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  • Writer's pictureDomino Volunteers

Cartagena and its Two Faces

Cartagena is a city known around the world for its beautiful beaches, its walled city, and its romantic streets at night. It is also a city full of hard working people, traditions, and a large Afro-Colombian culture. There is a lot of diversity here; we can see it everywhere. But, what is the perspective of a foreigner about diversity in Cartagena?

Firrisaa was a volunteer for three weeks in a public school in Cartagena, and we wanted to know how his experience was with the community and culture.

Hello, my name is Firrissa, I’m from Toronto, Canada. I’m a PhD student in sociology at the York University. My volunteer placement was with a public school called Institución Educativa Antonia Santos.

Did you have any expectations before coming to Cartagena?

To be honest, I try not to form expectations. With that being said, I expected to at least to learn Spanish. I knew the people were nice. I knew it would be hot, but not this hot. I was really surprised by how hot it was here. I was also surprised by the contrast between new and old. For example, my first day here I saw a modern bus, but right next to the bus I see a horse-and-buggy. In addition, near to where I was staying, there was an intersection with modern streetlights, but in the background, you just see this castle. Sometimes when visiting certain parts of the city, I felt like a time traveler.

I also expected to find large Afro-Colombian presence in Cartagena, but the number of Afro-Colombians I saw still surprised me. From hearing champeta being played all over to the art you will see throughout the city, the Afro-Colombian presence is everywhere. It was not just Afro-Colombians, but you could find people of all shades. Even with the kids I volunteered with, I was shocked to find that some of them looked like they could be from East-Africa or India. It was somewhat surprising to see how diverse Colombia is because the image of Colombia to the outside world is quite white you can say. Even when I went to Medellin, which I know is not as diverse as Cartagena, I was surprised to see the amount of black people. Again, it is not just black, but indigenous, white, and the mixes between them. Contrast that to the images of Colombia we see in the media.

How has volunteering changed you?

That is a tough question to answer. But it always feels good to give back and even though I could only volunteer for three weeks, I still believed that I could have an impact in that short time. Also, I felt like if I am going to be in this beautiful country and enjoying everything it has to offer, I should give something back. To be honest, I felt like I benefitted as much, if not more than the kids I worked with, because I really got to work on my Spanish. Because of the speed and slang they used, working with kids really pushed the limits of my Spanish abilities, which was a challenging but fun experience.

I come from Toronto, which is known as one of the most diverse cities in the world. Yet, if I were to show photos of the students I worked with or communities I visited to someone in Toronto, I bet they would be surprised on how diverse the people are. Toronto has people from all over the world and that is the source of our diversity—immigration. However, immigration cannot explain the diversity I see here in Cartagena or Colombia in general, which made me think about diversity in a new way. The experience also opened my eyes to some of the serious issues that communities in the city are facing. Volunteering at this school allowed me see the unique challenges that marginalized communities must overcome, but also showed me the similarities between the experiences of marginalized students in Toronto and Cartagena. Moving forward into the future, this experience is going to shape how I think about and conduct my research.

Volunteer Firrisaa, Domino Intern Wendy (alumnus of Antonia Santos), and Alfonso (principal of Antonia Santos)

How would you describe the school where you volunteered? How did you feel?

I thought it was a great match. During the initial assessment, I mentioned my research interest and how I wanted to learn more about the Afro-Colombian experience in Cartagena. So, I got matched with this school that predominately served youth of Afro-Colombian backgrounds and also served a low-income area. The school I volunteered with was under-resourced, but I saw how hard teachers tried with what little they had. This was my first time volunteering abroad and was nervous at first in the beginning. Luckily, the kids were very approachable and the teachers were supportive.

What advice would you give to someone that is coming to Cartagena and that wants to volunteer?

If someone is coming to Cartagena and is going to spend two or more weeks here, then I would advise them to reach out to Domino Volunteers. Even if you are here just for a weekend, you should reach because there might be a one day project happening during you stay that you can contribute to. If you are looking to volunteer long-term, Dominoes will find something for you according to your interest and skills you bring. They are going to find the perfect match for you. If I could do this again, I would have definitely reached out before even arriving in Cartagena in order to bring needed supplies, which would have supported the work I was doing in the school I was volunteering.

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