La Guajira: Understanding the Wayúu

The most famous part of Wayuu culture are their colorful bags. These go for $20 while Arhuaco bags sell for $90.

I visited La Guajira twice in the past two weeks.  La Guajira is the Northernmost state in Colombia, bordering Venezuela and running along the Carribean coast.  Half of its population is indigenous.  I knew very little about the Wayúu before my colleague Santiago and I took a long Jeep ride with Juan Carlos, the Wayúu man who offered me a few insights into their indigenous culture last Friday.

La Guajira is in red.

“In the Wayúu culture of La Guajira, we can have as many wives as we can sustain.”

“Did I hear that right?” I wondered silently, figuring my Spanish had hit an all-time low and I mistranslated something.  I left Pakistan over a year ago, where polygamy is an accepted part of Islam–wasn’t I in Colombia now?

Wayúu Girl

Santiago, my 55-year-old male colleague laughed as he listened to what might be a man’s dream.

“My grandfather had 54 children from twelve wives.  Three of his wives were sisters.  I am a better version of my grandfather.  I have two wives and three children.”

These stories always fascinate me.  Do the wives know each other?  What did your grandfather do to support 54 children and twelve wives?  How do the women feel about this?  Where to begin?
I threw him a softball.

“If Wayúu culture is passed down through the mother, is it important then to have a Wayúu wife?  Are your wives Wayúu?”

“Neither of my current wives are Wayúu, but I plan to get myself a Wayúu wife later, when I am old, like 55 or 60.”


“The earth is the Mother (where have I heard this before?), she is static, fertile, waiting for the rain.  And we men, we are the clouds, we just rain, rain, rain all over the land.  Like bees, we pollinate many flowers.”

Santiago laughed harder, I took notes.  One couldn’t make this stuff up.

The evening continued.  I joined my colleagues for a celebration of Wayúu dance, a fiesta called the Guacherna, where they served moonshine, homemade Aguardiente, known as Chirrinche.  The highlight was listening to some of the best Vallanata bands playing my new favorite instrument, the Cuacharaca–imagine a washboard being played with a spoon.

In the morning, as Santiago and I took a taxi to the airport.  I continued asking him about the local Wayúu culture.  The cab driver interrupted to add, “My uncle had 46 children and seven wives–three were sisters.”

Could Julie, Kari and I share a husband?  Unlikely! (Sisters, if you are reading please call to discuss).

Would you rather allow your parents to select your spouse who you wouldn’t meet until the ceremony or share a spouse with your siblings?

If you had to pick, which you would opt for and why?

(Watch minute one to minute two to get a sense of this fabulous instrument–Cuacharaca– and then watch how it is played in the second video.  Really focus on the the Cuacharaca player in the second video. This song is the most famous song in Colombia right now.  This is Vallanato–the country western of musica latina and supposedly the best Vallanto bands come from La Guajira).


25 responses to “La Guajira: Understanding the Wayúu

  1. Woah — Colombian Big Love! I’d have to be First Wife. There’s no other way.

  2. Wow. Big Love, the Colombian edition. I can see it now.

    Do you ever get to talk to the women, or are they too busy dealing with all the fallout from the pollination?

  3. Ju and EM–

    First of all, what is Big Love? And second, neither of you answered the questions. What would you choose. Julianna, are you saying you would opt for letting your PARENTS select your spouse over having to share a spouse with your sisters?

    @EM, I didn’t find the women. Give me six months and I’ll be back up there doing focus groups.

  4. When I read Shabanu, about a Pakistani girl being married off to a man who already had four or five wives, I felt differently. Her thoughts were more about the community of women she would enter into with the marriage than with the singular man she would copulate with some evenings. Possibly those who marry a man who has already wed one of her sisters would rejoice — she gets to spend the rest of her life in family with her sister! For many women, getting married means total separation from her sisters; in contrast, sharing a husband with one of them might seem splendid.
    I think as an educated American woman this is all too difficult to imagine. But I would rather hear what’s it like from a woman than a man.

    • Excelent points Karen. I think 95% of my conversations about polygamous marriages have been with men. Getting access to women is much more difficult. I posted an article about women in journalism earlier tonight that gets at this. But in places like Pakistan, and less so in the tribal culture of Colombia, only women can talk to women. There are some great films and books about it. Arranged marriage is so common in Pakistan that it is easy to talk about. People, both men and women, see hug upsides. I guess there are lot of ways to do marriage. It is hard, nearly impossible, to get out of one’s cultural connotations and really embrace a totally different system.

  5. Amy, I can’t wait to hear back from your focus groups. As for Big Love:

  6. Loved the song! I think we already do share…don’t we? Ha ha!

  7. As for Big Love — one of HBO’s best dramas ever, now in its final season. You’d dig it. Some complex theological questions, and a compelling potrayal of a polygamist Mormon family in Salt Lake City.

    As for which choice I’d make: Karen’s post captures it. It’s so hard to imagine living in that kind of society, it’s hard to say. In our current society, I cannot imagine sharing a husband with my sisters, but if polygamy and arranged marriage were the norm, I think I’d probably be grateful for the alliance of sisters in that family — having fellow (how odd does that word seem in this context?) with whom to make decisions and aggregate familial power would alleviate loneliness and help facilitate a more influential collective (and individual) wifely voice. (I would imagine.)

    But I’d still be First Wife. Just call me Barb. (You have to Netflix the series, Amy. You’ll see what I mean.)

  8. PS: I don’t trust my parents to do ANYTHING.

    • Ok Barb. I will check this out. It sounds like a win win for you then. You get to be first wife, get to strategize with your sisters, and don’t have to trust your parents to do anything. I think I would opt, at this point for the arranged marriage scenarios. Since my parent’s are divorced the job would fall to my Brother, he would do a pretty good job, and my sister’s would have a say. I don’t think I could leave it to my parents though.

  9. Fascinating entry Amy! Just thought i’d clear a few things about polygamy in Islam, without being too preachy :)…first: you can’t marry sisters from the same family, second: the number has been limited to 4 wives and not more, third: you cannot, by Islamic law, marry a second woman without the consent of the first (that is not to say that this is not exploited). Will also like to add here that secret marriages are not lawfully accepted, i.e. a Nikah (or marriage ceremony) must be announced publicly in the form of a Walima function (dinner reception hosted by the groom). In its true spirit, polygamy was permitted to benefit women more than men – i.e, if she can’t have children, then instead of divorcing her (like they do in rural parts), one can bring a second wife, with the first one’s consent of course. Widows instead of being shunned away were allowed and encouraged to be married off respectfully. Similarly slave girls (history for most part now thankfully) were encouraged to be taken up as wives instead of objects of exploitation to better their status in society. Men have been warned that they must do justice to all wives, if they take up more than one, since they will be answerable for their actions and intentions towards their wives. A man’s obligations and duties towards his wife are pretty strict in Islam, which in turn discourages many to take up more than one wife. Cheers 🙂

    • Umair, I am grateful to hear how one of my dear friends explains the rational for polygamy in Islam. I wonder how Natalya, Anjum and Ammara would see it. My understanding was that it made sense as a system centuries ago, particularly after times of war when there were so few men and life without the protection of a man was impossible. But today, when women can get educated, earn an income, live on their own, don’t need to have children, don’t need to marry, I wonder if it is still defensible.

  10. Thank goodness for the global perspective. This is a tough topic to respond to online. I think you have seen a lot of interesting things.

  11. First, we all know that we could not share a husband and could you imagine the ultra-Christian dork mixed with Dads judgement for picking a husband ( and hey – let’s be fair, pick a bride for Brent???) NEVER!
    However, the above description of The practice of Islamic style sounds good on paper… The limited rights of woman overall to choose ANYTHING in their culture makes it a definite no for me. I’ll take the Colimbian style- I can at least disappear in the middle of the night to Santa market and know that I won’t be hunted by my husbands brothers uncles and possiblly my own father. Plus- the weather is better in Columbia.

    • Wowzers. There are many things that Pakistani women can and do choose. A lot of that has to do with economic status, as in so many countries, the poorer you are the fewer choices you have. So I guess you are saying if you had a choice, which is a sort of ridiculous question that I posed in the first place, to choose between which type of polygamy you might want to live with, you would choose the Colombian version. You make a good case, it is very disturbing to see male family members punish their daughter, sisters, and wives for disagreeing with the men they more or less belong too. I’m waiting and hoping for some of my Pakistani girlfriends to chime in here. Natalya, Ammara, Shamza, Sarah what do you think about polygamy and Islam?

  12. La herencia cultural es una huella indeleble en nuestro ser. Si vemos el asunto bajo el paradigama cultural nuestro, en donde la monogamia prima en la mayor parte de las relaciones, para muchos resultaría inceptable. Pero lo más importante aquí, es que este tipo de fenómenos sociales deben ser abordados no desde una perspectiva maniqueísta, sino desde la óptica de la diversidad, he aquí lo fascinante de vivir en un mundo plurilingüístico y multicultural.

  13. Very true and correct Amy…however, if you look at most rural parts of Pakistan, you realize how far back certain parts are and how certain practices we thought were medival still either make sense or are required in such parts. Hence, you see the incidence of legalized polygamy in rural Pakistan alot more than in the cities where education has changed alot of trends, some for good while others not so.

    Please do write more on different cultures you come across – its most fascinating 🙂 miss you!

  14. amy,
    can you bring a bag back for me . . . better yet with the contact info for a person that can weave a small production run for me?

    • AD–Of course I can. I will bring bags for the whole crew and a few names of female entrepreneurs who can weave these for you, they are all done by hand. Great colors eh?

  15. For awhile I was pushing polygamy…. the thought of coming home to a prepared dinner and having a trustworthy babysitter on hand…. Then Lars suggested that my real desire is for a staff. He’s probably right. 🙂

    I do think in a busy world where so many are feeling disconnected, there’s something appealing about polygamy in terms of the community of it–having a posse. I guess it’s the whole “it takes a village thing.”

    Speaking of Big Love, I’ve got an episode to watch with Lars….

    • We all need a wife, or a staff….hmmmm. It does take a village, which is why Sullivan has a house manager to manage the six people who keep her and her boyfriend afloat:) Who is going to chime in here and write the insightful analytical response about why Polygamy doesn’t make sense. I might have to reach out to a guest commenter: Diana Butler or Susan Penksa where are you?

  16. While this is probably neither analytical or insightful, it seems that it would be impossible to truly be yourself with multiple spouses. One of the best parts of marriage is the ability to be open and honest with someone and know that you are safe with them. It seems like a polygamist relationship would be more about managing emotions and time to not favor one over another. It also seems like there would be unending competition between wives – or at least there would be if it were a bunch of men married to one woman – which doesn’t seem like an enjoyable way to live.

    Oh, as for your original question – definitely I would rather have an arranged marriage than having to share a wife with brothers. That doesn’t sound fun at all!

  17. “The earth is the Mother (where have I heard this before?), she is static, fertile, waiting for the rain. And we men, we are the clouds, we just rain, rain, rain all over the land. Like bees, we pollinate many flowers.”

    Did that man make this up or is this a saying in their culture?

    By the way, in Islam, a man can’t have more than 4 wives at a time!

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