May 18, 2020
by Yazmin Safatle, student in Social Anthropology at the University of Brasília (Brazil).
"It's a different world, quarantine measures won't work there…".
Those were the first words I heard in Cayenne when, at the beginning of March, I announced I was going to Papaichton, on the far west side of French Guiana, in order to do field work. I was going to work with the Boni populations, one of the ethnic groups who are descended from the Maroon slaves of Suriname, who settled on the Maroni river after rebelling and fleeing the coastal plantations in the 18th century.
Luckily, I was able to rent a room from a "Boni mom" (a name given to older women) who does slash-and-burn farming in the middle of the Amazon forest. The day after I arrived, she told me "we don't see a lot of people in the street. Everybody is afraid of going out without the form". That's how I found out about the Certificate of Travel Exemption , and especially the fine they could get if the police accosted them and they "didn't have the piece of paper". One young Boni girl told me that she and her friends would take off running when they saw the police doing checks in the street...
So a confinement routine started: go to the farm plot a few times a week, go grocery shopping and stay home the rest of the time. It even seems that cassava production has increased: with school closures, there are more laborers available.
The respecting of the rules surprised me for it went against what I had been told... It is true that we seem to be in another country, where aluku tongo is spoken - the Bonis' mother tongue -, where women wear pagnes - the pangi -, where couac is made - flour from the cassava root -, where people wash in the river and where the young people sell wassaï in bags or plastic bottles. But beyond these images, it's the precariousness of the healthcare system that separates this region from other depictions of France: the city only has a health center with two doctors and a few nurses for 8 000 residents. The closest pharmacy is in the neighboring city of Maripasoula...an hour and half by dugout canoe or two hours of dirt roads in bad condition.
In case of serious health problems, the patients are transferred to Cayenne by helicopter for there are no roads connecting the interior to the coast. At Papaichton, there are also no disinfectants and no Covid-19 tests. However, since transportation from the other cities, already difficult, has been forbidden since the end of March, this could explain why there hasn't been any confirmed cases here. To compensate, the town hall and the local association Fleuve d'hier et d'aujourd'hui (River of Past and Present) have organized the sewing of protective masks; the goal is to have enough for the residents of Papaichton and Loka, the closest Boni village. All the needed material was shipped from Cayenne.
"SOMETHING BAD CAN HAPPEN TO THE FAMILY": THE BONI STATE OF EMERGENCY
One man from the N'djuka ethnic group, another Maroon group in the region, died, from old age. The next day, the women in his neighborhood, Cormontibo, got together in front of the Bashia Ousou, a center for celebrations and group cooking; the men in the Kee Ousou, the funeral carbet. The kapiten, the traditional chiefs, first held a meeting with the population to decide whether the traditional funeral ceremony should take place, then they negotiated with the authorities "of France", the town hall and the police. It was essential for the ceremony to take place, even if less lavish than usual: as a tribute to the deceased, but mostly to avoid negative consequences, spiritual ones, that could impact his family if the rite was not done according to custom. Nothing more dangerous than a soul not finding rest and remaining among the living: it's the Bonis' state of emergency.
All the equipment needed for the party was hauled by the town hall's truck. For three days and three nights, the Boni state of emergency prevailed over the global health crisis. No one was afraid to leave the house without the piece of paper. And that's when I understood. As was explained to me by a town hall employee when I arrived, "here it's another world, because it's the 'territory of the families'. [The police, the public institutions], everybody must negotiate, you have to be diplomatic, otherwise you can't work. There are the laws of France, but here it's the traditional laws that prevail".
"CONFINED", BUT NOT "DETAINED" - LOCAL INTERPRETATIONS OF THE CONFINEMENT
Normally, people live in the street here, they go out to chat, they often celebrate between parents and neighbors. For now, businesses and bars are closed, except for those who sell food products. People have retreated, to the doorstep or in the backyards. But yet, these houses are not necessarily theirs. "I'm confined, but you can't detain me", I heard a man say.... And another young girl said she is confined, but she spends her afternoons with her sisters, her mother and her cousins. She brings her children with her so they can play with other children of the family. It is very important not to stay "all alone"... which was one of the main concerns the residents had toward me from the beginning.
"Being detained", rather than being associated with "being home", was associated with loneliness, which is considered an assault. "Being confined" is acceptable, if it goes with "being together". In order for the phrase, "only people gathered in the same household", to make sens locally, all the extended members of the family gather, in order to be close to one another.
In "family territory", we live together, "Libi na wan". That's how measures taken for all of France find meaning in the Bonis' life, adapting them to the meaning of family, to local rites and by negotiating with local traditional authorities.
P.S. I would like to thank the ANR GUYINT project for supporting me in this research.
 Attestation de Déplacement Dérogatoire: the certificate had to be filled out at each outing out of the house that included a check mark on the specific reason for the outing (medical visit, grocery shopping, exercise, etc.), the date, the time and the home address. A first offense meant a fine of 135€ (~$148).
Yazmin Safatle is an anthropology student at the University of Brasília under the supervision of Carlos Alexandre Barboza Plínio dos Santos and Stéphanie Nasuti. She is a member of the Matula Laboratory – Sociabilities, differences and inequalities.