The Medellin International Poetry Festival

Paris, 23 June 1998

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I wanted to tell you about Angela and Fernando, but the festival they organize speaks for itself as it is dedicated to the word. Words of life, words of peace. A meeting place. They believe that poetry changes values and combats violence and exclusion. This town is also infamous for reasons that are well-know. But in Medellin, poetry momentarily shakes off the shackles that isolate hearts. It brings thousands of people together around the same vivacious spring. Poets from all over the world head for the mountains to give the word of hope, to find new force. I went, I saw, I heard.
And, in the west of the country, on the Pacific coast, a surprise lay in store. A province that is 95% Black. My head is still bursting with images, with smells, and tropical colours. On first contact, my skin recognized the atmosphere in the country. Today, I am still wondering if I wasn’t travelling in a country right next-door to my own. Someone said: « if you show the photos you took, people here will think you were in Sierra Leone ». The sun, the air, the light, the thick forest, the humidity so characteristic of wet tropical zones were not at all new to me. And yet… Yes. I followed poetry’s traces in Colombia, scorched by a thousand fires. Absorbed by a thousand tasks. Anxious at the thought of really going to the other end of the world.
Paris-Bogota, an eleven hour flight. I crossed paths with Latin America in the plane. Amongst neighbours, we spoke, exchanged addresses. A professional bodyguard gave me his card. Linked by the same destiny, we would arrive safely or die together. What weather did the mountainous range and the thick surrounding clouds have in store for us? The plane plummeted like a stone drawn to a magnet.
At the Santa Fe airport in Bogota, a South African poet not on the same plane as us, still seemed to be up in the clouds over the Andes. As befits a poet in his prime, after all! He was worried he wouldn’t find a flight to Medellin soon. In vain. He ended up having to wait for the same flight as us. Thirty minutes later, we were there. Pablo Montoya was waiting for us. He was expecting to meet three passengers. A poet-diplomat, another poet-director of an Arts Academy in India, and myself. But there were four of us. The grand poet had joined us, all smiles, now he had come down from his cloud. He saw us now. Poor Pablo, who had ordered a five-seater taxi, had to sit with the luggage in the trunk. He joined in the conversation from the back. I expect he could hardly breathe. The grand poet, next to the driver, was smiling. He had recovered his poet’s verve.
– In Bogota, I thought you were Nigerians. « Nigerians are very formal ». I didn’t want to speak to you. In fact I was getting ready to sleep in the bush. I really thought there would be no one to meet us. I cannot tell you the journey I had to make to get here!
Fifty-five kilometres separate Medellin from the airport (which is near to the town of Rionegro). Here the mountain is queen, populated by trees and people. The virgin forest still exists. For how much longer? The road zigzags through the countryside which, between two conversations, began to speak to us. We were two thousand metres above sea level. The town is situated at one thousand one hundred metres. Pablo, tucked away with the luggage, was making efforts to speak to us.
The mountain was lit up here and there at ten o’clock at night. I would have liked to have been an Impressionist artist in order to capture this magic moment with the tips of my fingers. But my skin saw it all, heard everything. I don’t know when it will tell me the story of the journey across part of the Andean Cordilleras. Medellin, valley town, light town, wondrous town in the crux of the night. And, as I would find out the very next day, a very rich town where the poor take refuge on the mountain side, where the rich inhabit the centre of the world. But here, the children, the women, and the men live everywhere, in the forest, in the mountain, in the valley, in the centre of the town.
The Festival had already had the town alight for several days. We were amongst the last to arrive. Khal tells me about a reading, Saturday, in a slum, near a rubbish tip. The crowd, enthusiastic, huge, never seen before.
Monday, at eleven o’clock, I have a reading in Bello, a poor suburb of Medellin. Children have gathered, men, women, in the street. There are those who stay at home, at their windows, to hear the word of life. There are those who sit on the ground. And those who ask for an autograph. Those who buzz and find happiness again. Here, poetry is a balm that calms stress, revives the slumbering mind, gives energy. Poetry distributes little doses of courage to live, like a universal panacea. People don’t realize it very often. The path of poetry is the best remedy for unhappiness. The Medellin Festival believes so and gives us the living proof. At three p.m., another reading to support the striking telecommunications employees. Major poets from the five continents speak. Publishers, you who think that poetry feeds neither author nor Publisher, have you considered for just one moment that it is a priceless treasure? I now know, as I have just experienced, that poetry is the fundamental link between one culture and another. How could I still doubt it?
In this country that is know around the world for its violence, in this town people fear because it seems to be the centre of all narcotic networks, poetry is the word of peace and social harmony par excellence. Here people believe in poetry. People grab hold of it because it is a song of life. If you still have any doubts about poetry’s usefulness, stop off in Medellin during the Festival. Here crowds throng in thousands to the universities, the cultural centres, the working-class neighbourhoods, the rich neigbourhoods, the squares, the hospitals where poetry is listened to, seen and experienced. All forms of poetry. Declaimed poetry. Poetry-performance. Poetry-song. Poetry-tale. Drawn poetry. Eaten poetry. Yes, because one can bite into poetry in the same way that one devours a « menu »: ravenously. And the public reaches out. And the poet advances, advances towards the public until the two meet.
Midday Tuesday, Pablo says to me at the table:
– You have to go to Quibdo!
And I, surprised, answer:
– Where is it? How do we get there?
I haven’t forgotten that here the mountain and the forest talk together under their breaths so that man seeks the shortest route from A to B.
– We fly there!
Yes, I wasn’t thinking. Coming from Africa, I forget that people travel as the crow flies, mocking nature, resisting its inevitable hold. Pablo smiles. He has seen my expression that says all that needs to be said about those little planes that, as soon as the weather is bad, lose their balance and crash! flames!
– We’re going to schedule you with Waberi, Thursday. In any case, I’ll be with you. We can die together can’t we?
I forget about the journey to the Pacific, in the jungle. Rosa, the interpreter acts as my guide in town. We make our way around the market streets. I am struck by the number of traditional pharmacies. People tell me about the thousand virtues of the « penca sabila » a plant that works miracles. I also take the time with Khal and some other poets to discover the wonders of the Antioquia Museum where Fernando Botero’s paintings and sculptures are exhibited, an artists whose reputation has long since travelled beyond the borders of his country.
Every evening, a reading awaits me. I soon get used to the music of this language I don’t know. One evening, the day after my arrival, my eyes cross a child’s, hidden behind sunglasses at night, in the cram-packed amphitheatre of the old Antioquia university. The eyes were watching me from the balcony. We had just listened to a reading by los Mamos from the Sierra Nevada. A mixed-race child was pulling faces at me. I have the time to finish my reading. At the end of the evening, he comes towards me. He has lost his words. He says to Rosa:
– Tell her I want to accompany her!
Juan Esteban has no father nor mother. He follows poetry’s footsteps. He helped put up posters for the Festival. He knows the programme by heart. A street child I would see every day apart from Thursday when I had to take the plane to Quibdo.
On the Thursday, inspired as we were at the idea of flying over the thick forest and the mountains in the West, we missed the first flight.
– « It doesn’t matter », says Pablo, mirthfully, « We’ll catch the next one. This is Colombia, after all! »
The tropical town lives at the rhythm of the rain and the sun. I don’t know quite where I am anymore. I’m in Africa. I’m in Abidjan in June. That night it is pouring down…
– This region is 95% Black. The mayor is black, the governor too.
I really am in Africa by the rio Atato. There are dugout canoes full of bananas. A fruit, fish, and plant market, stalls, smells I recognize. There are lumberjacks. A church exhibits paintings by a mixed-race artist. Paintings that speak realms about past slavery and the continuing poverty in the region. The warmth of the welcome. Hospitality. Juan Velasco and his son Carlos, a sociologist, take us round the town. Here, people are hungry and thirsty for Africa. But Africa is here at hand. No return to the roots, even if people refer to « Negritude ». The roots are probably better preserved here! At the radio, we meet a Black rights militant. They have to fight for the same rights as the other people in this country, irrespective of skin colour. It is vital to allowed to be oneself in spite of the double colonization and the centralized State and the people from Antioquia who set up as traders in Quibdo.
When the historian Sergio Mosquera starts speaking over a drink, I realize that what we have lost centuries ago is still alive by the Pacific Ocean, amongst those who, by the force of History, crossed the Atlantic and, as slaves, travelled down the Pacific coast from the United States, fleeing the hard labour of the plantations, believing that they would one day find the way back to their native lands. Names ring a bell. The historian mentions a village called « Bété », and cites other names: « Maou », « Bobo ». I know them. These same names exist in Côte d’Ivoire or Burkina Faso today. He cites other names of peoples who live in central Africa.
As we left Quibdo airport, I wanted to buy a C.D. of local music. A young woman said to me:
– I thought you were a local. Look at yourself, you are a part of the Choco landscape! (Choco, the province Quibdo is the capital of). The man next to you told me you live in Africa. Take me back with you in your suitcase so I can see Africa at least once in my life!
The woman reminds me of Martha Quiñonès, a young poetess I met in Medellin as soon as I arrived. One day we went to her place in the Castilla, on the mountain side. The path winds its way up through the laterite red brick houses. You need to be as acrobatic as Martha to make it to the third floor where there is no stairway but a hole in the corner of each landing. Here, the « Negra » – as the people she frequents and who don’t have the same colour skin as her call her – writes every day perched on the mountainside. Poetry enables her to break out of all the rings of solitude, including those of the new theoreticians who, around her, practice exclusion through « Negritude ».

///Article N° : 5321


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