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Water and women, weavers of life in the desert of La Guajira

by Jordi Casanova Valles


"Are we not human? Have we not eyes? Have we not hands, organs, proportions, senses, affections, passions? Are we not fed by the same food, wounded by the same weapons, subjected to the same diseases, healed by the same means, heated and cooled by the same summer and by the same winter? If you prick us, don't we bleed? If you tickle us, don't we laugh? If you poison us, don't we die?"

Despite coming from a very different historical and cultural context, Shylock's monologue in The Merchant of Venice contains a simple and profound truth, also applicable to Guajira reality: despite our differences, all humans are equal. And, above any premise, don't we all want to live with dignity? The Wayuu people are no less, and after hundreds of years in which they have seen their home occupied and exploited with perpetuation and treachery, they have tired of surviving under the yoke of an oppressive state. In this context of inequality, a decade ago FUCAI arrived in La Guajira to work with indigenous communities and gradually improve their living conditions, strengthening basic capacities such as education, childhood or food sovereignty. Because the premise of the Wayuu people is no longer resistance, their premise is the redefinition of their existence. This is the re-existence of the Wayuu people.

For eleven days I accompany a FUCAI team to the Colombian Media Guajira to live with various indigenous communities. The team, made up of Camila, Daniela, Ermelinda, Libardo and Luis José, visits the rancherías with two main objectives: first, to establish a baseline around the wells in a pre-established area, geolocate them, check the state of the water and make a census with local families; and the second, holding workshops with the weaving women called “word circles”.

The desert is an adverse space for human life. It has an arid, dry and hot climate, and its extensive steppe is covered by a sea of ​​sand and cardinals in which snakes, scorpions and mosquitoes wait for any carelessness to bite your skin. In the midst of this rehash of hostilities, two pillars sustain the life of the Wayuu people: water and women work the miracle of providing life in a barren world. For this reason, access to drinking water and the empowerment of women are for FUCAI two fundamental points on its agenda. The premise of the re-existence of the Wayuu people begins with them, with water and with women, the weavers of life in the Colombian Guajira.


 Grandfather Juyá and some tarnished glasses

 One of the main myths of the Wayuu culture refers to grandfather Juyá, known as El Señor de las Lluvias or the Great Creator Spirit. Juyá, for the Wayuu, represents masculinity, virility and mobility. According to this myth of oral tradition, Juyá was seduced at the beginning of time by Mma, Mother Earth, and since then they have had an intermittent relationship that is reconciled from time to time. Juyá fertilizes Mma with the rain, a symbol of motherhood, which allows the seeds of existence to sprout from her entrails. The cycle of birth and rebirth of life. With this legend, the Wayuu recognize their deep respect for water, the support and bridge of all life in La Guajira. It is the physical, spiritual and cultural basis of their existence. But water, even though it is an indisputable privilege, is not exempt from contradictions. He gives and takes life without prejudice, and when Grandfather Juyá arrives in La Guajira, he comes with his joys and his bitterness.

We are sitting on the plane that takes us from Bogotá to Riohacha, the capital of the Guajiro department. By my side, Camilla. At his side, Daniela. I wonder what I will find when I reach the arid peninsula. I've read articles and talked to my peers about life in the desert, but I haven't experienced anything myself. After a while I give up, aware of the usual distortion between expectations and reality, and decide to get lost in the words of my crossword puzzles. As we approach the peninsula, a column of gray clouds welcomes us. The first glimpses of an autumn rain can be seen in the crystals.

"It's the first time we've arrived in the rain," Camila observes.

The usual sandy crack looks different, and not because of the distortion of my expectations. The characteristic bright colors are muted, sleepy. The blue of the Caribbean Sea, the green of the phylloxera savannah and the brown of the warm steppe give way to greyish tones that Camila and Daniela are not used to. When we got off the plane, my first contact with water blinded me. The heat fogs up my glasses and I am forced to take them off and clean them to regain my sight. It seems that La Guajira is warning me: living with the Wayuu is a process of unlearning and relearning. I must clear my expectations to be able to see reality.

Next, we live an episode of adventures. To get to Manaure, the salt city to which we are heading, some 70km to the north, we cross desert and storm. It has gotten dark, and the black night prevents us from enjoying the spectacle. The driver of our car performs the impossible task of taking us down the road in the limited light of the headlights. Cross the dense curtain of water avoiding potholes, puddles and suicidal cyclists with the skill and experience with which the taxi driver navigates the labyrinthine streets of the city. After two hours of deafness and dislocation, we arrived in Manaure, and with this first journey the rain ended. We go straight to our destination, the Palaaima Hotel, where we will sleep tonight. There we met with the manaureros Jose, the driver, and Ermelinda, a bilingual Wayuu, to balance the logistics of the coming days. The plans they have in mind, however, are uncertain. With the rain, the dirt roads that connect the rancherías become veritable quagmire, a gibberish inaccessible even to the most experienced. The equipment may not be able to enter, or the women, who come from several neighboring rancherías, may not make it to the workshops. But then again, it's not worth wasting time with expectations.

“Until we're on the roads we won't know what to do”, says Jose.

The next day, I wake up sleepy and not tired. Camila dreamed that she was crying incessantly, apparently the water has seeped into her dreams. But this is not the time for oneirism, today it is time to face reality. We got in the car and, with Jose at the wheel, we left Manaure to enter the desert. If all goes well, we won't leave Wayuu territory for several days. The terrible state of the roads is evident with the first blow of my head against the seat. The dilapidated trail looks like an obstacle course worthy of the military. Jose must improvise each step to avoid the dreaded locking of the wheels, one of the reasons why the Wayuu travel with motorcycles. To add to the difficulty, multitudes of green shoots have sprung up overnight, attracting vast herds of goats, the main Wayuu livestock. The animals, accustomed to grazing freely, indifferently block our already intermittent progress. The car horn scares them away, but every so often we run into someone who waits until the last moment to move away, as if he were lazy to save his life.

Between decision and indecision, one thing is clear: the roads require many improvements. The long shadow of political corruption also reaches here, and state abandonment is reflected in every puddle. The budgets destined to improve these infrastructures seem to have been lost in the tangle of roads. For FUCAI and the alijunas (as non-Wayuu are called) this can be a specific problem, but for the indigenous people, frequent passers-by of these parts, the grateful rain also brings bitter uncertainty. During the journey, we come across several people who are trying to reach Manaure, where they work. Some give up and retrace their steps. The deplorable state of the roads prevents them from carrying out their workday, which implies blocking their right to work and, in the long run, the possibility of a dignified life. The entry of drinking water or food to the rancherías is also affected. So contrary to what it seems at first glance, this is by no means a one-time problem.

After many doubts and rectifications, we arrived at the area where we will carry out the baseline, to the settlements that will be the object of study: Mulamana, Pachamama, Kuraritamana and Tulaat. Libardo and Luis José also join in this task. As we tour the rancherías, I have the opportunity to observe their distribution. The communities are made up of family units of uterine relatives, distributed throughout the land in booths supported by wooden props and dry mud walls. Each ranchería usually includes a bower, a collective corral, an orchard and a cemetery. They may also have a mill to pump the water, and a jagüey (artificial well) or a casimba (dam on the river bed) to store it. In one of the rancherías, an old woman proudly shows us the community garden, in which we can sense small sprouts of seeds fertilized by the recent union between Juyá and Mma. One of FUCAI's tasks is to provide seeds to communities to plant during the rainy seasons (the so-called juyapu and liwa ). These seeds, made up of corn, beans, cassava, squash, cucumbers, melons and patilla, are resistant to high temperatures. They explain to me that agriculture is an important part of the self-sustainability of communities. One more step on the path to its re-existence.

We are dedicated to searching and geolocating the water wells in the area. We advance along the trails on foot, fighting against the scorching sun with the shade of a few pashminas and dosed sips of water. It is incredible to think that the Wayuu do this daily. For them, the temperature is not a problem, but they travel kilometers every day to collect water that, in essence, is not drinkable. A group of children with perennial smiles guide us through the network of muddy paths. At a certain moment, Libardo hunts the fruit of a cactus, the iguaraya, with the help of a knife. The cardonera fruit has a reddish and rough skin, with flesh the color of blood and a heart filled with black seeds. With a strong sweet and sour flavor and refreshing pulp, it helps the peasants and their cattle to hydrate during their journeys. When children and adults reach the first well, our lips and chins are stained with the scarlet liquid. With the help of a bucket and a rope, we extract the water from the well and observe its state. It is cloudy, brownish, and has a strong flavor. The children explain that it tastes strange, but you get used to it. Stomach ache is something they also learn to live with.

“As a child I drank this water, but as an adult not so much. From time to time I take it again, so as not to forget. I'm not ashamed” , admits Libardo, serene.

Daniela and Camila carry out a census among the residents of the four ranches. How many people live in this house? Are there children under 5? How many pimpinas do you have at your disposal? How far are they from the wells? Are you having trouble accessing them? Some families are ten minutes from the wells, others half an hour or more. They cover these distances between two and three times a day, limited by the few pimpinas they have on their property. Camila and Daniela propose a system that is already fully operational in other communities: bring tanker trucks with drinking water that they will place at easily accessible points. The willing families will pay a price for each pimpina agreed between the neighbors, which will later be used to pay for the gasoline of the tanker itself. A self-sustaining system. Most agree, but a few prefer to stay as they are. Changes are difficult for everyone. In any case, it is something that they will have to decide among themselves when the aliens leave.

One of the days, at the end of the day, we established ourselves in the Ichien ranch arbor. We are tired and sweaty. The women bring us lemonade, a drink made from water, panela and lemon. Anayawatsa'a , I reply gratefully. The flavor quenches our thirst and seems to announce that it is time to rest. When we begin to assemble the hammocks that will take us in for the night, however, a few weak drops force us to look up and in a matter of seconds a furious storm falls on top of Ichien. We take cover as best we can under the bower, but the thin trickles of water fall from the ceiling like the branches of a willow tree. Despite enjoying it, a part of me regrets the cold that runs down my back and the humidity that begins to permeate my clothes. I wonder how the roads will be the next day. The glasses fog up and I don't see a drop. I take them off, wipe them off and put them back on. This sounds familiar.

Then something happens that I didn't expect. Each and every one of the women of Ichien come out of their houses with a pimpina in each hand, unscrew their lids and place them on the ground. Immediately afterwards, they remove the cover from an empty tank and, with a smile, they watch as the containers are filled with Juyá's gift. Camila explains to me that this water will help them perform such basic and necessary tasks as cooking or washing clothes.

"Tonight we will all bathe with the water of this rain."

At the end of the downpour, a circle of irregular mirrors covers the entire terrain. An image from my childhood comes to me, of my brothers and I putting on our wellington boots, anxiously awaiting the moment to go out and trample the puddles mercilessly. Here they don't have boots, but with bare feet you can also dance. Boys and girls appear running everywhere and the world fills with high-pitched laughter and war cries. They begin, under the smiling gaze of their mothers, to splash each other. I am fascinated to discover that despite the grief over the inevitable destruction of the roads, Grandfather Juyá's visit is a reason for joy and gratitude. Wayuu life is full of contrasts. They live with the scarcity of water and with stomach aches, and when clean water finally arrives from the sky, it destroys the only means of communication they have. But, contrary to how many aliens would react, accustomed to a life of comfort, the Wayuu live these contrasts with a stony resilience. La Guajira warned me: one must remember to wash your glasses from time to time.

the word circles

Word circles are workshops that serve to support, accompany and empower Wayuu women. Through various activities, they seek to provide women weavers, the so-called "daughters of the spider", the tools so that they learn to build a dignified life. An elementary step of its re-existence. These workshops encourage the weaving of a three-dimensional dialogue: a social dialogue between women and their community, an intergenerational dialogue between older women and young women, and a necessary internal dialogue with themselves. But building this space is not an easy task. The Wayuu have another culture, another language, another way of understanding reality. How to speak, then, the same language? Camila and Daniela invest every fiber of their being, their empathy and their creativity, to assume that goal.

When the visitor arrives at a Wayuu ranchería, they must go directly to the enramada, an infrastructure supported by four or more thick wooden props, without walls and with a roof made of yotojoro, palm or enea, located in the middle of every community. If instead he went directly to one of the houses, he could be offended, as it would be something like trespassing into your host's room and sitting on his bed. The bower is a place of rest and meeting, the space where the community makes the most important decisions. Word and honor are sacred ground for all Wayuu, the support of the community. That is why the bower is such an important space for FUCAI, because it is where the wayuu and the alijuna communicate horizontally. It is the space where FUCAI earns the trust of the communities, based on respect, closeness and commitment. In the bower, the problems and needs of the community are raised, and where Alijuna and Wayuu join their voices to create unbreakable fabrics. It is also where FUCAI carries out the word circles.

We arrive at the Ishoshison bower, where twelve women are waiting for us, squeezed into tiny elementary school chairs. The first thing I notice are their dresses, wide and light and with a looseness that seems to dance with the wind, in colors of raging vividness and beautiful painted flowers that play in contrast with the chromatic homogeneity of the desert. Their heads are covered by extensive and thick hair, long jet curtains that they wear collected with pashminas, bows and pigtails in an attempt to avoid the embrace of the heat. After analyzing the surface, however, my gaze inevitably drifts to two brilliant crystals of ocher light. His eyes, deep and mysterious, observe the environment with the firm parsimony of the desert. His black pupils invite you to delve into its depths like the adventurer who ventures into an unexplored cave. I find it hard not to get lost in them. Some women weave, all laugh. They are shy. There is some movement in their legs, and a group of nervous little heads sprout from between them like mushrooms. They are children with powdered feet and curious eyes, who keep a safe distance from us. After a brief introduction from Camila, in which she thanks you for your assistance and hospitality, allow me to introduce myself. After a few words, I say my name followed by a wattama, "good morning", which triggers a jocular cackle.

"Do you eat rabbit? We are going to take you to the field to hunt rabbits” , they say in Wayuunaiki.

They love to laugh at everything. From us, from their friends, from themselves. For that they are very smiling, and the initial shyness evaporates with the speed of a smile. Following Camila and Daniela's instructions, they all present the woman on their right. It is surprising to discover that none of them have a bad word. They define themselves as good companions and neighbors, in many cases they are sisters, aunts, nieces. They laugh and give each other loud affectionate pats on their arms and backs. When it is Alba's turn, the most unruly of the group, excited murmurs are heard.

“Despite the fact that they tell me that I am heavy and I talk too much, I don't care. I visit everyone anyway."

Laughter and fuss. When she starts talking about her partner, however, Alba's tone calms down and the atmosphere becomes prudent.

“She doesn't have a mom or dad. I take care of her. We take care of each other. We are always united and we speak what we have to speak”.

Shyness and humor are an articulated cover to protect oneself, since their reality is much more complex and profound. Sorority is perceived in the tone of his words. Mutual respect and solidarity unite them with a granite force. It is the strength with which the hand is grasped that helps you lift. They stand up and, with their eyes locked on their neighbor's, an uneven chorus of voices repeats some of Camila's words.

“Thank you for taking care of me, for being my neighbor. Thanks to you I am a stronger woman. We are the best we have. When we leave, we leave the children with us to take care of them. We trust each other."

After this necessary introduction, we started the first workshop. We handed out dozens of pieces of paper. Each piece is a puzzle piece that they must build together. In a second, the bower becomes a dance of laughter and colors. With the joy and energy that characterizes them, the women probe the hands of their companions. They mingle, squat, and mount the drawings on the ground. When finished, show the result. There are seven drawings: a desert, a girl, a desk, a Wayuu backpack, a goat, a jagüey and some coins. Using these images, they must make groups and tell a story. The objective of the exercise is to discover what is the imaginary around these concepts, the mental image that they build with them, and generate a dialogue with what arises. After a while, each group tells a story. They are all quite elementary, they narrate everyday experiences, since they are not used to complex narratives like we are. There are quite a few semantic differences between our narratives and theirs. Where we see coins, they see cookies; where we see a backpack, they see economic sustainability. That is the seed of today's dialogue. "You have taught us that a backpack is much more than that." They explain that a single backpack has an infinite capacity, because inside each one enters the identity of the woman who has given it life. Speaking of this, her enchantress eyes shine. One of the women, Gladys, proudly explains that she imitates what she saw in her mother's knitting many years ago, when she was a child and her mother was her example.

Because the Wayuu weaver is an expressionist artist. His art is memory and imagination. As daughters of the oral tradition, they are used to growing up surrounded by memories and fantasy. Ever since their grandfather told them a thousand stories in the warm light of a bonfire, they have learned to stimulate their imagination, to suspect a much more complex world than what the eye is capable of seeing. Already during their childhood, the Wayuu shape their environment and transform the barren desert into a playground. In the stones on the ground they see graceful multicolored marbles, in the withered branches they see sharp swords with which to fight in life and death combats, in a shopping cart they see an unstoppable fireball with which to match the speed of the wind. When the woman becomes an adult, she has learned to combine all these elements and, like the musician, the poet or the painter, she expresses her vision of life through her work. The threads are the blank canvas on which to paint their memories, the loudspeaker with which to silence their timid silence. The symbolic charge of Wayuu fabrics, consequently, transcends the physical dimension. For them it is a spiritual and cosmological question. The soul of the weaver woman is hidden among the threads, hidden, like the murmur of the distant waves that are heard inside a shell. By continuing to discuss this topic, however, I realize that the reality of the weaver is not, far from it, so romantic. It's time, again, to clean your glasses.

“This is our sad reality. First thing in the morning we have to go get water and firewood, for which we make long journeys. When we get home we have to cook lunch. Once the family is fed, we must attend to the goats. At the end we are exhausted, we need to rest. It is not until then that we have time to weave. Is not easy. Clients see the result, but they don't see the work behind it”.

That is why the intermediation of FUCAI is so important. In every backpack there is a huge physical and emotional investment. According to FUCAI's calculations, the fair profit for the weaver should be between $80,000 and $90,000. To this must be added the raw material, the transportation costs and the inspector's commission, so the Wayuu backpack that follows the due process cannot fall below $130,000. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to find backpacks worth close to $50,000 in stores. For that price, the knitter can fetch $5,000 on a good day. And why do they allow it? Their distorted conception of money, the respect that a white person imposes on them, or simply hunger, makes their work drastically cheaper. FUCAI wants to combat this scourge at all costs.

After a few days we return to Ichien. In the enramada of the ranchería we are received by a procession of about thirty people, and not only women. Men and children come to discover what FUCAI comes up with on this occasion. Daniela and Camila, calm and confident, propose another activity. One of the women lies down, not without a hint of doubt, on a wide white cardboard. Her companions follow the outline of her body with felt-tip pens and, when she gets up, the profile of her figure looks like the scene of a crime. Together, and with the help of Ermelinda, they name the parts of the body in wayuunaiki: suche (ear), amuru (neck), shiyonse (hip), sumocho (navel), watuna (arm), sui (foot), etc. The most abstract meanings are attributed to the head: the hair represents the charm of the woman, the eyes serve to distinguish the good from the bad, the ears to listen to what is important. The rest of the body has a more practical meaning: with their legs they reach places, with their hips they carry their children, with their breasts they feed them. But a part of the body is given a more extensive description. What is important always deserves more time.

“The arms and hands are our fundamental pillar. They do everything, they are never still. With our hands we cook, wash and work. We weave with our hands”.

The Wayuu, despite the spiritual dimension of their culture, can have a very earthy way of looking at things. Within the complexity that governs their lives (shortage of water and food, social conflicts, lack of roads to move smoothly and safely) they see reality with clean pragmatism. Unlike us, they are not contaminated by globalization and information overload, and their isolation allows them to perceive the elements of their environment, as well as their bodies, with a disarming purity and simplicity. Camila and Daniela understand them, and add something.

“Our body is much more than a physical dimension. Thanks to our eyes, hands and legs, we are alive. It is important to love, respect and thank our body”.

A moment of understanding is formed between Alijuna and Wayuu women. Despite the obvious cultural differences, they all understand that they have the same body. If you tickle us, don't we laugh? Taking advantage of this understanding, Camila and Daniela propose another activity: make a line of the life of the Wayuu woman. Men, with the distance of shyness, gradually begin to participate. Together they enumerate in their dialect the stages of a woman's life: ipout (pregnancy), jemeyütsu (delivery), joü'ü (baby), jintuk (girl, 4-10 years old), jimok (10-13 years old, the stage of “enclosure”), jotojosü'ü (menstruation, change), majhyüt (young lady, ready to be a mother), keirrumayüt (adult, creates a family, “she is now free”) and, finally, lalaipa'a (woman aged).

Then, they come together in large groups to represent, with a theatrical piece, each one of the stages. It's fun to see how they organize themselves. After a lot of noise and shouting, in which the boys and men lose what little shyness they had left, the drama begins. As they act out their scenes, such as the puzzle workshop, the important themes begin to emerge.

“The husband beats the wife, so she has to go talk to her uncle. For the woman to return to the man, she must pay money to her family and thus compensate the offense. If he does, the woman must return, as it is her responsibility to take care of the children ,” explains one group.

At the end of the performances, women and men, led by Daniela and Camila, discuss what has emerged in the workshop. They begin to talk about unwanted pregnancies, the feared overpopulation and gender abuse. At a certain point, a group of women of different ages stand up. To one side, the keirrumayüt and lalaipa'a are placed. To the other, the majhyüt. The older ones have words for the younger ones.

“Do not take the same path as those who were mistreated. Do not get pregnant soon, they are still very young. Protect yourselves ”.

Keirrumayüt and lalaipa'a look the young women in the eye with a special verve, with held back tears. They talk to them about being responsible, studying and taking their time before becoming mothers. The women, vulnerable and stoic, openly regret past mistakes. The men listen. Boys and girls too. This is important, because let us remember that in the bower the word is sacred ground. At a certain point, some of the men come out to the center and do the same with the younger ones, acknowledging the injustices of the abuse and urging them to study and take advantage of the time before becoming parents. All of us, wayuu and alijuna , know that we are facing something truly unique. These are the seeds of change. Ermelinda, later, will confess to us that never before in a workshop had these issues been discussed so openly. They are seconds for those who are worth the weeks of work, for those who make the word circles. You smell electricity in the air. Tonight we will be greeted by a storm without thunder. The sky and the world will light up every few seconds with the light of unanswered lightning, like the rhetorical questions in my head. After all, are we so different from the Wayuu?

After these days of heat and colors, I have had to remove and wash my glasses more times than I dare to count. In the heat of relearning, the Wayuu have shown me a life of contrasts, where something destructive like a storm can bring joy, where something small like a backpack can contain eternity. The Wayuu people have an ancestral culture, with a vast worldview of the reality that surrounds them. Little by little, and with a lot of effort, access to drinking water is becoming a reality for more indigenous people. Women weavers are learning to appreciate their potential, value their art, and value their bodies. FUCAI, above all, dreams of the day when they no longer need his intervention. But the ears of the Wayuu people have become accustomed to the deep throbbing of silence, and all this strength, resilience, and creativity are not immutable to the mistreatment of an absent state. La Guajira needs to be given the attention it deserves or the archaic identity of the Wayuu people is in danger of disappearing. If you prick us, don't we bleed? The Wayuu people have tired of bleeding. It is the moment of its re-existence.

Texts and photos: Jordi Casanova.