Colombia: Light in the darkness
I don't think I explained in our last blog why Tom and I are in Colombia. The reason and purpose of me leaving full time teaching was to join Tom in order to build and better our photography business but also to develop and use it in different ways. As well as it being our livelihood, we want it to be a blessing to people and we are out in Colombia to begin that journey. We are helping to build links between the charity, Latin Link and the invasions and we also want to help build the importance of family and marriage that is strong by celebrating it through photographs. Whilst here, we are visiting several invasions (slum communities) around Colombia to take family portraits of those that live in poverty - most of whom don't even have one photo of their family and could never afford to have one taken. We have been visiting homes that are connected to projects working in the communities, chatting with the families, praying for them and taking a photo. We will be returning to these communities to give each family a framed portrait before we leave.
Having spent Sunday back in Bogota, we returned to Paraiso on Monday morning to visit more families in a nearby invasion known as Bella Flor. This invasion is further up the mountain and felt more scenically beautiful than Paraiso due to the rolling green hills that stretched up behind it. The Pastora sadly informed us that in a couple of years, these hills would undoubtedly be full of the same small red brick corregated houses that made up the rest of the invasion. These slums are far from shrinking. We visited more families and were again warmly welcomed by beautiful, humble Colombian people. It continued to feel like such a privilege to visit them in their homes, to talk with them about their lives and to take a family photograph for them.
We spent some time on one day in the project in Paraiso, where children were asked to buy and wear a uniform to attend. They had been told that some photographers were coming and so arrived that day clean and tidy wearing huge smiles! One little girl made a point of showing the teachers how proud she was of her hair that had been given a bit more attention than usual!
After the invasions in the hills, we returned to Bogota, to a district called Santa Fe, considered to be one of the worst and most dangerous places in the city. Just 8 years ago, it was not possible to drive through the city for fear of being stopped and told to get out of the car. If those travelling refused to hand over their money, they were shot. In 1997-2002, 1547 murders were committed in the district of Santa Fe alone compared to 153 in La Candelaria, a safer place in the city. Santa Fe was the second most dangerous district; the first being Paraiso.
Twelve years ago, Alvaro Uribe became president and his ruling changed the city for the better. He was so committed to the safety of the city and to bring an end to the war with the FARC (the rebel army) that he created a program to reintegrate those in the FARC back in to society by giving them jobs and security. It worked, and the city has become a safer place.
However, although better than it was, Santa Fe is still not considered to be a safe area. It is a place riddled with prostitution, drug addiction and drug dealing. Given that the children in Santa Fe, (like most places in Colombia) only go to school for half the day, their chances of being pulled in to this society are very high as they spend so much of their time on the streets. They know nothing else. Which is why a project called Amaneser is the only hope the children have. Amanecer means sunrise in Spanish but the use of the 's' in the name, makes 'ser' at the end and means new life. The two words together describe hope in a place where there seems to be none.
Rosa, the director of the project, works with children to help them see that they have future and don't have to continue in the footsteps of their parents, many of whom are involved in prostitution and drugs. Whilst taking family photos, a brother and a sister approached us and asked for a photo. They said their mum was 'working in a restaurant' but could they have one on their own. Rosa tries to work with the families too, to ensure they know of a better future.
Again, we met many families - a lot of them single parents. Some spoke of no light and running water in their homes, homes that actually don't belong to them but provide a roof over their heads. There was an obvious and very definite heaviness that the parents brought in to the project, but the children didn't carry this. Their smiles were playful, joyful and radiant. As yet, they are untouched.
As we walked the streets outside the project, the sun shone, yet darkness hung over us and a feeling of unease rose in my chest as we were told not to look anyone in the eye and to keep our heads down. My heart broke for the multitude of women we passed who were trying their best to pick up work. I knew that these women were the mums of many of the children we were working with. And without the project, it was likely that the children would end up in the same place. Amanaser is - as the names proclaims, the sunshine and the new life in that darkness.
We go on to the coast now, where we will see more of this beautiful country and meet, I am sure, more of the incredible people and families of Colombia.