This blog was originally written for ExChange The World.
Find out more about at Sustainable Development Goal 16, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.
Making peace through Bakongo
BAKONGO | Colombia
Everything started the day my aunt was kidnapped by FARC.1
When she got rescued and came back home she told me:
- Do not have hard feelings about what happened to us, do something instead.
These words stayed in the back of my head for many years.
I started my engineering studies but I felt I wanted to do something besides. I volunteered in every possible project I found at the university and with time I decided to create a network of young social entrepreneurs, by then it was the first of its kind in the region. I discovered there were a lot of young people who wanted to do something good, which is great, but they were spread apart. I also started to realize that the leaders we have, both here and around the world, lack empathy. And in Colombia we need a lot of empathy, otherwise the conflict will rise again.2
How can I build a new generation of transformative, empathic leaders? My answer is to teach them leadership through service. I will invite them to volunteer in different projects and I hope this way they can change their perspective, they become the leaders we need, and the things that happened to my aunt won’t happen again. I started 14 years ago. I had a lot of challenges, one of them was to change the narrative with which I invite young people to do something. Instead of inviting them to work for those poor kids I started to tell them that it was extremely fun to do it. I wanted them to fall in love with service. But I needed it to be fun, it wasn't at that time. So, I created a summer camp. A camp for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, like sons of prostitutes, homeless people, etc, co-created by university students. It’s called Bakongo.
Bakongo is the name of an African tribe, but for the people involved in the project it didn't have a meaning. It was their task to make it meaningful.
It turned absolutely amazing, we gathered kids, we taught them a lot about values, but the most important thing is that camps became a transformative experience for volunteers. That’s what I wanted. People became really passionate about the social work, so after the camp I was giving them more tools to serve. I also started to be invited to different events about youth and leadership. I was 19, people would be surprised to see me on the stage. I started firstly in Colombia, then I went abroad. I’ve been in 21 countries so far, nearly all continents, sharing the experience that was born here.
Few years after I finished university. I wanted to work, but what if my boss told me: “You cannot do that anymore. You cannot go to camps”. My answer was to keep the entrepreneurial way and build a legal firm. My dad is a lawyer. I’m not, but I convinced him to quit his job and start a little business. He also agreed that I could dedicate half of my time to the NGO and half to the firm. I worked 7 years in the legal sector. It was a small firm at the beginning, but a year ago we merged with another company and now it’s one of the top firms for labour issues in the country. When that happened I quit. But that's another story.
While working in the legal sector I still kept traveling, speaking about our NGO experience. In one of these meetings I met Kate Robertson, the founder of One Young World. She asked what I did, so I told my story. Then she asked why, and I said I believe that my country needs to reconcile and this is my way to invite my generation to do something. Then she said:
- That sounds great! We are organizing a big event in Dublin. We do a panel about youth and peace, we have people from Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan, Mali and Congo. Maybe you come to represent Colombia and tell your story?
I thought it great. But then she goes:
- But don't come alone. Why don’t you come with a former guerrilla soldier from the FARC?
No way. They kidnapped my aunt. I don’t want to.
- Why don’t you ask your aunt?
I came back and I asked her. She started to cry. She told me about a FARC soldier who tried to support her during her captivity. Before going to sleep he made sure she was fine. At the beginning of the day he tried to give her a cup of coffee as first, they had only one cup for everybody. My aunt is disable, she couldn’t walk much. Guerrillas had to move constantly, as the army was chasing them. Many times he carried her and in one of those moments she whisper to him:
- Why don’t you run away, you are as kidnap as I am and I know that all you want is to be with your family.
He said nothing. But next day when they were alone and nobody could hear them, he came to her and asked:
- Grandma (that's how they called her), if one day I will be out of here, would you take a coffee with me?
She said no.
- Not at this time, because you are making my family suffer a lot. Maybe one day.
Since she got rescued she never saw him again. But now she told me: go, find a guy like him and take him to Dublin. Take a cup of coffee in my name.
I tried to find the same guy, but it didn't work out. Instead, with the help of the government I found Regis.
We flew to Dublin together. The flight got delayed 4 hours so we started to talk. I told him my all life, the first time to someone like him, I didn’t try to hide anything. And he did the same. It was amazing. When I was a student leader in a private university of Bogota, he was a student leader in a public university of Cartagena. When the conflict got harsher he had to hide himself, got protection from the guerrilla and then they didn’t let him go because he was already in. I got my aunt kidnapped by the guerrilla. And many years later we ended up together in this airport starting a long-lasting friendship. He invited me for his wedding. I involved him in different NGO actions. Once he delivered a speech. My father and my sister were there. Then, he participated in one of our events and my mother was there. Little by little we made my family to hear his story. This helped us a lot and I wanted other families to experience the same.
I told Regis I have this camp, called Bakongo. Why don’t we use that as an excuse? Why don’t you invite ten of your friends, ex-rebel soldiers, and I will invite ten of my friends, young people, leaders, also victims of the FARC in a way or another, and let’s try to make a team and challenge ourselves to create a summer camp for kids. The idea was for volunteers to arrive on Saturday and kids to arrive on Wednesday, so we would have the days in between to create a team.
Let's do it! – he said.
When I was trying to invite my friends to this experience, they called me crazy.
- You want me to go for one week in the mountains with guerrilla soldiers?!?
For him it was almost the same:
- What should we do there with those fancy guys?
At the end we did it. It’s the most amazing experience that ever happened. I could speak hours about it. Just let me give an example. I invited Camilla, a granddaughter of the former Minister of Defence, involved in peace talks. The FARC kidnapped him and killed him. When she arrived at the meeting point she met Diana, they had some chemistry, started talking, then went for a coffee and sat together on the bus. That's where Camilla asked:
- Diana, where do you work?
- I work with the government helping guerrilla soldiers to come back to society.
- Because I was one of them.
We had time and space to share our stories. We prepared a wonderful camp for kids. Camilla had the chance to share a big hug with Diana. They shared their stories with their families. Camilla went to national media to say what happened. Before going to the camp she told me she would never tell her grandmother about this. And there she was, speaking in front of the nation.
After the camp my aunt told me she wanted to meet him.
- With your grandma, we want to invite Regis to have a cup of coffee.
And so we did. We talked together for 4 hours.
We wanted to organize another camp, to bring more people from different conflict sides together, but we struggled with money. In Europe governments give some money to NGOs, in the USA the private sector plays a role in sponsoring charities. Here, none of those solutions work. We even hired a person dedicated to fundraising, but we couldn't make it. I was very frustrated.
But with frustration lots of creativity raises as well. We are the kind of people for whom giving up is not an option. We started again this year with a different idea. We are setting an online game. We took characters from the camp and created a game which offers people online challenges. We monetized the game to find funds for next camps.
Technology becomes for me the way to not only raise money, but also scale up what we do. We created different apps, for example Real Giver, which helps to manage volunteers in an easy way. My dream is to have this kind of organization in other countries, I'm working on that. Technology is part of the equation.
What drives me to keep going is the fact that what we do really works. We had 208.000 hours of community service done by people who joined the project. And many of them became real leaders. Maria Fernanda for example is in Korea now, working on a project for 1.8 million people. Carlos is a magician and he brings magic to kids in slums. Daniel took six young people working with him to Europe. They are bike lovers and he challenged them to go through Camino de Santiago. I asked him:
- Why didn’t you organize a ride here instead of going to another continent?
- Because I’m not training their legs, I'm training their minds. I’m changing their perspective of life.
Involving young people may not be easy at the beginning, we are told to use our passions and talents for making money. I don’t say it’s bad, it’s just incomplete. You have to use them for something else, something greater. And when people do it, they find purpose in life. Or they find a path to find purpose in life. And that’s huge.
To engage them in service is a bit like trying to make someone fall in love with you. You don't really push it, you try with a sexy outfit, being gentle, lots of details, and that’s what the summer camp is about. I want them to fall in love with this way of living and if they do, they will find a way to act.
Everything starts with the action. Let me tell you a little story.
There are two frogs on a leaf going down a river. One frog decides to jump into the water. How many are still on the leaf?
- No, two. Because there is a big difference between deciding to jump and doing it. Stop thinking too much, just do it.
The formula is very simple: change the life of just one person. But change it for real. And you will know that you managed, if your life changed too.
1. If you have seen the TV series Narcos you know something about it. FARC was a guerrilla movement involved in the civil war in Colombia. Its military operations were funded mainly through producing and distributing drugs and ransoming civilians.
2. The conflict just came to an end and still today sees last ditch efforts. FARC and other guerrilla groups were fighting for rural people's rights and social justice through communism. The government and the paramilitary groups wanted to keep order and stability and protect the citizens and their interests. External geopolitical dynamics also played a major role and added to the chaos. All sides had claims as well as their share of crimes and atrocities. During this 5-decade-long civil war more than 5 million people were displaced and 220.000 died, mostly civilians.
Picture: Colombia, September 2018. From the left Andrea Pucci, Daniel Buritica - Bakongo founder, Anna Książek in a cafeteria in Bogota.