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.