Following the visit to Mexico, Prof Rajmohan Gandhi and his team arrived in Colombia at a time of national significance. The final run off in the Presidential elections added a sense of urgency and importance to a brief but fruitful time in Colombia.
The travelling group began its visit at the ‘Foyer de Charite’, a Catholic retreat centre nestling in the vibrantly green hills outside Bogota. No better introduction to the country could have been given than an evening of traditional Colombian dancing, telling the story of Colombia’s diverse cultural history through the music and movement of the many different peoples who have made the country as it is.
Some 30 Colombians engaged with the visitors in perhaps the best kind of ‘dialogue and discovery’ the Gandhi Voyage creates opportunity for. Strikingly honest reflections created a sense of trust and closeness amongst many who were meeting for the first time. Colombians spoke from the heart of their own personal experiences of change and expressed their individual convictions about Colombia’s future and the role they hoped to play in bringing many needed changes.
Jose Manuel Salvador suggested, ‘It is urgent to create a space for more dialogue’ like the one the team engaged in, ‘so that Colombians can come to trust one another more.’ Businessman Dietlof von Arnim affirmed the need for a stronger sense of belonging: ‘Pick up a handful of soil, feel your connection to it and say “this is my land, I must be of service to it, and I am willing to pay the price”.’ Nuri Castillo added, ‘We (Colombians) need to stop seeing in each other as enemies. …to disarm, not only with our guns, but also to get beyond our prejudices about each other.’
The fertility of the land seemed matched in the potentiality of the group, but Professor Gandhi challenged the team to match conviction with action and come up with a strategy to match the strength, size and incredible diversity of their team.
The dialogue widened the following, election day to include around 500 guests for an afternoon conference at the auditorium of the National University. The entire traveling team contributed in a wonderful event of inspirational stories, affirmation of Colombia’s great possibilities, as well as honest engagement with some of Colombia’s greatest challenges. How can Colombian’s come to know one another better, trust one another more, and begin to heal, so that they might better mine the riches their country has to offer? The enthusiasm of those gathered, and willingness to face their challenges squarely, without excuse, bespoke of the readiness of many to take responsibility for a new way forward.
The following day, after breakfast with local business, government, education, and NGO leaders, the Gandhis and team spent a special afternoon in the Ciudad Bolivar, the poorest sector of the city and home to the many displaced by the ongoing war. The team was invited by local team members and Padre Jaime Garcia to the Juan Bosco College, in the heart of the city, to meet and speak with students and teachers there. After sharing some stories in a brief gathering of a few hundred of the student body, the team got the chance to go in depth with a smaller gathering of about 50 community and student leaders.
Though the conditions are poor and the obstacles great, these fine young people clearly possessed hope and great capability. Professor Gandhi expressed his own hope that the visit would serve to embolden their spirits and amplify their conviction that they could bring change. One student spoke with gratitude for the community Padre Garcia had helped foster, but questioned how to relate this experience to the outside world. ‘Here in Juan Bosco there is an attitude of mutual respect and trust, but it is not what we find in the outside world. How can we take that spirit with us into a world that feels hostile?’ Prof Gandhi and others agreed it was hard, but wondered if finding at least one partner in the outside world was a good place to begin. ‘Identify someone you want to work with and become their friend. Tell them what a rascal you’ve been, and they will be grateful and open up to you. From this kind of friendship, change can grow.’
Padre Jaime Garcia thanked the team for their visit and then brought them to a site where a new tree was planted in honor of Professor Gandhi. ‘We plant this tree,’ Padre Garcia shared, ‘in hopes that as students pass the tree and watch it grow they will remember the seeds planted this day, growing with the tree into the change they seek to bring.’
Before heading off, the team enjoyed coffee and a snack in the home of a young member of the local team, living in Ciudad Bolivar, encountering the amazing generosity and hospitality that persists in a world in which there is so little. For this family, and perhaps all of Colombia, the words, ‘for those who have suffered the most have the most to give,’ ring especially true.
Written with input from Lena Kashkarova