Introduction / History
The Ndyuka people, also known as Aukan people or Okanisi, are a Maroon ethnic group who live in the Eastern part of Suriname and speak the Ndyuka language. They are of African descent, having been shipped as slaves to Suriname about 300 years ago to work on English colonial plantations. Those who escaped, fled deep into the rainforests where they established communities along rivers in eastern Suriname and parts of neighboring French Guiana and where their culture adopted elements of Native American cultures. On 10 October 1760, the Ndyuka signed a treaty with the Dutch colonizers, who allowed them territorial autonomy. In the last decades of the 20th century a large number of the Ndyuka people have moved from their ancestral villages to the coast, especially in and around Paramaribo, the country's capital.
Given the historically background of the Aukan, a value that holds the people together is the sense of insider/outsider. Having escaped the cruelty of slavery the Aukan had to band together against the colonist as the common enemy. These outsiders presented a serious threat to the security of early Aukan communities. One gains insight through the Aukan prayers at their shrines, by listening to the theme of cohesion in Aukan society that was forged in the runaway history. To this day security to the Aukan means the freedom to be descendants of their brave ancestors without threat of the outsider putting them in any real or perceived new form of slavery. So through the Aukan cleverness they “danced” the white man’s dance but with the Aukan “drumbeat." They want very much to be in charge of their destiny and as long as this basic Aukan value of self-determination is not threatened the Aukan will warily cooperate with the outsider.
What Are Their Lives Like?
Women control the farmlands inherited from their matrilineal ancestors. The men often go to the coastal areas to work and bring some of their earnings back to their village families.
The families are polygamous, but only men of means can afford to have more than one wife. It is not uncommon for a man to have a wife in his mother’s village as well as another wife in her original village. The families are matriarchal and a person’s mother’s brother is considered the “head of the house.”
The primary family unit is a matriclan. A leading matriarch exercises authority over her daughters and her children. A husband has responsibility to provide transportation, kitchen utensils, clothes, and the basic food for his wife and children as well as his aging relatives on his mother’s side. Male children leave the home in their late teens or early twenties but have significant social ties and responsibilities to their matriclan of birth. These responsibilities continue into perpetuity even after his mother’s, grandmother’s, and great-grandmother's generations have long passed away.
The whole relationship of the Aukan kinship structure follows through the female line through the concept of the womb “bee." The primary concept here is that there is a continuous genealogical line through the womb. All relatives descending from an ancestral womb have unbreakable family ties and marriage is nowhere near as strong as these ties.
Financial support is shared primarily among members of the same matriclan “bee." Nontraditional means of support come from outside jobs as well as government doles. Ultimately, the individual seeks to meet his own needs and the traditional idealism of sharing, for instance, hunted game is rarely actually practiced. They often recount nostalgically how it used to be in the “good old days.” But it is questionable whether a high level of sharing was ever practiced outside of the nuclear family.
During official meetings the speaker will give his message via a mediator. That mediator will relay, in the presence of the speaker and the audience, the original message to the one being addressed. Informal communication is often done indirectly for the sake of everyone else who is listening and may even go through mediators rather than through direct, face to face communication. Aukaners seldom face each other while looking into each other's eyes while communicating. Instead, they may even face as much as 180 degrees from each other during communication. In-laws carry on formal communication and husband and wives keep communication to a minimum in public. Most animated communication occurs between sisters and brothers, in the Aukan sense of those kinship terms.
More is passed on by showing (modeling) rather than telling. Much is shared between women with younger children as they work in their planting grounds. During funerals the matriclan's heritage is shared in the form of stories and prayers, dances, spirit dramas, etc. Crafts are passed as a father teaches his younger son or an uncle teaches his nephew.
Non-marital sex is quite open and practiced but not really accepted. Often after dances sexual pairs go off and family members identify who are “items." If the sexual relationship continues the man needs to state his intentions to the head of his sexual partner’s family. If he desires to be married in the Aukan sense, an official meeting will be held of that matriclan and a verbal contract is agreed upon. This is marriage in the Aukan sense. Of course ancestors are consulted and for various reasons can accept or reject the marriage proposal. The woman agrees to bear his children, and the man agrees to provide for his wife. It is taboo to have a sexual relationship with anyone who might be considered to be a part of one’s matriclan (descended from the same womb).
The proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child." is predictably the form of child-rearing practices among the Aukan. Having African roots it is easy to see that the adults (even some teenagers) are all involved in disciplining children. It is not uncommon for a seemingly unrelated person to grab a switch and chase after a wayward child. Often you will hear the blood-curdling screams of the victim being chased by an irate adult with the switch raised high over her head. The intention is to cower the child into submission rather than to actually carry out physical abuse. By and large, it is much high drama but highly effective! Males are seldom involved in day to day child rearing. But should a child cross an adult male, a rebuke is swift and in some cases he will also give chase with switch in hand.
Most positions in the community are determined through lineal descent. Village leadership is passed from the leader through one of his sister’s sons. By and large, a cast system does exist in this egalitarian society. Certain people are considered unclean during long or short term illnesses/menstruation/birth. They are not allowed to participate in community functions during their time of uncleanness. Women must even move out of their usual sleep houses to a separate hut (munosu – menstrual house).
When a man marries, he gives as an “engagement ring” a carved and painted boat paddle. Aukan house doors are also painted and boats are carved and painted. There are the verbal arts – and being able to tell folk tales in an effective and accurate way. The ancestors will wreak vengeance if the tales are not told accurately. Dancers, drummers and singers also express highly valued art forms.
The vocation with the highest respect among the Aukan is to be a religious practitioner. These “priests” wield considerable authority based on fear. These are the gate keepers allowing individuals free access in and out of Aukan society. They are the ones to judge whether someone should be accepted and respected in the community. Beyond these practitioners the secular leadership comprised of the village captains and their assistants are also highly respected. Store owners are usually respected members of the community accept in the case of those who have taken on too much of the ways of the outsiders (bakaa). If this has happened he is called by the name given to the Chinese store owner of the coast which is “Omu Sinesi” – Uncle Chinese.
Underneath the store owners would be the various matriclan leaders. These leaders help form the village council and should be present at village meetings.
The highest secular leader is the paramount chieftain who has Diitabiki as his official residence. If there are teachers in the village, they also have considerable respect as well as any leaders of churches.Any resident foreigners might have gained enough status in the village to be considered a respected individual. This might include a doctor, clinic worker, missionary, etc.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Aukan up to twenty years ago were almost all traditionalists serving animistic deities. Recently, Pentecostal Christianity has made significant inroads into this traditional religious system. It is estimated that over ten percent of the Aukaners adhere to Pentecostalism. Most of the Aukan Christians live in or around the coastal area – predominantly, in the capital city.
The Aukan believe in a pantheon of gods which have authority over the different physical realms. These include the god who oversees the forest or jungle (“ampuku”); the ground god (“goon gadu”); the river god (can’t recall that title), and the most powerful who is the god of the sky (“gaan gadu”). The name of the latter is often taken in vain. The traditional Aukaner thinks that when we, as Christians refer to the almighty God, we are speaking of the gaan gadu of his religious system.
Aukaners are polytheistic and often add Jesus, God’s Son (as they call him) to their pantheon of gods. There is not much understanding of the person of the Holy Spirit, but they do believe, somewhat vaguely that God the Father is the creator. But it is difficult to see if they distinguish the Biblical God from their god that they call “gaan gadu” (almighty god).
True to animism, the non-Christian Aukan believes that spirits permeate animate beings as well as inanimate objects. One of the most powerful animate incarnations is the boa constrictor who is called “father god” (“papa gadu”). This god is quite vengeful and murderous. The Aukan employ this deity in much of the witchcraft. There has been significant study in the anthropological literature on the gods that the Aukan believe in.
To the Aukan God is distant, exacting, and somewhat capricious. They believe in some of their traditions that God came to earth early in Aukan history (perhaps dating back to the time their ancestors were in Africa). And they have some recollection of Jesus dying, but they don’t know what happened after that. They believe that God was disgusted with mankind and more specifically with their own people and abandoned them.
Their prayers often begin with a plea for mercy and for forgiveness for any sins they might have inadvertently committed. Before any religious ceremony can begin, or any folk tale told, the names of God and their gods, as well as their ancestors (especially squad leaders of runaway slaves) are invoked.
Aukaners are careful of revealing their true thoughts to the foreigner. This especially relates to giving information about their religious system and their folk tales. Giving that kind of information must be paid at a great cost by the foreigner.
Often sicknesses or deaths are attributed to lack of appeasing and seeking forgiveness of the ancestors but among the living getting forgiveness occurs rarely. In order to get a person “off the hook” for doing something wrong often a mediator volunteers to settle grievances and to seek reparation for loss of property or perhaps dignity.
Non-Christians are highly superstitious. Every ill-fated adventure or occurrence is ominously attributed to someone’s “sin." If a person is sick or dies, mediums and ancestors are consulted through superstitious means to find the perpetrator. Magic arts are sometimes quite advanced and there are even supernatural powers of protection from being shot at point blank range by a gun without injury.
Deceased ancestors as has been stated are the primary focus of all facets of traditional Aukan life. There is no sharp distinction between the living and the dead but when a person’s “foot is removed from the earth” (death), the Aukan believes that a new mediator has entered the presence of their ancestors and can be appealed to for religious gain. This gain is used as leverage within interpersonal relationships, especially, and most commonly limited to that person’s matriclan.
At the village mortuary, next to the mortuary itself, is a tall pole with hundreds of long, white strips of cloths placed one on top of another for each deceased member of the village. These are placed on the pole at the climax of the funeral and are at the place where all the ancestors are prayed to and venerated.
There are no rites of passage that are as strong as death among the Aukan. The culture of death permeates and defines family structure. The deceased becomes a feared member of a family and often will return in the form of avenging spirit “kunu” to keep the family in line. The priests of a matriclan claim to receive messages regarding responsibilities in every area of life as he hears dictations from these departed spirits.When a man marries he continues with his responsibilities to his matriclan. He often has to shuttle between living with his wife’s family and his responsibilities to his own matriclan which might reside in a different village. The new wife will be less likely to move to her husband's village or matriclan but instead will remain subservient to her new husband as well as her own matriclan.
The Aukan people are very religious in their traditions, especially surrounding their funerals. The more important the person lying in state in the mortuary, the bigger the funeral festivities. The paramount chieftain enjoys a long festivity. The end of the mourning period (Bokode) is a very important tradition and many prayers, libations, and celebrations surround this annual event. There are many traditions surrounding the inauguration of new homes as well as boats. Other common traditions are those which keep people safe from ancestral spirit retributions. These include armbands, amulets, good luck charms hung from the body or from fruit trees or placed in homes, boats and on other possessions.
Apart from funerals the religious rite par excellence is Bokode. This marks the end of year long mourning period for those who within the year have lost a spouse. Bokode is a joyous celebration and the ones who come out of mourning (“puu baka”) dress in brightly colored (mostly red) garb.An important ritual is the divining of who is to blame for the vengeance of an ancestor. This is accomplished by questions being asked of a bundle wrapped in the middle of a plank approximately six feet long borne on the heads of two men. It is believed that this plank will be moved by the ancestral spirit, either forward, backward, or to the side in response to questions asked of it. These responses are then interpreted for the purpose of divination.
Grievances are settled usually after it has reached an impasse. There is often much verbal abuse and the whole part of the village where the family lives has heard a lot of yelling from both sides. A mediator is called in to keep this grievance from escalating to the pint of incensing the matriclan’s ancestors. Should the ancestors become stirred up and violated, the threat of sickness and death often drives the warring parties to settle their grievances with each other. Should this fail, the resignation to the families avenging spirits (kunus) results in and explains why someone becomes sick or dies. (The victim is often not even one of the warring parties.) Thus settling a grievance quickly is in the best interests of the entire matriclan. It should be noted here that avenging spirits cannot jump from one matriclan to another but only exercises its authority within its matriclan. The grievance is often settled by appealing to the mercies of the potential avenging spirit and the parties are required to abide by certain fines and penalties demanded by the appeasement process.
There is a strong sense of good and evil among the Aukan based on a relatively loose interpretation of what the ancestors have taught them over the many generations since the birth of the Aukan people. Evil is equated as danger and should be avoided in every way possible. One of the sprits is even called The Danger (“Na Ogii”).
Life is sacred and much of the Old Testament belief about life being in the blood is emphasized. At a funeral one of the last public events before the coffin is carried to the boat to be buried at the cemetery, a chicken’s head is cut off and the coffin sprinkled with the drippings of the chicken’s blood. God creates life and no man can be excused from taking it away. For that reason, murder is very rare between Aukaners.
Mankind forms part of the created realm and are linked with both spirits and animals. Animals can sometimes in their folktales become human and vice versa. I am not sure what else to write here that would be relevant.
The world as the Aukan know it, and the environment they live in, are filled with spirits. Daily life for the Aukan means constant communion with both “evil” as well as “good." Ancestors are constantly with them in spiritual form and an Aukaner will speak to the ancestor as if that person were living and breathing right next to him.
Wrongs, sins, and guilt must be daily atoned for and quickly dealt with out of fear of vengeance of the ancestors. It would seem to me as an outsider that there is more fear of the ancestors and their retribution than from God.
Eternity is understood by the Aukaner as to be present in the life that the ancestors enjoy now. What eternity really means to an Aukaner, I am not sure. I have asked that question and have never gotten a clear answer – only that they will be with the ancestors.
There is no understanding in this legalistic world regarding salvation through faith. They understand mercy as they themselves use it in their legal system, but forgiveness means individual atonement. Thus, if salvation were a concept in their worldview, it would be a salvation by works. They believe Jesus died for sins, but apart from being a ritual mantra, there isn’t much true understanding of what salvation means.
Life after death is a given in the Aukan worldview. There is no sense of finality in death but instead, a passing on into the spirit realm of the ancestors.
There are usually no natural causes for sicknesses, especially serious ones, but instead sicknesses are the result of ancestors vengeance against a member of that ancestress’ matriclan.
Any converts to another religion apart from the traditional Aukan religion is a serious matter. The repercussions usually mean that the convert cannot remain a member of good standing in the community. Some converts to Christianity move off to form a new community on a new plot of land away from the traditional village. Converts and adherents are considered threats to the status quo. As the Christians see it, this separate arrangement gives the converts an opportunity to grow stronger in their faith. The traditional villagers seem to be relieved from the threat of this new belief system. Deviants from the traditional religion are listened to first to see if this is a new revelation from the ancestors. If this is so, it is incorporated into the regular belief system. But, if it is to go as far as overthrowing the entire pantheon of gods and ancestors (such as the Christians preach) this is rejected outright.
Women in the Aukan belief system, as reflected in their folktales are evil. Women tend to spoil spiritual power. When a man wants to get inspiration or messages during rituals, he must not have had sexual contact with women in the recent past. However, women form the backbone of a matriclan and they are thus seen by traditional men as a necessary evil.
What Are Their Needs?
The national school system tries to educate children but most children only go through until the third or fourth grade before dropping out. In some villages there are government run schools open to everyone. In one or two other villages there are Moravian schools open to a more limited number of students. Schools are valued among the Aukan but often children are pulled out in order to help harvest crops or prepare planting grounds. By and large, schools are ineffective in preparing students for acculturation in the wider culture much less to do well in higher education.
In Aukan society there are two competing medical systems: the traditional and the Western. In their history Aukaners are well known for their powerful medical practition, “obia." Aukan healers, “bonuman” are especially famous for their abilities in setting broken bones.
Western medicine (especially through the Moravian Church) has made significant inroads into the traditional Aukan healing arts. Along the river systems of the interior are a series of clinics and in the regional centers are a couple of hospitals. Rarely does a day go by that there are not overflowing waiting rooms with people seeking medical attention. The leadership of these clinics are made up mostly of outsiders but the staff are all, mostly, local Aukaners.
Malaria and dysentery wreak tremendous havoc among the Aukan, and especially among the young. Midwifery is mostly carried out in the traditional context. Medical treatment is mainly remedial rather than preventative. By and large, the health care situation among the Aukan is poor to abysmal depending upon how isolated a village is from the nearest clinic. Aukaners get much better treatment when they move to the capital city and most acute care takes place there.
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