Cali, Colombia — Harold Viafara Gonzalez did not know what to do.
The woman asking for his advice did not want to go on living. Her son had died a violent death, snared by the violence that has struck many other young Afro-Colombians.
His difficulty in finding a way to console her, troubled the middle-aged lawyer, because he thought he should able to do so.
Some time ago he had vowed to do whatever he could to help fellow Afro-Colombians, many of whom live on the edges of life in Cali, the Colombian city with one of the largest black populations.
Saying their community has been forgotten for too long, Gonzalez and other Afro-Colombians are speaking out in louder voices, joining together, and looking for ways to halt woes that see as only worsening.
But like Gonzalez, they search hard for solutions in desperate times.
"When the government speaks about us, they would say that we are all equal. Or they would say that there is no discrimination. That is not true,” said Agripina Hurtado, president of the Afro-Colombian Labor Council (Consejo Labor Afrocolombiano).
Her group was formed only a year ago because of the feeling that Colombian unions were not dealing with the issues facing Afro-Colombians. “There are so many problems for Colombian unions they don’t even see the problem of discrimination,” she said.The group came together as Afro-Colombians’ complaints seemed to have reached a new crest.
There were complaints of a growing number of racially inspired attacks, of dramatic increases in the displacement of Afro-Colombian communities, and of few changes for Afro-Colombians stuck in low wage jobs.
Afro-Colombians make up the majority of workers in the sugar, palm oil, and port industries, places where wages are low, unions barely exist, and workers who speak out risk their jobs and lives.
By most measures of despair, that of Afro-Colombians ranks high.
They make up a large part of Colombia’s poor though they account for between 10 to 25 percent of the population, depending on how Afro-Colombians describe their racial heritage.
Nearly half of all Afro-Colombians say their salaries are not enough to cover the costs for food, housing or services, according to a survey of Afro-Colombians in four major cities by the National Labor School in Medellin.
So, too, they account for an increasing number of Colombia’s displaced because many live in rural communities rich in minerals or natural resources. Likewise, they are being terrorized and forced out by criminal gangs, who want their land or want to use the land as transit points.
But they are also fleeing because they are caught in the fighting between the government and the guerillas.
Pointing to widespread attacks on Afro-Colombian communities and leaders, the Washington Office on Latin America earlier this year asked Colombian officials to intervene and to stop the violence.
“They call me all the time. In the night. In the middle of the night. They say, ‘If you continue to do what you do, you’ll get killed’”, said Hurtado, who recently asked the government for protection. Gonzalez, who has had around the clock government protection for several years, recently renewed his request, saying the risks had grown.
In the last few years, the government has talked more about helping Afro-Colombians, Hurtado acknowledged. But the government’s failure to live up to its promises has only added to the community’s frustration, she said.
Alma Viviana Perez, head of the President’s Program for Human Rights in Bogota, doesn’t deny that many Colombian governments have “forgotten” Afro-Colombians.
“But I have to say that we are now moving to a very different situation,” she added, pointing to steps the government has taken lately to protect Afro-Colombians and to improve communications with the community. “I perfectly understand their complaints. But we are making a difference.”
Colombian officials point out that the World Summit of Mayors and Leaders of Africa and of African Descent will be held in Cali and Cartagena in mid-September, an event expected to over 1,000 leaders and activists.
In Cali’s Aqua Blanca neighborhood, however, Father Benancio Mwangi, a Kenyan priest, hasn’t seen much change to celebrate.
Youngsters gather nightly to deal or to do drugs just outside the small house that serves as a community parish.
Already considered one of the biggest slums in Colombia, Aqua Blanca continues to grow as newly displaced Afro-Colombians show up seeking shelter, he said.
Some can’t afford to rent so they throw together shacks of whatever they can find. Because families can’t find work, they send their children to work, and some let their daughters become prostitutes, he said.
“You’ll find very few people protected by the law here,” he said. “It’s a pathetic situation.”
Still, the Kenyan priest plunges ahead with projects that stir hope and Harold Gonzalez is a big supporter of two of them. One is a beauty salon and another is a café. Both are staffed by youth from Aqua Blanca.
His own attention lately has been focused on a small union he set up in Cali for Afro-Colombians, SINAFROCOl. This is one of the places where he meets people looking for help, among them the woman whose son was killed in street violence.
Stumped for an answer to her desire not to live, he came up the idea of a poem that he later published in a book. He is also a poet and his poems largely come from the stories he hears from the people who seek his help.
“A country like ours with so many rights, cannot forget the youth, ignoring youths while burying the old.”
“I wanted to say there is life and we have to live it,” he explained.