Eighty-year-old Carry-Ann Tjong-Ayong pushes a photo over the table towards me. It depicts a young Surinamese man in a dress suit, clutching a degree certificate. ‘I wasn’t the first generation, you see?’ she says. ‘This was my father in 1947.’
We’re sitting in the basement of the house in Utrecht that Tjong-Ayong has shared with graphic designer husband Wim Verboven for as long as anyone cares to remember. Also at the kitchen table is Eddy Ligeon, now 85 years old. Like Tjong-Ayong, Ligeon was born in Paramaribo, came to the Netherlands in the late fifties to attend school and went on to study at the University of Groningen.
It was a decisive period for both of them. Carry-Ann had originally planned to go back to Suriname to teach Spanish there, but having met the man she was later to marry, she settled here. Eddy’s departure from Suriname turned out to be equally definitive. Once he had left Paramaribo, he did not return to his fatherland for fifty years. Having completed his degree in Pharmacy, he became a researcher at what is now the UMCG. For many years, he also played as a guard for Donar, Groningen’s basketball club.
Both Carry-Ann and Eddy were sent to the Netherlands because of the lack of educational opportunities in Suriname. Finding the money to pay for the voyage was the main challenge. ‘Yes’, says Carry-Ann. ‘You could get a grant from the Surinamese government, but only if you had really good grades. Or good contacts, of course.’
She came over in 1955, together with two brothers and a sister, on the steamship Cottica. It took three long weeks to cross the Atlantic Ocean. ‘I hated it’, says Carry-Ann. ‘We’d been so happy in Suriname, surrounded by family and friends, and suddenly we were being packed off to the Netherlands without our parents.’
Eddy’s experience was very different. ‘My father was away a lot – he was first engineer on deep sea vessels. When I was six, my mother was hospitalized because of a war trauma. So to all intents and purposes, I’d lost them both. I went to live with my grandmother. All my aunts and uncles were still living at home with her too then. I felt closest to my Uncle William. When he graduated and left home to set up his own pharmacy, I moved with him. At some point, it was decided that I would be sent to the Netherlands. It was all arranged within a week. I didn’t even know what was in my suitcase. My father took me to the airport in Zanderij and I boarded the plane. Simple as that.’
For Eddy, it was an adventure. Aged just 17, he found himself living at the ‘Instituut Hommes’ in Hoogezand and attending school in Sappemeer. ‘I had not really had a proper home since I was six. I had no mother. My father was absent. I had just been kind of parked with my grandmother and my aunts and uncles. I didn’t have a space that I could retreat to, never mind a room of my own. If I wanted to be alone, I crawled under the table with a book. But at the boarding school, I had my own room, my own space, for the first time in my life. To me, it was absolute bliss.’
As young schoolchildren in Paramaribo, Carry-Ann and Eddy learned all about the Netherlands. ‘We knew the train journey from Groningen to Delfzijl by heart’, says Eddy. ‘O yes’, confirms Carry-Ann, ‘we could name all the stations in order.’ ‘But if you’d asked us about the history or geography of Suriname’, adds Eddy, ‘we wouldn’t have had a clue.’
Their memories of their school years and the time they spent studying in Groningen are rich and plentiful. When the four Tjong-Ayong children thought they might just die of homesickness, their mother came over from Suriname for a couple of years. Their house in the Helperbrink soon became a warm home away from home for people who had been uprooted from their own culture. ‘Auntie Pam was a mother figure to all the Surinamese students’, says Eddy.
The Surinamese were not the only foreigners in Groningen. Together with people from Norway, Venezuela, and Curacao, they set up their own club that met every Saturday in a building opposite the Martini church, where a German dance teacher, Gretl van Bruggen, taught them the foxtrot, the quickstep, the tango, the English waltz… Carry-Ann joined the women’s student association Magna Pete, which later joined forces with the men’s association Vindicat, of which Eddy was a member.
Eddy remembers the challenge that his frizzy hair posed to barbers. Once, in a barber’s shop on the Hereplein, an older barber actually asked if he could take some of Eddy’s hair home to show the children what Black Peter’s hair is like. ‘I just told him to go ahead!’
There was no question of discrimination. Sinterklaas was celebrated with just as much enthusiasm in Suriname as in the Netherlands. Every December, Carry-Ann’s brothers played the role of Black Peter, with a little additional make-up. So did Eddy. The cap with a brightly-coloured feather in it that all Vindicat members wore in those days came in handy.
‘I was on the board of the literary faculty association’, Carry-Ann says. ‘W.F. Hermans was affiliated to the University’s Social Geography department at the time, but he always refused our invitations to come and give us a talk. Then they sent me to talk to him. I rang him and he told me I could visit him. He lived on the Ossemarkt, in that building on the corner. He opened the door to me with a cat on his arm and invited me upstairs. He said that before we had our little chat, he had a surprise for me. In walked a Surinamese woman. His wife, it turned out. She asked, “Are you a Tjong-Ayong? I was friends with your nieces and your father studied with my brother.” That was the start of a lovely conversation. And then Hermans said, “Given all the connections between Emmy’s family and yours, I can hardly refuse your invitation, can I?” Mission accomplished!’
Carry-Ann’s husband places a photo album on the table. It testifies to the huge significance of her Groningen years. Just a couple of years ago, a full fifty years on from the period in which they studied together, she and ten of her cohort from 1960 made a trip to Suriname to visit old haunts from their youth.
Eddy also has annual reunions. He shares one last anecdote with me to illustrate how important his university years were to him. ‘I remember being in the chemistry lab on the Bloemsingel 1 on the day of the Elfstedentocht ice skating race in the harsh winter of 1963, the year that Paping won. Two of our lab colleagues were also participating in the race. Someone had brought a little transistor radio into the lab so that we could follow the commentary. What a day… We were working on our experiments, but every time that there was something on the radio, we all gathered round to listen: lab assistants and professor. Moments like that. Absolutely priceless.’
Eddy Ligeon was born in Paramaribo and came to Groningen in 1956. His uncle wanted him to become a pharmacist, but Eddy had other plans. He specialized in Clinical Chemistry, worked at what later became the UMCG for many years and played a key role in Donar, the basketball club affiliated to the Vindicat student association. In his student years, he lived on the Westersingel in Groningen, close to the University’s computer centre on the Reitdiepkade. He worked there for the Astronomical Institute in the evenings and at night, using the ZEBRA, the world’s first large automatic binary computer.
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