It’s all about perspective

I’m Ilaria Carbellotti, an Italian master student in Organic Agriculture at Wageningen University. I’m currently doing fieldwork for my thesis in La Mata and Sempegua, two little fishermen villages of the Ciénaga de Zapatosa, the biggest wetland of Colombia. I would like to share with you what the surroundings of my research environment look like.

My first impression

I spent the first few days of fieldwork in La Mata, a tiny fisherman village with 3 main ‘roads’, or for better saying, precarious walking paths made of sand, rocks, and broken bricks. I still remember my first impressions. A mix of stupor, incredulity, and curiosity to discover a reality so different and, in a certain way, so ancient.
Pigs, dogs, cows, chickens, and even a monkey walk freely in the village. Houses are made of mud, wood, palm leaves, and most of them don’t have a pavement, just pure soil. The newest ones though have their plastered walls and painted with colorful tones. In most cases, food is prepared outside, cooking with fire, and many houses have a garden with plants of mango, plantain, yuca and some herbs. Everyone drives motorbikes, kids included, as long as they can reach the ground. Families have on average 5 or 6 kids and the age to get pregnant is very low compared to what I’m used to, i.e. 15, 16 but sometimes 13 years old too. Having many kids is probably perceived as way to help the economy of the family: if initially it’s just more mouths to feed, eventually it’s also more arms that can work and provide for money and food.
Life is very simple here, but at the same time very tough and different depending on the person. Almost every man fish, but there are also many women engaged with this activity. Kids go to a local school, but the precarious economic income of the families rarely allows them to leave the village and go studying to university. This is how most of them end up living here and fishing.

Colourful houses

Sempegua is the other village located on the opposite coast of the Ciénaga, and reachable by boat in just 30 minutes from La Mata. With around 2000 inhabitants, it’s a bit bigger and wealthier than the previous place, but things function similarly. People are warm and welcoming and the houses very colorful. Kids play football everyday along the shore of the Ciénaga, dance like only a Colombian can dance, and enjoy little things, like biting into one big mango fallen from one of the many trees.
In this village I was hosted by a family with a house that at first impressions gave me ideas of poverty, neglect, and dirtiness. I was suddenly skeptical about the living conditions in that place. However, day after day, I got used to my surroundings, even to the unpleasant casual meetings with the big cockroaches. The turning point tough was getting to know the past of these people, and what they had to go thorough to build their home, a place that I was perceiving in a way quite distant from their perspective.
In fact, this house was renewed only 4 years ago. Before, it was made of mud, wood and palm leaves and it only had one living room and one bedroom for the whole family, which is made of 8 people. To build this new place, the parents had to work hard: the father fishes and the mother helps with it. She also cuts wood in the forest for selling, she takes care of the children, cooks, cleans, and washes all the clothes (now in the house, but in the past walking to the Ciénaga). Sometimes she had to work till the very last moment of the pregnancy to earn some money and bring food to the table. Every little sacrifice allowed them to pay for this new home, which now has walls made of bricks, a metal roof, three bedrooms and an indoor kitchen with a cooking gas stove. Knowing the sacrifice and the hard times the family had to go through, instantly changed my perception and adaptability level. I still really don’t like cockroaches, but I do see those for walls differently now, maybe a little more with the same lens of these incredible family.