Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Walking our words

I have walked for two days. Thousands of indigenous have been walking since Octboer 11th 2008. They are in ‘Minga’ and over the past 6 weeks more social organisations have joined in. The indigenous started from their ancestoral territories. I started from Soacha, a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Bogota where I glimpse the realities built by thousands of refugees who have struggled to arrive here with nothing but their lives.

The first day we walk for 30km across the city, arriving at the National Public University five hours later. Welcomed by hundreds of students, the surge of energy was immense. Underneath the bridge, the acoustics exploded and the noise made me tremble, a lump to my throat. Here was thousands of indigenous refusing to accept how a racist, hierarchical, authoritarian world treats them, refusing to accept the destruction of their lands and our earth.

With their call to do Minga they are the driving energy to build hope, new paths, new relationships across difference to build a strong social movement capable of social change. No apathy here, never a word of what's the point we can't change anything

“Minga is an ancient practice of the indigenous peoples of the Andes. It is a collective effort organised with the aim of achieving a common goal”.

“The essence of the Minga of Peoples is to go beyond the demands of each sector and to focus on a common political agenda; to have goals that go beyond the claims and demands of every sector. This is reflected in the five point proposal of this Minga”

The Vice-Chancellor first refused to let the Minga use the public university. Collective pressure changed that, reminding him that a public university if for everyone and is a place for debate. However when we entered the campus we found the doors to the buildings locked to us. For two nights now thousands of indigenous that have set up camp in the campus have had to sleep outside, despite lacking the clothes and blankets necessary to do this in chilly Bogota. Disgusting racism towards indigenous people is still the norm. I’m certain that if academics visting for conferences would not be forced to sleep on the grass.

“the Minga seeks to link and unite all people who are committed to a more far-reaching common agenda, than their own immediate objectives. In other words, it is not that all the people are mobilized so that indigenous achieve lands rights to which they are entitled. If this were the only result of this mobilization, the structural conditions that perpetuate the subjugation, oppression, impoverishment of peoples and of all life, would remain untouched. And in addition, the sectors supporting us could feel used.”

The concept of Minga makes me think of the ignorant English phrase rent-a-mob, people who turn up for many protests. It is used to devalue the actions of people who recognise their own problems in the problems of others. It has been used to devalue my actions of solidarity with those who are more affected by injustices than me.

It is Friday morning and Plaza de Che, the main square in the university, is buzzing with hundreds of different diverse groups painting last minute banners. I look for friends and with just two months in the country familiar faces warmly greet me.

The capacity of Colombian organisations to mobilise and go out to the streets despite years of violent oppression is utterly inspiring. We walk slowly together, through shopping streets, cheered on by suited people in their lunch break. A group of students from one of the many private universities stands clapping and then break into a run to join with us.

Arriving at the Plaza de Bolivar (Colombian Parliament Square) we find out that President Uribe has gone to Peru, unable to give any answers, unwilling to even want to. Rather he was in Lima to seal a Free Trade Agreement with Canada – totally contrary to the vision and needs of the popular movement.

"The Minga does not end here, it continues with its call to people, waking consciousnesses and unifying forces, sharing pain, walking the word forward without seeing borders and limits, with the hope of life that transcends all spaces, and we are each responsible to care for and create this creature that was born today..."

"Onward with the joining of efforts among Indigenous people, farmers, students, teachers, women, men, youth, African descendents, workers...!"

These were some of the words shared in the Plaza de Bolivar.

I wonder how we will make the idea and importance of Minga relevant to a farmer who had her husband killed by paramilitaries and is attempting to cope on the farm alone… to an afro/black man who is refused job after job cause he is black….to a teacher who is struggling to show the students that they have opportunities beyond joining the paras/army/guerillia while class sizes increases and no books arrive….to Liliana who wants to study to be a nurse but doesn’t have the money to do so….to an indigenous who has been forcibly removed from their land to make way for a huge coal port. How will we do the work of bringing these diverese people together, to build connections across these problems; war, violence, privatisation of education, ‘loot’ of natural resources, racism, sexism and more?

The Minga is an inspiring political process for change yet I don’t romanticise it. It will be incredibly tough, working together across issues and political difference but if we don’t – are we really building something that will bring about social justice and liberty in Colombia, in the UK?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Evolving rural life

The boy Darien shies from me, hiding his face in Dominga’s embrace. “Why does she look different from us, mami? Why does she look a bit like a man, mami?” Doña Dominga answers “because people are different.” And yet hours later we are sharing animal noises, laughing at the different sounds a cockerel makes in our different languages. The following morning he leaves some plastic yellow flowers on top of my bag as he leaves for his school. If we could learn from children – to trust and love across difference so easily.

That evening when Damien returns from school we study together, sharing new words, how to shape our mouths, tongues so the syllables sound right. As he, the sharpest and quickest english student I have ever met, writes ‘I like sheep, you like cows, we like pigs,…’ the sun sets and we switch on the bare light bulb.

It took twenty men from the community seventy working days to bring light to their farms. After many years of pressure, the council provided the materials. This was in 2004.

It’s so easy to see people living without amenities (running water, electricity, gas, roads, schools) as a permanent state and not recognise the sheer amount of hard hard physical work that has gone in to getting what they do have, nor to know of their plans for improvements for the future. Their time scale due is different – growing food and getting the money to pay for the materials must come first (no buy now pay later offers for a new bathroom - but change comes. And rather than just ‘home improvement’ change, they also have an idea of community improvements. Their next task is to dig drainage for the road to prevent it eroding away in the rains.

Education and collective organising are crucial to improving their lives. As Dominga told me “with education comes the confidence and skills to confront those in power who would otherwise ignore us.” With collective organising comes the capacity to improve more than just their homes and gardens, but their schools, roads, health access.….

Raul and I were there to help build some basic shelters for making compost for all in the vereda. The land, while lush and green, is not too fertile. I helped the men with the building - they didn’t comment on me doing such work, they didn’t say much to me. Shy – perhaps unsure of this strange person like Damien on the first morning. But with age – insecurities around difference are deeper, and it was tough for me to break through.

With Dominga, it took time too but through conversations while milking cows, making cheese together and washing up, we shared intimate moments. With me, she spoke openly about how her brother and husband ignore her opinion, yet later say she was right in the first place. She tells me she has had very little education, “women don’t need an education as they are only going to cook and look after the house and children" she was told..... I ask her how she has continued learning, despite being denied formal education. “I started recently going to meetings and there I have learnt a lot. I don’t speak but I learn. Some of the women think it is odd that I go to meeting but I tell them that we are as much a part of this community as the men”.

Our farewell suprises and moves me – we embrace for what feels like hours. She cries and tells me she loves me. I hold her dear to me. What do I mean to this kind strong woman? Why was my stay of just two days and two nights a profound experience for her? I hope I can return and spend more time with her, to find answers to these questions. For now I can only imagine.....

....that to spend time with another person with whom she could talk more openly (my gender was crucial for this trust to be built so quickly) is something she rarely has the opportunity to do as her imposed responsibility in life has been in the kitchen. Certainly not to talk and share ideas with others outside of her family.

This relationship prepared me a little more for the next part of my trip – participating in a workshop with a group of rural women, some of whom asked COS-PACC (the org. i was accompanying) for support in creating a women’s organisation so that ‘we leave from the kitchen’.

We did a few activities, intended to help them understand and reflect on their own situation in their community, and to start thinking of possible responses to their dignostic. I have my own views on what I think is really good about the rural way of life and what is not. But what I liked about the workshop was that the women from COS-PACC asked questions, instead of judging or being opinionated.

What did surprise me was how unique and rare the space created is and that the idea of the women of the community coming together every few months to eat, laugh, talk together is a powerful act for them. We left it in their hands. We could support them but they had to decide what they wanted and make the next step. I hope I go back there, as will mean that even though they were mainly pretty shy, that they enjoyed and valued the space and want to continue meeting.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Daughters of Slaves

“Colombia is built from the physical work of blacks, yet 150 years after the legal end of slavery we continue to work as slaves and live in the worst conditions.”

The Afro-colombian students and young people I met at their National Gathering are very aware that they are the luckier ones, able to get an education and leave poverty, while the vast majority continue live in terrible conditions. They want to change this. It was a full on, powerful, intense, priviliged, exciting experience to be in the presence of three hundred Colombian students as they conversed "how will we create a positive transformation in the lives of Colombia’s black population".

After being delayed twice due to threats from paramilitaries and guerilla groups, the event took place in Buenaventura. Four days of debates, analysis, heated discussion. Daily my mind got too full of new thoughts for me to think any more and my notebook crammed full of reflections. Dancing was a welcome respite at the end of long days where I quietly observed and pondered the debates.......

How to we break Eurocentric control over culture, education, economics? How do we decolonise our minds, our institutions? Is Afro-centrism a good response?

Should our political position reject both left and right wing positions as they are both Euro-centric concepts and have been historically racist? Or can we build alliances with the left, yet maintain our identity and challenge racism.

Is the indigenous struggle over land rights also our problem as Afro-Colombians? How is capitalism and racism connected? How can we demand reparation for the work our ancestors have done?

Is learning about pre-slavery african history important for us in our present situation? Does the term multiculturality mean we are respected but still not included? How about Interculturality?

Outside, taking a break, I met a group of young woman, whose dads’ have been on strike for over 7 weeks and I asked if they would share with me their perspectives. They told me their families’ stories, passing, tugging and sharing the words out between them. We sat all together on the concrete ground. I seated myself carefully so we can talk as equals. I don’t want to interview them, rather hope they take the space as their own, to tell their own story.

Lorenza, Liliana and Vanessa:

Our relationships with our dads are difficult. We rarely see them. They leave for the sugar cane plantations at 5am and get home between 8 and 10pm. At school we were sometimes asked to do projects about our dads but this was nearly impossible. It is only when they have accidents that we see them more. “My dad lost his sight in his right eye”, “my dad had an accident with his leg and couldn’t work for six months – he got sick pay for three months”, “my dad has problems with his lungs from the dust“.

Things are really hard at the moment and we are going hungry because our dads have been paid for over six weeks. But I think the strike is just. They work like slaves in the fields cutting the sugar cane all day under the heat of the sun. Also, they are given protective clothing and a machete twice a year, yet the clothing lasts a month and the machetes just two weeks before they have to change it.

“I work from 7.30am to 6pm, 5 days a week doing housework. I get paid $230000 a month (£70). On Saturday’s I go to college to study nursery education. This costs me $100 000 a month.”

“I don’t have a job. I help at home. Because of the strike I don’t any money to pay for transport, or to print applications so it is difficult to look for a job.

If they win the strike, I will go to college to study nursing. I really want to be a nurse.”

On Sunday’s we all take part in a group [which organised for them to take part in this event]. Here, among many things, we talk about how to improve the relationships with our dads. They are sometimes violent at home.

“If I have an opinion it doesn’t matter to him because I am a women. If I do something, it’s often wrong, yet for my brothers it’s all good. I confronted my dad recently telling him this. He accepted it and we are talking more about this now.”

Our dads worry that if we go out to dance, we will get pregnant, but we get sex education at school and have a higher-level education than them. They have to understand that they can learn from us, their daughters. If education was free there would’t be this violence in the home, nor this war happening. Some students miss sex education at school, as they have to go to work. If our dads received higher wages this wouldn’t happen. If they win the strike there will be less poverty and less women getting pregnant.

We want this, we want something better for ourselves, for our children.