Beyond the walls of old Cartagena

Beyond the walls of old Cartagena

Yesterday the best event at Hay Cartagena took place, but it wasn’t in the program and it was far beyond the colonial theaters and little plazas of the beautiful old city.

Cartagena has two very distinct faces. The charming center, with wonderful restaurants and 5 star hotels, is a very small part of a very big, tough, south american city. 67% of Cartagenans live below the poverty line.

2 Hay fellows, the British Council and the British Ambassador went to visit one of the poorest neighborhoods, Pozon. Claudia, an inspiring teacher has started a library with the support of the festival and the British council, she began with two students, she now has 200. The majority of the students were girls, many pregnant or abused, many from broken families. We packed into a small classroom to hear speeches and questions. The ambassador spoke, the fellows, Tiffany Murray and Jon Gower read and spoke. We heard about the first student to go to university from the library, a 17 year girl, she’s going to study petro chemical engineering. Another 13 year old girl has just found out she’s pregnant, but she told us she wants to carry on focusing on her education.

I was fairly sure this was going to be one of those awkward affairs that often takes place in poor places around the world where dignitaries of some sort of another visit, with no real intention other than to shake hands with bemused looking people, often leaving a trail of cultural pollution in their wake. This was the antithesis of that. The Hay fellows truly inspired, the ambassador offered warm words of kindness and support, the girls were confident and intelligent and not intimidated by “important people”. They asked thoughtful, smart questions of the books by Jon and Tiffany, which they had read.

This library needs more books, needs more support and clearly deserves it. With Hay’s help the power of literature could truly transform the lives of some of the poorest young people in Colombia. It was a privilege to witness, thank you Pozon and thank you Hay for inspiring us to go beyond city walls and beyond the city limits of possibility.