By Liza Smith
Foristas in front of the new La Union library
What does it mean to be connected to a place that is not your own, to people who are strange and different from you, to a way of life that will never be yours?
We pondered these questions over the last two weeks with a group of former FOR volunteers who “returned” to Colombia. For almost ten years (our 10th anniversary in Colombia will be in February of 2012), FOR has maintained a permanent international presence in the peace community of San José de Apartadó and over 30 volunteers have spent up to a year of their lives accompanying La Union, one of the peace community settlements. After their time as volunteers, they go home to get on with their lives. Of the ten people who came back for the “Forista” reunion, two had become lawyers, two are getting doctorates in academia, there was a future nurse, a tireless organizer, an executive director of a small non profit and a wanderer, who had traveled far and wide to understand more deeply the experiences and lives of women in Latin America. But it turned out that accompaniment wasn’t a one way deal — in the streets of New York city, on the bus in Argentina, in the classrooms of San Francisco, none of them could shake what had happened to them here, in a small village in northeastern Colombia.
And so they came back. Came back to feel it all over again and see what this connection was all about, where it lived, how it could grow.
We started our time together on Sunday in the FOR apartment in Bogota — as I walked up the stairs, I heard raucous and excited conversation. A bit later we were crying and laughing as we did a go-around about why each person had come back (including having received a threatening email that failing to come on the trip would result in serious repercussions). We continued with an update on what’s been going on in Colombia these days: now it’s President Santos, not Uribe; now they are called BACRIM (criminal gangs), not paramilitaries; there is still violence and the peace community and many others are still resisting. It was an intense and full day, as was the rest of the trip — there were always at least four really interesting conversations going on: the story of an emergency accompaniment, how human rights lawyers in the USare trying to sue multinationals that operate in Colombia, where love fits into our lives with all the stuff there is to do in the world, activist burnout and what it’s like to go home after all this.
The next day we set off on our journey with an early flight; by late afternoon we were sweaty, had bought new rubber boots and piled ourselves onto a chiva that took us up to the first settlement of the peace community. The following morning it was the all-too-familiar walk up the mountain to La Unión, a walk each former volunteer had done many times, in rain and heat, sometimes accompanying and sometimes alone, sometimes in good spirits and in at least two cases volunteers were rushed down the hill doubled over in hammocks carried by men on all sides to get them as quickly as possible to the nearest hospital.
We walked and talked, sweat some more and after about two hours made it through the first wooden gate that enters onto the town center of La Union. It was at least two more hours before anybody arrived at theFOR house, as each person stopped along the way to saludar, greeting their friends they had left years before. Conversations were started in the usual way: “estas más gorda!” (You’re fatter!) or “estas mas acabada!” (You’re run down!). Thus began the next 48 hours of much visiting, sitting in different kitchens, sharing weak campo coffee sweetened with panela (unrefined sugar cane), buñuelos (fried cheesy bread balls) and stories of times passed.
I was there as an outsider of sorts. Never having lived in La Union myself and having visited the team fairly recently, I felt relaxed and happy to get vicarious pleasure out of the family reunion happening around me. One afternoon, as we were all crowded into Doña Jesusa’s kitchen (one of the grandmothers of the community who everyone adores), I thought about the vast differences between us: I’ve never planted a seed of corn in my life. Doña Jesusa has never driven a car. I go into an office every day and stare into a screen to “get stuff done.” Doña Jesusa rises at 3am every morning to make buñuelos and sell them to the families in town. I know that whatever I think about her simplicity is just my own romantic projection: her dirt floor and her sturdy hands that chop wood and make food. Mine type. The former volunteers laughed, told stories, held her hands and squeezed her tight. They, like me, come from the land of cars and screens and yet the time they had spent living in the community had allowed them to know each other, to see one another as real human beings, to share in the normal everyday stuff of life.
The theory goes that as accompaniers we take a peripheral role. We are not “part” of the community process in the same way that we are part of the movement at home, where we speak up at meetings and have serious opinions about how we should go about changing the world. But the peripheral nature of our presence here is never quite that clear cut. Even though we are accompaniers and not members, our lives have become intertwined with theirs. As I walked down the mountain from La Union at the end of our visit, I realized the strange nature of this tiny settlement in the mountains: a bunch of foreigners and their weird ways had been woven into the tapestry of its history, current reality and foreseeable future. For example, every member of the community will tell you the story of Lily, one of the first volunteers in 2002 who made sancocho (a Colombian stew) with a snake that her neighbor had killed and then proceeded to feed it to the entire town, only later informing them of what they were eating. Her snake stew is now part of La Union’s history (I think the people of La Union are still traumatized by the transgression!). And like Lily, each of FOR’s 30 accompaniers who have lived here have a story told about them, a story that will be told for years to come.
In FOR’s founding philosophy there is something about building the “beloved community” a term that seems somewhat antiquated and rusty to my 34-year-old ears, but I think this must be it: making family with people who are not your own. The relationships the volunteers build with community members are very unique. They are not friends in the sense of a friend who you call up when you are having a hard time or someone who you invite over for dinner on a Friday night. They are not work colleagues, even though it was a kind of work that brought you close to them. They are not blood family either. But sitting in their kitchens, it is clear that they are some kind of family, a kind of connection that goes beyond the idea of solidarity that brought the volunteers here in the first place.
This kind of community building doesn’t happen over night. It happens over months of sitting in each other’s kitchens, talking, sharing food and getting to know one another as if nothing else were more important. It is slow and it may not have measurable outcomes in the short-term. Sure, you can be in solidarity with other people whose faces you’ve never known or folks who you meet for a short period of time. That kind of solidarity seems more susceptible to fads and changing winds. This kind of solidarity seems to grab a hold of you, whether you like it or not, and follow you around for the rest of your life.
As I stare into my screen, type away and gaze out over the ugly buildings and grey morning skies of Bogota, I realize that the job I do — all the emails, accounting, meetings and reports — would be best described by the title: Director of the Fostering of Human Relationships and Building of the Beloved Community for the Betterment of the Planet. Being with this group of returned volunteers, hearing about what it meant to spend a part of their lives here, what it was like to come back and how they plan toalways be connected to Colombia in some way or another, was an inspiration. Call me cheesy… Or a sucker for love… especially when it’s of the revolutionary nature.