In the air and finally grounded

Perhaps the most extended silence on the blog has just passed.  I wish I had an excuse – maybe I haven’t had a minute to write; or perhaps I forgot my WordPress password.  But nothing like that.  I’ve had plenty of time.  And Chrome remembers all of my passwords.  I’ve even had things I wanted to write.  But I’ve just been unable to commit to the finality of blogged words.  Many of my thoughts have felt fleeting.  Most of my grievances have passed.  And a bunch of my recent “lessons learned” have been challenged.  So even if I had written in the last couple of months, I probably would have wanted to take them back.  Turns out I just needed some time to be quiet.

Continue reading

Feeling pretty damn satisfied

I have this “I can’t wait until…” thing. Like, “I can’t wait to go home for Christmas break;” “I can’t wait till graduation;” “Oooh, I can’t wait to take a break from working;” and the most recent biggie: “I can’t wait to finish this damn thesis.” I’m constantly looking forward to something. Relatively happy, but for this one nagging circumstance that stands between me and ultimate happiness. When the objectives are achieved, I think there’s usually a moment (whether that’s actually a moment or several months) of celebrated achievement. Graduations from both undergrad and law school were acknowledged by spending a couple of months in Ghana, for example.  But for the most part, I spend my time anticipating something better.

The school I couldn’t wait to get into became the school from which I couldn’t wait to graduate. And the city to which I couldn’t wait to move became the city I couldn’t wait to leave (I’m not talking about Amsterdam here, promise). Kind of like a traveling version of “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”

But I think most of my anticipated next steps were actual upgrades, whether strategic or indulgent. And after getting through the recent full-time student dysfunction, I think I reached a real clearing.  Maybe there really was some sense to my madness.  Nowadays I’m spending about 90% of my productive time on turning my nonprofit fantasy into a real thing, splitting my time between research in the archives, meeting with remarkably brilliant and inspiring people, and doing laptop-type work from home – oftentimes outside on the porch  (maybe another 5% of productive time is spent on naps – I have no reason to be dishonest).  This was definitely the outcome I couldn’t wait for as I drudged through every forced word of my thesis (about a topic I love, mind you).  But could this also be one of the main points I’ve been anxious to reach all along?  

Living in a place I genuinely enjoy and feeling entirely on purpose, I’m finally feeling pretty damn satisfied.

Not to say I’m not still looking forward to the day I don’t have to worry about money. And absolutely by no means has everything fallen into place seamlessly.  I just have to remember to enjoy those challenges.  These are the types of problems for which I’ve been waiting!

And now, since I’ve been silent for an extended period, I’ll share a mostly unrelated story:

A few nights ago I went to an event in the center of town.  I walked the half mile (or so) to the bus stop.  And I took the bus (1.60 SRD).  The buses are essentially vans – if you appreciate a Ghana reference, they’re like decent tro-tros without the mates.  Vague stop locations, uncomfortable middle seats that require constantly lifting your seat to get out of the way, and a relatively cheap fare paid when exiting. Everyone seems to know what’s going on, even when it’s completely unclear.  And I always feel like the only one anxiously looking over my shoulder when an unexpected turn is made, strategically plotting my exit strategy.

But anyway, there are a couple of bus routes that now make me feel like a local. So I was relatively confident on this night, flagging the poorly lit and barely distinguishable bus after dark. Although sometimes I get on and sit down in one of the awkward middle seats before I realize that I’ve walked irrevocably far from a preferred seat, this time I got a window seat in one of the ideal rows – right by the door and only an arm’s reach from the driver.  But as I settled into the best seat I had ever gotten, I became aware of a strange silence. Everyone was super still, looking forward. It felt kind of eerie – too calm.

But I wasn’t finished reflecting on the weird quiet people before Pebbles started singing “Mercedes Boy.”  It turns out this bus had driven straight out of my 80s-music-loving subconscious.  And it took every ounce of power I had not to dance through the whole ride. Eventually I reached my stop and had to leave the most favorite-weirdo-80s-bus-of-my-dreams during “Don’t Disturb This Groove.”  Bizarrely, it was the first stop the bus made since I had gotten on.  And when I got off, the bus waited at least 45 seconds before pulling off. I could still faintly hear the music as I turned the corner.

After the event, I hoped to retrieve my 80s-dream-bus bliss on another reasonably priced ride home.  But someone offered to drive me.  And for a second I actually thought, “damn, I couldn’t wait to take the bus.”

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.

Faithfully complicated archives

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve spent a lot of time with the team managing the archives of the Moravian church, also known as Evangelische Broeder Gemeente Suriname (E.B.G.S).  And this may be some evidence that differing belief systems need not stand in the way of best friendships.

The folks from the archives are working hard, providing a valuable service to the community.  They care about history and value its role, particularly in the lives of many Black Surinamese.  For those with ancestors who joined the Moravian church at some point in the generations since arriving in Suriname, the records can trace back quite far, making them a valuable and much-appreciated resource.   But none of us can deny that these records have some dirty roots.  And they’re associated with the German missionaries who had little or no perception of the humanity of their “saved” subjects.

My feelings about the church’s history are complicated.  Sure, they may have cosigned and perpetuated the enslavement of African people during the years of legal slavery, and maintained systems of mental slavery well after – such as through the marginalization, even criminalization, of traditional, African-influenced spiritual practices.  But those Christian missionaries kept some damn good notes.

EBGS Catalogue covering the area of Waterloo, Suriname, 1869-1890

Among enslaved converts, the records were copious.  Not only did they record the dates of baptisms and adopted Christian names, family relationships and physical descriptions were sometimes included.  For African people recently brought to Suriname, their ethnic group and area of origin were commonly recorded.   And they tracked pretty much every indiscretion of an individual that may have led to judgement or exclusion from the church.  For example, when someone attempted to escape from a plantation, the incident and the resulting punishment were recorded.  Or, every time a man (or woman) cheated on a committed partner, the occasion was written in the missionary’s notes, including names and the juicy details, in the better cases.  For although they accepted that enslaved couples could not marry legally, they expected the couples to live as close to Christian norms as the laws of Suriname would allow – like the 1 woman + 1 man rule.

So, assuming the notes are legible, and one speaks a fair amount of old German, missionary notes that pre-date the nineteenth century can provide some people with the information that so many of us just hope for.  A man who has adopted Christianity offers his African name and ethnic group of origin, along with the name of his committed, romantic partner, and his tendency to cheat with a woman from a neighboring plantation.  C’mon, that’s jackpot.

In the decades following legal slavery in Suriname, the church continued to maintain detailed records and track the lives of its followers.  And since families often stayed close-by, in the same areas for generations, they can be relatively easy to trace.  Details of births, baptisms, (now legal) marriages, and deaths can be found in these gigantic, stereotypical-looking, old books.  And because they’re frequently mentioned in comparison, I assume some of the other local churches, such as the Roman Catholics, maintain a similar level of abundance and detail in their records.  So, all things ugly still considered, I enthusiastically recommend church records to anyone who’s looking.

The notes are cold and matter-of-fact. They depict harsh realities and blurred perspectives of decency. And, most often, they turn my stomach.  But, if I could, I would read them like a Toni Morrison novel.

Genealogy instruction leads to envy

First of all, I’m convinced that time in Suriname moves more quickly than it does in other parts of the world.  It’s impossible for me to believe or admit that I have already been here for more than three weeks.  I don’t know if it’s the busy schedule or the periodic naps/comas that I claim are sun-induced.  But whatever the cause, I’ve lost track of time.  The fact that I’ve met a ton of incredible people who have been invaluable resources for the projects I’m working on, and the fact that I’m feeling pretty comfortable with my surroundings (with the exception of some transportation woes)  may be the best and only evidence to prove to myself that I have, indeed, been here for more than a mere few days.

And today was no exception to my busy schedule.  It started with a 9 am workshop (to be honest, this hour and I had lost acquaintance when I was in Amsterdam) that I provided to several members of the Moravian church archives staff on the process of researching and building family trees.  I’ve been working with this group quite a bit recently.  They have tons of missionary archives that date back to the 17th century, many of which reveal unbelievable details about formerly enslaved Surinamese ancestors.  So not only are they a resource for my thesis research, they’ve also become a partner in a family history research project we’ll be launching next month for local young people.

The staff of the archives gets a growing number of requests each week, primarily from people in the Netherlands seeking information about their ancestors.  If these people know (or suspect) that their ancestors were members of the Moravian church, they send a note to the archives, requesting someone to comb through the books and any/everything related to the names they provide.  They are almost always heavy and challenging requests.  And charging no fee, this team always obliges – helping as many people as they possibly can.  One of the researchers walked me through her process.  And I’m just not sure their work is valued enough – particularly since the majority of the records are written in Gothic German.  (Say what?)  As a side note, today I witnessed one of the staff members having her Gothic German language lesson over skype with a woman in Germany. (Say who?)

Moravian Catalogs listing details about enslaved ancestors

So anyway, because we’re now best friends, when one of the leaders of the archives asked me to train his staff on how to create family trees, I was happy to share whatever insight he thought I had.  The reasoning is that, although the team is pulling the records and sharing them over email, they have not been included in anyone’s process of building a tree.  So the logistics of the process were unclear.

I created a little presentation about my process, focusing on my mother’s mother as an example family tree starting point.  I wrote down all of the many resources I could remember that have been helpful in my own research process.  And I mapped out a process that might be useful for others to remember when establishing the “building blocks” of a family tree.  I took the example from my grandmother through four additional generations.  In addition to my own tree, I threw in a few Suriname-specific sources that I know factor in to most research processes, such as Suriname’s 1921 census.

Yeah, so it was pretty brilliant.  And I think they were interested enough – at least enough to seem engaged and ask questions throughout.  But I’m not so sure it was helpful.  Here’s why: Suriname is way ahead of the U.S. in terms of available resources for family history researchers.  And my complicated, convoluted process seemed almost irrelevant as we talked through their options here.  For example, in the U.S., if we want to access the birth, death or marriage records of our ancestors, we first have to solve the mystery of what city/state to go to, which office in that city/state holds the records, how you make the request, if you even can make the request, and finally, how much it’s going to cost.  You can use some creative census and city directory information to find people.  But once you find one bit of new information, I’m pretty sure you’re also authorized for a private investigator’s license.

But in my training today, they asked, “why couldn’t you just go to your CBB?” The  Centraal Bureau voor Burgerzaken (Central Registration Office) is a one-stop shop for recent ancestor research.  Not sure of every detail about your great grandparents? Just go to the CBB, give them your information, and they can provide you with your family tree.  I hear it may take some days.  But still – they provide you with your family tree?  A central place where everyone registers – and your family can actually access the information? Imagine that.

And you might not even need the CBB.  Because in Suriname, every single family has what they call a “family book.” When children are born, parents receive a family book that lists the names and relevant details of the parents and grandparents.  So right there, the children have the starting point of a family tree.  And if you can access your grandmother’s family book, you’re golden.  Also in today’s training, one of the women pulled from her purse her mother’s family book.  Since her mother recently died, she holds it for sentimental reasons.  This means she also carries with her the names of her great grandparents – and something they may have also held themselves.  Practical and sentimental.

Now, the barriers of the research begin to resemble U.S. barriers once we reach the late 19th century, when records still weren’t kept consistently.  And, of course, slavery presents a frustrating challenge for any Black family researcher.  But even then, if an enslaved ancestor in Suriname fell in with some Christians, you might learn about him too – as well as that affair he had with the woman from that neighboring plantation.

So sure, it’s great to have a new perspective on approaches to this research in other countries.  But I felt a bit silly when describing how complicated and inaccessible information can be in the U.S.  And kinda jealous of the practical and sentimental advantages they have here.  No, no, make that very jealous.