Hot, swollen & loved: Colombia Chronicles 1

Last month in Mampuján, a village in the municipality (county) of María la Baja, Bolívar, Colombia, I met Afro-Colombian women who had suffered terrifying threats & violent displacement by paramilitaries in 2000. In exile they went through a process of art therapy, creating appliqué hangings to tell their story—the displacement, the Middle Passage endured by their ancestors, their vision for peace & healing. The women also went to the river, sang, washed & massaged each other, & wept together.

Diaspora quilt

A Middle Passage quilt they displayed for us.

They call themselves Mujeres Tejiendo Colores y Sabores de Paz (Women Weaving Colors & Flavors of Peace). They now live in Nuevo Mampuján or in their original community; sometimes they travel to other traumatized communities to teach women what they have learned about healing from trauma. In 2015 they were awarded Colombia’s National Peace Prize for the restorative justice they extended to the paramilitary fighters who had done them such grave harm.

We—photographer Michael Bracey, videographers Bobby and David Obermite, and I—spent some beautiful hours with these women, admiring their hangings, learning about their history, traveling to the regional lakes & canals, eating sancocho made over an open fire.

Then on our last afternoon we walked awhile with them in the humid heat & I began to feel faint—something that happens to me occasionally when I’m exercising in hot weather, a drop in blood pressure that leaves me dizzy. My dear friend Juana Ruiz & her companions sat me down while Kevin Coleman, who was interpreting for his friends the Obermites, hurried off to get me a salty snack. The women began fanning me, & Pastor Alexandra prayed powerfully while massaging my neck & shoulders with fragrant oil.

Juana-pastor-Mama Carmen fanning me

Photos by Michael Bracey.

I began to weep, long deep sobs. I didn’t know where they were coming from—apart from the heat I wasn’t in conscious distress. Maybe it was empathic identification with the suffering my friends had endured. Maybe it was gratitude for their lovingkindness. Maybe it was prophetic weeping for & with Colombia.

Then Pabla, a younger woman, sat down & removed the shoes from my swollen, mosquito-bitten feet. Without flinching she spread some of the fragrant oil on my feet & began massaging it in.

Pabla at my feet 3-x

Photo by Michael Bracey.

The weeping, massage & prayers ran their course, the salty snack arrived, my friend Benjamín brought our rented van close by & took me to our little air-conditioned hotel, where I rested & regained my composure. That evening we enjoyed a delicious farewell dinner & then sat out in the María la Baja plaza to enjoy the night air.

at the plaza

With Juana & Benjamín.

This is why I keep returning to Colombia. I’m no kind of savior for its pain. I’m just a grubby human who loves sharing stories & learning from people who have survived immense challenges, & who can comfort me with the comfort they have received in their own distress (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

embracing Mama Carmen=x

Mamá Carmen is Juana’s mother. Photo by Michael Bracey.

I am a strange adventurer

Last night I stayed up late gazing at my Colombia itinerary & gloating. I’ll be traveling in Colombia most of the month of July.

I mostly live such a quiet life, editing & reading & making art in solitude. But I grew up sleeping under mosquito nets & using an outhouse & shoveling our mostly organic trash into pits my dad dug in the backyard, & feeding the chickens & trying to identify rocks from the river beach & helping to push our rattly old jeep out of muddy ditches. And playing under downspouts & in the rain barrel during wild tropical thunderstorms! And listening to the bats fly around under our roof at night, & sweeping up their pellets every morning (don’t worry, bat droppings are small & dry). And . . . doing my school assignments & reading & writing & making art. (Re the art: I sometimes paged through a couple of books of crafts for children, brought or sent from the United States; there were fascinating things to make, but many of them called for exotic objects like egg cartons, which weren’t a part of our life in remote southern Colombia. So often I just went back to pencil drawing. Sometimes it was making clothes for paper dolls.)

Consequently, my adult adventuring is a little eccentric. I actually feel at home in places with only outhouses, with no electricity, with mice & cockroaches running around. I hate the latter if they ever venture into my Chicago condo, but in a little house in the rainforest they are just normal! I’m not any kind of athlete, so the physical challenges I deal with are on the level of surviving uncomfortable bus or canoe rides. (Fortunately my body bounces right back from those.) But I love being in remote places & admiring the skill & ingenuity with which people harvest or hunt their food & then prepare it, or navigate rivers, or build a dwelling in just a few hours. And of course the little towns where I lived as a child are much larger now, & there are wise inhabitants who are helping their neighbors heal from violence, or plan to improve the hospital, or who have established distance learning programs so that people can earn college degrees.

on Rio PacuritaGrinning absurdly because I felt so happy to be on a Colombian river again! Pacurita River, Chocó, Colombia, February 2014. Photo by Michael Bracey, who more recently did the photography for Picturing God.

During this trip I’ll be on a river in Caquetá Department, where I’ve never been before. I’ll be visiting dear friends from childhood there & in Huila, Putumayo, & Nariño Departments. A couple of us will be taking a long bus trip on an impossibly narrow mountain road with switchbacks & sheer dropoffs. My family took that trip many times in my childhood, but it’s very dangerous–we hope to help call attention to its poor condition as part of pressure to gain funding for a new, safer route.

After this I go north along the Andes. I will be reading my picture book Los ángeles de Adriana to preschoolers in a low-income Medellín neighborhood & giving copies away, & I’ll be interviewed at a community radio station there. This is all part of the work of a wonderful grassroots organization promoting literacy & culture. I’ll also visit friends from my teenage years in this city.

AAngels_COV_Case.indd

Then it’s off to Mampuján, Córdoba, where my photographer friend Mike Bracey & a couple of videographers will join me. We’ll get to witness firsthand the witness art of a group of Afro-Colombian women who won Colombia’s Peace Prize in 2015. Then, as if that weren’t enough, we’ll trek to La Guajira Department to visit a Wayúu indigenous community that suffered a terrible massacre & displacement some years ago but has been able to return to their land, now a national park, & serve as its guardians. Maybe we’ll get to see the flamingos too!

There are no words for how privileged I feel to embark on these adventures! And afterward I’ll come home & resume my life of editing & reading & writing & doing laundry, making soup & making art. But the memories will be little fires that I can return to again & again, & some of these experiences will branch into new adventures in the years to come.

Books, children & donkeys

Have you watched videos or read about schoolteacher Luis Soriano’s biblioburro mobile library–books he mounts on his two donkeys & takes to children in remote regions of Magdalena Department (province) in Colombia? He named his donkeys Alfa & Beto, the two halves of the word alphabet in Spanish. (Fun bonus: the word literacy in Spanish is alfabetización. The biblioburros are definitely a literacy project!) See a delightful interview with him (with subtitles) at the link above.

Biblioburro

Photo from Wikipedia.

A two-year-old cousin of mine is currently entranced with the bilingual picture-book story of Soriano & his donkeys, Waiting for the Biblioburro by Monica Brown. I highly recommend it!

The work of literacy, of getting adults & children equipped & inspired to read, is work for social justice. Books open up our life possibilities, stimulate us to become better people & to respond to injustice, wake us up to the world’s beauty & pain. Sometime I’ll try making a list of books that have changed me. Today I just celebrate Luis & Alfa & Beto & all the children whose lives they are touching.

 

 

African faces of Colombia

Caras lindas front cover hr

Let me introduce you to a new book, just released in June: Caras lindas de Colombia / Beautiful Faces of Colombia. It collects stunning photos by Michael Bracey, a Chicago photographer of the African Diaspora, with English-Spanish bilingual text by me.

mike photo
Mike’s work has won a number of awards; he has published numerous other books, notably Africans Within the Americas, & is a foundation member of CAAAP (Chicago Alliance of African-American Photographers).

Mike & I originally met because I have been involved in Afro-Colombian advocacy, while Mike wanted to include Colombia among the places he has visited to photograph people from the Diaspora in the Americas & the Caribbean. (See samples of that work here.) For me it was an honor to plan a trip to Afro-Colombian communities with him & his wife María. We received significant help from Luz Marina Becerra Panesso, general secretary of AFRODES, the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians. “Luzma” is a fierce advocate for her people & a dear friend.

Ruth-LuzMarina-Michael
Here we celebrate the book’s launch with Luz Marina herself!

Our 2014 trip included many adventures & many tender moments, & Mike documented them all. Caras lindas de Colombia / Beautiful Faces of Colombia is one fruit of our journey, & we’re delighted to share it with you! Yes, of course it documents poverty & marginalization–but more than anything it’s a celebration of our creative, resourceful, & doggedly courageous black sisters & brothers in Colombia.

You can read a bit from the preface by Steve Bynum here (scroll down to the book’s cover) & then purchase the book directly from us here!

Journey to our childhood places

Last year four of my siblings & I traveled to southern Colombia to revisit the places where we grew up. We hadn’t been back to Nariño & Putumayo since we moved to Medellín when I was 12.

It was a more emotional experience than I expected. But instead of writing about it here, I’ll let you listen to the interview, recently aired, that I recorded about it with the gracious, thoughtful Jerome McDonnell of Chicago Public Radio’s Worldview program. We also talked about my daughter, Claire, & how some of my experiences with her informed my writing of Adriana’s Angels. Jerome has interviewed me about Colombia a number of times over the years; this time I was able to open my heart like never before.

WBEZ interview about Colombia trip & Adriana’s Angels

I’m grateful to producer & friend Steve Bynum, who edited the interview with great care & wove in the snippets of music so artfully.

The friend I speak of, who told her story of betrayal & pain as her husband, another friend, & I sat around her table weeping with her, keeps a beautiful garden. I am sure that cultivating this beauty has been part of her healing. So I close with two images from that holy place–one at twilight, one in full sun.

home & no home

My friend Jason Brown puts out an occasional gathering of writing & art, Home::Keep. The second installment, RE::DIS//MIS, was launched December 16. I am so grateful to be honored with a folio page for some of my Colombia poems & photos! Jason’s theme is home–our experience of it, our lack of it, our longing for it. Because about 7 million Colombians have been internally displaced by violence, the loss of home comes up again & again in my writing.

Folio :: Excavation // R Goring

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Just one of the photos in the folio: my friend gazes at a galleon, replica of those on which her ancestors were forced to make the Middle Passage.

In which I battle fear, carry a chicken upside down, & revel in a prize

First the prize (if I’m not mistaken, the chicken story is the “dessert” of this post). Last week we learned that Los ángeles de Adriana took a silver Moonbeam Award in the Spanish Book category! I am overjoyed.

silver_moonbeam_medal

Here’s info about these awards:

Presented by Jenkins Group and IndependentPublisher.com, the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards are designed to bring increased recognition to exemplary children’s books and their creators, and to support childhood literacy and life-long reading. Awards are given in 42 print book and five e-book categories covering the full range of subjects, styles and age groups that children’s books are written and published in today.

As our society has gotten more complex and growing up has become more complicated, children’s book authors and publishers have risen to the occasion, creating books that not only celebrate the joys of childhood, but also help kids and families deal with its challenges. The Moonbeam Awards will recognize and reward the best of these books and bring them to the attention of booksellers, librarians, parents and children.

Now for the chicken.

* * *

Sometimes our creative companions are not writers, musicians, or painters but those who struggle alongside us for justice. Their acts and words, and even the conflicts we have with them, press us to see more truly, to shed the facile.

That last night in Puerto Lleras, Jiguamiandó, we wandered dazed in the darkness. Paramilitaries had invaded the settlement a few hours earlier, haranguing the community about its supposed support of left-wing guerrillas and feigning a firefight in the adjacent rainforest. After they took their leave, Alba,* a human rights worker, conferred with the community leaders; it was decided that evacuation would be necessary the next day.

As the adults began packing and continued their anxious deliberations, a few children wandered to the guesthouse porch where I was sitting. I had noticed that tempers were flaring; amid the tension few parents had energy for reassuring their children or even explaining the situation. I couldn’t help much with the looming practical questions, what to take and what to leave behind, but I could offer warmth. So the children and I talked a bit about feeling afraid.

“When things are scary like this, we need to hold each other,” I remarked and invited them to come closer. Two immediately climbed onto my lap, others leaned against us, one girl sat on the floor and wrapped her arms around one of my legs. We stayed that way for an hour or two.

A commotion broke out by the schoolhouse; adults and teens gathered around a young man who had fallen in a seizure, flailing and crying out as he hallucinated the paramilitaries’ return. As soon as he calmed down, a girl succumbed to hysteria and began shrieking. The children and I stayed on the porch, huddling close, throughout it all. Finally their parents retrieved them for bed.

for blog 10-11a

The next morning, more holding.

The next morning Alba and I arose early; she got ready to go downriver and muster boats from the extended community to aid the evacuation. Soon the bobbing light of a candle approached me, and Amparo* asked for my help. Her hens and rooster were in a chicken house on the outer edge of the settlement, closer to the paramilitary base. Would I accompany her and her two sons to retrieve some of the chickens? Now, in the dark, they could be caught, but if we waited till daybreak they would lose their drowsy compliance.

Amparo’s candle, her sons’ large flashlight, and my miniature light threw shifting, uncertain shadows around us as we followed a narrow path through the abandoned outer area of the settlement. At the chicken house, Amparo and the boys went about catching the fowl amid protesting squawks and confused flapping. Expertly Amparo crossed the wings of each across its back, then laid it on the ground.

There was nothing to do but accept the proffered hen, taking hold of its feet gingerly as it hung upside down.

When she had trussed seven chickens, each boy picked up two of them. She looked at me appraisingly, then asked, “Will you carry one?”

There was nothing to do but accept the proffered hen, taking hold of its feet gingerly as it hung upside down. Amparo hefted the last two, and we retraced our steps, the hanging chickens disoriented and silent, shadows sliding ominously around us, fears of the paras’ reappearance pressing at our minds.

My chicken was heavy; her ankles were firm and ribbed horizontally. When we got back to the guesthouse, I was glad to release her.

for blog 10-11b

A different way to chicken-carry.

Amparo would have snorted in derision if I had suggested that together she, her boys, the chickens, and I made up a creative group. We were in survival mode; this was not a gathering for leisurely contemplation. But it was a group convened by love. In that hurried predawn walk Amparo’s chickens were rescued, and with them her dignity and some ability to provide for her sons. We found our way together in the dark. And so had the children and I the night before, huddling for reassuring touch amid the chaos, the frantic cries, memories of gunshots and threatening words.

Artists, like other human beings, need community to survive. The otherness of our communities keeps us grounded in reality: the hard facts of incompleteness, sin, terrible injustice, wrenching failure. But deeply real too is the flashlight beam showing us where to walk, our thin voices singing “Cristo me ama” (Jesus loves me), the weight of dangling chickens, books, or art supplies we carry awkwardly, the skin-on-skin comfort of human nearness.

———
*Names changed.