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The Zeńu, Colombia.

The Zeńu, Colombia.

I absolutely love what I do, getting into the most far flung regions of Latin America, working with incredible artisans, learning the traditions and how they make their stunning products. Sometimes it takes weeks of hitch-hiking on motorbikes or traveling down rivers to find new groups. Sometimes word of mouth and a bit of luck gets us right where we need to be.

Sat in a coffee shop in Bucaramanga someone asks me what I’m working on, looking over my shoulder, I quickly unleash a few of my recent adventures and what we are trying to do. Maria leans back deep in thought and says to me “I have a friend volunteering in a project in Cartagena that you may be interested in.” Often, this is how it all begins.



We call Ali in Cartagena and chat for about an hour about what we are both doing. She introduces me to Ana Maria of the Fem foundation based in the Old City of Cartagena. We hit it off straight away and within an hour I’ve booked a bus ticket the next day for the long journey to Cartagena.

Arriving in Cartagena we head to the Volunteer hostel where the Fem foundation has their base. They work with many projects in Northern Colombia but one in particular that I take a great interest in is Zenu people.

Straight away I sit down with Ana Maria and she walks me through the history of the Zenu. Originally from a lot further south, they were farmers for 1000’s of years. But the Guerilla warfare over the last 30 years pushed them from their homes and towards the big cities in the 90’s. This sudden influx led to mass discrimination of the Zenu pushing them into ghettos in the outskirts of the city.



Their artisanal skills lie in functional use, hand weaving beautiful hats from Flecha de Cana mainly selling to tourists. At first, they did well but with the local population seeing they are popular, they were quickly copied leading to an over-saturation of these products thus driving the prices down due to more competition. (Little economics lesson for you!) These hats, that can take three weeks to make sell at best for £8-£10 on the side of the road. In the 25 years since the Zenu arrived a lot of the traditions have been lost as they have had to adapt to city life. It was in the late 00’s they tried to change the products they make to better suit the local economy and to try and sell further afield.

This is where the Fem Foundation comes in, they have helped the group of nine women to buy a property where they can base themselves. Here they run classes for the women to learn about their culture and traditions. The project allows the women to bring their children when they are not in school to play and to learn. It has also created a base where they can work as a group and design new products.



I am spellbound by the stories and arrange to visit the project the next day with Dalia the leader of the group. Dalia picks us up in a taxi and takes us the 30 minutes journey out of the city. Moving away we quickly lose sight of the tourist haven of stunning streets and expensive restaurants and reach the ghettos on the outskirts. Being dropped off, there is a sense of unease around us with many looking on, checking us out. But with Dalia as our guide, everything is quickly calmed over. It’s important to us to work with people who are well known in the areas we approach to work, this trust is essential in building up strong relationships with the communities. Wandering through the back streets and up grassy slopes, we arrive at the small brick structure that the project calls home. We are invited in out of the blistering heat and given some cool refreshing water, all bottled as there is no drinkable tap water here.


Straight away I’m shown an array of different beautiful products, sombreros, bracelets and lamp shades. The artisans are as excited as I am showing me the different colours shapes and sizes. You can feel the pride they take in the work. It is visceral.





We are shown the materials they use and how everything is prepared. The core material is Flecha de Cana all sourced from other members of the Zenu who have in time moved back to the farms, thus ensuring that the entire process remains in the community from seed to product.


The Flecha de Cana is made into thin strips which are straw in colour. If required for the design it is then dyed using natural colourings.

It’s from here the true art begins, bringing together a number strands ranging from 11 to 22 for the more intricate designs. The individual strands are all weaved one over the other forming a tight beautiful design.



Talking us through the different colour schemes and designs nothing is there just to look pretty, everything tells a story.

The precision required in the work is incredible. We ask the time it takes to make the products and it ranges from three to four hours for a bracelet. Three days for a lampshade and from three weeks to a month for a fine sombrero.





We talk about the reasons for the designs and how they came about. Traditionally being farmers working in the sun for hours on end the skills came from the women making the sombreros for the men at work. They were made this way for 1000’s of years. When pushed to the cities, designs were tried to suit the new surroundings they found themselves in. Bracelets were something worn by all and a way they could still tell stories with the design and keep the weaving tradition alive.





The next day we return to meet all the families at the project and see them at work. This project really isn’t just about making products with the aim to sell. This is about the community and bringing everyone together. The women have a safe place to work and interact, the children have a place to come after school for homework and to play whilst their mothers work on projects and design.


The women are no longer alone fighting day to day here, but have formed a tight community; one that works together for the common good. For themselves, their families the wider community and for keeping their traditions alive.



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