“Make Sure You Talk About the Laughter as Well the Tears”
Well, after a long and exhausting day of travel yesterday that began at around 9:30 pm on Monday night in Bogotá, Colombia and ended at around 2:30 yesterday afternoon back in southern Alberta, I am finally sitting at my desk with an opportunity to begin the process of synthesizing, analyzing, or somehow responding to what I have seen and heard and experienced over the last ten days or so.
Yet now that I have this bit of time and space, I am finding that I don’t quite know where or how to begin. There are so many sights and sounds and stories jostling around for space in my head, and I’m finding it difficult to give them any kind of order or narrative shape. Perhaps it’s fatigue. Perhaps it’s the lingering effects of the nasty (but mercifully brief!) gastrointestinal affliction that all of us managed to contract. Perhaps it’s the nature of the sights and sounds and stories. Or all of the above and more. But I realize that there may be some who are curious about my time in Colombia, so I’ll try to put a few thoughts together today.
The big overarching reality that affects/motivates/necessitates/lends urgency to MCC’s work in this region is that of the massive number of Internally Displaced People (IDP) in Colombia. Current estimates put the number of IDPs in Colombia at around 5 million people—approaching an eighth of the total population, and the highest number of any nation on earth. The overwhelming majority of these IDPs are small farmers (campesinos) who have, through a variety of methods, been forced from their farmland by various armed groups and/or large corporations (over 50% of which, are Canadian, incidentally) looking to put the land to other uses (usually either big agribusiness, mining [gold, zinc, platinum], or palm-oil production). Many of these campesinos and their families end up in or around Bogotá living in extremely difficult circumstances of material poverty, neglect (from all levels of government), violence, and vulnerability to the many and varied armed groups that continue to be influential in Colombia.
Our group had the opportunity to visit a hillside region south of Bogotá called Cazucá where one of the largest settlements of displaced campesinos currently reside. It was a sobering visit to put it mildly and will likely be one of the experiences of the trip that stands out the most to me. I had never observed, firsthand, the kind of poverty that I saw there. I had never heard, firsthand, the kind of stories that I heard here. I have never felt such an overwhelming sense of profound sadness mixed with rage that I felt as I watched a little girl aimlessly walking barefoot through the labyrinth of mud and garbage and dog feces and debris that is everywhere in Cazucá. Or as we heard about a little boy who couldn’t walk properly due to malnutrition. Or as we were told about teenagers who are targeted for recruitment by guerrilla groups and then terrorized or even murdered if they take a wrong step. Or as we listened to a man explain how he was trying to use crude plastic pipes to divert the rainwater and mud away from his precarious shack patched together from tin and wood because the government refused to provide even the most basic of infrastructure for this “illegal” community. Or as an MCC worker told us the story of the older man (picture below) who had seen three of his daughters murdered due to his involvement in land disputes. So many heartbreaking stories of cruelty, violence, suffering, injustice, dehumanization, and systematic and deliberate neglect of the most vulnerable of people.
These are stories that need to be told. These are stories that the world outside Colombia needs to hear. The world needs to hear that, despite aggressive efforts by the Colombian government to present an image of a cleaned-up, enthusiastically “open for business” nation where violence and conflict and social upheaval are things of the past, there are huge problems that remain, and huge human costs to the political and economic strategies they are currently pursuing. The world needs to hear about how the practices of huge multinational corporations (again, the majority of which are Canadian) affect small farmers and their families and how this, in turn, affects the cities of Colombia due to the swelling numbers of IDPs moving to their outskirts. But this is not the only story that needs to be told.
On one of our last days in Colombia, an MCC worker shared a comment that had been made to her by a Colombian regarding how we should tell the story of Colombia in our own contexts. She said, “make sure you talk about the laughter as well as the tears.” Make sure that you talk about the natural beauty of the land, the lush, fertile landscapes, the sandy beaches, the historical sites, the cosmopolitan cities, the creative, generous people, the ethnic diversity and rich cultural heritage, the courage and faith evident in the lives of those who face enormous challenges, the efforts made to challenge injustice and right wrongs. Make sure the world knows that while we undoubtedly want things to get better, we are proud of our country—we are proud to be Colombianos!
Make sure you talk about the signs of hope—even in desperate places like Cazucá.
And so, even though I cannot get images like the ones described above out of my mind, I set them alongside other images from Cazucá. Like the image of an MCC supported project called “Creciendo Juntos” (“Growing Together”) which offers all kinds of after-school programs from literacy support to peace and nonviolent solutions to conflict to hip-hop classes to basketball programs to art classes. Or the image of a project called “El Progreso” which provides childcare and education, offers sewing classes and houses a small library. Or the image of “Los Pinos” where kids can get at least one good meal per day, access to basic healthcare once a week, and a hug and a smile whenever they drop by. In each of these places we were greeted by smiling, laughing children who were loved and cared for by incredible people doing what they could, with profoundly limited resources, to bring light and beauty to a dark and ugly place. Each of these places is a beacon of hope in a very dark place. Each, a place of laughter amidst the tears.
Some images of laughter and tears from Cazucá.