The ‘Urabá Diaries’ Lay Bare the Struggles and Hopes of Young People in Colombia's North

Foto: Carretera hacia Urabá, fotografía de Wikimedia Commons, del dominio público.

Photo: Road to Urabá, photography of Wikimedia Commons, from the public domain.

Diarios de Urabá (Urabá Diaries), a series published on the blogging platform Medium, offers a window into the lives of people living in the agricultural and cattle ranching region of the north of Colombia. The Diarios bring together stories, as told by educators working in the region, of everyday struggles of the residents there, whose trials and tribulations would otherwise be little known had it not been for the space they created for themselves online.

Written in a clear style of language, the Diarios takes readers closer to the students trying to get an education and find a future for themselves in a place “where the roads, although in poor condition, are watched over by a magnificent vegetation of a thousand colours”:

El agua es un bien escaso, pero abundan las soluciones para encontrarla. Por eso en nuestro Urabá cordobés la lluvia es sinónimo de felicidad. En esta tierra de contrastes y absurdos hay personas dispuestas a recorrer horas de camino, desafiando las condiciones del medio, para ir a la escuela.

Water is very scarce, but there are many solutions for finding it. That is why in our Cordoban Urabá, rain is synonymous with happiness. In this land of contrasts and absurdity, there are people willing to traverse hours of path, braving the environmental conditions, in order to go to school.

Urabá was one of the areas of Colombia that suffered an “armed strike” (a forced strike) during the first days of April, ordered by the criminal organisation known as the Clan Úsuga. This group could very well become an important actor in Colombia if a peace agreement between the government and the guerrilla groups that have been fighting for more than 50 years is signed.

The Colombian conflict has gone through numerous phases, but it can be viewed as the continuation of a fight over land ownership and the political orientation of the people, who is constantly caught in the middle between the two opposing sides.

In the complex Colombian context, what is it like to live within a region in conflict? To totter between armed groups and the struggle to work the land? The Diarios have been inactive for months, but the testimonies haven't lost their strength or their relevance. Readers can still, for however briefly, follow the journey of those who are ultimately first in the firing line of the country's political and economic tug-of-war.

Personal struggles against a backdrop of armed conflict

Ángel, who features in the Diarios, could very well be one teenager more in the region where cattle is the wealth of a few landowners. On this land emerged the right-wing paramilitaries as a counter to the leftist guerrillas. Ángel grew up seeing his father work for the paramilitaries, and at the age of 12, he followed in his footsteps. By that time, his parents had separated and he was faced with the dilemma of incorporating himself fully into the criminal group or following his dreams of being a footballer like Cristiano Ronaldo.

One day he finally decided — he packed his bags and went to find his mother:

Después de un tiempo la vida lejos de su mamá empezó a hacerse más difícil, no solo la extrañaba sino que también se enfrentaba con la obligación de vincularse formalmente al grupo para el que trabajaba esporádicamente, lo que significaba dejar su familia, su colegio y su sueño de ser como Cristiano Ronaldo. Ángel no es una persona que este dispuesta a renunciar a sus sueños tan fácilmente, así que alistó maletas y se fue a buscar a su mamá para, al igual que ella, empezar de nuevo

After some time, living far from his mum became more difficult. Not only did he miss her, but he was also faced with the obligation to be formally linked to the group that he had sporadically been working for, which would mean leaving his family, his school and his dream of being like Cristiano Ronaldo. Ángel isn't someone who is willing to give up his dreams so easily, so he got his suitcases ready and left in search of his mum to, in the same way as her, start afresh.

When the education system is indifferent to its people

Ángel's world is not the same as that of Richar, who is also the focus of one of the stories told in the Diarios. Richar lives in an isolated community, where an aqueduct and sewage system are too much of a luxury. Richar is a chilapo, a derogatory term used for those who are a mix of indigenous and black, and he is offended when he is associated with either of these ethnicities. This is perhaps because of displacement, also a product of the armed conflict; his grandparents with whom he lives haven't communicated this cultural heritage to him:

La escuela tendría entonces esa responsabilidad. En el área de ciencias sociales Los Estándares de Educación le apuntan al desarrollo de pensamiento crítico frente a diversos temas entre los cuales se encuentran: respeto por los derechos humanos e inclusión social. Cada institución educativa debe adecuar su plan de trabajo para lograr estos objetivos teniendo cierta libertad para decidir cómo, de acuerdo con su contexto.

Sin embargo el plan de área del colegio de Richar, al igual que el de muchos otros colegios, no fue elaborado pensando en las necesidades de los estudiantes que atiende, sino que fue copiado de Internet

The school would then have that responsibility. In the area of social sciences, education standards are aiming at the development of critical thinking in the face of various issues, among which are the respect for human rights and social inclusion. Every educational institution must adapt its work plan to reach these objectives, with some freedom to decide how to fit its individual context.

However, the work plan of Richar's school, as well as many other schools, was not developed with the needs of the students attending in mind, but was copied from the internet.

Without these values incorporated, the quality of education received not only suffers, but intolerance appears in its place:

“Richar cree que llamar a alguien indio o negro es un insulto, se resiste a aceptar hombres con el pelo largo, personas con tatuajes, mujeres solteras, acentos diferentes y diversidad religiosa. Esto significa que las futuras generaciones no tendrán las herramientas para construir la sociedad cohesionada y en paz que desde hace más de cincuenta años pretende el país.”

Richar believes that calling someone “Indian” or “black” is an insult, he is opposed to accepting men with long hair, people with tattoos, single women, different accents and religious diversity. This means that future generations will not have the tools to construct the united and peaceful society that the country has been hoping for, for more than 50 years.

But the reflection goes beyond that. Instead of an integrated vision of education, the government is bringing about the opposite:

Permiten la realización de ciertas actividades, como “El Día de la Antioqueñidad”, que lo único que genera es profundizar en los regionalismos, culpables de la segregación al interior de las comunidades con el imaginario de superioridad cultural.

Esta celebración conmemora del día de la independencia del departamento en 1813. Sin embargo la celebración no tiene ningún tinte histórico sino que se limita a exaltar el sector más poderoso del departamento, hacendados y empresarios blancos, olvidando que la historia antioqueña la han escrito también negros, mestizos, indígenas, desplazados, costeños. Al igual que en los demás departamentos de este país fragmentado por las ideas regionalistas.

They allow certain activities to be carried out, like “El día de la Antioqueñidad” [a day to celebrate all things Antioquian], which is only deepening regionalism, guilty of the segregation within communities that have imagined superiority.

This celebration commemorates the day of independence for the department in 1813. However, the celebration doesn't have any historical tinges, but rather is limited to praising the most powerful sector of the department — white landowners and businessmen — forgetting that the history of Antioquia has also been written by black people, people of mixed race, indigenous people, displaced people, and coastal dwellers. It is the same for other departments of this country, fragmented by regionalist ideas.

Joseph, who features in an entry titled Cuando sea grande quiero ser (When I grow up I want to be), wants to break this exclusion. He was born in Itsmina, a town in the neighbouring department of Chocó, which is said to be the poorest in Colombia, where the population of people of African descent is the majority. Because of this, when the teacher in ethics class asked his pupils to imagine how they will be when they are older, Joseph was unable to respond. But it was then that he realised his calling. At night he imagined the rest of his life and he saw himself in a classroom teaching. Eventually, Joseph studied at the Technological University of Chocó, completed his degree in physical education, and moved to Urabá in pursuit of his dreams.

Joseph is sensible, has formed a family and meets the requirements of his work. Nevertheless, the government, always at a distance, demands quality from its people without giving them the means to achieve it. This has become a nightmare for the young teacher. In spite of this, neither the difficult environment nor the indifference that his teaching colleagues communicate to their pupils, nor the pointless meetings that go nowhere, convince him to give up, as has happened to others.

A region ‘plagued by dreamers’

Diarios de Urabá exposes with concern how the “Escuela Nueva” (New School) model, imposed because of the shortage of students, fosters an unsatisfactory education. It also explains how religious institutions are taking hold of the system, which is supposed to be secular according to the country's constitution.

Nevertheless, hope remains, thanks to those who are waging one of the most important battles of the region:

“Menos mal [que esta] región está plagada de soñadores, líderes y personas dispuestas a demostrar que su historia no definirá su futuro.”

Thankfully [this] region is plagued by dreamers, leaders, and people who are willing to prove that its history will not define its future.

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