When Lisa Djasmadi got involved in writing and editing a book on Javanese people in Suriname, she discovered many heartening stories.
She had never heard stories like them before, chro-nicles of how her forefathers had departed from Java and arrived in Suriname, enduring numerous hardships along the way.
“They were very poor and had to work very hard. I am very proud that they had the courage to leave their motherland, settle in Suriname and later move to the Netherlands to build a new life. Very courageous,” Lisa said during the book launching in The Hague.
The 158-page book — Migratie en culturreel erfgoed: Verhalen van Javanen in Suriname, Indonesie en Nederland (Migration and cultural heritage: Stories of Javanese in Suriname, Indonesia and the Netherlands) — was published by the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) in collaboration with the Memorial Foundation Committee (STICHJI) in the Netherlands, the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) in Indonesia and the Memorial Javanese Immigration Association (VHJI) in Suriname.
The book assembles the life stories of three groups — the Javanese who migrated and settled for good in Suriname, the people who eventually left Suriname and settled in the Netherlands and those who had settled in Suriname but decided to return to Indonesia.
Between 1890 and 1939, 32,956 Javanese arrived in Suriname, mostly as contract laborers.
Only a quarter of them returned to Java when their contracts ended. Others returned to Indonesia later, stayed in Suriname or moved to the Netherlands.
KITLV, LIPI and VHJI tracked down Javanese-Surinamese in Indonesia and Suriname and interviewed them for the book, while STICHJI utilized life history methods to record people’s stories.
For the book, Lisa, who is half-Javanese, half-Dutch, interviewed Wim Soekarman Kromoredjo, who was born in Lelydorp, Suriname, but now lives in the Netherlands.
“I found him fascinating because he is very active in introducing Javanese traditions to the younger generation here in the Netherlands, like ludruk [Javanese theater] and gamelan [Javanese traditional orchestra]. He uses Dutch when performing ludruk to reach younger audiences,”
Wim, who plays both Surinamese and Indonesian versions of gamelan, says in the book that he is already accustomed to multiple identities, taking on Javanese roles at home and Dutch qualities outside the house.
A study by Verkuyten and Brug in 2004 showed that for ethnic minorities like Surinamese in the Netherlands, personal achievement was positively correlated with ethnic identity for Surinamese men, but not Surinamese women.
In Wim’s case, he sets aside his Javanese identity when outside the home and is a “real Dutch man” in the workplace.
Unlike Wim, whose parents brought him to the Netherlands, Sakri Ngadi’s grandparents brought him back to Indonesia.
“The issue of returning to Indonesia was so hot at that time that it could cause a split within families,” said Sakri, who was born in Saramacca, Suriname, but now lives in Jakarta.
Sakri’s grandparents settled in Tongar, a small village in Sumatra, where they tried to open up the forest.
But life was much harder than they expected. They were lured by wishes and hopes, as well as misleading stories that gold was everywhere in Sumatra. They were bitterly wrong.
Sakri’s grandparents and many other Surinamese regretted their decision to return to the motherland and became deeply frustrated, advising others still in Suriname not to return to Indonesia. Some returnees even committed suicide.
During Indonesia’s crisis in 1965, Sakri’s mother nervously requested he return to Suriname. He refused because he did not want to leave his grandmother alone to face the country’s bloody turbulence as his grandfather had already passed away.
After a long, difficult time, he finally found a better life after moving to Jakarta and finding work at the state banknote printer Peruri. Sakri has returned to Suriname several times to visit his mother and his siblings.
Sakri’s story is a page from the life for Javanese-Surinamese who returned to Indonesia, and is one of many difficult and saddening accounts, said Haratte Mingoen, who is one of the editors of the book.
Interestingly, many Javanese-Surinamese who determined to return to Indonesia did not return to Java, but to Sumatra instead.
This movement perhaps shows the courageous character of the Javanese from Suriname to explore another new frontier, facing an ever-uncertain future in building a new life.
Those who stayed in Suriname also struggled with identity issues and self-esteem.
Rita Tjien Fooh-Hardjomohamad, who was born in Suriname’s capital Paramaribo, said no one in her family ever attempted to return to Indonesia.
Even after Suriname’s independence on Nov. 25, 1975, her family chose to stay in Suriname while many were moving to the Netherlands because of fears of instability in the newly independent state.
But, Rita found teenage life in rural Koewarasan restricting. Her parents were stern and raised her and her siblings under the strict rule of Islam.
“I did not have access to Javanese culture like ledek [dancer] or gamelan,” she said.
In order to liberate herself, Rita aspired to a university education. She ended up getting a two-year diploma in history in order to get a teaching job, as she did not want to burden her family for too long.
She became fascinated with history and eventually became the director of the National Archives, which often collaborates with similar institutions in Indonesia and the Netherlands.
Rita said, “Javanese women have to know what they stand for. They must be self-assured and know their own identity and not deny it. We are in Suriname, so we must be a part of Surinamese society, but we will never lose sight of our identity as Javanese”.
The book project included young Javanese-Surinamese who acted as interviewers in the Netherlands, “to make them appreciate the legacy of the history of their ancestors,” Haratte said.
The book is not intended as an academic book, she said. It was written by Javanese-Surinamese about themselves.
“This is the first book of its kind that comprehensively covers three historically significant countries: Suriname, Indonesia and the Netherlands,” she said.
After the book launch in The Hague, Erasmus Huis in Jakarta plans to have its own book launch with related activities on Jan. 20, 2011. A photo exhibition will run from Jan. 20 to Feb. 18, 2011. More info can be found at:
Migratie en culturreel erfgoed: Verhalen van Javanen in Suriname, Indonesie en Nederland (Migration and cultural heritage: Stories of Javanese in Suriname, Indonesia and the Netherlands).
Editors: Lisa Djasmadi, Rosemarijn Hoeftre, Hariette Mingoen.
Publisher: KITLV Press, the Netherlands 2010