As it always happens when I return to Colombia and visit our projects, I am reminded of why I keep on going on doing the work with Nukanti despite the many challenges and sacrifices its sustainability implies. I originally went on this trip to participate in a conference organized by some of the youth researchers ranging from demographers to sociologists in an event called Voices from the Global South: Stories of Resilience and Vulnerabilities.
This event was supported by Brown University and the Universidad Militar Nueva Granada in Bogota, after participating in a fellowship at Brown University in 2013. I was honored to be able to invite one of my favorite child anthropologist to the event, David Rosen, author of many works and especially Armies of the Young, whom I encountered a few years ago in New York and periodically met with him in the city to share our works to get inspiration and feedback. I deeply respect him both as a person and anthropologist. I especially wanted to bring him together with another child anthropologist I deeply admired from the Universidad Nacional in Bogota, Ximena Pachon, whom I had met at a Children and War conference in Salzburg last year. Both have been researching and documenting on the history of child soldiers and doing remarkable work.
After the event was over, I was able to take David Rosen to visit two of our projects on the outskirts of Bogota, Playing for Freedom, our capoeira project in Ciudad Bolivar and Weaving Cazuca, serving as an umbrella for many initiatives in the region. Both neighborhoods are considered shantytowns and have been occupied mainly by forcibly displaced people by the armed conflict in Colombia. Unfortunately, these communities suffer from increasing violence, poverty, poor education, and lack of basic infrastructure such as potable water and electricity.
We met with our community leader and project coordinator from Cazuca, Nohora Guerrero at the bottom of the hill before we went up to Altos de Pino, the neighborhood where we built the community center made of plastic bottles 2 years ago. It was extremely beneficial to have David there, as he asked questions I never thought of and I was able to learn a lot more about the community through his enquiries with Nohora.
She on the other hand informed us of the latest initiatives in the community center, including a recent partnership with The Art of Living Foundation for a project working with many of the women in the area. Unfortunately, domestic violence is a major issue in Altos de Pino given the structural violence that has augmented in the recent years. The sessions implemented by The Art of Living Foundation have proven very efficient and helpful in the healing and empowerment process of many of these women. The after-school project implemented by Nohora and other leaders of the community has also tremendously supported young students in their academic performance and interest in continuing their attendance. Additional projects such as the breakdance classes using dance as a peace process with young people implemented by Nohora’s daughter, Wendy have been continuously growing and now, young people from close-by neighborhoods have been using the center as a space to meet and practice with talents. More initiatives involving music and capacity-building of women through sewing (4 sewing machines were recently donated to the project by UCLA to create income generating opportunities), have been successfully growing in the community center. Nohora is by far one of the greatest community leaders I have ever met and I am always amazed by her proactivity and strength to continue fighting for a more just society. I felt all of my fears and exhaustion from the tremendous workload required to take Nukanti to the next level go away as I heard her express her happiness seeing her dream fulfilled with the community coming together and strengthening its social fabric, weaving Cazuca.
We next traveled to the neighboring shantytown Ciudad Bolivar accompanied by our project coordinator of the Playing for Freedom capoeira project, Cristhian Casallas. This project is one of our earliest one and was born out of a desire by both Cristhian and I to implement capoeira in the most marginalized neighborhoods of Bogota as we both believed it to be an extremely powerful tool of transformation and leadership for young people. As we were approaching the center where the class was to take place, Cristhian recounted the latest event and unfortunately a sad one. One of our young participants had been shot by gang members and was fighting for his life at the hospital. The gang had plans to recruit him and as he refused, they shot him in the chest. He is currently under observation and we all pray he recovers soon. Cristhian has been perseverant in his work with young people in this community and as it always happens, I was in awe in the progress made by the young participants and the amazing acrobatics they were capable of. Capoeira is more than a leadership tool as it also helps create income generating opportunities. Three of our most skilled members are now teaching capoeira in other parts of Bogota: two of them are leading a new project in Cazuca and one was hired by the Ministry of Education to work with children through capoeira in schools. David was pleased to meet these wonderful leaders and know of their great initiatives and drive for improving their society.
To wrap up my trip, I was able to meet with one of my favorite youth, Cesar Castro, who was a participant in a media education workshop I had given in his neighborhood of Cali, Potrero Grande in the municipality of Aguablanca. Aguablanca has become synonym of fear and great violence in the city of Cali, however I’d like to say that it has given birth to some of the creative people I have to come to meet. Unfortunately, as it is the case of the many of the shantytowns in Colombia, Potrero Grande suffers from invisible frontiers set by each gang as part of their territorial control, and anyone crossing them can be shot dead. Therefore, there is a constant state of fear among its inhabitants. Cesar was an exception to many of the young people of Potrero Grande whose fate had led them to participation in armed groups, delinquency and drug trafficking. With the support of a Nukanti sponsor, he was able to graduate from high school last year, which made both his mother and I extremely proud as we attended his ceremony. He led media workshops with war-affected youth in his town of origin, Tumaco on the Pacific coast of Colombia, one of the most violent region of the country and completed two short documentaries shown in various countries as well as submitted to the Adobe Youth Awards competition. Cesar’s dream is to become a chef one day and open his own restaurant while continuing to empower young people in his community. We are continuing to support him to look for the remainder of the funds necessary so he can achieve his dream and continue to be a youth activist and peacebuilder in Colombia.
With Cesar, we went to visit the salsa project used as a peace process, Cali Swing in the community of Siloe, another shantytown greatly affected by increasing violence. There, we met with Jhon James and Marcela, founder and dancer of the Cali Swing project, and their newly born baby, Joseph. We were glad to know that the project had started again although they are still missing a space of their own where they can come together and practice, and most importantly feel safe. We will support them to raise the necessary funds to strengthen the project and create a friendly safe space for children and youth to freely express themselves and develop as responsible citizens in their community.
Overall, although short, it was an enlightening and inspiring experience as it is the case every time I get the opportunity to share with the extraordinary and resilient peace-builders of the different communities across Colombia!
Written by: Niousha Roshani