By Taylor Ramsey
The Northern coast of Colombia is not only bursting with myriad sounds, tropical flavors and dance but also a rich ethnic diversity with indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians. One of the largest indigenous groups in Colombia, the Wayuu, can be found in Magdalena and the Guajira and there are four indigenous groups in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range that stretches through Magdalena and Cesar. There is little taught about these unique cultures in the public schools and most Costeños don’t know much about them but are very curious and eager to learn. Working more with these groups would present volunteers with a plethora of amazing secondary project ideas.
I have been extremely lucky to be a third-year extension volunteer working with the Wiwa indigenous people. The Wiwa only have a population of about 13,000 and their language, Dumana, is under threat of extinction. Like the other indigenous groups found in the Sierra Nevada range, they believe these mountains to be the heart of the world and that they, as the elder brothers of humanity, have been charged with the task of protecting this “heart” and teaching us younger brothers about the damage being done and the consequences.
I spent my second year as a Peace Corps volunteer working with a small group of Wiwa to transform what was once a small Wiwa-controlled tourism business into one of the biggest agencies in Santa Marta (Wiwa Tour) that takes tourists into the Sierra Nevada with Wiwa-only guides and uses sustainable practices. The Wiwa have worked hard to make it successful and have been featured in The Guardian and are soon to be in the National Geographic travel section.
Now, as part of my extension, I have focused most of my time with the Wiwa on social projects. Recently, a lightning strike killed 11 Wiwa men, leaving 10 widows and many orphans. I was able to rally local Samarios (people from Santa Marta) to help raise money for immediate needs by holding a last-minute fundraiser at a local bar called Bonzanza. A local artist, Notable Salazar, even raffled off a painting of a Wiwa child to help out.
Fellow volunteer, Alli Spring, and I took a collection of digital cameras to a remote Wiwa village called Wimake to teach 18 Wiwa children how to photograph the most important parts of their culture. I now use the photos to host events around Santa Marta to raise awareness about the Wiwa, and I have sold photos to replace the roof on the school in Wimake. With one of my best Wiwa friends who is studying sociology, we are opening a formal exhibit of these photos in November with descriptions in Spanish, Dumana and English in the Ethnography Museum in Santa Marta to teach people about Wiwa culture and to do a small part in protecting the language.
In October, we organized an event with the Alianza Francesa, where local Samarios learned more about Wiwa culture. People were very enthusiastic for the opportunity to learn more about their indigenous neighbors. We were even in the local Santa Marta newspaper and the The Huffington Post!
My work with the Wiwa has been, by far, my most fulfilling experience as a volunteer, and it has been work that I have had an easy time getting funded and supported, when needed. With the Wiwa, I have received a Pollination Project grant and three different Rotary Club donations. I look forward to seeing how current and future volunteers expand projects with indigenous groups on the coast. Hopefully, volunteers will continue working with the Wiwa after I leave! There are so many opportunities and many foundations and NGOs who want to support these minority groups.