A man who lead by example and will be missed by many.
For Sam Ling Gibson, teaching – whether to children, students or friends – was about setting an example. So on Saturday mornings there were no excuses. Following a week of teaching and regardless of the weekend’s activities, he would take the bus to the poor southern outskirts of Bogotá. At Casa Taller, the community project for children and adults in which he played a central role, resources were scarce. So he taught what he knew – cooking, street art, woodwork – which was also what he had taught himself. In YouTube videos he encouraged the children to notice the beauty of their surroundings and to think of a bright future. When they turned the camera on him he declared – Geordie accent softened by a decade of Andean living – a love for Colombia and its people. Few foreigners went further to prove it through action.
As a 19-year-old backpacker, he was inspired by South America’s beauty and its poverty. But how could a foreigner live in Colombia without contributing to that very inequality? Being a socialist and a socialite required sacrifices and a certain ascetic lifestyle. The Gibson wardrobe – scruffy jeans, collarless shirts, battered trainers – barely changed over a decade. His first Bogotá bedroom, located in an unfinished building in the centre, with rebar still sprouting from the breezeblocks, was a cramped attic space only accessible by ladder. But it was close to the grottiest Septima bars and cheapest beers in the city. And there were plenty of red brick walls just asking for a makeover.
Well before Bogotá graffiti tours became a Trip Advisor sensation, his alter-ego, Miko, was hauling his stencils and sprays over walls, dodging power cables and security guards in an effort to add colour and meaning to the capital’s forgotten corners. Two of his murals from the period stand out. In one, Juan Manuel Santos’ face sits atop an indigenous girl’s clothing whilst across from him is a young indigenous girls face – one of his favourite stencils – wearing the presidential sash. “We’re all a mixture” reads the text that connects the space between the two figures. In the second piece three black-clad riot police, their shields and surroundings smothered by lipstick kisses.
Those themes – of inclusion and the certainty that love overcomes violence – were well recognised by Gibson’s friends. Once he’d moved into a more suitable apartment, he brought together a diverse range of Bogotá characters, where ex-guerrillas and foreign entrepreneurs could rub shoulders over a glass of bargain-basement whiskey or wine from the carton. Political discussion was frequent but friendly. He had a way of talking to people that allowed them to reflect on their own impact on the world without causing animosity.
The flat came to reflect the owner. The interior was filled with his stencil art and woodwork, the balcony overflowed with plants – including one known to attract hummingbirds, procured after the arrival of an ornithologist flatmate. But there were also notes and quotes scribbled on the walls and photos of the Casa Taller children he had helped – and those he couldn’t get through to – that served as a constant reminder that his work was never done.
He pressured himself to succeed. At first his friends couldn’t comprehend how he fitted so much into his day, then they found his example inspired them to better themselves. Despite suffering from dyslexia and anxiety, he finished top of his Global Diplomacy Masters and revelled in the title of lecturer. He acquired a new suit for teaching, though the tie always remained loose and he spent increasing amounts of time working with ex-combatants in rural areas most affected by civil war.
Sam told his friends that he had another two years in Bogotá, but few believed him. His passion for his work and the mounting challenges to the peace process would have kept him angered and engaged for years to come. His death is a loss to many, especially those who believe in positive action and peace and to Colombia.