Celebrating Carnaval in South America, Kiva Fellows Style!

20 February 2010 at 05:31 8 comments

Carnaval! The excitement summoned up by uttering those words: Carnaval!

Carnaval is a very interesting holiday for all sorts of reasons, and is celebrated in a variety of forms all across South America, most of which involve colorful costumes, thumpingly loud music, crazy line dancing and (if you’re lucky) some kind of substance rubbed into your head, ranging from shaving cream to flour. Kiva Fellows currently stationed across South America took a brief break from their workloads  in order to scope out the scene …

Rob Packer, KF10 Colombia

Every year, Barranquilla hosts one of the world’s largest carnivals—also the biggest festival in Colombia. For the four days of Carnavales and the weeks of Precarnavales before, the city comes to a standstill as various roads are closed to be filled with brightly-coloured, traditional carnival characters and cumbiamberos (cumbia dancers).

Having lived in Barranquilla for just over a month, everything has been building up towards Carnaval for the past month: there are borrowers at the Fundación Mario Santo Domingo who derive almost all of their annual income from producing items for Carnaval, and there are borrowers I’ve visited who’ve decorated their house with carnival characters or have part of their business based on the Carnaval.

The part of Carnaval that I’ve enjoyed most has been the letanías: something I’d never heard of until I arrived in Barranquilla. These are minstrel-like improvised satirical rhymes with subject matters ranging from international politics to the appearance on the onlookers, told by groups of around five people who accompany Carnaval parades. Often crude, full of costeño words and local and national news of the last year you might not have heard of, they can often be quite hard to understand: unless they’re about something you know. In the spirit of Barranquilla’s Carnaval, the staff at FMSD wrote their own letanía about what had happened over the past year, and here’s the section on Kiva:

El Carnaval es goza y goza              Carnival is all enjoyment
Y toda la gente está muy activa      And everyone is very active
Y hasta metemos en la recocha      And we even make a mess
Al man que vino con Kiva.                With the guy who came from Kiva.

Ese man es gente buena                    This guy is a good person
Pero le vamos a echá maicena       But we’re going to throw flour at him

El de Kiva no se baja en un hotel   The Kiva guy doesn’t stay in a hotel
Tiene miedo hay gente tesa             He’s scared there are difficult people
Y es por eso que Liney                       And that’s why Liney has
Le tiene alquilá una pieza                Rented him a room

De día lo lleva donde sea                  She takes him here and there by day
Y de noche le gatea                            And at night he’s on curfew

Al Kiva le gusta le lealtad                                   He likes the loyalty
Del microempresario, también su garra     Of the entrepreneur, and their grit
Y eso que no fue al mío en Soledad/And he didn’t even go to mine in Soledad
Pa que meta butifarra                                          To put in the butifarra*

Que busque su Sisben de inmediato      He should get his social security
Porque va a parecer un pato                  Before he starts looking like a duck

*(a type of sausage from Barranquilla)

Josh Wilcox, KF10 Ecuador

The Bolivar province has the most renowned Carnaval festivities in all of Ecuador leading up to Lent, culminating with the biggest parade of all in the capital city of Guaranda on Sunday. Each major city within the province has their own specific days during the week to parade, dance, and celebrate Carnaval. People move from town to town to see all the extravagant parades, floats, and rehearsed dances. Everyone from kindergarten schools to professional dance groups show off their dance moves as they follow the parade route circling the city.

Working with Kiva field partner Cooperativa San José, I was able to participate in the dances in the parades throughout Carnaval with the MFI. Being a 6’3″ gringo (white person) in Ecuador and dancing at the front of the group does not exactly help take the target off my back, however, as merciless children all armed with water balloons and carioka (foam spray) first aim at the eyes, then cover you from head to toe. And once completely drenched in water and foam, someone is guaranteed to come rub it all in with polvo (powder) on your face and hair.

After the parade finally wraps up, the party is just beginning because each day, a dance with live music typically begins following lunch. The music at these dances typically encompasses all types of genres, ranging from salsa and folk music to Daddy Yankee’s reggaeton, and even Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”. Drinks are shared among friends, the most popular of which being Pilsener beer and pajaro azul, a famous Ecuadorian hard liquor.

The food during this time of year is also just as traditional as the dancing. Chancho (pig) in the form of hornado (roasted pork) or fritada (fried pork) and cuy (guinea pig) are ubiquitous throughout the week. Chiwiles (ground corn filled with cheese wrapped in a corn stalk leaf) and mote (boiled corn) are other accompanying dishes that also are commonly prepared only during the Carnaval season.

While the after effects of an entire week of festivities are a bit rough on the body, I’m already looking forward to hopefully returning to experience it all over again in 2011!

Sheethal Shobowale, KF10 Bolivia

The Friday before carnaval, I was working on Pro Mujer’s borrower verification (an entrepreneur audit we do for all Kiva partners) and it was obligatory to dress up in costume. Here I am in one of Pro Mujer’s classroom with the group Qantati, dressed as a pepina (a sort of clown), the character with the most spirit at carnaval in the department of La Paz. At the end of the festivities, there is a ceremony to bury the pepino to signal the end of carnaval. During the next year’s carnaval, the pepino is exhumed and the festivities begin again.

On Saturday of Carnaval, I went with another fellow, Adam Kemmis Betty (KF10, ProMujer), and a couple other friends to Oruro, which is reknowned for the biggest carnaval in Bolivia. It was unbelievable. The costumes of the dancers in the parade were phenomenal. We got hit with water balloons and water guns and fired back with foam. We ate the typical dish from Oruro, charquekan, dried llama for lunch in the parade stands in the main plaza of Oruro. It was a blast!

Julie Pachico, KF10 Colombia

I’m currently working in Bucaramanga, a city in northeastern Colombia close to the Venezuelan border, with a brand new Kiva partner that will hopefully be going live on the website sooner rather than later.  Last weekend I made my way up to Barranquilla in order to witness and take part in the craziness: the drag queens, the conga lines, the animal-themed masks, the men covered in black paint running around with spears (this is not a P.C. festival), the flour and foam attacks, and best of all, the marimondas. Apparently the marimonda costumes are meant to represent spirits from the jungle that attack the people who cut down the trees and hurt the animals (kind of like a meaner, Colombian version of the Lorax). In the parades, they appeared with elephant-like masks and colorful suits that were meant to represent their shapeshifting abilities. They were definitely my favorite characters of the parade–it was their spastic dancing that won me over. You can see a few in the video below, starting around 0.38 seconds.

I actually spent the majority of the weekend with friends in Campeche, a small town 40 minutes outside of Barranquilla that felt straight out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story. It was interesting to see the carnaval festivities in a small rural town after watching the epic extravaganza that was the Barranquilla celebrations. In Campeche the parades were a lot more small scale, but also felt more traditional. There were quite a few interesting sights, like the guys dressed up as fake narcos, handing out fake money with Homer Simpson’s face on it, or the man who shoved a pink plastic bowl of wet noodles at me, or the crowd of masked revelers who mobbed us, screaming and spraying water and foam and flour, after their leader shouted into the megaphone, Everybody say hello to the gringos! Needless to say Carnaval is an excellent occasion to ponder the meaning of community as everyone gathers together to celebrate in their respective ways. And of course, eventually everyone goes back to work as normal: the Kiva Fellows return to writing their Process Manuals, microfinance institution staff return to busily typing away and receiving clients, microfinance borrowers reopen their businesses, and even the marimondas must slink away to return to their jungle-guarding duties. You can watch a video of the Campeche parade below.

Make a loan on Kiva to a South American entrepeneur!

Entry filed under: All, blogsherpa, Bolivia, Colombia, Cooperativa San Jose, Ecuador, Fundacion Mario Santo Domingo, KF10 (Kiva Fellows 10th Class), Pro Mujer Bolivia. Tags: , , , , , , , .

And where have all the Journals gone? Pains and pleasures of Kiva’s P2P principles


  • 1. Irotama  |  9 April 2010 at 06:11

    Oh, and that “voluntarily agree…” bit is a nod to the ICJ’s decision in the case concerning the Arrest Warrant of 11 April 2000 where the World Court declared that Belgium was under an obligation to “voluntarily” quash a warrant issued in violation of the personal immunity of the Congolese foreign minister.

  • 2. Irotama  |  8 April 2010 at 12:29

    Después de 96 horas contínuas de disfraces, bailes y canciones, durante las cuales orquestas y equipos de sonido molieron porros, guarachas, vallenatos, salsas y merengues, el Miércoles de Ceniza la ciudad amaneció tan tranquila como si nada hubiera ocurrido.http://irotamaresort.com/ La gente madrugó para continuar el trabajo rutinario, invadida por el cansancio y bajo el imperio del “guayabo”, pero satisfecha de haber disfrutado plenamente la tradicional y cada vez más animada festividad.

  • […] section of a blog on Kiva Stories from the Field, for the full blog including Ecuador and Bolivia, click here. Check out the site for blogs from other Kiva Fellows across the […]

  • 4. evacwu  |  24 February 2010 at 17:02

    Haha awesome post and videos guys! *thumbs up* Rob, that letania was priceless! Thanks for the translated lyrics so I could chuckle along with the crowd in the video 😀

  • 5. joshpwilcox  |  22 February 2010 at 06:11

    Rob – Daddy Yankee? No fair! We had Elvis Crespo in Guaranda, which was a pretty good show. Apparently Makano was supposed to show up but didn’t come in the end.

  • 6. robpacker  |  20 February 2010 at 10:52

    Josh – Daddy Yankee was in Barranquilla! Te tiraste un paso?

  • 7. Jan & John, KivaFriends  |  20 February 2010 at 10:40

    Wonderful fun, thanks… I sent the link to our friend Tia (at Team Tia http://www.kiva.org/team/loan_around_the_globe_for_tia ) … I thought she would enjoy as she just celebrated Carnaval in Spain. -jan-

  • 8. david  |  20 February 2010 at 07:41

    Awesome post, everyone! I’m super jealous. Ica doesn’t really do the whole carnaval thing, but I’ve been talking longingly to some of the staff here from northern Peru where i guess the celebrations get pretty raucous.

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