The various uses of the banana by the Surinamese Maroons

By Minke Reijers, ethnobotanist

In Suriname not only native plants grow, but also African plants, like banana, okra and sesame. These plants came with ships which transported enslaved peoples to the America’s and were grown by enslaved people in their gardens. During the escape of the Maroons plants were brought into the interior of Suriname. In villages Moitaki (Sipaliwini district, along Tapanahoni river) and Jawjaw (Sipaliwini district, along the Suriname River) many African plants still grow on farmlands of Aukaners and Saramaccaners maroons, amongst which many bananas.
What can a banana be used for? It seems that in the Netherlands people have a very simple view of what can be done with a banana, when compared to the Surinamese Maroons. Firstly, it is important to know that a banana is not just a banana. The research team, of which I was part, found 19 different banana cultivars. A cultivar is a underspecies bred by man. Differences between the banana plants can sometimes only be distinguished by Maroons. The found banana fruits differed in shape, color, taste. Often enough these banana’s are used in different ways.


(*click on image to enlarge*) From left to right the Loweman baana (runaway enslaved’s banana, photo: Tinde van Andel), the Ingi bakuba (indian bacove, photo: Amber van der Velden), and the Sukuu finga bakuba (sugarfinger bacove, photo: Amber van der Velden).

Various banana fruits, like the sukufinga bakuba and ingi bakuba, are edible when ripe right from the tree. There are also a lot of bananas that require some form of preparation. You can cook them (bori baana), bake them with flour and oil (baka baana) and mash them (tonton baana). For tonton baana the de cultivar suwa suwa baana is very tasty, with a slight sourish taste.
In Moitaki Densasi Misidjan taught us several delicous banana recipes. Heriheri was one of my favorites. For heriheri you slice up bakove, sweet casava and sweet potatoes and bake it oil. In the long dry spell (more or less from August to November) it is eaten with fish, but at the time it was nog available.


Densasi working on the heriheri: sweet casava, sweet potatoe and bacove are being baked. Photo: Minke Reijers.

Banana mixes well with rice and peanuts. Another day we tried two other recipes, for which you had to make rice to flour with pestle and mortar. After this, roasted peanuts were grounded into the mixture and ripe bananas. The result was a thick but liquid batter. This batter was folded in a banana leaf and could be roasted as well as boiled. Boiled it becomes like a pudding and is called baana afufu by the Aukaners. When it is roasted it becomes like a firm mass called baana kuku or doku. Chef Densasi told us that there is also another dish called baana afufu. This is a peanut soup with roasted banana and sweet casava.

In Jawjaw many of the recipes from Moitaki were known, still we found new recipes.  We tried baana apiti, a soup with balls of grated banana. Lise Lenga made this for us with coconut milk, adjinomoto and frankfurters from the store. In the traditional recipe it is made with bushmeat or fish, but frankurters are pretty good as well!


Baana apiti made by Lise from Jawjaw and grated banaan for in baana apiti (Photos:Minke Reijers).

Also we made baana chips, famous in both Suriname and the Netherlands. Yet another dish was fada, a sweet dish with ground peanut, ground banana and sugar. To make everything more complicated this is sometimes called baana afufu, just like the previous pudding and peanut soup with roasted banana and sweet casava.


Lise mashes peanut and banana for the fada (or baana afufu, photo: Tinde van Andel).

Bananas are not only used as food, they can also have medicinal applications. The peel of bakuba (a ‘Cavendish’ cultivar) is used to make tea which helps against diarrhea. Also, peole use fruit and peel for many different ritual baths. And what about the small wataa mama bakuba (a ‘Dwarf Cavendish’ cultivar)? When put in hot water, the leaves can be used for ritual baby baths, to stimulate a baby to start walking sooner (this is called “waka snel” which means “to walk fast” in Surinamese, or Sranantongo).


Cecilia and her wataa mama bakuba plant (Photo: Minke Reijers).

On the vreedzaammarkt (or “Peaceful market”) in Paramaribo many Maroons sell their produce from the interior. There, I spoke to a Saramaccan woman, whom was selling the infloresence of an uma baana. The word uma in Sranantongo translates to woman (from ‘wuman’). She told me that the white inner part of the inflorescence is used to alleviate birth. It is a nice example of the connection of name and use of the plant.

There you have it: a banana is not just a banana. Many different cultivars are grown and used for various purposes. Not only the taste and shape are important for certain dishes. While some bananas are proper for consumption others are for ritual uses.
Due to the isolated way of living of the Maroons (after their flight from the plantations there was a long period of little contact with the coastal area), much of the unique culture was conserved. In this, many aspects of African cultures can be found, for example in the names of recipes. Afufu, used by Aukaners and Saramaccaners for different dishes also is used in West-Africa. In Ghana and Nigeria fufu is the name of a thick mash, made of banana, although also possibly yam or casava. It is supposed to be done like this in Suriname as well, but we have not found a Surinamese recipe. Does anybody know this?Also, the word ‘doku’ is still used in West-Africa for a dish. In Ghana it is a dish that is made from fermented maïs, served in a banana leaf. This shows that words made the trans-atlantic passing as well, although sometimes they ended up with another meaning.

There must be many Maroon recipes with banana I missed. I am very curious to hear more traditional bananarecipes (and see photos!) of other dishes. Please share these recipes with us! Maybe the name or the recipe can be linked to an origin in Africa!

‘Across the ocean, as smuggled goods or drift seed… or both?’ vernacular name unknown (Caesalpinia bonduc)

Vernacular name: unknown
Scientific name: Caesalpinia bonduc
Habit: Herb
Origin: Africa, Pantropical?

In Suriname
Heritage type: Enslaved garden plant
Current use: None
Historical use: Medicinal
Other: This species forms drift seeds and seems to appear naturally on many beaches worldwide.
Open questions:
- How did 'bonduc' cross the Atlantich?
- Are there Maroons in the interior still using the seeds?
- Do the indigenous people know these seeds and what are their uses for it?
- Are the seeds still used for ritual purposes?
- Is there a photo available of the seeds in use in Suriname?
Historical context in Suriname:
Drift seeds of this very prickly plant occur via natural distribution on beaches worldwide. Very few people from the elderly generation in Suriname know about possible medicinal use of the seeds: for children with stomach ache a wristchain of seeds can be made.
In Ghana people use the seeds also medicinally, woven in a chain around the stomach of a sick child, against skin problems. Also people in Ghana use the seeds as pieces in a game called ‘agi’ (Ewe) or ‘aware’ (Twi) . This game of ‘agi’ was unknown for many people in Suriname.
Someone from the Maroon village of Dritabiki did recognize the seed. According to him, the game is still played by elderly people, but the youth does not know it. The seeds are known, but the game is not played with it anymore. Maroons currently use other seeds (from Ormosia spp.) to play ‘agi’.
Although unclear whether the plant made the Atlantic crossing naturally as a drift seed or that humans brought the plant, either unawarely or consciously, for example as jewelry or seed with ritual use, African uses still apear present in Suriname.

The famous cash crops of Suriname: not the whole story…

Door Karwan Fatah-Black, historicus aan de Universiteit Leiden

Coffee and sugar became the successful cash crops of Suriname, besides cotton, cocoa and indigo. As the BHS Project shows, other plants made their way to Suriname due to the plantation economy. When looking from the present to the past especially the success stories are obvious: crops that have had great impact on the landscape or crops which can still be widely found today. But this is not the complete story.

The people arriving in Suriname or planning the start of a plantation did not necessarily consider sugar and coffee as most prominent cash crops. Around 1630, a group of English colonists led by Marechal made a failed attempt at growing tobacco in the Marshal Creek. This is one of the many examples of failed expeditions. By using two historical sources (one from 1622 and one from 1716) I will show that sugar and coffee were not the obvious cash crops from the start of the colony Suriname. The road to the plantation economy is full of crops that in the end failed to persist.

Firstly, a pamphlet of Willem Usselinx which he published in 1622. Usselinx was an inspirator to the foundation of the Dutch West Indian Compagnie (WIC). He preferred the formation of colonies in the Guyanas to in Brazil. In this pamphlet Usselinx makes a case for colonization of ‘The Wild Coast’ (The Guyanas). In this period, the Republic of the United Netherlands is looking for ways to disrupt Spanish forces in the Atlantic area. The idea is to form a large imperium (Groot Deseyn) with forts along the coast of Africa to trade in enslaved people, while sugarcane is produced on plantations in South America. But the text shows not only sugarcane was a crop Usselinx thought of as promising. He writes:

if we plant in the West Indies the vine, oil and orange trees with sugar cane etc. we shall not only supply our beloved Netherlands, but also other provinces and empires with the beautiful blessings and the divine fruits of that West Indian Canaan, to the great disruption of the Spanish trade, out of which shall follow the dark eclipse of the King’s treasures.

Frontpage and image


Title page and illustration form the book that the directors of the Society of Suriname sent to spread the knowledge on how to grow coffee. Jean de la Roque, Voyage de l’Arabie heureuse par l’Océan oriental et le détroit de la mer Rouge. Amsterdam: Steenhouwer & Uytwerf, 1716

The idea to plant grapevine and to process it into wine, might be a symbolic remark, referring to riches and wealth. However, the plan that the Guyanas could (and should) be used to grow grapes, is still present centuries later, this time in a group of people already living in the colony since some time. In 1716 a group of stakeholders, mostly planters, publish a pamphlet in which they suggest ways to improve the colony’s commercial success. The continuous supply of enslaved people, military protection and decrease of trade limitations for the colonists form the essence of their ideas. They suggest that people with insufficient funds to start sugarcane production, could raise cattle or plant cotton, cacao, annatto or rice. They also suggest grapevine, based on the (according to them) successful production of wine in the nearby Cayenne. Also, the plantation- and owners of enslaved people write that coffee and olives have been planted, but that the results of these experiments are not yet clear. Furthermore, they suggest planting saffron, flax, hemp, and mulberry for silkworm.

The first coffee seeds have already arrived in Suriname around 1712, and excitement for the planters grows after every 4-5 years, when the next generation of coffee juveniles reaches fruit bearing adulthood. Coffee was a “tree product” and the fast expansion of production in Suriname changed the appearance of the colony significantly. Until the rise of the coffee production plantation owners used enslaved Africans for sugarcane production and the clearing of forests areas. This happened mostly on drier sandy dunes in the upper Suriname, Commewijne en Cottica rivers. Production of coffee occurs closer to the sea in thick clayey ground, and results in conflicts in Paramaribo where people try to steal each other’s land to plant coffee trees.

The coffee mania was not unexpected, people had been looking for some time for crops that could thrive well next to sugarcane production. The success of coffee has a serious cost: people were being enslaved at a larger scale and forced to work on the Surinamese polder plantations.

The death rate on the plantations was, especially midway through the 18th century (during the expansion of the plantation area), startlingly high. The alternate crops considered by colonist planters feed thought experiments: what if silk had become the most important export product of Suriname? Or wine? Looking back it might look absurd, but it is certainly a scenario that cloud have been possible, considering how people viewed the opportunities in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In search of the banana of the runaway enslaved

By Tinde van Andel, ethnobotanist at Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden University, the Netherlands

Several African crops were introduced to the Americas by means of slave ships. Sesame, plantains, okra and Bambara groundnuts were grown widely by plantation slaves for their own subsistence. Maroons are descendants of runaway slaves that escaped from Suriname’s coastal plantations in the 18th century. On their flight to freedom, they took crop seeds and cuttings with them and planted them in their remote forest villages. While the coastal plantations have long been abandoned, Maroon farmers are now the only ones that still grow some of these rare African crops. Among these are several banana and plantain cultivars.

lise (Small) Maroon farmer on her field. Photo by Minke Reijers

Local farmers living near the abandoned Reijnsburg plantation discovered a strange plantain in the nearby forest. Village elders knew it was a ‘runaway banana’, a cultivar once grown by the slaves who escaped from the plantation and hid in the surrounding bush. Dutch MSc student Thiëmo Heilbron made a botanical collection of this stout, angular plantain and sent it to Finland. Markku Häkkinen identified it as Musa x paradisiaca L. triploid ABB (1x M. acuminata, 2 x M. balbisiana), also known as a “bluggoe type”. Some of these ‘runaway banana’ fruits still contain a few seeds.

amriet (Small)Local Reijnsburg farmers now grow this ‘runaway banana’ to sell it as a curiosity to tourists. Photo: Christiaan van der Hoeven

In 2013, our ethnobotanical team, consisting of MSc students Minke Reijers and Amber van der Velden and myself, went out on a search for ‘forgotten African crops’ in Maroon gardens. Deep in the interior of Suriname, we recorded no less than 19 banana cultivars, made herbarium vouchers, recorded vernacular names and described them according to the official descriptor list. For some banana’s, like the dwarf dessert banana below, we still have no clue on their identity.

sipi (Small)The sipi bana (‘ship banana’) is a dessert banana that grows on a dwarf tree with bunches that reach the ground. Would this be a dwarf Cavendish? Photo: Minke Reijers

Remarkably, none of the Maroons we interviewed had ever heard about a runaway banana. They did, however, grow several plantains of the bluggoe type. This aponto is one of them. The Maroon name resembles the word ‘apantu’, recorded by Gerda Rossel in Ghana for a False horn subhorizontal medium green plantain. The Maroon aponto, however, looks more like an ABB bluggoe type.

oponto (Small)Aponto, also known as apantakëe. The latter name means ‘startle and cry’ in the Saramaccan Maroon language. Photo: Minke Reijers

A small dessert banana named toto bana by the Saramaccan Maroons is not only eaten as a fresh snack. Its dry leaves are boiled and drunk as tea against high blood pressure. The dry leaves are also added to herbal poultices to heal broken bones and serve as ingredients for several herbal baths used to solve spiritual problems.

Unfortunately, we were unable to find a ripe toto bana fruit. Villagers said the banana was ‘black’, but we never found our whether this referred to the blackish colour of the stem or to a possible dark red skin of the ripe fruit. Even though the identity of some of these Maroon banana’s still remain a mystery to us, it is certain that they play a significant role in Maroon culinary, medicinal and spiritual traditions.

toto (Small)Toto bana, unripe fruit. Photo: Minke Reijers

Additional information on this project:

‘Hedge plant, historically and now still?’ Switi lemki (Triphasia trifolia)

Vernacular name: Switi lemki (Sr) 'sweet small lime'
Scientific name: Triphasia trifolia
Habit: Shrub
Origin: Asia

In Suriname
Heritage type: Remnant structure
Current use: Hedge plant, Cosmetics (nail polish from ripe red fruits), Food (aroma of ripe fruits for cooking)
Historical use: Hedge plant?
Other: Family of the citrus fruits, like orange and pompelmoes (Sr, 'pomelo' in English). Switi lemki fruits is max. 2cm.
Open questions:
- How did Switi lemki arrive in Suriname?
- Are the individuals found on abandoned plantation old historical individuals or did the species - despite it's origin outside of Suriname - naturally rejuvenate?

Historical context in Suriname:
Switi lemki is currently mostly used as a hedge plant, for example at the presidential palace in Paramaribo. However, the plant also grows on abandoned plantations at the Warappa creek and the Matapica canal at the coast. The people on the surrounding plantations confirmed that the plant was common on old dams in the area and between columnar cactus hedges (see: Zuilcactus - Cereus hexagonus), for example on the abandoned plantations Johanna Charlotte and Moed en Kommer. The locals knew little about the origin of the plant and suspected a use as hedge plant in the plantation period. In literature there are no mentions of switi lemki as a plantation plant. The local population discovered a relic plant from the plantation period!
After WO II kids used the red fruits of the plant to make nailpolish. Also, people mentioned use of the aroma of the fruits, for example in cooking.

‘Medicinal plant, cash crop and ornamental plant’ Kus(u)wé (Bixa orellana)

Vernacular name: Kus(u)wé (Sr)
Scientific name: Bixa orellana
Habit: Shrub, Small tree
Origin: Native

In Suriname
Heritage type: Indigenous, European planters crop, Enslaved garden plant
Current use: Ornamental plant, Medicinal (insect repellent)
Historical use: Medicinal and Dye, Cash crop
Other: The seeds inside the fruit are contained within a substance (anatto) which can be processed into red and yellow dye
Open questions:
- Are the individuals found on the abandoned plantations at the coast old historical individuals or did the plants disperse naturally after the downfall of the plantations?
-(subquestion) Which plants in Suriname planted Kus(u)wé as cash crop?
-Which products were colored with the Surinamese anatto?

Historical context in Suriname:
The indigenous peoples of Suriname used Kus(u)wé for its insect repellent properties. Later, this use was copied by enslaved Africans. European planters regarded the plant as an cash crop and grew the plant for its red dye (anatto). Contempory use of the anatto comprises bathing household animals, such as dogs, against fleas and ticks.

‘From soap for the indigenous to drying rack’ Ingisopo (Furcraea foetida)

Vernacular name: Ingisopo (Sr) 'indianenzeep'
Scientific name: Furcraea foetida
Habit: (Succulent) herb
Origin: Native

In Suriname
Heritage type: Indigenous people?, Enslaved garden plant?
Current use: Drying rack (drying clothing in the sun), Ornamental plant, Fibre plant
Historical use: Medicinal (desinfectant), Pharmaceutical (soap by crushing succulent leaves)
Open questions:
-From when does the ingisopo field at plantation Anna's Zorg date?
Historical context in Suriname:
Ingisopo is an native plant that was used by the indigenous population. Hence the name 'ingisopo' (Sr) which means 'indian soap'. The sap of the succulent leaves were used to desinfect, for example cleaning hands after preparation of fish.
On plantation Anna's Zorg, there is a field of over 30 individuals of ingisopo in the swamp forest. The locals did not have an explanation for the presence of the plants there. According to the Suriname almanaks, the plantation is long abandoned. Striking was, however, that the ingisopo individuals were growing in front of the historical dyke seen from the creek and not behind the dyke. This part of the Warappa creek was overgrown for a long period, but recently the Warappa creek was dug out a new. This implies that the field is probably of relatively recent origin.
In New Lombé the plant grew on different locations in the village. The inhabitants knew about the use as a desinfectant soap. They told that their ancestors used the plant as well. People sometimes still dried leaves in the sun for fibre.
Also in Paramaribo the plant is common, mostly as an ornamental plant.

‘Indicator of historical indigenous migration?’ Watra krarun (Amaranthus australis)

Wilde klaroen

Vernacular name: Watra krarun (Sr) 'water klaroon'
Scientific name: Amaranthus australis
Habit: Herb
Origin: Native

In Suriname
Heritage type: Indigenous people, Contract worker plant
Current use: Food (juvenile plants cooked as vegetable)
Historical use: Unknown
Other: Grows mostly in water, but can also survive on moist ground
Open questions:
-How did the Watra krarun spread across the Americas?
-For what use did the indigineous peoples use the plant?
Historical context in Suriname:
The plant is common in the coastal swamps in Suriname. On some locations the plant covers whole fields and is the most seen plant of the area (e.g. north of plantation Johanna Margaretha).
On plantation Reijnsdorp the elderly generation recognizes the plant as edible, while the younger generations do not. Een elderly woman told that only juvenile plants are edible, since adult plants are to fibrous.
The Flora of Suriname mentions this plant, but only some collections are available in the Herbarium of Suriname (BBS) and the National Herbarium of the Netherlands (NHN). Online herbarium databases show many collections on the eastside of the U.S.A..
It is unclear whether the plant has such a distribution or that people dispersed the plant (either historically or recently). Since before colonial times the indigenous peoples traded along the coast and during colonial times there was a lot of intra-American navigation, dispersal of this plants by humans appears possible.

‘Banana of the runaway enslaved’ Loweman bakba (Musa x paradisiaca)

Vernacular name: Loweman bakba (Sr) 'runaway enslaved banana', Ghedang kepo(k) (Ja)
Scientific name: Musa x paradisiaca
Habit: Herb (pseudostem)
Origin: Asia (via Africa?)

In Suriname
Heritage type: Enslaved garden plant
Current use: Fruit as food
Historical use: Fruits as food in flight from plantation
Open questions:
- How did the loweman bakba spread to the forests around plantation Reijnsdorp, since this banana needs to be increased in number vegetatively by plant striking?
- Did this banana come via Afrika with enslaved Africans, or did this banana make it's way to Suriname before and did the enslaved Africans take over the use of this plant, they might have known from back home?

Historical context in Suriname:
The cultivated banana (Musa x paradisiaca) originates from Asia, but in early human history arrived in Africa, where people developed different varieties, just like in Asia.
On plantation Reijnsdorp, the Javanese community grew a variety of banana with fruits with angular and thick peel. The locals called this plant ‘loweman bakba’. The elderly generation explained: “Our ancestors encountered this plant growing in the wild in the forest. They took it back to the village and back home the few remaining ex-enslaved people explained them that this was the ‘loweman bakba’ with its own extraordinary story. Enslaved Africans used to grow this plant on the plantations and used it as a food source during the escape to freedom”. The term ‘loweman’ references to enslaved Africans fleeing from the plantations and ‘bak(u)ba’ is a term used for bananas in some West-African countries.
The community on plantation Reijnsdorp regarded this banana as a 'wild' banana, but this banana does not produce viable offspring and needs plant striking for increasing its numbers. How did this banana end up growing wildly in the forest? Maybe these were remnant plants of old temporary maroon camps, that the contract workers found in the forest? The answers to these questions remain unclear.
Further information regarding the distribution of this banana was in a garden in Paramaribo-West. Here a ‘loweman bakba’ also grew. How? The owner turned out to have received the plant from a friend from the Maroon village of Dritabiki, in Sipalwini district. Apparentely, the plant and its uses have not only been taken over by the Javanese community on the coast, but the plant also made the flight with the escaping enslaved Africans towards Suriname's interior. The descendants of these ‘lowemans’ still grow the plant!
This is a vivid example of the dynamics of plant use transfer between different groups.

‘God his pepper plant’ Busipepre (Capsicuum annuum var. glabriulusculum)

Capsicuum annuum var. glabriulusculum

Vernacular name: Busipepre (Sr) 'forest pepper', Lombo(k) riwit/kusti (Ja) 'pepper of God'
Scientific name: Capsicuum annuum var. glabriulusculum
Habit: Shrub
Origin: Native

In Suriname
Heritage type: Indigenous people plant, Enslaved garden?, Contract worker plant ?
Current use: Food (fruits as spice)
Historical use: Probably food (fruits as spice)
Other The fruits (peppers) are only 10mm large. When ripe they turn from green to red. The peppers are very hot.
Open questions:
-Did the pepper on plantation Bent's Hoop grew there by natural dispersal after abandonement of the plantation or is it a relic of human origin?
Historical context in Suriname:
On the abandoned plantation Bent’s Hoop, this native pepper grew with small very hot fruits. The Javanese community at the nearby plantation Reijnsdorp knew about the existence of this pepper, but used other pepper species and varieties, not this one. They knew the plant as 'pepper of God'. An elderly Javanese lady explained: “My father and the other villages found this pepper in the forest. They tried bringing it to the village to grow, but this pepper cannot grow when planted by humans. Only if God's will it shall grow.
This story could be explained by the natural habitat of this specific pepper, which is forested areas. This could explain why the pepper did not grow well on cultivated grounds.
Possibly, indigenous peoples or enslaved Africans tended to these plants in forest areas near the plantations. The indigenous peoples grew many crops and tended to species in the wild, amongst which many peppers (Capsicum spp.), but on the use of this specific variety not much is known. Known is, however, that exchange in plant use and knowlegde occured between the indigenous peoples and the new inhabitants of Suriname.