The Dance of the Paez

By Dr Eunice Otuko Apio

A photograph of a musical performance given by Paez people. There is a group of musicians dressed in indigenous clothing playing instruments.

During the second week of our stay in Colombia in February 2018, we visited the National Museum in Bogotá, and were captivated by the sheer pride and resilience of the Paez people, also known as the Nasa, whose cradle is the department of Cauca, in southwestern Colombia. They couched their everyday activism in Paez rich vibrant cultural wealth that still lingered on, even in displacement. They used Paez songs, dance and narratives to reclaim and celebrate their social spaces, to cleanse and to heal their lands.

In the Museum’s theatre, a dozen Paez people garbed in their cultural attires honoured their identity with song, dance and narratives. Their bodies moved in rhythm with the rich blend of flute, drums and song through which they honoured, defended and renewed ‘mother earth’. On occasions, they paused to sip from a small bowl – handed to each by a little girl and an elderly woman, fresh from their dance. In time, the audience was invited to take part, to say ‘strength’ in the Paez language, and to dance and sip along. Children, men and women took turns on the stage to dance and sip. From my seat on the second row, my feet tapped along.

They still honoured ‘mother earth’ with their folk songs and dances. Their customs and culture, handed down through generations, have calmed and cleansed their wounded land, and thereby soothed the spirits of nature. Large tracks of indigenous land across Colombia have been taken up by plantations, mining companies, and armed groups. Nature has been badly bruised and defiled by activities of man, rendered impotent.

I imagined the bonds that were being forged through the drink that was passed around. Bonds of unity. A common understanding of Paez identity, of what these people have been through and of what was yet to come, to them as the Paez, but also to other indigenous peoples of Colombia and to mother earth. Their rich sense of cultural integrity has simply refused to go away, to disappear even in displacement in lands as far off as Bogotá. One could not help but feel the pulsating sense of common understanding, unity, and the need to face the past and present in order to confront the future. The Paez perspective of society seemed irretrievably linked to the health of the surrounding environment; land and all that it held.

The Paez, said to be the most politically conscious and organised of Colombia’s indigenous peoples, have a strong relationship with land; and this is the essence of what they called ‘resistance’, for which many of their social rights activists have lost their lives. The Paez will not stop singing. They will not stop dancing. At home and in towns and cities far away. Until the integrity of their land is restored.