“Few people know why July 1 is a holiday”

Published on: 29 June 2023

Keti Koti. The shackles are broken. That’s the name of the Surinamese holiday that on July 1 commemorates the slavery past and celebrates freedom. But Keti Koti is not just about Suriname’s past, say APG employees Irina Ligeon and Yogita Rambocus. “The Netherlands and Suriname share a common history. But most Dutch people know very little about that.”


Keti Koti, officially Freedom Day, is a relatively new holiday in the Netherlands. Only since the turn of the millennium have festive activities been organized in major cities - Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, Utrecht - to commemorate the ending of slavery in Suriname and the Caribbean Islands. The Netherlands abolished it in its colonies by law on July 1, 1863, yet enslaved people still had to continue working on the plantations for ten years. It was not until July 1, 1873, that the real moment of their freedom arrived. That is now 150 years ago, reason for a special Year of Remembrance. For the next twelve months, festivities will be organized throughout the country.


Irina Ligeon (all-round employee at Pension Administration) and Yogita Rambocus (pension specialist) will be attending various events. For Irina, that starts on June 30, the Day of Awareness, when at 8 p.m. on the Surinameplein in Amsterdam, the slavery past will be commemorated with music, flowers and two minutes of silence, among other things. “I’ve been attending that for a number of years,” she says. “But it’s not that official. We’re usually there with a small group of people.” And unlike at the National Remembrance Day, traffic just keeps moving. Actually, the latter illustrates in a nutshell how little that dehumanizing colonial period is still alive for the Netherlands, once the largest trader in enslaved people. In spite of all the apologies from mayors and the government. 


Little awareness

Irina and Yogita are often surprised at that fundamental lack of knowledge. Or perhaps “lack of awareness” is a better description. Irina: “The other day at lunch I asked my colleagues if they knew what July 1 is. After much thought, one colleague figured it out. But if, in the context of the Future of Pensions Act, you were to ask what July 1 stands for, everyone at APG would know immediately.”

“It is a common history we share, and not just the history of Surinamese people in the Netherlands,” Yogita emphasizes. She emigrated with her parents from Suriname to the Netherlands as a six-year-old. Irina was born and raised in Amsterdam, but her parents were born in Suriname, then still a Dutch colony. “When people say to me ‘Your Dutch is so good,’ I think: duh! Dutch was introduced in Suriname, so it’s not that strange.”


On search of a better life

Yogita: “It’s nice that people eat bami, nasi goreng and roti, but it’s also good to know why it is that we have so many Indonesian restaurants in the Netherlands. Or why different population groups chose to come and live here. They came to the Netherlands for a better life, just as the Dutch went to Suriname, Indonesia and the Caribbean Islands to become more prosperous in the Netherlands. They achieved that by exploiting the land as well as trading. It would also be nice if we didn’t have to keep explaining that it’s not just people with African roots that live in Suriname. For example, the father of swimmer Ranomi Kromowidjojo is of Surinamese-Javanese descent. And presenter Humberto Tan has Chinese and Creole blood.”


She puts the Surinamese flag on the table and explains that Indian people were the original inhabitants. The five-pointed star in the middle of the flag symbolizes the indigenous people, Afro-Surinamese, Hindustani, Javanese and Chinese who make up the current population of Suriname. The colors of the flag also have their own significance. The green represents the fertility of the country, white represents justice, peace and freedom, and red represents progress.


Multicultural origin

“This year also marks 150 years since the first Hindustanis came to Suriname to take over the work on the plantations after the abolition of slavery,” Yogita continued. “They were lured as contract workers with the promise of a great future there. So many people decided to make the crossing, using the same boats that previously transported enslaved people from Africa to Suriname. The Hindustanis also had to work very hard on the plantations, in deplorable conditions and for a pittance. They could then return to India or be given a piece of land on which to continue living. That history is part of my personal ancestry. Besides Indian, there are Portuguese, Dutch, indigenous and African ancestors in my family tree, by the way.”


Incidentally, the commemorative ceremonies on July 1 were not really an item in her youth. “The independence of Suriname in 1975 and the December killings in 1982 played a bigger role in our home. As a child, I often heard my father talk about that. I don’t remember going to the commemoration on July 1, but we always celebrated Independence Day with the whole family, on November 25.”


Knowing who you are

In Irina’s family, the history of slavery was not often discussed. “I started looking for more information myself, in the absence of history lessons in school regarding slavery. At home it was kind of a taboo subject. That’s unfortunate, but I think it’s because no one likes to talk about painful things. I did learn about the first of July from my childhood; we always celebrated it. In Suriname it is an official holiday anyway. Here you have to ask for time off.”


Yogita: “When I became a mother myself, I started thinking about what I wanted to give my daughter. I want her to know where she comes from, why we live here and what her history is. So, for example, I went with her to a theater performance where someone of Surinamese origin told stories about the influence of the (slavery) past on your family history. And on June 30, a memorial by artist patrica kaersenhout will be unveiled in the Griftpark in Utrecht - my hometown. I’m going there, too. Also, every four or five years I travel with my daughter to Suriname for a few weeks. She should get to know the country too. Plus, a lot of our relatives still live there.”


The same goes for Irina. “I’m glad my parents regularly took me to Suriname. Not that I know all my relatives there that well, but it still feels like coming home. When I am in Suriname, I go to Vierkinderen, the plantation, to the places where my ancestors came from. Then I greet people saying, ‘Bar a doti wan odi.’ That means salute and honor the ground. My umbilical cord is also buried there.”


Doing things together

As mentioned, a year-long series of events will be organized to commemorate the slavery past nationwide. The official kickoff will take place on July 1 at the Monument to the Dutch Slavery Past and Heritage in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark. In addition to Mayor Femke Halsema, King Willem-Alexander, Queen Màxima and Prime Minister Rutte will be present. The ceremony will be broadcast live from 2 p.m. on NPO1, Radio 1 and NOS.NL. After the commemoration, the 15th Keti Koti Festival will open in Amsterdam with various music and dance performances, traditional meals, lectures, films and a Caribbean market.

In addition to Amsterdam, Keti Koti Festivals or commemorative events will also be held in Rotterdam, Utrecht, Groningen, The Hague and Tilburg.


That brings us back to APG. Irina and Yogita think it would be good if in 2023 and 2024 APG also pays attention to the joint history of the Netherlands and Suriname.

Irina: “We work for participants and employers who all have their own background. You also see more and more ‘color’ in the workplace. There is still room for improvement, but at least we are working on inclusiveness.”

It would be good to see that inclusiveness in attention being given to culturally related holidays and events as well. “We just organized an iftar for the employees for the first time during Ramadan,” says Irina. That is the meal consumed by Muslims immediately after sunset during the month of fasting.


Keti Koti Tafel

So maybe, for example, a ‘Keti Koti Table’ at APG would be a good idea too? “People who don’t know each other would get to perform a ritual together. With the aim of connecting,” Irina explains.

“This custom is inspired by the Jewish seder evening,” explains Yogita. “People get together, have a meal together and meanwhile they question each other. What does freedom mean to you? Why are you here? That way you can talk to a stranger about what someone’s motivations are. Ideally, there is a mixed composition at the table. You sincerely listen to each other’s history and share what certain things mean to you. It doesn’t have to be heavy topics. But a Keti Koti Table is not necessarily low-key either.”


Such an exchange of stories, memories, feelings and visions can be an important step in increasing mutual empathy and understanding, and thus achieving a more inclusive society. It helps you to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

What Irina and Yogita are primarily concerned with is reducing their environment’s ignorance of shared history. “150 years sounds a long time ago, but it really isn’t, you know,” Irina says. “It is the past of our great-grandparents; that’s it.”