Palenque is home to no more than around a few thousand descendants of slaves taken from Africa.
One of the things that intrigues me the most when traveling is seeking out the black diaspora elsewhere. As a melanated people, we have been dispersed to different corners of the Earth. Yet, in these different corners of the Earth, we all live such different lives.
Whilst travelling Colombia, many people travel to the hyped up Medellin or can’t wait to shoot a photo or two outside the beautifully coloured houses in the Walled City of Cartagena. However, my mission was different. My goal was to make it to San Basilio de Palenque, the first free slave town in the Americas.
I was able to make a booking with a company called Duran Duran which cost around £30. I was picked up around 9am, from my hotel in Cartagena and from there we headed out to San Basilio de Palenque. Palenque is home to no more than around a few thousand descendants of slaves taken from Africa. This village was founded by Benkos Bioho. He was enslaved from West Africa and formed a slave revolt by escaping from Cartagena. This freedom fighter brought together a group of freed slaves who journeyed an hour and a half away to San Palenque.
What caught my attention about San Basilio de Palenque was not just that it is the only freed community in the Americas, but it was a place where the locals (Palenqueros) had been able to preserve their language. They speak a Creole language named Palenque which is a blend of Bantu language and Spanish.
One of the first things which our guide brought to my attention was a plaque which outlined the equality of Afro Colombians as they are often ostracized from society and stand at a different socio-economic level from their white counterparts. This results in Afro- Colombians often being rejected from society and also when applying for jobs. This plaque was there to symbolise that Afro Colombians will now have equal rights and feel more integrated within society.
Walking around Palenque, you can feel the community spirit. Typically on a Sunday, it had a relaxed vibe where people are sat outside their homes, talking with neighbours, drinking and enjoying the simplicities of life. Something, which we have lost in the western part of the world. We were even lucky enough to witness a birthday party of a local who was turning 90 years old. She was surrounded by her female friends and everyone was having a good time.
For me, Palenque represented a Wakanda at its finest and purest. There is a sense of unity and everyone is out to help and support each other. When one of the people in my tour group asked the guide where the police station was. The answer was simple. There wasn’t one. It wasn’t needed. Everyone watches out for everyone!
Palenque has no qualified doctor. So what do people do when they are ill? They go to Rosalina. Rosalina is in her eighties and is the local doctor who provides natural herbs for the locals when they are in need. We were able to explore her back garden, where she explained the different plants and their benefits.
The locals were nothing but friendly and welcoming. I didn’t feel like the tourist looking in, it felt like what I would call home. As we were walking, we kept hearing a noise similar to a gunshot. I asked the tour guide what it was and he said that it means a party is about to happen. That’s how the locals communicate that everyone is invited!
Throughout Colombia and the rest of Latin America, you can often sense a strong sense of colonialism. However, what struck me the most about San Palenque was a strong presence of black pride, that I haven’t felt so much of in South America. From statues of black heroes being upheld, the youth can walk around with a sense of joy and fulfillment. With over 20 world title fights under his belt, Boxer Antonio ‘Kid Pambele’ is an iconic figure and Colombian boxer whose statue stands proudly in the center of the main square.
The presence of the black heroes and the foundation on which San Palenque was created has probably contributed to the tranquil yet vibrant and safe society which San Palenque is today. When in Colombia, this place is a must visit for all.
When I left Palenque, I was only left with one thought: I love being Black.