November 26, 2013
I was having a conversation with my mother recently about my trip to Quibdo in which I used the expression, “Afro-Colombian.” She quickly responded, “What do you mean by that? I don’t usually think about people of African descent living in Colombia.” That response led to a very interesting conversation about Quibdo, which I’ll say more about later.
Before I speak about “Afro-Colombians,” I can’t pass up the chance to share a few coincidences. Today happens to be the 130th anniversary of the death of Sojourner Truth, a run-away slave (from New York), slavery abolitionist, and leader for women’s rights. Sojourner was not her given name, but the name she gave herself when she discerned that God was calling her to be a preacher and prophet. If you don’t know Sojourner Truth’s story, I encourage you to look her up. Another coincidence is that my mother’s name is Grace, and Amazing Grace has always been one of her favorite hymns. What some may not know is that Amazing Grace is a kind of spiritual autobiography of John Newton, a man who became an Anglican cleric after a later-in-life conversion, seeking mercy and grace in repentance for his years as a slave trader.
Now as for slavery in the Spanish Americas … The Spanish were the first to use African slaves in the so called, “New World,” beginning in the late 15th and early 16th centuries in Cuba and Hispanola. In other words, African slavery was firmly ensconced in Latin culture long before the first English settlers arrived in Jamestown in 1607 or the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620. Initially, local natives were used as forced labor, but many died due to European diseases such as smallpox causing a labor shortage. Africans were considered stronger and more disease resistant, many Europeans didn’t perceive Africans as humans, and warring African tribes were more than willing to be complicit by selling defeated neighboring tribes into bondage, all of which led to the growth of the Atlantic slave trade.
For all of you critics of capitalism who aptly highlight political decisions dressed up as something like international charity, when in reality a decision or action is about economic power and financial gain, you may appreciate taking note that at many times slavery was outlawed in European countries, but remained legal in their colonies. Why? Because people in high places were making lots of money! While their religious sensibilities led them to not want to experience slavery in their backyard, it didn’t prevent them from increasing their wealth by subjecting people overseas to cruel and inhumane treatment. … How often do we still not pay attention to human trafficking, child abuse, industrial bondage, and so on, because we choose not to see it?
In the Viceroyalty of New Granada, a part of which eventually became Colombia, Africans were forced to work in gold mines, on sugar cane plantations, and on cattle ranches. When we think of gold mining, many of us image someone standing in water and using a screened instrument of some type to sift out gold nuggets using the water to assist. Given the lack of available water in the Spanish Americas, a batea was used. Bateas are typically made from a single piece of wood and look like a cross between a wooden bowl and a cutting board. Today, bateas are still used by some to pan for gold, but mostly they are used as table centerpieces for fruit and display items or for making bread.
What spurred this discussion about slavery was sharing with my mother the details of my recent experience in Quibdo, Choco. Life in Quibdo, founded in 1654, has centered around the Atrato River, making boats and river-based activities prominent in the economy and community. I learned that “Mama … u” and “Hay mama … u” are river-based greetings which are extremely helpful on foggy days to note that someone else is nearby on the river, and to give some indication of their location based on their voice. Today, the population of Quibdo consists of 80% Afro-Colombians, 10% indigenous populations, and 10% mixed through interracial marriage.
During my visit, I spent time with youth groups, visited and met with folks in the community, gave a history lesson to an English class at one of the local universities, and was interviewed for a bilingual radio program on a university radio station. I was asked about my experience learning Spanish, to make some comments on cultural differences between the US and Colombia, and to comment on scholarships and academic study in the US. As I was leaving the studio, my colleague’s wife met me at the door, as agreed, but unexpectedly headed into another building. We entered an office where a number of women were sitting around a conference table. It turned out they had heard my interview and wanted to talk with me.
The purpose of my visit was the same as my other recent travel in Colombia, to provide consultation and assistance in developing mission projects. I stayed in the home of my colleague, Padre Edison, and he shared his pastoral work and activities in the community. I was reminded of the life of a small town preacher, though Quibdo isn’t that small (100,000), as everywhere we went someone stopped to talk or shouted out, “Hola Padre!”
Something I found interesting, and worthy of further reflection, was the fact that it didn’t occur to me until I was in the airport waiting to fly home to Bogota that I had only seen 2 other white faces in the course of my 3-day visit. I don’t know if that says something about me, the community, or both … but I was glad to have visited Quibdo, spending time with my colleague, Edison, as well as the opportunity to reflect on the experience.