Burial ceremony banned in Afro-Colombian town hard hit by Covid-19 quarantine

By Ricardo Maldonado Rozo

San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia, Apr 22 (efe-epa).- Hunger and despair are evident on the dusty streets of the iconic northern Colombian village of San Basilio de Palenque, a community of descendants of African slaves who also are barred from performing an ancestral burial ceremony due to the nation’s coronavirus-triggered lockdown measures.

Local residents must grieve for their dead in silence and in the privacy of their homes during the coronavirus pandemic due to a ban on the lumbalu, a funeral rite in which virtually the entire town gathers to bid farewell to the deceased amid singing and dancing.

Manuel Perez, San Basilio de Palenque’s cultural coordinator, told Efe there are still no confirmed Covid-19 cases in the community but nevertheless rules are in place to prevent people from congregating in large numbers.

During the lumbalu, men and women of the village dance and sing to the beat of drums, circling around the newly departed and performing a ritual they believe enables that individual’s soul to leave the body and reach its eternal resting place.

“Now we have to elevate our prayers to the orishas (deities) individually in our homes, while seeking to protect ourselves from Covid-19,” Perez said, adding that local residents live “collectively” and are disconsolate at being unable to bid farewell to their dead according to their traditions.

“We’re generally never alone, but rather always surrounded by many others, and during rituals by many more,” he said. “This situation hits us much harder than a bullet because it’s damaging our essence. We’re essentially spiritual. Spirituality surrounds us.”

San Basilio de Palenque, part of the Caribbean municipality of Mahates, was already impoverished before the introduction of a nationwide quarantine, which began on March 25 and will last until May 11.

But now the deprivations are even more pronounced: there is no potable water, Internet service is non-existent, the health station is precarious and a lack of employment opportunities within the town means the inhabitants must seek sustenance elsewhere.

Much of the male population consists of farmworkers who do not own their own land and depend on landowners and the weather to cultivate their crops – mainly cassava, plantains, yams and chili peppers.

Most of the women, for their part, contribute to the family economy by selling fruit and typical sweets that they carry from town to town in “poncheras,” plastic wash basins that they balance impressively on their heads.

Currently included as part of Colombia’s international tourism-promotion initiatives, these women are now paradoxically desperate for economic assistance amid the pandemic.

Mauricia Padilla, a community leader, described the dire situation in San Basilio de Palenque.

“There are no jobs. People’s sustenance comes from the ponchera; we can’t live without it,” she said.

Noting that women from the town are now dispersed around the country, isolated amid the quarantine and in very difficult economic circumstances, she called on the government to establish a corridor that will allow them to return to their homes.

Revenue from tourists who in recent years had made day trips from the nearby colonial city of Cartagena also has dried up due to the pandemic.

To avoid the arrival of the coronavirus in San Basilio de Palenque, local residents closed off the only road linking them to the rest of the country, built a barbed-wire fence and set up a checkpoint that is manned 24 hours a day to prevent the entry of outsiders.

History is in a certain sense repeating itself, considering that in the 17th century runaway slaves fled their owners and founded “palenques” (walled cities) in remote areas.

Four centuries later, they are putting up barriers to isolate themselves and prevent infection with the novel coronavirus.

The legal representative of San Basilio de Palenque’s Makankamana community council, Keiner Cimarra, is calling on Colombian President Ivan Duque’s administration to provide local residents with badly needed humanitarian assistance.

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