Driving into the North Yungan community of Chijchipa on Saturday afternoon, we could hear the rhythmic beating of drums and passionate singing of the local Afro-Bolivian community that served to welcome guests for the day’s festivities. This was the day of a musical perfomance/exchange between the local community and the Tigers of Africa, a traditional musical group from Senegal. Having spent the past five days embracing Afro-Bolivian culture in the neighboring community of Tocaña, we made the 20 minute drive to Chijchipa to take part in the important cultural exchange.
‘Honor y gloria a los primeros negros que llegaron a Bolivia
Que murieron trabajando
muy explotados en el Cerro Rico de Potosi’
‘Honor and glory to the first Africans who arrived in Bolivia
Who died working
Exploited in the Cerro Rico of Potosi’
These were the words sang by the men, women and children of all ages who participated in the Saya, the Afro-Bolivian song and dance that incorporates African instruments, colonial-era clothing and powerful lyrics that share the Afro-Bolivian history. These lyrics have been passed down from generation to generation ever since the Afro-Bolivians arrived from Africa as slaves to work in the mines and coca plantations of Bolivia. Along with several performances of the Saya, we also had the chance to hear from Alejandro, an important elder who was born towards the end of the hacienda (estates or plantations owned by the Spanish colonists) and had witnessed the transition into freedom for his people. The festival took place in the Casa de Hacienda, the former residence of one of the plantation owners in the 1800s that now serves as a meeting point and cultural center for the community. Alejandro expressed how important it is for people to recognize how the suffering of the Afro-Bolivians took place in this same location yet they have been able to look past its exploitative history and use the space to exhibit their culture and educate others of the history.
Around 6 PM, the guests of honored arrived after a long journey from Senegal that same morning and were already in song and dance as they marched into the Casa de Hacienda with the local Saya group. After taking an hour to rest and prepare, the Tigers of Africa took the stage draped in their colorful, intricate costumes to begin their performance. The fast rhythm of the traditional drums complimented the movements of the dancers who jumped, ran, flipped and twisted around. Although the performance was only 30 minutes long, the whole crowd was profoundly impressed. Afterwards, everyone had a chance to chat with the performers who are currently on a tour throughout South America. Although there was a struggle for communication between the Spanish-speaking locals and the French/Wolof-speaking Senegalese performers, both parties were elated to interact with their African brothers and sisters. This also gave me an opportunity to use my knowledge of French and Spanish to translate between them.
Our time spent in Los Yungas with the Afro-Bolivian communities was an incredible, unforgettable experience. Everywhere I went the people referred to me as ‘family’ and expressed how happy they were to have their African sister visiting the community. Having based my ISP (Independent Study Project) on the Afro-Bolivian history and culture while in our Tiquipaya homestays, travelling to Los Yungas was an opportunity to immerse myself first-hand into the culture I had read and heard so much about.
The struggle for the recognition and acceptance of black, African-descendent communities all over the world is an ongoing challenge. However, the Afro-Bolivian community of Los Yungas proves that communities can join together and share their history and identity through the power of music and dance.