Ups and downs of starting up

I haven’t been doing much traveling recently. I’m pretty much staying still in my modest, rented apartment in Paramaribo, Suriname.  Having placed myself on a tight weekly budget, and with lots of work to do, I figure as little movement as possible is my best option.  Now you’re probably picturing me locked in a room, trying to turn straw into gold.  If so, you’re not far off. It’s just…where’s Rumpelstiltskin when you need him?

So I’m here working on the nonprofit startup, Ancestors unKnown.  Maybe you’ve heard about it?  Introducing young people to family history research and the commonly overlooked history of the African Diaspora.  That’s the vision.  And it’s definitely becoming a reality, beginning here in Suriname and Charleston, S.C.

comic reflections

(from facebook)

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Introducing Ancestors unKnown

Ladies and Gentlemen, Dames en Heren, I’m proud to introduce you to my brand new organization, Ancestors unKnown.

Ancestors unKnown introduces young people in the African Diaspora to new perspectives on their histories. We combine a Black history-based curriculum with genealogy/family history research, working in partnership with local organizations, historians, and genealogists.  Beginning in the U.S. (South Carolina) and Suriname, Ancestors unKnown is an international organization.  So in the years to come, I hope to introduce our work and serve communities on multiple continents and islands.

This is still the pilot stage. I want to make lots of changes and additions to the website. And there is so very much work to be done just to stay on track.  But I figure it’s about time to let folks in on the adventure in less cryptic ways.

ancestors blogging

Now I have a few things to ask of you:

1) Check out my first entry on Ancestors Blogging (which eventually will include posts from student participants and partners). Comments are also great!  Here is a piece (I feel like I cheated on this blog by writing over there – so this copy/paste action is how I rectify that):

…could a family that survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade and generations of slavery in the Americas really have left behind no memories? No stories to tell? No lessons to instill? I believe this to be an assumption worth challenging.  And sure enough, digging into some archives revealed tremendous stories waiting to be told, and remarkable ancestors who deserve to be remembered.  I believe everyone has a right to this empowered feeling of knowing her own history, or at least part of it.

2) Please head over to facebook to like the page:

3) Please share the work we’re doing with your networks. The more people we can invite to the party, the better. (but wait, just so you know, there’s no real party.)

3.5) Eventually I’ll figure out the Twitter thing.  So I’ll be asking you to follow me there at some point too.

4) After all of that, tell me what you think.  Critical feedback is always appreciated.

Sheesh. Feels like I just walked outside wearing my brand new big-girl-pants. But the big ‘ole automatically-locking door just shut behind me.  And I may or may not have forgotten my key.

Big-girl-pants, don’t fail me now. There’s no turning back!

A new audience

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.

So now what?

I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked this question.  It’s a good one. And folks seem worried.  School is basically finished (actually, it’s not until this month ends. but that’s a story I’d rather not get into).  And school was my reason/pretext for moving to Amsterdam.  Without school as my gravity, I find myself suspended in an area of uncertainty. Where to go? What to do? Who to be? How to find that wealthy benefactor to support the fulfillment of my remaining dreams?  Yeah, folks are definitely worried.

But from my point of view, this is freedom at its best. The next steps are up to me – and only me.  Of course I need to feed myself, sleep under a roof (most days), and maintain basic levels of hygiene.  But outside of these responsibilities of adulthood, which sometimes can be achieved creatively, I can go almost anywhere.  This is when I finally get to dance outside of that commonly-mentioned box, which my thinking already escaped long ago.  And it’s going to be like one of those James Brown-fancy footwork-shimmy shake-wipe the sweat off my face-type of dances.

I’ve made some decisions about what I want in the coming months, years, and lifetimes.  Some I’ve known for quite some time, such as wanting to create opportunities and broaden the horizons of young Black people.  Others have evolved over time, like my belief in the impact of genealogy research.  And now, here I am, being pushed, guided, and supported right into the opportunities that will allow me to live an adult life I love.  Having suspended the fear of uncertainty, I’m happy to realize that the universe has been working in my favor (even on the days I’m not).

In The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho has countless quotes that resonate.  In this instance, I think of this: “When someone makes a decision, [s]he is really diving into a strong current that will carry [her] to places [s]he had never dreamed of when [s]he first made the decision.” Yes. Yes, indeed.

So back in November, shortly after I returned to the Netherlands from Suriname, I regretted not being able to stay for the implementation of a youth ancestry research project I had designed.  I wondered how I was going to find and afford a place to stay in Amsterdam after January.  And I received an incredible offer: return to Suriname…on us (well, the plane ticket)…for as long as you’re willing to stay and work on this project.

Awwww yeah. Offer accepted.

From there, life got tougher in Amsterdam, as if the city was pushing me away.  Zora died.  The drains in my apartment started spewing other people’s poo (literally). My bike was stolen.  Money was low (well, that was nothing new – but you get the point).  I needed a break.  I was ready to go.  Not forever.  Just for a few months – say, maybe seven.

So now what?  Well, I have returned to Suriname, of course.  On Friday, the day after my birthday (not necessarily relevant – just important that you know), I began my seven-month stay.  I’ll be working on this local ancestry project.  I’ll be looking for some sustainable income. And I’ll be laying the groundwork for my very own organization that will introduce young Black people to their ancestors and new perspectives of history.  And I’ll be absorbing as much warmth as Suriname is willing to share.

Once I’m finished here in September, I plan to return to Amsterdam.  But while I continue to dance on the path outside of the box, as Coelho pointed out, next I might be carried to places I never dreamed of.  So who knows?  I’m just continuing to take this sometimes intimidating, usually nerve-wracking, always satisfying journey one step at a time.

So no more questions, please.

(just kidding. you can ask me questions. just don’t be surprised if you’re not satisfied with my answer.)

A (city) love affair

I think it’s strange that we’re expected to choose one city, settle there, have all of our accounts there, and call that place “home.” Some people question the legitimacy of monogamy – one person for the whole of forever.  Now I’m questioning the legitimacy of this “home” concept.  What if I don’t want to choose just one place? What if I fall in love with multiple places?  Various places offering unique benefits, challenges, and lessons – loved differently, but equally.  That doesn’t sound so unreasonable.

Yet, it seems these expectations of location monogamy have gotten to me.  With questions like, “where are you from?” and “where is home?” invading my space on a nearly daily basis, I thought I had to choose, settle even – make a commitment and stick to it.  I figured if I can’t commit to a person, I should at least appease the public by committing to a place.  And for the last year or so, Amsterdam has been that place.  We hadn’t made anything official (beyond a temporary residency permit).  But I was pretty sure we were moving in that direction.

But now I find myself tempted to cheat.  I care for Amsterdam no less.  But as I sit on my porch in Paramaribo after midnight, sipping tea, with a warm breeze blowing through the mango tree beside me, I find myself toying with ideas of an open relationship.  Maybe I could settle in Amsterdam and have a vacation home Paramaribo.  Maybe I could split my time equally between the two cities – summer months in Amsterdam (for the winter weather) and winter months in Paramaribo (for the summer weather).  Maybe I could just make Paramaribo my home.  Oh my, this is becoming a love affair.

My feelings for Suriname began to emerge when I started working with NiNsee back in 2011 on the genealogy project.  Having done some extensive work on my own family tree, I was sensitive to the gaps and injustices that stand in the histories of those who descend from the survivors of slavery.  So the common challenges of Black family history researchers from Suriname strongly resonated.  And once I narrowed my thesis research on matters of family history and identity for Suriname’s Black population, I learned more about the country’s rich, fascinating (and oftentimes f’d up) history.  It’s made for some great reading and learning.  And now that I’m experiencing the place first-hand, the limited academic perspective has been put to shame .  It makes me so glad I came.

The passion with which so many people talk about their families and their ancestry is both heartwarming and inspiring – especially since I’ve become accustomed to that glazed over look in people’s eyes when I start to talk about genealogy research anywhere else.  And since I’ve made it a habit of sparking the conversation with just about anyone in my path (granted, my path has been paved with some bias), I’ve found myself in some incredible conversations about oral histories, spiritual practices of the past and present, and the persistent mysteries of ancestry that continue to baffle.  During one of my meetings earlier today, as the man proudly told the story of his family tree, he insisted that we stop for a moment so that he could call his mother to verify the names of her grandparents.  I hadn’t asked – he just wanted me to know.  This is what I’m talking about! The passion, the pride, the love for family and where we come from — yeah, I’m starting to feel at home.  And this isn’t even getting to the sunny (hot, hot) weather, warm and welcoming people, and tasty (usually veg-friendly) food.

Regarding the actual conversations and progress I’ve made related to the genealogy studies, as well as the project I’m developing for young people to research their Surinamese ancestry, I have lots to share in posts to come.

But before we get to that, I thought it might be helpful for you to know a bit more about this country that may turn me to place-polygamy.  Because you can feel free to admit if you don’t know much about it (like, for example, it’s not in Africa).

Location: South America – north of Brazil, between the two Guyanas (in fact, it used to be referred to as Dutch Guyana); not far above the equator. For the time zone, it’s one hour ahead of NYC, 5 hours behind the Netherlands.

Population: 550,000+. It’s super diverse, with folks from India, Indonesia, China, and (of course) African ancestry all claiming a Surinamese identity.  But I still haven’t seen many white people. (I came across a group of 3 white people today and they turned out to be peace corps volunteers from the US.)

Language: Mainly Dutch. The local language, Sranan Tongo (often just referred to as “Surinamese”) is described as a pigeon English. This is what you’ll commonly hear on the street, spoken between friends.  But when it comes to speaking to elders or in professional settings, apparently Dutch is considered most appropriate – with Sranan Tongo even considered disrespectful (issues pointing back to the everlasting and damaging effects of colonialism).

Capital city: Paramaribo. The center of the city is small, with most things clustered on a few streets. But it makes for crowds and a bustling feel, with everyone in one place at the same time. The city does go far beyond the center, which makes transportation by car, taxi, or bus pretty essential (some people ride bikes – but with the climate, I think I would pass away prior to reaching my destination).

Does that cover the basics?  I feel like I just introduced a new lover.

(Ahh, if only I could fall in love with a man as easily as I do with a city – but that’s neither here nor there…literally)

…gone till November

After a nine-hour flight, I arrived in Suriname on Monday night.  Stepping off the plane, everything felt almost surreal.  The air’s thick warmth was a stark contrast to the chilly damp I left behind in the Netherlands.  And I could count the white people in my sight with two fingers.  Clearly I had come a long way.  But the sleepy plane-haze made it difficult to remember how I got here.  I definitely did some packing, cleaning, and coordinating.  But perhaps dancing in an all too familiar routine, it was almost as if my eyes were closed.

But now, with my laptop, suitcase, and a list of new contacts in tow, I’m pretty sure I have everything I need to make my time here worthwhile – and memorable.  And with the forgetful parts of the journey behind me, I can already see the magic in what remains.

So I have traded in my adopted home in Amsterdam for a foster home in Paramaribo – the capital (and only major) city of Suriname – for the next two months, that is.  And I promise to share the details along the way.

(Thanks TH ;))

Plane tickets and pressure

It’s official that at the end of September I’ll be heading to Suriname. For two months. That means I have one month to get myself and all things related in order, then two months to tear into some serious research and writing, and altogether three months to ponder options of stability upon my return to Amsterdam.

I’m 80 percent excited.  The excitement includes the opportunity to experience a new country – a new continent, actually.  I’ve never been in the vicinity of South America.  So the visit feels overdue.  And since I’ve been discussing and reading about Suriname’s history and identity politics for months now, I’m looking forward to digesting some of it firsthand. On a more shallow level, I’m looking forward to trading the Dutch chill for some Surinamese warmth (feel free to interpret that as a commentary on patterns of weather and/or social graces).

I’m 20 percent nervous.  I considered writing “anxious” here.  But I just looked up the difference between the two words.  According to wiki answers, anxiety comes into play when you have no control over a situation that may or may not happen.  And that’s the opposite of what I have going on at the moment.  The outcomes of my time in Suriname are entirely under my control. Whether or not this trip turns out to be a trailblazing success or a complete waste of time is up to me.  I can do it right.  Or I can do it wrong.  And when I give that nervous 20 percent any attention, doing it wrong feels like a legitimate possibility.  Two months in a completely unfamiliar place, with completely unfamiliar people, under the guise of completely unsettling circumstances called academic research – I wonder if I can pull this one out of my ass.  Yeah, I think I can.  I have every reason to believe I can.  But sometimes I’m not so sure.

As this blog indicates, I have a habit of jumping around, from place to place, looking for something that feels right and pursuing my own happiness by any means necessary.  But as I approach yet another big journey, and as I watch my age increase almost as quickly as my money decreases, I can’t help but wonder if I’ve mistakenly chosen a life of instability and uncertainty.  I wonder if the simpler and more straightforward path that I’ve walked away from (more than once) would have been the better option, even if a bit less thrilling.  Could this crazy, fun, and exciting path be leading from the Netherlands to Suriname to nowhere?

Well, regardless, I have no time or patience to start over again. So to verify the validity of my somewhat questionable life choices, I need to leave Suriname with some solid research, a solid (hopefully almost finished) thesis, solid personal and professional connections, and a solid plan for launching my organization shortly thereafter.

Okay, so perhaps I’m 25 percent nervous.  And perhaps I’m placing undue pressure on the next few months.  But as I’m taking these immediate next steps quite seriously, perhaps I can be forgiven for not being 100 percent thrilled about an opportunity to do (and be) something incredible.

75 percent excited and 25 percent nervous.  Knowing myself, if not for the presence of some nervousness (and fear and anxiety and whatever else), I may not even realize this is worth doing.  So I’m not allowing the jibber jabber in my head to get the best of me.  And I’m certainly not denying the fact that I’m absolutely, positively, without a doubt 100 percent grateful for the path I’ve chosen and the life I get to live.