Decenas de burros se han roto el cuello en la escarpada trinchera, de ocho kilómetros de largo, que separa a Wikdi de su escuela. Además de eso, los paramilitares han torturado y asesinado a muchas personas allí. Sin embargo, Wikdi no se detiene a pensar en los peligros de esta ruta plagada de piedras, barro seco y malas hierbas. Si lo hiciera, se moriría de miedo y no podría estudiar. En el camino hacia y desde su rancho, ubicado en el resguardo indígena de Arquía, y su escuela, ubicada en el pueblo de Unguía, dedica cinco horas diarias. Y siempre afronta el viaje con la misma reserva tranquila que muestra ahora mientras cierra la cremallera de su mochila.
Son las 4:35 de la mañana. En enero, la temperatura suele llegar a sus extremos en esta zona del Tapón del Darién en el departamento del Chocó: es abrasadora durante el día y gélida por la noche. Wikdi, de trece años y de contextura delgada, tiembla de frío. Hace un momento le dijo a Prisciliano, su padre, que prefiere bañarse de noche. Ahora ambos reflexionan sobre lo helado que debe estar para tirarse al río Arquía en las primeras horas de la mañana.
“Menos mal que nos bañamos anoche”, dice su padre.
“Podemos volver al río esta noche”, responde su hijo.
Frente a ellos, un perro se acerca al fuego de leña que han hecho en el suelo de tierra. Se rasca la espalda contra uno de los ladrillos alrededor del fuego y luego se acurruca en el suelo, absorbiendo el calor. Prisciliano le pregunta a su hijo si puso su cuaderno de geografía en su mochila. El niño asiente con la cabeza, dice que ya sabe la ubicación de América de memoria. El padre mira su reloj y se vuelve hacia mí.
Luego agrega que Wikdi ya debería estar camino a la escuela. El problema, explica, es que en esta época del año amanece a las seis de la mañana, y no le gusta que el chico vaya por ese camino cuando está tan oscuro. Hace unos minutos, cuando él y yo éramos los únicos despiertos en el rancho, Prisciliano me contó que Wikdi, el mayor de sus cinco hijos, nació en la madrugada de una noche tan oscura como ésta. Era el 13 de mayo de 1998. Ana Cecilia, su esposa, comenzó a sentir los dolores de parto poco antes de las tres de la mañana. Así que él, fiel a un antiguo precepto de su pueblo, corrió a decírselo a los padres de ambos. Los cuatro abuelos se reunieron alrededor de la cama, todos con una vela encendida entre las manos. Entonces fue como si, de repente, todos los ancianos Guna, vivos y muertos, conocidos o desconocidos, había transformado la noche en día solo para despejar el horizonte para el nuevo miembro de la familia. Por eso, Prisciliano cree que los seres de su raza siempre son recibidos por el alba, y así el mundo se encuentra sumergido en tinieblas. Puedo decir esto –concluye en tono pensativo– aunque llevan luz dentro de sí mismos, arriesgan demasiado cuando emprenden el camino de Arquía en medio de tanta oscuridad.
Prisciliano, de treinta y ocho años y complexión delgada, espera que el sacrificio de su hijo valga la pena. Él cree que su hijo desarrollará habilidades prácticas que serán de gran utilidad para su comunidad en la Institución Educativa Agrícola de Unguía, como la administración de vacunas veterinarias y el manejo de fertilizantes. Es más, cuando obtenga su diploma de esta escuela “gratuita”, seguramente hablará mejor español. Para el pueblo indígena Guna, los “libres” son todos aquellos que no pertenecen a su etnia.
“La escuela está lejos”, dice, “pero no hay más cerca. El que tenemos aquí en el resguardo solo sube hasta quinto grado, y Wikdi ya está en séptimo”.
“La única opción es sacar el diploma en Unguía”.
“Así es. Me gradué de allí también”.
Prisciliano me dice que, con el favor de Papatumadi –es decir, Dios–, Wikdi estudiará para convertirse él mismo en maestro una vez que termine la escuela secundaria.
“Nunca lo he presionado para que elija esa opción”, aclara. “Él vio el ejemplo en casa porque yo soy profesora en la escuela de Arquía”.
¿Podrá Wikdi avanzar en la vida con los conocimientos que adquiere en la escuela “gratuita”? Está por verse, responde Prisciliano. Tal vez se enriquezca al asimilar ciertos códigos del mundo ilustrado, el mundo que yace fuera de la selva y el mar que aísla a sus hermanos. Se acercará a la nación blanca ya la nación negra. De esa forma, contribuirá a ensanchar los confines de su propia región. Conocerá la historia de Colombia, y de esa manera podrá al menos averiguar en qué momento se bloquearon los caminos que unían a los Guna con el resto del país. Estudiará el álgebra de Baldor, aprenderá los nombres de algunas penínsulas, oirá hablar de Don Quijote de la Mancha. Luego, transformado en maestro, transmitirá sus conocimientos a las generaciones futuras.
“Son las cinco y todavía está oscuro”, dice Prisciliano ahora.
Anabelkis, su cuñada, ya está despierta: hierve café en el mismo fuego donde hace un momento se calentó el perro. Su marido trata de silenciar a su bebé recién nacido, que está llorando a mares. Ya no queda nadie para levantarse, pues Ana Cecilia y los otros hijos de Prisciliano pernoctaron en Turbo, Antioquia. En la radio suena una conocida canción de ruptura, interpretada por Darío Gómez:
Verás, me sumergí en el matrimonio
y jugaste conmigo de verdad
, eras malo, ay, muy malo,
pero en esta vida tienes que continuar.
The fire is now blazing strong, casting its brightness throughout the house. The cocks crow, the donkeys bray. The new day has come to a boil on the ranch. Further beyond, darkness still reigns. It seems that not a single candle has been lit in any of the town’s sixty-one remaining houses. That’s the thing: anyone who was born here knows, at this hour, that the majority of the 582 inhabitants are already on their feet.
Wikdi says bye to Prisciliano in their native language (“kusamalo!”) and starts walking through the path that opens up for him between the family’s four dogs.
We have walked across a stream about thirty centimeters deep. We have crossed a broken bridge over a dry gorge. We have scaled an incline whose enormous rocks leave almost no space to place your feet. We have crossed a muddy trench lined with hardened tracks: hooves, paws, human footprints. We have gone down a slope littered with sharp pebbles that feel like they’re going to rip the bottoms off our boots. Now we are preparing to wade across a watery ravine chock full of slippery rocks. A look to the left, then to the right. There’s no way around it, we have to step across these mud-covered stones. I’m assaulted by a fearful idea: it’d be easy to fall and break your back here. Wikdi is evidently not tormented by the same misgivings as we “free” people: he plunges his hands into the water, he wets his arms and face.
We left Arquía an hour and a half ago. The temperature has risen, I’d say, to around 38 degrees Celsius. We still have an hour’s journey left to reach the school, and later, Wikdi will have to make the return trip to his ranch. Five hours of travel every day: it’s easy to say, but believe me, you have to live the experience for yourself in order to understand what I’m talking about. On this path–I was told by Jáider Durán, ex-official of the town of Unguía–the horses sink in up to their bellies and you have to dig them out, pulling them with ropes. Some come out broken, others die. The fancy shoes worn by certain cityfolk–a pair of Converse, for example–would already have fallen to pieces on my feet. Here, the sharp stones pierce your soles. As you walk, you feel them stabbing into the bottoms of your feet even when you’re wearing boots specially designed for the mud, like the ones I have on now.
“I’m so thirsty!” I tell Wikdi.
“You didn’t bring water?”
“We only have three bridges left before town.”
I am silently thankful that Wikdi has the courtesy to try to comfort me. Then, after flashing an innocent smile, he corrects himself:
“No, I tell a lie: four bridges left.”
In the big city where I live, if you mentioned an indigenous boy who spends five hours walking every day in order to attend school, it would sound like you were talking about the protagonist of some bucolic anecdote. How quixotic, good Lord, how romantic are the stories that flourish in our country! But here, amid the real-life mud, feeling the rigors of the journey, observing the hardships of the people involved, you understand that this is not some casual anecdote, but rather a serious drama. Seen from afar, a bridle path in Chocó or anywhere else in rural Colombia is a mere landscape. Seen from up close, it is a symbol of discrimination. And, beyond that, it becomes a nightmare. When the path is no longer on Google Images but rather beneath you, it’s a monster that wounds your feet. It makes you itch between your fingers, it makes your calves cramp up. It drains, suffocates, mistreats. Nonetheless, Wikdi looks refreshed. His skin is covered in dust, but he looks whole. I ask him if he’s tired.
“Are you thirsty?”
“Not that either.”
Wikdi falls quiet, and so, in silence, he moves forward a couple of meters. Then, without looking at me, he says he’s just hungry, because today he left without eating breakfast.
“How often do you go to school without eating breakfast?”
“I go without breakfast, but at school they give you a snack.”
“So you eat when you get there.”
“Well, last year they gave you a snack. Now they don’t give you anything.”
Captured in its natural environment, the story I’m telling provokes as much admiration as it does sadness. And fear: here, the paramilitaries have killed many people. There was a time when walking into this area meant signing your own death warrant. The path was abandoned and swallowed up by weeds in many stretches. Certain parts are still closed today. So we have had to change course and advance, with no one’s permission, through the interior of a few estates whose land runs parallel to the path. I take a panoramic look all around us, I weigh up the magnitude of our solitude. At this moment, we are the easiest target in the world. If a paramilitary stepped into our path and felt like wiping us out, he could do so without so much as knocking a hair out of place. Surviving on the path of Arquía, in the end, is simply a leap of faith. And for that reason, I suppose, Wikdi is still safe at the end of every walk: he never fears the worst.
“Two more bridges,” he says.
He has only felt in danger once. He was walking distractedly down a shortcut when he suddenly spotted a snake moving along the trail very close to him. He was frightened, he thought about turning back. He also considered jumping over the animal. In the end he did neither one nor the other, but he remained immobile and watched as the snake slithered off.
“Why did you stay still when you saw the snake?”
“I stayed like that.”
“Yes, but why?”
“I stayed still and the snake went away.”
“You know why the snake went away?”
“Because I stayed still.”
“And how did you know the snake would leave if you stayed still?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did your dad teach you that?”
I deduce that Wikdi, in keeping with his people’s ways, lives in harmony with the universe that surrounds him. For example, he walks without moving his arms back and forth for balance, as we “free” people do. By holding his arms beside his body, he avoids wasting more energy than is necessary. I also deduce that Wikdi as well as the other members of his community are capable of such strength because they see beyond where the horizon ends. If they sat under the shade of a tree when the path grew painful, if they acknowledged the harshness and the dangers of the journey, they wouldn’t get anywhere.
“Why are you studying?”
“Because I want to be a teacher.”
“What do you want to teach?”
“English and mathematics.”
“So my students learn.”
“Who will your students be?”
“The kids in Arquía.”
I also deduce that in order to make your own path as you walk, as the poet Antonio Machado proposed, it helps to have a happy dose of ignorance. That’s exactly what’s going on with Wikdi. He doesn’t know the threats represented by the paramilitaries, and he doesn’t consider the possibility of becoming, after so much effort, another victim of the chronic unemployment that affects his region. In Chocó, according to a United Nations report that will be published at the end of this month, fifty-four percent of the inhabitants survive thanks to an informal occupation. There, in 2002, twenty percent of the population earned less than two dollars per day. In the same area, on a similar note, a child malnutrition emergency took place in 2007 that caused the deaths of twelve children. I can tell that Wikdi doesn’t pause to think about such problems. And that is the source of part of the strength with which his size-thirty-five feet eat up the ground.
“This is the last bridge,” he says while he casts me a knowing glance.
“The one over the Unguía River?”
“Yes, that one. And here’s the town.”
The Institución Educativa Agrícola de Unguía, founded in 1961, has forged cabinet makers, seamstresses, micro-businesses producing poultry. But today the carpentry workshop is closed, there’s not a single sewing machine, and not a single broiler chicken survives either. Supposedly, here they teach you to raise rabbits; nonetheless, the last time the students saw a rabbit was eight years ago. There are no guinea pigs left, nor ducks. The eighteen classrooms are filled with almost unusable chairs: their bottoms have fallen out, or they are missing arms, legs, or both. The information technology section makes me feel remorse as much as indignation: the computers are prehistoric, they have neither USB drives nor disk drives, and they disappeared from the market long ago. There are scarcely five among them that work, but only halfway. To walk through the school’s facilities is to compile a list of disasters.
“This year we haven’t been able to give the students their daily snack,” said Benigno Murillo, the principal. “The Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar, which is the one that helps us on this campus, send us a memo saying they would provide the same food again in March. We’ve had to reduce class time and end school days earlier. You can’t imagine the number of kids who go without breakfast!”
Now the students in group “Seven A” are rushing hastily into the classroom. They sit down, they take out their notebooks. At the school, nobody knows our protagonist as Wikdi: here they call him “Anderson,” the alternative name his father gave him so he could fit in with fewer setbacks among the “free.”
“Anderson,” says the geography teacher, “did you bring your homework?”
While the boy shows the teacher his work, I check my cell phone. It has no signal, now it’s just a piece of junk that, throughout the journey, has only served as an alarm clock. The “global village” that the pontiffs of communication have exalted since the days of McLuhan is still more village than global. In the civilized world, we cannot exist without technology; in these backwards lands, technology cannot exist without us. There, in the big cities, on the other side of the jungle and the sea, we cross great distances without needing to move a millimeter. Here, you have to pull on your boots and put your whole heart into the journey.
“America is the second largest continent in length,” the teacher reads from Anderson’s notebook.
A word comes to mind that I immediately discard because it seems painfully overused: “odyssey.” To reach this place on the Pacific coast of Colombia, which seems to be tucked into the most hermetic corner of the planet, you have to grit your teeth and take risks. The journey between my house and the classroom where I find myself this Tuesday has been one of the most arduous of my life: on Sunday morning I boarded a commercial plane from Bogotá to Medellín. In the evening of the same day, I traveled to Carepa, in the Urabá region of Antioquia Department, on a little plane that my travel companion, the photographer Camilo Rozo, described as “a microbus with wings.” Then I took a taxi that, an hour later, dropped me off in Turbo. On Monday, I woke up at the crack of dawn to set out, along with twenty-three other passengers, in a speedboat that cut a path through the furious sea, bouncing across waves three meters high. I crossed the wide Atrato River, plowed through the swamp of Unguía, and finished the trip to the Guna reservation on horseback. And today I walked with Wikdi, for two and a half hours, along the path of Arquía.
The professor keeps talking:
“Chocó, our department, is a tiny dot on the map of America.”
If only appearing on the World Atlas were enough to make a place matter! These remote lands of poor natives have never been of interest to our indolent governments, and so the paramilitaries are in charge. In practice, they are the patrons and legislators recognized by the people. How could this vicious circle of backwardness be broken? In part through education, I suppose. But then I return to the United Nations report. According to the 2005 census, Chocó has the second highest rate of illiteracy in Colombia among the population aged fifteen to twenty-four: 9.47 percent. A 2009 study determined that, within the department, one in two children who finish their primary education don’t continue to secondary school. And then I think of another piece of data that almost seems to mock this harsh reality: the commander of the area’s paramilitaries is nicknamed “The Prof.”
Anderson regresa, sonriendo, a su asiento. Me pregunto a dónde lo llevará su camino al final del ciclo académico. Su maestra, Eyda Luz Valencia, quien fue quien lo bautizó como “libre”, cree que llegará lejos porque es astuto y tiene buen criterio para tomar decisiones. Hay buenas razones para creer que no se convertirá en un siniestro “prof”, como el de los paramilitares, sino en un maestro sabio como su padre, capaz de susurrar un amanecer incluso cuando la noche se pierde en la oscuridad.
Traducido por Arthur Dixon