African presence in Colombia

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In guise of an introduction to these observations on the traces of Africa in Colombia’s hybrid identity, I would like to recall the meeting that took place between Tchicaya U Tamsi and Manuel Zapata Olivella one winter’s day in Paris in 1988. I remember the reciprocal sense of wonder experienced by the African African and the American African, one of whom spoke French, and the other Spanish, whilst I, acting as interpreter, was overwhelmed by the beauty of the what was said, and was tempted simply to listen, forgetting to translate only to be asked: « que te pasa gitana? »
Tchicaya U Tamsi had only just discovered Cartagena de Indias. He was bowled over. He kept saying: « I kept thinking I was in Africa, I kept wanting to speak as if I was at home« . Manuel laughed joyfully, telling him that N’Gola and Congo were also disembarked at Cartagena, one of the major slave trading ports. Together they began to plan a seminar of African and Black Columbian writers to be held in Bogota the following August. Tchicaya suggested four Africans, including Mongo Beti and Ousmane Sembene. They were so happy, I wanted to take their photograph on that balcony on Boulevard Bessières. There was to be no second meeting, however, as Tchicaya U Tamsi was soon to leave the land of the living.
On the eve of his final journey, Tchicaya U Tamsi, clutching at a new sense of hope, had wanted to discover what traces of Africa had survived in those who had gone through the major trauma of deportation and slavery. What memories had managed to survive those three and a half centuries of being forbidden to speak one’s language, to practice one’s cults, to play drums. And Maunel Zapata had already given him the beginning of an answer, proving to him through his literary work, that he had spent his life seeking his African roots, of inventing them when he could not find them. Manuel, who was born in Lorica, not far from Cartagena, to a teacher father and avid reader of French encyclopaedists and the Declaration of Human Rights, who found the courage in his readings to stand up to the racists in Cartagena who, irritated by this ‘Negro’s impertinence’, called him « the missing link« .
The Zapata Olivellas are Zambos, that is of mixed African, Indian and European blood. They privileged their African heritage by affinity and also through a sense of justice, in order to counter the racism which, although it was never as ignoble in Latin America as in the USA, nevertheless existed. Manuel Zapata, who became a doctor and an anthropologist, acquired a long experience of traditional medicine in the countryside, carrying out lengthy research amongst the black and mixed-race populations with his sister Delia, an anthropologist and dancer, where he began to discover that his country’s official history had excluded Black and Mixed-race people in spite of the fact that they inhabited whole regions of the Caribbean coast, from Choco to the Pacific, and from Cauca to the border with Ecuador. It was amongst these marginalized Columbians – recorded in the statistics in order that they vote for the White cacique – that Manuel spent thirty years gathering knowledge and recording practices which he recognized as having African origins.
These observations proved that it is impossible to separate questions of race from questions of class. The perpetration of the rural (and later urban) black population’s marginalization was part of the legacy of slavery which found a new extension in the agricultural day labourer. Black and poor were thus linked. Inversely, the Blacks who rose to become landowners became whiter: « un Mulato pobre es un Negro y un Negro rico es un Blanco« .
It also transpired that these populations marginalized in the forest and swamp regions had not simply survived on the edges of the official history dictated in Bogota: they had rebelled a thousand times and had created communal forms of life and above all had striven to perpetuate the memory of far-off traditions by word of mouth. What struck Manuel Zapata, and all the anthropologists after him, was the vitality and the creativity of these populations: « It was not just because Blacks were physically strong that they survived labour in the mines, and the weight of exploitation! They must have had an existential philosophy, a kind of social and family organization, a popular ideology that inspired their struggle for survival in this exploitation context. »
Manuel thus gradually ended up seeking the spiritual source that had given these martyrized deportees the force to resist being psychologically destroyed, the vitality to build what would become the African-American. He turned his attention to Africa’s philosophers in order not to make popular culture seem folkloric by burying it under the picturesque. It was thus that people began to understand that the drum, which had hitherto been banned or treated with contempt, needed to be studied as a complete language whether one was looking at funeral ceremonies like the Lumbalù, or dances like the Mapalé or the Cumbia.
The pioneers – Aquiles Escalante, Manuel Zapata, Arnaldo Palacios – opened up the path to historical and anthropological research which, over time, has encouraged people to recognize the cultural value of this mixing in Colombia. This vast country, with its Andean cordilleras and Amazonian plains, its 35 million inhabitants, began to acknowledge its people’s African dimension, and to admit that a quarter of the population was Black.
It became clear that the music, dance, funeral rites, tales and myths constituting the spiritual life of these black and mixed-race populations, were a syncretic blend whose African roots were essential, but hard to identify.
It became obvious that this identification would only become possible by linking up directly with Africa and other black communities in South America, which is what the Columbian Manuel Zapata, the Brazilian Abdias do Nascimento and the Peruvian Nicomedes Santa Cruz did when they founded the « Congress of Black Cultures », bringing together Latin American Blacks for the first time in Cali in 1972.
The impetus was launched, and since, South America’s black populations all have their anthropologists who mentally, and sometimes physically, retrace the path of the African deportees in the opposite direction. International congresses have multiplied: Dakar, Cotonou, Sao Luis Maranao, Santo Domingo… What held up research was the fact that the South American researchers did not speak Wolof, Mandingo, Arara, Mina, Yourba, N’gola, Congo, etc., the languages of the African deportees. Traces of these languages can be identified all over the continent in place names, the names of plants, objects, and dances, like candanga, calenda, mapalé, serece, dambala, quimbombo, gombo, mafafa, malanga, etc.
The poet Tchicaya U Tamsi had thus been absolutely right during that astonishing meeting with this brother from the Cartagena de Indias.

Comments and notes:
With every year that goes by, research develops and becomes more specialized in Colombia, Brazil, Venezuela, Peru or Argentina, focusing on topics like pharmacopeia in the black communities, funeral rites and songs, mythical tales, Bantu names of plants and foods in the Cartagena de Indias, etc. Palenque de San Basilio, which was one of the maroon slaves’ first refuges over three centuries ago, has long been studied for its traces of identity, as have the populations of Chocò, where the fleeing slaves managed to survive cut off from the rest of the country for two centuries. It would be impossible to list the long bibliography of works published in Colombia, but we can at least mention the works of Manuel Zapata Olivella, several of which have been published in English.///Article N° : 5322

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