seemed brazen and unwholesome to me, was simply the norm for her in a culture where tradition dictates that children openly talk about sex.
Traditions play a large role in defining and representing a culture. At MSU, we eat ice cream at the dairy store, incessantly jump up and down in the Izzone and demand color-reversal reciprocation when we shout “Go Green” at random passers-by. In the Maroon villages of Suriname, culture is largely defined by sexual traditions.
The Maroon villages in Suriname were formed in the 18th century by escaped slaves originally from West Africa. A Dutch colony until 1975, Suriname was, at one point, a major stop on the Dutch West India Company slave trade route. The dense rainforest of Suriname served as great cover for fugitive slaves, and many who escaped formed small villages throughout the interior of the country, essentially recreating Africa in the heart of the rainforest. Similar societies were formed throughout the Caribbean and the Guyanas. The term Maroon is not specific to the people of Suriname, but rather is used to describe escaped-slave societies throughout the region.
The Maroon villages we visited or stayed in – Drepada, Baku and Lebidoti – were filled with anachronistic contradictions: glowing TV screens illuminating thatched huts, topless women washing Von Dutch t-shirts, reggae-blasting stereos disturbing the tranquility of the rainforest. But despite these superficial signs of modernization, tradition was ubiquitous. In particular, sexual traditions – polygamy, menstruation huts, ritualistic scarification, daily vaginal washes – have thus far weathered the external winds of modernization.
More Money, More Women, More Problems
Perhaps the most conspicuous sexual tradition in Maroon culture is the openly embraced practice of polygamy. It is common for men to take multiple wives, often in the same village, sometimes building them neighboring homes.
According to former Peace Corps volunteer Peter Scott, multiple wives function as status symbols. “It comes with money,” said Scott. “Not every guy in town has multiple wives. You have as many wives as you can afford.”
Nathan Snyder, the current volunteer in Lebidoti, agreed. “Because it is culturally expected for men to give women things – gold, food, anything that they can afford – the more money you have, the more you can spread it around, the more women you can get.”
The men of Lebidoti are rarely around, but they rarely go a night without sex. Primarily employed as gold-miners, village men will often leave to work in the mines for months at a time. It is overlooked, if not accepted, that men will sleep with prostitutes while away at the mines. When they return, they are expected to provide their wives with money and supplies, enough of each to last during their long stretches of absence. Men are not frowned upon for having multiple wives provided they can financially support each of them.
“I’ve never seen anything close to guilt or remorse,” said Snyder. “There are some times when guys don’t seem to be able to take care of their families, but otherwise no.”
Scott and Snyder sat next to each other, their green plastic chairs crowding a dusty dirt pathway next to Snyder’s tin-roofed house. It was two days before the New Year, and the mood of the village was decidedly festive. As Scott and Snyder discussed polygamy, less stigmatic traditions were being proudly displayed and embraced in anticipation of the holiday: we were interrupted regularly with jovial, traditional greetings; some village men wore their traditional loincloths; many women wore vibrant, plaid pangis- a traditional skirt.
Amidst these beautiful displays of tradition, I asked the volunteers what they personally thought about the tradition of polygamy.
“I can’t judge,” said Snyder. “In my own culture it is said to be taboo. Coming in here, they are surviving. They are living.”
“I’ve never witnessed an actual problem with it,” said Scott, adding that he thinks there is an unspoken rule amongst co-wives that prohibits them from talking bad about each other.
“A lot of guys have multiple wives,” he continued, “but they joke ‘you only find problems when you have more than one woman.’ I think that has got to be rooted in something. Whether they have seen that, or they just think more women equals more problems, I don’t know.”
Love and Hate
While Maroon men often seem quite happy in polygamous relationships, women are not always as content. “There is definitely competition and jealousy, but I think that is primarily with their co-wives,” said Peace Corps volunteer Dara Lipton. “They all know and expect that their man will sleep with other women. It’s when they start making babies, start families with other women, [which] brings with it financial obligations, time and money that is now going to be spent with this other woman…then there is a lot of jealously and competition. Oftentimes the first wife has a lot of anger toward the second wife for taking away that time and the second wife is angry at the first wife because she thinks she gets special treatment because she is the first.”
[dara]Lipton, 24, is a volunteer in the village of Baku. She’s lived in Baku for 18 months, and during that time she has almost completely immersed herself in the culture. In interactions with villagers, only her skin color betrays her otherness. As we talked, she stood in the shallow water on the shore of Lake Brokopondo, scrubbing dishes and clothes on a machete-ribbed tree stump. She wore only a black bra and a plaid pangi, a common outfit for Baku women. Behind her, the setting sun illuminated the bare and bleached tree limbs rising from the surface of the water, looming like grey ghosts in the watery graveyard formed by dam in the 1960’s.
“Her role is to produce and care for children,” Lipton said of the typical Baku woman. “She is expected to keep a very clean home. She’s expected to know how to respect her man, provide for him. There’s a Dutch word they use, it means both your man and your master. I think it’s indicative of their role. But the man is not here very often. I mean the woman really runs the house, but there are a lot of expectations about how she will set up her home and run her home for her man.”
Like many village women, Lipton is ambivalent about polygamy in the village. “I think I initially came into it thinking ‘that’s wrong.’ I don’t think I’d be able to say that now. But I don’t think it is at all a sort of pleasant nirvana or perfect living situation. I speak to these women, and in their quiet, truthful, honest moments they hate it.”
The next day, with Lipton as translator, a village woman named Esther expressed her desire for a monogamous man.
“I don’t want my man to have another woman, because I want him to sleep with me every night,” she explained. “Not everybody loves the two women thing. Every night I want to be excited. We don’t live long. I want to live well, because I know I might not live long.”
Esther was much more intent on discussing other Baku traditions. She treated each one like a little treasure, performing trial runs of each answer before allowing me to push play on my tape-recorder. When asked about traditional marriage ceremonies, her answer stretched to half an hour. She told her stories elaborately and with gusto, using props and acting out scenes for clarification – the story-telling itself a proud tradition.
Her animation faded when asked about sharing her man with other wives. “If a man comes to me and sleeps three nights, and then goes and sleeps three nights with another woman, then I’m sad,” she said. “At night I sleep by myself. I don’t want that. I don’t want it like that.”
Despite the frustration and competition associated with sexuality in the village, Lipton said that most Baku women greatly enjoy sex.
“They love it. They honestly love it. I think a lot of people in America are like ‘I love sex’ for whatever reason, but I don’t think Baku women are inhibited or frightened at all by sexuality, or intimidated by it. They love it. Granted a lot of that is that they love talking about it, but I mean you see it in the way they dance, they just love it, every bit of it. You never know what happens behind closed doors, but it is certainly an open topic of discussion.”
Open, and according to Lipton, frequent. “They love talking about porn,” said Lipton. “We don’t have TV here, but we have DVDs and DVD players. They love talking about this new porn film that came into the village and is being passed around. And they generally will only watch it with their partner, with their man. To me they love talking about penis size. You know, American men versus black men, village men. They love talking about how they say they are cold when their man hasn’t been around for a while and they want to get some. They’re very funny. They make allusions and references to sex all the time.”
Bonding in Inconvenience
Here at MSU, many guys become squeamish when menstruation comes up in conversation. In Suriname, men become disgusted. “They see it as filthy, as dirty and a sickness,” said Lipton.
Because of this view, women are effectively ostracized when menstruating: they are required to leave their home and sleep in a moon hut, as it called, with other menstruating women; if they enter someone’s hut, the entire home must be ritualistically and thoroughly cleaned; and they cannot cook for fear that their blood will contaminate the food and cause men to grow ill, perhaps even sterile.
In 1984 Sally Price published a book called “Co-Wives and Calabashes,” in which she described her experiences in Maroon villages. When she initially arrived in the village of Dangogo in 1966, she was unfamiliar with the particulars of the moon hut. She was staying as a guest in the home of a villager, but inadvertently was accused of contaminating the host’s home when she returned to gather her belongings before taking up residence in the moon house.
She wrote: “Hadn’t I understood, she (her host) said accusingly, that even the first drop of blood carried ritualistic danger, that I should have sent a child into her home to get the things I needed, and that she would now have to carry out purificatory rites in the hopes of undoing the contamination I caused?”
Although the moon hut experience can be unsettling and inconvenient, Lipton, who has also participated in the rite, said that the tradition does have some merit. “There are some beautiful elements to it, where there is this community of women, who you know, are sort of bonding in their inconvenience.”
[lake2]Because menstruating women are not allowed to bathe with other villagers, they bathe as a group on shore. “It was the most beautiful part for me. You’re not allowed to wash in the lake where we are right now, so you go out to a place over there (points down shore) that is cut out from the bush, facing the lake. It’s beautiful. You heat up water, and it really is the only time in the month that you wash your whole body with hot water, which is really nice. It was nice for me to stand out there with my fellow menstruating women, exposed to the world, naked, early, early in the morning, washing with warm water.”
A Different Kind of Wii
Far from the village, in the Surinamese capital of Paramaribo, Carl and I met Benny. We were enjoying a late-night snack of fried plantains with peanut sauce on the shore of the Suriname River when Benny approached us, greeting us with an offer in the form of a question: “Marijuana?”
We declined, but Benny kept talking. He told us he operated a ferry boat in Albina, transporting passengers across the river to French Guyana, until his broken Evinrude engine forced him to Paramaribo for repairs. He had unkempt dreadlocks, a formerly white shirt and he described himself as Rasta.
The conversation, like many in Suriname, quickly turned to sex. “I’ve got women of all types,” he told us. “Indian women. China women. Jungle women.” He liked the jungle women the best because, as he matter-of-factly put it, they rub leaves on their vagina which makes them feel younger, like a girl.
We dismissed his statement as misguided and disgustingly misogynistic. And while the latter is no doubt the case, we later learned that his information did have some factual basis.
Women in Baku perform ritualistic vaginal washes twice daily, using jungle plants they call wii. The washings are intended to simultaneously cleanse a woman, while later increasing the sexual satisfaction of her male sexual partner. According to Lipton, some types of wii simply smell nice, while others are specifically intended to dry out a woman, confirming Benny’s information.
“You’re supposed to really just wash yourself,” said Lipton, who participates in the daily ritual. “It dries you up, and it’s for your man. Two times a day. Every morning and every afternoon before you go to bed. Every woman.”
A Scarring Sensation
In addition to vaginal washings, many Baku women engage in ritualistic scarification, a process by which small ridges are formed on various parts of the body. Women elders will cut patterns into the skin of a willing participant, usually a young woman, using a knife or razor blade. These patterns usually include a series of lines placed next to each other. Once the cuts are made, the sap of a specific type of wii is rubbed into the open cuts. Next, cool, black ash from a wood fire is rubbed into the cuts, effectively delaying the healing process, and leaving the woman scarred.
Like the vaginal cleansings, the scars were initially intended to heighten the sexual pleasure of a woman’s male partner. “The more it is raised off your skin, the more desirable it is,” said Lipton, who had a series of lines scarred into her lower back. “The intention of it is for the tactile pleasure of your man.”
The scars are usually in places where only men can see them: on a woman’s lower back, outer hips, or butt. “And some of the older women have beautiful ones,” said Lipton.
While the original intention of the scars was to provide males with pleasure, Lipton said scarification is now considered more of an initiation rite than an act of sexual obedience. And although men do find the scars pleasurable, many women also enjoy the erotic sensations.
Change on the Horizon?
Traditions often create unique tensions, the past competing with the future for a stake in the present. When people laugh at MSU because of its agricultural background, we find ourselves in a unique position. Perhaps we argue the technical merits of the cyclotron over a bowl of ice-cream at the dairy store.
The Maroon villages seem to be metaphors of this struggle between past and future. In the middle of Baku, a pink monster dwarfs surrounding thatched huts. Apparently not a fan of subtlety, a gold miner from the village who recently struck it big built an ultra-modern house in the center of the village, complete with glass windows, stone tile and wainscoting. And as if it didn’t stand out enough already, he painted it bright pink. While the house is the most auspicious anomaly in Baku, it is not the only symbol of modernity in the village; DVD players are popular, at least one family owns a small cell phone tower, and our boat operator listened to an mp3 player as he ferried us across Lake Brokopondo. But traditions persist. Particularly, sexual traditions. But will they change? And should they? Many Americans might suggest a change is in order, arguing that polygamy and blatant patriarchy are inherently and morally wrong. But it is important to note that progress and modernity are not synonyms. Many of the Maroon traditions are beautiful, and to eradicate one tradition may be to compromise them all.
Lipton, who recently taught a World AIDS Day lesson in Baku, expressed her reluctance to advocate change. “The school teachers, who are from the city, wanted me to say ‘tell them to be monogamous, tell them it’s wrong to have multiple wives,’ but I didn’t feel comfortable doing that because that is their parents, that is their family, and it is not appropriate for me to judge that. But I did talk to them about understanding the ramifications of it, the importance of just doing what you feel is right.”
The men, who seem to benefit the most from the sexual traditions, understandably appear unmotivated to change. Many boys in the village strive to follow the example of their fathers, most of whom have multiple wives. “I don’t hear any young men now talking about being monogamous,” said Lipton. “I think it is going to take another generation. Because basically all of their fathers still do it. So the sons, that is still what they see.”
[boots]Snyder said the only change he has seen so far is from those who are going to church or to the city regularly. The villages are definitely being influenced by western culture, he said, but the tradition of polygamy doesn’t seem likely to end any time soon.
The women seem more open to change.
“The two woman thing is not good,” said Esther. “They’ve got to get rid of it. It’s hard. You can’t be excited with your person the way you want to. When a man has another woman you worry too much and think that he doesn’t live well with you, that he doesn’t take care of you.”

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