Science - July 6, 2006

Development worker comes home to roost

The floods in Suriname plunged Vinije Haabo (35) right into the everyday realities of development assistance. Haabo, who is doing a master’s in International Development Studies, returned to Pikin Slee, the village where he was born, to see how his mother, grandmother and aunts were getting on. ‘The time is ripe for changes. I hope I can persuade my mother to start breeding chickens.’

Haabo lost contact with his mother after the floods, so he decided to go back home. He thought that Pikin Slee had been washed away. By the time he arrived, however, the waters had receded a bit, and many huts were still standing, including his mother’s, although she had lost everything in her storage hut. ‘Last week the waters rose again for the third time, and this pattern will continue until the end of August. What is strange though, is that a couple of times the water level has gone down to lower than normal.’ Many people in rural Suriname have lost a lot in the floods, not only food, but also pangi (brightly coloured textiles used for clothing), soap, and white rum and gin, both of which are used a lot in rituals. ‘And development aid does not take things like this into account.’

Subsistence plots
The people in the affected area are almost totally dependent on the forest for their livelihood. Usually they make small clearings in the forest and grow crops on these subsistence plots for two years. The villagers were able to harvest some crops despite the floods, but sowing new crops is now a problem. ‘But nobody seems to realise that in three months there will be no food left.

Planning is not part of the local culture, tells Haabo, partly because of the beliefs that people have. ‘I asked my mother how much rice and banana she usually harvests. But she never even used to make estimates. If you do that, the evil spirits know what you are planning, was her answer, and then they might intervene.’

Haabo is hoping to persuade his mother to start breeding chickens. ‘It’s an area where people already ate too little protein, but now the waters have risen there is no wild meat available and it is difficult to catch fish as well. The chickens that run around the village are used mainly for rituals. Eggs that are found are eaten, but the meat is not eaten because the chickens eat waste and the meat is therefore regarded as unclean. It is tradition that determines what is unclean. The villagers eat chicken meat from the town. This might seem strange to us, but you have to have beliefs if you are to survive in the forest. If you try to rationalise everything you won’t get anywhere.’

But with the floods, it seems as though the time is ripe for change. ‘If my mother starts breeding chickens, she’ll be able to use her earnings to buy things to replace what she has lost, and maybe therefore bring about a structural improvement in her situation. But it means that, at least to begin with, she’ll have to feed the chickens with feed that comes from the town.’

Dilemma
In Haabo’s room in Wageningen there are plastic bags full of clothes and toys, which a friend has just dropped off. ‘We send them to the school in Pikin Slee, so that they can sell the things. The proceeds go to the school – they use the money for excursions. Of course, I could hand out the clothes myself in the village. I’ve done that in the past, but when you go back a year later, everything has disappeared. By letting the villagers sell the clothes themselves, the goods go to the people who really want something, and it’s a way of collecting money for other activities. I regard it as a way of encouraging people to grow. I am trying to monitor whether this works.’

Haabo knows from his own experience that the whole issue of giving aid is difficult, and finds himself in a state of constant dilemma. He is the only member of his family, and perhaps the whole village, who has gone on to higher education. He left for the capital Paramaribo when he was fifteen. ‘I happened to come in contact with people who wanted to help a young person from my village to study.’ Because he wanted to do something which would enable him to return to his village, he chose to do agricultural production at the University of Suriname. Later he worked as a journalist and went on to study African language and culture in Leiden, but returned quickly to Suriname as he discovered that he was more interested in pure linguistics.

‘After that I started helping NGOs in the area, assisting them with their contact with villages up-country. I wrote about my experiences in a national daily, and tried to mediate between village chiefs and a tribal chief who were involved in a dispute about land rights as the result of multinational companies’ activities. At the same time I made an applied study of my mother-tongue, Saramaccan.’

Haabo’s experiences inspired him to take up international development studies. ‘Linguistics and journalism don’t equip you to help much. I felt I was too much of an observer, watching and recording things from a distance.’

Outsider
Haabo returns home about once a year. It’s usually a busy time. ‘Everyone in the village has some kind of problem. It’s impossible to walk down the street without people asking my advice. Even with just a little bit of general knowledge it’s easy to come up with solutions. But it means it takes me half a day to get from one grandmother to the other one, when they only live a quarter of an hour apart.’

He also notices that he has lost the ability to sense underlying tensions in the village. ‘The people take me seriously, but say my way of thinking is white. They regard me as a bakaa, an outsider, a white man. I can’t work in the villagers’ way; I have to hang on to my western habits. I try to be effective, whereas the villagers go about things very differently. I think it’s a waste of time to spend the whole day having a meeting about something you can decide on in a couple of minutes. There’s no way I would be willing to help set up a chicken breeding with the women’s organisations. I have my hands full with my mother, but if she is successful, in the end the whole village will benefit. If she sets an example, you’ll see that others start to copy her.’

Yvonne de Hilster

Re:act