The Reverend Emilie Teresa Smith
Marcia Mejia and her Indigenous community, the Eperara Nation, live along the banks of the Naya River in Colombia. Her settlement of Joaquincito sits right at the delta where the Naya reaches the Pacific Ocean. The Naya was a major site of conflict during the 50-year-long Colombian civil war. The Eperara, together with 64 Afro-descendant communities along the river, have defended their holy waterway and suffered terribly as narco-empires continue to fight for control of this strategic waterway.
Marcia stamps her flip-flop on the dirty floor.
“I can’t leave you, not with a whole two hours to go until the bus,” she says in a low voice.
“Go, go,” I say. “Go. I’ll be fine. Be careful on the street.”
We drop my bags on the sagging, tipping plastic seats in the terminal. We hug again. I brush back her straight black hair.
“You haven’t had supper,” she says.
I try not to cry. I’m old enough to be her mother, but I feel like her sister. She matters to me. I feel helpless, unable to do anything more to keep us close. She is so small, invisible to the rest of the world, so vulnerable. Steady, persistent, unstoppable, like a sturdy—but threatened—tree holding out her branches wide to protect her community: Joaquincito, of the Eperara Nation, on the mouth of the Naya River, on the Pacific Coast of Colombia.
The Eperara have lived on this river for time out of mind. But the enemies they face are monstrous, more dangerous perhaps than ever before: internal and foreign beasts crouching at the door. Waiting. Who will move in? Who has more power? Bigger guns? Who can twist things around, play the game—cocaine, mining companies, massive hydro-electric dams—make a pile, shit on the people and the earth, piss in the river, and move on?
“Go,” I urge gently. “I’ve got food. Plantain chips and lemonade made with panela. Besides, you guys have been feeding me too much for days. I already didn’t fit into the canoa!” We both laugh.
“Okay, Emi,” she says. She turns and walks away. Her orange wrap-skirt glows in the gloom. Somehow the bus station manages to be both fluorescent bright and deeply dingy at the same time. She’s gone.
I take a deep breath. Alone at last. Time to think about where my heart has been and gone these past five days. I look around for my salt-crusted chips. Eat a few. I’m not that hungry. These have been days of fish, glorious starchy vegetables of different hues and sizes, and fruit I never knew existed.
Then, wait! The flash of orange is coming back! Marcia. Her face is crumpled.
“I can’t leave you here alone. So long ‘til the bus.”
“It’s good, really. Go. Go,” I say.
“Okay, I’m leaving, Emi,” says Marcia again, resigned. The orange in her beaded necklace, her orange skirt, her determined eyes set in her round face are all so dear to me. One final, final hug, and she’s gone, becoming a carrot-colored dot, disappearing into the darkness. Just as she leaves, the evening rains call to the earth; the world outside is erased. Walls of water form, seeming to run both up and down.
I squeeze my eyes tight in prayer. Surround her with an impenetrable circle of protection. Make her invisible to the killers. Keep her safe. It’s August, 2018. These are hard days for Colombian community leaders, especially for women and men from the Indigenous and Afro-descendant—Black—communities. More than 342 people have been killed in the past year-and-a-half, since the 2016 signing of the peace accords between the government and the guerrillas of the Rebel Armed Forces.
I had met Marcia three years earlier, at an international gathering in Brazil, Fe y Territorios, Faith and Territories. It was a busy, frantic conference, with hundreds of participants, but somehow Marcia connected with me. She sought me out time and again. We sat and chatted.
“You have to come see me someday, in my community,” she said. I agreed, casually. I am the co-president of SICSAL, an international Christian human rights organization. Although we work in 28 countries, we are small and don’t have a lot of funds. I had no idea when I would ever make it to Colombia.
Marcia and I weren’t in touch regularly, but every once and a while, she would have access to the internet, and a note would pop up on my screen. Usually the same thing: How are you? When are you coming to see me?
Hi, I would answer. Nice to hear from you. Not sure.
But then, three years later, I did end up in Colombia, at another international conference, this time in Medellin. Marcia was supposed to come to the meeting but problems on the river took over: the boat couldn’t get out. The level of violence on the river was very high. I had to admit, I didn’t actually know where Marcia lived. Somewhere on a river delta, somewhere in Colombia. I didn’t know how, exactly, to get to her.
Fortunately, I have friends.
La Comisión (the Interchurch Commission for Justice and Peace) makes the connections for me and sends me off on the night bus to Buenaventura. My companions are Nidiria, a poet, and her friend Yamali, young leaders from the Women’s Committee of the Naya River Delta. They were both at the conference with me, showing up every day with one fabulous colorful outfit after another, purchased down in the city center during our breaks. At the conference they were clear: they had the right, as women, as young people, as the descendants of enslaved Africans, to live full lives, safely, in their homes, in their communities. Travelling with them, I feel like a young adventurer, invulnerable yet with a shake of danger.
The women shepherd me from the conference grounds, in the green sanctuary of the Mother Laura Convent on the outskirts of Medellin, through the long thin windy road down to the coast, through the sketchy, rough streets of Buenaventura to the safe house of the local Comisión leaders: Enrique and Maru—María Eugenia. The Comisión—on the frontline of energetic insistence on human rights for all—is a particular target for violence. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ordered the Colombian government to provide for the safety of Comisión leaders. We arrive at an anonymous-looking house. An armoured car is parked in front. An unsmiling guard stands stiffly; presumably he has a legal gun to protect us.
We arrive to a household waking up. Maru is making eggs, tossing her mop of curls as she stirs vigorously. She looks around to laugh hello and—snap—turns back to flip the arepas, fried cornmeal triangles. Enrique pours coffee. And, surprise! There are three human rights leaders here from the Washington Office on Latin America: Adam, Gimena and Alex. They are going upriver this very morning, all the way to Las Conchas. We can all go together, they say. I have no idea where Las Conchas is, but it’s somewhere on Marcia’s river, so—let’s go!
The dock reeks. Things have died here and just been left to rot. An old wooden boat sits submerged up to its deck in water. Alongside it, men load two fiberglass hulls, which look sturdy enough. A group awaits, and then we’re on board. The two boats sag full, about 10 or 12 people per vessel: four of us gringos, and the Comisión folks, my friends Nidiria and Yamali, going home. Most travellers are community members returning up the river, including baby Kaila and her mom, from Las Conchas. Kaila had been sick, and they brought her out to see a doctor. Now she sleeps right snug beside me, in her mother’s arms, covered in a pink fuzzy sweater for the wind and the spray that will come. We slip on life jackets. Soon we putt-putt into the harbour. We slide past small shacks built up perilously over the river. Girls scrub clothes in the oily water, glancing up to see us just with the corner of an eye. We glide through the green and brown water and then into a mangrove swamp.
Now the boats move fast. They flit across the narrow waterways, choosing first the left branch, then the right from an impossible puzzle of choices. The boatsmen slip their caps over backwards and shout to each other with joy. It’s like they’re playing tag. The engine drones. The hum is so steady that I am almost asleep, head nodding down. Then—slap—we’re in open ocean. Blue, white and grey. The silver curve of an ancient coin, across which are days and days of sea, until there are at last some distant, wistful islands. The sunlight is deceptively thin, but strong enough to burn Alex to a crisp in half an hour. I had remembered before we left and slipped on a light, long-sleeved shirt underneath my life jacket, despite the coastal heat.
Nudging, roaring, surging and soothing, the boatsmen know how to ride through the swells. Then at last we turn into the mangroves again. Nidiria calls loud and happy from the front, “Emi, THIS is the Naya!”
The Naya is a short river, only 120 kilometres long. It begins its life in the foothills of the soaring Andes and snake-winds its way down and across the jungle lowlands, becoming a fat and brown river at its mouth, thick with spindly mangroves, where it finally meets the Pacific Ocean. Indigenous peoples have lived along the rich banks of the Naya since before memory can tell. But life changed drastically when, in 1526, Spaniards arrived in the area.
That year, Sebastián de Belalcázar, a Castilian donkey thief, set out to pillage the hot lowlands of the Pacific littoral, founding the city of Cali, all the while slaughtering Indigenous people and fighting internecine battles with his fellow invaders. In the mountains beyond, rumours ran wild about rivers of gold and fabled cities paved with the shiny stuff. The Pizarro brothers had actually found stacks of treasure and went promptly to work destroying the great Inca Empire. Belalcázar, though, would find no such treasure.
Reported to be a particularly vicious man, Belalcázar was even called to account by the Spanish authorities for slaughtering all the women and children of a particular village while the men were absent. He died in 1555, while awaiting extradition to Spain, where he was to be tried for the murder of a fellow Spaniard. (The statue of Belalcázar in Cali was torn down in 2021 by Indigenous community members, as was one in Popayan a year earlier.)
There were no pots of gold to be had in the lowlands among the fishers and the gatherers, so Europeans set about creating sugar plantations. As the Indigenous communities were all but extinguished, the Spaniards began trafficking boatloads of Africans to slave in the fields. The slave trade began in 1518. Over the next three hundred-plus years an estimated 1.1 million Africans were forced through its hideous capital: Cartagena de Indias, on the Colombian Caribbean coast. Slavery was abolished in Colombia in 1852.
Today, along the Naya river, there are sixty-four Afro-Columbian communities, while the upriver and downriver Eperara peoples each have a reserve.
We buzz along the lower reaches of the river and, after about half an hour, pull up to a collection of wooden houses built on stilts. We land at a shaky ladder leading up to the Casa Grande, bigger by far than the small, personal homes. The Casa Grande is the sacred gathering space of Joaquincito, the home of the downriver Eperara people.
There she is! Marcia is waving madly and coming down the ladder. Everyone from the village is in the Casa Grande, waiting to meet me. Enrique and Maru are talking with Marcia, explaining that we’re not staying, that I’m not staying, but that they’ll drop me off the next day. “Do you want to come?” they ask her. “We’re going to Las Conchas. You should come, but hurry, get your stuff.”
Marcia disappears, then returns with a little pink backpack and a girl, maybe about nine years old. They jump in the back. We beam with joy at one another. We did it! We’re together at last. There is no time to say anything, and we’re off. Up the river, buzz, buzz.
The green walls of the jungle close in around us, hiding who knows what. The trees seem endless, eternal. Looks like the jungle won here. But then we zip around a corner and there’s a big town: Puerto Merizalde, named after its founding bishop, who dreamed of building a bustling metropolis in the jungle. We move along the wooden houses stacked right over the river until—there He is! Standing high on top of a massive cathedral in the river town that had failed to become a city, right on the dome reaching out to his people: a grandiose white Jesus, hands extended in blessing. We float along under his outstretched arms.
On the other side of town, we dock and climb out onto a soggy wooden platform. We’re stopping for lunch. At last Marcia and I hug each other. I meet Yasmin, her daughter. We head up arm in arm to a table to my first fish of the Rio Naya. We eat with satisfaction, and we catch up. Things are not well at all on the river. Peace accords have meant nothing. I listen, shake my head. Four community leaders dead in the last few months. Everything a great unknown. Solemnly we board the boats again to travel to the next stop upstream. Yamali stays here, but Nadiria will travel with us up to Las Conchas.
We’re heading further inland. After about an hour, we arrive at the Humanitarian Zone of San Francisco, where we will exchange our ocean-going boat for a river boat that will make it easier to journey farther up the shallow river through the ever-thickening, verdant jungle.
The region around the Naya River has a particularly troubled history, explains Enrique from the Comisión, with input from the WOLA experts, Adam and Gimena. In the past thirty years or so the Naya’s relatively short length, from the thick coca leaf sites up in the highlands, along the back and forth of the main branches of the river, to the lonely and unguarded Pacific coast, has become a key route for the moving of drugs and arms. There are big bucks to be made by the Colombian military (the largest in Latin America) and the shady paramilitary bands (which have direct links to the official military, but operate with impunity). These latter are responsible for the greatest number of human rights abuses. Last of all, but thick in the game, are Colombia’s two guerrilla organizations: the Rebel Armed Forces (FARC) and the much smaller yet still fierce National Liberation Army (ELN). Everyone wants a piece of this rich pie.
During Holy Week, 2001, one of the worst massacres of Colombia’s more than 50-year-long civil war occurred along the Naya River. Between April 11th and 12th, paramilitaries from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia brutally murdered and mutilated an estimated 70 people up and down the Naya. Thousands more fled into hiding along tributary rivers, to Puerto Merizalde, and all the way down the river and along the ocean into the city of Buenaventura.
After a number of years of displacement, communities started to return and rebuild. An important tool for peacemaking was granted to them when the Inter-American Court on Human Rights ordered precautionary measures for the communities, and a number of “humanitarian zones” were declared. These were to be areas exclusively for civilians, entirely free from all weapons. No armed players from any side of the war would be allowed into the Zones. The communities would patrol themselves, and the Naya Community Council would oversee the civilian network.
By the time we arrive at the San Francisco Humanitarian Zone, I’m feeling a bit queasy. Maybe it’s the food, the sun, or the sway of the boat. I breathe deeply. We all pile out. Good thing Maru told us to wear our flip-flops. We disembark straight into the shallow water, and the riverbed is muddy and rocky. We are met by community leaders at the river’s edge. The village reaches right down to the water. Old cement block buildings, once painted but now crumbly and worn, stand close together. Neighbors look out and shout out to us. We stop at one place and another. Everyone knows Enrique and Maru, and there’s laughing and teasing. At one place we are given a shot glass to share. I take a wee sip. Holy Beasts! There is a coal of fire in my mouth, in my throat, in my esophagus, in my gut. Oh, I remember this. Isabelino, an Afro-Colombian leader who I met in Brazil, had some. It is a sacred drink, made with herbs, but also with a high alcohol content. My stomachache eases. That’s good news!
Then, out of nowhere, a helicopter thunders overhead. It lands on the other side of the village. The army. We go closer to observe. Soldier after soldier, each shouldering a bundle, marches down from behind a hill, turns left and disappears. We watch them warily from a distance, then go down to the next street. The leaders tell us what is going on. The soldiers have set up camp, smack at the edge of the village, on a jutting bit of land sticking into the curve of the river.
Adam, who carries himself with calm and confidence, consults with the villagers. Leaving them behind, we gringos move forward to check in with the military camp. An infantry specialist comes out to see us, a little surprised. Adam and Gimena converse with him, and Alex and I fall back. Soldiers should not be here, while we have every right. We are invited guests and, of course, we are unarmed. Quietly I take out my phone and snap a few shots. The soldiers have brought in heaps of provisions, what look like sacks of sugar or rice. Everyone is polite if tense.
I get the story in pieces. Officially, it seems, the military came to search for evidence concerning the four community leaders—three brothers and a cousin—who were kidnapped, disappeared and in the end murdered in April and May. Adam raises his eyebrows.
Later, I get a few more pieces of the puzzle. Valle de Cauca, a distant, forgotten corner of Colombia, became a central battleground and hiding place for the fighters in the civil war. It was mostly controlled by FARC guerrillas. After the 2016 peace accords went into effect, the FARC disbanded, moving into controlled de-escalation communities. But along the Naya, this left a vacuum of power, and of course the movement of drugs continues. There is a lot of money involved. Adam says that he has heard that ordinary soldiers request to be sent to this region. This is the place to make money. That may be the real reason the army is here. And behind the army, the paramilitary waits.
Finally, we are back at the boat, a new one able to go further up the river. I climb in beside Marcia’s daughter, Yasmin, in the front row, the bumpiest place. The green jungle walls climb higher and higher on either side of us, as the river gets both shallower and narrower. A couple of lime-green iguanas scuttle into the brush. There’s no more sun to burn us—it’s rumbling and cloudy up in the darkening heavens. Occasional single wooden houses jut up on stilts, and every once in a while, another Humanitarian Zone, with its big vinyl sign declaring it to be a weapons-free area, exclusively for civilian use. There are children running along the shore, people in impossibly skinny dugout canoes, standing or sitting, and others leaning on the window frames of the houses. Everyone waves, on the water and on the land.
The boat sways and swoops. On one riverbend intersection we come across, incredibly, my friend Isabelino, who had given me a sip of the sacred drink when we were in Brazil. We wave and laugh, and then our boats charge off like horses to gallop in opposite directions. The boat drones. I’m not sure we’ll ever get there. We haven’t seen houses for a while, when on one swoop we hear a sickening scrape and thud. Then the engine dies. Our boat turns lazily in the current and starts floating aimlessly downstream. Where will we stop? Sometimes it’s better not to ask anything and just encomendarse (hand yourself over) to God.
Our able boatman manages to get us into one quiet lull on the river’s edge and then another. Going backwards, we come to a house high on the riverbank. He calls up. A gruff answer comes down. Then a man appears with a rifle of some sort. Shouting, suspicion back and forth. It looks like he won’t help. Are we going to have to float down further? But then, it seems, peace has been made. The man on the shore disappears, comes back and down to our boat. He has a thin white wire. The motor is raised out of the water. I hold my breath and look around. Everyone seems relaxed. Then we all cheer as the engine putt putts. We’re off again.
The going is tenuous, with the driver occasionally killing the motor. We are too heavy, and the river too shallow. Once or twice, we get out of the boat and walk along a sandbar. At one point, Alex, who’s a big man, falls into the river while exiting the boat. But there’s not one complaint, just a smiling resignation at riding the rest of the way in his wet jeans.
Rain rushes down. Tarps appear from the boat’s storage, and we wrap them around ourselves. I tuck the end in around Yasmin. She’s shivering. I take off my sunscreen shirt and wrap it around her, and then the tarp, and then my arm holding it all in place. Then it happens: I love her. This little girl, who has the bravest mother: Marcia, who has traveled to Spain and to the States, who has seen and touched and laughed at snow, who has macheted her way through every rock planted on her path, a rural Colombian Indigenous woman with no recognized rights. Her sheer will is making things happen.
At every bend in the river Enrique drapes himself off the bow of the boat, holding tight to an oar, and measures for depth. For a long time, it is announced that Las Conchas is 15 minutes away, just around the next corner, until, at last, half of us are dumped onto a sandbar while the boat makes its final push to the community. Then comes back for the others. It is dark, and the rain is torrential. We were supposed to arrive at noon, and now it’s seven in the evening. In all the boat trip took almost nine hours.
We shake our feathers out in a dry little house on stilts. Baby Kaila, who didn’t cry once during the trip, and her mother are welcomed joyously, and Kaila disappears into the arms of one auntie and then another, and then through a series of cousins, or sisters and brothers. Her mother rests after the long ride. Nidiria sits and laughs with her old friends. The WOLA people talk softly with our hosts.
At last we make our way in the dark, in the rain, up a walkway that has become a stream, to a school. We sit at the small desks, and the room fills up. Someone jerry-rigs a lightbulb and a microphone to a cord which goes out the window to a generator somewhere. More neighbours come. The room is packed. People stand thick along the outside of the barred windows.
Before we talk, a smaller group of men and women gather in front of the classroom, to drum, to sing. How could I ever describe this sound, not even music, exactly? How could I, with my thin-white-Nordic blood, ever say anything at all about what this drumming and singing means? Something so ancient, so holy, so filled with sorrow and resistance, struggle and survival of 15-20 generations from the capture of their ancestors in Africa. If this isn’t Resurrection, I don’t know what is. The shaking, the lament, the song of determination fills the room, fills the hearts and souls of everyone present, pressing us all into a bonded commitment, a kind of vow that can never be broken. When they finish at long last, I don’t know what else needs to be said. The woman leading the singing says one thing: “This is a song of gratitude, and welcome. Thank you.” I lower my head. My eyes burn.
But of course, there is more to be said. One person after another speaks a part of the story. Adam types away on his computer, which came upriver sealed in a freezer-size Ziploc bag.
On April 17th, three men, brothers Hermes Angulo Zamora and Obdulio Angulo Zamora and their cousin, Simeón Olave Angulo, disappeared from somewhere along the river. After they failed to return, community members searched up and down the waterways. They reported the disappearance to government officials in Buenaventura. Tensions continued to climb. A third brother, Iber Angulo Zamora, was increasingly threatened. Support was again demanded from the departmental capital.
At last, on May 5th, a commission from the Human Rights Ombudsman office came to escort Iber out of the region. On the water they were confronted by armed men in a boat, who pulled Iber into their possession and sped away. Later, the four disappeared men were found executed.
Fears are high that the army is using these murders as an excuse to move in and take over the region. And right behind them, the paramilitaries. The river is, some community leaders say, already surrounded by the army, who have no regard for the communities’ ways of practicing vigilance. Nidiria points out that for more than 300 years Afro-descendant communities have defended and conserved the river and the earth. There is hope for increased unity between Afro and Indigenous people of the Naya.
There is some debate around small-time coca farmers, up and down the river. These farmers have never become wealthy but have served as a source for the raw coca leaves. Coca farmers are trapped. They have few other options. The government promised to help with new crops, and thousands of farmers signed contracts stating that they will no longer plant coca. But as usual, those getting shafted are the already poor. There has been no meaningful support for the transition, and in the meantime, the power struggle to control the coca trade ratchets up, with farmers trapped in the middle.
The discussion carries on for hours. Lollipops and chocolate cookies are distributed at some point. Finally the gathering comes to an end. I sit up quickly when Enrique asks if I might pray with the community.
“Of course,” I say. How to pray here in this place, with these people, what can I possibly say? Thank God for the Holy Spirit who always gives the words to speak. I think, well, why not start the prayer like I start every prayer. Not sure if it will work here.
“El Señor sea con ustedes,” I say.
“Y con tu espíritu,” comes thundering back, more people than I can count.
And so, in the dim flickering light, in the pouring rain, in a schoolhouse in Las Conchas I close my eyes and we pray.
It rains all night in Las Conchas. There’s not a sound in the little dry house, except for a dog—there’s always a dog. Bark. Bark. Bark. But I sleep completely senseless, wiped out from so much travelling, listening, until the first roosters crack the morning chorus.
We are up with the first light. We eat soda crackers and drink hot, sweet coffee. Then we go back down the river, so much faster than the day before. The shallow areas from yesterday have filled in with last night’s rain. It’s still blustery and even cold, especially in the fast boat. Marcia and I make a Yasmin sandwich, and we wrap ourselves all up in tarps. There are children in school uniforms in the thin canoas, standing up and pushing along the river’s edge. Today’s the first day of school, after holidays, and they are heading to the nearest classroom. Yasmin whispers to me, “We have school today too.” I have no idea how far we still have to go downriver. Go, boat, go!
We arrive in San Francisco. No sign of the soldiers. We change boats and float down past the giant Jesus frozen in eternal blessing.
Before long we spy Joaquincito. It’s still morning, about 9 o’clock. Marcia, Yasmin and I disembark, climb the wooden stairs. The WOLA folks and the Comisión people wave and push off. About a month, Adam yells over the motor, until they’ll have their official WOLA report on the Naya River. We duck under the low roof and step in—suddenly we’re in the Casa Grande. It is dark, cool. I imagine it full of people for ceremonies and meetings.
So, here I am. Now what? Surrender, open, trust, love. Plutarco comes out to greet us. He’s the head of the community. Later I find out he’s Marcia’s older brother and the community health promoter.
Joaquincito is the Resguardo, the reserve of the Eperara community of the lower Naya River. There are about a hundred Indigenous nations all over Colombia, settled from the lowland rivers that head west to the Pacific, or north to the Caribbean, or east to join the great Amazon, to the highlands that meet the mountains and the edge of the Andes. In Joaquincito there are 42 households, mostly Indigenous, with just a few Afro or Mestizo families blended in. Along the river there are far more Afro-descendant settlements, 30 times as many as Indigenous communities.
Marcia leads me to the other side of the Casa Grande, through a wooden kitchen with a fire pit rigged up on cement blocks with a sand base. There’s the biggest cooking pot I’ve ever seen—upside down now. That must feed everybody.
“We just had a big feast,” says Marcia. “Five days ago.”
We shimmy down a treacherously (for me) damp wooden ladder, across some soft planks, then up onto a long, cement platform, about three feet above the wet ground.
“That’s the bridge,” says Marcia. “We fought years for that. Blood was spilt for it.” The bridge stretches out along the front of the houses. Each house reaches the bridge with a simple plank. Drainage canals carve into the land, which is often underwater depending on the level of the river, which floods with heavy rain and the sway of the ocean’s tide.
We go down two, three, four houses to Plutarco’s place.
“We’ll stay next door, with my mother,” says Marcia. “But it’s more comfortable here.” We slip inside. “I’ll get breakfast.”
I meet Plutarco’s wife, Paula. There are piles of kids, Plutarco and Paula’s children, Paula Andrea, Paulo Andres, Junior and little Ingrid. And Marcia’s son, Alejandro. Then comes Marcia’s mother up the plank, carrying two full, sloshing pails of water from the river. She nods a greeting to me and snaps a few words in Siapidara.
I sit in a chair at a small table. Marcia has disappeared through a door and left me with the kids. They are taking turns swinging in a hammock. Ingrid, who is one and a bit, stares at me with a look of suspicion as she moves from sister’s hip to cousin’s arms, then back again. Who’s this woman, say her fierce undisguised eyes.
Marcia comes back in a bit with a plate piled with food—just for me. Yikes. Four boiled green bananas, a hill of rice and a piece of rich pink pork. “That’s from the feast,” she says. “My brother smoked it. It takes a long time, but it lasts then for a good while, about a week.” Of course. There’s no refrigeration here, only electricity once in a while with an expensive generator.
Dear Lord, I’m in Rio Naya bacon heaven! Who knew that pork could be this delicious? Greasy and meaty and smoky. The green bananas are starchy and bland, perfect with a piece of bacon embedded.
While I’m finishing up a great fuss is going on in the house across from me—later I find out it’s the general store, which enjoys the only constant electricity, provided by a large solar panel. We head out to see. José de la Cruz has hunted an animal in the night, and now it’s coming to be weighed, and sold, I presume. I ask what it is, and get “rabbit” and “wild pig” as answers. The beast is now headless, so I can’t really tell. Not by looking at its little trotters. A sharp thin knife carves it into pieces.
After this, Marcia calls me to go back to the Casa Grande. There’s going to be a community meeting—a chance for me to get to know more people. We gather in the cool dark space. We sit on wide platform benches, men, many women, and many more children. Plutarco greets me officially. I say thank you, and then I listen.
Arturo, the school teacher, speaks first: “We are one of 102 different nations in what is now called Colombia. After the Spanish invasion we were called savages, then we were called, pejoratively, “minors” or infants. In 1991 there were reforms to the national law and we were recognized as nations, and the Afro-descendant communities were as well. We lived in peace. Then in 2001 we suffered the terrible internal displacement. We fled to Buenaventura, to other rivers, and no one helped us. We returned, and we know our rights, but so far that is just on paper. In 1989 the limits of our Reserve were defined, then in 2005 they were extended. There has been some disagreement with the Afro-community, but there has been a lot of work on building unity. The government owes us a lot, and we have received barely anything. Now, for example, they are saying something ridiculous: We own the land, as Indigenous people, but the government owns what’s under the land. That makes no sense to us.”
Oh dear, I think. The mining companies are already hovering here. Possibly Canadian. Beware.
Then Inez speaks: “I am the head of the Women’s Association. We have had a lot of troubles. The government promised us support, but nothing at all has arrived. Then there were the fumigations. We lost everything: even our seeds. We had yams and yucca, sugarcane and plantains. We lost most of it. The earth no longer yields much. We’ve had to go further and further into the forest, away from the village.”
Norberta speaks: “We don’t want mining or any such thing. We haven’t asked for much, but we haven’t received anything at all. We need a health centre, a school, decent housing. We’ve had no support since the displacement in 2001. We have insisted that there be dialogue. We are tired after 52 years of war. Our young people don’t want war. We live in paradise here. We have taken care of this place, we have looked after our own. They don’t want to admit that the military are here, and the paramilitaries, but we know that they are around. This is a Reserve, not a Humanitarian Zone like they have up the river. But this is a weapons-free zone too. Twice the army has arrived in the community, and twice the community has chased them off. All the Naya River has been in resistance. We have been fighting for 527 years, with our own culture, language and art. The last straw was the fumigations in 2012 and 2013.”
Cecilia agrees: “Everything was lost. The earth herself got sick. Our food supplies have diminished. Our pineapple, for example. And we live in fear. We built our Sacred Big House in 1991, and we have been saying forever: Mother Earth is not to be destroyed, not our forests. This is the very heart, soul, strength of the Earth. We are the only Indigenous community on the lower Naya, and we have been fighting militarization and big companies. And now they are threatening to fumigate again.”
The meeting goes on until many have spoken. I feel like I’m starting to get a sense of the story. Just a taste.
Marcia invites me to go back to the house. They are going to carry on in meeting. I am exhausted. I need a nap. I think fondly of the hammock as I negotiate my way up the slippery plank to Plutarco’s house. But what do I find? Ingrid is sleeping in the hammock, across its soft width, a perfect little bundle. I am embarrassed at how grouchy I feel: here I am uncomfortable and tired—and jealous of a baby!
Marcia is away in the Casa Grande for a long time. I’m glad she doesn’t feel like she has to entertain me constantly. I sit and read my book by the Andean theologian Victor Bascopé, the man who showed me how to make coca leaf tea and how to chew coca leaves when I was in Ecuador. He had told me about how hard it was to research the detailed story of the invasion of the Spaniards. The murder of so many leaders, both named and those now forgotten, and so many others. The treasures that were stolen, and much, much worse, the theft, destruction, attempted annihilation of Andean cosmology.
“When I look at the rocks making up the walls and churches and colonial buildings I just cry,” says Victor. “Each stone is an ancestor.”
I am reading about the nosebleed-high Andes, and I am here in the warm always-wet lowlands. The people and stories are linked, though not the same, of course. The invasion narratives of the Spanish, the Portuguese, the English and the French have common threads. For King, for Queen, for Church.
At last, Marcia’s back from the meeting. They aren’t going to Buenaventura tomorrow after all. Not until Wednesday. I can go with them. Marcia’s worried that I haven’t had lunch. I’m stuffed, I reassure her. She’s trying so hard to help me, to guess what I need. I am still figuring out how to be here. Mostly I try not to be a nuisance. Whatever may be uncomfortable or different or not the way I would do it. Forget it! Receive everything. I am filled with gratitude.
We go to the sacred river. Yasmin comes, and little Paula joins us. Everyone jumps into the river. Even though we’re in the warm equatorial waters, I have to ease myself in, down the worn ladder. The water is brown and slow and cool. Once I’m in, the river seems wide and endless. We splash and play. Marcia washes herself, and then a tub of clothes, while sitting on a low wooden step. The girls pretend to be sharks, and they do cartwheels from the soft bank into the water. They are like baby otters, twisting and splashing and smiling. They find a canoa, and they paddle around and around. They convince me to get in, and around we go, laughing without walls of any kind.
This river is holy. It is the artery of the whole body, the means by which people here live. It is where they bathe and wash and pull water for everyday things. It is their means of travel and their source of fish. The river changes, with the tides and the cycles of the moon and the rains.
“Naya Tooja.” Sacred River Naya, Marcia whispers. “Cho nara weda tooja beda.” No human hand could have ever made this river. No human hands dug the channels or made the turns. We float, and more than that: we are carried.
It rains all night again, and I sleep in Marcia’s bed—without Marcia—with the mosquito netting all tucked in around in the absolute dark, in the absolute silence, but for the roosters that set one another off, then call down the row at three, four, five in the morning. By five or six o’clock, I know, everyone will be getting up. There was one single shattering of thunder last night—I didn’t see the schism of lightning. It was after we were in bed around nine and it seemed to crack the wooden houses with the power of its sound. Yasmin began to cry. Her mother’s soft words pulled her back into sleep, to comfort, to shelter.
Again, I wonder what I can do, what I can say? It takes so much energy to host me, to welcome me, to worry about me, to make space for me. Would it be better if I did something in a different way? Why am I here? Of course, I am not the Great White Saviour. But is there some part of me that wants to be? I have nothing to offer but my self. Marcia is clear, and she has shared with others: Emilie doesn’t come to bring projects or money.
Yet there is something about me being here—for me, and for the community. What does it mean that someone sees, someone notices, someone listens? For them and for me. I lie and think and toss a little. The rain comes down in steady soft waves along the roof. In a while, it is not quite as dark as it used to be.
At last it is five or so, and we get up. The day starts. Children are sleepy, still staying close to home, and to mothers. The women go into the wet side of the house. I am starting to figure it out. The front of the house is the ‘dry’ part. Here people sleep, sometimes in a separate room walled off, and in the back is where the cooking and washing happens, in a room still up on stilts. The back food-area is divided too, the preparing side and the washing part—where dishes and fish, root vegetables and even babies are rinsed and scrubbed—and then out on the very edge a fire on a bed of sand and stone. The back area opens to the sides and the bright green everywhere of growing things. This room is where the action is, at least in the daytime. Grandmas and mothers and aunties and kids gather here. Another hammock and a few small stools are occupied, so I sit on the floor. I like it better here than on my own on the other side of the wooden wall, where I spent the afternoon reading yesterday. Plutarco comes in with a mess of fish, and Marcia’s peeling green bananas. For now, we drink sweet hot coffee and eat soda crackers while the fish get cleaned.
I’m starting to understand food here now too. All meals seem to be a starch and a protein. Starches so far have been yucca, taro, purple yams, and green banana. The first three, and the last too sometimes, are prepared boiled. Twice we have the bananas fried, once whole, and once squashed into disks, patacones. The proteins we eat are best bacon ever, eggs, lots of fish, boiled or fried, beans, and once, chicken—but we’ll get to that part later. Everything is so good. Then there’s the fruit: sugarcane (peeled, sucked and chewed, spitting the hard, twiggy part out), green coconuts (drinking the fresh water first, then eating the thin, slippery bits inside after cracking open with a machete), guanabana, grenadilla, cherimoya, pitaya (weird yellow blobby thing with black spots, mushy white and melting inside), lulo (only for juice), papaya, maracuya (passion fruit? eat together with crunchy seeds), bacao which I thought was cacao, and is indeed a relative (very strong smell and taste, bitter crossed with sour, inedible for me—I give it to happy, receiving children), bananas and plantains, which I only see cooked and green, and my favourite: zapote—pumpkin orange, sweet and slimy, with two fat, long, slippery brown seeds. The zapote is given to me as I walk along the raised cement platform by a young man rushing by with two of them. He stops and turns when he sees me, and hands me one of his treasures.
The fruit is all gift. People come by the house to deliver or call me into their house across the wooden plank. I receive everything, try everything, like everything (except the bacao).
Doña Cecilia particularly likes to come by. She talks to me, and she asks me questions. She invites me to her house. “My house is really clean,” she says, and she shows me around the yard, back a bit from the cement platform and along another platform, this one made of wood. Her yard is a little bit drier—at least for now—as it is farther from the slow, mud-brown river that rises up every twenty days or so and floods under the closer houses. She shows me where she has a raised compost pile. She shows me her flowers, her fruit trees and her medicinal herbs—she and her husband, Bejerano, are healers. “This one is for stomach upset, this for headache, this for (mal de) ojo, this for sadness.” She takes me—and a whole handful of children—up a narrow path that leads even farther away from the river. We should have gumboots, she says, eyeing my flip-flops skeptically. We wander up the squashy path until it is apparent that it just won’t work. The earth is too soft. I am ankle deep in mud. Further up, she points, we have our plantings, the yams, and papas chinas (taro). She tells me more about how terrible it has been since the fumigations.
The Colombian government, with the full support of the USA and its ‘war on drugs,’ has engaged in extensive spraying for years. The chemical defoliant, glyphosate—the main toxic component in Monsanto’s Roundup—was repeatedly sprayed in aerial raids on coca plants and—according to residents of the Naya River basin—everything else: food crops, houses, animals and even people. In 2015 the government promised to stop fumigations by airplane after the World Health Organization declared that glyphosate was a proven carcinogen. However, the threat of resumed spraying remains, the latest possibility being drones to deliver the poison.
“So many things have just dried up,” says Doña Cecilia, sadly. “No pineapple at all. Nothing is growing in some areas.” People have told me of strange diseases not known in these regions before. Marcia’s mother had to endure the choppy boat ride to Buenaventura and have a large tumour removed from her neck.
Don Bejerano shows me his carvings: a sweet little turtle, a bird, and a gorgeous walking stick carved with a couple of birds, and just below the handle, a man, holding a staff of his own and a mochila, a woven bag.
Doña Cecilia worries at the fire and brings me my first fried fish of the day—crispy with salt sizzled right through. I pick at it and eat it delicately, saving on the side bones thinner than a needle. Her grandson comes by, and Doña Cecilia sends him up a palm tree to get us a couple of fresh coconuts. He sheds his shoes and shimmies up fast, but stops about two-thirds of the way up. He yells something down to his grandma, then scoots down quickly.
“There’s a new wasp’s nest up there!” they explain to me, laughing. We’ll have to wait for our drinks.
As we share stories—I tell them about my red-headed grandson and my black shaggy dog—I can feel the threads begin to connect us. Doña Cecilia tells me about her son, who died, about how heartbreaking and constant is her desolation. Once, she says, a long time ago, she tried to live somewhere else; her husband is from the Chocó region, but she could never get used to not being on the Naya. She tells me her story of the displacement in 2001.
It was further up the river, in the Afro communities where the worst violence took place. By various estimates, between 40 and 130 civilians were killed over a few days, many brutally. Bodies were dissected with a chainsaw. Quickly, the information flew down the river: leave, now, get out. Most everyone did. It was a massive exodus of boats, big and small. Some went into the town of Puerto Merizalde to stay with family, many went into hiding along quieter branches of the river. And others went all the way to Buenaventura. The whole river was drained of people. Doña Cecilia says that at first they refused to go. But at last Doña Cecilia, Don Bejerano, and their children climbed onto a boat. They made it downriver, to a branch along the mangroves where they hid for five days.
Then they decided to go back, no matter what. Five families returned to Joaquincito together. They stayed in one house, afraid of the paramilitaries, who were hunting up and down the river. They stayed and ate what they could.
“The worst thing was listening to the dogs and the chickens die. We had nothing to feed them, and almost everyone had gone. They didn’t have time to take their animals. The animals cried and cried from the pangs of hunger, and finally they died. The Sisters (from the order of Mother Laura) heard we were starving and brought us a little bit of food, dried rice and beans. We held out for a few weeks, but in the end, we had to travel down to the city, to Buenaventura, where for two years we lived as refugees.”
We sit quietly together. I am thinking about the recent murders on the river, the ongoing deaths, the attacks on leaders of all social organizations. Back at the conference in Medellin, we named and prayed for the over three hundred Colombian community leaders murdered since the signing of the Peace Accords, two years ago.
We sit and then I go back with the flock of children to Plutarco’s house. We eat more fried fish, soft and salty, which never seems to be too filling. Marcia’s sister-in-law drops by, with a young woman—her daughter-in-law—and her brand-new baby grandson. We chat, and I hold the baby, and then, when it seems polite, hand him back to his mother. The women consult for a while in Siapidara. I smile nicely. Marcia comes up to me and asks me quietly, “They want you to baptize the baby.”
My heart thuds. What to do? How can I be both pastoral and stay within the bounds of acceptable church practice? I know I can do the former and don’t always trust myself with the latter.
The only important question in this instant is: What would be of assistance to this family? What do they need? I don’t worry about correctness within the church, but do I care about being honest with this family. Baptism is a mark of belonging. Of course, all creation, and every creature, especially this perfect little one with dark hair and black eyes, lying in my arms, is loved, adored, treasured by his family—and by the One who made us all. Baptism is a way we humans turn and shout yes back to God.
There is no priest or pastor who ever visits this community. And me? I am, now, a friend. I say yes, let’s bless the baby! Let’s get some water. They bring me clean water, from the big jugs of filtered water left for me by the prepared WOLA people. We pour a bowlful. We gather around, the children and the women. I hold little Liam Mejia. We pray together. May the Creator of Heaven and Earth ever hold you close, little one. May you flourish in love, in this place. May you grow to the fullness of your life. May you play in this river for many, many years. May the fruit be abundant. May the pineapples return.
In my heart I pray that the wolves of greed and violence that surround this community may be held at bay. I pray that the Naya won’t be invisible to the world. That the Afro communities standing for their right to live, to flourish, may be allowed to exist as signs of the bursting through of justice. And that the Indigenous communities may be left to practice their knowledge, their time-out-of-mind knowing of things that matter. So many things that we have forgotten. And I pray that we—the rich, the north—can turn our hearts away from greed and towards love for all creation.
Liam is asleep. He moves and stretches a little as the water pours off of his head, onto the wooden floor, through the cracks, and back to the water below.
Earlier in the day, as I peered out of the wooden morning window and out along the cement walkway, I saw a woman carrying two unfortunate upside-down chickens. They seemed to have given up, no squawking was happening as their tails pointed to the sky. Uh no, I thought. Too much. Has Marcia asked for them to be brought to me here? I am being a nuisance. I nodded as the woman approached, then sighed in relief as she walked by our plank, down one, two, three doors, and up to another house.
But now, after our blessing, I’m told that there is a chicken soup coming back to Plutarco’s house. The chickens were killed to celebrate this impromptu baptism. I am served a big bowl. Liam sleeps and we eat.
Later I spy his mother with a whole group of young women and men out on a raised platform playing soccer with a squashed, wet ball. Every few minutes the ball flies off into the mud and the water on the ground. Then it starts raining. No one stops playing, laughing, shouting, and the game goes on until the sun hovers over the western bank of the river.
Just before it sinks into the jungle trees, Marcia and I go along the cement platform, then along the wooden walkway to the holy river, to her most holy river, her cho nara weda tooja beda, her ancestral river, made by no human hands. Here we sit and dangle our feet into the warm water. Tomorrow, before dawn, we will be going out to the open sea, through waves rolling bigger than our boat, to Buenaventura—one of the most dangerous cities in Colombia—she with Plutarco to settle things, to fight with the state, me to catch a bus back to the Convent of Mother Laura in Medellin, and a plane back to Canada. We feel sad already. I will go with my heart made bigger, my life somehow different. Marcia—who knows why she reached out to me, what she saw, what she sees?
It doesn’t matter. This is how two women become friends.
This essay was written in 2019-2021. Since my visit I have had steady, if laconic, exchanges with Marcia. Sea changes have happened in her life, and in Colombia. In January 2020 Marcia welcomed a new baby, with her husband, Colombian Indigenous activist, Wilson Poirama. In June 2022, Marcia began advanced studies at the Pontifical University in Medellin.
Marcia writes, “Agradecer primero a mi dios por darme una oportunidad de vivir y también a mis amigo internacinale que me ayudaron para mí salud y esa es la razón de vivir en este planeta tierra, agradecer a mi esposo wilson poirama por apoyar mis metas, mis carrera profesional, en todas mis proyecion, tambien familiares como hermano, hermanas, mi madre querida, mis hijos gracias a todos asi puedo avanzar nueva mente encontrar en la universidad”
Translation: “First of all, I would like to thank my god for giving me an opportunity to live and also my international friends who helped me with my health (crisis), and that is the reason for living on this planet Earth; I would like to thank my husband Wilson Poirama for supporting my goals, my professional career, in all my plans, also relatives like my brother, sisters, my dear mother, my children; thanks to all so I can advance again in the university.”
There are hopeful changes at the national level as well. In August 2022, Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla and the ex-mayor of Bogotá and, thrillingly, Francia Márquez were inaugurated as President and Vice-President of Colombia. Márquez, an Afro-descendant woman from Cauca, a renowned and beloved community leader and anti-mining activist, has invited her countrypeople to join her in living a “vida sabrosa”, a life with flavor, a life with dignity, joy and power. Popular movements are gathering strength.
Adam and Gimena from the Washington Office on Latin America have kept their eyes on the Colombian story, especially watching and reporting on the risks and triumphs of local community leaders. Here is their fine article summarizing the current context.
I plan to visit Marcia in March 2023, as part of the gathering of the Óscar Romero International Christian Network in Solidarity with the Peoples of Latin America (SICSAL).