A Forgotten People
Hidden away amongst the palm-like leaves of banana plants and constant bird song is the tiny community of Tocaña. Perched half-way up a hill on the opposite side of the valley to the town of Coroico in the lowland Yungas region it’s a picturesque and mystical place.
The reality of life Tocaña is not so romantic; it is one of around 20 Afro-Bolivian communities in the region, notoriously the most disadvantaged socio-economic group in Bolivia. Afro-Bolivians are not allowed to own their own land, are said to suffer more discrimination than any other ethnic group and are not even legally recognised as an ethnic group.
In the last census they were placed under the umbrella of the Spanish speaking category and as such there are no accurate records of how many Afro-Bolivians there are living in the country. According to Ashoka, an organisation who has worked with the communities to help them maintain their cultural identities, many people in Bolivia did not know that Afro-Bolivians existed until a group of them took part in a protest march in La Paz in the early 1990s.
Africans first arrived in Bolivia in the 16th Century, some were brought as personal slaves for the Spanish conquers while many others were put to work in the mines in Potosi or were sent to work in the coin presses at the ‘Casa Real de la Moneda’. Many perished during this time, unable to adapt to the high altitude and difficult, often highly dangerous working conditions. Those that were left were sent to work in the coca fields in the Yungas, supplying coca leaves to the miners.
Until the 1952 revolution black families continued to work as slaves with children as young as eight years old being forced to work out in the fields or in the houses of their ‘masters’. After the abolition of slavery, the Afro-Bolivians were granted a small holding of land and formed their own communities like Tocaña. Here they sustain a living by growing crops such as coca, coffee, sugar cane, bananas and casava in a sub-tropical climate that is similar to their native Africa.
Many problems still remain, in the Agrarian Reform bill following the abolition of slavery only 0.3km² of land was granted, nowhere near enough for the ever increasing Afro-Bolivian population, so virtually no-one owns the land that they live and work on. They face problems if a crop fails and a lack of basic services such as water, drainage and electricity, and access to health care and education cause further hardship. Most of the struggles they face are similar to those of their indigenous neighbours but with the added disadvantage that they are not even recognised as an ethnic group.
Until they are recognised as a social group they cannot be granted land under privileges extended to other minority groups. In the last few decades Afro-Bolivians have worked tirelessly to strengthen and promote their values and cultural identity in order to finally gain this recognition.
The Tocaña cultural centre has been built for this purpose. It is a place where people from the community can go and dance and play music, practice traditional medicine and learn about their cultural heritage. Construction of the centre was begun in 2001 but it is still not finished, the community hold cultural events to raise money for the centre and raise awareness of their traditions.
“We hold these events twice a year, on the 26th June and at Semana Santa (Easter),” the president of the community, Teofilo Perez Barra, tells me, “We organise the events ourselves but sometimes have support from other musical groups from outside the community.”
Today they are being supported by a traditional music group from North Potosi. The day long presentation includes traditional Afro-Bolivian ‘Saya’ music and dance performances, artisan displays and servings of traditional Afro-Bolivian cuisine, alongside performances from the North Potosi quartet.
“What you see is how our ancestors were, they were very Catholic and knew (and sang) all the prayers off by heart,” Sr Perez explains, “The music is very old, it comes from the first Afro-Bolivians here who brought the music from Africa, from places like Angola and the Congo.”
The live performances are colourful and vibrant. Women in stark white dresses adorned with multi-coloured ribbons sing and dance, shaking their hips and shoulders in time with the powerful bass drums and the ‘cuancho’ a long wooden instrument which is played with a baton in time with the fast tempo.
All the people that live in Tocaña community are Afro-Bolivians. They are separated off from the indigenous groups that live in the area. “When the first Afro-Bolivians arrived in Sucre and Potosi, indigenous people from the altiplano went to these cities to make money (diluting Afro-Bolivian culture) We felt that we always had to try and preserve our culture,” says Sr Perez, “Tocaña has always been inhabited by Afro-Bolivians although north of here it’s all indigenous people - it was prohibited for Afro-Bolivians to fall in love with indigenous people.”
Some Aymara groups want the Afro-Bolivians to adopt their culture and become ‘the new children of pachamama’. For many Afro-Bolivians however this is not an option, they want to maintain the own traditions and be recognised as an ethnic group.
“Before there was a lot of discrimination – they treated us badly, they treated us like slaves,” Sr Perez tells me, “But (today) Tocaña has had lots of advantages and lots of luck – some of our young people are in university.”
“We don’t have many specific problems – the middle class will never say anything upfront, it’s always behind our backs,” he continues, “The government don’t take us into account – we’re not recognised with our identity as Afro-Bolivians. There is no census for us; we don’t know how many of us there are. We’re always included as ‘mestizos’ or even as Aymara. We can’t own land because of our identity.”
“What they need to do (in this country) is take us into account and then we will have our rights.”
During the periods of slavery in Bolivia, all African religions were banned by the Spanish. The conquerors put up with the all night sessions of dancing, singing and drum-playing oblivious to the fact that this was as fundamental in the African identity and culture as structured religion was to their culture.
The fusion between African beats and rhythms and the Andean surroundings formed the music and dance of Saya, a unique genre created by the Afro-Bolivians to express their culture and identity. Through the ‘Movimento Saya Afro Boliviano’ they have been able to spread awareness of their identity as an ethnic group.
‘Saya’ is lead by a foreman or ‘caporal’, whip in hand to represent hierarchy and order, wearing trousers decorated with bells at the ankle. The foreman guides the dance by sounding his bells at the start of every rhythm.
The men play assorted size bass drums with one man playing the ‘saya scraper’ striking the instrument up and down alongside the drum beats while the women dance and sing before them.
Saya has had a big influence on music in Bolivia around the world and it is possible to study Saya at a number of universities across the United States. It is said that the popular Bolivian music form ‘Caporales’ originates from Saya and it is contested that the world famous ‘Lambada’ also comes from Saya.
Traditional Medicine: How to Treat a Sprain
- Boil wine, alcohol, local herbs such as ‘ila ila’ and ‘chacalaya’ and a wick made of ‘chicha blanca’ and ‘chicha morada’ together in a large pot and add a rag.
- When the rag has soaked up the liquid, rap the rag around the sprain like a bandage.