The Complexity That Is Colombia

The following Accompaniment Report was received June 13, 2013 from Urabá-based accompaniers Alison Wood and Bemene Piaro.

Coming from the United States, it is easy for us to imagine Colombia as a uniform place. While the country is united nationally (especially, as we saw, when Team Colombia is playing to advance to the World Cup!), there are a multitude of regional and ethnic differences.  We’ve seen great geographic differences, from the mountainous high-rises of Medellin to the smaller, banana-surrounded Apartadó, to the rural, seaside Totumo. One pastor with whom we spoke said that in language, in the make-up of the population, in culture and traditions, there is great variation from place to place within the country. Part of this, the pastor shared, is due to the historical mixing of populations: the indigenous population, Africans brought to Colombia as slaves, colonizers not just from Spain but from Germany, England, and France. From what we have seen and heard so far, Urabá has a high number of displaced and impoverished people and also a high proportion of Afro-descendants.

The social political circumstances are as varied and complex as the culture and geography. When I (Bemene) asked our local host in Medellin about the apparent peace in the city, she shared that Medellin has recovered from much of the violence of 20 years earlier due to focused national and international investment in the country and city. However, some violence between armed gangs still takes place, especially in one neighborhood in particular.  A staff member of the IPC in Apartadó shared that she was personally displaced by the violence 20 years ago to this region, but that her brother continues to live on a small fraction of their family’s land. Her family is pursuing legal avenues for reclaiming their land, but she isn’t sure how successful the legal process will be or if a favorable ruling would be complied with. Even if they do get the land back, she said, it would be too painful for her and her family to return there.  In Totumo, one youth shared that she and her family had been displaced while her mother was pregnant with her younger sister. She thought the violence they experienced was to blame for the difficulty of her sister’s birth and her mother’s continuing health problems.  When we asked how old she was when that happened, she said, “I was five… but I still remember.”

The fact that many people we have met here in Urabá are actually here because they have been displaced is almost like a presumed fact, but not necessarily always offered. We can’t know what people have experienced, really, unless we ask directly. This has been a reminder to us to check our expectations and preconceived notions, on many fronts. A reminder to pay attention to what is happening around us, to look below the surface. Here at the beginning of our journey, this process is just beginning. We are starting to learn about the physical reality of the place: how the water in Totumo only flows for a few hours a day because there is no purification plant nearby. Most folks have to purchase whatever water they want to drink. We are starting to learn too about what the church is doing here: how in Totumo, again, the church is organizing itself and seeking support for a Living Waters project, to build a water filtration mechanism that would serve not only the church but the whole community.  But we have much more listening to do if we hope to understand sociopolitical structures driving the physical realities we are observing, and we are coming to terms with the fact that it is more complex than we can hope to understand with only a month to be here.