20 December 2015 In my first term teaching a class in political anthropology to first year political science undergraduates at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá, I decided to give the students the chance to design their own essay topic, and to meet with them individually to help guide the process.
The results were astounding – not because of the quality of the work, though many students were very bright, but because of the things they wanted to write about, which revealed profound and moving dimensions of Colombia that are not often visible.
One student, a young boy with indigenous features and a rapper’s dress sense who never said a word in class, told me he was from a village called Mitú in the department of Vaupés, one of the remote regions of the country covered in Amazon jungle.
“I was four when the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] took my town. My mother worked in the cafeteria at the police station. They were going to kill everyone in the station but someone warned my uncle, and we all fled to my aunt’s house, which was made of cement, and hid under the bed”. Most of the houses in the town were made of wood, he explained, which offer less protection against stray bullets.
“I remember being under the bed all day with my mother and hearing the guns. I remember being afraid. I don’t remember much else. My mum remembers a lot more, though. I want to write my essay about that. How do I do it?” I was stunned. I decided the only assistance I could give was to help him address the issue academically.
I told him the first step was to write down everything that he remembered, not thinking about analysing it but just getting his emotions and memories down on the page. Then he should ask his mum to tell him everything that she remembered. Then he should look at those two things as his field data, which he could take a step back from and analyse, from a perspective of anthropology of emotions and self-ethnography, and go and find historical data in the library about the role of this takeover of Mitú within the Colombian conflict as a whole.
He handed in a wonderful essay, whose strong point was a moving testimony he had taken from a telephone interview with his mother, who was still in Vaupés, while he was living in Bogotá so he could study.
Another student decided that he was interested in interrogating the informal economic sector of the recyclers. The recyclers in Bogotá are generally homeless or very low-income families who are semi-organised into informal cooperatives. Once or twice a week, people put their rubbish out on the streets and, before the rubbish truck passes, the recyclers open all the bags and take out the material that can be re-sold or re-used as scrap: metal, bottles, plastic, paper, and so on.
They collect it in wooden carts they pull themselves. Some recyclers work alone while others are in teams of entire families, wrapped up in layers of clothes against the cold night air and with dogs riding on top of the carts, which are piled high with their salvaged goods. My student interviewed a man called Don Luis who explained that he liked recycling, that he had got used to all the disgusting things he had to handle and see and smell, that he wouldn’t know how to do anything else now, and that he was happy because he was putting his daughter through university.
Sometimes he suffered because of the social prejudices he experienced, and he wanted my student to pass on the message that all bogotanos ought to appreciate better the environmental service recyclers are providing. One of the most striking things was the way my student described in his essay Don Luis’s response when he told him that he wanted to talk to him for a university project – the first thing Don Luis wanted to know was: which university? As soon as my student said it was the Nacional, he relaxed and agreed to talk, because he trusted people from public universities, but not from the private ones.
The other essays were just as varied in scope and topic. They ranged from studies inside the university of the economics of the informal sweets and coffee stands, the drug-dealing, and the drunken appropriation of space in a particular area in the campus to essays that compared the mechanisms of paramilitary and guerrilla control over civilian populations across different ethnographies of Colombia’s armed conflict.
I found out a lot about my students – I learned that some of them lived up to two hours away from the university and received travel subsidies and that others, who were from remote parts of the country, benefited from academic mobility schemes. One was an actor in his spare time, another was running in the elections for student representative, one was obsessed with comic books, and another worked with peasant farmer organisations.
One of the best essays was Mauricio’s. It was simple in what it set out to do, but it managed to condense one of the key aspects of social reality in Colombia that society as a whole will need to recognise if the peace process is to be successful: the importance of appreciating that different people have different feelings about peace and about politics, and that these feelings are deeply affected by their personal experiences.
Mauricio went to a small town outside Bogotá in the department of Cundinamarca and interviewed three people of different ages and genders about their views on the peace process. He described the town, let’s call it Taralá, as a place that was difficult to get to, out of the way, with no through road. The only way out was the way you came in – and that was the road to Bogotá. The inhabitants were traditional, devout Catholics, and had not seen much of the armed conflict.
The guerrillas had not reached Taralá – it wasn’t a strategic location for them. The army passed through very occasionally, but there wasn’t a military base there. There was a police station in the town, but it was small and relatively inactive. Mauricio’s interviewees were all very sceptical about the peace process, which is common in many party of the country. They showed a clear preference for the army, which they saw as brave and honourable, while regarding the FARC as the bad guys. One of them said they never went to Bogotá because it was full of FARC – imposing his fear of the guerrilla onto his fear of the capital. Only one of them said he would be happy for the FARC to participate in politics after demobilisation – the other two were scandalised by the idea of seeing ex-guerrilla fighters in Congress.
All of them were sceptical about how the negotiations were going in Havana, and Mauricio picked up many of the common myths that circulate in different sectors of Colombian society: “it’s all going on behind the backs of the Colombian people, no one knows what’s happening”; “there will be no justice, only impunity”; “I think the FARC should all go to prison, alternative sentences won’t work”.
This last narrative resonates strongly in both the left and the right – the left think that the members of the armed forces who have been involved in human rights violations should get maximum jail time, while the right believe that no FARC member should be given anything less than life-time imprisonment. But the recent agreement on a Special Jurisdiction for Peace amazingly treats both sides equally, and gives both the chance of alternative sentences and sentence reductions, provided they contribute to the clarification of truth.
Mauricio cleverly related his interviewees’ opinions to the different geographical, historical and political characteristics of Taralá and its people, and argued that what was needed in order to build peace was a generous gaze that did not judge people for their opinions but understood that the multiplicity of responses to peace had to do with the multiplicity of experiences of the armed conflict, and of social experiences in general.
But perhaps the best bit of the essay was added on as an afterthought. Once he got back to Bogotá, he followed up the interviews with phone calls to all three interviewees. One of them, a middle-aged woman, told him over the phone, “You know what, after we talked that day, I changed my mind. I think I’ve been a bit harsh. Probably it is alright if they [the FARC] participate in politics. If they really do demobilise, that is. I suppose they are human beings after all.”
Perhaps this is what Colombia needs – for inquiring students with a generous approach to go and talk to people about what they think, taking them seriously, without judging their opinions and feelings, armed only with information and with challenging yet respectful questions.
All photos copyright Gwen Burynyeat.
Gwen Burnyeat is a British anthropologist and writer doing postgraduate research and teaching in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, as a Leverhulme Trust Study-Abroad Scholar. She has worked in Colombia on and off for six years, including with the International Centre for Transitional Justice and with Peace Brigades International in the Urabá region. As well as academic articles she also writes short fiction, and is currently producing a documentary called ‘Chocolate of Peace’.