"Riddell’s great strength is his positive view of human existence."
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Ron Riddell

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From Colombia With Love PDF Print E-mail

 We are woken up in the middle of the night by a gun battle raging between the neighbours – no petty domestic disputes these, over fences or the weeds climbing over them – but war in all its gory intent. It’s impossible to go back to sleep and we wait in suspense for the fuselages to subside, hoping against hope that none of the bullets have our names on them, for when the bullets start flying in the crowded barrios of Medellín (Colombia’s second largest city, population four million), there’s nowhere to hide. Bullets fired in the direction of an opposing “banda” or faction can soon become “balas perdidas,” (lost bullets), which can ricochet off walls and crash through windows or doors, with devastating effects.

Not long after this night of noisy mayhem, Oscar Tamayo, a brilliant nineteen-year-old student at the National University, is felled at the campus close by our house by just such a lost bullet, as he goes to retrieve some papers from the photocopy desk. He falls to the ground and help is called for but there’s no immediately visible sign of injury. Maria, the Rector’s Secretary, kneels by Oscar’s side. He gives out the barest whisper. As she goes to feel his pulse, she notices a small tear in his shirt and a smudge of blood – this is where the lost bullet enters, just below his rib cage, travelling home to his heart. She calls for an ambulance but Oscar is pronounced dead on arrival.

The bullet came from a long way off – from the barrel of a gun of an unknown assassin. His aim was wild, indiscriminate, like the aim of most of the combatants of that mid-afternoon suburban battle. The assassin will never be known; he will never be brought to justice. My response was in the form of poetry - an elegy in his honour I read at his funeral mass in the chapel of the Faculty of Mines where he had been studying.

Sometimes poetry is the only answer, in a society where even when the killers are known, their crimes often go uninvestigated and unpunished. This is the poem I wrote for Oscar:

On Friday, at four a bullet
was mislaid in Robledo.

It was found by student
who sat with his books
in the shade of a mango tree.

There were white clouds in the sky
birds were singing nearby
but when that bullet was lost

the birds lost their song
the flowers lost their petals
the trees lost their leaves

the clouds fell from the sky
the rivers drained away
and the wind fell still.

We kept a vigil through the night
and when a new day dawned
the flowers bloomed once more
the trees found their leaves
the clouds resumed their seats
and the river recalled its song.

And the young man who found the bullet
took it to his father’s house

to show him what was lost

and his father took him in at once
into a room of endless light
and let him hear the endless song

of heaven and of earth
and let him know what he had found

and forgive what he had lost.

I first arrived in Colombia in June 2001, to attend the 12th Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín, the world’s largest and most dynamic poetry festival. From the beginning, I was completely blown away, not just by the size of the audiences who came to listen to poetry (ten thousand people at the opening and closing ceremonies of the festival at the outdoor amphitheatre of Cerro Nutibara (Mount Nutibara)) but also by the enthusiasm and intelligence of the crowds. Some young people close to the stage were holding up a banner, which read: “Podemos vivir sin aire pero no sin poesía!” (We can live without air but not without poetry!”)

Poerty, for the people of Medellín and Colombia (a country plagued by more than fifty years of civil war) is not so much an escape but a territory of hope, where they can sense with dignity and respite from the conflict. It is a spiritual language, which transcends the bitter, every day squabbles of political opinion that lead so often to death and despair. This is why the Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín was awarded the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize 2006 and recently was declared a Cultural Heritage of Colombia.

In recent years, Medellín has become a less violent city but there are still many unexplained and uninvestigated disappearances and killings. There is still considerable poverty, injustice and displacement. Colombia as a whole has over three million internal refugees, who have been displaced – chiefly from rural areas, small towns and villages – by the sixty-year-old civil war. Medellín, with its perfect climate of “primavera eternal” (eternal spring) has more than its fair share.

Where my wife and I now live in Prado Centro, there are always homeless people sleeping out in the streets. Doubtless some are drug addicts but most are just plain poor, who are down and out (many of them die on the streets each week). In the seven-bedroom house on the corner opposite our house live seventy people: that’s right, ten people per room. Night and day policemen armed with automatic weapons stand on guard outside – the reason we are given is that this is a “safe house” for actores armados (armed actors or combatants, either guerillas or paramilitaries) who have surrendered their arms.

But there are many faces to a Latin American city like Medellín. The city is home each year to the world’s largest poetry festival and one of the world’s most spectacular flower festivals (La Feria de Las Flores). Its cultural life is rich and varied, with daily free cultural events in the Lido Theatre and free annual festivals of jazz, dance and classical music. My wife and I contribute whenever and wherever we can. For example, we have launched and participated in a programme called Arts for Peace in conjunction with other like-minded N.G.O.s, groups and individuals.

Recently, we were invited to a Medellín comuna (a slum community of displaced people), to take part in a performance of poetry and music for the local people. The community used to be controlled by the paramilitaries (an illegal force of armed vigilantes that evolved from a group called Convivir , first founded by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe when he was Governor of Antioquia (the Colombian state of which Medellín is the capital). We performed on a Sunday morning outside the local school (a few primitive rooms with packed earth floors). Despite the distractions of drunken revellers from the night before, youths shouting and a pig being slaughtered nearby, the event was a great success, with the poetry we presented in English and Spanish accompanied by some song and dance.

The moving occasion was concluded by speeches by community leaders and an exchange of gifts. I presented the headmaster of the school a copy of my first bi-lingual book (El Milagro de Medellín/The Miracle of Medellín and was honoured to receive from the community a collection of their life stories – stories of their homes destroyed or disrupted by war and the effects of the various violations of war on their lives.

Later we were delighted to work with children and parents from the comuna in a series of haiku writing workshops during the Hana Matsuri Festival, which was founded and directed by Dr. Juan Felipe Jaramillo, a Zen Buddhist priest and general practitioner. This was the first haiku festival to be held in this part of the world and featured leading Colombian haiku writers such as Humberto Senegal and Raúl Henao. As part of the festival a book entitled Selected Haiku (that I co-wrote with Raúl Henao) was published and launched.

My life as a writer in Colombia is a busy one. Within the last year, I have published three new titles: the haiku selection, my seventh bi-lingual collection of poetry, The Oracle of Alexandria and a new novel, A Love Beyond (English edition only). Every week I receive invitations (which I usually accept) to read my work at a wide variety of venues: cafes, schools, universities, workshops for children, workshops for teachers, trade unionist gatherings, prisons, community and cultural centres, casas de poesía (poetry centres) and poetry festivals (for example, Bogotá, Cartagena and Santiago, Chile). Most of these attendances are modestly remunerated, if at all. Life as a writer is just as difficult in Colombia as it is anywhere else, especially in the financial aspect. However, what does make a difference is the level of engagement, even for a foreign writer like me whose first language is not Spanish. There is a level of respect for poets and writers which is hard to find in western countries. And although there are the petty squabbles and jealousies between writers in Latin America, there is also a great sense of camaraderie and solidarity.

Writers are invited into peoples’ homes, to share lines of poetry or philosophy (we for example, had a regular tertulia (writers’ forum) in our own home in Prado. On one occasion, after a reading in a prison, one of the inmates came up to me afterwards to ask me what my concept of freedom was – and did I think I had attained it! I was momentarily taken aback but managed to scramble together a response under the unforgiving gaze of the prisoner.

This is one of the most remarkable and rewarding features of being a writer in Latin America. The writer is seen and valued as an important member of his community, with something valuable to contribute. When I first went Medellín to read at the poetry festival, after my first reading I was presented with flowers. Recently, at the conclusion of another international poetry festival in Costa Rica, after reading a poem of mine that had become a favourite at the festival (“Azul Amarillo”/ “Blue Yellow”), I was cheered and hoisted on to the shoulders of the young people who were hosting the festival’s closing party. These sorts of experiences can do a lot to cheer a writer up, even while he may feel he is serving his interminable “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

One of the most memorable readings I have given over the last few months was the Cartagena (on Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast) launch of my new collection of verse, The Oracle of Alexandria. The event was introduced by a leading Colombian journalist and poet, Gustavo Tatis Guerra, who is a personal friend of the García Marquez family. Later we retired to a vibrant nightclub-café, El Barco Ebrio that specializes in excellent Latin jazz, and Gabriel García Marquez’s preferred hang-out when he is in town. One of the outcomes of this and other meetings with Gustavo Tatis Guerra, was the placement of a new selection of my poetry (in a Spanish edition run of 12,000 copies) with a leading publisher in Bogotá. It all happened over a few glasses of wine and a cup of Colombian coffee.

I am extremely grateful to the people of Medellín and the many other places in Colombia and Latin America where I have been fortunate enough to share my work. I have made some very important life-long friendships and this has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my work. I have had the opportunity to become socially and culturally engaged on the deepest of levels. We are keen to be in touch with New Zealanders who may be interested in our work, especially those who might like to visit Colombia, where they could be involved in volunteer work, chiefly but not solely in the cultural sphere. Visiting and living in Colombia is a challenge but there is no question in my mind that it has influenced both the quality of my life and my work for the better. Colombia is definitely one country in today’s world where we can make a difference, for peace development and the greater social good, if we chose to.