Visiting San Basilio de Palenque, Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

Ariel Reyes Antuan

Aug. 2, 2022

Ata Uto Begá “See you soon” Bembele said in his Palenke language to Zylo, Mama Iyé, and I.

I was excited and scared to visit San Basilio de Palenque, a historical, mystical and vibrant town located 1 hour away from Cartagena de Indias. It is the first free African town in the Americas having gained their independence in 1713 through a Peace Treaty between the Spanish colonizers and the Cimarrones (Maroons). This is similar to what Harriet Tubman did in the United States of America from 1849 onwards .


I was curious about why many people in my circle do not know enough about this unique society and whether I could find answers to my numerous questions on how mutual-aid societies operate.


San Basilio de Palenque was created by Benkos Bioho, a Bijago man. The Bijago people are a matriarchal and matrilineal society in Guinea Bissau, who are believed to be in charge of the balance between the worlds of the living and the dead. Benkos, coming from this strong heritage, was able to organize Cimarrones to free other enslaved people in the area.


The visit to San Basilio de Palenque revealed so many emotions, - excitement, sadness, inspiration I was accepted like another Palenquero; it was very experiential. We were able to see and touch first hand how the PALENKE framework we are pursuing in the Pacific Northwest is very similar to one of the most Ancient Palenkes in America.


Bembele, our tour guide, introduced our family to the community. Its social structure is organized by different groups of families who descend from the first ones that settled on these lands. Something that struck me is that there is no repressive governing body -police- instead, their governance system is overseen by a Council of Elders and also supported by the "Guardia Cimarrona" (Maroon Guard).


At times they spoke in a language I could not understand, the Palenquero language, which is a mix of different languages like Kikongo (a language spoken in central Africa in the current countries of Congo, DRC, Gabon, and Angola, former member states of Kongo Kingdom), Spanish, and Italian. This endangered language is in the process of revitalization, however financial resources for education purposes are needed to accomplish this.


When talking about reverence to the dead, Bembele explained funeral rituals that last for 9 days and are women led. For 9 days they pray, chant, and cook to transition the deceased to the other world. When I asked how individual families can keep up with the expenses and organizing, Bembele explained that from an early age children are brought up together-forming a brotherhood and sisterhood- so that when someone passes away, friends and family rally together to celebrate their life.


Their health care system consists of a traditional system managed by Curanderos (medicine people - who are mostly women) - and a small modern clinic. The Curanderos are fading out since younger generations are leaving to the city of Cartagena, which is why we wanted to meet up with Rosalina, one of the last medicine women and knowledge keepers in the community. We met Rosalina at her home. Her knowledge is vast, however she is scared because there is no knowledge transfer to younger generations. This is alarming as the knowledge system has existed for more than 300 years and survived the impacts of colonialism. She showed us all the herbs she uses to ease the suffering of many community members who ask her for help. At 88 years of age she is clear on her mission. She even cleansed (santiguo) Zylo with very powerful prayers and by touching some meridians in his body as she was chanting. She also shared some of her secrets with us to ease his toothaches. We felt blessed, I felt at peace.


When we left, I felt so relieved and inspired to keep applying all these teachings that I am learning at this critical time in human history.


Next stop, Medellin!


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