Mapiripán, part three: Football for dignity

In the remote municipality of Mapiripán on the eastern plains of Colombia, things are really hotting up in the Jiw indigenous people’s settlement. Today the first women’s football tournament is set to begin between the Jiw and Sikuani indigenous peoples, led by Jiw women and organised by the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP), accompanied by PBI. The weather conditions are perfect: fluffy white clouds wander across the blue sky and their occasional shade is like a soft caress. Each team is composed of five players plus two reserves. For the occasion, the Jiw people have repaired the goalposts that I had noticed were broken during my last visit, and they have built a shelter out of palm leaves to receive the Sikuani teams and their fans. The edges of the football field are crowded with indigenous spectators whose excited shouts double as the first two teams drawn from the hat arrive on the pitch and kick off the tournament. Both teams are Jiw. Just like in the Champions’ League, they form a line on both sides of the referee, in the centre of the pitch so that Abilio from the CIJP can take the official photo. Then in line with protocol, they turn around and walk across the pitch in two rows, so that each player can shake the hand of each of her opponents, and then they break away to take up their positions. The whistle blows and they throw themselves into attacking the other side’s goal. They run, they jump, they throw themselves, they fall, they get up again. Nothing else exists except for the match. These women have historically been and currently continue to be dominated by patriarchal society, kept away from decision-making processes, from the focus of attention, abused both within and outside of their communities.[1] Half a year ago, some Jiw men attacked and killed a woman in this same settlement. They have since been made to leave the community with their families.

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Mapiripan, part one: jiw

Mapiripan, part two: The sacret lake

Many of these women work for the oil palm company Poligrow situated in the municipality of Mapiripán, where they are often considered as a matter of course to be ignorant, promiscuous and dysfunctional. Today, however, they are the centre of attention and of honour. They wear impeccable football strips in different colours, with their names and numbers on the back, and the name of their community printed on the front next to their hearts. Everyone is watching them, clearly passionate about the match, and there is not even one man on the pitch. The players are on fire, they do not stop for a second. The goalkeepers don’t hang around either: they simply grab the ball and throw it out onto the pitch again ready for a counter attack. The players never make a backward pass either; when they are cornered they simply push forwards without aiming, with all their strength. They do not really celebrate their goals. Their impressive commitment to the game does not translate into joy when they score a goal or win a match, as though their lives have been one long struggle without rest, and rejoicing is not allowed. Nor do they shout or talk much during the game. A kind of sobriety emanates from them, the courage of survivors; they will fight both on the pitch and in life as long as it is necessary.

The matches continue. Little by little the sun gets higher in the sky. The heat does not affect the spectators, however, and they stay put with their fervour intact. At the end of the morning it is the turn of Elizabeth’s team. Elizabeth is a young footballer from Bogotá who has come here with the CIJP, and by late morning it is her team’s turn to take part in the competition. They are a mixed team of Sikuani and Jiw players who registered at the last minute. At half time she approaches us, saying, as she tries to catch her breath: “They are real warriors…the ball is as hard as a stone…” In the second half, she strives to develop a game of passes, but only succeeds on rare occasions. The indigenous women intercept everything with their head or chest before the ball hits the ground. Poor rola,[2] she doesn’t play badly, but that’s not how they play the game here. At the end of the day only three teams are left in the competition, and all are Jiw teams.

The next day the semi-finals and final take place. When we arrive at the settlement at 6am, the morning sun is just coming out, but the players are all ready in their uniforms and their fans are stamping impatiently. As soon as we arrive, the teams who were eliminated the day before approach us with their families and ask for a second chance to continue in the tournament.

The players’ commitment is even greater in the semi final. They fall to the ground, they roll over. Not one player has a word of complaint about the referee’s decisions or answers back. The spectators come to talk to the CIJP organisers: they want the referee to be hard and make decisions without wavering.

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In the final are two teams from Zaragoza-uno, the oldest Jiw settlement in the area, and Zaragoza-seis, the biggest and only settlement with a football pitch, where the tournament is taking place. The referee’s whistle blows and the game begins, to intense excitement. The players are totally committed. For the first time, they start to argue with the referee. In spite of being the slight underdogs, Zaragoza-uno is the first to score. They are not as physically strong, but they use a game of more controlled passes which enables them to get closer to the Zaragoza-seis goal. Just before half time, Zaragoza-seis take a breathtaking shot and equalise. As soon as the whistle blows, I see a player pull up her shirt to breastfeed her baby. She does not stop until it is time for the second half. During the second half two players are slightly injured. I imagine what it might feel like to play barefoot as some of the women have chosen to do. I would rather walk barefoot over hot coals than walk barefoot on this pitch. Zaragoza-uno scores one more goal and seems to have the title in the bag until the last minute of play when, carried along by their many fans, Zaragoza-seis finds the strength to fight back and equalises again. The second half ends and the spectators know what is coming: the penalty shoot-out. They run to one of the two goals and form a compact semicircle of five rows and start jumping up and down like children. The members of the CIJP have great difficulty getting them to leave the pitch because they all want to be as close as possible to the final outcome. The players have calm expressions on their faces. They look to me like the eyes of hunters; just like when they are stalking prey, tensing their bow and arrow in the forest to kill an iguana to feed their family, here too they must not fail. They just have to shoot the ball into the goal and that’s it! In their minds there is nothing else, but the absolute fear of failing and the possible consequences. The penalty shoot-out follows. All the players score and at the end there is still a draw. Now the two goalkeepers go head-to-head and both score. The first two players to take penalties take another turn. Zaragoza-seis goes first, and scores amid a wave of cheers. Now Zaragoza-uno shoots and the goalkeeper blocks the ball which falls with a dull sound and lies half-buried in the ground, moving no further.

The semi-circle opens up to let past the Zaragoza-seis team, who are at last celebrating, and with shouts of victory they run around the whole perimeter of the settlement, followed by their even happier fans. The Zaragoza-uno team disappears into the blur of the crowd, and when the winners return from their circuit, the shouts die down.

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For the prize giving ceremony, the spectators and finalists form a circle together in the centre of the pitch. After homage is paid to Betty, the Jiw woman who was killed six months ago, the winners and losers of the final match receive their prize in silence. Only two players approach from the defeated team. All members of the winning Zaragoza team are there, but they surprise me because they do not take advantage of this moment of victory to attract more attention to themselves. They do not jump around, they do not shout, they do not raise their arms in the air. They receive their prize, a solar panel, in silence and, after a few minutes, the crowd dissolves.

Soon the last signs disappear that two exciting days of football were played here. Silence has returned to the plains, which are still here as always, all around us. There is light breeze in the air and night is about to fall. Before we go, I pass by a house where one of the players has returned to her usual occupation: cooking for her family while watching over her latest baby at the same time. But she has not changed out of her football strip; she proudly continues to wear the competitor’s shirt that bears her colour and her name. We hope that, in her heart, she wears it for a long time to come.



[1] CIJP: Campeonato de fútbol femenino por la dignidad de las mujeres Jiw y Sikuani, 8 July 2017
[2] Slightly pejorative nickname for people from Bogotá, used in Colombian regions.

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