Afro-Colombian academic, Dr. Alfonso Herrera connects with his ancestry

Afro-Colombian academic, Dr. Alfonso Herrera connects with his ancestry

Chris Koney’s column

On Tuesday 3rd August 2021, I was invited by the Ambassador of Colombia to Ghana, Claudia Turbay Quintero for breakfast meeting at her residence. There, I was introduced to Dr. Alfonso Cassiani Herrera, an Afro-Colombian academic and a specialist in Social Sciences and Master of History.

Dr. Herrera was in Ghana to participate in this year’s edition of the annual Pan African Historical Festival (PANAFEST) and other events organized in collaboration with the Embassy of Colombian. Though excited about his involvement in the festival, it was more of a special and rare opportunity for him to connect to his roots.

The breakfast meeting was to serve as a session to discuss various topics with regards strengthening the bilateral relationship between Ghana and Colombia on various levels. I also had the opportunity to interact with Dr. Herrera to know more about Colombia’s community of Afro-descendants.

Dr. Herrera is a renowned scholar and author of several scholarly publications and books including Palenque Magno: Resistances and Libertarian Struggles from Palenque de la Matuna to San Basilio Magno from 1599 to 1714, (2014); From Black History: Symbol, Worldview and Resistance, (2014); Cimarrón Primer: Resistances and Libertarian Struggles, (2014); and The Didactic Primer: Palenque Laboratorio Etnoeducativo, (2010).

His story is a unique one, defying all the olds against him to embark on a rather challenging and frustrating journey to achieve his dream. An Afro – descendant from a deprived society, he had to work extra hard to ensure he received the desired recognition and acknowledgement in a predominately “white” sector.

Speaking about his background, Dr. Herrera said: “I am a Palenquero, son of the Community of San Basilio de Palenque. The Palenquera community has its historical trajectory as a place and cradle of Cimarronism, which with the triumph of freedom and the first recognition by the Crown of a community of Cimarrones in 1714, gave rise to one of the most significant collective achievements that would determine the importance of the Palenquera community.”

He is very passionate about his heritage and very interested in Palenque. That, coupled with his love for history and quest to fight racism, led him to become a professional and historian as a strategy to confront the actions from those who attacked his community: whose phenotype was mistreated, native language attacked, manifestations and ethno-cultural expressions ridiculed.

Dr. Herrera joined the cultural committee in the Nariño neighborhood of Cartagena as a teenager and enormously contributed to the creation of a space for reflection. This was to try to influence the transformation of the conditions that promoted the processes of preserving ethnic, historical and cultural identity of the Palenquera community.

“I learned about Apartheid, the fight for civil rights in the United States, racism, discrimination and the marginalization of Afro-descendant people. I also understood the marginalization of my own Palenquera community, in whose library, there were not even copies of the historical, linguistic, anthropological, literary research, among others, that various researchers have carried out on the Palenquera community,” he highlighted.

He further stated that it was precisely this situation which led them as a community to take the decision to become social researchers and represent themselves, consequently, with this, to collectively discover and encounter their social, political, economic and cultural transfer as part of the African and Afro-descendant Diaspora.

Expressing his delight to be on the African continent, and in Ghana, described as the gateway to Africa, Dr. Herrera indicated that visiting Ghana means a lot more to him beyond just participating in PANAFEST and he will forever cherish this lifetime and life changing opportunity.

According to him, visiting Ghana is an opportunity to have first-hand experience of the region majority of Afro – Colombians are expected to have originally come from. For him, it is like coming home to be with your people and that certainly comes with a unique and uncommon feeling which one might not be able to express.

“As Afro – descendants, it is our dream to connect back to the continent and to our brothers and sisters. Yes, we are preserving the culture and the identity in faraway Colombia but being here gives a sort of validation that we truly are from here. Apart from seeing our kind, there are so much similarities in the culture which makes you realize that you are truly a son of African. You take a look at the food, cultural elements, behavioral patterns and other aspects of the culture and you realize that we are one people,” he added.

With the rise of advocacy around the world and vibrancy of movements such as Black Lives Matter around the world, Dr. Herrera is convinced that the time is right for all Africans and Afro – descendants in the diaspora to start liaising with the brothers and sisters back home to explore ways of contributing their quota to the development of the continent and the people. Explaining his point, he said: “without a doubt, when you come to Colombia, Afro – descendants have played a very important role in the development of the country, however, we are not accorded the needed acknowledgment and respect. We are in the minority and faced with a lot of obstacles from education to securing a decent job. I believe this should open the channel of communication and allow for more collaborations between us and our people back home for the purposes of growth and development on both sides.”

Dr. Herrera identified trade as an important tool to strengthen the bond which also comes with some commercial value. “The number of Afro – descendants in Colombia alone is enough to start a commercial revolution where we can start trading among ourselves. We lack African products, a lot of people will want to have African fabrics and outfits but it’s difficult to get them. Why can’t we start getting supplies from Ghana and the good thing is that there is a ready market for these items,” he revealed.

He added that “yes, we are far away from Africa, however, we are proud of our heritage and we want to be identified as Africans. You have no idea the number of people that have reached out to me before I arrived in Ghana and whilst here to get them things from Ghana, especially outfits and fabrics. This tells me it is possible and also viable to trade among ourselves as it comes with its long term benefits.”

In his concluding remarks, he encouraged everyone to start prioritizing things that they ought to do to advance our course as a people.

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