Learn to see me as a brother instead of two distant strangers.

Identity is one of those weird things that means nothing and everything. It means nothing because it is always changing, and it means everything because it is who you are.

I asked my class what being Colombian meant to them and the response I got was pretty tepid. I was surprised as I had seen people in the streets during the football, and flags are draped over everything here, so the lack of patriotism puzzled me. Then one of my students raised his hand to tell me that he didn’t really identify with the image of “Colombia” and that when he talked about his culture, he was referring to Colombians on a similar status. There was an uncomfortable quietness and a couple of nods and shrugs. Now I joke that I am working with “los hijos de papi y mami”, but there is a lot of truth in the fact that I’m rubbing shoulders with the Colombian elite. The top 5% on the economic scale. 28 of Colombia’s presidents studied in this university and it is well recognized for jurisprudence, or law, to simple folk like you and me.

I guess that knowing the socio-economic background of the majority of the students here should mean that I am not surprised by such opinions, but I am. These kids are going to be the politicians, lawyers and doctors of the Colombia of tomorrow. Yet they cannot see any mutual factors between themselves and the majority struggling under the poverty line. That is a problem. How are things going to change for a nation if those at the top of the food scale do not identify with those living in the system?

People have heard about Pablo Escobar and are aware of the history of the Medellín and Cali drugs cartels but what is less well known internationally is the number of displaced people living in Colombia. This ugly truth is not as glamorous as the legends surrounding cocaine, but is more visible in the day-to-day life in Colombia than you would think.

Matchell Solis wrote about the situation in Colombia in the Huffington Post:

“In Colombia, the number of internally displaced people is approximately 4.9 million — nearly the population of Colorado. This makes Colombia the second largest internal displacement country in the world next to Sudan.

Internally displaced people in Colombia account for 11 percent of the nation’s population and 19 percent of all internally displaced people globally. Once displaced, they are exposed to violence, rights abuses, and limited access to food, education, and health care.

The driving cause of displacement in Colombia is the ongoing civil war, which began in 1964 when the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas rose up in arms. Government-backed paramilitary groups emerged in the 1980s to combat the insurgents. Paramilitary forces remain active despite failed demobilization tactics between 2002 and 2006, and they continue to commit rights abuses.”

Although exact figures are disputed, it is true to say that there are more displaced people in Colombia than there are in Haiti, Iraq, Uganda, Afghanistan or the Congo.

Although at present there is much discussion about a peace agreement with FARC, many people do not have much faith in change for the time being. Last Friday was International Peace Day, and I was invited by a woman who works with displaced women to attend an event at a church near where I live. They had different speakers come in and talk about hopes for peace in the country including a lawyer who explained how he thought things needed to change. Those days dedicated to causes very often pass and are forgotten, but this planted a seed in my head that has made me all the more conscious about what is going on around me.

The effects of displacement are brazen. On every street there are people who are going through rubbish bags, picking out food or materials that may serve them in some way. In the mornings it is not unusual to find litter strewn across the pavement, evidence of the midnight forager, looking for something to serve him from the things that we have thrown out.

Many of the Colombians that I have spoken to hate the image that the country has, and that is perhaps a contributing factor as to why they want to distance themselves from those who represent this image of a damaged population. But I have also met people who really want to make a change, like those who I met in the church, young people who are involved in foundations that work on community projects, or certain professors who actively engage with the issues that the country is facing. Right now I am working on revising a paper written by one of the professors here about the impacts of “favela chic”, making poorer barrios or favelas places for tourists to visit, and thus concreting the negative image of poverty that these places have.

On a personal level I feel like when I was younger, perhaps as young as six or seven, I pushed away the Algerian/Muslim side , and I wobbled around the age of 10 and 11 after the climate got uncomfortable in the aftermath of 9/11. But throughout my adolescence, especially in recent years, I have realized how important it is to know more about my culture and represent in the best way possible. There is a very negative image surrounding Muslims, and Arabs in general, and Algerians have their own special reputation that precedes them. However, I realized that the reputation isn’t the definition and that knowing where I come from, I can shape the person I am, and be Muslim, Algerian and British, without having to conform to someone else’s perception of what that may mean. Coming out my environment to somewhere that has nothing to do with my own culture makes me see that even more clearly.

Colombia is an amazing country. I am enamored by the little that I have seen and every day I discover something new that tickles my fancy. I am incredibly happy here, and I have made some really good friends and I feel comfortable in my work. The culture is diverse and I have found that the majority of the stereotypes surrounding Colombia are wholly inaccurate. This doesn’t mean to say however, that I do not see and recognize the things that “chocan” with certain things that I believe are important. I just feel like those who are privileged enough to have certain powers to make change happen should assume responsibility, because there is so much to be proud about in this country, yet everyone in the society needs to play their part.

The point I am making however is not restricted to culture, it crosses over to class. And it is that it is important to be aware of who you are, the powers you hold and the effect that you make in your little corner of the world. If you are wealthy and powerful you have a moral obligation to behave in a way that will benefit those that will be affected by your actions. For that reason it is important to teach young people not just how to get good grades and succeed academically, but also to take pride in their heritage, and understand where they fit into the world on a social level. Similarly, respect is mutual and needed from all sides. I write like this because it is how I have been feeling for a while now, so don’t let the cliché get to you, but it is important to remember where you have come from, as well as keeping a focus on where you are going, because we are all brothers and sisters, and we have a responsibility each and every one to try and make our impact on the things we touch a positive one.

Peace out and have a blessed day.

How to get a teacher – Advice from students at El Rosario

So I had to cover the grammar class for my boss this week because he is at a conferece. I took it last week as well, and we had been studying modal verbs – should, must, need to, can, cant etc. as well as obligation and necessity. Today I asked my students to get into pairs and make 10 commandments or rules for a given objective. Some people did it on “How to get rich quick”, others did it on “What to wear for Halloween” and some even did it on “How to be the perfect boyfriend”. Some bright sparks thought it would be cool to give a presentation to the class on “How to get a teacher”. I have never gone so red in my life, but I thought I would share these pearls of wisdom, exactly as they were written in their script so that you can have a laugh.

How to get a teacher

1. you may pay attention to what everything she/he says.

2. you should make him/her laugh

3. you must show your interest not only to the class, but also for the teacher.

4. you must find the way to ask her/him out.

5. you should show yourself as aconomicaly confortable or at least you need to pretend it.

6. you must not “stock” her/him.

7. you should never say “How yoo doing ” (nb. Joey from Friends reference)

8. you must not be deamn rud

9. you might not tell her/him your truly intentions.

10. you should never show your hungry

Open-mindedness

“Here I am, back in Mecca. I am still traveling, trying to broaden my mind, for I’ve seen too much of the damage narrow-mindedness can make of things, and when I return home to America, I will devote what energies I have to repairing the damage.” Malcolm X

Image

There was a common response when I told people at home that I was going to live in Colombia.  They looked a bit surprised, repeated the word “Colombia?” and wished me luck.

There has been a common response to my presence amongst the Colombians that I have met here. They look me in the eye, lean in, and ask “Why Colombia?”

Both parties are aware of the reputation that Colombia holds. My friends from home thought I was a mentalist, an adrenaline junkie looking for some crazy adventure, running off into the depths of a dangerous country like a wannabe Zoe Saldana (pero un poco más gordita). Colombians are very aware of how their country is perceived in the rest of the world and therefore half of them agree that I am probably mentally unstable, having heard all of the advice and coming to live here anyway. The other half however, are gagging to know exactly what made me want to come over.

Good question. I have yet to formulate a generic answer to respond to that question, but there are a couple of things that spring to mind. Firstly, let’s put things into context. I study Spanish and Philosophy at university so I had to spend a year abroad as part of my degree. Why not Spain? Well because at 18 I went to live in a Haitian batey in the Dominican Republic for a year, so Spain struck me as a step backwards in terms of challenging myself. So why Colombia? Well apart from the obvious (Shakira), I have to thank my brother from another mother, Gio Manuel, for introducing me to an amazing Colombian family in Italy last year. We had a really sick time and I was so warmly welcomed that I could feel my love-affair with Colombia beginning, right in Pavia. Apart from this family, it was the mixture of races, the interesting history and the curiosity which pushed me to choose Colombia.

From the get-go I swept away my preconceptions about Colombia, and decided to let it pull me along and open itself to me with time. One thing I quickly realized is how much Colombians hate the drug dealing image they have attained thanks to the legend that is Pablo Escobar. I have students in my conversation class launch into fuck off massive rants about how upsetting it is to go the States and be asked everyday if they take/deal/traffic drugs. To be honest, as far as students go, Leeds strikes me as worse than Bogota in terms of recreational drug taking. Most people who are studying seem to steer well clear of drugs, although a lot of them have come across cocaine and other drugs at parties or example. At a salsa festival in the Centre the other day there were various groups of people puffing away on bongs right in the middle of the plaza, even with the heavy police presence. However they were not students, and it strikes me that here, drugs certainly don’t have the same “cool status” that is attributed to coke back home. That is probably because people here can see the damaging affects that narco-trafficking has had on the country as a whole.

Apart from the obvious issue of drugs, which I will no doubt write about again at a later date, there have been a number of other things that I have had to open my mind to.

This week in my conversation class I decided to cover the topic of age-gap relationships. It is not unusual to see a sexy mamacita in her twenties strapped up to a pot-bellied balding man in the bars around town. It is difficult for me not to stare and even harder to get the damaging image of them getting jiggy out of my head.

That…jelly…belly…

I chose to cover the topic because I figured that it would provoke a response and get people talking. Plus, I wanted to get the inside perspective on the concept. There was an interesting response in the group. Whilst there was a girl who seemed to have learned something about feminism in her life, who firmly opposed the idea of young girls being with older guys, the general consensus was that it wasn’t really an issue. This being despite the fact that it was universally agreed that such relationship were probably more to do with economics than love. Cue open-minded moment.

It is a cultural difference and I respect that, I don’t know the lives that these women lead, and I am in no position to judge. I am merely an observer, taking the information from what I see, processing it, and applying it to myself in a way that will make me a better version of me.

Maya Angelou has helped me to achieve a certain level of open mindedness, with her logical words of wisdom:

“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain”.

This advice has proven indispensable in certain moments of potential stress, such as waiting for hours for my identification papers to be sorted (they love lengthy bureaucracy over here) struggling to get onto the bus for work (it makes the rush hour jubilee line look like an organized conveyor belt at YO! Sushi), and having to return to the bank on 4 different occasions because they keep telling you to bring the wrong documents. Oh, not forgetting that I have been here nearly six weeks and I have yet to received my first pay (the porridge and popcorn diet is back in action). Can’t change it, don’t complain, positive thoughts. And you what? It really hasn’t been that difficult at all.

The hardest things to deal with are the flashes of racism, the issues with the displaced people, and the general preconception that Europeans go around with their legs wide open. But in all honestly, I had adopted a mini forcefield around me that protects me from taking on the negative energy and getting down. The kinds of things that are permitted to enter the forcefield are :

– Ariqupe – Colombia’s trademark answer to caramel. It goes on ice cream, in cakes and in my tummy.

– The experience of teaching in a prestigious institution – I work in a pretty swish university and I feel blessed each day for the working environment and the students I teach.

– Salsa steps – I take classes, twice a week, with the dream of one day being able to wear one of the snazzy costumes with sparkles and shit…

– The warmth of the people. Yeah yeah, don’t all vom at once, I’m only saying it because it’s true! I have already made some amazing Colombian friends (and I mustn’t forget the Mexicanas…)

I can see everything that is going on around me, and I write in down in my head, but I make sure that I absorb the positive parts. Keeping an open mind. One of the best things to help me keep an open mind has been studying philosophy. Once you have studied philosophy, you realize that you can never have the only answer, and there is always a counter argument, to anything that you might think is solid. You think you know how to explain what morals are, philosophy can show you the pieces you missed and how you are wrong. You think you can switch teams and adopt the right answer, philosophy is two steps ahead and will push you back to the starting point. This is infuriating yet enlightening at the same time. It is through understanding that there is not really any such thing as “being right”, that you learn to have an open mind/heart/ears.

That said, sometimes I can feel a little lost in the abyss of philosophy, and that is where faith is essential. Having faith makes me feel less scared to close my eyes and jump, because it lets me know that there are limits. I wont drop forever, I will land somewhere. There are some boundaries, some rules, some guidelines that can help me to follow some kind of path. I have taken to having an open mind here, and I say yes to just about everything, excluding men, drugs, lunch dates with students, pork, other meat, alcohol and people asking for directions in the street.

I’m working on the kind of person I am and getting to know what I need to do in order to be productive, happy and better as a person, and I guess having and open mind and faith are two things that I can’t be without.

Thanks for reading, I hope you liked it and that wherever you are and whoever you are you are feeling the positive viiibezzz. One love ❤