Surrounded by impenetrable walls of tropical rainforest, perched in the stern of my dug-out canoe, I paddle leisurely downriver one early morning. Ligorio, a remote Saramaccan village in Suriname’s interior, peeks through the trees at the next bend in the river. As I approach the wooden staircase where I tie off my canoe, I come upon three heavy, half-naked women. They are bent over at the waist, scrubbing the traces of open fires from their pots to the rhythmic chatter of village gossip. As they subtly cover their exposed breasts by pulling up their pangis (sarongs), I become aware of my presence. I am foreign in a native culture, strange to all things familiar. And yet, I feel welcome.

Johnnie, I weki no?” the three women shelve their discourse and sing in unison. (Did you wake?)

Mi weki oooo,” I reply tunefully. (I woke.)

Every morning, Saramaccans roll out of their hammocks and greet each person with whom they cross paths — adult or child, neighbor or stranger — with these words. Their bellowing voices echo throughout the village and across the chestnut-brown river, but not much farther. A forgotten people in a relatively unknown country, their story remains muffled by the dense, untouched rainforest that covers 80 percent of the small former Dutch colony on South America’s wild northern coast.

Located between Guyana and French Guinea, Suriname, a country the size of Florida, was traded by the English to the Dutch for a piece of land called New Amsterdam (later known as New York City) in 1667. Today, Suriname’s population is a composite of races, home to more than 15 languages but only 500,000 people. The majority live on the northern coast in or around the capital, Paramaribo, the country’s only major city. But not the Saramaccans.

The Saramaccans are descendants of African slaves who were brought to Suriname in the 18th century to work on Dutch sugar plantations and escaped to its vast interior. Their African roots are as much alive as the rainforest that surrounds them. They appoint their village leaders, practice polygamy, wear vibrant colors, and carry heavy loads on their heads. Women wear hangisas (scarves) around their waists to display their relationship status; wash their dishes and clothes in the river; tie babies to their backs; and cultivate rice, cassava, and vegetables on plots of cleared land in the jungle. Men wear bandjakotos (shoulder cloths) and kamisas (loincloths) sewn by their wives, build wooden boats and houses by hand, and provide for their families by hunting and fishing.

I wrote myself into their story by committing two years of my life to international grassroots development as a Peace Corps volunteer beginning in May 2011. I landed in Ligorio, a demanding two-day journey from Paramaribo by car, motorized dugout canoe, and foot, that July. With electricity only from 7 to 11 p.m. and no running water, my home was a wooden shack on the grounds of a primary school, nestled between the jungle, the Gaan Lio (Big River), and a traditional area of worship.

I learned to speak Saramaccan and how to build a dugout canoe, ate foods of which I will never know the names, worked with machetes, fished for piranha, and played soccer. Meanwhile, as part of SUR-17, the seventeenth Peace Corps group (and, sadly, the last, due to budgetary reasons) to serve in Suriname since 1995, I tried my best to serve the people, working with community leaders and local organizations to promote business, health, and youth development projects.

Every day, my life in Ligorio began with greeting after greeting. For the Saramaccans, the gesture demonstrates respect and exudes compassion. As Julia Alinkie, head of the women’s organization in Ligorio, told me, “A de a di gwenti fuu kaa. Bifo moni, u bi abi fanoudu fuu seei.” (It’s what we are already used to. Before money, we needed ourselves.) In a culture where the elders still remember when currency had not yet reached their lands, the Saramaccans are accustomed to committing time and effort to the community’s most valuable resource — its people — creating a friendly, welcoming environment and a strong sense of community. And it all begins with a simple hello.

There are two greetings, one in the morning and one in the afternoon/evening. Here’s an example of the morning conversation:


A: “I weki no?” (Did you wake?)

B: “Mi weki ooo” (I woke.)

A: “Unfa I weki?” (How did you wake?)

B: “Mi weki tanga. Unfa I seei weki?” (I woke strongly. How did you wake?)

A: “Mi weki bunbun.” (I woke well.)

B: “So.” (OK)

A: “So. Mi nango a lio.” (OK, I am going to the river.)


While it took me longer to understand and adjust to some aspects of Saramaccan culture and customs, I immediately took to gliding around the village greeting every person in sight, for I am a disciple of the Colgate Hello. But by living in Ligorio, I came to appreciate even more deeply the magnitude of that small, easy human gesture. 

At times, isolated by cultural and linguistic barriers, I felt foreign to the bone, misunderstood, and completely alone. But it was on those days, while I fantasized about packing up and leaving, that another Saramaccan would pass by and greet me with a cheerful fervor, unaware of my troubles. Once again, I felt acknowledged and wanted, and my dreams of abandoning my post would wash away downriver.

I wrote about the shared Colgate-Saramaccan value of greeting on my blog, It’s Always Sunny in Suriname, which I had created so that I could share my Peace Corps experiences with family, friends, and other interested readers. What follows are excerpts and adaptations of some of my favorite moments and musings about my life in Suriname.



First Impressions
June 28, 2011

Stepping out of the motorized dugout boat and onto the rocks of Ligorio’s riverbank for the first time, I had arrived in the village where I would spend the next two years of my life, excitement cascading from my heart. As part of my Pre-Service Training (our first 11 weeks in Suriname, known as PST in Peace Corps’ acronymic lingo), I was here on a four-day site visit to test the waters in Ligorio. I saw the wooden hut where I would be living and met the Saramaccans with whom I hoped to become friends. My fantasy of living in the jungle was coming true.

 

Omelia turns over a round of cassava bread — a
main staple of the Saramaccan diet

Ligorio is amazing! A Christian village with a church and primary school, it’s located in the Langu region, which consists of eight villages. The entire area is incredibly beautiful and inaccessible. 

My first distinct memory here is that I had brought my camping pack, water filter, hammock, and enough canned tuna and peanut butter to live on for four days. But, I had waited until after dark to think about cooking. There was no electricity in my hut. I did not know a single person. I could barely string two sentences together in Saramaccan. And I had no cooking utensils. I realized that I would have to rely on the compassion of others to cook my first meal. Reluctantly, I grabbed a can of beans in one hand and a package of ramen noodles in the other, turned on my headlight, and set off from my house. 

Walking toward the first hut I could see, I approached a family sitting in the shadows around a well-lit cooking hut whose light spilled out across the pathway. Surprise silenced their conversation as I, a strange white man with shaggy hair and hairy legs and arms, approached them in the dark. I tried my best to articulate to the three elderly women and one silent girl that I would be living with them for the next two years. And then, speaking at the level of a 4-year-old and the rate of a sloth, I popped the question: “Ma abi soni u boi. Mi sa boi no?” (I don’t have things to cook. Can I cook?)

As I lifted my hands to reveal the provisions, the women understood my intentions and handed me a pot, but raised quizzical eyebrows as I dumped the ramen into the boiling water and then poured the beans in as well. They shamelessly stared at me, commenting about my behavior. But I was not bothered, for I was feeling so accomplished to have achieved my goal of cooking and eating a meal. Having watched me slurp down my soup with a huge smile as if I had not eaten in days, they found it hysterical, and, I must admit, so did I.



The Colgate Hello
March 20, 2012

There are several unspoken rules about the Saramaccan greeting. One is that if you are walking by someone sitting at their house, it is your responsibility to initiate the conversation. Because my house is a bit far from the path, some people pass by without greeting me, which, given the distance from my house to the path, is totally acceptable. One day, I was in the mood to cause a little trouble, and Maureen, a 24-year-old friend and Saramaccan mother, passed by without greeting me. I cleared my throat and called out “Ohhh, Maureeeeennn. Ya ke fan ku mi tide no?” (Do you not want to talk to me today?)

She paused, aware that I had caught her on her silent passage. Slowly rotating her head with her shoulders locked in place to maintain balance of the massive pile of clothes and dishes on top of her head, she faced me to reveal a sly grin. She knew something that I didn’t, and I was about to hear it. “Umeni pasi I bi go ko a ganda sondo fan ku mi tide?” (How many times did you come and go to the center of the village without talking to me today?)

She was right. Earlier that day, I walked back and forth several times to talk to my counterpart about a pressing need. I had probably passed by her house three or four times without greeting her. To my defense, her house is blocked by trees and I didn’t see her resting in the shade of her thatched roof hut. 

But those are only excuses. As the passerby, it was my responsibility to initiate the conversation. Her silent passage by my house was simply a form of retaliation.

Tuu tuu, ya leti” (True, true. You are right.), I called out, admitting defeat with a smile on my face. Maureen, chuckling, continued walking to the river.


Never Had I Ever
Sept. 26, 2012 
 

1. Washed all of my laundry and dishes by hand, in a river, every single day

2. Helped build a thatched roof hut

3. Been so comfortable talking to half-naked elderly women and completely naked children

4. Gone 10 months without a hot shower

5. Been told I am getting fat as if it was a good thing

6. Learned to speak a Creole language or attempted the many genres of Saramaccan dance

7. Come face to face with a wild jaguar

8. Imagined that kids living in the rainforest would own Blackberry cell phones before I did

9. Helped dig a grave

10. Cut parasites out of my own feet using a knife

11. Lived in a wooden hut frequented by tarantulas (and once, a venomous bushmaster snake)

12. Caught a piranha, prepared it, and then eaten it

13. Slept for weeks at a time in a hammock

14. Been so terrified of ants

 



Beans Beans, the Musical Fruit
Nov. 5, 2012

It’s Always Sunny in Suriname has been lacking a classic awkward moment; however, it comes with a warning! For those who do not find humor in flatulence, you are advised to stop reading this post. For those who do, let’s let it rip:

I recently wrote a post titled “The Jungle Cookbook” alluding to the drastic change in my diet over the past year and a half. In America, my diet doesn’t revolve around a four-meal schedule, and I don’t resort to beans as my main source of protein. I left out one important detail: these dietary adjustments have been problematic at times.

Let’s go back to Pre-Service Training, which prepared us for our service, linguistically and culturally. Every morning, we woke up to four hours of language training. I dove in head first. I listened. I asked questions. I studied note cards. And I tried to speak with the teachers as much as possible, no matter how repetitive the conversations — for, how was I to “save the world” without being able to speak Saramaccan?

After lunch, it was back to the training room for three more hours of project-related and cultural lessons. As our trainers led us through discussions dissecting each norm and value, they chiseled commandments into our heads, but my intuition cringed — the advice we were being fed was so black and white. Integrating into a community started to feel more like a test for which we had to prepare the answers than something to experience.

I must say that, overall, I valued the lessons. They shaped the attitude with which I would approach adapting to a new culture — as a learner. According to my job description, I was meant to be a “business adviser,” but to become a teacher, I first needed to succeed as a student.

However, some of the conversations were comical. One piece of advice was, “Never fart in front of a Saramaccan. They find it rude and disrespectful.” I recall keeping my sarcastic response to myself as I engraved a mental note. The conversation continued, but I began to philosophize to myself that my perception of passing gas changes with the circumstances. Yes, in a formal or work setting, cutting the cheese is inappropriate and inconsiderate. In a social setting, it’s embarrassing (unless you successfully rip and run, or better yet, are brave enough to rip and remain — using a dose of reverse psychology). But in a casual setting with my closest companions, I often laugh and applaud friendly fires.

So, never? That’s a strong word. Would someone studying American culture say the same thing?

Fast forward three months. I was loving the adventure of my new life in Ligorio, enthusiastically struggling through all the adjustments, and excited by all my prospering relationships. When not at my house or the river, I was wandering through the village, trying to learn the language better and getting to know my community members.

One day, I was in the middle of my village tour when I came upon three ladies in their 60s, one busy at the fire cooking (Agoutumai) and the other two lounging in the shade of a thatched roof hut (Clementina and Bakamai). I greeted them politely and sat down on a wooden board under the shade of a nearby tree. Quickly, the conversation turned down its all-too-familiar route: the women jokingly boasted about the sexual skills of Saramaccan women and repeatedly asked me of my interest in “taking a Saramaccan woman.” Once they tired of the topic, we sat quietly, the women chuckling to themselves, savoring their newly acquired ability to harass a young American male.

BRRRRRRAAAAAAPPPP.

Metsan, Omelia’s son. People started calling him my “shadow.”

I froze in embarrassment, iced over by my strict cultural warning. I had no idea how to react. I waited until I could no longer bear the silence after the storm.

Piimiisi ee,” I apologized quietly, hoping the women would let the issue breeze over.

Bakamai, knowing I was feeling guilty, seized the opportunity to further tease me.

“John, what made that noise?” 

Responses raced through my head.

“Someone made some music,” I replied.

“Woooooloo,” the women erupted in fierce laughter. Several seconds rolled by before Bakamai, eager to feed the fire, asked, “Who made the music?”

Facing the warm flow of their affection, I thawed from my arctic state of awkwardness, realizing one mistake need not mortify me. “I made the music,” I admitted, accepting responsibility for my blunder.

“Agoutumai, did you hear that? John made some music for us,” Bakamai repeated. Having too much fun, she couldn’t stop egging me on. “John, what type of music did you make?”

My Saramaccan vocabulary had not yet inherited the word “fart,” so I answered to the best of my abilities. “Butt music,” I replied.

They could barely stay in their seats. In fact, Bakamai rolled off her wooden bench onto her knees on the ground. Her eyes rolled up, meeting mine in elated agony.

“Oh my god, I can’t take it anymore!”

Agoutumai, who was bent over cooking, staggered away from the fire, gasping for air, her face full of delighted wrinkles. Clementina swayed and clapped, wailing jubilantly. I couldn’t resist joining in the laughter, enjoying the irony of the situation. Here I was, sitting with three Saramaccan women in the Surinamese rainforest, having the time of our lives over something I was advised never to do.

As I walked home, my thoughts returned to my cultural training lessons, but I came to my own conclusion: I became closer with each of those ladies through my farting fiasco.

A few days later, I went to the river to wash my dishes. It was early, and for whatever reason, I was not talkative. I steered clear of a woman washing dishes nearby, greeting her without taking note of who she was. I settled into the mindless scrubbing, treasuring the rare morning hours of utter silence. The mist was dancing its way downriver before taking flight into the day’s heat.

And then, the stunning sound of payback, polluting the pristine environment. Smiling, I turned my head, ready to tease the culprit, as the three women had previously done to me, when my eyes met a familiar sight of elated agony.

“WOOOOOOLLOOOOO!” I howled, my cry echoing down the river. Bakamai’s whole body was begging me to retaliate. Fully prepared, I asked, “Bakamai, what was that?”

“Someone made some music,” she said.

“Who made it?”

“Me!”

“What type of music did you make?”

“Butt music!”



Taking Care of Business!
March 22, 2013

There was nothing we could do. And I hated it. The weather was delaying my primary project.

We had already agreed: I would raise the money to purchase the rice mill, and the community would donate all of the transportation, material, and labor costs needed to build a shelter for it. I had received the money, generously donated by my friends and family, and was excited to begin working. I called the village together for a meeting and they were ecstatic to hear that we reached our fundraising goal — no small sum of money for the Saramaccans.

At the meeting, an elderly man named Philippe respectfully interrupted to say how much these altruistic gestures mean to him, especially because 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. I was overwhelmed with pride.

 

After doing a spicy dance at her brother’s
wedding celebration, Nelda (right) got an appreciative embrace from two other guests.

The community had also promised to send men to help transport the mill from Atjoni to Ligorio, a trip that includes two portages, and to provide room and board for the manufacturers, who would travel to Ligorio to give technical training on how to install and maintain the mill.

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. For months and months, we had to wait for the rain to fall and the river to rise. 

Thanks to the personal responsibility of a select few, in particular Frank Majokko, the village-nominated manager of the rice milling business, the project gained momentum in the meantime. Frank organized women to dig sand, a task that can only take place while the river level is low, and carry it to the shelter (the sand is required to mix with cement to make the floor). While the river limited our ability to bring heavy supplies, such as bags of cement and zinc roofing, out to Ligorio, Frank agreed to begin meeting with me daily so that I could give him business lessons. We discussed defining a mission, setting goals and objectives, designing action plans, bookkeeping, pricing, and marketing.

I loved those informal meetings because it gave me an opportunity to teach. Frank’s desire to help his community is simple and genuine, pouring through his enthusiastic eyes and cheerful smile. The conversations we had were open, free to discuss anything that came to mind, and together, we discovered what it would take to properly run a business. We would give each other “bauxite” (the Saramaccan version of a fist bump) as we came up with new ideas. 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! After four months, the rain began to fall. 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 pocket to cover the rest of the costs, traveled to Paramaribo, and bought the supplies needed to build the 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.

Frank and I spent three days building the house and we are now ready to transport the rice mill out to Ligorio!


A Special Moment for Momma Williams
March 19, 2013

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 moment’s notice is willing to partake in some fun, joined in, pretending she was dancing with Jacoby Jones on Dancing With The Stars. I could almost guarantee that moment with August was the highlight of her first visit to Ligorio. After they returned to the States, she continually asked me about August and how he was doing.

Well, last week (one year later), my parents visited a second time. 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. As we were headed toward the school, we saw some of the children walking back to their homes. Suddenly, August popped out from around the corner and I shouted, “August! Look! Someone came to see you!”

August turned to see my mom from about 30 yards away and, without a second’s hesitation, began sprinting to her with his arms and eyes wide open, his Cars backpack bobbing up and down behind him. My mom dropped to her knees, spreading her arms in welcoming anticipation. August jumped into her arms as she lifted him into the air, twirling in circles while 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. 



Get Your White Rice Here!
May 17, 2013


Some men and boys from Ligorio traveled to Atjoni to help transport the rice mill and its engine back to our village. Counterclockwise, from top:

Pulling the boat up Tapawata, the first of two rapids around which we have to portage our supplies.

Portaging the rice mill around Gaandam, rapid number two. This rapid is much larger, requiring us to take the machines out of the boat and walk them around by land.

Frank and I installed and cemented the rice mill and its engine to the ground. Then: in the top… 

and out the bottom, the final product: WHITE RICE!


And finally, one happy customer!





How Peace Corps Changed My Life
August 28, 2013

Now that I am back in the United States, reconnecting with my friends and family and adjusting to the realities of American life, many people ask me with fascination and respect, “So what exactly did you do down there?” It’s a good question. Many Americans do not have a real understanding of the mission undertaken by the 8,073 current Peace Corps volunteers serving in 76 countries around the world. 

To answer them, I reflect back on my service, an incredible, personal, exhausting, challenging, breathtaking, life-changing, and maddening ride through life in the Surinamese rainforest. The most accurate response (which I rarely provide) is that I gained far more than I ever sacrificed. 

While discovering a special corner of the world different from our own and establishing close relationships with people who approach life from a different point of view, I came to understand the differences and similarities between life in the Surinamese rainforest and the United States. Learning about the customs and values to which Saramaccans adhere, especially those that greatly diverge from their counterparts in America, provoked me to examine my own actions and values, and even my mission in life. 

Who do I want to be? What do I need to confess? How have I deceived myself and others? Where have my actions diverged from my values? How do I want to be perceived? What changes will I commit to making in my actions, attitude, and perceptions? To which meaningful cause do I want to commit my professional career? These are the essential questions that I contemplated.

First and foremost, I made a confession to myself and my family, coming clean on who I am, why I did the things I did — things I am proud of, and things I am not — and where I intend to go next. Only after that did I realize that I had never really thought about what I wanted my purpose in life to be. And if I did, I had never written it down.

So I started there, as if creating a personal constitution. While still in Ligorio, I wrote: “My mission in life is to live with integrity and character and to enthuse positive change in myself and in my communities around the world.” Writing this down helped me to set my moral compass, defining my values and goals as a person — the son, brother, and friend that I am, as well as the husband, father, and leader that I want to be some day.

 

Philip taught me how to make wawai, small
mats used to fan fires.

Looking back, my Peace Corps experience has permeated every nook and cranny of my life. It has changed the lens through which I view the world and my role in it. It changed what I care about, and how I think about language and culture and money. It changed how I approach my relationship with myself and with others, how I approach every individual I meet, and how I empathize with people — outsiders, in particular.

It changed how I will, one day, raise my children and what values I will try to teach them. It taught me what I am capable of, alone and in a group, and refreshed my aspiration to reach my fullest potential. It gave me a new group of close friends both throughout the United States and in the Surinamese rainforest, the inspiration to become a teacher, and an undying love of mangos.

Why, and how, did my Peace Corps experience inspire such monumental change in me?

Life in Ligorio is simpler, more elemental. While financially, Saramaccans live below the poverty line, to me, their lives are rich. They are tied to the outdoors. They live and take care of the basics, and they don’t do much else. They do it all with a skillful understanding of themselves, their community, culture, and environment, surrounded daily by their family members. And their lifestyle is contagious.

Since coming home, it’s been a struggle to incorporate those priorities and that simplicity in my life here. I crave that life, but our culture makes it difficult. We have developed beyond that, perhaps to our detriment. 

Furthermore, I’d learned that people are people, no matter where in the world. We can do our best to study all the generalities and tendencies of a group, but in the end, people carry their own perspectives and personalities to every issue. There are people who make you laugh, and some who drive you insane. There are hard workers and freeloaders. There are people who follow the rules and those who break them. Some children are academically driven, some athletically, some artistically, and others socially. Some people are happy; others, unhappy.

When we look at people we don’t know, and speak of “foreigners” or “tribes” or “clans,” we perceive them as different. But regardless of divergences in culture and values, we all have the same basic human needs, desires, concerns, and emotions — and those similarities outweigh our differences.

On the day I was scheduled to depart from Ligorio, I was hit by the most difficult challenge I’d met as a Peace Corps volunteer, humbling all of the obstacles I had faced in the past: saying goodbye for the last time to the Saramaccans who had treated me as if I was one of their own. Not a bone in my body wanted to leave.

As the plane climbed over the green canopy of pristine rainforest and I waved to the crowd that had gathered at the jungle airstrip to see me off, I realized that my Peace Corps experience had redefined for me what it means to be a man. In Ligorio, I had learned what type of man I wanted to be, and had started down that path. 

When I try to measure what kind of Peace Corps volunteer I was — what kind of success I had in Ligorio — it comes down to two things: the relationships I built with the people, and my commitment to their community. In other words, what kind of man I was.

To me, the essence of what it means to be a man emanates from the heart. It was about my capacity to love and to be loved. The questions I now ask myself are all about relationships. “What kind of village member was I? What kind of neighbor? What kind of role model? What kind of teacher? What kind of friend? Who did I love, and who did I allow to love me?” 

At the end of my service, I wanted to leave a legacy, to know that I made a difference. And all of that depended on the effort that I was willing to commit to Ligorio and its people, my belief in my responsibility to give back, and the challenge to identify my unique cause in life. I surfaced from this deep introspection with a greater understanding of myself and committed to work hard to align my actions with my values.

I can’t say that I gave it 110 percent every day. Some days, I napped in my hammock and read a book for the entire day. I made mistakes. I aggravated people, and people aggravated me. But that was the amazing rollercoaster of my life in Ligorio and of life in general. In the end, I can look myself in the mirror and congratulate myself on a life well lived in Ligorio, but that’s between me and me.

Colgate’s Peace Corps legacy

Colgate consistently ranks as a top producer of Peace Corps volunteers. Since 1961, 336 Colgate alumni have served. Currently, 12 are serving in Benin, Gambia, Guatemala, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Peru, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Tonga, working in agriculture, education, environment, health, and community economic development.

Back from his service in Suriname, John Williams is now teaching algebra, pre-calculus, and calculus at the National Sports Academy in Lake Placid, N.Y., and serving as an assistant coach for the Boy’s Varsity Ice Hockey team.


Read more on his blog, It's Always Sunny in Suriname.