I’ve met a handful of people who can contextualize my ethnicity on a map. Once I give context that I am not ethnically African American, the question of “where are you from” follows naturally. I carry on saying that I was born in the states, but my parents and sister are from Suriname. One of three things happen once I mention Suriname: people are confused, people guess incorrectly where Suriname is located, or people say “it’s in Africa right?”.
I always found the bold assumption that Suriname is located in Africa to be quite perplexing, for if an individual of another racial background had asked, the response would differ completely. Roughly 31% of Surinamese are black or mixed descendants of West African slavery. With this, the remaining breakdown of the demographic is as follows: 37% East Indian, 15% Javanese, 3.7% American Indian, 10% are descendants of escaped African slaves (Maroons), and there are a good number of Chinese immigrants. My experiences in Cape Verde allow me to constantly reflect upon my ethnicity and Africa as a whole through the lens of an American perspective. I find the similarities between Suriname and Cape Verde to be quite striking as they are two culturally diverse countries that are often overlooked.
My understanding of Africa and the black experience was extremely limited due to my upbringing in predominantly white spaces. Over the years I have come to realize that the American education system has failed to provide a just and accurate portrayal of Africas’s booming economy and cultural diversity. We are primarily focused on European history, with Africa only mentioned under the lens of poverty and the transatlantic slave trade. Africa as a whole is often referred to as a “country” that is in dire need of aid instead of a continent, as stereotypical narratives of Africa as a desolate grassland with only rural villages thrives in the states. Although I have not met enough people who know of Suriname to be able to grasp the stereotypes of the country, I can only image the gross misrepresentation that takes place. With Suriname and Cape Verde both having populations of roughly 500,000, it is easy for the culture to be misconstrued, but I have found that there are several cultural connections between Suriname and the island.
I was amazed to see that Surinamese culture was both recognized and respected in Cape Verde when nations that border Suriname don’t recognize the country as a whole. For dinners, we are sometimes given what they refer to as Surinam rice and Surinam pasta. I know these dishes as Nasi Goreng and Bami Goreng.
Although the dish is executed in a different manner, the technical approach is the same. Perhaps the most fascinating comparison between the countries is the similarity between the languages. Due to colonialism, both countries share a rich and cultural dialect that is unique to the parent language. For Suriname, it is Dutch; for Cape Verde it is Portuguese. Each country has their own creole language, and the striking similarities have become clear to me through our daily language classes. I am able to see the structural differences and parallels between Sranan Tongo/Taki Taki (Surinamese Creole) and Kriolu (Cape Verdean Creole). At first, I became overwhelmed with the jumble of languages in my head, but I then found that my knowledge of Sranan Tongo has made it easier for me to excel in Kriolu.
During my time here in Cape Verde, I have learned a lot about the daily cultural practices and rituals. Before the end of our summer, I seek to gain an in-depth understanding of the rich history of Cape Verde. By doing so, I will have a nuanced understanding of Cape Verde and Suriname’s upcoming as two countries that were once under the hold of two powerful European nations with Suriname gaining independence in 1975, and Cape Verde in 1974. Though I must decline when the local people ask if I am Cape Verdean, I would say that my Surinamese ethnicity has strong similarities that are not too far-fetched from the norms of the island.