Dozens of donkeys have broken their necks in the rugged trench, eight kilometers long, that separates Wikdi from his school. Besides that, the paramilitaries have tortured and murdered many people there. Nevertheless, Wikdi doesn’t pause to think about the dangers of this route riddled with stones, dry mud, and weeds. If he did, he would die of fright and be unable to study. On the way to and from his ranch, located in the indigenous reservation of Arquía, and his school, located in the town of Unguía, he spends five hours every day. And he always confronts the journey with the same quiet reserve he shows now as he zips up his backpack.
It’s 4:35 in the morning. In January, the temperature usually reaches its extremes in this area of the Darién Gap in the Choco Department: it’s scorching during the day and icy at night. Wikdi–thirteen years old with a slight build–shivers with cold. A moment ago he told Prisciliano, his father, that he prefers to bathe at night. Now they both mull over how freezing it must be to jump into the Arquía River in the early hours of morning.
“Good thing we had a bath last night,” his father says.
“We can go back to the river tonight,” his son answers.
Across from them, a dog approaches the wood fire they have built on the earthen floor. He scratches his back against one of the bricks around the fire and then curls up on the ground, absorbing the warmth. Prisciliano asks his son if he put his geography notebook in his backpack. The boy nods yes, he says he already knows the location of America by memory. The father looks at his watch and turns toward me.
“4:40,” he says.
Then he adds that Wikdi should already be on his way to school. The problem, he explains, is that at this time of year it gets light at six in the morning, and he doesn’t like the boy to go down that path when it’s so dark. A few minutes ago, when he and I were the only people awake on the ranch, Prisciliano told me that Wikdi, the eldest of his five sons, was born in the early morning on a night as dark as this one. It was May 13, 1998. Ana Cecilia, his wife, started feeling the birthing pains shortly before three in the morning. So he, faithful to an ancient precept of his people, ran to tell both of their parents. The four grandparents gathered around the bed, all with a lit candle between their hands. Then it was as if, suddenly, all the Guna elders, living and dead, known or unknown, had transformed the night into day just to clear the horizon for the new member of the family. For that reason, Prisciliano believes that the beings of his race are always received by the dawn, and so the world finds itself submerged in darkness. I can say this–he concludes in a pensive tone–even though they carry light within themselves, they risk too much when they set off down the path of Arquía in the midst of such darkness.
Prisciliano–thirty-eight years old with a slight build–hopes his son’s sacrifice will be worth it. He believes his son will develop practical skills that will be of great use to their community in the Institución Educativa Agrícola de Unguía, such as administering veterinary vaccines and handling fertilizers. What’s more, when he earns his diploma from this “free” school, he will surely speak better Spanish. For the indigenous Guna people, the “free” are all those who do not belong to their ethnicity.
“The school is far away,” he says, “but there aren’t any closer. The one we have here on the reservation only goes up to fifth grade, and Wikdi is already in seventh.”
“The only option is to get the diploma in Unguía.”
“That’s right. I graduated from there too.”
Prisciliano tells me that, with the favor of Papatumadi–that is, God–Wikdi will study to become a teacher himself once he has finished secondary school.
“I’ve never pressured him to choose that option,” he clarifies. “He saw the example at home because I’m a teacher at the school in Arquía.”
Will Wikdi be able to move forward in life with the knowledge he acquires in the “free” school? It remains to be seen, responds Prisciliano. Perhaps he will be enriched as he assimilates certain codes of the enlightened world, the world that lies outside the jungle and the sea that isolate their brothers. He will draw closer to the white nation and the black nation. In that way, he will contribute to broadening the confines of his own region. He will gain knowledge of the history of Colombia, and in that way he will be able at least to find out at what moment the paths that linked the Guna to the rest of the country were blocked. He will study Baldor’s algebra, he will learn the names of a few peninsulas, he will hear talk of Don Quijote de la Mancha. Then, transformed into a teacher, he will transmit his knowledge to future generations. Then it will be as if, once again, thanks to the wisdom of an ancestor, dawn were breaking in the middle of the night.
“It’s five and still dark,” Prisciliano says now.
Anabelkis, his sister-in-law, is already awake: she boils coffee over the same fire where, a moment ago, the dog warmed himself. Her husband tries to hush their newborn baby, who is crying his eyes out. There is no one left to get up, as Ana Cecilia and Prisciliano’s other sons spent the night in Turbo, Antioquia. A well known breakup song, performed by Darío Gómez, plays on the radio:
You see, I dived into marriage
And you played me for real
you were bad, ay, too bad
but in this life you gotta carry on
The fire is now blazing strong, casting its brightness throughout the house. The cocks crow, the donkeys bray. The new day has come to a boil on the ranch. Further beyond, darkness still reigns. It seems that not a single candle has been lit in any of the town’s sixty-one remaining houses. That’s the thing: anyone who was born here knows, at this hour, that the majority of the 582 inhabitants are already on their feet.
Wikdi says bye to Prisciliano in their native language (“kusamalo!”) and starts walking through the path that opens up for him between the family’s four dogs.
We have walked across a stream about thirty centimeters deep. We have crossed a broken bridge over a dry gorge. We have scaled an incline whose enormous rocks leave almost no space to place your feet. We have crossed a muddy trench lined with hardened tracks: hooves, paws, human footprints. We have gone down a slope littered with sharp pebbles that feel like they’re going to rip the bottoms off our boots. Now we are preparing to wade across a watery ravine chock full of slippery rocks. A look to the left, then to the right. There’s no way around it, we have to step across these mud-covered stones. I’m assaulted by a fearful idea: it’d be easy to fall and break your back here. Wikdi is evidently not tormented by the same misgivings as we “free” people: he plunges his hands into the water, he wets his arms and face.
We left Arquía an hour and a half ago. The temperature has risen, I’d say, to around 38 degrees Celsius. We still have an hour’s journey left to reach the school, and later, Wikdi will have to make the return trip to his ranch. Five hours of travel every day: it’s easy to say, but believe me, you have to live the experience for yourself in order to understand what I’m talking about. On this path–I was told by Jáider Durán, ex-official of the town of Unguía–the horses sink in up to their bellies and you have to dig them out, pulling them with ropes. Some come out broken, others die. The fancy shoes worn by certain cityfolk–a pair of Converse, for example–would already have fallen to pieces on my feet. Here, the sharp stones pierce your soles. As you walk, you feel them stabbing into the bottoms of your feet even when you’re wearing boots specially designed for the mud, like the ones I have on now.
“I’m so thirsty!” I tell Wikdi.
“You didn’t bring water?”
“We only have three bridges left before town.”
I am silently thankful that Wikdi has the courtesy to try to comfort me. Then, after flashing an innocent smile, he corrects himself:
“No, I tell a lie: four bridges left.”
In the big city where I live, if you mentioned an indigenous boy who spends five hours walking every day in order to attend school, it would sound like you were talking about the protagonist of some bucolic anecdote. How quixotic, good Lord, how romantic are the stories that flourish in our country! But here, amid the real-life mud, feeling the rigors of the journey, observing the hardships of the people involved, you understand that this is not some casual anecdote, but rather a serious drama. Seen from afar, a bridle path in Chocó or anywhere else in rural Colombia is a mere landscape. Seen from up close, it is a symbol of discrimination. And, beyond that, it becomes a nightmare. When the path is no longer on Google Images but rather beneath you, it’s a monster that wounds your feet. It makes you itch between your fingers, it makes your calves cramp up. It drains, suffocates, mistreats. Nonetheless, Wikdi looks refreshed. His skin is covered in dust, but he looks whole. I ask him if he’s tired.
“Are you thirsty?”
“Not that either.”
Wikdi falls quiet, and so, in silence, he moves forward a couple of meters. Then, without looking at me, he says he’s just hungry, because today he left without eating breakfast.
“How often do you go to school without eating breakfast?”
“I go without breakfast, but at school they give you a snack.”
“So you eat when you get there.”
“Well, last year they gave you a snack. Now they don’t give you anything.”
Captured in its natural environment, the story I’m telling provokes as much admiration as it does sadness. And fear: here, the paramilitaries have killed many people. There was a time when walking into this area meant signing your own death warrant. The path was abandoned and swallowed up by weeds in many stretches. Certain parts are still closed today. So we have had to change course and advance, with no one’s permission, through the interior of a few estates whose land runs parallel to the path. I take a panoramic look all around us, I weigh up the magnitude of our solitude. At this moment, we are the easiest target in the world. If a paramilitary stepped into our path and felt like wiping us out, he could do so without so much as knocking a hair out of place. Surviving on the path of Arquía, in the end, is simply a leap of faith. And for that reason, I suppose, Wikdi is still safe at the end of every walk: he never fears the worst.
“Two more bridges,” he says.
He has only felt in danger once. He was walking distractedly down a shortcut when he suddenly spotted a snake moving along the trail very close to him. He was frightened, he thought about turning back. He also considered jumping over the animal. In the end he did neither one nor the other, but he remained immobile and watched as the snake slithered off.
“Why did you stay still when you saw the snake?”
“I stayed like that.”
“Yes, but why?”
“I stayed still and the snake went away.”
“You know why the snake went away?”
“Because I stayed still.”
“And how did you know the snake would leave if you stayed still?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did your dad teach you that?”
I deduce that Wikdi, in keeping with his people’s ways, lives in harmony with the universe that surrounds him. For example, he walks without moving his arms back and forth for balance, as we “free” people do. By holding his arms beside his body, he avoids wasting more energy than is necessary. I also deduce that Wikdi as well as the other members of his community are capable of such strength because they see beyond where the horizon ends. If they sat under the shade of a tree when the path grew painful, if they acknowledged the harshness and the dangers of the journey, they wouldn’t get anywhere.
“Why are you studying?”
“Because I want to be a teacher.”
“What do you want to teach?”
“English and mathematics.”
“So my students learn.”
“Who will your students be?”
“The kids in Arquía.”
I also deduce that in order to make your own path as you walk, as the poet Antonio Machado proposed, it helps to have a happy dose of ignorance. That’s exactly what’s going on with Wikdi. He doesn’t know the threats represented by the paramilitaries, and he doesn’t consider the possibility of becoming, after so much effort, another victim of the chronic unemployment that affects his region. In Chocó, according to a United Nations report that will be published at the end of this month, fifty-four percent of the inhabitants survive thanks to an informal occupation. There, in 2002, twenty percent of the population earned less than two dollars per day. In the same area, on a similar note, a child malnutrition emergency took place in 2007 that caused the deaths of twelve children. I can tell that Wikdi doesn’t pause to think about such problems. And that is the source of part of the strength with which his size-thirty-five feet eat up the ground.
“This is the last bridge,” he says while he casts me a knowing glance.
“The one over the Unguía River?”
“Yes, that one. And here’s the town.”
The Institución Educativa Agrícola de Unguía, founded in 1961, has forged cabinet makers, seamstresses, micro-businesses producing poultry. But today the carpentry workshop is closed, there’s not a single sewing machine, and not a single broiler chicken survives either. Supposedly, here they teach you to raise rabbits; nonetheless, the last time the students saw a rabbit was eight years ago. There are no guinea pigs left, nor ducks. The eighteen classrooms are filled with almost unusable chairs: their bottoms have fallen out, or they are missing arms, legs, or both. The information technology section makes me feel remorse as much as indignation: the computers are prehistoric, they have neither USB drives nor disk drives, and they disappeared from the market long ago. There are scarcely five among them that work, but only halfway. To walk through the school’s facilities is to compile a list of disasters.
“This year we haven’t been able to give the students their daily snack,” said Benigno Murillo, the principal. “The Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar, which is the one that helps us on this campus, send us a memo saying they would provide the same food again in March. We’ve had to reduce class time and end school days earlier. You can’t imagine the number of kids who go without breakfast!”
Now the students in group “Seven A” are rushing hastily into the classroom. They sit down, they take out their notebooks. At the school, nobody knows our protagonist as Wikdi: here they call him “Anderson,” the alternative name his father gave him so he could fit in with fewer setbacks among the “free.”
“Anderson,” says the geography teacher, “did you bring your homework?”
While the boy shows the teacher his work, I check my cell phone. It has no signal, now it’s just a piece of junk that, throughout the journey, has only served as an alarm clock. The “global village” that the pontiffs of communication have exalted since the days of McLuhan is still more village than global. In the civilized world, we cannot exist without technology; in these backwards lands, technology cannot exist without us. There, in the big cities, on the other side of the jungle and the sea, we cross great distances without needing to move a millimeter. Here, you have to pull on your boots and put your whole heart into the journey.
“America is the second largest continent in length,” the teacher reads from Anderson’s notebook.
A word comes to mind that I immediately discard because it seems painfully overused: “odyssey.” To reach this place on the Pacific coast of Colombia, which seems to be tucked into the most hermetic corner of the planet, you have to grit your teeth and take risks. The journey between my house and the classroom where I find myself this Tuesday has been one of the most arduous of my life: on Sunday morning I boarded a commercial plane from Bogotá to Medellín. In the evening of the same day, I traveled to Carepa, in the Urabá region of Antioquia Department, on a little plane that my travel companion, the photographer Camilo Rozo, described as “a microbus with wings.” Then I took a taxi that, an hour later, dropped me off in Turbo. On Monday, I woke up at the crack of dawn to set out, along with twenty-three other passengers, in a speedboat that cut a path through the furious sea, bouncing across waves three meters high. I crossed the wide Atrato River, plowed through the swamp of Unguía, and finished the trip to the Guna reservation on horseback. And today I walked with Wikdi, for two and a half hours, along the path of Arquía.
The professor keeps talking:
“Chocó, our department, is a tiny dot on the map of America.”
If only appearing on the World Atlas were enough to make a place matter! These remote lands of poor natives have never been of interest to our indolent governments, and so the paramilitaries are in charge. In practice, they are the patrons and legislators recognized by the people. How could this vicious circle of backwardness be broken? In part through education, I suppose. But then I return to the United Nations report. According to the 2005 census, Chocó has the second highest rate of illiteracy in Colombia among the population aged fifteen to twenty-four: 9.47 percent. A 2009 study determined that, within the department, one in two children who finish their primary education don’t continue to secondary school. And then I think of another piece of data that almost seems to mock this harsh reality: the commander of the area’s paramilitaries is nicknamed “The Prof.”
Anderson returns, smiling, to his seat. I wonder where his path will take him at the end of the academic cycle. His teacher, Eyda Luz Valencia, who was the one to baptize him as “free,” thinks he will go far because he’s sharp and he has good judgment when he makes decisions. There are good reasons to believe he won’t become a sinister “prof,” like that of the paramilitaries, but a wise teacher like his father, able to rustle up a dawn even when the night is lost in darkness.
Translated by Arthur Dixon