The Wayúu, commonly known as Guajiros, are a group that inhabits many parts of Latin America. They have been able to maintain their culture throughout time. They have their own language, Wayúunaiki, and live mostly in the Guajira peninsula, at the north of Colombia and northwest of Venezuela, near the Caribbean Sea.
This region’s weather is warm and dry, showered by the Rancheria River (Colombia) and El Limon River (Venezuela). It has two main seasons, capitalized by an initial rainy season, called Juyapu, which lasts between September and December. Subsequently comes the drought season, known as Jemial, which starts in December and ends in April. Lastly comes the second rainy season, Iwa, overcoming a long dry season; this season goes from May to September.
According to recent census, the Wayúu population is said to total approximately 438,000 people; 33% are in Colombia and the remaining 67% live in Venezuela. Nevertheless, the population tends to migrate between both countries given job opportunities, climate change and other factors. This frequent migration to urban centers has created drastic poverty among the Wayúu.
It is an inhospitable region where pastoralism and tradition mix with small-time retail and smuggling, thanks to the porous border between Colombia and Venezuela – a dividing line that sets no barriers for the Wayuú on either side.
In this forgotten corner of Latin America and the Caribbean, almost half of them indigenous, the basic needs of 65.2 per cent of the population are unmet. Indigenous children and adolescents, as well as pregnant women, are the most vulnerable. The data is explicit: the maternal mortality rate in La Guajira is 180.9 per 100,000 live births, while the regional average is 69 and the national average is 51.27. However, among the indigenous population, the rate soars to 242 per 100,000 live births, higher than Zambia (224) and closer to Nepal (258).
Another unfavourable figure for the Guajiros is the infant mortality rate, with 18.6 per 1,000 live births: 3.6 points above the regional average (15) and 7.45 points above the national average (11.15), in a territory where almost 430,000 people are children and adolescents.
The Wayúu are among the few ethnic groups that have been able to avoid European acculturation along the centuries. They speak Wayúunaiki which is a part of the linguistic family known as Maipurean (Arawak).
The Wayúu families are part of a clan-organized society, among which we have the Ulewana, Epieyú, Uriana, Ipuana, Pushaina, Epinayú, Jasayú, Arpushana, Jarariyú, Wouriyú, Urariyú, Sapuana, Jinnu, Sijona, Pausayú, Uchayar’u, Uriyú, Warpushana, Worworiyú, Pipishana and Toctouyú. The biggest populations belong to the Epieyú, Uriana andIpuana clans. As it is for most families, traditional authority exists, as well as an autochthonous administrative system for justice among its members, in whichpütchipü or pütche’ejachiis, the most well-known; it means that it is a spokesman who solves conflict among different clans.
Before marriage, the groom-to-be must reach an agreement with the woman’s parents in a meeting known as ápajá, where he must give an agreed amount of cattle and jewelry to them. The woman remains at home as a symbol of respect and unity.
Unlike most societies, their family core is matrilineal. This means that the children will possess their mother’s last name rather than their father’s. The Wayúu women are the central figure in the family. Their presence symbolizes pride and respect. While men are responsible for finding food and resources, women are in charge of staying at home and educating their children in their culture and beliefs.
Men transmit their knowledge about shepherding, hunting, fishing and construction to their descendants. It is not the father’s obligation to educate the younger ones, but the maternal uncle’s responsibility. This responsibility falls on their children once the uncle passes away.
For the Wayúu, cattle are its most important source of richness and are considered to be their main point of pride. Even though it is used for commerce, it is also exchanged in a non-economical manner, in order to seal matrimonial bonds, as a right over descendants or to compensate for crimes, solve conflicts and establish peace. Also, the shepherd associates his cattle with rituals and his vital cycle.
Moreover, there is a person of major importance within the Wayúu community, the “Piachi,” who has obtained spiritual power throughout its imaginative experience and virtues obtained while dreaming or in trance, which can be interpreted as the assimilation of bodies by the protector spirit known as Seyuu, therefore, being called upon to heal others.
The Wayúu customs and traditions are quite numerous, among which they have the welcoming on behalf of the Cacique, the lucid arrival of the Majayura, the Wayúu heritage, their mourning and exhumation of human remains and the Piachi.
Art and knitting also form part of their customs. They are a symbol of creativity, intelligence and wisdom for the Wayúu community, therefore, the labor of knitting is a hereditary practice passed on among many generations.
The Wayúu women learn how to make handbags (known as Susus in Wayúunaiki) during puberty, in a stage of their lives known as “Blanqueo.” During this period, women can only be near their female relatives who are responsible for explaining all of the functions and the social behavior of the Wayúu women.
The majority of the designs in their knitting are geometrical shapes. Each bag is done solely by one person; therefore, each design is guaranteed to be unique. The labor put into making these bags is quite intricate, as it takes approximately twenty 8-hour days to finish just one of these Susu-bags. Wayúu women also create objects such as pots and pans to be used at home, using clay made of white arsenic rocks. These pots are used to drain the grease from the “piedra de Molino.” Mythology is also important for the Wayúu. It is reflected in their local crafts, whose shapes and colors represent their communities’ beliefs.