The festival of Afro-Bolivians

     The next week after coming back from Okinawa, I spent four days going to schools, giving classes, making compost with kids, and participating in the dance practice at U.E Teresa de Calcuta. Then on Thursday evening, 18 of August, I flew to La Paz with Aerosur which I never wanted to use anymore because of my horrible experience beforehand that my flight at 4:00pm left 1:30am in the morning due to the bad maintenance. This time I had no choice but to use it since there wasn't any appropriate flight. Fortunately the plane left and arrived at El Alto airport on time .

     The main purpose of this trip was to go and help the fair which one of volunteers was going to hold with her fellow workers in Achacachi, a small village near Lake Titicaca.  I was planning to participate in an overnight trekking tour to Kayawalla with some friends beforehand. Just before leaving to La Paz, a friend called me to tell that our tour was postponed because of a blockade at El Alto which happens quite often here in Bolivia. Being afraid of disappointing me, she continued without pausing and said we should go to the festival of African Bolivians instead. It was a festival which supposed to be on the same day as a harvest festival in Okinawa and so I gave up going. Great! I arrived happily at La Paz and spent a good night at a house of my friend chatting over delicious vegetarian lasagna.

     Tocaña, one of the several villages of Afro-Bolivians locates on a misty forest of northern Yungas in La Paz department. It is a small village of about 30 families, but well known as a birthplace of "La Saya" or Saya music. In order to go to Tocaña you need to take a bus or minibus at the stop of Villa Fatima and go to Coroico, a winter resort for the residents of La Paz, and from there take a taxi to the place.  A route to Yungas was called "death road" since it runs along the cliff after cliff and every year more than a hundred people fall off to their death.  Now a new paved road was contracted and an access to Coroico became much easier.  However, the driver of our minibus who has a pretty face with mischievous eyes drove quite roughly at top speed, and I gave a sigh of relief when the bus arrived safely at Coroico, though, his driving technique did not stop me from taking some pictures on the way. High mountains with snow on the top and quiet mirror like lake have gradually changed into deep green as we went down the mountains for more than an hour.  At last we found a small orangery village in the middle of a greenish mountain.

     We went up along the central plaza of Coroic as advised, and waited for a taxi to take us to Tocaña village. There were several black women in their chola o cholita fashion which is typical indigenous clothing in the altiplano or uplands Bolivia.  Afro Bolivians have intermingled with the indigenous Aimara people and accepted their culture, while preserving their own.  After 30 minutes drive we were in the even smaller town of Tocaña. There was only one main road with several houses alongside which leads to a small church in the end. We got off the taxi and asked the place to stay to the people in front of the church. They told us to go to "pulga" and urged two little girls to show us the way. "Pulga" means flea and was the place that our cute old minibus driver had also recommended. We all wondered what this name stands for and made a joke about it during our whole trip.  The hostel whose real name was "Montainta" was a typical plain hostel, and we got a room with two beds and several mattresses on the floor all for ourselves.  Needless to say, before we went to sleep at night, we made double sure that no fleas would bother us during our sleep.

     Seeing us all settled in our room, the owner Pulga showed us an interesting video made by some Americans which tells the history of Afro-Bolivians and their current life and problems. Afro Bolivians were taken to Bolivia to work in the silver mines in Potosi and then in coca plantations in Yungas, and till 1952, the year of Bolivian revolution, when the agrarian reform process began and all the indigenous people and women finally got the right to vote, they had been treated as slaves and worked under a brutal condition. The video says the discrimination still continues and even though they get their own small land, their living is very poor and many young people have to leave their village to a big city or work in a vacation house of rich Bolivians near their town as they used to do before.  It was a first time for me to listen to the Saya with translation, and it was very touching.  They sing as if they want to comfort themselves through singing.

     Afterwards we all went up to where the church was to see what was going on.  While waiting, elderly people in their costume started to gather, walked to the other side of the town, made line and began to dance "Molenada" with a live band, heading back to the church. The night view of Coroico was shining on the mountain before us and many fireflies were glowing among the trees. When reaching the church, the people in their normal cloth started to join in a file, and so did we. We danced and talked with villagers and some Bolivian tourists from La Paz. Feeling hungry after several hours, we began to look for something to eat, but did not encounter anything. Eventually, we decided to cook in the kitchen of the hostel, and bought some pasta, tomatoes, onions, paisley and a can of sardine in tomato sauce in a small shop. An Italian girl and two Argentineans who we met up there also came back soon after we started cooking.  It seemed there was no restaurant in the village or at least was not open during the festival.

Two cousins now living in La Paz

     Again we went up to the church in a dark. There were more people, and the bands started to play music of Molenada again but stopped soon. A group of young people with drums started to play music: the Saya. Some young girls made a file, and started to dance rhythmically singing and moving their hips in a way that only they can do.  This was the moment we were waiting.  Their music, dance, singing, movement of the body, all were so beautiful and natural.  As the folkloric music movement became strong in Bolivia, the Saya music also spread and became popular. However, most of them were just an imitating of the rhythm and far different from the original Saya in terms of their spirit. So Afro Bolivians stood up to show their original music, and the Saya became a symbol to regain their pride in their own culture and their sense of identity. Their African blood has lived on in their music and dance.  I could hardly breathe and took my eyes off them.


    The next day we woke up hearing rain dropping. Mountains were all misty and we could barely see Coroico on the other side. It was quiet and peaceful. Far away I could hear the sound of drums intermittently, but it was gone as the rain became heavier. We all went to kitchen and prepared a sandwich with cheese and tomatoes, and settled around the table outside in front of the kitchen. The air was fresh and contained a comfortable humidity, and the breakfast was really delicious. Other lodgers also joined, and we chatted over a hot tea. Only then did we learn that "pulga" was a nickname of the owner given by his mother since he was a kind of a kid who never stops moving around. It seemed that he hadn't lost his nature since he soon stood up just as he sat down. We spent the whole morning like that, and finally the sky began to clear up a little by little. The rain has lifted.

An Aimara girl
    Wishing to see the Saya one more time, we went up to the church. Soon after we arrived, the worship started. This repesented the beginning of the festival of the Virgin Mary and it was to last till Sunday. The Friday night dance we joined was just an eve, and therefore was quite casual.  After the service, there was a ceremony and the elderly started to dance Molenada. At that time our taxi had already arrived, but we asked the driver to wait a little more. We were sure that the young were about to dance the Saya since they gathered in their white costume. And then it started. The exciting sound of several drums called "caja" and pestle like instrument called "guiro" spread, and the girls started to form a line and dance to the rhythm.  They all headed to the school yard which located on the other side of the village and was decorated for a larger festival.  Villagers told us to stay one more night. We truly wished we could; however, even though we couldn't, we were happy to have the opportunity to be there at the moment.  We could see that the festival would continue a whole day till late at night.  After all, this is the biggest and the most importnt festival in a year, and all the villagers who lived outside of the village had been returning. Wishing them all the best, we got on a taxi and left the small misty village. The beat of the drum followed us after we lost the sight of Tocaña.