Medellin. For the community. With the community. By the community.

From narco city to transformational city.

This is how I will always remember Medellín. This was supposed to be one of the most dangerous cities I visited during my 6 months travelling and it proved to be welcoming, inspirational and one of the best experiences I had in Colombia.

One of the things I liked the most about the city (which I researched about afterwards), is how it demonstrates “…the concept of cities as a solution, and not as a problem, to the global challenges we face”. But most importantly, the fact that in Medellin, the solutions to the problems the city and its communities faced were created, developed and implemented by the people, the community themselves.

It’s not often we see this level of ownership and commitment to finding solutions with and for your own community. It reflects how much the people from Medellin cared (and still care) about the city, how hard they were (and still are!) willing to work to change it into something they believe in and, how they want to ensure the city changes in a positive direction and shifts its “old school” negative reputation.

Throughout the walking tours (The City Centre Tour and Comuna 13 Tour), the tour guides said a few things that stuck with me:

  • “Peace is different than security”
    • At some point during one of the walking tours, our guide said that “Peace is different than security”. We were talking about the narco trafficking situation in Colombia (in general) and how even though the country is at (apparent) peace, that does not mean everyone feels safe. This then led to our conversation about internal displacement and how a lot of people in Colombia run away to the bigger cities, looking for what a lot of us take for granted. Security.
  • Internal displacement.
    • There are a lot of homeless people in Medellin, and you can see entire families on the street, including a lot of children. This made me think a lot about internal displacement. “Internally displaced people (IDPs) have not crossed a border to find safety. Unlike refugees, they are on the run at home. IDPs stay within their own country and remain under the protection of its government, even if that government is the reason for their displacement.”
    • There’s a lot to be said about the issues related with the ‘drug industry” in Colombia (which I’m not well informed enough to comment on), but a lot of people run away from their homes in the regional areas to try to escape internal conflicts. Usually, families are actually trying to prevent their children from getting “sucked into” that life and becoming criminals.
    • So… my question is…. Will we start thinking twice before making assumptions regarding homeless people and why they are on the street? There’s always a story we don’t know about. We all have one, and it’s not always pretty.
  • “Education is about who you are, not a certificate on the wall”
    • During the tours, our guides shared a few inspirational stories from people in the neighbourhoods (one of the guides actually grew up in Communa 13). One of the stories was about a tourist losing their phone and the local kids actually going to extensive lengths to return the phone to the owner. (Yes yes, I know it sounds a cliche story, but hear me out). These kids were raised in what was one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in the world… and they still did the right thing, because they were educated to a standard that allowed them to make the right choices. That’s education. It’s about who you are, not a paper on the wall.
  • “Living from art in a place with social classes 1 &2”.
    • Social classes 1 &2 are the lowest social classes in Colombia, and people from these classes usually live in the mountains, far away from the city centre (the place with the best views! The opposite of other more developed countries). For anyone who’s ever worked in the arts, we know how difficult it is to make a living from it. Almost impossible in some places. But they did it! From dancing, to painting (some of the best graffiti I’ve seen are in Medellin), to music etc. These artists continued to develop their work and managed to persuade us (tourists) to engage with it. This led to more and more visits, which led to the community making an effort to making it a safer place as they understand this is a beneficial cycle for everyone. We (tourists) bring in money and other tourists (thanks social media), artists get to continue to work on their art, and we all learn a bit more about each other and become better people for it.

From some of the things I’ve read since my time in Medellin, a few stuck with me as well:

  • Cities do not make poor people.
    • People move to the cities looking for a better life, and in this specific case, a lot of people in Colombia were internally displaced from the rural areas as they try to escape quite a dire situation that more often than not relates with the narco traffic
  • Investing in infrastructure to support human interaction
    • In Medellin, one of the things that supported the development of the city the most was the investment in their metro, specifically their cable car. The cable car now allows the people living in the class 1 & 2 regions (mountains) to come to the city to work, shop etc., supporting them in being active citizens. This has had a profound positive effect in Medellin
  • Involving the local community
    • Involving the local community in deciding which solutions can work for them and to support the development and improvement of those areas. The people “on the ground” should always be involved in the decision making process, specially when they will be the most.

Medellin kept a little bit of my heart and I honestly can not wait to go back. I really wish to one day be able to spend a good 3 months there and get more involved with grassroots and community led organisations so that I can really try to understand the city’s past, and where they see it going in the future.

Some articles you might find interesting:

Published by Mariana Vieira da Rocha

"I think it's perfectly acceptable and rather admirable to be moderately delusional"

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