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The making of urban Maroons

Kinship, houses and mobilities in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni (French Guyana)
Clémence Léobal


In this paper, I investigate how the houses in the villages are maintained and transmitted to urban dwellers, and how these configurations inform social ties in the city. Maroon inhabitants of Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, located in the estuary of the Maroni River at the border between Suriname and French Guiana, maintain ties with Maroon upriver territories. Most people do not dwell in a single house. Their ‘configurations of houses’ can encompass both banks of the river and connect coastal cities with upriver rural places. The occupancy of and investments into upriver houses are not only the consequences but also the means to ensure the continuity of kinship in town. Beyond the diversity of the uses of those rural houses, I analyse the link between their maintaining and urban dwelling. Spatial disposal of the houses in the villages both reflects and result from matrilineal ties between kinsmen. In the urban context of Saint-Laurent, related houses are not always located nearby from one another, depending on housing policies and removals. Kinship ties in the city are activated in reference to those upriver spaces. Upriver houses have a role of remembering of those genealogies. Common building projects can also renew the ties between urbans.

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1The house is where social ties are produced, especially kinship and family ties (Fog Olwig 2007, Leinaweaver, 2009). Anthropologists have considered the house as process evaluating along the transformations of the ties between inhabitants, the mobility, the events of life and the arrival of new persons in the group (Carsten 2004, Carsten and Hugh-Jones 1995). Moreover, a house is not isolated and has to be analysed within the framework of the configuration of houses (Marcellin, 1996), as part of a broader network that can connect several spaces, including rural and urban ones. Bearing this in mind, the second residence, far from being “secondary” is on the contrary “the extension of the family by other means” (Gotman et al. 1999: 208). As Mauss showed about Inuits, switching places can be the bedrock of group cohesion (Mauss 1904). This article focuses on the practices of upkeeping houses in rural areas among urban dwellers as a way of procuring kinship ties in town. In this case, Maroon inhabitants of the city of Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, located in the estuary of the Maroni River at the border between Suriname and French Guiana, maintain ties with Maroon upriver territories.

The word “Maroon” (“bushinengué” in French) refers to the six population groups who escaped from Surinamese plantations and who, in the 18th century, negotiated with the Dutch colonial power peace treaties that guarantee their sovereignty in the upriver territories of Guiana. They settled in the upriver border regions on the margins of the Dutch and French colonial centres, close to American-Indian populations (De Groot 2009, Moomou and Hoogbergen 2013). The people whom I met in Saint-Laurent, and whose language I also learned, call themselves in the Nenge language “bushikonde sama” (Maroon) or “Ndyuka”, one of those six groups.

2In order to understand the ways urban and rural territories are interlinked in the ways of life of Maroons inhabitants of the Maroni, I shall primarily focus my analysis on houses (“osu” in ndyuka). Anthropological studies of Maroon populations have pointed out that the Maroon concept of “osu” superimposes both social and spatial dimensions, since it refers to both the house and a tightly bound group of kinsmen (Polime 2006, Price 1973). “Osu” does not only designate a place where relationships take place, but also a close-knit group of kins, even when they do not live in the same house. Furthermore, in the context of the Maroni river, residence is not restricted to only one house but may involve a number of abodes: people alternate between spaces that are all interdependent.

  • 1 According to Temporal et al (2016), it will become Guiana’s most densely populated area by 2030. In (...)

3The town of Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni is expanding rapidly1. This small Amazonian town, located in the estuary of the Maroni River at the border with Suriname, has grown from 10,000 inhabitants in 1980 to over 45,000 today. These figures reflect the large-scale urbanization process observed all over Amazonia. Recent studies on Native American Indians in Latin-American Amazonia have shown that this phenomenon does not necessarily entail the desertification of rural spaces around local rivers (Campbell 2015).

4In Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni’s case, many of the urban dwellers who have settled there recently do not own just one residence and are very mobile. This particularly applies to Maroon populations living upriver who, over the last decades, have experienced a massive rural emigration towards the coastal towns of Guiana and Suriname. These populations originating from the river regions have been settling in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni since the 1950s. Their urban roots do not preclude strong links with other parts of the Maroni region, especially upriver rural territories, whether on the French or Surinamese side of the border delineated by the Maroni River. Indeed, they never stopped visiting their native land, which they call bushikonde (“land of forests”). Upriver, they practice a multiplicity of activities: besides mining, they go back there for funerals, cultural events or holidays. Their spatial practices are circulatory (Tarrius 2015), in that their way of dwelling is characterized by strong mobilities. This implies frequent round trips, multiple residences and non-linear residential trajectories (Stock 2006). The integration of Maroon urban dwellers is based on a constantly reactivated attachment to upriver territories and an intense circulation up and downriver (mainly by canoes), between konde, kampu and towns.

  • 2 For each Maroon group, there is a limited number of konde, which approximately corresponds to the n (...)
  • 3 In a Ndjuka perspective, to translate the term konde, the word “town” could consequently be more su (...)

5Kampu and konde are two nenge terms indifferently translated as “village”, but which convey two very different realities of river settlements. Konde are ancestral villages located in the upriver reaches of the Maroni River, considered Maroon territories since the signature of peace treaties with the Dutch in the 18th century. They are propitiously located on river islands, therefore with a limited surface available. There exist a limited number of konde, each associated with matrilineal clans (lo) that shape the identifications of each Maroon person2. Konde are distinct from kampu in their infrastructures and institutions. A konde must be equipped with a house of the dead, a shrine devoted to ancestors, and a communal house for gatherings. Each konde has a cemetery, some distance away from the village, in the forest, and is governed by a chief (kabiten) appointed by the Gaan Man. Before the massive rural emigration that depopulated many konde, chiefly on Ndyuka territory around the Tapanahoni River, they were all densely inhabited3. By contrast, a kampu refers to any other river settlement, being small or big, dedicated to agriculture, mining or living. There are many kampu in every part of the river, including downriver areas: kampu do not have neither chief, nor cemetery, nor any of the institutions specific to the konde. Maroon inhabitants keep travelling from konde, kampu, and to the coastal towns of Saint-Laurent or Paramaribo.

6During my research on housing policies in French Guiana’s Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, I used the method of urban ethnography. This is how I came to travel upriver with people that I had met in town. My interlocutors perceived me as white (bakaa) and assumed that I held a job in civil service, such as social worker. Some might have been disappointed when they realized that I could not be of any help with regards to their housing situation. However, as months went by, I could learn the nenge language and gain the trust of some of my contacts by paying them a visit and helping out in small ways. Then, they introduced me to relatives and took me on their trips on both sides of the Maroni River.

7After a historical overview of the first Maroon urban settlements, I shall present two clearly differentiated cases of domestic space uses in the upriver regions. The arrangement of houses within villages is both the cause and effect of ties binding inhabitants, which are thus made visible in space. In an urban context, the configuration of houses is not necessarily characterized by proximity since, as a result of French urban policies exerting a strong constraint on residential choices, they can be scattered across the whole locality. Kinship is particularly reactivated in relation to those upriver spaces, which take on the role of genealogical “memory aids” and can even be places of common projects renewing bonds between urbanites. Finally, the maintenance of houses allows for the performance of Maroon affiliation in its widest sense. It enables mutual identification as urban Maroons. Space as such becomes productive of social ties and makes their reactivation possible (Backouche et al. 2011). The occupancy of and investments into upriver houses are not only the consequences but also the means to ensure the continuity of kinship in town, thus calling into question the strict distinction between town and country.

Villages in town or towns within villages?

Historically, the first Maroon settlers in Soolan (Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni in nenge) built clusters of houses on stilts on the Maroni riverbanks. These quarters were organized according to the settlers’ village of origin (konde). In Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, Maroon newcomers’ settlements were organized according to clan, and some place-names testified to this: they could directly bear konde names preceded by the adjective pikin (little). For instance, the part named Pikin Keementi was occupied by people from Keementi, an upriver konde.. Other areas on the riverbanks were given the name of a clan (lo) linked to a konde, such as Dikan – the name of the lo associated with the konde of Benanu.

Fig. 1: The districts on the Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni riverbanks in the 1980s

Fig. 1: The districts on the Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni riverbanks in the 1980s

Source: CIAP Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, from Kenneth Bilby.

  • 4 The law Vivien voted in 1971 to eradicate the slums of mainland France continued to apply overseas (...)

In the 1990s, these areas were earmarked as slums and demolished by the French authorities, while their inhabitants were removed from the town centre. French Guiana being a French département, French law applies there. In this case, this policy was initiated in the 1980s when the Direction Départementale de l’Équipement (Departmental Directorate for Infrastructure) proceeded to the eradication of dilapidated housing by implementing the voted legislation on insalubrious housing4 (Léobal 2016). Nowadays, the local topology makes no reference to the upriver territories and residential choices are heavily conditioned by the lack of space and demolitions. Maroon people no longer live in accordance with ancestral ways of life in their village of origin, characterized by a quasi self-sufficiency allowed by food-producing agriculture, matrilineal kinship rules or obia ancestors cults referring to the times of slavery and wars (Price, 1973). They nowadays live in outlying areas far away the river. Still, the connections between Maroons and upriver territories have in no way vanished, as I will show through the analysis of two Maroon families from Saint-Laurent: one has maintained strong ties with the konde, while the other has done so with its kampu.

Maintaining houses, maintaining ties.

8In today’s Saint-Laurent, Maroon inhabitants belong to the lower classes insofar as their access to employment is difficult, some of them having neither residence permit nor French nationality. They live off resources from agricultural production, small transborder trade, odd jobs in the building industry or gold panning, sometimes State benefits when they can claim them. Yet, some of them build and maintain several houses on different sites, and regularly go there, while others go from one house to the other within their reactivated kinship network. Many studies have shown that multiple residences is a social fact extending well beyond the upper strata of society, notably in Europe (Bonnin and Villaréal 1990; Hervouet 2016).

9Why do Maroon urbanites from Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni circulate in upriver rural spaces, some of them even maintaining more than one house ? I will establish through a few ethnographic case studies how people, connected by active kinship ties, live together in housing arrangements that may encompass both sides of the Maroni River, upriver from the city. In this case, such configurations involve both riverbanks and take on a transborder character.

10Helping one another in the name of a common belonging to the kampu

11First of all, I will examine the arrangement of houses of a family that extend on either side of the Lower-Maroni. These inhabitants of Saint-Laurent also maintain houses on the other side, in a kampu located slightly upriver from the city (opusey), i.e. less than thirty minutes away by canoe. Several men own boats and they can take women to cross the river, if they pay for petrol. Or they can use a muddy track before a twenty-minute drive to Albina, from where many pirogues cross the Maroni River all day in less than ten minutes. They go to the kampu to rest, cultivate their plot of land or can even live there if there is no acceptable alternative in Saint-Laurent.

12I came to know this family through a woman that I will call here Lena, whom I met in Saint-Laurent back in 2013. We were both twenty-five years old and I was just embarking on my doctorate. Lena, as many Ndyuka people from Saint-Laurent, has a transnational history: she was brought up in Suriname by a sissa (sister or cousin) of her foster mother, whom she calls “Tante”. The latter’s time was shared between her residence in the Surinamese capital, Paramaribo, reachable after a three-hour drive and a kampu on the Maroni River, located slightly upriver from Saint-Laurent, still on the Surinamese side. Owning a house in the kampu does not exclude living somewhere else at the same time.

13Later on, Lena moved to Saint-Laurent to look after her disabled older daughter. When I first met her, she had neither a place of her own nor a residence permit, as she was accommodated by her aunt Lili. Prior to this, she had lived with her sissa Mora, one of the daughters of her foster mother who had been allocated social housing in the Baka Lycée district and lent her a room for herself, her husband and their four children. In Saint-Laurent, I could observe how she benefited from exchanges of all sorts of goods and services within a network including several of her cousins.

14During my second fieldwork one year later, Lena, following the death of her disabled daughter, had moved to their kampu on the other side of the Maroni River where I went to visit her. She was this time staying at her foster mother, who had lent her half a plank house. This visit I made to the kampu in 2014 shed some light on the relationship that she had had with her sissa from Saint-Laurent the year before. I came to understand why, in a context of tension where accusations of lack of autonomy and inability to properly look after her children were levelled at her, Lena’s cousins had to give her accommodation, helping her sustain herself or supporting her in many other ways. To explain this, I am drawing upon Louis Marcelin’s “configuration of houses”concept, which shows how houses are interconnected by a network giving tangible form to actual ties of kinship. Using his ethnographic findings among Black families in Bahia, Louis Marcelin defined house configurations as a group of residents exchanging goods and services between houses (1996).

15However, this solidarity is not impervious to power relations and conflicts (Motta, 2014). Thus, Lena’s life history reflects her own circulation within configurations on either side of the river. Figure 2 shows that when she arrived in Saint-Laurent, she first lived at Mora’s, her forster mother’s daughter, then at Lili’s, her husband’s aunt, before she could return to her forster mother’s house (Tante M) at the kampu, on the Surinamese side. This last move was imposed on her by both official policies tightening border controls and conflicts within the house configuration of her forster mother (Tante M) and her husband’s aunt (Lili).

Fig. 2:Lena’s trajectory through various house configurations

Fig. 2:Lena’s trajectory through various house configurations

I personally drew these maps to represent my own observations on the field (Pinson, 2016). These cartographies are not mental maps, in that they were designed retrospectively from notes taken on the field. These are ethnographic maps that endeavour to render my interviewee’s own spatial categories. They are not to scale. They help translate various spatial elements stemming from my ethnographic study, based on the inhabitants’ representations in order to give an alternative vision to that conveyed by the government. In line with studies which have explored mental maps as cognitive processes not necessarily linked to solving spatial issues (Downs and Stea, 1981, Aberley, 1993), I chose to draw upon “homemade” cartographic methods. I gave up the convention of the North as point of reference to favour an orientation in relation to the waterway axis, a method conforming to emic spatial categorisation: in Ndyuka, people go upriver (tapsey, upward) and downriver (bilo, downward).In Saint-Laurent, older Creole people speak of “heights” to refer to the upriver regions. To find their bearings in town, people never refer to cardinal points but to the river, which serves as a landmark. To designate the centre, they say “ahead” (fesei, or ganda) as opposed to other outlying areas far away from the river or the road (bakasei). Drawing by hand also brings to the fore the constructed nature of official graphic representations, which cannot be equated with actual space.

  • 5 Mora and Silvia, both recipients of family allowance and living in social housing in Saint-Laurent, (...)

16The spatial arrangement of kampu houses makes tangible kinship ties between Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni inhabitants belonging to the same matrilineage and, by virtue of these ties, supporting one another in town. The configuration of houses extending throughout Saint-Laurent between Lena and her sisters Silvia and Mora was thus reproduced on a smaller scale (only a few square meters) with further family members joining in. Altogether, eight houses formed what the inhabitants called a Ma bee [literally, the mother’s belly], a grouping of houses around a common elder. Mora and Silvia had built their own house around their mother’s5. Mora and Silvia cultivate plots for their own consumption and sometimes sell its produce in Saint-Laurent. These ties of kinship and mutual help revolve around the elder woman, reflecting rules of matrilineal filiations: the houses were laid out around Lena’s foster mother, itself standing amongst abodes belonging to her sons, daughters and sisters-in-law.

17This type of spatial organization can also be found in studies on Maroon konde located upriver (Polime, date:19). The village is organized around founding female ancestors, each of them representing a Bee, itself a matrilineal subdivision of the clan (lo). Groupings of houses around them are linked to groupings of plots, reserved for the sole use of sisters’ children, whereas brothers’ offspring must ask for permission to cultivate them. Drawing on aerial photographs, urban theorist Anne Hublin showed how Aluku konde were spatially organized by neighborhood units associated with pieces of lands (2003). The matrilineal group including the elder woman and her descendants is thus imprinted in the arrangement of houses.

Fig.3a: Family tree of the Ma Beein the MidinaKampu, 2014

Fig.3a: Family tree of the Ma Beein the MidinaKampu, 2014

Fig. 3b: The spatial arrangement of Tante M’s Ma bee in the kampu, 2014

Fig. 3b: The spatial arrangement of Tante M’s Ma bee in the kampu, 2014

18Besides agricultural production, the building and maintenance of houses in the kampu maintain ties between Ma Bee members, which are in return reflected in the spatial arrangement of houses. In Saint-Laurent, Mora and Silvia supported Lena in the name of their common belonging to the Ma bee around Lena’s foster mother: they gave her the possibility to live in town by providing her with accommodation and access to drinkable water and the produce from their plot, when, in the absence of a residence permit, Lena did not receive any family benefits and could not cultivate anything, in an urban environment where land was already completely occupied. Matrilineality keeps having an impact on life not only within the kampu itself, but also in Saint-Laurent. Matrilineal and matrilocal kinship ties, typical of earlier konde’s ways of life (Vernon 1992), are reactivated in Saint-Laurent through the solidarity between houses, even when they are scattered in space. Lena’s circulation between her sissa and mother’s houses is strengthened by the existence of matrilineal ties between inhabitants.

19In my second case study, Saint-Laurent inhabitants maintained a house shared by siblings in their konde of origin, located much further upriver (tapsey) in the ancestral Ndyuka territory.

Housing in the konde: maintaining ties in town

20Our second case study is Ma Dina and Edi’s family, a couple better off than Lena’s family, since they are respectively resident permit and French ID card holders. They thus gain from state benefits, that complement their income from diverse agriculture, commerce and building activities. I first met Ma Dina in Saint-Laurent at the beginning of my research in 2013 through her cousin, Atelo. As I asked Ma Dina what sort of ties she shared with him, she mentioned her matrilineal genealogy going back to a common ancestor. She knew all the names of her maternal forbears over five generations. Noticing how impressed I was by such a precise enumeration, her explanation was simple: “Ndyukas know each other very well because they never live far from one another”. I would only fully understand this remark once I had had the opportunity to go to Benanu, Ma Dina’s native konde.

21Ma Dina owns several plots in the vicinity of the town, which she farms with her spouse. However, she derives an irregular income from this activity, less than with the welfare allowance that she used to get before she regularized the farm. The couple lives off the sale of their produce at the market, state social benefits and Edi’s jobs on building sites and on the road. Over the years, Ma Dina and Edi have invested in real estate, and Edi build several houses that they now own in both Guiana and Suriname. Thus, aside from their main residence in Saint-Laurent, they also own two houses in Paramaribo and one on their plot of land. Finally, they also own a house in the konde on Ndyuka territory, far upriver on the Tapanahoni. A one or two-day-journey by pirogue separate those spaces from town, depending on the season.

Fig. 4: Ma Dina and Edi’s houses in 2013-14

Fig. 4: Ma Dina and Edi’s houses in 2013-14

22As much as the upkeep of houses in the kampu allows for material advantages and the symbolic maintenance of ties, the maintenance of houses in the konde seems to cost more than what it yields. Ndyuka konde have been dramatically depopulated since the 1970s. This is why Ma Dina has very few relatives still living there and maintains no close relation with any house in Benanu. Still, she decided to keep a family house there and had even undertaken its complete renovation a few years before our meeting. Edi, her spouse, had totally rebuilt Ma Dina’s mother’s house, previously made of timber, with breeze blocks, giving up the traditional triangular shape for a rectangular design. The couple’s children, who were born in Saint-Laurent and most of whom had never been to the konde, did not understand what could justify such an outlay. Beside the cost of materials, this renovation entailed further costs in transportation by canoe in rough waters, as the river is still considered as non-navigable by French insurance companies. Edi worked as a canoeist for a long time but has not owned a boat since he was allocated social housing in Baka Lycée, far away from the river. The transportation costs would involve hiring a canoe, paying 600 euros in petrol and finding a partner to handle the push pole at the front, while he would steer it with the engine at the back. In order to transport material and heavy goods, this solution remains however cheaper than sending luggage by plane, although there is a domestic flight from Paramaribo to upriver regions.

Fig. 5: A canoeist negotiating a fall with a push pole

Fig. 5: A canoeist negotiating a fall with a push pole

Source: François, 2005.

23What motivated Ma Dina to embark on such an expensive renovation? First of all, the site acts as a “place of memory”, mainly because the cemetery is located there. In this respect, it is included in the “family territory”, although it serves no residential purpose whatsoever (Pfirsch 2008). The couple goes there once a year, at the most, for funeral rituals, the most sacred cemeteries being located in ancestral konde for every matrilineal clan. Funeral ceremonies, burials and ends of mourning are essential events in the life of the community. If many Saint-Laurent inhabitants are buried in the town itself, for elders, the deceased must be respected and returned to their native konde. On these occasions, houses in the konde are full of people who came specifically to attend the ceremonies. For Edi and Ma Dina, this house offered the possibility to have a pied-à-terre in order to fulfill their duties towards the deceased and their living relatives when they had the time and the financial means to take part in these funeral events in tribute to a family member or a local leading figure.

24Moreover, this outlay was for Ma Dina a means to avert conflict with her siblings on the issue of inheritance. The money that she used to restore the house was inherited from her mother, in accordance with matrilineal customs. Ma Dina was the youngest of four children, and the only daughter. Her relationship with her brothers had soured over the years, and conflicts tended to worsen whenever it came to inheritance. Her brothers, disregarding matrilineal rules of succession from mother to daughter, accused her of unduly grabbing their mother’s inheritance. To deflect such accusations, Ma Dina decided to invest this money into the renovation of her late mother’s house in Benanu, and not in the construction of a house for herself in town. She spent the money primarily in the hope that ties with her brothers would be preserved. Here, we can observe that respecting the bonds of consanguinity specific to the matrilineal system does not induce the implementation of inheritance rules from mother to daughter, contested by the brothers. As it is the case everywhere else, matrilineal rules are contested and reassessed in practice (Johnson, 2016).

25Finally, the Benanu house is located at the centre of a Ma Bee: the house is instrumental in reinforcing ties between urbanites by acting as a “memory aid”. During my travel up the Tapanahoni River with Ba Atelo, I had the opportunity to stop in Benanu and see Ma Dina’s house, which was closed. It stood on a little square around which were arranged other houses belonging to relatives of her cousin. Atelo’s mother’s house and Ma Dina’s were next to each other in an area where all the descendants of a common female ancestor lived. The arrangement of houses spatially reflected this genealogy. Residential organization revealed how genealogies were constructed and explained why Ma Dina was capable of recollecting all kinship ties over five generations. Despite the distance, these genealogical ties took a very tangible form when it came to asserting kin relationships with people living in Saint-Laurent. The relationship with the konde kept structuring social relations in town. Indeed, all of Ma Dina’s children knew that they must call Ba Atelo their “uncle”, even though they had never set foot in their mother’s konde.

Fig. 6: Ma Dina and Ba Atelo’s family tree

Fig. 6: Ma Dina and Ba Atelo’s family tree

Fig. 7: plan of houses occupied by Ma Dina and her family around the konde (Benanu)

Fig. 7: plan of houses occupied by Ma Dina and her family around the konde (Benanu)

26The arrangement of houses in the Ma Bee formed by Ma Wangi’s descendants helps understand Ma Dina’s assertion that Ndyukas lived in close proximity of each other and account for her good recollection of local genealogies. Such common belonging also explains that her cousin Ba Atelo can ask favours of her back in town. Besides, this statement posits this type of dwelling as culturally specific, as Ma Dina presents it as typically Ndyuka.

To be “from the river” in an urban context

27Ties with upriver territories, called bushikondekonde of the forest –, are experienced as distinctive by Maroons, who in their native language call themselves bushikonde sama (people from the bushikonde). Owning a house in the konde enables people’s identification with a wider ancestral territory. The land along the Tapanahoni River, grouping together all Ndyuka konde, is often called “Ndyuka country”. It is conceived as an autonomous territorial entity, falling within the jurisdiction of neither Guiana nor Suriname. Historically, the peace treaty signed in 1760 came under international law: the Ndyuka Gaan Man was recognized as head of an independent nation and the Crown of the Netherlands acknowledged his sovereignty over this territory. Maroons considered the Maroni River and its tributaries as “their living environment as opposed to white people’s” (Moomou, 2009: 206).

Back to the konde: the development of “funeral tourism”

28In town, Ma Dina and Edi told me and their children about the river with great relish. Not only did they mention the Tapanahoni River, but also the numerous kampu of the mid-Maroni region in which some members of their respective families lived. Edi told me how he had paddled four days all the way to Saint-Laurent. Ma Dina remembers her grandfather’s kampu further upriver, at the mouth of the Abunami River where its two tributaries, Lawa and Tapanahoni, split off. Ma Dina and her husband talked of the falls, the landscapes, with nostalgia as these places were associated with their youth and their Ndyuka pride.. Each Ndyuka, even if they were born in Saint-Laurent, can be linked to their mother’s konde: they call it their paandasi. By rebuilding the house, Ma Dina and her husband proved their attachment to the land of their ancestors.

29But not everyone in the family shared this positive association with the territory of the bushikonde. Ma Dina and Edi’s children were young adults who had a loose relationship with those spaces. Most of them never went there and only knew of the river through the tales they had heard. One of Aline’s sisters said she did not want to go because she did not want to “become black”. This comment referred to the length of the journey by canoe and the fact that, exposed to the sun, the skin goes brown. This desire to keep a light skin tone also ties in with the racial ideology of colourism in the West Indies (Ndiaye, 2006). In the colourist hierarchy, the journey upriver is linked to the lower social status of dark-skinned people. In contrast with a nostalgia to take pride in, Aline’s words betrayed a depreciation of those territories as she tried to distinguish herself from them and asserted her preference for urban centres.

30Despite intergenerational disagreements, the attachment to the konde is shared by many Maroon urbanites and is in no way at odds with their desire for modernity. This is why Edi and Ma Dina did not express their attachment by adhering to past architectural forms – a wooden house with a pitched roof –, but chose to build their house with breeze blocks – a rectangular symbol of urban dwelling. Their investment was all the more valued because of this.

31The connection with upriver territories is reactivated during funeral ceremonies. If the deceased is a public figure, the ceremonies provide the opportunity to make long journeys that would best be described as “funeral tourism”. During important funeral ceremonies, including the burial and the formal end of mourning of Ndyuka dignitaries such as the Gaan Man, the Ndyuka supreme leader, crowds make the journey from Paramaribo, Saint-Laurent and kampu along the river. I had the chance to travel up the Tapanahoni River to witness the mourning for Gaan Man Gazon in April 2013. It was a great celebration, during which the widow(s)(or the widower) removed their mourning clothes, and which brought together, apart from Ndyuka customary dignitaries, an important part of the Surinamese political class. It was also for many Saint-Laurent or Paramaribo inhabitants the occasion to witness a rare event in Ndyuka religious and political life. Some of them had come to the upriver territories for the first time and took the opportunity to do a bit of tourism at the paandasi, their village of origin, equipped with cameras.

32These ceremonies are very popular and abundantly commented by people in Saint-Laurent. As they cannot afford a journey by boat, they purchase DVDs of the ceremonies.

Fig. 9: DVD cover of Ndyuka Gaan Man Gazon’s funeral (2012)

Fig. 9: DVD cover of Ndyuka Gaan Man Gazon’s funeral (2012)

Source: Informal market DVD cover

33During these funeral ceremonies, the inhabitants of Saint-Laurent can reconnect with their territory of origin. Clyde Alwanahi, a thirty-year-old Ndyuka man from Saint-Laurent, told me he had discovered “the river” only at the age of nineteen at his grandfather’s burial. The latter, who, like his mother, came from a Ndyuka konde, was a canoeist in the Surinamese army and used to go there often. His mother had to spend six months in mourning at the kampu while Clyde was doing round trips between Saint-Laurent and the kampu. He told me he would stay there for a week, even a month, but never more as he missed his “little technologies”, as the power supply was only functioning three hours a day. He now goes back there to enjoy the contact of nature :

“It’s nice to wake up in a kampu in the morning. I feel connected to nature, the river, the forest… I like it there. Two years ago I was there on holiday. I had a very good time. I learned a lot. From then on I changed, I found out more about my culture and my ancestors… Everything became clear to me.

Clémence: You’d never experienced that before?

I already knew a bit because my father had told me about it, who we were, where we came from, what we did, what a people did to another, (…) you’ve got to know that. Especially as a young Maroon, you can’t lose your culture, whatever the circumstances.” (25 July 2014, interview conducted in French)

34He also mentioned the history of Maroon culture handed down by his father, which he reappropriated after his journey upriver. When he goes there, he sleeps in his grandmother’s house, a “kind of shack” that she owns. Now that his mother lives in social housing in Saint-Laurent, they intend to build a house there one day, “to go and show our country to our friends”. This urbanite relates to those spaces in a holidaying context while linking them to his genealogy and his identification as Maroon.

The symbolic uses of kampu for urban Maroons

35The Ndyuka country is a space of identification for Saint-Laurent’s Maroons, even when people have never been to a Ndyuka konde or have never built a house there: they still identify to the matrilineal lo. Indeed, the konde are associated to clans (lo), whose mention stills bears some weight in urban social relations.

36In Lena’s case, the connection to the kampu is very real and happens on a daily basis. However, it is not only related to agricultural production or accommodation as it also assumes a symbolic dimension. When I met her in 2013, she was living at her husband’s aunt’s in very precarious conditions as the house was earmarked for demolition by the authorities. In this context, mentioning the kampu recalled moments of joy as opposed to the daily tensions of urban life. Lena and Lili enjoyed evoking this river space, with its beautiful river and pleasant life: “you don’t get stressed there”, they said. Lena used to go back for holidays before moving there for good in 2014. Mora and Silvia, her sissa, used to come to the kampu house for recreational purposes during weekends and holidays, as if it were a second home. Life in the kampu was considered more relaxed than in Saint-Laurent.

37Moreover, the kampu can symbolize the relation to the paandasi and Lena’s clan of origin. Indeed, Lili and Lena stressed during our discussions that they both had the same clan of origin, which was symbolized by their common reference to the same kampu. Lili lived on the Midina kampu before being forced to leave by civil war. Even if Lili never rebuilt her house there, she praised, like Lena, the qualities of the kampu’s creek (river). Lili and Lena never belonged to the same Ma Bee, but were part of neighboring Ma Bee within the kampu. When I met them in Saint-Laurent in 2013, they kept putting forward this shared belonging to the kampu to stress their personal closeness.

38Ways of living in the kampu are characterized by their integration of the outside, in contrast with social housing in Saint-Laurent. Buildings are made of planks arranged horizontally, more rarely with a base in brick and mortar, and consist of a number of extensions for the kitchen and the rest room. The proximity of the river enables a broad range of uses. The jetty is used not only for sailing but also for ablutions, cooking and washing-up. However, not all kampu’s architectural characteristics are reappropriated by cross-border inhabitants as they become urban dwellers. For instance, a collective house where menstruating women are supposed to sleep during their period, was not used by one of Lena’s sisters-in-law. Lena herself, who showed me the house, did not use it during these periods either: she just slept outside the house, in an adjacent shed, and did not use the collective house,

39Another collective place used with great enthusiasm during my stay was the dance hall. The music shed, located at the back of one the sons’ house and opening out onto the central square, was equipped with an enormous sound system and a mixing deck. A party was organised there that night for the Saint-Laurent residents who had come during the French school holidays. One of Lena’s cousins was performing there as a DJ. We danced to the same hits that were all the rage on the French side of the river, produced by local bands singing in their native language reggae or aleke, a style of Maroon music, or to recordings of international popular music (“African”, reggaeton, zouk…). It was the same kind of party as the ones taking place every weekend in Soolan, but in the open-air and in lusher, greener surroundings. The night ended with a gig by an aleke band of boys from the kampu (a style of music played by musicians from the river region using percussions and vocals). About sixty people from the kampu and its vicinity were taking part. These various elements transform the kampu into a recreational space. For Lena and her relatives, the kampu is seen as a revitalising space, a place where one can relax and retire from all kinds of urban tensions: rural ways of living experienced there are valued by cross-border inhabitants as “pleasant”, “relaxing”, conducive to the enjoyment of a place considered as beautiful.

40The kampu may act, for urbanites, as a substitute to the konde, which every full-fledged “true Maroon” has to frequent in order to be considered as such. The kampu is, like the konde, spatially structured according to Ndyuka customs. When I visited her in 2014, Lena introduced me to the other Ma Bee within the kampu to greet the two basya, a man and a woman looking after the kampu. Behind Lena’s family’s Ma bee, a large square shaded by mango trees separated this area from other groups of houses. She showed me that the kampu’s central square, connecting the various Ma Bee– each one making up a quarter – also included an altar dedicated to worship ancestors, a post crowned by a loincloth at the bottom of which bottles were stored.

41This is why Prince Koloni has called one of his greatest hits “Real Bushinenge”. This Ndyuka singer has always lived in Saint-Laurent and has been pursuing a career between The Netherlands and France. He recorded a song entitled “Kampu Man”, whose video features various scenes of life in a romanticised kampu, shown as idyllic in opposition to other scenes filmed in a cold, grey Europe. Judging by the way they bend over whilst washing dishes in the river, the people featured in the video probably come from the city as they do not have the hip flexibility that makes it possible for people like Lena to lean forward at ground level with their legs outstretched, without hunching their back. Sociologist Colette Pétonnet also observed these changes in postures as characteristic of lifestyle shifts between rural and urban populations (Pétonnet, 1972). Prince Koloni described the kampu way of life as a symbol of authenticity linked to “real Marron’s” identity affirmation:

“I’m asking for your name,Kampu Man! Your father comes from the bushikonde; your mother comes from the bushikonde. You grew up on the river (a ini a liba): Kampu Man”

42Ways of living in the kampu, diets and means of transportation are part and parcel of this identification with Maroon culture.

Fig. 10: screenshot of music video Kampu Man by Prince Koloni

Fig. 10: screenshot of music video Kampu Man by Prince Koloni

Source: YoutuBe KampuMan 

43The analysis of territorial appropriation and the connection of urban and rural areas is illuminated by the focus on houses and on the social dynamics that create and upkeep them. The analysis of the houses maintained upriver, whether in the far reaches of Ndyuka country or in the kampu’s closer territories, helps understand the arrangements of houses in the town of Saint-Laurent. Relationships between urban dwellers, who are often scattered across town as a result of official housing policies, are fluctuating and difficult to comprehend through traditional urban forms. Their ties with houses on the river shed light on social practices taking place in town. In Ma Dina’s konde of origin, as well as in Lena and Lili’s kampu, the spatial arrangement of houses reflects the matrilineage and kinship ties in effect in Saint-Laurent. These spatial arrangements in upriver regions are both the outcome – as in Ma Dina’s case, whose investment aimed at maintaining ties with her brothers living in town – and the catalyst of this. Keeping up houses in rural spaces, in konde or kampu, allow for the relationships of interdependence, kinship and closeness inhabitants maintain with each other.

44The distinction between konde and kampu allow for a comparison between slightly differencial situations: it is not affordable for everyone to maintain ties with the Maroon konde, the locus of matrilinearity and ancestrality of Maroon sovereignty on faraway upriver territories. The costs involved by the travels and transportations of material towards these konde located at a distance of hundreds of kilometers are expensive: however, they are taken over by Ma Dina’s family, whose financial and familial stabilization in town have guaranteed a relatively better off situation. In more precarious situations, as Lena’s family’s, where many members of the family are undocumented and do not benefit social aids in France, the kampu is reappropriated as a substitute of the konde. In this case, its closeness to the town allow for every-day life practices of agriculture, rest, and dwelling in the kampu, also for urbanites of Saint-Laurent. The close proximity of kampu neighbors nurtures ties between mobile inhabitants, which will then be reactivated in town.

45Last but not least, the importance of ways of living, activities focused on the river, funeral rituals or open-air parties imply a degree of emotional and symbolic involvement from diasporic urban dwellers who, through their belonging to a kampu or a konde, identify as bushikonde sama (Maroons). Upriver spaces, whether kampu or konde, are therefore both material and symbolic places of revitalisation for Maroon urbanites.

46The case of Maroons dwellers of the Maroni thus illustrates the importance of multiple dwelling including among working classes. The focus on the concept of “osu”, both house and kinship group, allow for a much broader reflection on space appropriation, and the way people inhabit the world. Kinship ties, in this case grounded in rural referentials, are produced and maintained through the building and upkeeping of dwelling configurations that overpass the national border as well as the frontier between urban and rural.

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1 According to Temporal et al (2016), it will become Guiana’s most densely populated area by 2030. In Census data, the annual urban growth rate of the town between 2010 and 2015 is a bit lower, amounting 2,6 % (Insee 2015), which is still very high compared the French average (0,4%)..

2 For each Maroon group, there is a limited number of konde, which approximately corresponds to the number of clans (even though, in reality, some clans may occupy several konde, while some konde can conversely be inhabited by several clans). For instance, there are 13 Ndjuka clans (lo) altogether (Paris 2011).

3 In a Ndjuka perspective, to translate the term konde, the word “town” could consequently be more suitable, than “village”, despite the konde’s small size and geographical remoteness, referring to the density of population, infrastructure and power places.

4 The law Vivien voted in 1971 to eradicate the slums of mainland France continued to apply overseas long afterwards. It allows the authorities to define a perimeter of insalubrious houses and to demolish them, while providing some sort of social housing for the inhabitants. The criteria for a “good house” are defined along French dominant norms of good life, and not along Guianese ones.

5 Mora and Silvia, both recipients of family allowance and living in social housing in Saint-Laurent, had invested their money into the construction of a plank house near their mother’s. The cost of material for this type of house can reach 1,600 euros on the French side. Building a house on the Surinamese side is slightly cheaper (Gret 2012: 44).

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1: The districts on the Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni riverbanks in the 1980s
Credits Source: CIAP Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, from Kenneth Bilby.
File image/png, 189k
Title Fig. 2:Lena’s trajectory through various house configurations
File image/png, 1.8M
Title Fig.3a: Family tree of the Ma Beein the MidinaKampu, 2014
File image/png, 6.4k
Title Fig. 3b: The spatial arrangement of Tante M’s Ma bee in the kampu, 2014
File image/png, 56k
Title Fig. 4: Ma Dina and Edi’s houses in 2013-14
File image/png, 1.2M
Title Fig. 5: A canoeist negotiating a fall with a push pole
Credits Source: François, 2005.
File image/jpeg, 212k
Title Fig. 6: Ma Dina and Ba Atelo’s family tree
File image/png, 9.7k
Title Fig. 7: plan of houses occupied by Ma Dina and her family around the konde (Benanu)
File image/png, 363k
Title Fig. 8: funeral of Ndyuka Gaan Man in Diitabiki.
Credits Source:​2012/​04/​11/​thousands-pay-final-respect-to-paramount-chief-matodja-gazon/​, accessed 26 December 2017.
File image/jpeg, 44k
Title Fig. 9: DVD cover of Ndyuka Gaan Man Gazon’s funeral (2012)
Credits Source: Informal market DVD cover
File image/png, 665k
Title Fig. 10: screenshot of music video Kampu Man by Prince Koloni
Credits Source: YoutuBe KampuMan 
File image/png, 464k
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Electronic reference

Clémence Léobal, The making of urban Maroons Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 20 | 2019, Online since 01 December 2019, connection on 27 January 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Clémence Léobal

Université Paris Descartes, Cerlis. Contact:

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Creative Commons 3.0 – by-nc-nd, except for those images whose rights are reserved.

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