In La Congoja, writing History is a collective endeavour

La Congoja is a remote place. This village is a significant distance from the urban centre of the municipality of Yondó. To get there you have to travel cross half the municipality, for hours along a rugged track. The landscape is dotted with green hills and sparse woods. Surprises await around every corner: small hamlets with a central settlement; and there, with vallenato music in the background, a solitary shop that only sells potatoes and beer; a herd of cows that block the road ahead even when the drivers sound their horns to frighten them off; oil wells and frightened birds that fly off at the sight of the buses and cars.

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After some six hours we arrive with the Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights (Corporación Regional por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos – CREDHOS) in the centre of the village of La Congoja. The defenders from CREDHOS have come with most of their team to meet with the community and begin a historical memory process. Gathered here are historians, psychologists and social workers. A number of community members have also travelled to the village, all of them small-scale producers, and some of these people are part of the Afro-Colombian movement.

These people seem happy to be meeting with CREDHOS: they make jokes and greet each other while the CREDHOS team gets ready and we put up the PBI flag to make our presence visible during the event. After everyone introduces themselves, the afternoon’s task begins: to collectively construct a chronological history of the village. The community members seem shy at first, as though they are not sure where to begin. Little by little, the historian from CREDHOS encourages them by asking questions. When did the first inhabitants arrive here? And the armed groups? When was the first school opened? How is healthcare organised in the village? What are the names of the people who have been killed and disappeared? Little by little, the people reveal bits about themselves, they answer, they recognise their story and the timeline is filled with facts, periods of time, events that took place here and there in this very particular village. Added to this collective exercise are individual stories which complete the panorama.

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As the activity ends and the collective good humour floats along on the breeze, some soldiers pass by on patrol. Those people who live far away return to their homes before night falls. The others organise a cinema forum for the evening: the psycho-social team from CREDHOS has brought equipment to project a film called Wonder for the people who have stayed, and some adolescents and children also join in. The adolescents take the opportunity to sell meat on skewers while the film is showing, to fund the Black People’s Committee (Comité de las Negritudes). In the silence of the village, there is laughter and even some discreet tears at the end of the film. Little by little, the participants go back to their homes for the night, and we get ready to go to sleep ourselves. Tents and hammocks decorate the community space where the meeting took place earlier that afternoon.

The next day is centred on the preparation of a traditional sancocho stew. Some of the people wash, peel, and cut up the food. Some of the women from the community decide there are not enough spices and bring some of their own to add to the stew. While the sancocho slowly cooks, talks are organised. The heat stretches itself out, over the hills of La Congoja. We all sweat as we eat the sancocho that tastes of community effort. A short time later, it is time to go, and we say goodbye amid affectionate hugs.

On the way back, as we navigate the bends in the track, I think about how essential the work is that CREDHOS is doing with this community. The History, with a capital letter, of this precious place will be written by its inhabitants. In that way they will have the chance to tell their truth, their reality. And that is how they will get closer, step by sincere step, to peace.

Agathe Chapelain


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