Most people know very little about the Colombian province of Choco, which is located on the northern Pacific coast of the country. The population is almost completely of African descent. 80 percent of the population lives in poverty and illiteracy, and unemployment runs at 70 percent. Only in a couple African countries are the number of displaced people higher than in this part of Colombia.
On our first exploratory trip to the region, we felt a concern to help the many impoverished and homeless that we encountered in their vast array of makeshift shelters. These were the displaced people from the civil strife that has ravaged the Colombian countryside for many years. In all our years in South America, we had never encountered such misery.
In April of 2004, we were able to procure a shipping container containing medical equipment and 26,600 items of brand new cotton clothing of all sizes from a Foundation in Sweden. Thus began our concerted effort to bring in what would be our first container of humanitarian aid for the poor displaced people of Choco.
At about this same time, a church offered to pay for the shipping of the container. As we began to research all that it would entail to bring the container through Colombian Customs, we were warned of many difficulties that we would encounter. (At this stage of the game, we can personally testify that these warnings were nothing compared to reality! Ha!)
Unfortunately, here in Colombia, far too many and charitable entities are not what they project, so this has obliged the government to set up very strict stipulations that basically make it impossible bring in humanitarian aid without paying high taxes & going through a lot of red tape. The port fees are high as well and the required paper work is exhausting! To make matters worse, it is not uncommon to encounter port officials who make the process so difficult that many of the containers sit there for months, paying high storage fees every day for the space they occupy.
The Governor of Choco lent himself to support our project, exempting the container of taxes and putting their representatives into action to help pave the way for the arrival of the container.
On the day we were in town to receive this first container, there was an offshore earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale just a few miles out to sea that shook up the entire region. If it had happened a few miles inland, experts say there would have been nothing left of this port city. Thus was our maiden voyage christened!
Through this first container experience, we made contact with the local human rights representatives, whose job is to work as a liaison and negotiate with the guerrilla subversives when there are kidnappings. Through their contacts at the port, the container was unloaded and shipped by truck, unloaded in warehouses and then flown by the army to Quibdo, the capital of Choco.
We knew the donation would be exposed to many different people along the way, so we made it clear from the start how important is was to make sure it got to the homeless populations in Choco. Our concern was that the temptation to steal would be stronger than the mission itself, so we spoke about it firmly with all those involved, and everyone responded positively.
At this stage, we then sent more Healing Colombia staff members to Choco to personally oversee the distribution of the goods, together with the Governor’s assistants.
This first container was distributed among 21 different municipalities. People of all ages came to receive their gifts, while the wheel chairs, crutches, and walking aids were sent to old-folks homes and medical centers.
Many obstacles are hindering the progress of this region. Roads have yet to be built in many places, and an aqueduct needs to be constructed. The level of water borne diseases is very high. The province is isolated from the rest of Colombia on account of the rugged terrain & limited routes of access.
With subsequent containers and assistance to the people of Choco, a representative from the Ministry of Justice asked us for help to receive orthopedic limbs and help for the ex guerilla fighters they rehabilitate. Since that time, we have been in touch with a wonderful foundation in the USA who is helping with this need.
We realize that a few containers of clothes and medical equipment aren’t going to change the deeper problems in the Chocoano society. But our token of concern for the people, and the friends consolidated along the way, have permitted us to begin paving the way for more substantial help.