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Battle for the soul of a city

Aura Dalia Caicedo at the port in Buenaventura. "The entire plague landed here," she says. Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

In Buenaventura, Colombia, where violence fueled by the drug trade has shattered families and neighborhoods, Oxfam partner Ambulua has deployed its strongest weapons: love, listening, and ancestral pride and culture.

At a dance rehearsal in Buenaventura, Colombia, children leap and strut and twirl through their moves. The boys wear snappy hats and the girls wear skirts that curl and flow like graceful water creatures. Across town, young writers and poets move their audience to tears and laughter. And nearby, a teenage community organizer writes songs that he performs to an irresistible beat.

You could almost forget how dangerous this place is. But the truth is, the organizer can’t leave his house without a disguise or an escort. There are too many bullets out there with his name on them. The writers and poets are telling tales of trauma from their own lives. And the children are rehearsing next door to a neighborhood best known as host to unspeakable atrocities.

Buenaventura is Colombia’s busiest port—and a magnet for the drug trade. Illegal armed groups from narcotraffickers to guerrillas and paramilitaries vie ceaselessly for political and economic dominance—united only by their willingness to extort and terrorize civilians, and to forcibly recruit the youth of the city.

“Buenaventura is a war zone with no front lines. Just a shifting maze of gang territories,” says Oxfam Colombia director Carlos Mejía. “Local people and organizations can navigate them, but the armed groups reach into people’s lives in such a way that there is no way to live here and be truly secure.”

Oxfam partner Ambulua is in the thick of it.

Mending the tattered fabric

Ambulua is a Yoruba word that means “the light that illuminates my thinking.” On paper, the group is tiny, with just two paid staffers and a few contractors when they have the funding. But it is mighty.

Its messages of peace and resistance, cultural pride, and the importance of ending gender-based violence in all its forms are reaching into schools, government, and civic spaces of every kind.

It never tries to do this work alone.

“Ambulua has become one of the most significant organizations in the city, because it brings together the work of other organizations and links them up,” says Maira Ordonez Carabali, a social worker for refugees who volunteers for the group.

Colleagues and peers agree, and they can’t say enough about the director, Aura Dalia Caicedo. They call her kind and loving. Wise and strategic. Inspiring and encouraging. A being of light.

Most people in Buenaventura have African heritage, which Caicedo sees as the source of her own and her community’s strength. To join an Ambulua gathering is to step into a world of African tradition. No one calls the meeting to order and gives a speech; instead, drumming and singing have time to work their magic, and when the music stops, there is a sense that everyone is more calm, more connected, and more focused than before. What follows—whether a poetry-writing session, a celebration of a key moment, or a class about women’s rights—is imbued with pride in African roots. The pride that centuries of exploitation, oppression, and neglect have eroded in the Black community and that Caicedo works to revive at every opportunity.

A central focus of the work of Caicedo and Ambulua are courses—some in the art of writing, to help young people process the violence that has torn their lives apart, and some that help students understand their heritage, their rights, and their rightful roles as leaders in a troubled time and place.

The group also lends a hand to dancers and musicians around the city whose art brings a measure of happiness to communities in the grip of fear and grief. Meanwhile, Ambulua is creating bonds, friendships, and networks that are helping reweave and restore the tattered fabric of this city.

“When we work with Aura Dalia,” says the young organizer, “we feel happiness and peace in our hearts.”

Children rehearse a traditional dance. Ambulua helps communities celebrate art and culture as an antidote to fear and violence. Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

The entire plague landed here

“Young people are dying before their time,” says Caicedo.

The programs of Ambulua and its network of like-minded organizations enable young people to resist recruitment into armed groups by helping them heal and connect—and experience something like joy along the way. They become part of a quiet movement toward peace and justice, led by women and youth. They may take a consciousness-raising class one year and join city government the next, committed to helping advance a positive agenda.

Graduates of Ambulua’s classes often shift the course of their lives, finding ways to pursue higher education and professions like social work that will make a contribution to the community. One young woman took an Ambulua course in writing as a teenager and became a poet, singer, and songwriter; since then, she has performed in Europe, bringing messages of sorrow, hope, and taking power to audiences far beyond the bounds of her city.

“A song can be a tool to inspire resistance to the forces trying to exterminate us,” says the organizer.

He works hand in hand with his sister to revive a sense of community in and around their neighborhood through art classes, soccer games, block parties, and other activities that challenge the strong pressure to hunker down. They are up against fearful odds.

“One day I was watching my children play football at eight in the morning. Suddenly there was gunfire and people were running. The men had guns, rifles, long knives,” says his sister. “We are always ready to run.”

They estimate that out of 2,000 families in their part of town, threats and violence in recent years have driven away as many as 1,200.

“We struggle to remain here. What we focus on is being resilient. On transforming the negative to the positive,” she says. “This is our territory. The violent actors want to get rid of us. That motivates us to continue our work.”

That transformation is what Caicedo and Ambulua are all about.

“Culture gives us tools that don’t put people at risk,” says Caicedo.

In the fight for the soul of this city, those tools are proving powerful. Throughout the history of oppression, music, poetry, and dance have nourished social movements, drawing on our deepest sense of humanity, connection, and the whole point of being alive.

Caicedo and her team at Ambulua don’t tell their students what to do. They provide safety for them to express themselves fully, and to learn about their history as Afro Colombians. They let them cry and rage. They help students whose lives have been shattered rebuild their confidence, and their ability to care for themselves.

“The entire plague landed here,” says Caicedo. But she and Ambulua have released a counter-plague: a host of women and young people setting out to reclaim their city, each in their own way.

Joining forces

Oxfam has worked with Ambulua since 2015.

“Only an organization with deep roots in the community can hope to make a difference in Buenaventura,” says Mejía. “We are so proud to support Ambulua’s projects, but it’s also a priority to contribute to the strength and sustainability of the organization itself.” So, for example, Oxfam partners with Ambulua to apply for grants.

“Oxfam is our unconditional partner,” says Caicedo. “They have supported us since we began. They provide technical support and have helped us progress as an organization. Oxfam for us is trust.”

Johaner Delgado Angulo, a former student who is now a member of the city’s youth council, cheers on the partnership. “When Oxfam supports a local organization like Ambulua,” he says, “it benefits the entire city.”

You can do this

“Ambulua helps people heal,” says a psychologist who got her start with the organization.

And the healer-in-chief is Caicedo.

She gently invites the people around her to share their sorrows, connect with one another, and begin to take charge of their lives and community.

Aura Dalia sees your capacity and says, “you can do this,” says former student Maira Valencia.

“When you don’t believe in yourself,” adds another alumna, “it helps to know she believes in you.”

“Aura Dalia has shown us a path to follow so we can help the city and help ourselves,” says Delgado Angulo. “She makes us feel like the future of Buenaventura is in our hands.” Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+