Nature

How a NYC lawyer became a native of Suriname and found a new family


In 1970, John Lenoir’s postgraduate research on a colony of runaway African slaves in Suriname met an inauspicious star. His beloved wife, Katie, has arrived from New York, pet cat Daisy in tow, to live with him in a remote river island village for the next three years.

But Katie, an aspiring filmmaker, left Langatabiki almost as soon as she saw the rudimentary living conditions: a thatched-roof lean-to with no furniture except a hammock and a group of vampire bats that fed on exposed human limbs at night.

Daisy stayed, but a few months later she was dead – probably killed by a jungle virus to which she had no immunity.

“I succumbed to an overwhelming loneliness that was frightening,” Lenoir wrote in his memoir, “Brother Mambo: Finding Africa in the Amazon” (Black Rose Writing), now available. “I was alone in a foreign country, and now, alone in life! Was this adventure a colossal mistake? Perhaps a flight of male pride? »

But he would eventually marry a native and start a new family — before eventually returning to New York and working on some of the DA’s most high-profile crimes of the 1980s.

John Lenoir was a graduate student from New York – originally from Oklahoma – when he moved to Suriname to study culture.

Lenoir, a broke 27-year-old graduate student was struggling to complete a doctorate in anthropology at the New School in Manhattan at the time. He originally wanted to do his fieldwork among the Igbo people in Nigeria. But when the Biafran war got in the way, Lenoir headed for South America – first to newly independent Guyana “where nothing worked out as planned”, in part because officials suspected the lanky American student was a CIA agent.

Lenoir had spent a year in Vietnam in the mid-1960s under contract with the U.S. government, researching the impact of the war on civilians in South Vietnam and “occasionally accompanied a guy from the CIA on his ‘rural development’ visits,” he writes. .

“I had a little hard case with a Smith-Corona portable typewriter, the laptop of the day,” writes Lenoir, who grew up on a farm in Oklahoma. “I also brought a small glass jar with a cork filled with soil. It was my personal talisman that I had prepared as a way to connect with family roots. I had taken a short break from anthropology classes in New York to return to the long-abandoned farm in Oklahoma to collect dirt under the tall mulberry tree where I had spent countless hours as a child. .

KutuKutu, now known as Phil Ceder, was a teenager when he befriended Lenoir.
KutuKutu, now known as Phil Ceder, was a teenager when he befriended Lenoir.

As Lenoir recounts, he followed a series of mystical signs to Suriname. The first involved a persistent hummingbird that seemed to steer him in the direction of the country as he sat brooding over his failures on a porch in Guyana.

“My brain kicked into high gear,” he writes. “Something was going on here, I knew about oracles and spirits animating animals from my grad school. Had something possessed this hummingbird? Was it trying to warn me of something or tell me something ?”

The next morning, he headed in the direction of the hummingbird, all the way to Suriname. There he immersed himself in the Pamaka, a community of descendants of African slaves who had escaped their Dutch plantation lords to live in freedom in the heart of the Amazon in the 17th century.

The villagers were originally so suspicious of Lenoir that they tore up his field notes.
The villagers were originally so suspicious of Lenoir that they tore up his field notes.

“I found myself at the muddy gates of Pamaka, an extraordinary community of Africans living on islands in the Maroni River between Suriname and French Guiana,” he wrote. “What I found was a people robbed about two hundred years ago from their villages in what is now the region of Ghana, Nigeria and Congo; then sold to Dutch plantation owners to exploit their South American colony. They had escaped the plantations and fled from troops and bounty hunters to form free colonies deep in the Amazon rainforest.

For Lenoir, who is white, it was difficult at first. The student wore T-shirts and khakis to avoid sunburn among bare-breasted women and men in loincloths, and was simply not trustworthy, even though he found it difficult to learn their language. When he first tried to map homes in the community, villagers tore up his notes, fearing he would send them to the US military to carry out bombings.

Lenoir began taking notes at night in his hut after interviewing members of the community. Not only did he learn the Pamaka language, but he made a close friend in KutuKutu, a teenager who brought him a hot meal on his first night in the remote village and who is a co-author of his memoirs.

Although Lenoir "married" a local woman and had three children with her, not all the locals were happy that he was contributing to the gene pool.
Although Lenoir “married” a local woman and had three children with her, not all the locals were happy that he was contributing to the gene pool.

KutuKutu was Lenoir’s guide as he was eventually invited to participate in sacred purification rituals and funerals, where elders would pour copious libations of rum to honor the dead. (Also known as Phil Ceder, KutuKutu later moved to Holland where he now drives a truck for the Dutch Postal Authority.)

And after more than a year in the village, Lenoir was given the name “TiMambo” or Brother Mambo. He also “married” a local woman and had three children.

“I wasn’t supposed to contribute to the gene pool,” Lenoir, now 80, told The Post. “It was a touchy subject and not easily accepted.” After his student visa in the country expired, Lenoir returned to New York to complete his thesis and worked as a taxi driver to support his new family.

Lenoir went to Suriname to study the Pamaka, a community of descendants of African slaves who had escaped their Dutch plantation lords to live freely in the heart of the Amazon in the 17th century.
Lenoir went to Suriname to study the Pamaka, a community of descendants of African slaves who had escaped their Dutch plantation lords to live freely in the heart of the Amazon in the 17th century.

At first, relatives in Suriname refused to allow Lenoir’s wife and children to travel with him because they were afraid they would never see them again. He accepted a teaching position at John Jay College and traveled to Suriname twice a year to see his two daughters and son. In New York, he recorded himself reading books on tape and mailed them to his children. He also registered them as US citizens.

Back in New York, Lenoir wanted to combine his work in anthropology with a law degree, but after accepting an internship with Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau in 1979, he became “fascinated” and embarked on a career as a prosecutor. He worked on some of the city’s biggest cases of the 1980s, including the ‘Red Ferrari’ murder in which a Manhattan investment broker shot a New Jersey driver who dented his sports car in 1984 .

Later, as a federal prosecutor in Houston, Lenoir tried drug cases involving the Colombian cocaine cartels.

KutuKutu and author in 2019.
KutuKutu and Lenoir in 2019.
Lenoir (left) with his ex-wife and three children, in 2018.
Lenoir (left) with his ex-wife and three children, in 2018.

Lenoir eventually moved his family from Suriname to the United States. His daughters live in Connecticut and Washington, DC, and his son lives in Houston, he told the Post. His wife lived in the United States for six years before their breakup, although she continued to travel back and forth between Suriname and the United States to visit her children.

In November 2021, she died of a brain tumor while visiting her daughter in Washington. His remains were returned to Suriname for a funeral in Pamako. Lenoir explained that the Pamakan “believe that if you live your life in a way that respects the people around you, you come back as an ancestor.”

Brother Mambo

“I tune in spiritually,” Lenoir said of his own life, adding that in his heart he never left the Pamakan. “I learned that the Pamako concept of life and death is a beautiful and very viable system. I can’t wait to come back through one of my relatives.

As he notes in his book, “If all goes well, I will be here for generations. like a well-remembered ancestor, if only an ersatz, worthy of a libation from time to time.

New York Post

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