The lasting influence of Colombia’s African heritage

Colombia has one of the biggest populations of African descent in the entire western hemisphere, with African-Colombians continuing to exert a strong influence on the nation’s history and politics as well as arts, traditions and customs that have been passed down for generations

 1.    Colombians

African-Colombians continue to succeed in every area of Colombian life. Among the most high-profile examples are the famed microbiologist and researcher Raul Cuero, writer Manuel Zapata, who wrote En Chima nace un santo, environment minister Luis Murillo and ex-culture minister Paula Moreno, Latin Grammy winners ChocQuibTown and models and Miss Colombia winners Vanessa Mendoza and Andrea Tovar.

2.    Food

 Traditional African dishes often rely on meat, rice and fresh fruit and vegetables and there is a clear resemblance between those of the old continent and traditional Colombian fare. Beans and plantain are staples and thick African soups, where all the ingredients are cooked in one pot, are easy to spot today. Some of the Colombian Caribbean’s best-loved dishes bear a striking likeness to their African counterparts, such as the coastal sancocho, which uses guandul, a common African grain.

 3.    Music and Dance

Colombia’s African heritage is evident in much of the country’s music and dance. Cumbia uses African drums and many believe it is based on an African courtship ritual or a form of “dance singing” in which stories were passed through the ages. Mapalé from the Caribbean, with its quick rhythm and furious clapping and currulao, one of the best known Pacific rhythms, have strong African roots as does the more modern champeta.

4.    History

Enslaved Africans first arrived in Colombia in the sixteenth century and were put to work in industries including gold, sugar, emeralds, cattle, tobacco, cotton and textiles. Many fought for their freedom and created free towns called palenques. Africans were also crucial in Colombia’s fight for independence from Spain and it is estimated that sixty per cent of the soldiers in Simon Bolivar’s liberating army were of African descent.

 5.    Sport

Ever since weightlifter Maria Urrutia won Colombia’s first Olympic gold in 2000, afrocolombian athletes have continued to bring sporting glory to the nation. Among them are Edgar Rentería who played major league baseball and was voted Most Valuable Player in the 2010 World Series and Caterine Ibargüen, an outstanding athlete who has taken triple jump gold in the last two World Championships.

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