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Photo: Chris Bell/The Culture Trip.
Tourists in La Guajira, a remote part of Colombia. Nowadays the focus is on a vaccine outreach to wary indigenous residents.

John assures me that pandemics always peter out as variants emerge weaker and weaker. I hope he’s right. Meanwhile, some experts are saying we won’t be done with Covid until we vaccinate the whole world.

Samantha Schmidt at the Washington Post wrote recently about an effort to reach a remote corner of Colombia — one step in vaccinating the whole world.

“The vaccination team had spent an hour bouncing and bucking down a dirt road and over train tracks when the van driver issued a warning. The toughest part of the drive was still to come. The two women gripped their seat cushions as the van jolted, climbed a mound of dirt and fishtailed in the slick mud. Driver Toto Girnu honked at passing goats as he followed a path blazed only by tire tracks. In the distance, he spotted dark, menacing clouds.

“If the group was lucky, the drive through this remote desert would take four or five hours. If it rained, as it did when Girnu made this trip a few days earlier, it could take more than 10.

“But this was the only way to reach the Indigenous families who live in this arid swath of land in the northern department of La Guajira, where there are no paved roads, no electricity, no running water and no other access to the vaccines that would protect their communities.

“Travel is only part of the challenge confronting the team, one of many contracted by the Colombian government to deliver vaccines to some of the country’s remotest peoples. There is also a lack of information about the coronavirus, hesitation around vaccines and a general mistrust of authorities.

“The van, ‘Route of Hope’ written across the windshield, came upon a roadblock. Adults and children here string ropes across the road, to be lifted only in exchange for water, food or cash.

“ ‘Are you vaccinated?’ vaccine team coordinator Katherin Gamez shouted to a young man. Girnu gave the man a fist bump, tossed him a small bag of water and translated the question into Wayuunaiki, the language of the local Wayuu Indigenous people.

“ ‘For what?’ he asked.

“Across the Andes, a region that has reported some of the world’s highest covid-19 death rates, teams are traversing deserts, mountains, rainforests and rivers to vaccinate isolated communities.

“Such teams are particularly active in Colombia, a country of more than 48 million people, where about 16 percent of the population lives in rural areas that were often neglected by the government during more than five decades of armed conflict. …

“About 35 percent of Colombia’s population has been fully vaccinated, according to the Health Ministry. More than half of residents in major cities — 62 percent in the capital of Bogotá — have received at least one dose.

“But in La Guajira, home to the country’s largest Indigenous population, only 38 percent have received at least one dose. … Years of government abandonment and mismanagement have caused many Wayuu residents to mistrust the health system. Only 4 percent of Wayuu people here have access to clean water, Human Rights Watch reported last year; 77 percent of Indigenous households are food insecure. In Alta Guajira, where the largest number of Wayuu people live, there is only one hospital, and it offers only basic care. …

“ ‘By the time a lot of them get to care, they’re so near death … there’s this perception that maybe the care didn’t help,’ said Shannon Doocy, an associate professor of international health at Johns Hopkins who co-wrote the Human Rights Watch report. …

“ ‘We’re getting close,’ Girnu told Gamez and Eliana Andrioly, the team’s Indigenous leader. They sped down a salt flat, their view miles of sand and the distant bay. …

“A team of nursing assistants and a doctor were waiting. The providers spend 15 days at a time living in a dormitory next door, sleeping in hammocks and showering with buckets of water, to stage daily medical missions to the surrounding communities.

“The organization, IPSI Palaima — ‘land of the sea’ in Wayuunaiki — was founded in 2007 by an Indigenous woman who grew up in the area. It is one of the only providers in Alta Guajira with a permanent vaccine refrigerator, in a medical center powered by solar panels.

“The team member in charge of shots this week was Daniela Vergara, a 21-year-old nursing assistant who had never been to AltaGuajira before she applied for the job. Each day, Vergara aims to vaccinate at least 10 people — a modest goal that often requires a massive effort.

“On this Monday, she had not yet reached her target. She packed her cooler — a blue backpack filled with vials of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot that has been a godsend to rural vaccine teams — and set out for a community across the bay. [Then] they drove to a gathering place where they hoped to meet people interested in the vaccine.

“ ‘There’s no one here,’ Vergara said. ‘We got here too late.’

“A local leader suggested they go house to house. As darkness fell, the team members asked anyone who looked 18 or older if they wanted the vaccine. Soon a woman recounted a rumor they had heard many times: Outsiders were pushing a vaccine that was sickening members of the Wayuu community.

“The woman, a teacher who spoke some Spanish, knew what was at stake. She had contracted the virus a few months earlier, after a trip to the town of Uribia. For a month, she suffered chest pains, headaches, an intense cough and the loss of taste and smell. … She worried about a 66-year-old neighbor who had no interest in getting a shot.

“ ‘Many people are dying from this disease,’ Juan Larrada, a Wayuu doctor in the group, said in Wayuunaiki. He said the vaccine could have side effects, but it would protect them from serious illness. He asked Amaita Uriana why she did not want it.

“ ‘Because I was afraid of getting sicker,’ she said. ‘I really feel very sick. I carry pains in my body. That’s why I refused when a girl came here for the same reason. Besides, she was very pretentious. And we had already heard about the experiences of other Wayuu who had been vaccinated and become ill.’

“ ‘The vaccine can have those effects,’ Larrada agreed. ‘Fever, muscular pains, that’s normal.’

“Understanding the doctor as he spoke to her in her own language, Uriana assented. She closed her eyes; Vergara emptied the syringe into her arm.”

Read about the many Wayuu who cannot be persuaded and why that is, here. The photos in the article are terrific, but I can’t share them because they’re blocked. If you have a subscription, you are in luck.

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Photo: Jordan Salama.
Luis Soriano and Beto, one of his two burros, set out into the Magdalena countryside with books for children who live on isolated farmsteads in Colombia.

Hannah, a friend since preschool, knows I love stories about unusual libraries. (Search on the word “library” at this blog, and see what I mean.)

I love the feeling I get that libraries have a mind of their own, that they reach out to people because we need them. This week Hannah sent me an article about a burro library. Atlas Obscura adapted it from Jordan Salama’s new book, Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena.

“Luis Soriano was born so premature that when he arrived into the world, everyone was sure that he would die. He was born in 1972, in the very same Colombian village of La Gloria (Magdalena Department) where he grew up and made his life. His father was a cattle rancher, and his mother sold fruit and milk on the side of the road. They were hardworking campesino parents who emphasized to their many children the importance of an education over everything else.

“Luis grew up playing in the rolling fields of the Magdalena valley. La Gloria was set inland from the river by about one hour, yet the river wielded great influence upon the town. … It was said that the Magdalena dictated the rains and the floods of the nearby lowlands, which influenced the rains and the floods in La Gloria, and during droughts, the town felt the river’s pain. The river’s beaches and sandy islands yielded the yucca, plantains, and beans of the Caribbean diet — La Gloria is nearly 100 miles from the nearest Caribbean seaside town, but yes, its people will tell you, it is indeed a Caribbean place.

“Raised in the countryside, Luis learned things from the land that people from the city never understood. In the hot, humid afternoons, a line of ants hurrying across the path meant that the skies were about to open and intense rains would fall and freshen the air; at night, the sudden silence of the frogs and the toads meant that another person was approaching in the darkness. From watching the birds, he gathered certain observations about their daily routines, like which of the trees the flocks of red-and-green macaws preferred for their nightly roosts and at what hours of the day the sirirí sang its lonely song. …

“But Colombia’s escalating violence in the 1970s and ’80s meant that Luis would not be able to stay. When the paramilitaries and other criminal groups plagued La Gloria and the surrounding countryside, Luis’s parents sent him and his siblings to live with family in Valledupar, hours away. His life playing among the animals was replaced by the loud, gritty streets of a valley city.

“By the time Luis finished high school and returned to La Gloria, he decided, maybe as a product of all of this learning and absorbing in his own life, that he wanted to become a schoolteacher. He got a job in a small, rural primary school in nearby Nueva Granada, where he taught reading and writing. At the same time, he completed a remote degree from the Universidad del Magdalena.

“None of his students did any of their schoolwork or seemed to make any progress in the first few years, and Luis blamed himself for it. He thought he was a bad teacher [but] he realized that many of the children, living on isolated farmsteads that were several miles along narrow dirt paths from the nearest school, couldn’t practice reading at home because they didn’t have access to books. A teacher with limited resources himself, he decided to do the only thing he could: bring his own books to them.

“And so, before dawn one day in 1997, he took one of his donkeys and a stack of books and set off across the countryside. Covering several miles of difficult terrain, he stopped at the homes of each one of his students and read with them, before lending them the book and telling them he’d be back the next day to pick it up. And in this manner, he returned day after day, in the early hours of morning, well before school started, for he knew from experience that families living in the fields rose with the first song of the sirirí and the crows of roosters in the dark.

“More than 20 years on, he hasn’t stopped.

‘At first, people saw me as nothing more than a half-insane teacher with some books and his donkey,’ Luis liked to say. ‘Without realizing it at the time, I’d created the very same rural traveling library that the world now knows as the Biblioburro.’

“Biblioburro started out with just seventy books, all of them Luis’s own, and only one donkey. He quickly added a second donkey, affixing wooden bookcases to both of their saddles for ease of transport, and named the two animals Alfa and Beto (alfabeto, alphabet in Spanish). He started extending and diversifying each day’s route to reach more children in the area. When the beloved Colombian national radio broadcaster Juan Gossaín got wind of the Biblioburro story in 2003 and shared it with his listeners, book donations from around the world started pouring in — today, Luis boasts a collection of more than 7,000 titles.

“Yet for all the international attention, it remains a humble operation. When Luis sets off on a Biblioburro visit, he does it alone, quietly, with his two trusted donkeys. Often, he won’t encounter another person for hours as he makes his way across the rugged, lonesome terrain — an uncomfortable ride, and an even more arduous walk, beneath the merciless sun. But the children who live in these lonely places await the arrival of the Biblioburro and its stories with great fervor, running wide-eyed toward Alfa and Beto when they spot them on the horizon.

“Perhaps, in the children he serves, Luis Soriano sees some part of himself. He sees that they can beat the odds — for while Luis has easily become the most famous person to ever come from La Gloria, at the moment of his birth, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who imagined he would have resurged from his situation as well as he did.

“Except for one person, that is. As the story goes, his parents called upon an older woman, who was very respected in town, to come examine the child and give him her blessing. Minutes after Luis’s birth, she made her way over to the house and stood over him, looking his tiny body up and down, seeming to ponder whether he would be destined to live as long as she had. After several moments, she spoke. ‘This little one, he isn’t going to die’ was what the old woman said (though who knows if she actually believed it herself). ‘He is going to grow up and become a doctor, and he will save this town.’ “

He did not become a doctor, but whether he saved his town, you can decide after reading more at Atlas Obscura, here. P.S. I just noticed I had a short post about the burro librarian in 2015, here!

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nerisgarden

Photos: Lucy Sherriff/PRI
Neris Uriana, the Wayuu tribe’s first-ever female chieftain, stands in her garden. With her leadership and new water-saving techniques, the northern Colombia tribe is finally able to grow food year-round.

I’ve been reading articles by my friend Ann Tickner on Jane Addams, best known for founding Hull House in Chicago in the early 20th Century. Addams, an international peace activist who influenced the thinking of world leaders after WW I, was a more extraordinary woman than I realized in third grade, reading one of those little orange biographies in the school library. She was a model of all that women can be if they choose.

In South America, there’s another surprising example of female leadership that I just heard about. It’s in an indigenous tribe, where the women are making sure that the people achieve their potential while living in harmony with nature.

Global Post reporter Lucy Sherriff writes at Public Radio International (PRI), “For years, the Wayuu tribe in La Guajira, a remote area in northernmost Colombia, was run by a male chieftain. But 13 years ago, male elders decided to appoint a woman as its leader. After the success of being led by a female head, the community changed its governance traditions and now exclusively appoints women to lead.

“ ‘When I first started, I didn’t know anything,’ Neris Uriana, the tribe’s first-ever female chieftain, told PRI. ‘But over time, one learns how to lead, the required skills you need to be head of a community.’

“Neris Uriana was elected in 2005. She was already involved in providing support to the community’s mothers, and Jorge Uriana, along with other elders, believed she had the qualities needed to lead the tribe. It was a first for Wayuu communities in Albania, in La Guajira.

“ ‘We had had some problems with communicating with leaders of other tribes and in our own village,’ explained Jorge Uriana, who was the community leader until 2005 and is Neris Uriana’s husband.

“Jorge Uriana explained that traditionally, Wayuu men negotiate and resolve disputes but that some male leaders can come off as confrontational and even aggressive at times.

“ ‘Whereas women, when they speak, they address the human side. They tend to be more peace-loving and more humanitarian in their outlook.’ ”

Excuse me, I have to stop here and marvel: that is exactly why Jane Addams and her contemporaries in the peace movement are considered the founders of what is known today as feminist diplomacy.

Back to my story.

” ‘We wanted to turn the way things were on its head. We wanted women to use their way of dialogue to resolve our conflicts, and we wanted to transform our culture,’ [said Jorge Uriana].

“ ‘I realized I had a commitment and an obligation to my people,’ said Neris Uriana, who will lead for as long as she likes (or until someone else steps up). ‘I really trained myself in leadership, and now, I feel like I am able to really achieve great things.’

“Marta Pushiana is one of the many women who have become more involved in the tribe’s community since Neris Uriana’s appointment.

“ ‘Now, we have a female leader; more women are taking more responsibility in the tribe. Before, we always had to stay at home and look after the children and cook and clean,’ said Pushiana. ‘Now, the men share those responsibilities with us, so that women have the opportunity to work, to help build, to be involved in leadership. The whole dynamic in the tribe has changed for the better.’ …

“Although Wayuu tribes have traditionally treated women as equals to men and have a more matriarchal culture than other nonindigenous Colombians, few tribes are led by women, and even less — if any — have permanently pledged to only appoint women. …

“Since Neris Uriana took up her position, she has introduced a long-term agricultural initiative to help sustain her community, rather than continually living hand to mouth. Neris Uriana sought the help of outsiders to teach her and other women in the tribe about irrigation, crop cycles and land use, so they could have ample produce throughout the year. The women also use their ancestral knowledge of lunar cycles to plant food and strongly believe the can use their connection with the Earth to sustain themselves.”

Oh, my, I am in love with these people! Read more about them at PRI, here.

A woman from the Wayuu tribe who is part of the female chieftain’s food initiative waters the saplings. The initiative has been such a success that the tribe now produces surplus food and sells it to other communities.

watering_plants

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new20reef201

Photo: Valeria Pizarro
The Varadero reef has survived in Colombia’s Cartagena Bay despite toxicity from heavy shipping. The corals grow twice as fast as similar corals elsewhere, but their skeletons are less dense, which may have something to do with their success.

The news about coral reefs has not been good for a long time. Rising temperatures and too much carbon dioxide have been killing off these delicate creatures worldwide, with dire consequences for the marine life that depends on their intricate communities.

But what is going on in Cartagena Bay? Elizabeth Svoboda has a fascinating story at the Christian Science Monitor.

“For the coastal communities that have harvested its bounty for centuries, and for the scientists who officially discovered it five years ago, there is no reef like Varadero. Locals call it ‘the improbable reef,’ and for good reason: It has persevered in the midst of intensive coastal development, streams of toxic runoff from the nearby Canal del Dique (Dike Canal), and waters so warm they’d turn many reefs into lifeless skeletons.

“Scientists like Lizcano-Sandoval and Pennsylvania State University’s Mónica Medina are working to uncover the secrets of Varadero’s striking resilience – secrets they can use to help other threatened reefs around the world.

“But just as Varadero begins to yield its tantalizing scientific bounty, it’s looking as if the reef may be damaged or even destroyed. A group of government officials, port authorities, and businesspeople is planning to dredge a channel so Cartagena’s harbor can accommodate more container ships – a move they say will boost the nation’s economy. However, the researchers who study Varadero, along with local environmental activists, are hoping to stall the dredging project so the reef’s storied legacy can continue – and perhaps contribute to the rescue of other endangered underwater Edens. …

” ‘Corals in Varadero have a very distinct growth pattern,’ says biologist Roberto Iglesias-Prieto, Dr. Medina’s colleague at Pennsylvania State University. Specifically, the corals grow about twice as fast as similar corals elsewhere, but their skeletons are less dense; it’s possible that these traits give them an advantage over their slower-growing coral counterparts.

“Medina thinks certain elements in runoff from the Canal del Dique may be benefiting the corals in surprising ways. ‘Part of the day, [the corals] get these nutrient-rich waters where they’re eating and photosynthesizing,’ Medina says. She notes that fairly recent changes in coral growth coincide with a period when more sediment was being dumped into the bay. …

“Varadero’s corals might also benefit from their location right at the mouth of Cartagena Bay. “They have constant communication with the sea,” [Dr. Valeria Pizarro, who discovered the reef,] says. The fresh inflow of ocean water might lessen the impact of toxic mercury, cadmium, and copper that runs off into the bay from nearby industrial facilities.

“Medina and her colleagues are trying to figure out if other aspects of the reef’s biology contribute to its success – aspects that could ultimately be replicated in reefs elsewhere. … Samples of microbes from Varadero’s corals – the onboard collection of bacteria, viruses, and algae that perform critical metabolic tasks – have revealed that they are totally distinct from those found on other reefs, Medina says. Her lab is conducting a detailed analysis to find out whether the microbes might be performing important functions, such as fighting disease, that help the corals to survive even in less-than-ideal conditions.

“In the future, if conservationists can transport Varadero’s hardy corals to other endangered reefs around the world, or even seed threatened reefs with whatever microbial cocktail helps Varadero’s corals thrive, those reefs might have a better chance of surviving despite ocean warming and pollution. Many of the world’s reefs now hang in a liminal zone between death and survival. By putting Varadero corals’ survival tactics to work on other threatened reefs, scientists like Medina, Lizcano-Sandoval, and Pizarro hope to tilt those reefs a little bit closer to the side of life.”

More at the Christian Science Monitor, here.

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Photo: Colombia Games
A scene from the ‘Ancient Wisdom’ smartphone games, which allow players to learn about Colombia’s indigenous peoples.

As we have discussed before, there are many cultures and languages in danger of dying out, often because few people know about them.

A Colombian game company has taken a step toward addressing that ignorance, providing school children with entertaining phone games to help them learn about their indigenous neighbors.

Joe Parkin Daniels writes for the Guardian, “In a simple wooden hut on a Caribbean beach, a young girl sits at the feet of her grandmother, who is crocheting a brightly coloured shoulder bag whose intricate design draws on the mythology of the Wayuu people.

“It’s the opening scene from a smartphone game that seeks to educate Colombian children about their country’s endangered indigenous cultures.

“Some 3.4% of the Colombia’s population belongs to 87 different indigenous groups that speak 71 languages. But experts warn that these diverse cultures are at risk of dying out, threatened by climate change and violent armed groups operating in isolated regions the state has not reached. The National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (Onic) estimates that 35 ethnic groups are at risk. …

“The games, available for iOS and Android devices, challenge players to learn the languages and cultures of the country’s indigenous groups, which vary from farming communities in the northern Darién jungle to nomadic hunter-gatherers in the Amazon. …

“The games narrate indigenous creation stories, and players must solve puzzles and draw the wild animals that populate indigenous myths.

“ ‘From one day to another these cultures could be lost,’ said Juan Nates, the CEO of Colombia Games, which recently relaunched the games. ‘When we started this project, I assumed there were three or four indigenous tribes; it was a shock to know how many there are – and how little we know about them.’

“The project was funded by the Sura Foundation, an educational subsidiary of the Sura banking group. The Sura Foundation has also sent about 200 teachers to schools to educate children about endangered cultures. …

“For Nates, raising awareness is key to preserving at-risk indigenous cultures. ‘People can’t worry about something, can’t do something, if they don’t know about it,’ he said. ‘It feels good to help with that.’ ”

Unfortunately, native children themselves usually don’t have smartphones, so it seems like the next step for a kindly philanthropist or foundation would be to get them some to use in school. (Can’t imagine anyone wants children looking at phones more than that.) And it would be nice if the different groups of kids could actually meet.

But what a good start! I’d love to see a game like this in parts of the US where there are large indigenous populations.

Finally, I don’t want to close without giving a shout-out to the Tomaquag Museum, which works to improve New Englanders’ knowledge of Rhode Island tribal culture through educational activities for children.

More at the Guardian, here.

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