‘Legends must be told’: Colombian library goes beyond books to keep stories alive | Global Development

As dawn looms over the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia, a small group of children descend the slope with cameras and sketchbooks.

Each month, they come to an ancient site dotted with hundreds of petroglyphs – smooth stones engraved with patterns – to create their own images of the art of their ancestors.

The project is run by the public library in Atánquez, a quiet mountain town of 10,000 people located in the Kankuamo Indigenous Reserve.

The Kankuaka de Atánquez Library is more than just a space to house books, it is the center of initiatives by indigenous peoples to preserve their history and strengthen their identity. A pavilion and round mud-brick houses behind the main building host community gatherings. Youth activities include petroglyph outings, photography workshops and meetings with tribal elders.

“[The rock carvings] are memories of the ancestors,” says seven-year-old Mariham Martinez Daza, who is part of the program. “They are beautiful.”

Petroglyphs near Atánquez
Children draw petroglyphs
Children study petroglyphs.
Children study petroglyphs.

Sahian Maestre, 13, adds: “They show us as another part of who we are. They tell us about the past and explain how the natives saw things. It’s also another way of seeing ourselves, and how our ancestors believed each of us was connected.

But her favorite trips are to meet Kankuamo elders, to learn about traditional music, recipes and how people have changed over the years. One of the library’s first projects involved children collecting stories from their grandparents and adapting them into stop motion videos.

A kankurua or Kankuamo ceremonial center
Souldes Maestre is the librarian and animator of the space.
  • Top: People are seated around the fire in a kankurua, a ceremonial center in Kankuamo, where the community shares their thoughts. Above: Souldes Maestre, who helped found Atánquez’s library

“For us, it is essential that certain memories cannot be transmitted except orally”, explains Souldes Maestre, librarian and one of the founders of the library. Legends are meant to be told, not just read in books, he says. “We want kids to start creating an interest in knowing, asking questions.”

In February 2013, Atánquez only received a box of unopened books sent by the National Network of Public Libraries. When a group of young people discovered that a government official had to come and remove them due to obsolescence, they decided to act. They removed the plastic wrappers and hastily put the books away in an abandoned community building. The official was skeptical about this “library”. But, says Maestre, they told him, “If we’re able to put this together overnight, you can’t imagine what we’re capable of in a year.”

The official gave them a year, and tables and chairs, and new books arrived. In 2015, Atánquez was a finalist for the Colombian National Library Award, which he won in 2017.

A street in Atánquez.
Seven-year-old Marian Leonor Martinez at Atánquez's library reads one of the books in a hammock.
Back at the library, the children draw the petroglyphs discovered during the morning visit.
A bust that would be that of Simón Bolívar.
  • Clockwise from top: a street in Atánquez; children draw petroglyphs discovered during a morning visit; a bust believed to be that of Simón Bolívar; Seven-year-old Marian Leonor Martinez reads in a hammock at the library

Patrick Morales, ethnic affairs coordinator at Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory, says Kankuamo’s story is symbolic of the indigenous peoples of Latin America, many of whom attempted to assimilate in the 1950s and 1960s, then returned to their roots. But Kankuaka’s library is unique in its focus on audiovisual storytelling and intergenerational exchange.

“The Kankuamo are very attached to working with boys and girls, because for them they are the heirs of this fight for memory,” explains Morales.

During the pandemic, they gave tape recorders to children to record interviews with family, distributed seeds and bought groceries for families in need. Vaccines were even administered in the library.

There are approximately 35,000 Kankuamo, of whom 28,000 live in the reservation, and they are one of four indigenous groups in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Like many other indigenous peoples, their culture is threatened by modernization and conflict. Violence by guerrillas and paramilitary groups in the 1980s and 1990s killed, orphaned and displaced hundreds of people, separated families and targeted leaders and religious authorities.

For years being Kankuamo was considered shameful and many people tried to distance themselves from their culture, but the early 1990s saw a change.

“Little by little, our people are falling in love and appreciating who they are as indigenous people,” says Ener Crispin Cáceres, an elder from Kankuamo.

Ener Crispin Cáceres, an elder from Kankuamo
A Kankuamo elder takes ambil, a black paste made from cooked tobacco leaves, from a jar
A kankurua built at the back of the Atánquez library.
Children play music on instruments including a gaita (traditional flute) and a drum wearing traditional Kankuamo dress
  • Clockwise from top left: Kankuamo elder Ener Crispin Cáceres uses a poporó to meditate; Cáceres Blends ambienta paste made from cooked tobacco leaves, with the leaves of You’re welcome (cola) to use one’s poporó; children play traditional instruments in Kankuamo attire; a kankurua built at the back of the library.

The national and international recognition the library has gained has raised money to keep it afloat, but organizers are trying to raise money to buy computers.

John Robert Torres Maestre, the Elder cabildo, or leader of Atánquez, helped get the library off the ground. He says that 40 years ago a generation went off to college never to return, which is why it is so important to cultivate a love of learning alongside a love of heritage, so that those who pursue higher education return.

A mural at the back of the library reads “Kankuamos, united for ancestral memory”.

This identity is increasingly important as the region is threatened by nearby coal, coltan and oil mining projects that would damage the land and poison the rivers. For Maestre, there is a clear link between the work of the library and the ability of the community to defend itself.

Seteyuman, a traditional place of passage and entry into Kankuamo territory.

“For us, the concept of memory is not like a museum, something that can be seen, but rather represents survival,” says Maestre. “If we don’t have that memory, if we don’t have those stories, we can’t continue to be Kankuamos.

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