Snakes and jaguars lurk in the mountainous rain forest that blankets most of Suriname—the smallest country in South America, both in area and in population. And when it comes to the courage of the worshipers of Jehovah God, the country is second to none.
ON July 31, 1667, the ever-competing British and Dutch empires signed a peace agreement and swapped possessions: The Dutch handed New Amsterdam to the British, while the British ceded Suriname to the Dutch. Probably you are familiar with the British share of the exchange—New Amsterdam, which they renamed New York. Still, what about Suriname?
Formerly named Dutch Guiana and later Surinam, it lies on South America’s northeastern coast, wedged between Guyana, Brazil, and French Guiana. Its tropical climate would remind you of Florida (U.S.A.), although it is somewhat smaller than that peninsula. But wait, if you love to swim in blue seas or relax on white beaches, Suriname may not be the place for you. In fact, the country’s muddy shore looks so unfriendly that early settlers called it the Wild Coast. If you are the adventurous type, however, pack your insect repellent, malaria pills, and mosquito net and come, explore the most luxuriant and mysterious of all natural worlds: the mighty rain forest.
Seen from an aircraft, the rain forest’s canopy forms a monotonous green carpet torn only by numerous rivers snaking northward to the Atlantic Ocean. Yet if you peek under that carpet, you find a habitat more diverse than anywhere else: the world of the elusive jaguar, splashy macaw, howling monkey, and king-size anaconda.
Diversity is also the earmark of Suriname’s human population. The original inhabitants were the Amerindians. Then came the black slaves from West Africa, brought in to work the coffee plantations. Later, runaway slaves, or Bush Negroes, formed tribes thinly spread throughout the thick rain forest, which covers 80 percent of Suriname. After that, East Indians and Indonesians arrived. Add to those the Chinese, Lebanese, Jews, and descendants of Dutch settlers, and you see why Suriname’s population of 400,000 people is sometimes called “the world in pocket-size.”
The equally diverse beliefs of the country’s Hindus, Muslims, Moravians (Protestants), Roman Catholics, animists, fetishists, and others have resulted in a religious patchwork. Add to this the variety of some ten languages, ranging from Dutch (the official language) to Sranan Tongo (the local tongue), and you can appreciate why the book Suriname—Land of Seven Peoples notes that national unity still has “a long way to go.”
But shortly after the birth of this century, one more language—the “pure language” of Bible truth—entered Suriname and caused unity wherever it was learned. (Zeph. 3:9) However, spreading Bible truth into the towns, the rurals, and the rain forest required courage, endurance, sacrifices, and, most of all, Jehovah God’s backing. How did Jehovah’s servants succeed? We invite you to relive with us the highlights of nine decades of Kingdom preaching. So let us move back in time to the year 1903. The location, northwest Suriname.
The Truth Ferries In
The launch worked its way laboriously across the mouth of the Courantyne River, ferrying passengers from Guyana to the small town of Nieuw Nickerie in Suriname. One passenger, Mr. Herbonnet, a merchant in his mid-20’s, could hardly wait to go ashore and show his friends the books he had brought along.
His friends—baker Marie Donk, grocer Alfred Buitenman, and shoemaker Julian Dikmoet—were quickly fascinated by the simple explanations of Scriptural truths contained in the books. Before long, the four friends formed a Bible study group in the home of the baker, Marie Donk. There, they studied more publications by the author of the books, Charles T. Russell, the first president of the Watch Tower Society, from the United States.
Marie Donk, an eloquent Jewish man, took the lead and urged his customers to join the study group. Customer response was slow until the baker used the slogan that old Nickerians remember till this day: “Nyan brede sondro frede!” (Eat bread without fear!) “That meant,” explains 83-year-old Lien Buitenman, Alfred Buitenman’s daughter, “that people were handed bread for free after the meetings.”
It worked. Meeting attendance rose like freshly kneaded dough, that is, until baker Donk urged his audience to share with him in preaching in the rurals on Sundays. Then most meeting attenders quit.
Nevertheless, from 1910 till 1914, some faithful ones followed Brother Donk into a polder outside Nickerie, waded into the drainage canal of a cacao plantation, and were baptized. “Those baptisms drew hundreds of onlookers,” says James Brown, now 86 years old. He remembers watching spellbound as Brother Donk dipped a fully clothed new disciple under and cried out: “In the name of the Father.” Then he immersed the same person a second time and called, “In the name of the Son,” and again, a third time, “In the name of the Holy Ghost.” That done, the baptizer turned to the onlookers and cried out: “Come! Be baptized and stay alive!” Some came but mostly out of fear that the world would end in 1914. When 1914 came and went, a goodly number of them drifted away.
“God’s Kingdom Has Come”
However, about 1920, the Bible Students who pressed on received a boost when a brother from the United States arrived by boat and showed the Photo-Drama of Creation.
“It was the talk of the town,” relates James Brown. “I went early to the shed at the cacao plantation and sat in the front row. The place was packed with 500 people. The showing began. I’d never seen anything like it—the slides, the movie, the music! One man stood up and said, ‘Tonight God’s Kingdom has come to Nickerie!’”
Now growth set in again, and during the early 1930’s, the brothers built a small place for meetings in Brother Donk’s yard. However, problems would test the Nickerie Congregation again.
A Modest Brother Steps Forward
In the mid-1930’s, it became known that Marie Donk was leading a life contrary to Scriptural morals. Yet he kept conducting the meetings. Who would correct the situation?
Alfred Buitenman, small in stature and soft-spoken, had discreetly supported the congregation financially since his baptism in 1903. “But during one meeting,” recalls Lien, “I was startled to see my father step forward, raise his voice, and announce that from now on the meeting place would be in the living room of our house.” Fortunately, most of the brothers supported this move, but some remained with baker Donk, and that group gradually dissolved.
Brother Buitenman then made contact with the Society’s headquarters in New York, received literature, and, from 1936 on, faithfully shepherded the congregation entrusted to him.
But, for the moment, let us shift our attention 150 miles [240 km] to the east and 25 years into the past. We have arrived in the capital, Paramaribo, in the year 1911.
A Poor Painter Sets an Example
During a call in Paramaribo’s harbor, pilgrims (as circuit overseers were then called) Blake and Powell from the United States met Frederic Braighwaight, a meek Barbados-born painter in his late 30’s. Frederic recognized the truth and interested his wife, Cleopatra, as well as one of his friends. He began conducting meetings in his tiny, wooden house.
Like the pilgrims, Frederic looked for ways to share Bible truths. Thus, on his job, he witnessed to carpenter Willem Telgt. The carpenter liked what he heard and, together with a friend of his, began attending the meetings of the “Earnest Bible Students,” increasing the number of students from three to five.
Brother Braighwaight appreciated those meetings. “Although he was poor,” Willem Telgt related some years ago, “Brother Braighwaight always wore a freshly pressed white suit for the meetings. Some days, when he could not afford to have a meal, you could hear his empty stomach rumbling, but nonetheless he conducted every meeting with the same enthusiasm.”
Spurred on by Brother Braighwaight’s example, Willem Telgt was baptized on February 19, 1919, and later played a prominent role in expanding Kingdom interests.
During the 1920’s, the Bible Students were little known in the capital. That changed, however, in the mid-1930’s, when one of them, a Brother Graham, put a bench in front of a store opposite the bustling market. He would open his battered suitcase and display the Society’s colorfully bound books. Every weekday, this old English-speaking brother took up his post.
Shoppers often grouped around the suitcase, eager for a debate. “Brother Graham, though, kept his remarks brief, very brief,” related Leo Muijden, who died recently at 78 years of age. “One day, I saw a booklet in his suitcase with a picture of a young man running. I asked Brother Graham, ‘Where is he running to?’ The old brother looked up and said: ‘If you read it, you’ll find out.’ That was it. So I read Escape to the Kingdom and found out!”
The Kingdom Message Amplified
Besides learning of the Kingdom message through books, people in Paramaribo also heard it by means of records. How? On Sunday nights Cornelus Voigt, a store owner sympathetic toward the Witnesses, positioned his record player and powerful loudspeaker on the second floor of his house. “Then,” related Brother Telgt, “he played a recording of a Roman Catholic Mass, followed by religious music. After that, when enough people had gathered, he changed the record and turned the volume all the way up. Suddenly the voice of Joseph F. Rutherford, the Society’s second president, boomed into the audience and far beyond.”
On weekday evenings, though, Voigt never had to attract an audience but simply waited till his son, Louis, a well-known medical doctor, began his consultations in a clinic next to his house. As soon as the waiting room was full of patients, Voigt played his records. Recalls Helen Voigt, the doctor’s wife: “The patients had to listen to Brother Rutherford, whether they liked it or not.” Yes, through books and records, the Witnesses had now entered the public eye and ear.
One Becomes Three—But No Increase
Since World War II was fought far beyond Suriname’s horizons, the brothers there did not suffer from the deadly winds of war. Nevertheless, the Paramaribo Congregation encountered some turbulence. What kind? Strife among the brothers.
“Around 1945,” says Leo Liefde, age 80 and a meeting attender since 1938, “the congregation had split into three different groups and met in three different locations, while all three called themselves Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Moreover, when it was announced in 1946 that the Society’s third president, Nathan H. Knorr, would visit Suriname, “three groups were looking forward to receiving ‘their’ president,” fills in Brother Muijden. How would Brother Knorr react?
On Monday, April 1, 1946, Brother Knorr together with Frederick W. Franz, then the Society’s vice-president, arrived in Paramaribo. That same night, 39 brothers from all factions gathered on neutral ground, a schoolyard, to hear Brothers Franz and Knorr speak. Then, during question time, the brothers voiced their differing opinions. For a while the president listened, but then he had heard enough.
“Brother Knorr made it brief,” recalls Brother Muijden. “He said: ‘Who of you wants a missionary to come here?’ All of us raised our hands. ‘Fine,’ said Brother Knorr. ‘This month he will be here.’” True to his promise, on April 27, 1946, Gilead graduate Alvin Lindau did come.
A New Era Begins: Missionary Arrives
American Alvin Lindau, 26, moved in with Brother Baptista and began weaving the different factions into one group. One month later, Brother Lindau gladly reported: ‘The number of publishers reporting rose from 2 to 18.’ Brother Knorr, in turn, had good news for Suriname. He wrote that starting June 1, 1946, a branch office would be established. “I am sure,” added Brother Knorr, “that this is the time to push ahead with the work in Paramaribo.”
Appointed as branch overseer, Lindau set to work. First he moved the branch from Brother Baptista’s home to the second floor of a spacious two-story building at 50 Zwartenhovenbrug Street and converted the first floor into a Kingdom Hall. Then he started a weekly book study, Service Meeting, and Watchtower Study. After that, he taught the brothers how to conduct home Bible studies.
Next, Brother Lindau announced, “We go over to the offensive!” Recalls an old-timer: “He invited us to share in distributing the book Children from house to house. At first I was hesitant, but Brother Lindau told me: ‘You sink or swim.’ So I stuffed my bag with books and offered the new publication to people living around the hall. To my delight, my bag was empty in a short time.”
However, a few brothers who preferred giving talks above distributing books muttered, ‘We have nothing to do with the Watchtower Society. We believe in Pastor Russell.’ So they “sank.” Most of the brothers, though, supported the book campaign. But they felt the need of training. The following months would provide just that.
A Year of Progressive Education
In September 1946 the Theocratic Ministry School was introduced in the Paramaribo Congregation. That same month a public-speaking campaign began in the Kingdom Hall. Handbills caught the attention of the public—including the police.
On the Wednesday before the first talk, the speaker was summoned to the police station. ‘Is this the first country in which the Watch Tower Society is active?’ the officers asked. When they learned that Suriname was actually one of the last places reached by the Society, they waived their objections. Public Meetings have been held ever since.
During the next month, October, the congregation welcomed Gilead graduates Max and Althea Garey as well as Phyllis and Vivian Goslin. By working side by side with the local brothers, the “five Americans from the Watchtower,” as the missionaries became known throughout the city, made sure that the publishers progressed.
By the end of 1946, the missionaries’ hard work and loving care had accomplished much: Preaching had increased, and divisions had given way to unity. But more progress was in store.
December brought the “Glad Nations Theocratic Assembly”—a first. Fired up by the release of the book “Let God Be True,” 20 publishers needed only one hour to distribute 8,000 handbills advertising the public talk. Two hundred and thirteen attended—an all-time peak!
During that same month, the brothers marched into the business streets holding The Watchtower and Awake! in front of them. Curious passersby grouped around the publishers. One man, riding a donkey cart, spotted a sister with the magazines and headed his cart right over to her corner. He wanted the magazines. That morning, 101 magazines were placed. Street witnessing was on its way!
Back to Square One
In 1948 the number of publishers rose to over a hundred. But then, as swiftly as darkness in the tropics overtakes daylight, decrease replaced increase. By March 1949 only 88 publishers were still active. Strife sprang up again. What was wrong?
One missionary revealed grave irregularities in the missionary home. Brothers N. H. Knorr and M. G. Henschel, from the headquarters staff, looked into the matter while they visited Suriname in April 1949. Later, John Hemmaway, then a missionary in Guyana, was sent to investigate the matter. His findings led to the departure of three missionaries, leaving the Gareys with a congregation of 59 publishers. The brothers were back to square one. The problem was how to get them moving again.
Max Garey was appointed as temporary branch overseer and proved to be a caring shepherd during a gloomy time. Pioneer Nellie van Maalsen, now 76 years of age, remembers: “Like many in the congregation, I was sad and confused those days, but,” she says warmly, “Max was a loving brother. He put you at ease. Even now, when I think of Brother and Sister Garey, I just get tears in my eyes.”
For three months Max Garey dressed the wounds, so to speak, of the reduced group. Then, in November 1949, J. Francis Coleman and S. “Burt” Simmonite, new Gilead graduates from Canada, arrived to assist the brothers to get back on their feet again.
Earlier, the branch and missionary home had been moved to cramped quarters at 80 Gemeenelands Road. So to accommodate the new arrivals, a second home was rented on Prinsen Street. Burt Simmonite, at age 27, was appointed as the new branch overseer.
On January 22, 1950, the brothers felt in a truly personal way the empathy of Jehovah’s organization. That day, Brother Knorr made a special trip to Suriname to encourage them. ‘Even though the people gossip and say bad things about Jehovah’s Witnesses,’ Brother Knorr told 75 brothers, ‘do not be disturbed by that. By the lives you lead and the message that you preach, you will be able to comfort those seeking truth. This we must do regardless of what other people have done or will do in the future.’
After three days of upbuilding association, Brother Knorr said good-bye to the brothers. Fortified, they pressed on.
On the Right Track Again
With the Paramaribo Congregation back on the right track, the missionaries now looked westward to Nickerie, where Brother Buitenman and five more publishers—unswayed by the comings and goings in Paramaribo—had been preaching the Kingdom message without letup since 1936. To assist Brother Buitenman, by then 71 years old, the Gareys moved to Nickerie. Later, the meeting place was changed from Brother Buitenman’s home to the missionary home on Gouverneur Street.
John and James Brown, dependable brothers then in their late 40’s, assisted Brother Garey and received thorough training in return. In time, on Wednesday nights under the light of a kerosene lamp, John and James were delivering open-air public talks in Nickerie and surrounding villages.
Then, their brother, Anton Brown, also accepted the truth, and the “Browns’ Church,” as the townspeople called the congregation, further stepped up its activities. By the time of the first circuit assembly held in Nickerie, February 1953, the number of publishers had tripled to 21. Obviously, the congregation was benefiting from the missionaries’ presence. But how were the other missionaries, Burt Simmonite and Francis Coleman, faring in Paramaribo?
Field Service Versus Medicine
Burt and Francis did their best to reactivate some of the old-time publishers but to no avail. Often these publishers dodged appointments made to go in field service by giving the standard answer: “Brother, I couldn’t come. I took medicine.”
Yes, because of all the intestinal parasites in the tropics, from time to time such an answer would be true. “But,” said Burt, “whether right or wrong, I came to the conclusion that there was a tremendous amount of medicine being swallowed in that small congregation.” But what to do about it?
Sister van Maalsen helped out. One day, after she did not come for field service, she said: “Brother, I must tell you the truth. I was just too tired.” Moved by her honesty, tall Burt bent down, gave her a little hug, and said: “Nellie, as far as I know, I think you are the first one to tell me the truth about this.” Burt figured that this remark would make the rounds among the publishers. “It must have done so,” he says, “for the amount of medicine taken seemed to decrease markedly.”
Many in the congregation appreciated the hardworking missionaries. So it was not long before Burt and Francis had found a place in the publishers’ homes and hearts. Even today, if you mention Burt and Francis to old-timers, dim eyes twinkle, lined faces smile, and memories come back.
“Burt and Francis were like relatives. They were my boys,” says Oma (Grannie) de Vries, now 91 years old. From her rocking chair, she points to the second floor of the house next door. “There they lived. They were cheerful neighbors.”
“Whenever we heard Burt whistling, we knew he was going out in service,” begins Oma’s daughter Loes.
“And when Francis was playing his violin and somehow making music with two spoons, we knew he was relaxing,” adds daughter Hille. “But when we heard Burt belting out Kingdom Song 81, ‘Wake the Song of Kingdom Cheer!’ we knew he was taking a shower.”
“And,” chimes in Dette, another daughter, “when we smelled their food burning, we knew the boys were studying.” So Oma began providing take-out food for them. She laughs heartily and rounds the story off by adding: “I tied a pan of food to a broom and stuck it out of my second-floor window. Then Burt’s long arms reached out from next door and grabbed the pan, and dinner was ready!”
How sad the brothers were when Francis contracted the dread tropical disease filaria! Despite cases of fever and increasing swelling in his leg, Francis continued his missionary service for over two more years. Nevertheless the sickness finally forced him to return to Canada. Brother Coleman had been a strong support in the congregation. With his help the congregation’s spirit had improved notably, and the number of publishers rose to 83.
Memories of Cherished Workers
Because the number of publishers climbed, Burt Simmonite wrote to Brooklyn: “Would it not be great if we could pass the hundred mark this year!” And sure enough, April 1952 brought an increase of 30 percent—109 publishers.
Meet two cherished workers of those days: Hendrik Kerk and William Jack. Hendrik, a big man with an appealing smile and friendly eyes, had been a gang leader who was better known to the police than to polite society. “Hendrik was a rough diamond,” remembers Burt. He accepted the truth, supported the congregation wholeheartedly, and later became the first local special pioneer.
Then there was William, a cheerful and tireless worker in his 70’s. He lived in a miserable hut, wore much-mended but clean clothes. He would spend hours in his dugout canoe witnessing to people living scattered along the riverbank. When he found interested people, his weak heart condition did not stop him from traveling long distances to visit them.
“One early morning,” reminisces Burt, “we paddled for hours upstream to visit an interested family. Finally we arrived, rested a bit, and began studying around six in the evening. First, Brother Jack studied the book, ‘The Truth Shall Make You Free.’ Then he switched to The Watchtower, and after that, while my head was nodding from drowsiness, he discussed a third publication. Because of the distance, he could only visit this family every second week, but he made the time count! Next day we paddled back. It was a happy time.”
The Branch Overseer’s Special Strategy
In December 1951 good news was announced: Four more missionaries, Shedrick and Wilma Poyner, Muriel Simmonite, and Connie McConnell, were assigned to Suriname. Soon, however, bad news arrived: The attorney general, influenced by Christendom’s colonial clergy, refused to give entrance permits to any of them.
The branch overseer, nevertheless, kept visiting him. The attorney general finally said: ‘Two missionaries may enter. You decide which two you want.’ Since the congregation needed another brother, Simmonite picked the Poyners. ‘Request granted.’ But the branch overseer was not about to drop the subject.
“I then mentioned that Muriel Simmonite was my sister,” relates Burt, “and that I hoped that he would not separate us by forbidding her entry.” The attorney general could not very well refuse that. Again, ‘Request granted.’ But there was no way to get permission for Connie McConnell. The score remained three out of four. Burt, though, did not lose heart yet. He just shifted strategies.
He explains: “Through my sister’s letters, sent to me while she served with Sister McConnell in Quebec, Canada, I had got to know quite a bit about that young woman. So later, when I met her at the 1953 assembly in New York, we became engaged, and she got permission to enter Suriname as my fiancée. There we married, and the final tally was four out of four, something that gave me no little satisfaction and all of us some good laughs.”
First Step Into the Rurals
Thus far, the brothers had concentrated on the towns of Paramaribo and Nickerie. In 1953, however, the truth entered the village of Meerzorg when Leo Tuart moved there.
Leo, then 40 years old, had been in contact with the truth since 1944. Short, lively, and topped with a perpetual brown felt hat, Leo worked as a stevedore in the harbor of Paramaribo and had an excellent reputation for honesty. Though well-thought-of in his village, Leo could still not make headway among the villagers as far as making disciples was concerned, that is, until the branch sent in the “shock troops”—in the form of Hendrik Kerk.
In a short time, Hendrik and Leo contacted three men who accepted a Bible study. Moved by Jehovah’s spirit and guided by Hendrik’s thorough oversight, the three progressed to baptism. Together with Leo, they were welded into a harmonious team.
Teamwork was also the key to their next project: building a Kingdom Hall. None of them had money, but the three new brothers set aside portions of their fields, planted them with rice, and donated the proceeds of the harvest to the building project.
Brother Tuart, however, had no ground on which to plant rice. To contribute to the project, he borrowed 200 guilders from the bank, which he would pay back little by little from his meager earnings. Those four poor brothers reached their goal and built a fine Kingdom Hall.
Incidentally, halfway through their building project, these brothers stopped work to attend a special assembly in Paramaribo. On Monday evening, January 18, 1954, they were among the 159 present to listen to talks given by Brothers Knorr and Henschel.
“At the assembly Brother Knorr and Brother Henschel said they wanted to visit our new hall,” relives Brother Leo Tuart, now 77 years of age. “I was a bit nervous,” he says while adjusting his felt hat, “but that proved unnecessary. The two brothers commended us for our work. ‘Only,’ said Brother Knorr, ‘don’t cut that beautiful mango tree in front of the hall. It will give you shade and coolness.’ We took Brother Knorr’s advice, and that tree is still there, giving shade, coolness, and mangoes.”
Further Into the Rurals
To keep pace with the increase, the branch office was moved to a four-story house at Zwartenhovenbrug Street. A shoe shop, called Fathma, occupied the first floor. On the second floor were the Kingdom Hall and kitchen, the third floor served as the branch office and missionary home, and the top floor was used as the literature depot.
From this location, Muriel Simmonite, then 28 years old, made regular preaching trips to Onverdacht and Paranam, villages about 20 miles [30 km] south of Paramaribo. “Early in the morning, we got a free ride on a bus that brought laborers to a bauxite mine,” remembers Helen Voigt, who accompanied Muriel once a week. “Then we preached to people living near the mine, ate our sandwich at noon, preached more, and rode back with the workmen. Tired but satisfied, we reached home around six at night.”
In time Muriel contacted calm and slender Rudie Pater, who accepted the truth. But Rudie wanted to spread the truth farther and had the transportation—a big Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
He recollects: “Muriel went to Paranam early and worked all day. Then, in the evening, I rode the Harley to Paranam and met Muriel, and we conducted more Bible studies. Close to midnight, Muriel jumped on the back of the Harley, and we roared home.”
A Wedding or a Car?
Response in those villages was so promising that later on Rudie thought about buying a car so that more publishers could come along. “I had some savings,” says Rudie, “but I needed that money to pay for the expenses of my upcoming wedding. I talked it over with Mary, my fiancée, who was also studying the Bible, and she agreed that we postpone the wedding. So I bought an English-made Hillman, and from then on five of us preached in the rurals.” The results? In 1954 there were group studies in Paranam, Onverdacht, and three more locations outside the city.
By the way, the wedding did take place. And today Brother and Sister Pater are much-appreciated publishers in Paramaribo.
Change in Oversight
By the end of 1954, several changes had taken place. Shedrick and Wilma Poyner, productive missionaries, had left the country. Max and Althea Garey had moved to Curaçao, where they worked ten more years as missionaries before returning to the United States. The first local special pioneers, Hendrik Kerk and Melie Dikmoet, daughter of shoemaker Julian Dikmoet, had been sent to new territories. And Burt Simmonite’s wife, Connie, was expecting a baby, necessitating the sending of another missionary who could in time relieve Brother Simmonite as branch overseer.
So in November 1954, Burt handed the country’s oversight to Dirk Stegenga, a timid Dutch missionary only 22 years of age. Needless to say, it took Brother Stegenga a while to get his bearings.
Breaking Into Missionary Life
“Two days after my arrival,” recollects Dirk, now 57 years old, “Burt and Connie left for circuit work, and Muriel was abroad. So there I was, jittery and alone in that big home.”
Then, about the time Dirk was dozing off, a piercing sound, eeeh, eeeh, ripped through his bedroom. A whistling steam train was rounding the curve next to the house. When the train picked up speed again, all street noise was drowned out by the engine’s shu, shu, shu. Greasy smoke and fiery sparks filled the street, the house, and his room. “Next,” continues Dirk, “I looked agape as dancing sparks landed on the 100-percent nylon shirts I had brought from New York and then burned right through them, leaving lots of holes in all my shirts. I felt miserable.”
The following days brought more heat, noise, smoke, sparks, and holes in his shirts. “Then, to make things worse,” adds Dirk, “I saw big rats scurrying through the kitchen. By that time I could not handle it anymore.” Fortunately, Helen Voigt took pity on the lonely missionary and made him feel welcome by providing meals for him. “Helen,” says Dirk gratefully, “was like a mother.”
However, after the other missionaries returned, Dirk was soon comfortable, and guided by Burt, he buckled down to work.
Some months later, Dirk and Burt turned their attention to a challenging territory: the untouched rain forest. ‘Could we get a foothold there?’ they wondered. To find out, in September 1955 they packed their bags, boarded the steam train, and rode into the thick forest. An exciting chapter in Kingdom preaching began.
Awake! Correspondents in Hostile Territory
So far, none of the rain forest’s inhabitants, Amerindians and Bush Negroes, had accepted the truth. A few Bush Negroes, though, first heard the Kingdom message in 1947 when talks were given in a soldiers’ barracks, where the Bush Negroes lodged while visiting the capital.
Also, in 1950, two brothers visited Gansé, a village of 1,300 Bush Negroes on the Suriname River. But the Moravian pastor there trumpeted, “Two false prophets selling books!” Then, just after the Witnesses placed four books at the hut of an elderly man, hundreds of incited church members chased the Witnesses back to the river. The brothers scrambled into their canoe and paddled away, barely escaping being lynched.
Now, five years later, that event was on the mind of both Burt and Dirk as the train chugged into Kabel. It was the last station, two hours’ paddling distance from their final destination, Gansé. How would they be treated this time? To prevent hostile reactions, the branch had written the village chief asking permission for two Awake! correspondents to visit Gansé to gather information for an article on Bush Negroes. The chieftain had replied that the correspondents were welcome.
That day, when Burt and Dirk arrived by canoe in Gansé, the chieftain and his assistants were on hand to meet them. “We were received like royals,” recounts Dirk. “They showed us our lodging place, one of the best houses in the village, then escorted us to the river and politely turned their backs toward us until we had finished bathing. After that, we socialized with them while Burt, who spoke Sranan Tongo, did most of the talking.”
The next day, while touring the village, the brothers cautiously witnessed to some villagers. A few days later, early Sunday morning, they departed for Kabel. There, they checked in at the guesthouse to wait for the next day’s train.*
Paddling After the Missionaries
However, some hours after the missionaries had left Gansé, an 18-year-old Bush Negro, Frederik Wachter, arrived there. Friends told him that there had been two tall, white men whom they believed to be Jehovah’s Witnesses. Frederik’s heart dropped. For a year he had looked for Witnesses, and now they had been here and left again! But when he heard that the missionaries would leave on the next day’s train, Frederik said, “I must catch up with them before the train leaves.” Would he make it?
Monday morning, when the missionaries woke up, they noticed a short, shy Bush Negro waiting outside. “Were you in my village to preach?” Frederik asked. “Yes,” answered the surprised missionaries. “Why do you ask?”
“I missed your visit, but I came to find out more about your teachings.” The missionaries sat down with Frederik and answered his questions about the Sabbath, baptism, the Kingdom, and more, but they were curious as to how this intelligent boy had learned about Jehovah in the first place. This was Frederik’s story:
In 1950, just before the two brothers had been driven out of Gansé, they had placed four books with Frederik’s uncle. Four years later Frederik found those books, read them, and learned about the true condition of the dead. From then on, he refused to follow his tribe’s superstitious ceremonies. He also left the Moravian Church and wished to meet Jehovah’s Witnesses one day.
This Monday morning, his wish came true. By now, though, the train was pulling in. The missionaries left after giving him the book “Let God Be True” and an invitation to visit the branch when he visited the capital. This Frederik promised to do.
The First Bush Negro Brother!
The next month, October, a barefoot young man knocked on the door of the missionary home. Dirk Stegenga recalls: “Frederik had read ‘Let God Be True,’ remembered every detail, and understood the truth. Every day for two weeks, he came to the missionary home and studied. Yet, he did not come to the meetings. We were puzzled.”
“One day, after inviting him again,” continues Dirk, “Frederik looked down and mumbled, ‘I have no shoes.’ He was embarrassed to come. Now, we did not want to make him a ‘rice Christian’ and give him shoes. Instead I said, ‘We will show a film, so it will be dark. No one will see you have no shoes.’ How happy we were that night to note Frederik in the audience!” And how pleased he was to learn from the film “The New World Society in Action” that thousands of Africans cheerfully served Jehovah—without shoes!
After two weeks Frederik returned home with another wish: to attend the “Triumphant Kingdom” Assembly in December that year. He worked day after day to save money for the convention trip. He made it. On December 11 he was baptized. Oh, the joy that day to welcome our first Bush Negro brother! Today, Brother Wachter puts his excellent ability to remember Bible scriptures to good use as he serves as a special pioneer. “Frederik’s experience,” sums up Dirk, “reminded me that we are humble tools in Jehovah’s hand. After all, we did not find Frederik, but he found us.”
Society’s Film Influenced Government Decision
Earlier that year, the same film that helped Brother Wachter had been used in another way. How? Well, after the branch office learned that two new missionaries had been assigned to Suriname, entry permits were requested, but they were denied by the attorney general, a staunch Protestant. When the attorney general went on vacation, however, an interview was quickly arranged with the minister of justice and police, a Muslim. Could he be persuaded? Dirk relates:
“After listening to me, the minister pulled out a folder with underlined Watchtower magazines. He then read from one of the magazines that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not support the five-year plans of this world. ‘Suriname has a five-year plan,’ he said, ‘so we do not want a religion that is against our plan.’”
The branch overseer clarified our view toward obedience to governments, and the minister seemed satisfied. The real obstacle to getting the permits, though, was the clergy of Christendom. “Since the minister was a Muslim,” continues Dirk, “I told him that Christendom disliked us because we do not believe in the Trinity. Like Muslims, we believe in one true God. The minister found that interesting, became more sympathetic, and promised to help.”
Weeks passed but no word. Then Dr. Louis Voigt, who later became a Witness, proposed, “Since the minister and the substitute attorney general are my patients, I will invite them and their wives to my house. And you missionaries come also to show the Society’s film. Perhaps that will break down the prejudice.”
The government officials indeed watched the Society’s film and were impressed. “Two weeks later,” Dirk relates, “we got the permits.” Missionaries Willem “Wim” and Grietje “Gré” van Seijl were on their way.
A Chilly Welcome
On December 7, 1955, the attorney general, who by then was back from vacation and very angry, could hardly wait for the old freighter Cottica to dock. Then, as passengers Wim and Gré van Seijl disembarked, the attorney general summoned them to appear in front of him. “The attorney general looked at us as if we were criminals,” remembers Wim. “He declared, ‘You can work only in Paramaribo. If you evangelize one step outside the city, you’ll be expelled!’ Then he handed us a document stating these restrictions, and we were allowed to go. That was a hearty welcome,” quips Brother van Seijl.
However, the two missionaries proved to be a solid addition to the congregation. Indeed, before coming to Suriname, they had already built a fine record of service. Both learned the truth during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, were baptized in 1945, and later gained experience in circuit work.
With their extra help, the increase came. In February 1956 the branch wrote: “We split the congregation in two.” In April: “We made it! We had a 47-percent increase.” And in June: “We reached 200 publishers!” The branch concluded: “Prospects are bright!”
Meanwhile, Brother Simmonite’s family—increased by baby Candy—moved the following year to a coconut plantation in Coronie, to work as special pioneers. But later, in 1957, Burt’s failing health obliged them to return to Canada. During his eight-year stay in Suriname, he had given his heart and soul. With Jehovah’s blessing, Burt successfully shepherded the congregation from the instability of childhood, so to speak, to the dependability of a responsible youth. No small accomplishment! Today, the Simmonite family helps out in caring for the Kingdom interests in Guatemala.
An Act of Faith by a Needy Sister
In 1955, after a meeting in the dilapidated Kingdom Hall above the shoe shop, Stella Daulat walked home deep in thought. By the time she entered her small house surrounded by mango and star-apple trees, her mind was set. ‘I’ll offer my plot of land to the congregation so that it has a place to build a better hall.’ She talked it over with her mother, who also was a Witness, and both decided, ‘We give it for free.’ Since Stella had no place to go, she only asked if her house could be moved to the back of the lot. “No problem,” said the brothers. “We’ll move it.”
Sister Daulat’s property—inherited from her great-grandmother, who received it in 1863 when emancipated from slavery—provided her more than housing, however. Because she sold fruit from the trees, it also gave her a small source of income. Thus, giving up the property meant giving up her livelihood. “Stella’s decision,” admires one brother, “was an act of faith.”
The brothers gratefully accepted the gift but lacked the funds to build. Some months later, however, they had no choice but to build. Why? In December 1955, when over a hundred persons were sitting in the old Kingdom Hall, the building began to shake. The structure could no longer support that many people. “We worried,” remembers Wim van Seijl. “It felt as if the floor was about to give way and we would all land among the shoes downstairs!” At the end of the meeting, it was announced that those sitting in the first row could stand up and descend the stairs while all others remained seated. After that, the next row of brothers exited, and so on, until the hall was empty. “That day,” adds Wim, “we cut the knot and said, ‘Money or not, let’s build another hall.’”
A New Hall Heralds a New Era
Willem Telgt, baptized in 1919, supervised the project. “Don’t bother with taking out furniture,” he told Stella. “We move your house as it is.” Passersby gazed as the brothers lifted the fragile house onto tree trunks and rolled it to the back. “Can my window face the street?” asked Stella, “then I have a better view.” No problem. Her house was moved a quarter turn. Later, Stella entered the house, adjusted the pictures on the wall, put her chair in front of her window, and was ready to watch the construction crew at work. What did she see?
First, the brothers uprooted the trees. Next, they laid a foundation and built thick, solid concrete walls. Then the funds ran out. However, the Society helped out with a loan, and construction continued. Six months and 13,000 guilders ($7,000, U.S.) later, a hall with a seating capacity of 200 was completed. The dedication was set for January 13, 1957.
During the construction, many a publisher remarked, “This hall will serve us till Armageddon.” But after the dedication, they were no longer sure, for 899 persons showed up! The audience—in the hall, on the windowsills, and outside—enjoyed a program of talks and slides interspersed with an excellent performance by an all-Witness choir. When the happy brothers went home that night, they sensed a new era of expansion in Paramaribo.
A Snake Charmer as Neighbor
In due time the missionary home needed to be moved to better quarters. By now the home hosted not only rats but also snakes. How come? A witch doctor, who practiced demonism with the help of tapijtslangen (boa constrictors), lived with his snakes in the backyard of the missionary home. At times, the six-foot-long [2 m] boas escaped from their basket and slithered into the home’s bicycle shed. “When Gré and Muriel would get their bikes,” recounts Wim van Seijl, “they found themselves face-to-face with the boas dangling from the ceiling.” Adds Gré, “Those snakes even crept up the stairs toward the kitchen.”
No wonder the missionaries had no regrets when the branch and the missionary home moved to Paramaribo’s Weide Street.
A Good-Bye and a Bon Voyage
During 1958, after Muriel Simmonite left, the missionary family was reduced to four members. This dedicated worker had helped many people accept the truth. After she married missionary Walter Klinck, who was then branch overseer in Liberia, she endured much harsh treatment in that country because of the truth. Illness forced her and her husband to return to the United States. Today, Muriel accompanies her husband in the circuit work there.
Also in 1958, bon voyage was said to 25-year-old Max Rijts, the first local pioneer to attend Gilead School. Max, a thoughtful brother who learned the truth from Burt while working as a teacher in Coronie, attended Gilead’s 32nd class and returned to Suriname. Was there work waiting for him!
Rain Forest Dwellers Plead for Help
Fresh from Gilead, Max received a demanding assignment: Find interested persons living along the rivers in the rain forest. Some weeks after Max’s first trip, the branch received a letter from a Bush Negro village. ‘Thank you for making me happy by sending Brother Rijts to reveal to me the gospel,’ wrote a tribesman. ‘I try to preach the good news from house to house. I want to learn more about it and many others with me.’ The message was loud and clear: “We are willing, but we need help!”
The circuit came to the rescue and bought a small boat with a ten-horsepower outboard motor. A three-man crew sailed upstream on the Suriname River. The brothers had a twofold mission: Preach in all villages, and locate a place to station special pioneers.
After progressing some 70 miles [100 km] inland, the brothers were surprised to spot a village that was not shown on the map. They learned that 800 Bush Negroes, from every corner of the rain forest, had temporarily settled there to work on the construction of a hydroelectric plant and dam. The brothers realized that they had made a far-reaching discovery. This village, Suralcokondre, offered the astounding opportunity to preach to members of many different tribes—Saramaccaners, Aucaners, Matuariers, Alukus, Paramaccaners, and Kwintis—all in one place! Certainly, this was the place to send the special pioneers.
Two months later, the boat was back. The load of literature, bags of rice, cooking utensils, and hammocks showed that the crew, Max Rijts and Frederik Wachter, were planning to stay. And with no opposing village chief or clergy in sight, 20 Bush Negroes from different tribes soon were studying the Bible with the Gado Wortu sma (People of God’s Word), as the villagers called the brothers. Later, meetings were organized, and the following year Suralcokondre became the first congregation in the tropical rain forest.
Then, with the dam finished by the end of 1963, the Bush Negroes from Suralcokondre returned to their places of origin. However, 21 of them carried something precious with them: the accurate knowledge of Jehovah God. Thus, the truth filtered into several villages throughout the rain forest. “Discovering Suralcokondre,” concludes Brother Rijts, “was Jehovah’s guidance.”
“Jehovah Is Bringing Them In”
Jehovah’s guidance was likewise evident in what had occurred along another river, the Saramacca. One morning in late 1960, a God-fearing Bush Negro named Seedo paddled to church. Years before, he had turned away from animism, was baptized as a Moravian, and moved closer to this church to try to serve God better.
When approaching the church that morning, he heard a tumult. Then, in front of the church, he saw tables loaded with merchandise. He was in the middle of a church bazaar. Remembering the Bible account of Jesus’ driving the merchants from the temple, he wondered, ‘How then can it be that they have a market here?’ Disgusted, he turned around, paddled home, and told his wife, “I’ll never go back to church!”
Yet, his desire to serve God did not grow dim. So when an acquaintance told him about the Witnesses, his interest was immediately aroused. ‘Perhaps these are true Christians,’ he thought, and he decided to find out. In January 1961, Seedo, together with his friend, Baya Misdyan, traveled to the capital and walked into the soccer stadium, the convention site. Many a head turned.
“‘Bush Negroes!’ we blurted out when we saw them,” recalls Natalie Hoyt Stegenga, former missionary in Uruguay and now wife of Dirk. “It was a sensation.” At that time, the only Bush Negro brother was Frederik Wachter, and now, out of the blue, two more had arrived. Adds Sister Stegenga: “We missionaries said to each other, ‘Jehovah is bringing them in. They are coming!’” And indeed, Seedo and Baya were brought in. Upon learning Jehovah’s requirements, they legalized their marriages, were baptized, and became zealous preachers along the Saramacca River.
Meanwhile, other pioneers had also found interest, along the country’s easternmost river, the Maroni. Thus, by the early 1960’s, there was a foothold along three rivers. The groundwork was laid to forge ahead in the rain forest.
First Publication in Sranan Tongo
Many of the Bush Negroes who accepted the truth during those years remember Philie Slagtand. Philie had been a zealous political activist but became a Witness, and although suffering from filaria, which caused one of her legs to swell badly, she patiently translated the booklet “This Good News of the Kingdom” into Sranan Tongo—the first publication of the Society in the local language. Later, Sister Slagtand translated more publications into Sranan Tongo. Eventually, her sickness led to the amputation of her leg and her moving back to the Netherlands. “Yet, whenever I travel to the Netherlands,” says one elder, “Bush Negro brothers hand me their letters to deliver to her. They have not forgotten the loving labors of their first translator.”
Reaching Thousands in the Rurals
In the early 1960’s, more instruments for Kingdom preaching were added. At the 1961 assembly, Milton G. Henschel released the book From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained in Dutch. Eight months later, all 3,800 copies had been placed.
During that same convention week, the nationwide radio Apinti interviewed Brother Henschel. After the interview, Brother Henschel asked permission for regular broadcasts. The station’s owner agreed, and ever since, nearly three decades, the weekly 15-minute program “Things People Are Thinking About” has been on the air, spreading Bible truth.
In addition to using the radio to broadcast the good news, the brothers showed the Society’s films widely, though this was quite an undertaking. “Somehow I strapped this Bell & Howell projector, cartons of reels, and a generator on my motorbike,” relates a pioneer, “and rode into the rurals. The films attracted the village folks by the hundreds and the mosquitoes by the thousands.” By 1961, 30,000 persons had heard the Kingdom message through these films. The topsoil of the rurals had been broken and seed sown, so to speak. Now it was time to send workers back to water the seed of truth. But who?
Willing Young Trailblazers
Anticipating the need for pioneers who would be willing to work in the rurals, Dirk Stegenga and Wim van Seijl gathered a dozen youths. Remembers Jusuf Sleman, then 20 years old: “Once a week, Dirk and Wim discussed Bible doctrines, field ministry objections, and problems we would face. After that training, we knew what was expected of us. We had to go out and blaze the trail.” And out they went, walking, busing, cycling, canoeing into their new assignments.
Paul Naarendorp, a capable brother then in his early 20’s, recalls how he traveled by motorbike. “I had a cot clasped between my legs and my suitcase, literature bag, and other belongings at the back. But when I got married in 1963, my freight doubled—now it was two cots, a bigger suitcase, two witness bags, and, of course, my wife!” Yet, he adds: “Those were happy times.”
Hille de Vries, who was then 23, together with her 19-year-old sister, Loes, was sent to a village in northwest Suriname. “From our 45-guilder ($25, U.S.) monthly allowance, we rented a house for 15 guilders,” recalls Hille. “No running water, no electricity! We used ditchwater for bathing and rainwater for drinking.”
Loes remembers: “We had no money to buy enough kerosene, so we lighted the lamp only during meetings. The other nights we were in the dark. Yet, by trading food for literature, we always made ends meet. Despite the hardships, we were happy.”
“Are There Any Snakes Here?”
Visiting isolated publishers was one of the moving experiences these young pioneers had. Let us follow Paul Naarendorp as he traveled with Richenel Linger, a poor fisherman then in his 60’s, who lived in a hut near the Atlantic Coast.
Though normally alone, Brother Linger made a preaching trip each week. This time, Paul accompanied him. They started at three o’clock in the morning, paddled upstream for three hours to an Amerindian village, and preached for the whole day. By seven o’clock in the evening, they were back home. Two hours later, they had their first warm meal of the day, and how satisfying that was!
But Paul, the city boy, worried. “Are there any snakes here?” he asked. “Well, a few,” replied Brother Linger calmly, “mostly sakasnekis [tropical rattlesnakes].” Paul gasped, “That snake’s bite is deadly.” “Last week there was one,” Brother Linger continued while pointing to the thatched roof just above Paul’s head. “I was eating when I saw him. I said to myself, ‘Stay put, and I’ll teach you a lesson.’ After I finished eating and did the dishes, I killed him with a cutlass. He was that long,” he added, holding his hands four feet apart [1.2 m]. Paul gasped again.
Brother Linger, though, did not intend to scare his visitor. For him it was an ordinary fact of life. “That night,” recalls Paul, “I curled my feet under my body, pulled a blanket over my head, and prayed long to Jehovah before falling asleep.”
Yes, many of those young pioneers of the 1960’s matured through their experiences and are today pillars in the congregations.
An Eager Student Moves In
Another pioneer of that time, 19-year-old Cecyl Pinas, worked tirelessly in Wageningen, a settlement about 120 miles [190 km] west of the capital. There he met Adolf “Jef” Gefferie, a 21-year-old mechanic, who heard the truth and gulped it down.
Bible studies with Jef lasted three or four hours. After one study, Cecyl and his partner said, “Jef, we’re tired. We’re going home.” Jef said, “I’ll accompany you halfway.” The pioneers stopped halfway, but Jef kept asking Bible questions. The pioneers walked on with Jef trailing. At home the pioneers said, “Good night, Jef.” But Jef went on asking questions. “Listen, Jef,” said Cecyl, “you can ask more questions, but I’m going to bed. So if I don’t answer, I’m asleep.” ‘That was a good idea,’ Jef thought. He lay down on the floor, and the discussion continued till Cecyl was silent.
The next day Jef brought his belongings to the pioneers’ home. “Before we knew it,” laughs Cecyl, “he had moved in with us. We studied every free moment. In three months Jef was baptized, and two years later he became a special pioneer.”
From Dragline to New Kingdom Hall
Enthusiastic Jef, one of the three mechanics in Wageningen, pointed to a discarded dragline and proposed: “Let’s buy it, fix it, sell it, and use the funds for a Kingdom Hall.” The owners said, “That thing can’t be fixed. It’s a chunk of rust. Take it.”
After clearing away the man-high weeds, they found the wreck to be in several parts. Then the brothers purchased the missing parts and repaired the dragline bit by bit. After two years, the day arrived to try the engine. “We were anxious,” relates Jef. “One brother started up the engine, and it ran! We cheered. Then the dragline moved. More cheers. What a wonderful moment that was!”
The dragline was sold for 15,000 guilders ($8,300, U.S.). That money, supplemented by a loan, was used to construct a Kingdom Hall and a house for pioneers. So true worship got another base in the rurals.
Throughout the years several pioneers and missionaries have built on this foundation. Today, Gilead graduates Riaan and Martha du Raan from Namibia are appreciated workers in Wageningen.
In 1963 Brother Telgt again had a building project on his elderly hands: the construction of a branch office and missionary home in the capital. To familiarize the brothers with the new location, an assembly was held on the dirt site. Hundreds of human feet leveled the ground in preparation for construction. Later, a hundred volunteers, many of them retired craftsmen, followed and finished the building after a year and a half. It is a two-story building with office space, a Kingdom Hall, and rooms for missionaries. Since August 1964 this new facility on Wichersstraat has been the branch office location.
The Paradise Book Prepares the Way
The branch project done, the brothers concentrated on preaching along three rivers, the Saramacca, the Suriname, and the Tapanahoni. Nel Pinas, brother of Cecyl, and Baya Misdyan traveled to the Aucaner Bush Negroes along the faraway Tapanahoni River—an area no Witness had visited so far. Yet, the Kingdom message had been heard there. The book From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained had prepared the way. How could that be?
In 1959 Nel Pinas discussed the book’s pictures with Edwina Apason, an illiterate Aucaner woman whom he met in Albina, a village in northeast Suriname. Edwina loved what she learned but after seven months returned to the Tapanahoni. Contact was lost.
Eight years later, however, one week before Nel traveled to the Tapanahoni, he met Edwina in the capital. She told him that she had been preaching all that time among her tribe by using the pictures of the Paradise book. When she heard that Nel was leaving for the Tapanahoni, she begged him to look for two interested persons, Yabu, a young man, and Tyoni, a young woman.
A Heartwarming Response
Two days after reaching the Tapanahoni, the brothers found Yabu’s village, Yawsa, but he was out. The following evening, though, Yabu came to the brothers. He told them that he had broken with demonism and wanted to serve God. He took five days off from his job and studied with the brothers for eight hours each day. After those days, he wished to serve the true God, Jehovah.
Now the brothers searched for Tyoni, a 20-year-old Bush Negro girl who was already preaching in her village, Granbori, by showing the pictures in the Paradise book. However, her brother, a witch doctor, had taken the book away from her. Tyoni cried and prayed, “Jehovah, please, give me another Paradise book.” No wonder the two brothers felt impelled to find her!
One day Tyoni heard that Witnesses had arrived in a nearby village. Hurriedly she paddled to the village, but the brothers had left. How disappointing! Later, though, the brothers returned and studied with her for three days. She related that the times when she had nothing to eat, her relatives would offer her unbled wild meat. She always refused. Her father threatened to beat her if she would not quit her beliefs. Yet she said, “Even if they threaten to kill me, I will not give up.” And that from an illiterate girl who learned the truth only from pictures! Touched by her faith, the brothers gave her their last copy of the Paradise book. She hugged the book. Overwhelmed with joy, she thanked Jehovah for answering her prayer.
After two months the brothers returned to Paramaribo, but later Nel and his wife, Gerda, moved to the Tapanahoni to work as special pioneers, building on that foothold in the rain forest.
More Help From Gilead
Shortly thereafter, in 1968, Gilead graduates Roger and Gloria Verbrugge from Canada and Rolf and Margret Wiekhorst from Germany arrived, doubling the missionary family, from four to eight. The new missionaries’ warm personalities, combined with their sincere interest in the welfare of others, quickly endeared them to the local brothers.
Earlier, another Gilead graduate, Albert Suhr, had also arrived in Paramaribo. After graduating from Gilead’s 20th class in 1953, Albert worked for 13 years as a missionary in Curaçao until epilepsy forced him to leave and move in with relatives in Suriname. Disregarding his illness, he resumed pioneering until failing health required his moving into a home for the elderly. But Albert was not about to give up Kingdom preaching. Let us pay him a visit there.
In the morning he displays a supply of the Watchtower and Awake! magazines in the recreation room. Then he writes out the daily text in big print for an 80-year-old neighbor with poor eyesight. Next, he delivers magazines to residents and nurses. At the end of the day, Albert settles down for personal study. “My failing health prevents me from doing more,” says Albert, now 68, “but serving Jehovah is still my heart’s desire.” Modestly he omits to mention, though, that in one recent month, he spent 126 hours in preaching. “Inconspicuous toilers like Albert,” says one missionary, “remind us of what faith is all about.”
The “Water Assembly”
For some years the number of publishers had fluctuated around the total of 500. But then the number grew to over 550. Why the increase? A branch report notes: “The ‘Peace on Earth’ International Assembly has had a telling effect on the work.”
That convention in 1970 is remembered as the “Water Assembly.” During the night of January 16, the rain fell as it had not since 1902, flooding Paramaribo and its stadium, the assembly site. “That morning, some publishers woke up and found their houses in knee-deep water,” recalls Gré van Seijl. “Yet they headed straight for the assembly.” Says one of the assembly’s organizers: “We were amazed to see over 1,200 persons wade through the muddy water into the stadium. We never had a crowd such as that before.”
Oh, Those Buses!
Floods occurred only occasionally, but bus breakdowns were a regular feature before and after assemblies. One Sunday in the late 1960’s, 48 persons were waiting for a 30-seat bus to take them back to Paramaribo, but the bus did not come. “We looked for the driver,” recalls Rolf Wiekhorst, “and found him in the midst of hundreds of parts of the bus’ engine scattered around him. ‘Trouble with the gearbox,’ said the driver, ‘but I’ll fix it.’”
Four hours later the journey began. A smell of burning soon filled the bus. “Only the fourth gear works,” explained the driver. Past midnight the bus rolled downhill to a tiny ferry, but how to get the bus uphill in fourth gear? “What a sight,” continues Rolf, “young, old, even mothers carrying babies, pushed the bus to the beat of a Kingdom song and a roaring engine. The bus inched uphill. We made it. At three o’clock that morning, we were home.”
Once, the Nickerie Congregation also rented a bus to travel to an assembly. At seven o’clock in the morning, the group left, but by ten o’clock the bus had broken down on a lonely dirt road. “I’ll be back,” promised the driver as he walked away. “We never saw him again,” says Max Rijts, one of the passengers. When food and water ran out, two brothers set out walking alongside a canal looking for help. Fifteen hours later they were back with a boat, and the trip continued. At noon they arrived at the assembly, a 150-mile [240 km] trip in 30 hours. “Oh, yes,” adds Max with a laugh, “the name written on the bus was ‘Welcome’!”
Determined to Stay
Since Natalie Stegenga was expecting a baby, the Stegengas left the missionary home in September 1970. Dirk Stegenga had been a diligent branch overseer for 16 years. Now the country’s oversight passed to missionary Wim van Seijl.
“Though we were determined to stay,” shares Dirk, “it was tough.” Adds Natalie, “We found a place to live but lacked the money to pay the rent. We did not own even a washcloth.” But, later, friends helped out, and Dirk found a job enabling him to care for his wife and daughter, Cheryl. Today, the Stegengas are still in Suriname, all three working as full-time ministers.
Migration Results in a Congregation and a School
In the early 1970’s, thousands of Bush Negroes migrated to the capital in search of employment. “Some of them,” remembers Margret Wiekhorst, “showed their longing for the truth by attending the Dutch meetings in our congregation, though they did not understand the language.” So, to help them, Frederik Wachter presented convention summaries in their tribal languages. Later, more meetings were organized, and in June 1971 the first Bush Negro congregation in the capital was formed.
Two Bush Negro sisters, who had recently learned to read and write, were appointed as special pioneers in this new congregation and helped several families to side with Jehovah. In turn, these new disciples wanted to learn to read. Thus, the congregation set up a reading school.
From 1975 the brochure Learn to Read and Write in Sranan Tongo has been used to teach several classes twice a week. “The students attend classes faithfully,” informs Elvira Pinas, one of the eight teachers, “because they crave to read the Bible personally. They also show endurance. One elderly sister attended classes for seven years, but now she can read.” Today, 20 percent of the population is illiterate, but thanks to our school, that rate has dropped to only 5 percent among baptized Witnesses.
A Collision of Beliefs
The reading school had another advantage. In 1974 Edwina Apason (the illiterate woman who learned the truth from the illustrations in the Paradise book) wrote: ‘To my joy I am assigned as a special pioneer along the Tapanahoni. When I left there, I could not read, but now I can. I feel better equipped to help my tribe.’
But Edwina’s return to her roots required courage. Why? People of her tribe live, eat, work, and sleep in dread of dead ancestors, and they value amulets for protection against evil spirits. They also revere nature, believing that rivers, trees, and stones are imbued with living spirits. “Any change from this way of living,” says Edwina, “causes a stir.”
Bible teachings and tribal beliefs first collided when Edwina was expecting her monthly period. You see, a villager believes that his amulet loses its power when it is near a menstruating woman and that an evil spirit can then strike the whole family with a deadly sickness. To prevent that, all women having their period must move into a hut away from the village. Since this belief is prompted by fear of demons, Edwina refused, and as she had predicted, this caused a stir.
She was threatened and clubbed but did not give in. Later, some of the women with whom she studied the Bible imitated her courageous stand, only to be repudiated and thrown out of their hut. Edwina took them in, and together this fearless band of women bore the tribe’s revenge but did not let up in preaching. In time an unlikely rescuer stepped in. Who was that?
A Cursed Man Gets God’s Approval
Earlier, Sister Apason had preached to Paitu, a witch doctor in his 70’s. He was nicknamed Amaka (Hammock) because the curse of a rival witch doctor had broken his health and confined him to his hammock. Paitu quickly understood the Bible message and one day, to the villagers’ alarm, lifted himself out of his hammock and gathered up his idols, amulets, and potions. Then he stepped into his canoe and dumped his magic paraphernalia into the river. Thereafter his health improved, and he stepped forward to defend the preachers.
First, Paitu built huts for the women who had lost theirs because of persecution. Next, he cleared some soil for farming so that the women had a livelihood. Now the women progressed swiftly and were baptized. Moved by the help she had received, one of them, Sister Dyari, exclaimed: “How to thank Jehovah? The only way is by pioneering!” And that she has done to this day. In 1975 Paitu was baptized, and that same year a congregation of 20 publishers was formed in Edwina’s village, Godo Olo. What a reward for those bearers of true worship!
Other Ethnic Groups Blend In
How far, though, had true worship penetrated into the Muslim and Hindu segments of Suriname’s population? Up until the early 1970’s, only a few had come forward. But in 1974 the branch office could finally report that some Muslims of Indonesian descent had responded. They were brave in doing so. Why?
“Many live in tight traditional families,” explain Jan and Joan Buis, Gilead graduates of Indonesian descent, who taught the truth to several Muslims. “Often they face persecution when they break from these traditions,” adds Jan. “Once I studied the Bible with a young Muslim man. His relatives, though, made me understand that I was not welcome by furiously sweeping the floor. Yet we studied in the dust cloud.” When that failed, relatives started angry arguments. When the man ignored that too, he was thrown out, expelled from the family. He moved outside the capital and continued his Bible study, and he and his wife became Witnesses.
“Years later,” recounts Jan, “this brother’s relatives noticed that he is the only one among them without marriage problems. And after he asked his mother to move in with him, the relatives’ view of the Witnesses changed for the better.” This brother’s courage prompted other Muslims to associate with us.
What About the Hindus?
East Indians today form the country’s largest ethnic group. Though their life is wrapped up in religious ceremonies, the Kingdom message has drawn a growing number of truth-loving Hindus to Jehovah’s organization. Shama Kalloe, a girl born in a Hindu family near the town of Nickerie, is a case in point.
Shama’s father, a hardworking rice farmer who deeply cared for all his 12 children, reminded her from youth to be faithful to Hinduism and to marry only another East Indian Hindu. “Whenever a youth in our area broke those rules,” discloses Shama, “Father tearfully repeated his wishes to me.” Since Shama loved her father, she was determined not to cause him grief.
In 1974, 19-year-old Shama moved to Paramaribo to attend a teacher training college. There, at her brother’s house, she found The Watchtower and Awake! The articles captured her interest but left her with questions too. “Therefore I begged God to bring me in contact with the people of these magazines,” continues Shama, “and the next day a Witness couple visited me.”
Missionaries Roger and Gloria Verbrugge began to study twice a week with her. “Before long,” relates Roger, “she attended the congregation meetings and began sharing in the field ministry. In September 1976 this zealous girl was baptized.”
After graduation, Shama got a teaching job in Nickerie and moved in with her parents. Though her father was worried about his daughter’s new faith, he was also proud of her position as a teacher. Shama, however, desired to preach full-time in her Hindu neighborhood. Yet, she did not want to hurt her father’s feelings. She found a solution.
To please her parents, she continued teaching school but pioneered after working hours. Within months she was conducting 18 Bible studies with Hindus, and her enthusiasm helped many of them to baptism. “At the same time,” adds Gloria, “Shama continued to treat her parents with love and complied with the customs of the family but took a firm stand when necessary.” Not long thereafter her love for Jehovah was put to the test.
‘Marry Only in the Lord’
By now Shama was in her mid-20’s. As most Hindu girls there marry between the ages of 15 and 19, and single women are rare, relatives arranged for suitors to drop by the house, but Shama refused to marry any of them. She begged Jehovah for help to withstand the pressure and to marry “only in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 7:39) To please her parents, though, she would try to marry an East Indian partner, but she vowed, “If there is not such a partner in Jehovah’s organization, I will remain single.”
At age 28, her faithfulness was rewarded. Shama met Alfons Koendjbiharie, a congregation elder of East Indian descent living in the Netherlands. They fell in love and decided to marry. Since her parents had never met Alfons, one day Shama read to her mother from the Bible Jehovah’s requirements for Christian elders. Her mother listened attentively and then said: “You will have a good husband.” Later, after a moving wedding talk in the home of Shama’s parents, her father, deeply touched, walked up to a missionary and said: “Your God has given me a son!”
Since 1984 Shama has served as a pioneer in the Netherlands, but her example in Suriname is still remembered. She helped to turn the tide, and ever since, former Hindus have flowed into the brotherhood.
A Novel Idea
By August 1974 this good response among different sections of the population had resulted in a peak of 831 publishers. Twice that number of people, though, were attending the assemblies. Where to hold assemblies to accommodate this growing group? Some brothers came up with a novel idea:
‘Build a Kingdom Hall that can double as an Assembly Hall platform.’ How? ‘Well, raise the floor of the Kingdom Hall about three feet [1 m] from the ground. Then, put two giant sliding doors in one of the sidewalls of the hall. Open these doors during assemblies, and the hall becomes a platform. Then, add a huge roof in front of this platform to protect people against sun and rain, and you have an Assembly Hall suitable for the tropics.’
A plot, 130 feet [40 m] by 660 feet [200 m] in size, was bought, and construction began. A year later, on November 28, 1976, this modest Assembly Hall was dedicated and has served the brothers well over the years.
Noah—The Talk of the River
Along the Tapanahoni River, the increase in publishers had also led to a building project: making a korjaal (dugout canoe) big enough to bring the entire congregation to assemblies in the capital. “That project was a challenge,” relates Cecyl Pinas, who oversees the work in the interior. “A korjaal that size had never been made before. But Brother Paitu said: ‘We can do it.’”
Brother Paitu, an expert korjaal builder, selected a huge tree, and four brothers felled it in a day. Then they spent two months hollowing out the tree and fashioning it into a 59-foot [18 m] canoe, the biggest ever made there. Soon, this boat of the Witnesses became the talk of the river. Whenever it passed by, village children ran out shouting, “Noa e psa!” (Noah goes by!)
First Kingdom Hall in the Rain Forest
In September 1976 the new Godo Olo Congregation got another lift when four young Witnesses, professional teachers, settled along the Tapanahoni. “Although we went there to teach school,” explains Hartwich Tjon A San, one of the teachers, “chiefly we moved there to work with that new congregation.” And work they did! Patiently they taught their illiterate brothers to read and write, and after that they offered a willing hand with the congregation’s next plan of action: building a Kingdom Hall in Godo Olo.
Earlier, village chief Alufaisi had offered the brothers a plot on which to build a hall. The brothers had no money, so how would they go about it? They reasoned: “The forest gives wood. The river gives sand and gravel. And Jehovah gives us the strength to gather it.” All they lacked was cement. With this the canoe Noah helped out.
Because of Noah’s reputation for safe and convenient travel, government workers paid some 4,000 guilders ($2,200, U.S.) a year to rent the boat to take them to the coast. Those earnings bought the cement in the capital. But how to get the cement in Godo Olo? Again, Noah.
In Albina, Do Amedon, a tall, muscular Bush Negro and reputable helmsman, and other brothers loaded 40 110-pound [50 kg] bags of cement in the korjaal. Then they steered the deep-draft Noah up the Maroni and headed south for the sulas (rapids), which have names like Manbari (Men Scream [while passing through the rapid]) and Pulugudu (Lost Possessions [the rapids sank many a boat, and people lost their possessions]). Would they make it through?
The crew heard the roar of the first cataract! Ahead of them the river tumbled down a mass of rocks resembling a giant staircase, collided with huge stones blocking its path, squeezed through treacherous channels, and slammed against Noah. The brother standing at the bow scanned the wild river for openings. Then, he plunged his long stick into the churning water, arched his back, and punted Noah into a channel. He gestured. The engine stopped, and Noah was moored at the foot of the sula.
Do Amedon swung a bag of cement on his head. Jumping from one slippery rock to the next, he clambered across the rapids and lowered the bag to a dry spot. The other brothers followed. One by one, all the bags were carried across. Now the brothers carefully pulled Noah through the white water and then loaded the bags again. The journey resumed until the following sula, where the hoisting, jumping, pulling, and reloading activity was repeated. Finally, seven rapids and 11 days later, the cement reached Godo Olo.
Meanwhile, other brothers had cut trees, and the sisters and children had hauled 250 barrels of sand and gravel to the building site. Construction began, and one year later, April 15, 1979, the first Kingdom Hall in the rain forest was dedicated.
And what about Noah? “Usually a canoe lasts for about four years,” says Cecyl Pinas, “but Noah has been in use for some ten years.” Where is it now? “Retired,” smiles Cecyl, “though still used at times. It deserves another name—Methuselah!”
During the late 1970’s, the preaching activity in the country dropped. In 1977 a 1-percent decrease; in 1978 a 4-percent decrease; in 1980 a 7-percent decrease! Why? Mass migration.
When Suriname became an independent nation in November 1975, thousands of Surinamese emigrated to the Netherlands for fear of political disturbances. Other emigrants, notes sociologist J. Moerland in his book Suriname, ‘left in search of employment, education, or social security, or to reunite with family members.’ Those days, adds Moerland, ‘the question asked was not, “Are you leaving?” but, “When are you leaving?”’ By 1981, when the exodus came to a halt, nearly one out of three inhabitants had left. Today, 200,000 Surinamese live in the Netherlands—among them hundreds of Witnesses, who continue to serve Jehovah in their new environment.
A New Impetus for the Witnesses
One arrangement that helped the work to pick up speed again was the forming of a Branch Committee in 1976. Branch servant Wim van Seijl became the Branch Committee coordinator and shares responsibility with committee members Cecyl and Nel Pinas and Dirk Stegenga. As elsewhere, this new arrangement has resulted in a more balanced direction of spiritual matters.
To maintain momentum, congregations throughout the country received ten more missionaries who arrived between 1974 and 1980. Two of them, Hans and Susie van Vuure, were not novices though. Both brought decades of experience. They were graduates of Gilead’s 21st and 16th classes respectively and had served as missionaries in the Indonesian archipelago.
Two months after arriving in Suriname, they were in the circuit work. “That assignment helped us to get to know the country and the brothers quickly,” explains Hans, age 60. Adds Susie: “I noticed how eagerly people accept our literature.” An example? “Yes, during our two and a half years in circuit work, the two of us placed some 4,000 books and 10,000 magazines. That shows,” says Susie, “there is still plenty of preaching work for us to do.”
Another “Door” in the Rain Forest Opens
Earlier, the government built a 220-mile-long [350 km] road into the remote rain forest of southwest Suriname. That road opened a door of activity into a brand-new territory as well: the Amerindian villages of Apoera and Washabo along the Courantyne River.
In 1977 Pepita Abernathy and Cecilia Keys, Witnesses from the United States, opened that door when they joined their husbands, employees of a construction company, to live in a work camp 30 miles [50 km] from Apoera. Later, two missionaries were sent to assist the sisters in contacting the Arawak Indians living there. Did they succeed?
Pepita relates: “We found scores of Bible studies. Later, Cecilia and I visited them twice a week. At four in the morning we got up, by seven we had our first Bible study, and around five in the afternoon we were home again.” For two years, these sisters zealously taught the English-speaking Amerindians but then had to leave the country. Now who would continue their work?
The Clergy Reacts
In September 1980 missionaries Herman and Kay van Selm steered their old Land-Rover into the jungle, headed for Apoera, and stayed for the next five years. “We inherited 30 Bible studies and found more,” recalls Kay. They were grouped into three book studies. Public talks drew 60 villagers, and the following year 169 attended the Memorial. Soon six persons were ready to go in field service and wrote letters to resign from their churches.
The clergy’s reaction? “How do they dare?” roared the priest, clenching the letters. “They even quote scriptures to me!” He declared war. The Bible students were threatened with losing their jobs and homes and were told to get their own school, clinic, and graveyard. The opposition shrank the number of studies. Meeting attendance dropped. At one meeting one person showed up but just to ask for an empty box. “We felt bad,” Kay recounts. “But we continued encouraging and preaching. To our delight a nucleus stood firm, were baptized, and formed the Apoera Congregation.”
“When Will You Visit Us?”
In 1982 some Amerindians from Orealla, a village in Guyana, paddled some eight hours up the Courantyne and asked the missionaries, “When will you visit us? We want to study the Bible.” By the time the Apoera group could stand on its own, the missionaries were making monthly trips to Orealla and learned that some villagers had been waiting a long time for the Witnesses. “One morning,” relates Herman, “I met an elderly hunter who said that he used to read Consolation but later lost contact with the Society. Then, while pointing to his radio, he said: ‘I heard about your radio station in New York, but, you know, I can’t get it on my radio.’ When I said that WBBR ceased broadcasting in the 1950’s, he shook his head in disbelief. He then laughed and said that it was high time to do some catching up and accepted a Bible study.”
Observing in Orealla how studying the Bible helped heavy drinkers to become caring fathers was rewarding. After a 50-year-old man was shown how to conduct a family study, he gave it a try, though it went a bit jerkily. “Read!” he commanded. Then he asked a question. Silence. “Talk now! Don’t play shy.” By then, his children’s eyes were full of tears. In time, though, the study method improved. Later the children were seen running home. Why the hurry? “Family study!” they smiled.
Some time after that, the brothers received a plot of land in Orealla, and Gilead graduate Jethro Rübenhagen (now serving in Apoera) helped the local brothers to build their own Kingdom Hall—a sign that yet another national group, the Amerindians, had begun to learn the unifying “pure language.”—Zeph. 3:9.
Increase Among English-Speaking Population
In the 1970’s, a growing number of English-speaking guest workers from Guyana settled in Nickerie. So two missionaries were sent there to start English meetings. These guest workers responded. Today, there is a congregation of 30 publishers.
Some of these new publishers had longed for the truth for years. Twelve-year-old Indradevi, for instance, received the book From Paradise Lost to Paradise Regained from a neighbor in Guyana. She treasured it. Later she married and moved to Klein Henar, a rice polder near Nickerie. In 1982 Hans van Vuure met her. “Amid her few belongings,” recounts Hans, “I saw a worn-out Paradise book. Indradevi said that ever since she got the book in 1962, she had always carried it with her. She longed to learn more about Jehovah. After 20 years her wish came true!” She studied, removed her pictures of Hindu gods, and was baptized.
Similar response among Guyanese was found in Paramaribo. A small group was formed there in 1980. There were 20 publishers in 1982, and four years later that number increased to 90, and meeting attendance today shows prospects of more increase.
“Over 150 persons attend meetings, though for some that requires sacrifices,” says missionary Paul van de Reep of the English congregation. For example, one family with little income leave home at eight in the morning, walk a good distance, wait for over an hour for a bus, and then attend the meeting. They are home again by two in the afternoon. “Each week,” adds Paul, “they spend one day’s wages for bus fare to attend meetings.”
Today, some 150 English-speaking Witnesses form one of the three language groups unitedly worshiping Jehovah in Paramaribo.
Shocked Into Reality
On February 25, 1980, stunned inhabitants of Paramaribo woke up to the sounds of gunfire. A group of corporals had toppled the government. This first-ever coup d’état shook many a complacent Surinamese. As the country had never been war-stricken, plague-infested, or hurricane-swept, people often said: “Suriname is a God-blessed land.” But since 1980, with economic hardship on the rise, many now admit that the fulfillment of Bible prophecies is taking place right on their doorstep.
Political disturbances in 1982 led to the suspension of foreign aid, crippling the country’s economy. Food prices shot up, and poverty set in. “Since then,” reports an elder in Paramaribo, “many of our Bush Negro brothers have a tough time housing, clothing, and feeding their ten or more children, with wages equivalent to only 200 U.S. dollars a month.”
Still, economic hardships have not slowed down the brothers. On the contrary, in one materially impoverished congregation, 106 of the 171 publishers recently served as auxiliary pioneers! And nation wide the number of publishers rose to over 1,200 in 1986.
Literature placements kept increasing too. Ask Leo Tuart. For 46 years he has transported literature from the harbor to the branch office. “Years ago,” recalls Brother Tuart, “we got a dozen cartons a month. I rented a donkey cart for 75 cents and brought all the cartons to the branch. But now,” he beams, “we get a hundred cartons every two weeks, and I have to rent a truck to deliver them.” Today, during any given month, over 32,000 Watchtower and Awake! magazines are placed in Suriname—one magazine for every 13 inhabitants!
But others besides Leo Tuart noticed the growing activity. Recently a clergyman called the branch office and told a missionary that he had urged his flock to have zeal like Jehovah’s Witnesses. “But no response,” lamented the clergyman, asking, “What is your secret?” The brother replied: “Holy spirit.”
Through the Thick of Fighting
Halfway into 1986, guerrilla warfare broke out. A few months later, with the fighting between troops and so-called jungle commandos (mostly Bush Negroes) centered around Albina, a village on the Maroni River, the Bush Negro brothers living in southeast Suriname had to decide if they would go to the convention in Paramaribo. “They knew that going meant traveling through the thick of fighting,” explains Cecyl, “but they did not want to miss the convention and decided to go.” Ten days before the convention, 60 brothers, sisters, and children canoed downstream toward the battle area. On Friday they reached Albina, tied their hammocks in the Kingdom Hall, and slept there.
Before dawn, the streets of Albina echoed with the rattle of gunfire. Jungle commandos swept through the village, troops struck back, and bullets ricocheted off the roof of the hall. The Witnesses scrambled for cover and lay flat the rest of the day.
That night, one of them managed to call the branch office. “Come and pick us up,” he pleaded. Sunday afternoon, three elders were on their way. About 11 o’clock at night, they reached the stranded brothers.
The elders wanted to return the next day, but the Bush Negro brothers urged, “Let’s leave now. The shooting may start again.” The elders prayed for Jehovah’s direction and after midnight, three overloaded cars slowly headed for the capital.
“The road was deserted,” remembers Paul Naarendorp, one of the drivers. “As we approached a military checkpoint, my heart beat faster. Imagine, the army was fighting the jungle commandos, and now a convoy carrying 60 Bush Negroes, many of them young, strong men, popped up in front of them.” Would they be mistaken for jungle commandos?
From behind a pillar, a soldier signaled the convoy to stop. “We looked right into the barrel of a tank,” Paul goes on, “and were surrounded by heavily armed soldiers. One unexpected move could trigger gunfire. However, after we explained we were Witnesses, the soldiers checked the cars and let us go.”
When the brothers reached Paramaribo, they heard that fighting had flared up in Albina again. They had left in time.
But Now Going Back
After the convention the brothers learned that the army had closed the only road to Albina. So the Bush Negro brothers were stuck again. They waited for two weeks but by then were so homesick for the rain forest that they entreated, “Take us to the river. From there we’ll get home.”
A plan was made, and Jehovah’s direction was asked. First the ten helmsmen and some elders from Paramaribo would try to reach Albina. “I can’t explain why, but although the military saw us,” relates an elder, “they did not turn us back.” When the Bush Negro brothers finally saw the Maroni River, they danced with joy.
The next day, the sisters and children left and were also allowed to pass the checkpoint, while others were stopped. At the river, the helmsmen were waiting with the boats. What a reunion!
One more trip was planned. Two trucks were loaded with 96 bags of rice, 16 barrels of gasoline, 7 barrels of kerosene, and foodstuffs, and again the brothers drove to the checkpoint. Though these supplies were trucked into territory held by jungle commandos, and no goods were allowed to go there, the guards let the trucks pass. “A miracle,” says one brother. “Jehovah’s hand was evident.”
One week later, the 60 brothers and all supplies reached home. They had spent five weeks to attend a three-day convention. Some weeks later, the army cut off all supplies for the interior, and grave food shortages occurred. But the brothers who attended the convention had food for months to come and gasoline for preaching trips. “Looking back,” says Cecyl, “I see how Jehovah directed us to make the right decision at the right time.”
Running for Their Lives
The following year, fighting shifted to Moengo, a mining town east of Paramaribo. Troops moved in but ran into fierce resistance. Bullets ripped through town, houses went up in flames, and people ran for their lives.
Most of the brothers there slipped into the rain forest and ran for safety. Some reached Paramaribo, while others paddled toward the Maroni River, the border with French Guiana. They crossed the three-mile-wide [5 km] river and entered French Guiana. Some 50 Witnesses crossed that border and saved their lives.
Witnesses in French Guiana immediately provided food, clothing, sheets, blankets, and medicine for them. The branch office in Martinique also dispatched help, and a special fund was set up to assist the refugees. “Authorities in the refugee camps were perplexed by how speedily our organization sent relief aid,” says Cecyl Pinas. “They said, ‘You’re not talking but acting.’”
During these turbulent years, Do Amedon, the helmsman who steered Noah through the rapids, proved to be a capable shepherd. Do, an Aucaner Bush Negro who left Paramaribo in 1974 to work as a special pioneer among his tribe, cares for people, understands their problems, and is a capable organizer. In fact his Bible-based advice is so appreciated that his tribesmen call him “Pappie” (Dad), though he is now only 40 years old.
First, Do helped the brothers along the Tapanahoni River. Then, in the mid-1980’s, he and other pioneers moved to the Maroni River. Response was overwhelming, but the Bush Negroes there were so scattered that it was impossible to reach all of them. However, in 1985 the problem was solved. How?
That year the Governing Body approved an increase in the gasoline allowance for special pioneers in the rain forest. With extra fuel for the outboard motors, the pioneers now steered their canoes from one settlement to the next and found waves of interest. In 1985 a new congregation of some 30 publishers was formed in the village of Gakaba. Some months later, that number increased to 50, and some 20 of these publishers began to pioneer. Before long, Do Amedon was hauling bags of cement through the rapids again. A second Kingdom Hall appeared in the rain forest!
A Tenfold Increase
“A group of young brothers completed a 200-seat hall on a scenic island in the Maroni,” reports Branch Committee coordinator Wim van Seijl, who recently visited the area. “They next volunteered to sail into the Lawa, a river where we had never preached before. There, among the Aluku Bush Negroes, the truth is also spreading.”
Despite the civil war, the Kingdom message has filtered deeper into the rain forest. The 20 Bush Negro brothers who worked along the Tapanahoni River ten years ago have increased to 200 publishers today, organized into four congregations along the rivers in eastern Suriname. A tenfold increase!
Similar increase was evident in other parts of the country too. Many congregations reported meeting attendance of double the number of publishers, making Kingdom Halls too small to handle the crowd. Thus, early in 1987, the Governing Body gave the branch the green light to build a large 110-foot [34 m] by 200-foot [60 m] Assembly Hall and four Kingdom Halls. It was a timely decision.
“Shortly after we bought cement,” recounts Henk Panman, then caretaker of the Assembly Hall, “the country ran out of cement. Construction sites folded, but we worked right through.” Later, the Netherlands branch helped out by sending four containers of building materials. The construction crew and hundreds of volunteers worked for a year and a half and completed four attractive new meeting places.
Talk about building, do you remember Stella Daulat, who donated her property in 1955? After her house was moved, she lived there contentedly. Recently, however, the congregation surprised her by announcing at a meeting, “We are going to build a new house for Sister Daulat.” Next to her old house, the brothers built a roomy brick house and presented it to 78-year-old Stella. Says a teary-eyed Stella, “What a gift from Jehovah!”
Jehovah Will Not Forget Their Work
Like Stella, hundreds in Suriname have experienced Jehovah’s blessings. Regrettably, lack of space prevents mentioning all those faithful ones, but their day-to-day endurance in Jehovah’s service is not overlooked by Jehovah, who will not ‘forget their work and the love shown for his name.’—Heb. 6:10.
During the last four decades, 41 missionaries have worked shoulder to shoulder with the local brothers, and many are remembered for their zeal. Today, the 18 remaining Gilead graduates are still valued workers in congregations throughout the country.
We thank Jehovah for raising up 1,466 publishers (two thirds of whom speak Dutch, one fourth Sranan Tongo, and the rest English), all of whom have mastered the pure language of truth as well. Yet, the ingathering is not over, for 4,443 persons attended the 1989 Memorial—more than three times the number of publishers!
This influx of Witnesses requires another building project—a new branch office. So plans have been made to buy seven and a half acres [3 ha] of land in a suburb of Paramaribo. With these new branch facilities, the branch office will be better equipped to care for all who are responding to the invitation, sounding ever louder: “‘Come!’ And let anyone thirsting come; let anyone that wishes take life’s water free.” May God continue to bless our labors as worldwide we obey the divine command: “Be of good courage and say: ‘Jehovah is my helper.’”—Rev. 22:17; Heb. 13:6.
The correspondents’ article, “Life in the Surinam Bush,” appeared in the Awake! of February 8, 1956.
[Chart on page 252]
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1950 1960 1970 1980 1989
1950 1960 1970 1980 1989
[Box/Map on page 192]
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Official Language: Dutch
Major Religion: Hinduism
Branch Office: Paramaribo
[Picture on page 194]
Alfred Buitenman faithfully served Jehovah for more than 60 years
[Picture on page 197]
Lien Buitenman and James Brown vividly remember seeing the “Photo-Drama of Creation” around 1920
[Picture on page 199]
Willem Telgt, baptized in 1919, later became the country’s Kingdom Hall builder
[Picture on page 207]
Grannie de Vries took care of her missionary “boys”
[Picture on page 215]
Frederik Wachter was the first Bush Negro to become a Witness
[Picture on page 218]
Stella Daulat donated her land to build the first Kingdom Hall in the capital city
[Picture on page 230]
Albert Suhr, a graduate of Gilead’s 20th class, witnessing in a home for the elderly
[Picture on page 241]
Members of the Branch Committee: C. Pinas, W. van Seijl, N. Pinas, and D. Stegenga
[Picture on page 246]
Leo Tuart has been a Witness for nearly half a century
[Picture on page 251]
Present branch office at 8-10 Wichersstraat