Meet the Flourishing Muslim Community in Buenaventura, Colombia

Buenaventura, the most important Colombian port on the Pacific Ocean, is home to the Shiite Muslim community which gives both refuge and meaning to a significant number of Colombians of African descent. This image was taken from Wikipedia and published under the licence of Creative Commons.

Buenaventura, the most important Colombian port on the Pacific Ocean, is home to the Shiite Muslim community. Image taken from Wikipedia and published under the licence of Creative Commons.

This Muslim community is unlike any other. Welcome to Buenaventura, home to almost 300 Colombian families of African descent who converted to Islam 40 years ago as a form of empowerment in the face of marginalization.

It's estimated that there are around 10,000 Muslims in the country, and the practice is relatively new to Colombia, according to a study by Rosario University in Bogotá. Buenaventura has the third biggest Muslim community in the country, after those in Maicao and Bogotá, and its existence “of almost four decades makes it an obligatory reference point when studying the presence of Islam in Colombia”, anthropologist Diego Giovanni Castellanos says on the Islam Community in Colombia website.

[La comunidad musulmana de Buenaventura] está conformada completamente por nativos [de Colombia]. Incluso dentro del islam colombiano, son la única comunidad predominantemente chiíta del país, siendo en el resto de lugares el sunismo la tendencia imperante”.

[The Muslim community of Buenaventura] consists entirely of natives [to Colombia]. Even amongst Colombian Islam, they are the only predominately Shiite community in the country, as the rest are mostly Sunni.

Around 400,000 people reside in Buenaventura, of whom 90% are Afro-Colombians. Despite living and working in the most important port in the Colombian Pacific, which generates about $1 million annually in Colombian tax revenues, the overwhelming majority of the population live in poverty and one-third are unemployed, according to Latin American think tank NACLA: “Sixty-five percent of Buenaventura’s households do not have a sewage system, and 45% do not have potable water. Life expectancy in Buenaventura is 51, compared with the national average of 62.”

Islam first arrived to the port in the late 1960s thanks to Esteban Mustafá Meléndez, an Afro-American of Panamanian origin. Every time he arrived at Buenaventura, he would preach about the need to defend the rights of Afro-descendants, according to Castellanos.

From there, the community grew, especially under the guidance of Sheikh Munir Uddin Valencia, who studied in Iran. The blog Islam in Colombia explains that since he assumed leadership of the Shiite community in Buenaventura, a mosque named the City of the Prophet Islamic Cultural Centre was built; the Silvia Zaynab Educational Institute was reopened; and a Muslim radio station which broadcasts from the mosque was created.

A documentary, “Islam in Buenaventura,” describes the life of this group of Afro-Colombians who worship at the City of the Prophet mosque, where ethnic and religious aspects mix and mutually influence each other in a unique way.

The film explores, among other topics, how Islam developed in Latin America, how Latin American converts’ practices differ from those of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, and how the media has affected the perception of Muslims in Latin America.

Global Voices spoke to the director, Mercedes Vigón, whose work was the result of a project titled “Islam in Latin America”, a collaboration between Florida International University, where she teaches, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Investigation of Social Sciences.

Global Voices (GV): What was it about this community that most attracted your attention?

Mercedes Vigón (MV): Los miembros se sintieron muy honrados cuando los primeros periodistas se interesaron por ella. Sin embargo, unos días antes de que llegáramos, recibieron “el premio” por la candidez con la que recibieron a los primeros periodistas. Y es que resulta que un reportaje que les hicieron advertía a la audiencia nacional que existía en Buenaventura un grupo chiíta que seguía las enseñanzas del Ayatola de turno, con escuela y todo.

Cortaron la entrevista del sheij (Munir Valencia) de tal forma que parecía un fundamentalista, dispuesto a todo. Así que salirse de la norma resultaba extremadamente peligroso en Buenaventura, que de facto estaba manejada por los paramilitares con un sentido de justicia muy peculiar y un tanto brutal.

Me sorprendió que todavía nos brindasen su confianza y creyeran nuestra promesa de que tan solo queríamos contar su historia y dejar que la verdad combatiera tanto sensacionalismo. Después de esta primera reunión en la mezquita, y del intercambio de ideas, de cómo lo íbamos a hacer diferente, y de por qué debían confiar en nosotros, recibimos acceso total… sobretodo a las mujeres (ya que nuestro equipo estaba compuesto por mujeres en su mayoría: dos productoras, una camarógrafa, yo) y un antropólogo musulmán -nuestra llave de entrada- que ya había trabajado con ellos.

Mercedes Vigón (MV): The members felt very honored when the first journalists showed an interest in them. However, a few days before we arrived, they saw the consequence of the candor they showed the first journalists: a report warning the national audience that there was a Shiite group in Buenaventura that followed the teachings of Ayatollah, with a school and everything.

They had edited the interview with the Sheikh [Munir Valencia] in such a manner that he appeared to be a fundamentalist, ready for anything.

It surprised me that they were still willing to trust us and to believe our promise that we only wanted to tell their story and let the truth win over the sensationalism. After this first meeting and exchange of ideas in the mosque about how we were going to be different and why they should trust us, they gave us complete access… above all to the women (given that our team was mostly made up of women: two producers, a photographer and myself) and to a Muslim anthropologist — our way in — who had worked with them before.

GV: How have the women adapted to the religion?

MV: Las mujeres afrocolombianas son las que reciben la tierra y tienen una función muy importante más allá de la procreación y el cuidado tradicional de la familia. Se encargan de la educación y la creación de comunidades económicas independientes. Con la evolución hacia el chiísmo perdieron la participación directa, algo que una de las fundadoras resentía, pero a cambio tienen buena educación y capacidad para ser independientes.

MV: Afro-Colombian women are the ones who [work] the land, and they have a very important role, far beyond procreation and the traditional care of the family. They are in charge of education and the creation of economically independent communities. As the community evolved toward Shiism they lost direct participation [in the community decisions], which some of the founding women resented, but in exchange they are well educated and have the capacity to be independent.

GV: Islam has been seen by many as a means for discrimination in other parts of the world. Does this prejudice also exist in Colombia?

MV: Para la comunidad afrocolombiana había tres factores de discriminación: ser negros, ser musulmanes y ser chiítas. La comunidad comenzó como Nación del Islam durante la época de reinvindicación de derechos civiles en Estados Unidos. Luego, tras conseguir la aceptación del valor de las culturas afrocolombianas y recibir influencias de otros musulmanes quisieron aprender más y pasaron a ser sunitas, pero donde recibieron más apoyo en becas de estudio del islam fue a través de organizaciones educativas sin fin de lucro de Irak y terminaron siendo chiítas

MV: For this Afro-Colombian community there were three discriminatory factors: being black, being Muslim and being Shiite. The community began in the 1970s as an Islam Nation during the fight for civil rights in the United States. Then, after receiving acceptance from Afro-Colombian cultures and being influenced by other Muslims they wanted to learn more, and they became Sunni. However, when they received more support in the form of grants it was through organisations aiming to educate rather than make profits in Iraq, and in the end they became Shiite.

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