La Guajira: Colombia's Forgotten Department

La Guajira is a desert peninsula in northern Colombia where there is a humanitarian crisis for poverty, lack of food and water. The infrastructure is poor, the health care facilities and schools are poor or nonexistent. Every month, indigenous children under 5 die of malnutrition.

The Wayuu indigenous community represents half of the population of the peninsula. Many don't speak Spanish, only Wayuu and live in small, isolated homesteads.

I met Jesús by the beach when he was coming back from fishing (food is very limited: fish and goat are almost the only items one eats for all the three meals). I was lucky because Jesús speaks perfect Spanish and was happy to share his impressions about life in La Guajira.

"My mum used to go to the city for several weeks to sell the bags she makes, and my dad is away most of the time working at construction sites. So it has always been me, the eldest brother who looks after the 4 others. When somebody comes to ask for money or to steal something from the house, I always defend my brothers and sisters. I learnt how to cook when I was little: I go fishing and I prepare fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I bring water from the well which is a 20-minute bike ride from home. I'm the only one in my family who speaks Spanish. I'm 15 years old now and when I finish school here, I want to become a doctor. I want to help people."

"10-15 years ago, there was no tourism here. Then this man, a Wayuu like us but from outside our community, came here and built up his hostel. Since then, the tourists started to arrive. He got richer and richer, built a bigger house and bought a bigger car. We don't have enough water and food but he won't give us a job or let us sell anything at the hostel. He should help the community but he just wants everything for himself. He forbade us to talk to the tourists. He forbade us to invite them to our house or to cook for them. Most people are afraid of him so they obey but I don't care. I like to help and I don't expect anything in return. We have already had many tourists at our place, once an Austrian girl stayed for a week! But every time, he knows. He passes by and tries to intimidate us, "Do you think I haven't heard what you did? You can't talk to them again!"

I also had the chance to talk to Jesús's mother with his help: he was translating my questions to her, and her answers to me.

"I never learnt to read, write or to speak Spanish (only Wayuu): when I was a kid, there was no school here. Everybody grew up working. I used to work as an artisan, making bags and selling them through a foundation. My salary was $30 per month. Two years ago I lost my job because the leader of our community died. Since then, the men couldn't agree about the next leader. So I'm waiting. But this can go on for many more years and I don't know if I can ever get my job back."

Punta Gallinas, La Guajira, Colombia


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