Two weeks ago, two of the biggest rivers in Suriname burst their banks and flooded many villages. An estimated 25,000 people have had to leave their homes. International Development Studies student Mayra Sumter comes from Suriname, and returned from one of the flooded areas only three months ago.
Mayra’s father, who lives in the capital Paramaribo, phoned her immediately when the first reports of the flooding in the interior hit the news. ‘He said I shouldn’t worry. But I know the area and lived there while I was doing my internship. Most people in Suriname live in the big towns and have never ventured into the interior. When I was a child though I was a member of the Wildlife Rangers of the WWF and visited nature reserves regularly. My first thought was to buy a ticket home. You want to be there, experience things for yourself and to do something. But if you think about it, it’s possible to do something here, and I think perhaps I will be able to do more in the long run by first finishing my studies.’
During her internship in Suriname, Mayra did research on alternative income-generating activities for people living in Ma Siakriki, a village of about five hundred people on the Suriname River, one of the rivers that have flooded. What’s so strange is that the river was extremely dry last year and it was possible to cross the dry riverbed on foot. ‘The river has lots of rapids and a rocky bed. If you travelled along the river in a boat you sometimes had to get out and while the boatmen dragged the boat over the rocks, we had to walk.’ She finds it difficult to imagine that everything is now under water. ‘In Ma Siakriki you had to climb thirty steps from the river to reach the top of the riverbank.’
Mayra is not only concerned about how people can make a living now they have fled, but what will happen once the waters have gone down. ‘Many people are dependent on small-scale subsistence plots, but these have been flooded so they cannot grow crops. If they can’t sell any produce they won’t have any money to rebuild their houses. A lot of schools have also been washed away.’ Her concern lies above all with the women in the countryside. ‘Their pots are their wealth. They polish the silver pots with sand from the river or with scouring powder until they gleam. But the pots they are so proud of have been washed away.’
Above all, Mayra thinks of the woman in whose house she stayed. ‘I helped her move the zinc sheets she had got to replace the roof of leaves on her house. She had saved so long for them. She’s a real mother, a strong capable woman with ambition. I saw how hard people work there and how motivated they are. I also helped on the subsistence plots, but after half an hour work I had to stop, it was so heavy going. And they do that work from eight till five. But that’s all gone now, and that is painful. It is sad, but fortunately there are people who are standing up and making a contribution. Old classmates of mine for example are helping in the packing depots after their lectures and that is good to hear. Just like all the people who have donated money on giro 797 to the aid agencies. The interior of Suriname has always been an area neglected by the government.’
Mayra phones and mails every day with family and friends in Suriname. ‘I wasn’t going to go home until next year, but I think I’ll try and go for a short time this summer holiday, although I’m not sure if I’ll manage. She believes that people who have lost their homes will manage to build up their lives again. ‘In Suriname we say alla ogri e tja wan bun, all evil brings some good with it.’
Yvonne de Hilster