Peace, justice and vallenato

Candlelight service in the Choco for the displaced by violence.

After a while, a year in Colombia is just like a year in the life anywhere. The hustle and bustle of Bogotá and the smog in the air are normal now; the faces and quirks of my coworkers are just another part of my daily routine. I know where to buy pants on the Séptima for cinco mil, meetings with bureaucrats are a regular part of my routine, and everyday, communicating in Spanish becomes more and more natural.

How do I, therefore, “measure a year”: in arepas eaten, elections held, tintos consumed monedas given out, meetings attended, taxis taken, salsa moves attempted, community visits made, human rights reports read, or artesina bought?

Perhaps the best way that I have found to measure 2014 is in terms of ever expanding glimpses into the multiple realities of resistance and hope that make up a normal year for the majority of Colombians I have come to know.

Last November, I was on a boat, cruising down the San Juan River in Chocó. As the sun rose over the jungle, the mists cleared to reveal the small communities lining the banks, where lush green foliage contrasts with piles of gravel, a reminder of ever present mining activity. We drifted past a billboard proclaiming the birthday celebration of a FARC commander: a few kilometers downstream, a building on the bank is adorned in bold black spray paint: “ELN: 50 years of struggle.”

The magic of morning light combines with the realities of daily life in a red zone; later that morning, as we left the church building in the tiny com- munity of Bebedo, a group of men was huddled just outside the door, discussing new developments. During the service, an armed actor of the ELN had handed out pamphlets proclaiming a 48 hour armed strike starting at midnight the next day, paralyzing the entire San Juan region. Anyone found to be travelling would have their vehicle burnt or worse.

Yet the next morning, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of a massacre that partially displaced the community and left 10 dead, local women, part of a traditional Afro-Colombian singing group, were up at five am to greet the day with songs. As we walked through the community singing, pausing for prayer and remembrance in front of each house that lost a loved one, community members lit the candles of each person who joined the march from the candles they held in their own hands in a symbolic sharing of light.

Later in the day, with traditional dances, poetry and more songs, Bebedo remembered violence, yet celebrated life and hope for the future. The community demanded state attention and reparations, while recognizing their own abilities to remember and to move forward, even in the middle of a difficult context. We shared a community meal together, before hurrying back up the San Juan river before the armed strike began.

In June, a group of youth from the Montes de María, in the Coast regional, visited Bogotá as part of an interchange with youth from Soacha, in the south of the city. They came to learn about urban realities and to share their own stories of rural peace- building and reconciliation among over thirty different coastal communities. Torn apart by violence during the early 2000s, the communities are slowly rebuilding their lives and non-violently working to generate attention for their region. As part of that effort, local youth from many of the different pueblos have formed unlikely friend- ships and are now working together, facilitating workshops and encouraging other young people to become involved in change.

The Séptima on Sundays in one of my favourite places in Bogotá; the only way to make it better it is to experience it with a bunch of young costeños on their very first trip to the capital. We did everything: won the guinea pig betting, ate ice cream, watched all the Michael Jackson interpretations, bought hats and took pictures with the llamas.

Instead of just standing around listening to the vallenato band, we paired up and danced along to the music in true costeño style.

Yet the group was not only in the centre for tourism. Rather, they were taking advantage of a rare trip outside of the coast to also visit seldom seen family. Displaced because of violence or current economic realities, almost every person in the group had at least one family member living in Bogotá. Witnessing the long hugs and shrieks of laughter in Plaza Simon Bolívar was better than any photo taken with a llama. Even if just for an hour, families were reunited and stories were shared.

In 2014, hardship and conflict were contrasted with resistance and hope. My job with a local NGO ensures that a year in Colombia means experiencing both, in a way that is equally heart-breaking and hope giving. Laughter and solidarity in the midst of contradictions, confusion and conflict are all part of how I have learnt to measure life this year, in the midst of the increas- ing normality of my life in Bogotá. As I continue to work for peace with social justice, the Montes de María and the San Juan region are only two examples of the many places and stories I am privileged to encounter during a normal year lived out in this wonderful, complex, and devastating place.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here