My Search for Freedom Was Rewarded
As told by Edwina Apason
“NOW is the time,” whispered an old slave. Under the protective cover of darkness, a small band of black slaves dared to flee from a coffee plantation in the northern part of Suriname. Exasperation, tension, despair and yet hope lined their faces. Children clung to their mothers, already loaded down with utensils stolen from the plantation. Axes and machetes were carried by the men.
“Faster, faster! Do not stop!” That was the cry. To be caught meant being taken back to the plantation to be tortured or killed. The vast jungle appeared impenetrable; yet there was no choice but to go deeper. The machetes were wielded, hacking farther southward into the jungle. Day and night the runaways struggled to keep at least one step ahead of their well-armed pursuers, sent by the plantation owner. Any burden that hampered their speed had to be left behind. Sadly, the crying of some abandoned babies echoed in the jungle. Finally, after many months of hardship, the fugitives reached the Tapanahony River, 200 kilometers (125 miles) away.
In succession, more maroons, or runaway slaves, followed this example. They spread themselves along the river according to los, or families, forming highly regulated communities headed by a Gran Man, the head chief. Those fugitives of over 250 years ago were my ancestors, and they formed the Aucaner tribe. In the face of great hardship and the endangerment of their lives, they finally gained something longed for—freedom! They became free people, or so they thought.
FREE, BUT STILL ENSLAVED
However, there was another kind of enslavement that lay dormant. During slavery it could not be practiced fully. It was our form of religion—demon worship.—1 Cor. 10:20.
My parents said that a fortune-telling spirit helped our ancestors to flee successfully. It gave the signal for flight, either by day or by night. Also, when some escapees were hindered by a mountain, the spirit instructed them to climb it—but backward. It was intended that the pursuers be misled into thinking that the slaves had fled downhill. This spirit soon was proclaimed the Gran Gado, or chief god, complete with a priest and assistants.
In cases of sickness or death, this god was consulted. For instance, if a person died, something of his—let’s say his hair—was tied to a cloth, then to a wooden plank that two men held above their heads. The spirit of the dead allegedly would sit on the plank, and the relatives of the deceased might ask: “Did you die by sickness?” If the plank gravitated backward, the answer was No. Another question: “Has someone killed you by magic?” If the plank went forward, that meant Yes. “Who killed you?” At that, the men under the spirit’s power would run to a certain house, thus identifying the murderer. Then the Gran Gado was consulted to verify the verdict.
The Gran Gado, though, is not the sole deity of the Aucaner tribe. They also worship trees, animals and stones. Furthermore, to pacify dead ancestors, offerings of food and rum are placed around a prayer pole erected in the center of the village. The people also obey the koenoe, or teaser, operating through a human medium. These teasers are believed to be persons who had been murdered by a family member. They supposedly return for revenge, and are thought to afflict individuals with severe sicknesses. In turn, the ailing person consults the medium. Possessed, the medium speaks, designating what herbal medicines to use, what sacrifices to offer and what laws to obey. Some demons sport with the sick person, having him go from one obia-man, or witch doctor, to another. This quest for healing continues until the victim is “drained” of his last penny and all the food intended for sacrifice. He is still left sick and very poor.
Some people use wisi, or black magic, to bring evil upon their fellowman. This worship truly invites wicked spirits into the neighborhood. Always aware of their presence, the people wear tapoes, or amulets made of strings, shells or animal teeth. These are worn around the hands, neck, waist or legs for supposed protection against calamity. The Aucaners even hang bottles of beer above their huts, or fasten them to sticks placed in the ground, in hope of preventing crop damage. Daily these people live, eat, work and sleep in dread. And any individual’s change from this way of living certainly causes a stir in the village.
THE WAY WE LIVE
This was my environment for about 48 years. Since there was no school in my home village, Godo-olo, everyone was illiterate. However, at a very early age our parents trained us to develop skills. We girls learned the household arts of baking, cooking and washing. Then we began ‘flexing our muscles’ to cultivate the ground, gather wood and chop it with an ax. We learned how to paddle the kroejara, a dugout canoe, not only in quiet waters but through rapids and waterfalls. In time, our physical stature easily rivaled that of any man! On the other hand, the boys learned to master boat making, hunting, tree cutting, fishing and wood carving.
According to our customs, girls around the age of 14 or 15 are promised to a man, and later they live together. My parents chose a man for me, but I did not like him. As matters eventually turned out, the man to whom I am now married is the father of nine of the 11 children I bore. Incidentally, he is old enough to be my father.
Being a person who liked to get things done, I often took the lead in various duties undertaken by women. This included maintaining the village and looking after the sick and the elderly. Subsequently, the kapiten, or village head, asked me to be his female basja, or assistant. That brought added responsibilities. One is in connection with the burial of the dead, which is a drawn-out ceremony since the corpse is not immediately buried.
Superstitiously, men serving as gravediggers fear that if their beads of perspiration should fall into the grave this would spell their own death. Of course, under the hot sun it takes very little movement to start perspiring. Besides that, the grave is not in the village locale but at a distance that requires a boat trip. So every day they paddle to the gravesite and dig a little. Since the corpse is not embalmed, it does cause an unbearable stench. Incidentally, the coffin is built in such a way as to catch the liquid that exudes from the body. This, in turn, is poured into a hole along the border of the village. For common people, burial takes five days or more; in the case of a village head, 10 or more. But for the Gran Man, the burial ceremony requires three months. For all those days, the women must cook food for perhaps 30 or more gravediggers, plus the drummers, dancers and mourners, as well as for the dead.
HOW A CHANGE CAME ABOUT
In 1959, my man and I traveled the river by canoe, going over waterfalls and through rapids. After five days, we reached Albina, at the eastern border of Suriname. There, we visited a good friend of ours, an obia-man. That day, however, he was listening to a 20-year-old man explaining pictures from a book. The young man invited me to listen, and I can still vividly recall his words. From pictures in the Watch Tower publication From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained, I learned that God originally placed man and woman in a paradise. Through their disobedience, that paradise was lost. But its restoration was sure, for while on the stake, Jesus Christ promised an evildoer: “Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) I believed that too. Jesus, the Son of God, could never lie. In my heart burned a great desire to be in that paradise.
For the next seven months, the young man patiently explained the features of each picture in the Paradise book, sometimes doing so for two hours or more twice a week. Progressively, true religion became clear and it became evident that I was a prisoner to false worship. Could sufficient courage and strength be summoned to break away from that worship? Continued study and association with a small group of interested persons began to build my newfound faith in the Grand Creator, Jehovah.
The first person to discourage me was my man, who showed no interest in what I was learning. He understood that this new religion required following a high standard in marriage. So he decided that we should return home, where I lost all contact with Jehovah’s Witnesses for the next seven years. But Bible-based hope was very much alive in my heart. Upon returning home, I immediately taught my mother, father and other relatives what I had learned. My parents proved to be a support. Two years thereafter, my father died with the paradise hope, and my mother later became a witness of Jehovah.
FACING SEVERE TESTS
Then came an unexpected test. Three of my children took very ill, becoming unconscious. So a witch doctor was consulted. He said that a black-magic spell had been placed on our plot of farmland, causing the sickness. The witch doctor claimed that he had done away with the spell, but when we returned home, the sickness became more severe. Within a week, both my three-year-old and my eight-year-old died. The third child was going the same way.
Having been notified of the deaths, the Gran Man summoned us. On consulting his Gran Gado, it was indicated that a teaser was the culprit. I was advised to worship the teaser by giving the woman medium rum and food and wrapping her with pangi, or loin cloths. It was said that my refusal to do this would mean that the child I was then carrying would die at birth. Nevertheless, I refused, believing that the demons had caused the death of two of my children.
At the birth of my child, one of his arms was out of joint at the shoulder. The distorted arm apparently resulted from my continuously hurling myself to the ground out of deep sorrow over the death of my children. By plane, we went to the capital where his handicap was corrected. My confidence in Jehovah was flourishing and I had pleased him by not yielding to false worship.
A later pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Usually in such a case, the obia-man is sought out for protection. But instead of doing that, I went to the capital for recuperation. After recovering, I set out to find the Witnesses, but without success.
On returning home, I continued witnessing from my worn-out Paradise book. Having decided to get baptized, I informed the village heads that I no longer would participate in idolatrous festivities. The villagers advised my man to accompany me to the capital for my baptism, as they thought there was the possibility that I would leave for good. Therefore, he went along.
When I began to attend Christian meetings, my man put up an argument. My reply? “If you don’t accompany me, I will have to leave you one day to fulfill my heartfelt longing to serve Jehovah.” To my surprise, he accompanied me to the meeting. Then he began to study the Bible. How wonderful it was when we later brought our lives into harmony with Jehovah’s laws by getting legally married! Then came my baptism, and subsequently that of my husband.
Our stay in the capital helped us to gain further knowledge to fortify our faith. However, due to economic pressure we moved 60 kilometers (38 miles) from the city, to cultivate a plot of land that produced bountifully. But what a loss for us and others when a bulldozer came to destroy the plots for a project! We returned to the city, where I began serving as a regular pioneer (a full-time Kingdom proclaimer). During that time, other Witnesses taught me to read and write. Then, by reading from my own Bible in the native language of Suriname, I reached many people from different tribes when they came to the city seeking employment. After three years, with my husband’s cooperation, I was privileged to become a special pioneer. What blessings we enjoyed as a family! Of four daughters and one son who were baptized, one became a regular pioneer and two others, special pioneers.
FACING ANOTHER TEST
Once, when conducting a Bible study, I received a shocking message. While participating in a protest demonstration, my oldest son, who was not a Witness, had been shot to death. This painful loss triggered more strain, for my relatives said: “If you don’t follow the mourning customs, you have no motherly feelings for your son.” As the mother, custom required that I cut my hair, wrap my head in a white scarf, wear mourning clothes for months, walk deliberately slow and talk softly in a muffled voice for a year—all of this to show the people and the supposed ‘spirit of the dead’ that I really was sad. Yet, if I were to do these things, surely my preaching would be in vain and I would lose my clean conscience before God. However, Jehovah came to my help through the constant attention of fellow believers.
To calm a possible revolt of Aucaners, the government provided the liquor and food required for my son’s funeral and brought the corpse to my village to be buried according to tribal customs. In honor of my son, the labor union even erected a memorial stone in the capital’s center. But my hope is that Jehovah may remember him in the resurrection.—Acts 24:15.
After some months, it was time for the mourning period to end with traditional feasting, dancing and the offering of liquor and food. Finally, all the mourners take an herb bath prepared by the witch doctor. As the mother, I had to go to my village again, but did so a month early so as to explain my nonparticipation. Some tried to scare me, saying: “The spirit of your son will harm you.” But I firmly pointed out that the herb bath could not wash away the grief. Also, it was a delight to tell attentive persons about the new system of things.
JEHOVAH ANSWERS THE CHALLENGE
Shortly thereafter, I received a new special pioneer assignment—to Godo-olo, my birthplace. I went to the village head to remind him of my earlier promise to come back after baptism. It had taken six years to fulfill that promise, but he was very happy about my return. My home village was ripe for cultivation. Soon 20 Bible studies were started with men, women and sometimes whole families, including my relatives. From these studies, 11 individuals became dedicated and baptized Christians. Among them was the woman who had been the medium of the teaser to whom I was supposed to render worship after the death of my two children.
Permit me to relate just one more experience. In 1972 a certain man became possessed by a demon, a spirit apparently more powerful than the one of the Gran Gado. With magic power, this man killed anyone opposing him, using his magic stick like a gun. Soon the loyalty of the people switched from the “dethroned” Gran Gado to the new god of this man. Many villagers had him come and place a wooden pillar in their village, supposedly guaranteeing that there would be no more deaths there for five years. But the village of Godo-olo invited him for yet another purpose. Although opposing villagers had tried to silence us (a small group of Witnesses) by tearing down our huts and beating us, we kept on talking about Jehovah. Threateningly, they told us: “Today the powerful priest will arrive and all of you will die!” But we confidently responded: “We are not afraid. We will not run away, because you will see that Jehovah, our God, is stronger!”
Soon the witch doctor arrived with his entourage of dancers and drummers. We Christians gathered together and waited calmly, relying on Jehovah’s protection. (Ps. 34:7) The drumbeats became louder, wilder. There came the witch doctor, stirred up by the demon. The man stopped, facing us. Uttering his magic formulas, he projected his stick at us. “Now they will die!” screamed the onlookers. But we stood firm, and the witch doctor fell to the ground. He had fainted!
Great confusion developed among the opposers. Very embarrassed, the crowd whisked the witch doctor away and tried to revive him. Indeed, Jehovah’s name had proved to be a “strong tower.” (Prov. 18:10) From then on we were able to start more Bible studies. Later, I met the witch doctor during my hut-to-hut witnessing. We had a two-hour discussion, and he admitted: “Jehovah is stronger.”
In Godo-olo there now is an active congregation of 27 publishers and three special pioneers. And on April 15, 1979, a Kingdom Hall built by the hands of spiritual brothers and sisters—yes, and by the tiny hands of children too—was dedicated to Jehovah. How thankful we are that his spirit is upon us and that there apparently remain further opportunities to make disciples in this neighborhood!
My ancestors struggled for freedom. But I have found spiritual liberty. It is freedom from false worship. What joys and blessings come from practicing true religion! And just think! Lovers of Jehovah will be able to worship him in real freedom forever.