Spotlight: Gavelys from Atanque

In my mind I can hear the way Gavelys calls me - on the phone, down the street, from the other side of the house she yells "Sah-haaaa-ya!" mimicking the way her three grandsons, aged 2-6, call me. I can see the way she stands: her legs hyper-extend a bit backwards just like those of her youngest grandson, Sebas. When she recounted details about the past her fingers and hands acted in staccato dissonance over her words. She only cried one time, in October, telling me about how the guerillas moved into her pueblito and killed all the chickens on her finca, and how she ended up on the outskirts of Cartagena two years later after being falsely imprisoned for being a 'guerrilla sympathizer.'

 Gavelys in a hammock outside her home in Membrillal, Cartagena. Originally from Atanque, about 7 hours by bus from Cartagena, she arrived in 2006 and settled in Membrillal 9 months post displacement. © Sahara Borja, 2014

Gavelys in a hammock outside her home in Membrillal, Cartagena. Originally from Atanque, about 7 hours by bus from Cartagena, she arrived in 2006 and settled in Membrillal 9 months post displacement. © Sahara Borja, 2014

 

I met Gavelys at Funsarep in September of the year I spent in Cartagena on the Fulbright. Funsarep is a nonprofit organization just outside of the historic downtown area that provides a safe and creative space for women and children to begin rebuilding their lives. Many of the women who participate in activities offered at Funsarep have been displaced, like Gavelys, from other parts of the country because of the ongoing armed conflict. The destruction and disruption of life is frequent all over the country, and many families are uprooted more than once. Many in Gavelys' community arrived in Cartagena with small children, just a few belongings, with maybe the phone number of a cousin or family friend in their pocket. Funsarep employs a social worker and resident therapist who works with members individually and in groups on various forms of creative expression that address the trauma of being a victim of war and displacement.

 Two of Gavelys' grandsons bathe while waiting for lunch behind the house in Membrillal. © Sahara Borja, 2015

Two of Gavelys' grandsons bathe while waiting for lunch behind the house in Membrillal. © Sahara Borja, 2015

 

The event to which I was invited that September was a play co-written by Gavelys and some members of Funsarep. The play offered glimpses of daily life in each of these womens' homes and the destruction and violence that came when one of the armed groups - the FARC, the paramilitaries, or the Colombian state army - entered their pueblitos. The majority of these women grew up in rural areas, where everything they needed more or less grew around them - bananas, ñame, yucca, avocado, cacao, papaya, chickens, coffee, and sugar.

The shock of arriving in a metropolitan area (albeit in a coastal region like Cartagena) is often a triple or quadruple blow, depending on the situation. Women like Gavelys who arrived with their children face/d frequent discrimination for 'being' displaced, for being of indigenous or Afro descent, for being women, and for lacking the resources or 'connections,' background and professional experience to slip right into work for which they have not been trained in a big city.

Gavelys grew up on a finca with 23 brothers and sisters and would tell me she never wanted for anything living off the land. She said being poor was "the best thing that ever happened" to them and that proximity to extended family offered a security that does not exist post-displacement in the barrio of Membrillal, about an hour plus south of Cartagena.

Below left: Gavelys sells her Kankuamo bags at the Office of Victims in downtown Cartagena, where the staff knows her and her craft well. Gavelys works alone without a storefront or online methods of making sales. Below right: Gavelys' husband Nestor tries to rest during lunch while his grandsons play around him.

 

At Funsarep that day, I sat transfixed. I hadn't quite gotten the hang of the Costeño accent and I was struggling to understand the dialog of the play - each woman recounting her days back home, the moment of disruption by armed actors, the ensuing violence, and the subsequent displacement. It didn't matter, ultimately, because a woman's cry is a woman's cry - they didn't have to act, or rather, they didn't have to be professional actors for the weight of their stories to translate.

Afterwards, I approached Gavelys and gave an explanation as best I could of what I was doing at the University of Cartagena with my camera and my questions. We agreed to meet up soon. I called her in the weeks following but was sent to voicemail - 'no se encuentra' the person you are trying to reach, time and again. I gave up calling. A month later I was walking in barrio Getsemaní and saw Gavelys about a block away, walking slowly along the slim sidewalks, in slacks and sandals, strapped with 40-50 of the mochilas she makes in the kankuamo style of her culture. She had been robbed of her phone getting off the bus late one night in Membrillal and hadn't yet been able to replace it.

Gavelys walks around town visiting local businesses and government offices with her bags, which are often overlooked by tourists because they are made with natural fibers and are not the bright, synthetic colorful bags that line the cobblestone streets of downtown Cartagena.

 Gavelys rests with Neymar, one of her grandsons, in their home in Membrillal, outside of Cartagena © Sahara Borja, 2015

Gavelys rests with Neymar, one of her grandsons, in their home in Membrillal, outside of Cartagena © Sahara Borja, 2015

 

During one visit to Membrillal in October, while her daughter prepped lunch inside, she recalled the last details of her displacement.

After she was released from prison - an ordeal that separated her from her family based on false accusations and false charges - she fled to Cartagena with two of her children and found a place to stay in another barrio. About 9 months in, she overheard a conversation between two women that there was a 'man in Membrillal with two young boys in tal y tal barrio...' and other details that raised the hair on the back of her neck. She knew it had to be her husband. She borrowed 10 mil pesos from a friend and took off in taxi to find her husband and sons. It had been 2 1/2 years since she had last seen them.

Below left: Gavelys' granddaughter rests in an empty room in the afternoon. Below right: Gavelys' only daughter at the beach in Cartagena with her youngest son.

 

She has always made the woven bags of the Kankuamo as a method of therapy, she told me. Her craft has "saved her life" and allowed her to provide the necessities for her children and family throughout several periods of instability and uncertainty.

She has never returned to her family's abandoned finca.

“Ni pa’ tras pa’ recoger dinero,” she told me. O sea: "Always keep moving forward - never look back, not even to pick up money left on the ground.”

 Gavelys' daughter Dayli prepares the house for Neymar's 3rd birthday party in Membrillal, surrounded by her brothers' girlfriends and nieces and nephews. © Sahara Borja, 2014

Gavelys' daughter Dayli prepares the house for Neymar's 3rd birthday party in Membrillal, surrounded by her brothers' girlfriends and nieces and nephews.
© Sahara Borja, 2014

 

Below left: One of Gavelys' sons carries her into the ocean in Cartagena, over an hour from their home. When he was 16, he went to the jail where his mother was being held and confronted the armed group who had falsely accused Gavelys of guerrilla sympathizing. He said, "Kill me if you want, but tell me why you are holding my Mother and let me see her." Below right: Gavelys' grandson Neymar with his father resting during lunch hour.