June 2020

Putumayo (not the record label)

At WEbuilding one of our goals is to contribute in the development of rural population through education and essential infrastructure that creates opportunities for young people. We are pairing with Catalina Muñoz Foundation to build two new school buildings needed at the public school “Centro Educativo Madre Laura“, located in the Santiago municipality of the Putumayo department in southern Colombia.

This is a vast and multi-faceted region and its name derives from the Putumayo River, which is born east of the city of Pasto; and as it pours into Brazil it is called Içá. The Putumayo is a tributary of the Amazon River, and it has been written about in fiction and non-fiction accounts for at least a couple of centuries. The area called Putumayo in these writings does not obey however to strict departmental boundaries, but to looser and expansive limits regarding the Amazon region of Colombia, and even beyond political frontiers.

Perhaps the most well-known narrative about this region in Colombia is The Vortex, a novel published in 1924 by José Eustasio Rivera, a frontier fiction which has also been classified as Latin American Regionalism or “earth novel”. In it, the Putumayo River and the jungle become a set in which the author represents many subjects, like the fluidity of borders, the diversity of identities, culture, and people in Colombia and South America, the importance of local and ancestral knowledge, and the internalized colonization which governments and companies kept imposing on indigenous groups after political independence from European countries.

In one of W.G. Sebald’s most popular novels, The Rings of Saturn, he talks about Roger Casement, a British Foreign Office diplomat who in the early twentieth century set out to the Putumayo River to investigate allegations against the Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC)—of British-Peruvian ownership. All these allegations included but where not limited to enslaving, torture, starvation, murder, and other atrocities towards Putumayo’s indigenous communities and foreign workers, as retold in Casement’s private journal and testimonies he compiled. Both “The Vortex” and Casement’s accounts are unbelievable, the first fiction inspired by truth, and the second truth suitable for fiction.

A bit to the southeast, yet still in the realm of these natural borderlands, is the series Green Frontier. A thriller about a detective investigating a strange murder in a port town between Colombia and Brazil. With a nonlinear narrative the story unfolds a wealth of imagery and conflict regarding the region. It is centered on a secret that preserves the jungle, hence the world. This series set in current times takes us back to older representations of the Amazon written by foreign and national “explorers” as either an Eden or a Green Hell; researched in Lesley Wylie´s Colombia’s Forgotten Frontier: a literary geography of the Putumayo.

Although this river and region are far away from Bogota, the capital city of Colombia, and even further from the social imagery linked to this country, they have played an influential role in its history and culture and produced powerful texts.  

African Culture Stories 1: A quick look at Ghanaian cinema

Welcome to our African culture thread!  In these posts, we will be taking a closer look at some aspects of the cultural life of the countries where WEbuilding’s projects are happening. We hope they pique your curiosity!

“Ghanaian cinema.” What comes to mind? I wasn’t sure either, but as it turns out, the seventh art in Ghana has a turbulent and fascinating history. From its beginnings – in the 1940’s, when it first became widely accessible – cinema in Ghana was linked to politics: the big screen was an important propaganda tool of the British colonial government (to rally support for the war effort, among other things).

This cinema-politics connection continued well after the country’s independence in 1957. In 1964, President Kwame Nkrumah established the Ghana Film Industry Corporation, to restore cinema to the people and foster national pride and self-determination. In the two years until Nkrumah’s overthrow in 1966, the GFIC produced over 150 films that served (as filmmaker Kofi Bucknor explains in this informative video about the early history of cinema in Ghana) as a “tool for having Ghanaians understand what governance was about.”

In the subsequent political turmoil, the Ghanaian film industry entered a period of decline, until the country’s first independent film hit theatres in 1981. This was Kwaw Ansah’s Love Brewed in the African Pot, a love story set in the colonial period that quickly became a classic, winning the UNESCO award for best cultural film. On the difficulty of financing his production in the face of a government-dominated film industry, Ansah recalls: “It took me about eight years. Finally, the bank gave me an audience. But then they wanted a fixed asset. I was working, I didn’t even have a car.” Luckily for Ansah (and for the history of African cinema) his father-in-law saved the situation by offering his house as collateral.

Ghana’s European cinematic breakthrough came two years later with Kukurantumi, the Road to Accra, by award-winning actor-director King Ampaw. Incidentally, this film – one of the first Ghanaian movies to be aired on European television – is set in the same region of Ghana as Koforidua, the site of WEbuilding’s River of Blessing Academy school project.

At the same time, with the advent of video in the 1980s, an independent amateur VHS film scene began to develop. Self-proclaimed directors would create their own scripts and film them with amateur actors. “It fell to people who had money to buy a video camera and shoot, it wasn’t about the quality of acting, it was just to put something on camera,” actress Anima Misa Amoah recalls. “So, in that period a lot of people got involved who had no idea of how to direct a movie.” But those were the times, and there was a cultural vacuum to fill.

Thirty-five years on, this grassroots approach continues to inform Ghanaian films, which are becoming increasingly present on the international scene. In 2019, The Burial of Kojo, a micro-budget local production by the 38 year-old hip-hop and visual artist Blitz Bazawule, became the first Ghanaian film to be released on Netflix, after winning numerous nominations and awards at the 15th Africa Movie Academy Awards. Since 2017, Accra also hosts the Ndiva Women’s Film Festival.

The Rex Cinema in Accra
(source: cinematreasures.org/)