Colombia is a country that might best be described as “complicado.”
Having a population only slightly larger than Canada, it has a history that is criss-crossed by violent upheavals, an armed conflict that has lasted for almost a century and comprised of enough players to make your head spin.
Having coordinated with Mennonite Central Committee, our team of students and teachers have been almost two full weeks in the country, connecting with various partners of MCC who work in areas of aid, agriculture, psychosocial support, politics, and more.
Out of the many impactful experiences our crew has had on this trip, I want to highlight one of the days we spent with MCC’s partner, Sembrandopaz.
Sembrandopaz, which means “sowing peace,” works with four different communities in the Monterria and high mountain region.
We heard first from Ricardo Esquivia.
He unfolded for us a beautiful vision of supporting and strengthening communities, and he challenged us also, saying that the academic world was not created to deliberate amongst its own members, isolated, but that it was created to serve the community.
He talked about the history of the armed conflict, beginning with a period in the 1800s known as La Violencia and leading up to today. It is a hard road. There are many setbacks. At times it can seem hopeless to be an advocate for non-violence and justice. What is a human in the face of senseless violence? What is a mere body against the violent tide, a fragile body thrown against the rocks by a surging tide of power and elitism and violence.
He says that justice is a long endeavour, and that change does not happen overnight.
“We have visions, but we must have patience; we are dreaming of butterflies, but working with caterpillars”.
Later, we heard from Narciso, a campesino, or peasant farmer, who runs the Sembrandopaz farm outside Sincelejo.
He stood in front of a table covered in various fruits and vegetables that were produced on the farm, and proceeded to tell us his story.
He was a farmer and community leader in a town in another region of Colombia, and was targeted by a paramilitary group. He was attacked in his home and shot through the face and left for dead. Despite having to find a way to a hospital and losing immense amounts of blood from the wound in his jaw and throat, he managed to survive. He had a friend who happened to work for Sembrandopaz, and was offered a place to stay and work, and eventually became the farm manager.
As Narciso shared his story, talking about feeling helpless in a new place, useless without work, and hopeless as a result, he praised God and expressed his immense gratitude in being allowed to resume a life of dignity and meaning. For the campesino, working the land is their joy and their privilege.
As he spoke and shared his passion and his journey, the room seemed to change, in a way. I really felt that I was seeing the table of fruit in a completely different light; this was not just a pile of root vegetables; this was an altar of first fruits, the harvest of a holy profession.
Narciso held up a cluster of mangos and shared his appreciation for the simple fact of having grown them with his own two hands, something that cannot be measured or substituted. The land is his identity, and his connection to it was life-giving in a powerful way. and his belief is that tomorrow, or the very next day, he himself may be eating mangoes grown by someone else. We all need food, and he explained, saddened, that in the end, the campesinos are the true victims of the conflict and warring over drugs and land and politics, and this is a tragedy that affects the whole nation. Every Colombian needs to eat, and yet the campesino is often degraded and disregarded. His passion, resilient faith, and persistent hope were striking and beautiful to witness.
As he finished speaking, a butterfly came right into the cabana we were seated under, and flew around for the next fifteen minutes. It was a huge specimen, and we were all surprised and captivated by it’s graceful, unpredicable movement and curiously dull exterior, only catching glimpses of a brilliantly coloured interior wing pattern between wingbeats. We hadn’t seen any on the trip yet, and I felt that this was a beautiful symbol. This was one of the few people whose growth and restabilization have progressed enough over the time of their relationship with Sembrandopaz in which we were able to witness a more “butterfly moment” than we had yet seen. As Ricardo said, we work with Caterpillars, but dream of butterflies.
I have high hopes for MCC and its partners as they continue to dedicate much time and heart to bringing new life and new possibility to communities that have been severely hurt by violence of the military groups, both systemic and chaotic.