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Wayuu people

Colombia's abandoned Wayuu people

Wayuu (also Wayu, Wayúu, Guajiro, Wahiro) is an American Indian ethnic group of the Guajira Peninsula in northern Colombia and northwest Venezuela


The Wayuu inhabit the arid Guajira Peninsula straddling the Venezuela-Colombia border, on the Caribbean Sea coast. Two major rivers flow through this mostly harsh environment: the Rancheria River in Colombia and the El Limón River in Venezuela representing the main source of water, along with artificial ponds designed to hold rain water during the rain season.


The territory has equatorial weather seasons: a rainy season from September to December, which they call Juyapu; a dry season, known by them as Jemial, from December to April; a second rainy season called Iwa from April to May; and a long second dry season from May to September.


According to a 1997 census in Colombia, the Wayuu population numbered approximately 144,003 – representing 20% of Colombia's total Amerindian population and 48% of the population of the Department of La Guajira. The Wayuu occupy a total area of 4,171 square miles (10,800 km2) within approximately ten Indian reservations, eight of which are located south of the Department (including a major one called Carraipia).


Wayuu communities are not uniformly distributed within these territories as their population is concentrated primarily in the outskirts of such settlements as Nazareth and Jala'ala, on the plains of Wopu'muin and Uribia, and within the municipalities of Maicao and Manaure, where population densities are some of the highest in the peninsula. This irregular distribution is intimately related to seasonal changes in the weather – during the dry season, a significant percentage of the population crosses the border into Venezuela to work in the city of Maracaibo and its nearby settlements; once the rainy season begins, these Wayuu tend to return to their homes on the Colombian side.


The Wayuu people refer to themselves simply as "Wayuu" and do not acknowledge the term "Indian", preferring instead the term "people". They use the terms Kusina or "Indian" to refer to other ethnic indigenous groups, while using the term Alijuna (essentially meaning "civilized") to refer to outsiders or persons of European ancestry.


Children are born at home, assisted by the mother-in-law or the nearest female relative and represent for the Wayuu, preferring to feed children first and following strict diets when the survival of children is not assured.

Puberty is not very important among boys, but girls are exposed to rituals as early as 12 years old or when they start menstruating, requiring them to go through a period of seclusion for anywhere from two months up to two years. The girl is obliged to have her head shaved and to rest in a hammock hung near the house. She is also fed with a special vegetarian diet called Jaguapi, and bathes frequently.


She is taught such skills as weaving, cooking, and how to "be" with her husband. Her existence is the leader of the society. The women are shamans and politicians, which explains why the puberty ritual focuses more on women than men. The Wayuu want their women to be full of wisdom and maturity. A Wayuu girl is taught female tasks such as sewing and is instructed on how to become a woman, including about birth control and pregnancy. The Wayuu also practice polygamy – only the man may have multiple wives. Nearly all marriages are arranged and accompanied by a dowry. Young girls are promised to men of the clan as young as 10–12 years old, around the time they are becoming of child-bearing age. The perceived intention is to wed her to a man before risking that she become pregnant out of wedlock or arrangement, a cause of great social shame for the Wayuu, and specifically for the woman's family's honor and credibility.


The Wayuu believe that the life cycle does not end with death, but that a relationship with one's bones continues. Burials are very important. The relatives of the dead act in a certain way: first, the cadaver is buried with personal belongings, and then, after two years, the body is exhumed, incinerated, put into ceramics, and buried once again in the clan's cemetery.



A Wayuu rancheria

A traditional Wayuu settlement is made up of five or six houses that made up caserios or rancherías. Each ranchería is named after a plant, animal or geographic place. A territory that contains many rancherias is named after the mother's last name because of the matriarchal structure of the Wayuu culture. The Wayuus never congregate into towns, and rancherias are usually isolated and far from each other to control and prevent mixing of their goat herds.


Typical Wayuu rectangular "day house" with hammocks by the Caribbean Sea.

The typical house is a small structure called a piichi or miichi, generally divided into two rooms where they hang hammocks to sleep and to keep personal belongings such as cotton made purses and ceramics to keep water. Living quarters can be either rectangular or semi-circular, and the rooftop is made up of dried cactus hearts. Traditionally, the walls are made out of yotojoro – a wattle and daub of mud, hay and dried canes, but some of them have shifted towards a more modern construction style, using cement and other materials.

Close to the main house they erect a common area, similar to a living room and called a luma or enramada, but almost in the open. Built of six pillars and with a flat roof, it serves as a common area for everyday duties and to attend to visitors and business activities. Family members hang their hammocks in the room for the noon nap.

The dagger cactus (Stenocereus griseus), which the Wayuu call yosú, is the preferred source of roofing material and yotojoro wood. This plant is used for many other purposes: it can be planted to produce living fences around pastureland, and the young shoots are fed to goats. The fruit (iguaraya) is edible and pitahaya-like and are a popular food among the Wayuu. Because the demand for yosúas food or for wood can be seasonally high, the plant population at times declines to a point where little fruit or cuttings for fences are available. It has thus been proposed to develop techniques by which the Wayuu can cultivate and tend the cactus as a proper crop.


The word Yotojoro originally referred to the cane-like inner wood of the yosú cactus. Given the varying availability of sufficient yosú wood for construction, other plants are also utilized.


Wayuu handcrafted mochilas woolen bags

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