Minga in Action: Learning from the Sister City in Colombia
by Colleen Kattau

As part of an ongoing exchange between communities, members of the Central New York-Cajibio Sister City Partnership traveled to Cajibio, Colombia in August 2007. Colleen went on this delegation to study how the arts and culture are integrated into community action in Cajibio. Laura MacDonald was also on this delegation.  

On our way to visit a remote vereda (small village) along one of the rutted back roads of Cajibio, Colombia, the rear wheel suspension of one of the two jeeps we were traveling in broke. Both jeeps stopped. Everyone got out. Tools and hands appeared out of nowhere, and in no time the jeep was temporarily fixed with a log, rope and lots of muscle, and we arrived safely at our destination. What our sister city delegation experienced in this little exercise of ingenuity and skill is a perfect example of what the campesinos of Cajibio call la minga, an ancient indigenous concept central to contemporary campesino cultural practice. Minga means communal work equally shared, and is the basis upon which the Plan of Life of the Movimiento Campesino de Cajibio (MCC) is realized. The minga takes many forms and permeates campesino daily life. In the few short days we had in Cajibio our delegation witnessed the minga in action as we saw youth groups, women’s groups, and artists realizing their Plan of Life through homegrown cultural events and educational workshops.

Young people prepare for the youth summit on water issues.
Photo: Colleen Kattau

As we reached our destination that day to participate in a young people’s environmental forum, we heard music breaking the profound silence of the countryside. The music was coming from a youth-run radio station that transmits programming to the surrounding rural community several hours a day. Youth-led radio is an important project of the MCC, providing young people the tools to create their own shows which then educate the larger community. The entire forum was broadcast live and conducted as a radio show with interviews, panel discussions and musical performances.

At the forum, young people examined local problems of deforestation, massive corporate planting of non-native species, the problematic reliance on synthetic chemicals for farming, contamination of local water supplies, scarcity of water resources and climatic changes, and linked them to larger socioeconomic issues. Surrounded by the little children of the MCC, Arlen, a young community leader and musician, got us singing the catchy chorus of a song he wrote that summed up the simple goal of the summit: “May all children drink happily, my country’s clean water.”

It was clear from this meeting that young people in Cajibio are well-aware of their responsibility not only to deal with environmental problems, but also to create consciousness among all community members. At the gathering we also met three of the fifteen students who have received university scholarships from the MCC to study areas such as agronomy, medicine and environmental science. These students have agreed to return to their communities after their studies to provide free services in exchange for this educational opportunity.

The minga was also present the next day at a women’s gathering in the vereda of El Tigre, where between 40 and 50 women from surrounding neighborhoods came to compare notes on their experiences with subsistence gardening and to receive training in basic botany. For lunch we ate sancocho (chicken stew) freshly made in the outdoor olla común, a gigantic steaming metal bowl of stew over an open fire that women tend with a huge wooden spoon. All the ingredients from the meal came from organic local gardens. After lunch, we toured several rich soil plots full of broccoli, cabbage, mint, yucca, potatoes, pineapple and other fruits, and vegetables and herbs native to the region. The women’s summit at El Tigre is another example of how the MCC helps to provide seeds, planting advice, and advanced training to assist campesinos in their struggle to stay on the land in self-sustaining and environmentally sustainable ways.

Our last evening was spent with Jafeth Gómez Ledesma (Jafeth created the 2006 Cultural Workers Calendar cover). Jafeth describes himself as a “cultural ecological worker engaged in cultural resistance” who has returned to the countryside. He is part of an ecologically based community of artists, poets, writers and musicians. We saw the minga in action here once again at the Semillas de Maiz (Corn Seeds) cultural center, which was built collectively by this artist community with local materials and replicates traditional indigenous structures. That night we celebrated the inauguration of Jafeth’s new mural that will provide the backdrop for the bamboo outdoor stage. The inspiring mural, called simply “The Planting,” sums up the values and dreams of the MCC that we witnessed on our brief visit there – that together we can realize peace and beauty, and that the land and our collective work will provide.
The Sister Community project welcomes new members at any level of involvement. For more information or to join the group listserv contact Jessica Maxwell at jessica@peacecouncil.net or 472-5478.

Colleen is a singer/songwriter and an assistant professor of Spanish at SUNY Cortland