For the first time in a very long time, I wasn’t unhappy to be somewhere at 9 a.m. on a Saturday. Believe it or not, I was even early. At the National Archives of Suriname, I was meeting the participants in the local genealogy project for the first time.
When I was in Suriname last year, I developed the project in partnership with two organizations: Naks, well-known for its education and celebration of Afro-Surinamese cultural heritage, and Evangelische Broeder Gemeente in Suriname (EBGS), responsible for the archives of Suriname’s Moravian Church. Both groups are invested in history, ancestors, education, and young people. And each group has its own youth audience. So it made sense to approach them with the idea of introducing genealogy research to a new audience of Afro-Surinamese young people, combining the extensive archives of EBGS and the historical knowledge of Naks.
Although logical, the plan wasn’t without concerns. Mainly, the two groups don’t typically work together. The church group is typically opposed to the African history side of things, choosing the teachings of the missionaries in their approach to education, perpetuating beliefs that African ancestors = non-Christian = bad (I’m going to do my best to stay neutral here, since these are my friends). Since Naks openly celebrates traditions that are rooted in African heritage, they have a tendency to rub the Christians the wrong way. You know, with the voodoo and all.
But both groups assured me this would be a perfect opportunity for a bridge to mend an arbitrary divide. If young people from Naks and EBGS could come together to learn about a common Surinamese history, while identifying their ancestors and where they come from, a step could be made in a new direction. Everyone (well, at least the decision makers) was on-board to cooperate and experiment with the new partnership.
My other concern had nothing to do with Suriname, but young people everywhere. I wasn’t so sure the passion for genealogy research would translate for a non-retiree audience. I pictured teenagers losing their eyesight from deeply-committed eye-rolls, incapable of seeing documents that were not produced by and/or for their phones. And I feared history and ancestors would be rejected by a forward-thinking generation. My insecurities had me convinced I was too idealistic in thinking young lives could be impacted and changed through knowledge of the past. But again, Naks and EBGS assured me their young people would get it. They assured me it would work.
So in spite of my unplanned return to Amsterdam, planning for the project continued. Thirteen participants were identified for a pilot run of the project, 5 from Naks and 8 from EBGS. They kicked-off with a special event back in November. And the bi-monthly sessions began in January, alternating between genealogy research with EBGS and Surinamese cultural heritage workshops with Naks. I had been receiving updates and general assurances that things were “going well.” But I still wondered if they were just keeping secret the fact that the young people were bored to tears – that is, when they weren’t sparring with crucifixes and voodoo dolls.
Now that I’m back in Suriname, Saturday was my first opportunity to see it firsthand – see my idea come to life, see it actually working. So I woke up early.
Not all of the participants were there, 3 or 4 were missing, I think. And not all of them are young, with ages ranging from late teens to early 30s. But that didn’t matter even a little bit (at least they were under 70, right?). I couldn’t have been happier to see them.
To begin the research process, they had already spoken with their families, arriving at this session with hand-written notes on their family trees. They introduced themselves and explained their interest in their ancestry, and why they wanted to know where they came from (most of this was in Dutch – I did my best to follow). They listened intently to the brief lecture/explanation from the Archives staff. They welcomed me and my brief introduction with smiles (and embarrassing applause). They broke into groups and helped each other comb through the census archives. They chatted with me and answered my random questions enthusiastically. They took vigorous notes. They even went over time and continued to research. And although I was looking at them carefully, I didn’t see one yawn or eye-roll. They actually seemed interested. And when the session ended, they planned to return on their own time to continue researching.
It was like a dream come true. Beyond the empowerment of these young people to do their own research and learn the value of their own histories, I was excited for their ancestors. Finally recognized. Finally going to be known.
Gosh, I cried a little when I got home.