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‘We have to stay alert and keep on feeling the past’

Space for open dialogue on historical slavery was created at the Keti Koti Table at Museum De Lakenhal, organised by Leiden University and the Municipality of Leiden. There, just metres away from 17th-century paintings, Leideners shared a ritual meal and spoke about the effects of slavery and our colonial history in society today.

For some it feels a bit uncomfortable at first, as they take their seat at the table. ‘Black’ sits opposite ‘white’ and vice versa. Most have never met before and feel a bit shy and reticent about sharing personal experiences. But Mercedes Zandwijken, who came up with the idea for the Keti Koti dialogue table together with her husband Machiel Keestra, reassures everyone it will be fine. And it is, after a number of rituals that make space for sitting with this discomfort.

‘Black’ and ‘white’ are a bit awkward as they sit face to face

Kwasi bita sticks and pleng offerings

The participants are invited to chew on a small kwasi bita stick. The bitter taste of this medicinal plant recalls the brutal period of slavery. In pairs they chewing on the bitter wood and rub each other’s wrists with coconut oil. They sense the pain their ancestors experienced or inflicted on others, and smooth away the pain in the other, in the place where the chains would have been. During this ritual, a choir sings a lament to the ancestors and makes a pleng offering to thank Mother Earth. ‘This is a good Surinamese custom’, Zandwijken explains, ‘before we start something as important as this dialogue.’

An older man is moved by the rituals. ‘Stroking our hands... I’ve never experienced it like that’, is how gives voice to his emotions. His younger partner is equally moved. He expresses it in powerful keywords: ‘Confronting. Deep. Furious. Pain. Freedom.’ And this symbolic act doesn’t fail to have an effect on many of the other pairs either.

A simple Surinamese meal is eaten during the Keti Koti dialogue table.

The Keti Koti Table: sharing experiences

The Keti Koti Table is one of the ways in which, during National Slavery Memorial Year, the university and municipality are marking the abolition of slavery in Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles on 1 July 1873. In collaboration with the municipality, University Diversity Officer Aya Ezawa and her colleague Fakiha Ahmed invited 100 people to join in.

During a simple yet delicious Surinamese meal that reminds us of historical slavery, the participants are given questions that prompt them to explore how they can take and receive the space to be themselves. This begins by sharing an experience of not having done or said something they wanted to do or say. And explaining what stopped them from doing so and how they felt about this. Everyone has the same amount of time to talk about their experiences. Their partner is expected to listen in silence for minutes. This is rather difficult, they discover.

Racism and discrimination

Many of their shared experiences relate to racism and discrimination: an ideology and actions upon which slavery and colonialism were based. Experiences of feeling excluded at school, university, work or club and effects of this. But also how it feels not to stand up for someone who experiences racism. The brand-new mayor of Leiden, Peter van de Velden, returns to this later. ‘We have to stand up if something isn’t right, in politics too. We’re sometimes too cautious about this.’

Alderman Abdelhaq Jermoumi remembers how his life suddenly changed after 9/11, the day terrorists attacked the United States with planes. In his youth he was always able to ‘take up space’, he says. ‘I have no memory whatsoever of racism. But that changed after 9/11. People constantly expected me, a practising Muslim, to distance myself publicly from a group of utterly deranged people. It hurt, that mistrust, and made me really angry inside.’ Many people can identify with that ‘constantly having to’, or as a student calls it ‘being the Ambassador of Immigrantia.’

‘We have to keep on feeling the past’

Annetje Ottow, President of the Executive Board of the university, is moved by the personal stories that she hears. ‘It makes you more aware of how the past still reverberates in the present. A mother who says that people touch her daughters’ hair without asking... You can’t do that. I find it really disturbing. It’s important we all know this, that we’re alert and that we keep on feeling the past.’

‘That my family was part of a colonial system that normalised inequality… No one ever mentioned that at home.’

Her own grandfather was a civil servant in the Dutch East Indies, she says. ‘But that my family was part of a colonial system that normalised inequality... No one ever mentioned that at home. What the Japanese did to them in the war was what prevailed.’

Now there is more attention to underexplored aspects of this history, how she views the Dutch East Indies has changed. Ottow sees it as her responsibility to contribute to the critical reflection and dialogue on slavery and the colonial past. She applauds the research that the university and municipality have initiated into their role in these dark pages of history. ‘Because why didn’t the researchers from the university that stands for freedom ask questions about a system that robbed many people of their freedom?’

Learning to swim all over again

The participant who was so moved by the coconut oil ritual asks himself a similar question at the end of the evening. ‘Why did I think for nearly 80 years that I had to do with slavery? I even said it in an interview in the paper. I truly believed it. Now I know that I have to discover my life anew.’ His partner listens admiringly. ‘He is 80 and is going to discover his life anew! As if he wants to learn to swim all over again. But he’s completely right and is teaching me something about great dignity and hope. There is always room to give your life new impact.’

For more information about the rituals and customs at the Keti Koti Table, go to: ketikotitafel.nl

Text: Marijn Kramp
Photos: Kevin Kwee

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