Debating Afrocolombianidad

Gold miners in Tadó (Chocó, Colombia) are predominantly Afro-Colombians [Photo © Jan Sochor]

Most people outside Colombia know about the country’s African population through the music of groups like Latin Grammy winners Choquibtown, with their references (see here and here) to Chocó, a Colombian state populated by a majority of African descendants. In their song El Bombo, Choquibtown sing: “Encima África viva — ¡Mía! Esta es mi herencia llena de alegría” (And Africa is alive — It’s mine! This is my heritage full of happiness).

Despite Choquibtown’s efforts to create awareness about other aspects of Afro-Colombian life, people in Colombia and around the world continue to associate Afro-Colombians largely with dance or music, “but they refuse to actually show any kind of real solidarity with African Colombians,” according to Claudia Mosquera, professor of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

Mosquera was one of the guests of a special edition on current Afro Colombian issues of Punto Crítico, a show aired by the university’s channel Prisma TV, which you can watch online here (in Spanish).

A further concern brought up in the program is that the local population does not want to be related to Afro-Colombians’ historic experience and that Afro-Colombians, in turn, in many cases, don’t want to either.

Gold mining makes one of very few work opportunities in the inhospitable jungle region
on the pacific coast of Colombia. [Photo © Jan Sochor]

Also on the show is Afro-Colombian activist Rossih Amira Martínez who notes that during the 2005 Censusonly 10.5% of the population accepted being Afro-Colombian, despite the fact that the population is estimated closer to 20%. Martínez argued that limitations with the census data compilation process might be partly the cause.

Meanwhile Mosquera spelled out the many ways of Afro-Colombian identity: the acknowledgement of an African history of tragedy and resistance, without considering themselves as victims, but instead revisiting their role in the construction of the nation. For others, instead, it is a way to escape from that historical moment and just recognize themselves through cultural expressions and kinship. It can be almost like a “fashion trend”, she says. Finally, there is a group that might consider itself Afro-descendent in those situations in which they need to apply to certain benefits established by the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural state.

Contrary to popular belief, the largest population of African descendants is located in Colombian cities. However in urban areas the acceptance of an “Afro identity” is lower than in rural areas. That said, the countryside is not a safe haven for cultural heritage as Afro-Colombian families located in areas such as the South Pacific and the Coast of the state of Nariño remain to be forcibly uprooted as a consequence of the current armed conflict. Furthermore, the conflict risks the lives of those who carry knowledge of black culture. Both in urban and rural areas, this population lives in poor conditions, but many do not believe they are living any kind of hardship, given that kinship networks allow them to think poverty is something they can overcome. “Poverty is not politically processed by those who live it nor by the organizations working for their well-being,” according to Mosquera.

In the midst of this confusing process of recognition and identity politics of and by Afro-Colombians, at the local level a crucial step has been the passing of many laws for their protection. Still “legal treatment is homogeneous to other vulnerable populations, and does not take into account Afro-Colombian social dynamics and cultural specifics,” said activist Martinez.

The daily earnings of gold miners do not reach over a couple of dollars but every barequero is convinced that thousands of dollars can be made here. [Photo © Jan Sochor]

Lately, music has not been the only vehicle to create awareness and discussion; TV and films have made efforts towards this goal as well. Besides Punto Crítico, the film La Playa D.C. (trailer here), for example, screened locally and internationally, exploring emerging black identities marked by dilemmas related to the African ancestry of the countryside, which is continuously being transformed as thousands of African Colombians keep moving to cities such as Bogotá.

Watch: Afrocolombianidad.

* Photographs by (and with kind permission of) Jan Sochor from his series on Women Gold Miners in Chocó department, western Colombia (October 2004).

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