Culture of the Wayúu

The Wayúu Indígenas inhabit the La Guajíra peninsula, the northernmost part of Colombia and Venezuela. Traditionally, they live from hunting and fishing, cultivate maize, cassava, melons and beans, and gather wild fruits. They also rear livestock – hens, pigs, cows, goats and horses – having adopted the practice from their European conquerors. The pursuit of growth and development is alien to the Wayúu, as is the idea of amassing material wealth in excess of one’s needs. Their sense of time is not linear and their philosophy rests on the principle of Sumak Kawsay (“the good life”). Sumak Kawsay encompasses the material, social and spiritual well-being of every member of the community – but not at the expense of other communities, nor through the exploitation and depletion of natural resources. At the core of this worldview is the idea that all living things are interconnected and exist in an endless cycle of continuous renewal.
The Wayúu lead a deeply spiritual life in which rain – and Maleiwa, the god associated with it – play a central role. Dreams are also highly significant as a medium through which ancestors’ spirits can speak, for example to warn the living of possible dangers. Most Wayúu shamans are female.
The Europeans enslaved numerous members of the Wayúu; nonetheless, they failed to completely subjugate the people thanks both to the structure of Wayúu settlements – multiple small communities with 200 inhabitants at most – as well as their defensive capabilities. Even now, Colombia’s state authorities exert relatively little influence on them. The Wayúu live in extended families and family affiliation is matrilineal, meaning that children take their mother’s name.
A significant portion of the region inhabited by the Wayúu consists of tropical semi-desert, so the water supply is of crucial importance. The Río Ranchería river, the peninsula’s primary water source, flows straight through the coal-mining region. It also plays a central role in the spiritual world of the Wayúu.
The area in which the Wayúu live doesn’t just contain South America’s largest coal deposits: on the Venezuelan side, there are also significant oil reserves. Furthermore, several smuggling routes for drugs, petrol and other contraband pass through Wayúu territory in the border area between Colombia and Venezuela. Over the centuries, therefore, the Wayúu have become accustomed to dealing with threatening situations.