In Memoriam

Alfredo Molano | The sociologist of the forgotten, a wholesome human being

1 November 2019

by Boaventura de Sousa Santos

At one o'clock in the morning on October 31, 2019, Alfredo Molano passed away, a few hours after the cruel murders in Northern Cauca, a few hours before many other murders that are tainting with blood and pain our zest for life and our determination to struggle for a fair, dignified and peaceful Colombia. In these circumstances I hardly have time to mourn the death of my best friend, Alfredo Molano, one of the most brilliant activist intellectuals of the twentieth century and probably one of the most misunderstood.

We had a common teacher, Orlando Fals Borda (OFB). From him we learned that the science of the peasants, of the natives and other forgotten, humiliated and silenced peoples was an inexhaustible source of enrichment of the social sciences and social struggles. Alfredo took this lesson to its highest threshold, to the point that many sociologists and university departments did not recognise his work as belonging to the social sciences. This proved costly for Alfredo. He struggled in finishing his doctorate and only much later was he recognised by the University where he learned to be a sociologist of the forgotten. His method was simple, so simple it didn’t seem a method. That is why so many ignored him or at most considered him a fiction writer.

His method consisted in exploring on foot, horseback, or by boat, the most remote corners of Colombia, the deep Colombia, talking to the humblest peasants, recording tireless hours of dialogues and then building a text written in the first person, transfigured to give a thorough account of the life, suffering, joy and struggle of the people with whom he lived. It was a new qualitative sociology, a participatory action-research that took Orlando's proposals to another level.

Instead of two parallel narratives, such as in the Double Story of the Coast, of OFB, a single narrative emerged, that of the peasant, which was also Alfredo’s narrative, as if it were all the peasants with whom he shared knowledge. His knowledge was not a knowledge about, but a knowledge with. The peasants that Alfredo personified were wise, rational, emotional people, outraged by so much injustice, accustomed to suffering and death and, at the same time, with a surprising and natural zest for life, pragmatic in order to survive in such an unjust and so violent society.

This first-person sociology, which was in fact the person of everyone, did not fit in the academic canon which, among other things, required footnotes, bibliographical references and objectivity. Alfredo was the most objective of all the sociologists I met, but his objectivity was not to create research objects prostrated at his feet. Rather, it consisted in raising so many peasants from the condition of human rights speech objects to the condition of subjects, sitting next to him while sharing knowledges, fears and hopes. It was a deep objectivity because it was not neutral.

The years between 1998 and 2006 were the most difficult. These were years of exile due to the numerous death threats from Castaño paramilitaries. When he visited my mother in our small farm in the suburbs of Coimbra (Portugal), both became impassioned. My mother, our chickens, rabbits, orchards, fruit trees, simple and healthy food meant the return to his Colombia and especially to the Colombia of his youth. My mother was a peasant and for that reason well known to him even before meeting her personally. It was a crush that lasted forever. Over time, my mother would ask me when would that kind gentleman that enjoyed our things so much be returning.

En ese periodo, colaboramos en un proyecto internacional que yo coordiné en el Centro de Estudios Sociales de la Universidad de Coímbra, titulado Reinventar la emancipación social. Ese proyecto incluía narrativas sobre líderes sociales que me permití llamar Voces del mundo. Alfredo no podía faltar. Debido a sus condiciones de vida, los textos fueron escritos en colaboración con María Constanza Ramírez Silva. Las voces que escogió fueron de dos líderes sociales, Gabriel Muyuy Jacanamejoy, indígena inga, líder del movimiento indígena, profesor, senador, y Gerardo González, campesino, guerrillero, exguerrillero, líder del movimiento campesino. Junto en anexo las versiones de los textos en portugués e inglés. Lamentablemente, nunca se publicó una versión en castellano.

Rereading Alfredo today is an essential condition for understanding what is happening with the peace process. Alfredo knew that internal and international structural conditions were going to make the peace process a very difficult path, but not even for a minute did he hesitate to participate in every initiative towards its attainment. It was a hopeless hope, like mine. That is why he accepted to be a commissioner of the Truth Commission and worked till his last breath in the regions he knew so well. That is why he insisted on my acceptance to become a member of the advisory council of the Truth Commission. And that's why I accepted.

To honour the memory and legacy of Alfredo is to know that the murderers, the hitmen, the constituents in high positions and the executioners of so much unjust death of so many dignified and stalwart people, that for now seem to have been given all the facilities to kill the hope of the humiliated and offended, will end up being defeated in our beloved Colombia, because we will not give up facing them, because we are more and better and because we have the truth, ethics and future on our side.

As sings the young rapper Jhon Jota de Toribío: They are killing us / they want to beat us / for rejecting the system, / but they will not be able to: / the people will not be broken.