What I remember most from my last visit to Paramaribo is not Suriname, but the Netherlands. That may sound nonsensical, but it becomes crystal clear when you stroll through Paramaribo; you will hear the word “the Netherlands” every single fifty meters, so to speak. Or “Holland,” or “Amsterdam,” or “Rotterdam,” and so on.
Whether you enter a store, café or bar, grab a bite to eat, pass pedestrians, or visit family or acquaintances — you are simply thrown to death with it. It’s annoying and disturbing.
For example, I had an appointment with the dentist and afterwards I was given a little box of dental floss. The diligent dental assistant thought she should add, “Sir, you can also buy these in the Netherlands!” Of course, that was just a friendly advice, because most likely my accent or my clothing betrayed me as not living in Suriname.
But you must also understand that my irritation threshold had already been put to the test for a few days. I therefore snappily replied, “I don’t live in the Netherlands, but in French Guiana!” “Sir, where do you say?” she asked hesitantly, but still just as friendly. “In Fr-en-ch-Gui-a-na!” I repeated slowly, a bit too loud and with emphasis. But even then she didn’t get it, saying even more gently than before: “Well, I don’t know if they have dental floss there too!”
But the absolute boiling point was the purchase of my Surinamese Digicel SIM-card. The first SMS-text I received (the welcoming message from the provider) read: “You can call all your family and friends in the Netherlands for only … ” Well, that did it! An astonishingly deep disappointment took hold of me, because it suddenly dawned on me that I was not in Suri-name, but in Nether-name.
I understood that Suriname’s “independence” is an outright farce. After almost 50 years of being a decolonized, independent country, Suriname is pulling harder at mother’s skirt than ever before. The influence of the Netherlands is simply astonishing: from certified Dutch courses in Suriname, HAVOs and VWOs, Dutch schoolbooks, an unbridled abundance of Dutch services and products, a Surinamese diaspora that floods the country and sometimes stays for months, and a staggering number of Surinamese who want to study, have a vacation, or live in the Netherlands.
“We don’t need Holland!” they shout, but the reality is that the people of Suriname love Holland very much. I admit — sometimes they do that grudgingly, sometimes with mixed feelings of hatred and love, but very often with blind awe, an absurd adoration and a childish longing for the “motherland.” Sentiments born out of colonial oppression, a consciously cultivated sense of inferiority, centuries of divide-and-rule politics, and Suriname’s own failures to really “make something of the country.”
It still applies to almost everything that comes from the Netherlands that it’s “good and better.” The policy makers in the Netherlands have been laughing for years, because the independence scenario could hardly have been better, except maybe for that annoying ex-soldier Bouterse; the toddler has been given its own room to mess around in, but for “grown-up things” it comes back and knocks on mummy’s door.
The question arises whether all this is really a problem. My answer to that is both a “Yes” and a “No.” No — because the Surinamese people have the right to self-determination, even if that means subordination. And Yes —because becoming independent and mature means breaking away from the parental home in order to return as an equal after having tasted and tested the outside world.
Suriname certainly tries to focus on the region around it, among other things through its membership of CARICOM and UNASUR, but then on the other hand, Canada and China are invited to “empty” the country’s already empty pockets. But to be fair, across the years, many more activities have been unfolded and engaged in, both nationally and internationally, more than in colonial times. Nevertheless, the oppressive, day-to-day, dominating factor unmistakably remains — the Netherlands, Holland.
In order to develop a healthy relationship with the Netherlands, Suriname will have to drastically (at least temporarily) move away from the Dutch sphere of influence. The door thereto seems to me to be the language, for language is the door to all things. This is of course easier said than done, and comes at a high cost, but the key here is not an abrupt turnaround, but a gradual one.
For example, Suriname could introduce English as a second official language (alongside Dutch). A bit like in India and Malaysia. This could mean that in school, from an early age on, English is taught on a daily basis. Additionally, official documents would also be drawn up in English. Suriname will subsequently not only be able to operate better internationally, but will also actually more easily and structurally integrate in the (mainly English) CARICOM.
The Surinamese government could also start “giving away” scholarships to talented young people who don’t go for studies to the Netherlands, but somewhere else — to study in English. A condition could be that students have to give their strength and knowledge after their studies for at least 10 years in Suriname in order to actually receive the grant. It’s just an example, and I’m convinced there are many more sensible incentives to come up with.
I believe that a two-track policy can be introduced: let English grow slowly but surely as the dominant second language, and subsidize and reward products and services that don’t come from the Netherlands. A kind of “positive discrimination.” However, that certainly shouldn’t mean that the Netherlands will be “discarded” — that’s not possible and shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t close our eyes to the facts: about a third of all Surinamese (and in general those are family and friends) live in Holland and speak Dutch, and the Netherlands is and remains an excellent door, that is, economic opportunity to the rest of the European community.
Nevertheless, people in Suriname should not be blinded by the Netherlands. It is and remains a small country, with no more than seventeen million inhabitants out of a world population of almost eight billion souls. A country with a language spoken by only twenty-two million people worldwide, a country that too often self-sufficiently stares at its own belly, and really has not so much to say on a global level, maybe except when it comes to flowers, dredging soil and mud, building bridges, eating cheese, and playing soccer. Surinamese people must become more aware of this, and stop giving the Netherlands more attention and credit than it deserves.
In any case, I hope to get a different feeling when visiting Suriname in the future. Something of pride, of self-realization, of real independence, of autonomy and self-esteem, of growth and healthy self-affirmation, of an open and realistic view of the world and — of being in Suriname instead of in Nethername.