A field visit to Gun Aruwun, Sogromin and Donachui

We arrived at the ‘Wintukwa’ health care center in Valledupar at 08.00 AM on a Monday morning with our luggage and after receiving two boxes of medicine from the pharmacy we were ready to start our journey up the mountain. After a few phone calls and some waiting we were finally picked up at 11.00 AM and were on our way to Gun Aruwun (Sabana Crespo). After almost two hours of off-roading we finally arrived there in the midday heat and ready to continue our six hour journey to Sogromin.  The semanero[1] of Sogromin was already waiting for us with four mules. We visited the health care center and received lunch from the health workers as they suggested we better go well prepared for the steep path up to the community of Sogromin. We first had to go present ourselves to the authority of the community as he was waiting for us to explain who we were, why we were there, what our intentions were and for how long we were planning to stay. As this was our first stop in the indigenous territory, the authorities have to give the "bunachi"[2] permission to enter their lands. After listening to our story he gave us permission to continue our journey. We also spoke to the regional health care coordinator who gave us permission to continue on our journey and work in the health posts we were planning to visit.


the Semanero


As the jeeps can only get so far as Gun Aruwun we had to continue the challenging climb by foot or by mule. Two mules were carrying all the baggage (two backpacks, two bags of food with rice, beans, some canned food and crackers and the two boxes of medicine). The other two mules were shared between us, although the semanero and Ryan preferred walking. The road was mostly rocky and getting steeper and steeper the further we went into the mountain, while the temperature which started off in the thirties slowly cooled down. Sometimes the roads got so narrow that one person could barely pass and when you looked down an impressive cliff was just inches away, easily causing vertigos. This was especially the case when riding on a mule which are impossible to control so you could only hope it will not slip because that would be the end of this story. As it got darker the climb proved to be more challenging as it got more and more difficult to keep track of the low hanging branches and the rocks that were lying everywhere. Soon the fireflies started appearing and they somehow gave us a sense of direction. The mules were also getting tired and more stubborn especially when passing under the mango trees where they snacked away, so we all ended up walking for the last few hours. After a seven hour journey we finally made it, exhausted with our legs trembling we arrived in Sogromin!

Health House Sogromin

Health House Sogromin

In Sogromin there is a small health post where we were allowed to stay. This health post didn’t have any furniture except for two small mattresses where we could roll out our sleeping bags, two chairs and two tables. The day after our arrival we had to go and see the Mamo[3]. Our guide, Beto Chaparro, who is being schooled to eventually become a healthcare worker, took us around there. We found the Mamo sitting under a big tree, on a rock, on the border of a fast running river. First we had to take off our shoes and then he gave us two pieces of cotton, one for each hand. This was a traditional work that the Mamos do in order to ‘clean’ ourselves. We had to start pouring our thoughts into those pieces of cotton, think about our trip, about the medicine that the patient were going to receive, about how we had nourished ourselves so that everything would go well. We then had to go sit a bit further away and present ourselves, explain why we came, our intentions and for how long we planned to stay in Sogromin. After we finished we were allowed to proceed with his permission to carry out our work but we still needed to present ourselves to the authorities of the community. This would happen the next day when the authorities were gathered and we were summoned to present ourselves to the authorities and community. This took place in the traditional house, where important meetings of the community usually take place. We were asked to introduce ourselves as the dark room slowly started to fill up with men, women and children who were all curious of what these “ bunachis”  had to say. Because only a few members of the community speak Spanish, one of the teachers of the elementary school acted as a translator. As soon as he finished translating our story a discussion started in their language (Iku) and whenever they had questions we answered them through our translator. After quite a lengthy discussion and answering several questions we were welcomed into their community and Ryan was given permission to start attending patients.

After we returned to the health post the women and children started coming and it did not take long before the house was full of people. With the assistance of our interpreter, Beto, most of the patients could explain their problems and could so be attended. Over the next three days almost the entire community came by the house to be treated. We also visited the elementary school of the community where the teacher gave us a small tour. He explained to us that at the moment there is not enough room for all students to receive classes according to their educational level. There are currently around 40 students divided into 2 classrooms. The two other classrooms had to be demolished as they were under such deterioration that it became dangerous for the students to enter or be around the building. Besides that, the current kitchen that is being used to prepare lunch for the students needs to be replaced with a bigger one so that the students can actually make use of their kitchen/cafeteria. They also lack the necessary materials and tools to properly teach, such as blackboards, a library and some computers. (please see schoolproject for more details;

On the fifth day, after Ryan had seen all the patients we were ready to go down to the community of Donachui, which is a one hour walk downhill from Sogromin.

On our way to Donachui

Health House Donachui

Health House Donachui

Donachui is one of the most traditional communities of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta and has more than 700 inhabitants within its surroundings. Here, we were also allowed to stay at the health post which was much better equipped. Besides some wasps and baby bats there was a permanent health worker and a health promoter available here. The post was located in the center of the village so there would be people passing by all the time and most stayed for a while to observe the newcomers. Our visit coincided with a community gathering of all the women from the surroundings who came to do traditional work and burn the garbage so the village was quite busy. On the same day we arrived, the Mamo summoned us to carry out the traditional work, a similar ceremony as the one done in Sogromin. The next morning after arriving we visited the authorities to present ourselves and Ryan was given permission to see the patients. As there were permanent healthcare workers here we only had to stay two more days to see the most severe and important cases.   

Karen with the semanero Kogui on our way to Gun Aruwun

We left Wednesday morning at 04.00 AM, after spending a total of ten days in that part of the Sierra Nevada. We had to walk downhill for about five hours to get back to Gun Aruwun. From there we send a note down to the Wintukwa healthcare center in Valledupar with a motorcycle driver so they can send a car to come and pick us up. Three hours later the car arrived and we were brought down to Valledupar. After a few days recuperating we came up to Pueblo Bello during the weekend where we will start our next string of visits to a health house in Gunchukwa followed by visits to the health care centers of the capital of the Arhuaco community, Nabusimake,  and in the community of Jewrwa. So stay tuned for more…

[1] A young men in the community who maintains the order in the community (comparable with a policeman)

[2] This is how the Arhuaco call the civilians (the non-indigenous people)

[3] Spiritual leader and highest authority in the Arhuaco culture