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Afro-Colombians helped install a new government in Bogotá. Will it address their needs?

The wooden bars of the xylophone-like marimba bounce under the heads of enthusiastic mallets. Guasás – bamboo cylinders filled with seeds – begin to shake in unison. Dressed in a white cotton dress and straw sombrero, Otoniel Orobio sing.

In Guapi, an isolated town of 38,000 inhabitants on Colombia’s Pacific coast, 10 bands from the surrounding region are competing for a coveted spot at the finals of the Petronio Álvarez festival, an annual celebration of Afro-Colombian music and culture held every August in Cali. In a region largely cut off from the road network, life here revolves around the rivers that snake through dense rainforest. It’s fertile ground for musical inspiration.

Map showing the location of Guapi in Colombia

“The heart of Colombia is in the rural areas,” says Orobio, a transwoman who works as a nurse and is the lead singer and songwriter of local 10-piece band, Camerón de Playa. “This music comes from the rumble of the stones that roll when the river rises, from the sound of the breeze in the trees, from birdsong. There are birds that play the marimba, birds that play the flute.”

Following the election in June of former guerrilla Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez, the country’s first Black vice-president, the voice of Colombia’s 4.7 million Afro-Colombian population has never been louder.

The four departments on the Pacific coast contributed 2.55m votes to Petro and Márquez’s total haul of 11.2m. In Guapi, they won 94% of the ballot.

“For the first time in history the Pacific coast played a determining role in electing a presidential candidate,” said Angélica Mayolo, Colombia’s Afro-Colombian outgoing minister of culture. “Now there’s a great expectation in the region that the government should respond with concrete actions that address its needs.”

Those needs are many. Despite numerous government initiatives over the past two decades, the Pacific coast region lacks basic public services from education to health. A 2018 study showed that less than half of the population had access to clean water and sewerage and barely a quarter to electricity. The region was hit particularly hard during the pandemic, with over 30% of the population experiencing multidimensional poverty.

“It’s state neglect,” said father Ilario Cuero Montaño, Guapi’s Roman Catholic priest. “The institutions are here, but there is a lack of opportunities to stop young people following the wrong path.”

The town has become the focus of a turf war between the guerrillas from the National Liberation Army (ELN) and dissident fighters from the now-demobilised Farc rebels, seeking to control drug routes and mechanized gold mining that pollutes local rivers.

“We used to live in total harmony,” said Cuero. “There was trust and respect and, until recently, there were no murders. The arrival of cocaine and illegal mining has led to a decline in public order.” On Friday, negotiators from Petro’s government and the ELN met in Havana to restart peace talks.

Woman wearing a white and blue ruffled dress and straw hat sings into a mike.
Otoniel Orobio performing with a guasás. Photograph: Camilo Rodriguez

During the 24 hours surrounding Petro’s election on 19 June, six people were murdered in the region around Guapi. The wooden walls of the stilted houses are daubed with Farc graffiti. Colombia leads the world in murders of social leaders and the Pacific is its most deadly region. Of the 104 leaders killed so far in 2022, 42 were in the Pacific, according to Indepaz, a local NGO.

Alongside the church hall is a home for 36 young people, many of whom are orphans or the children of members of armed groups. Several musicians were unable to visit Guapi for fears of their safety, and one group has to depart early to ensure they complete the long return trip in motorized canoe before nightfall. Making Guapi safe again is a prerequisite for any development plan, in Cuero’s view.

“Security is the main thing,” he said, “Francia and Petro have lit a light of hope. Things can change.”

Petro won the presidency with an ambitious platform that promised jobs, land reform and environmental protection. He also proposes a bilateral ceasefire with the ELN. Nowhere in Colombia’s vast territory are these four elements intertwined to the same extent as in the Colombian Pacific.

“The Pacific has enormous potential in areas such as cultural tourism and green business, but the state needs to provide consistent public services and a greater presence of security forces in order to develop this potential,” said Mayol.

People gathered in the streets, cheering and celebrating.
Petronio Álvarez has positioned itself as a meeting space for Afro Colombians. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

But in Guapi, such considerations have taken a backseat for the time being. When the final group leaves the stage, all the participating bands join together to sing an improvised call and response song. The response? “Queremos Paz!” – We want peace.

The party lasts long into the rainswept night, the drumbeats rattling the corrugated iron roof of a local bar, plastic cups of viche, the local sugar cane brew, passed generously to friends and strangers alike.

“Without Petronio Álvarez there’s no joy” says Orobio, “we’ve been rehearsing for this since January. If we can win Petronio, I can say to God that I achieved my goal.”

But the next day, her voice cracking slightly from the previous day’s exertions, she is in a more reflective mood. She says she hopes that the new government will build a hospital in Guapi and provide greater funds for cultural activities so she can continue to teach traditional Afro-Colombian music to young people falling ever under the spell of reggaeton.

“The new government is bound up with the Pacific now,” she says. “If they can’t bring change in the next four years, there’s no more route for us to follow. In the next elections we won’t vote for anyone, what would be the point?”

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