Before a slave woman ran away into the jungle from an eighteenth-century Suriname sugar plantation, she wove rice into her hair so that she would have something to plant. Under her breasts and her skirts she hid a piece of cloth, a kitchen knife, some thread or a spoon -anything of practical use that she could successfully carry away into an unknown new life fraught with uncertainty and danger. (Photo above: Miss Alida 2003 is Joan Dogojo.)
Slavery was abolished in Suriname in 1863. Today, on July 1, the descendents of these Maroons celebrate their independence. This day of dancing, eating, parading and dressing in the traditional koto, is called Keti Koti, from the Sranan Tongo words for "cut the chains".
The koto is a voluminous form of dress designed by slave women to hide their figures from the attention of lustful white planters. A wide tube of cotton fabric is hardened with starch made from the casaba root. It is lowered over the head, and gathered under the breasts where it is tied. The portion of fabric above the tie is rolled down towards the waist. Sometimes additional gathered cloth is worn under the back of the skirt. Over the shoulders is worn a short cape, tied in front. Matching fabric - the anisa - is tied around the head in various styles, sometimes signifying a message or personal statement. A woman wearing such a koto dress is referred to as a "koto misi".
An important part of today's (June 30th, 2003) Keti Koti celebration is the annual Miss Alida contest, held in the evening at the Anthony Neste Stadium in Suriname's capital, Paramaribo. Although Suriname has been free from Dutch rule since 1975, a separate Miss Alida pageant is also held each year in Holland, where many former Surinamers have chosen to make their home.
The ceremonies begin with a cultural dance presentation to warm up the audience. Music provided by a live orchestra features native drums and flutes. The judges are seated at a long table just below the front of the stage, with placards to raise indicating their score after each contestant's presentation. At intermission, an original folk opera by the group Dyamanti Du depicts the hardships and tragedies of plantation slave life. Just like Hollywood's Academy Awards, the Miss Alida Pageant usually runs long, from eight in the evening until after two in the morning, causing Surinamers to complain every year about its length. Yet no one wants to give up any portion of the festivities.
Mrs. Margo S. Burgos-Kramp is the official advisor to the young ladies, coaching them in telling a story to do with black women in Suriname history, performing a song or dance, designing a koto misi dress, and writing an odo, or personal creed. Examples of such proverbs are, "An old woman's soup tastes better than a young woman's breast"; "Patience is a bitter tree, but the fruit is sweet": and, "Not everyone who talks can call himself a cook".
Kramp's broad smile indicates her pride in her Suriname heritage. "My mother has over 80 koto dresses, some of them a hundred years old," she says. "I've been involved with Miss Alida since the beginning. Today school girls call me to tell me about their high scores, hoping someday to win the program in their district so they can compete in the Miss Alida Pageant."
Kramp describes the slave girl Alida as "23 or 25, with the ability to write and sing." She says Alida had a place in the household and was very aware of her beauty.
"This story is all over the Caribbean," says Kramp. "In Suriname we believe Alida was in the household of Suzanne duPlessis, who definitely thought there was something going on between her husband and the girl."
DuPlessis, whose historic Paramaribo house near the Governor's mansion has recently been renovated to its original Dutch colonial splendor, is reputed to have been the most vicious of all of Suriname's Dutch planters.
It is not clear what happened to Alida after her mutilation. Some say she bled to death. "My great-great grandmother said Alida was healed with medicinal plants," says Kramp. "She lived on to bear two children."
According to Kramp, duPlessis' husband gave Alida a special three-legged chair, inlaid in precious metal, and she stayed on in the house accepted as a "misi", or "house wife" - mistress - to the husband. This position was not unusual in the typical Dutch colonial plantation household.
In any case, Alida's story is celebrated by today's young Suriname Creole women. Originally, besides her koto dress, Alida was portrayed as smoking a pipe, something a well-positioned misi was allowed to do. More recently, Alida is portrayed with a sprig of orange tree in her mouth, which was chewed in order to give a lady sweet breath. It was not unknown for a misi to even have slaves of her own.