June 14, 2022
By Mai-Lu Ensink
As almost-anthropologists, we try to convey a deeper understanding of structures and constructs in life. I have always been fascinated with the ways in which people believe. I often wondered how people implement their cultures and religions in their lives. For almost eight years I have heard cultural and spiritual stories from my Surinamese mother in law. When she told those stories, it was implied that no one asked questions about why or how something happened - I will elaborate more on that later. If I asked about any clarification she would vaguely reply with a general fact about the Surinamese culture after which she redirected the conversation to another story. When this happened, I often was a little confused for the reason that Surinam knows different religions and those religions come with their own set of customs and traditions. So not every Surinamese practices in the same manner, But ‘the surinamese culture’ is still used as an umbrella term for those religions.
To acknowledge the spiritual and cultural discourse in Surinam along with their customs and traditions, I wanted to elaborate more on Winti. Winti is a traditional religion practiced by the Afro-Surinamese, which includes creoles. My mother in law often refers specifically to the woodland creoles while talking about her practices. Because of the sensitivity of those appellatives I will instead only use the term ‘Afro-Surinamese’. She identifies as a Hindustani and believes in Hinduism, but she practices Winti. When I asked her if she believed in Winti she said, “Sometimes. When I am meditating, I know I am doing it. I know I can do it and therefore I believe. But as a normal person on earth, I believe in Hinduism”. She explained as well that talking about Winti practices among Hindustani is still somewhat of a taboo. I asked her if she wanted to elaborate more on what she does and why and if she wanted to collaborate on an informational piece for Itiwana. She enthusiastically agreed and told me about meditations, rituals, traditions and customs she practices. Besides that, she showed me how a meditation ritual is done.
Let us begin with a few general clarifications about the use of meditation. When my mother in law talks about meditation she generally means communicating with spirits. She meditates during rituals, but she also can meditate by herself when she is alone doing her daily activities. When meditating she usually can still hear everything around her while hearing the spirits - “it just feels different”, she said. Sometimes if she goes too deep into meditation, often during a ritual, she does not know what is said. She started as an apprentice in her teens and had multiple masters, all of whom practiced rituals of Afro-Surinamese descent.
We want to note that her practices are a bundle of practices from all her former masters and can differ from someone else practicing Winti. Often she does not know why she does a specific action or uses a specific kind of material. During the practices of her masters it was an unspoken rule to never ask why. “It is part of the ritual, you just do how it is taught to you”, she explained. “I am not going to ask “what is that” while in trance, that is not what I am supposed to do”. This is most likely the reason why it was implied that no one would ask questions during her storytelling, which I told you earlier.
Now that this is out of the way we can start to elucidate on the different kinds of rituals. The meditation rituals can be performed alone or together with someone. When she is doing a meditation ritual she sits on a meditation pouf in the direction of the sun, preferably in the sun. The space where she is performing has to be clean, ideally no one else comes in that space for the duration of her meditation. On top of that, she herself has to be clean. Meaning she can not be on her period nor can any person who is with her. Making a connection won't work when either of them are on their period, because it is perceived as impure. “The woman’s body is cleaning itself, let her be'', she explained. Additionally, “do not have sexual interactions or perform everyday actions before a ritual. You have to prepare yourself for it”. If there is another person with her, that person sits on a smaller meditation pouf across from her. During a ritual an ingi-medley [in-gi medley] or winti-medley [win-ti medley] is played in the background. She explained that this type of music is used by Afro-Surinamese, not by Hindustani. Sometimes it is very calming and other times it is festive with a lot of voices shouting. Firstly she has to bathe after which she has to put on a pangi [pang-i], that is a cloth to wrap herself in. If she wants to address Ingi [in-gi], the Native American spirit, she has to use her red and white pangi. If she wants to address Watra Ingi [Wat-tra-in-gi], the Native American water spirit, she has to wear her blue and white pangi.
Photo made by Mai-Lu
On the ground in front of her lies a blue cloth with a smaller white cloth on top. On the two cloths stands a red and white candle, incense, a cigar, an ashtray, lucifers, Bols (genever), a shot glass, pompeya, Florida water and pinba [pien-ba]. Pinba is a kind of soap in dust form, it is used to cleanse the environment where the ritual takes place. Everything is needed to connect with the spirits. She prays while lighting the red an white candle with lucifers, it is forbidden to use a lighter. She begins the ritual with a prayer, the first line is directed to our Father in heaven. She continues to pray to the spirits. She has to sacrifice a shot of Bols, by drinking it she gives it to the spirits. In addition to that she has to sacrifice the cigar by lighting it with a lucifer and smoking it, asking for blessings and permission to talk to them. While doing so, she has her eyes closed and her legs crossed. The way in which the ritual begins is only for herself, done by herself. She calls it ‘the first meditation’, its use to thanking the spirits for wanting to talk to her and be with her.
Photo made by Mai-Lu
After ‘the first meditation’ comes ‘the second meditation’, now she can start a conversation. While communicating the spirits can request another sip of Bols or a puff of the cigar. If there is a person sitting across from her who wants to know something, she has to ask what that person wants to know. That person preferably has to wear a pangi as well. You often get it as a gift, but you could choose one you like or feel comfortable in too. If you get a pangi it is yours only, no one can use it other than you. When the spirits want the person to actively be part of the meditation, another glass with bols and a cigar is added. She told me that when this happens, the spirits are in their element. They find it soothing that the person wants to join and gives them their attention. “I also have to think about what kind of answer I have to transfer”, she explained. In this situation she is the bridge between the spirits and the humans. In addition, she told me that everyone has a spirit, some have multiple spirits. Every spirit has their own personality and their own nationality.
Photo made by Mai-Lu
If someone has a lot of evil around them and my mother in law has to get rid of that evil, she will be hurt physically. She has done this in the past, but one of her former masters has become parralised by doing so. Since that accident she has stopped treating evil. Being able to do the things she can do, like meditation, can only be activated within someone if the heart and mind are fully on the same page. The spirits can feel and see this, they can voice their preferences, who they want to communicate with and who can take over when she is not on earth anymore. But it is up to that person if the communication role between the spirits and the humans is accepted. If there is a transition, the spirits will rearrange who will be around the new person. On top of that, it is possible to transfer your spirits to someone else, but masters can abuse that to create personal advantages.
We talked to a great extent about meditation rituals, but there are more kinds of rituals such as baths and Winti preys. When a bath is performed, a gourd shell filled with bathwater is poured over a person while saying a prayer. A bath ritual consists of multiple baths. There are different kinds of bath rituals, there is a bath ritual to expel something bad someone else has cast over a person. But there is also a flower bath ritual, which is used to celebrate something. In surinam the bath rituals take place outside in the woods, where the children can’t come. In the Netherlands they use bathrooms because there is a lot of water and biological residual waste that is constantly poured on the ground. Sometimes people will do it in a park, but you can always attract bystanders. When making the bathwater, a big red bowl is filled with water, orchade (sweet water), different colors of flowers and paddles, florida water, pompey and beer. Pinba and blue balm is used on the body. The person who undergoes the baths wears a pangi and may smoke a cigar or take a shot of Bols, but they may not be drunk while undergoing the ritual. Everyone involved has to pray during the baths. The ritual has to consist of an uneven amount of prayers and baths, mostly seven. If the person wants to bring a friend or family with them, they can also pray for them and pour the bathwater over them. Between the bathpourings you can not dry yourself with a towel, you have to air-dry naturally. Often when they are done with the baths she hears that the person is happy, like there is weight lifted off their shoulders. Afterwards there is a table with different kinds of food and drinks, it is a festive celebration. She said that you can almost always find Fernandez and cookies in between the treats.
The Winti prey is a big ritualistic celebration as well, but it is for someone's birthday. Winti preys are given when they get to a round number like 30, 40 or 50. The one who’s birthday it is has the spirit over oneself, that spirit makes everyone at the party want to dance. Everybody is in trance, their dancing weird and slow. Their dance moves are wooden and stiff, it is different from a normal celebration. A lot of people attending are under the influence of alcohol or other stuff and everyone is very exuberant and enthusiastic. When participating in a Winti prey you lose yourself, you are not fully in control anymore. My mother in law has watched some Winti prey in the past because she had to learn the rituals and customs, it is part of the way she was taught. But she does not participate in them because she wants to stay in control. She has seen a Winti prey gone wrong and when that happens you have to travel to a master in Suriname who can reverse the bad things. If this happens you are in big trouble, for the reason you do not know if you are going to find a master who can cure you. She does not want to be potentially involved with something that bad.
These three rituals are the most important to my mother in law, that is why we chose to describe them to you. Overall, it is a lot to take in. I think it is not so much the question of whether you believe or not, but rather if you can find importance and meaning in believing. We hope you enjoyed learning about the rituals and if you have any questions you are welcome to ask!. Lastly, I want to leave you with something she told me while driving at night, surrounded by fog. “The fog is wrong”, she said. “You don't know what is behind it, they (the spirits) can do whatever they want and when you come out of it you do not know what to expect of them.” There was a pause after which she tensely continued, “When coming home while you are surrounded by fog, you have to walk backwards into your house while saying: keep away, Stay outside! You are not welcome here! You have to repeat that until you feel and know you are safe”.