Nonam people celebrate the return to their land

On the banks of the river Calima, between the departments of Valle del Cauca and Choco, there are several indigenous and afro-descendant communities.  The communities have suffered and continue to suffer threats from neo-paramilitary armed groups who force them off their lands, and to abandon their homes and crops.  Walking down a street to the river, we get to the dock in Puerto la Colonia, in Lower Calima, where a panga boat will take us downriver. Our arrival at the port draws attention from everyone who’s there: a 4×4 jeep offloading foreigners and their backpacks, interrupts the calm.

We get in the boat and head downriver. Even as we set off I feel like the jungle is engulfing us, the vegetation looks like it wants to eat the river, but the river forges its path with the power of its water.  A majestic jungle, accomplice to guerrillas and neo-paramilitaries, witness to the drug trade.

We arrive at the Nonam community re-baptised Santa Rosa de Guayacan, throw our bags to those waiting on the bank, the governor and a companion greet us shyly and board the boat carrying a pot full of rice and fish which they offer to us, the food quickly compensates for the chilly greeting.  We set off at full speed for Chamapuro where we will pick up another indigenous leader; on the way we eat the rice and fish, and try and keep it from getting cold in the breeze. Next stop: Puerto Pizario, to meet with seven communities from the area who have suffered neo-paramilitary violence and forced displacement.

Had I not known that indigenous communities are coming to Puerto Pizario to flee the threats and paramilitary terror, I would have just thought that it’s a magical place, somewhere to get lost in.  Their wooden houses in prime positions by the river, and the wild nature growing all around them make it look almost like something from a storybook. On the shore there are large boats made by carving out the heart of massive tree trunks, great works of indigenous engineering.  We walk around and the communities share their concerns, problems and solutions at the meeting.

After the assembly we carry on upriver to Santa Rosa de Guayacan to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the community’s return. Santa Rosa is full of children playing, possibly because of the day’s festivities.   And perhaps because the rain let off, or because the terror in Puerto Pizario is more recent, but the atmosphere is Santa Rosa seems more relaxed.


The children of the reservation watch us closely, observe us and listen to us without answering our questions. The little ones barely speak Spanish, the older ones do because they had to when they lived crammed into a refuge for a year in Buenaventura, when the armed conflict prevented them from living on their land.

We settle into a pretty wooden house, build on stilts.  Although it is up a slope and there is no risk of flooding, the construction helps to insulate the house from the intense humidity.  We eat little chicken and rice and they come and get us to go to the big house, the community’s main building.  It is a large room, and the first thing the Nonam build when they decide to settle somewhere. A large open space with no walls, a high roof, and where they are holding celebrations for the return to their land five years ago, land which they should never have left.

We meet with them and surprisingly we are offered food again, which we don’t want to turn away because we are grateful for their hospitality.

The Nonam are proud of their culture, and one of the eldest women in the community started playing the drum and singing songs in their language, two more sang with her and the rest of the community started to dance, young and old, all of them danced to the sound of the drum.  The dances lasted several hours, little by little the youngest ones stayed on and the dancing got faster, the jumps got higher and higher above the cane flooring which sounded like a rhythm box. Around the dance some of the women were painting with pigments using cane stalks as brushes, on the brown skins of the women, men and children.

Sebastian, a young man aged 15, started chatting to me. The indigenous community had seemed shy, but we realised that their form of relating to others is done through observation. They watch the person speaking to them, weighing the importance of what they hear, and how it is said, and they don’t need to intervene, or interrupt, they listen and observe. It could seem like they aren’t very participative, but in reality they have a more contemplative and perceptive vision of the world and the nature that surrounds them.  Sebastian wants to study for his high school diploma at the indigenous school that was built in Puerto Pizario, he wants to study something technical, he likes maths, and he says that he won’t got to university because he is poor and doesn’t have any money; he wants to do something for his community. He gets emotional talking about his community, it is the most important thing to him.  One day he wants to be the governor of the Wounaan Nonam.

The party ended late, the torrential rain returned and we came running back to our hut, hung up the hammocks and fell asleep listening to the rain.

In the morning, the children played football under the rain.  It eventually stopped, and we met again under the roof of the community house.

Fish and rice with super-sweet coffee is the best breakfast in the world with a backdrop of the river and wet jungle. We have to go.  Our boat departs Santa Rosa de Guayacan, and we leave behind a place that a first sight looks like  paradise, but which some people are turning into hell.

Michaela and Fernando

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