Papiamento children’s books pose a challenge in the Dutch Caribbean

by Anouska Kock

I recently came across an article in the Jamaica Observer about children’s literature written in Jamaican dialect. In the article, entitled Don't block the dialect!, managing director of Carlong Publishers, Shirley Carby, warns early childhood educators not to prevent young children from expressing themselves in the Jamaican dialect, the only language known to them.

Carby told the Observer West (quote): "We have always been taught that our language is bad language. It cannot be bad if it is the only language we have and for many children patois is all they know. And just as they learn patois by hearing their parents and relatives speak, they can learn any other language but we can't reject what they bring with them as the only language otherwise we shut them up and we block their learning potential."

I found the article - and the controversy it presents - very interesting, because the same debate is dominating the literary scene of the Dutch Caribbean.

Educators in the Dutch Caribbean promote the use of Standard Dutch, because this is the language of the school system. In fact, all final exams, from primary school to university, are taken in Standard Dutch.

But contrary to the practice in schools, Standard Dutch is not the language in which most Dutch Caribbean children experience daily life. In Suriname, most people speak Surinamese Dutch, a lookalike version of the Standard, but customized to the taste and feel of the tropics (‘broken Dutch’, as it is derogatively called in certain circles). It is the language with which most Surinamese children are raised at home.

In the Dutch Antilles, the common language is not even remotely comparable to any form of Dutch. Here, people speak Papiamento, a language which origins and development are quite similar to that of Haiti’s Creole.

Papiamento emerged in the 17th century at the meeting of Africans and European slave traders. It is anchored in Portuguese and Spanish, with some vocabulary influences of African languages, English, Dutch, and Arawak. Throughout the previous centuries, Papiamento remained strictly an oral language, with no literary tradition. Up until 10 years ago, there was not even an official spelling.

The status of Papiamento changed in the latter part of the 20th century. Stimulated by growing senses of nationalism among the populations of the Dutch Antilles, the ‘language of the people’ served a vital role in consolidating the cultural identity of the six islands: Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, Sint Maarten, Saba and Sint Eustatius. Along with it, arose a new development in the publishing industry. The Dutch Antilles launched their first Papiamento newspapers and magazines, and books started to appear in that language too.

In the past twenty years, Papiamento has gained tremendous momentum. This is especially true in Aruba, where, compared to the other islands, the use of written Papiamento has been steadily promoted by a committed core of linguistic activists. Since Aruba, in 1986, acquired an autonomous status within the Kingdom of the Netherlands (comparable to countries in the British Commonwealth system), the language has been uplifted so much, both in oral and written usage, that is has virtually dismissed the usage of Dutch.

Today, the only institution still supporting Dutch, in speech and writing, is the educational system. But, indicative of the cultural conflict, it can do so only in dual support of Papiamento, because this is the only language that 90 percent of contemporary Aruban children (according to the Central Bureau for Statistics) know before they go to school.

Most Aruban children have Papiamento as their first language. This is the language through which they experience their world, at least up until the first grade, when they are gradually introduced to Dutch. To deal with the conundrum, the school system allows for Papiamento as the instructional language up until the third grade. Only as of the fourth grade, are lessons taught in Dutch.

It will come as no surprise, that on an island where the habit of reading is largely underdeveloped (as in many other Caribbean nations), children are even less inclined to pick up a book in a language that is foreign to them. Whether the pictures are cool, or not. For most Aruban children, a teacher’s assignment to read a book is synonymous to having to do a complex chore. For most Aruban children, Dutch is anything but fun. To add to their alienation, the children also have to emotionally dislodge themselves from their island world, because all available Dutch books are written by Dutch authors for children in the Netherlands. There are no Aruban children’s authors writing in Dutch (for obvious reasons).

Although the language barriers are less for children in the rest of the Dutch Caribbean, where Dutch still enjoys a firmer hold, the Dutch books about winter snow and train rides are as unappealing to children in Curacao and the other Antilles as they are to their Aruban peers.

Kon Nanzi  nek shon Arei (How Anansi tricked the King)
Fortunately, there is a growing quantity of children’s books being published in Papiamento, written by an equally increasing number of authors from the Antilles. None of these books are produced commercially, however, because of the absence of book publishers and the limitations of the market (each island has its own spelling for Papiamento, which hinders cross publications within the territory). Therefore, all Papiamento children’s books are produced through locally based nonprofits who receive their funds from, ironically, subsidy institutions in the Netherlands.

National libraries, authors and independent literary programs are now providing the evidence that the love for stories and books can indeed be instilled in youngsters from the Antilles. They do so, by promoting tales in Papiamento. Youth librarian Olivia Figaroa of the National Library of Aruba says that the demand for Papiamento children’s books has increased in recent years. She attributes this to the library’s annual children’s books week, which has been featuring Antilles authors, and a relatively new project called Bon nochi, drumi dushi (Good night, sleep tight). The latter is a program initiated by children’s author Olga Buckley, where volunteers visit small children in their homes and read them stories before they go off to bed. The project aims to stimulate a reading habit in both parents and children. All selected titles are in Papiamento. According to librarian Figaroa, due to these developments, more and more Aruban parents now actively seeking out Papiamento titles in the library, or they choose to buy these books in stores, to treat their offspring on birthdays.

But schools are not budging. Despite the merits of native literature in regard to training a habit of reading, the educational system continues to discriminate against it. Understandably, one might say, considering the necessity of Dutch skills in higher education. But others argue, based on scientific evidence, that children best learn a second language only after they have gained a full understanding of their own tongue. The debate continues.

A few schools are making exceptions. These are kindergartens and special educations schools. They rejoice in the presence of Papiamento books. It is only here, where Aruban children can hear their own voice and experience their own world through the written word.

Papiamento Children's Books!

About the Author

Anouska Kock, a Caribbean writer of Surinamese-Dutch descent, is a freelance journalist and editorial consultant. She is also the founder and moderator of Caribbean Literary Salon and currently lives in Aruba.

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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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