Culture, inequality, and hope.

The theme this week has been culture. It seems appropriate then that Monday was not only a “feria” day in Colombia (these seemingly frequent holidays) but also the 4th of July. All the foreigners (including 3 United Statesians, a Mexican, a Canadian, and a Peruvian) as well as one of our Colombian teammates met up and had a celebratory/subversive day of it. We made pigs in a blanket and brownies, listened to Taylor Swift, Tom Petty, Sons of Bill, and Pink (among others on Will’s epic playlist) and played fishbowl with the US as a theme. Following the game, Larisa read Andrea Gibson’s “Say Yes” spoken word poem (youtube it!), I read some ee cummings, Erika read about a Christian perspective on patriotism, and we also watched Bon QuiQui (youtube it…maybe) and “Can I get your number”. To end our “Yay/We’re Sorry!” party we sorted through the various fishbowl words (including “war-on-terror”, “hamburger and fries”, “imperialism”, “Jazz”, “The most handsome, Will” and other USA-related words) and put them either in a bowl to be watered or a bowl to be burned. Some words were debated and we ended up putting half or part into each bowl (“Beyonce” was such a word, as well “petroleum”).

Tuesday we heard the life-stories of the two last SEED-ers, which proved more traumatic than expected– which only reinforced what an important exercise this sharing was. We then each gave 15 minute presentations on our cultures of origin. Those of you who know my deep sense of ambiguity re my origins can imagine how stressful this was for me, however it was fascinating to see the great diversity and richness of culture our group represents.

Tuesday we heard a lecture about the history of “Cultural Diversity” in Colombia and the struggle of LGBTQs, women, indigenous folks, people with disabilities, gypsies, and Afro-Colombians for specific rights and recognition in the country. We looked at the causes and consequences of the 1991 Constitutional change (from a theoretically uni-lingual, Catholic state to the recognition of a multicultural, pluri-ethnic state) and the various grievances and advances of each group. It was fascinating for me to realize that in theory, and legally, all international law is binding within Colombia. Obviously there is still mass-discrimination, human rights violations and corruption, but it was still shocking that legally at least Colombia is far surpassing the US in this area.

Later we visited ONIC, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia as well as the CNOA, a National Afro-Colombian organization and heard from leaders within these organizations about the strategies and struggles of indigenous and Afro-Colombian people for rights. The indigenous population is about 1,400,000 and the land which is officially theirs is about 30,000,000 hectars. Almost all of this land is Amazonian juggle, areas with no roads and absolutely vital global resources (including air), however they also have reserves along the North-West cost below Panama and a small amount on the Caribbean coast. Their struggle is for national recognition and consultation on matters that will affect them as well as desiring development on their own terms. When I asked one of the representatives what they meant by “alternative development” the answer I was given was “We want to take the good, and leave the bad”. Indigenous populations have suffered from corporate invasion of their lands, the influence of alcohol, drugs, and prostitution, as well as cultural diffusion. Indigenous people who live in cities also struggle with racism and discrimination. One of the most fascinating parts of our visit to ONIC was seeing how the cultural differences were apparent even in the manner of communication.

The situation for Afro-Colombians is different in many ways, for instance, they do not have nearly the amount of international support and national recognition as the indigenous folks do.  One of their central struggles is in being recognized as a group. Folks at CNOA believe and state that 26-30% of Colombia’s total population is Afro-Colombian. The official government figure is 10.6% as of the 2005 census; hence CNOA is working on promoting self-definition of Afro-Colombians so that the 2014 census will show the importance of Afro-Colombians in Colombia.  As of right now the government has only entitled Afro-Colombians administration of a small strip of land on the Pacific Coast, with no accompanying economic support for services and programs, although Afro-Colombians rank higher than average in almost every negative social-index (illiteracy, poverty, etc). This seems to be a political move to be able to say that Afro-Colombians are “there” rather than the truth that they are everywhere, Bogota, the Caribean coast, and are being discriminated against in all of these areas.

So much of the conflicts here center around land issues so I want to be clear when I talk about Indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups having land that it not only matters if or how much land one has, but what land one has. As our first speaker told us, much of the land Afro-Colombians live on they should be paid for being there, not the other way around. There are some pretty rough climates here.

Amidst these visits Bonnie also managed to give a lecture on indirect vs direct communication and, without getting into too much detail, I must say I’m fairly paranoid and worried now. Turns out I’m an incredibly direct communicator, and that’s just not okay here. I foresee frustrations and hurt feelings…so I’m trying to practice caution.

Today we heard from a man working on supporting conscientious objection about the role and struggle of youth in Colombian society. He focused his presentation on the role of poverty, “security”, and armed conflict related to youth. This was the session I understand most of, and got most upset about; it was also the most relevant to what my work in Medellin will be. I’m sure I will be reflection a lot this topic in the next couple of years but for now I just want to share some of the statistics he shared with us:

  • 63% of Colombians live on less than 2$ a day, or those 32% live on less than 1$ a day. Many of these folks living in poverty and extreme poverty are youth.
  • 39.8% of Colombia is considered “youth”, from 16-22years
  • Transparency International ranked Colombia as #11 most inequitable country (in terms of income gaps)
  • Colombia has the 2nd largest number of internally displaced persons in the world (after Sudan)
  • Colombia is the 3rd highest country in terms of unemployment. The government claims 16% unemployment (counting unofficial and underemployment), whereas international human rights groups count it at 41% (How such a statistical discrepancy can exist is beyond me…)
  • After 8 years of the military-focused Uribe administration Colombia is also the 3rd country in terms of percent of their GDP spent on defense, 6.3% they even beat the US which spends about 4.4% of their GDP on defense (not to be confused with % of national budget where the US is above 60% in “defense”)
  • There are currently around 430,000 people in the Colombian Armed Forces. With the implementation of Plan Patriota and USA pressure the goal is to get to half a million.

As with many inner-city, poverty-stricken African-American communities in the US, many Colombian youth find themselves with limited options due to economic need.  Many times these options are to a) working as paramilitaries, or working in corporations supported by paramilitaries b) joining the armed forces or c) working in narco-trafficking. The government refuses to make a link between poverty and violence and instead paint “delinquent youth” as the source of all social ills.

There is a targeted propaganda campaign against youth at the same time as there are attempts being made to try youths as adults in courts and as youth continue to be forcibly recruited into the Armed Forces. As I said, I’m sure I’ll have far more to say about this later, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

Tonight Larisa, Anna, Erika and I (so, the N. American ladies…) finally found where the leftist-social-justice-youth hang out as we met up with Isaac ( a friend from Harrisonburg) and our lecturer-on-youth at a cultural center downtown for a screening and talk-back of “Bowling for Columbine”. This too I could reflect at length about but I think I’ll just state that we all need to be thinking more about who is profiting from all the fear and violence in this world. (Hint: Lockheed Martin, but no, not just them)

For some personal context, I’m currently reading: “El Principito” (originally “Le Petit Prince”), “Hope in the Dark” by Recebba Solnit, “Prieres” by Michel Quoist, “Introduction to Europe and the People Without History” by Eric R. Wolf, (just starting) “The Inheritance of Loss” by Kiran Desai, and some historical-political cartoons of Colombian history.

I apologize for procrastinating and then having such a LONG post. (Having said that, if anything raised questions or thoughts for you, please let me know–I have LOTS more I would love to say about much of this!) In my defense I spent 3 of the past 6 nights away from my apartment and there’s just a lot going on…
I deeply appreciate all personal emails and notes and am holding many of you in my thoughts and prayers these days. This is particularly true for those of you at the Mennonite Church USA National Convention in Pittsburgh working for LGBTQ acceptance and divestment from the Israeli Occupation– I am in solidarity with you.

I would like to conclude with some words from Solnit’s book on Hope (thank you, Peter):

“I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed…To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable.”

Of course, if the Kingdom is here I do not just believe another world is possible, but that the world we live in is not, fundamentally, what we believe it to be, but rather already that which is hoped for, in some mysterious sense. Nevertheless, I find these words deeply worrying, reassuring and inspiring. I hope you do as well.

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About Magelette

I use too many parentheticals, tend towards run-on sentences, and am a terrible self-editor. That being said I'm honest to a fault and fairly easily enchanted, so if you're into that, read on.
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One Response to Culture, inequality, and hope.

  1. jjbf87 says:

    wait a minute, hold the phone. you’re an incredibly direct speaker?!?!?!??!!? this blog is teaching me so much 😉 xoxoxoxoxo miss you sis!!! so proud of you!

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