Blaring salsa music from a neighbouring bar does not perturb Sheik Munir Valencia as he bows in prayer at a family-home-turned-mosque in the poor, violence-racked Colombian city of Buenaventura.
His prayers finished, Valencia sheds his brown tunic, sits down at a plastic table and describes his role as the spiritual leader of an Islamic community like few others.
The small community of Afro-Colombian Muslims in Colombia’s main Pacific port city have over the years embraced the teachings of the Nation of Islam, mainstream Sunni Islam, and the Shia denomination.
First attracted to the faith by the promises of black power, Buenaventura’s Muslims say that they have found in Islam a refuge from the poverty and violence that racks the city, which has one of the highest murder rates in Colombia.
Islam first arrived here in the late 1960s thanks to Esteban Mustafa Meléndez, an African American sailor of Panamanian origin, who spread the teachings of the Nation of Islam – the US-based group that mixes elements of Islam with black nationalism – among port workers.
“He talked about the self-esteem of blacks, and that philosophy had a big impact. Those teachings reached the heads and hearts of a lot of people,” says Valencia, adding that the message came during a period of profound social change.