Obia Oso: An Ndjuka Maroon Shrine from Suriname

The Suriname Maroons are comprised of five major tribal groups whose ancestors were brought to Suriname from Africa as slaves beginning in the mid 1600s.

 

The name Maroons alludes to those who escaped from slavery on the coastal sugar plantations into the tropical rain-forested interior of the country; one name the Maroons have given themselves is Longwe Samma, runaway people. Forced to fight for their freedom for many years, they united, despite their disparate West African origins, to create stable tribal villages in the interior, influenced greatly by the social and belief systems of the dominant cultures in Ghana and Dahomey. After many decades of rebellion and guerilla warfare, a series of treaties with the government on the coast, beginning in 1760, gave the Maroons the right to practice the traditional religions of their African ancestors and to govern themselves.

The Maroons were thus among the first peoples of the western hemisphere to gain full independence from a European power by means of treaty, in this case from the Netherlands, more than a decade before the American Declaration of Independence. Each tribal society is headed by a Granman, whose lineage goes back to the signing of those original treaties. The Ndjuka Maroons live in the eastern quarter of the country. Their present paramount chief (traditional king) is Granman Gazon Matodja, a member of the ruling clan, the Oto Lo, who resides in Diitabiki; his lineage goes back to the first signer of the Treaty of Ouca, 10 October 1760.

The geographic isolation of the Ndjuka Maroons has had important psychic and cultural consequences. Until recently the only way to reach Diitabiki was by a lengthy and arduous river journey. Over the centuries, there has been minimal social contact with the European-influenced society on the coast. Most contact has been economic, coming in the form of village men seeking work in bauxite mines and lumber camps and providing river transport for government officials and others journeying into the interior. As a result, many of the Maroons’ African-derived customs and practices have remained relatively intact and modern technology was kept at bay as well. In the last ten years, however, objects produced by and representing modern technological culture have become more and more common in Maroon villages, but the extent to which that represents a fundamental change in their way of life remains to be seen.

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The Gaan Yooka Ponsu

The ponsu — a cloth-wrapped shrine post — shown here was made by Ba Bonno Velanti, a shaman of the Ndjuka Maroons, some time in the mid-1970s. Janina Rubinowitz donated the Gaan Yooka Ponsu to the Peabody Museum of Natural History in 1989, in memory of her grandmother, Louise Catherine Merkle Parmet. The ponsu marks a spot where the Ndjuka make libations and send prayers to the ancestors who, in the Maroon religion, intercede between the living and God. This particular ponsu was made for Ba Bonno Velanti’s obia (shrine) house near the riverfront of the village of Diitabiki, close to his home and the area where the Granman and elders hold council meetings (k’utu). A sacred "kan-kan" (cottonwood) tree rises majestically over the site, giving merciful shade to a village only about 2.5 degrees above the equator. Several other ceremonial and sacred objectswere also kept in the house, including an oracle bundle, the Sweli Gadu. In front of the shrine is the Tapanahony River.

Dutch anthropologist Thoden van Velzen explains that at this sacred ponsu individuals are able to pray to the ancestors. In particular it is thought to be the spot to reach the granmans of the past, as well as the freedom fighters who brought about the first treaty of independence in 1760. Van Velzen was conducting research in Diitabiki when Granman Gazon, invited to make his first trip to Europe and Africa, asked for the guidance of his predecessors and ancestors at this post; a small oracle bundle was later carried to ascertain if the ancestors had given their support.

The shrine building, about 18 by 25 feet, sided with composition board and roofed over with corrugated zinc, has a dirt floor. The triangular areas between the roof and the sides of the building were left open, providing light and air. The post is made of a hard wood, possibly mahogany, covered with the sacred white and red cloth used by the obiamans (shamans) in their religious work. Four unopened bottles of beer buried in the sandy floor kept the ponsu upright and steady. The ponsu’s cross-like shape does not represent any Christian meaning. Some observers believe the ponsu is not intended to be especially pleasing aesthetically but mostly to serve as a marker for a sacred spot; other ponsus are undecorated, lacking even pieces of colored cloth.

On this ponsu, strings decorated with strips of cloth lead from the crosspiece to the stand. Other heavier pieces of cloth were tied to the mid-section of the sacred object; two large strings, running north-south and east-west, attach to the top and connect to the sides of the shrine building. A blue and white plaid cloth skirt, or pangi, tied below the intersection of stem and cross-piece, had just been used to exorcise a troublesome spirit from the woman who owned it. The shaman, feeling it inappropriate to send this spirit back to the United States, removed the cloth.

Ba Bonno Velanti, the shaman who made this ponsu is the first child born to Ma Ameda, sister of Granman Akontoe Velanti, around 1945. He has two wives, Ma Atanso and Ma Abeboen, twelve children, and several grandchildren. Ba Bonno’s clan is Oto Lo, through his matrilineage, the decisive factor in the Ndjuka Maroon political and social system. His father, Da Kwashiba, who died about 1990, was of the Misidjan clan. His mother, Ma Ameda, who lives in Diitabiki (as does his brother, Ba Joti) was sister to the present Granman’s mother, a connection of great importance. Ba Bonno was a favorite nephew of the late Granman Akontoe Velanti and learned much from that great Ndjuka leader. Ba Bonno has also been influenced by the spirit of Da Saka, founder of the sacred village of G’anboli in 1891 and posseses several of his personal ritual obiects.

Text by Janina Rubinowitz

 

On exhibit from February 1996 to May 1997