One thing I love about my job is that it can still surprise me.
When I accepted to go to Colombia for an evaluation, I felt like I was going into familiar territory. I’ve lived here before, and since have come back on several occasions. Its history and its woes are well known to me.
I came for a project that tries to fight gender violence, and there was one small area that was new: traditional practices that could be harmful to women.
In short this translated into my travelling to the Risaralda National Reserve where the Embera indigenous people live.
Five am we took off from the town of Pereira, and spent five hours driving through tropical forests. At the beginning the sky was heavy and the clouds embraced the green mountains as if trying to hide them from me. Strangers are not usually welcome here. Mostly because in the past the Embera have felt looked down on, discriminated or manipulated by outsiders. Previous film crews have presented them and their practices to the world as that of “savages.” Understandably they are not too keen.
I was lucky because the team I came with has been working here for a long time, as partners, with respect for their customs and traditions, so they accepted not only that I could come in and talk to them, but they also allowed me to take pictures.
As we drove the team told me their story, and of their work here, and a bit of the community’s history unveiled to me as the clouds lifted to show me the full beauty of this country side. In the little time I had a fear I cannot do full justice to it with my photos.The view was stunning. The eje cafetero, where the famous Colombian coffee is grown, is evergreen with a dozen different shades of green lush. Streams ofwaterfalls everywhere you turn. The thin long barks of the Guadua trees, a local bamboo like tree also known as natural iron because of its strength, grows tall as if proud of the contrast it provides to the landscape. I couldn’t help thinking about my son and wondering how his first day in the crèche was going. I’m pretty sure grandma made it ok for him, really I was thinking about me, the fact that I was missing it dampened the beauty of the moment.
The road kept getting muddier and bumpier, even though it is officially the dry season, until the truck could go no further. So we grabbed our backpacks and walked some more. Along the way the communities greeted my companions with glee. A young man helped us find out way, he was visiting from Bogota where he is doing a degree in environmental engineering. He wants to teach his community how to use the water and resources available to them.
Once we reached the top of the mountain we found the community deep in discussion. Women leaders were presenting the results of a long process they have undergone to recuperate and understand their past and their traditions, which until now had only been transmitted orally, and to some degree were getting lost.This discussion would carry on all day and into the next, with members having walked from dawn to be apart of it. Although the project focuses on reproductive health, the Embera see the world as one whole, so it required a reflection of their entire lifestyle; their history, their life plan, and in particular their treatment of women within the society.
“The land is sick, so the Indian is sick” a man volunteered to make sure I was getting the message. As I sat there with my impromptu translator I couldn’t help but think that so many of their views are shared by the alternative avant garde in the west.
I was introduced to the group, and they were asked to decide weather or not I was allowed to meet and interview people from their community. They decided, as a group, weather or not I was allowed to take photographs. Their leaders, who knew days before I was coming, did not have the last word. A lesson in democracy.
Of course, I am here to look into gender violence, so I don’t want to present an entirely rosy picture either, there are serious concerns to be addressed, but as I met with the midwives, the haibanas or traditional healers, with the community elected governor, or community elected women leaders, I couldn’t help but be reminded how my own society is also full of contradictions on this subject. With mixed messages, and a sad reality that does not correspond with the official script.
At least the community has moved from silence to awareness and open discussion, a leap in anyone’s eyes. During the next two days I often felt that I was being fed an “official line.” What they thought should be shared with this stranger, but is that so different from our (western) governments? Where they hail motherhood and family as core to society, and then invest little or no money into supporting the institution in a pragmatic and realistic manner. One woman leader spoke of the injustice of being paid less for undertaking the same job as a man. Could have been having the same discussion in the European parliament.
I pray for these strong and courageous women that are fighting for their equality and for their daughters’ future. Women who are target of gossip and criticism for doing so, just like women in our society were not that long ago.
We look different, but standing there with them, I didn’t feel so different.