In Choco, a corner of northwest Colombia dense with rainforests and crisscrossed with rivers, cooking is becoming an economic and social catalyst for women displaced by war.
In 2009, Ana Rosa Heredia, a cook both at heart and at work, co-founded a restaurant in Choco’s capital of Quibdo, where she teaches her female staff both how to cook as well as the life skills to be independent. An activist and zealous member of Cocomacia, the community council for the Atrata region for which the restaurant is named, Heredia's not interested in maintaining any kind of macho status quo. “I want us all to make progress, so that women aren’t just staying at home cooking for men. Sure, you can cook for your husband but he can also cook for you.” Her restaurant, just big enough to host a dozen small tables dressed with cheery fabrics and artificial flowers, hosts a wide range of customers and serves arepas, patacones, coconut rice, and ‘sweating [steamed] fish.’
Heredia survived one of the bloodiest episodes of the Colombian conflict—a massacre that decimated her town, Bojaya, in 2002. “I lost a niece there, as well as my partner. He never appeared, not even his corpse; all that’s left of him is his name. So many people got lost,” she remembers. While the conflict reached Choco relatively late—in the 90s—Quibdo contains tremendous numbers of internally-displaced people. Even after the peace agreement with the FARC was signed in November 2016, other groups that remain in the area continue to try to take over FARC’s vacant territories, and as a result, displacements remain the highest in the country. High unemployment and poverty also make life difficult. “It was really hard when I arrived because of discrimination. I left Bojaya with a bag and two of my kids. I can tell you that my younger son didn't finish school because he was called ‘the little displaced person.’ He was a kid and lost his self-esteem,” Heredia recounts.
“The kitchen helps us notice which women in our community are having a hard time,” she continues. In addition to running the restaurant, she gives workshops all around the region, including one with women who had demobilised from the FARC. “We talked about fear and survival with the women who were in the war and are now part of the peace agreement. We, as women, have to help them,” she explained.
“It’s a cycle. We get help, then we help others. That’s how things can change—and one of these changes is me,” says Lida Cuesta Perea, who was displaced in 2006 from Rio Fuerte, Antioquia, to Quibdo. Upon arrival, she benefited from the support of a series of both national and international NGOs.
Before Perea started her own anti-violence project, she worked at a restaurant that had a similar goal as Heredia’s, just a few blocks away, called La Paila de mi Abuela. A large warehouse-size restaurant framed with bamboo trunks, the restaurant has a similar menu to Cocomacio's, with a focus on traditional food. “Traditional food defines a region. Some dishes are part of our heritage and reflect all the diversity of Choco. It helps to carry on tradition, because in situations of conflict both the territory and the culture are impacted,” Perea says.
“And that’s only 2 percent of what we’re doing,” adds Mirla Valencia Davila, La Paila de mi Abuela’s manager. For 12 years, they’ve been working with 20 municipalities within Choco to educate and empower women. They’ve opened a shop for women to sell handmade crafts, organized training to prevent violence, and helped organize for women who want to get involved in politics. As Davila puts it, they are imagining scenarios in which women can project themselves and build confidence.
“Changing mentalities is always difficult, but it’s always possible. We are all responsible for what will happen in the future,” Mirla adds. “And that makes me happy to know that I am part of this group of women working together toward the transformation of public policy.”
Laurence Cornet and Gaia Squarci worked on this story as part of a reporting trip supported by IWMF, the International Women's Media Foundation.