It might seem strange for a 62-year-old Dutchman to settle down in Colombia, a country that at the turn of the century was mostly making the news because of the ongoing civil war, kidnapping and drugs. But Jan Henk Kleijn has travel and adventure in his blood.
“Under Foreign Skies” is a series of portraits of Dutch people abroad doing remarkable things.
Photos: Eric Beauchemin
Original broadcast: November 12, 2003
Jank Henk Kleijn passed away in 2019.
Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service, presents “Under Foreign Skies”, portraits of Dutch people doing remarkable things. The programme is presented by Eric Beauchemin.
I get very emotional about Colombia because when you live here long, it gets into your soul. It’s a fantastic country. It’s really paradise, as close as you can get to paradise.
Jan Henk Kleijn lives about 1.5 hour drive from the Colombian capital Bogotá in a village called La Mesa, which means the plateau or the table. It’s located in a lush, green valley where the temperatures remain clement all year round. On the other side of the valley, guerrillas and paramilitary groups are active, but La Mesa is an oasis of peace. Over two years ago, Jan Henk Kleijn retired after a long and successful career in the film and advertisement industry. He wasn’t really ready for full retirement, so he decided to set up a community TV station for the 200 to 500,000 inhabitants of the valley. The figures are so imprecise because the last census was held several years ago, and many people in Colombia are constantly on the move because of the war. La Mesa might seem like a strange place for a 62-year-old Dutchman to wind up but not if you hear Jan Henk Kleijn’s story.
When I was young, I had one goal in life – it was to travel and to have adventures because, as most kids, we read about Old Shatterhand and these books about the seafaring tough guys from Holland. So that’s what I always felt was nice to do. So, I always tried to achieve that goal. And when I was very young, there was in the National Geographic magazine an article about the guy who wrestled with crocodiles in the Amazon river. So, I said to my mother: ‘what I’d like is to meet that kind of person and that’s part of what life should be’. EB: How old were you then? 14, 13, something like that. At the end, I did meet the guy, and he has a hotel in Leticia EB: which is in the south of Colombia Yes, it’s the three point of Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia. I met him and then I felt yes, I have achieved at least one part of the list I had in my mind. EB: When did you meet him? About 30 years ago, 40 years ago. Yes, now he’s in prison because he started dealing in drugs, and they got him. EB: Is that the reason you came to Colombia, to meet this man? Well, not the main reason, but you see the thing is when I was at school, in the secondary school, I felt myself losing time because I wanted to travel, and I was sitting on the bench and looking outside the window and dreaming about Old Shatterhand. And so, in the second year of high school, I dropped out and said I wanted to do something else. First of all, I investigated what jobs there are in which you travel, which is geology and forestry. So, I went to investigate that that will take too much time. So, there was open as a writer or as a photographer. Writing, I always felt for me a very high level of an art, so I said let’s go to photography. So, I started working in a photography shop, cleaning the floors, and then building up every year. Then I ended up in Rotterdam, the ship, the Rotterdam, the cruiser, and travelled around the world as a photographer. So, when I came back to Holland, someone phoned me and said what are you doing with your life? I said I don’t know yet. I said I just arrived. He said, well, do you have your injections and so on. I said yes. He said, well, Princess Beatrix – our queen today – had set up an organisation that’s called the European Working Group and are you willing to go to Iran, Persia at the time, to rebuild the village. So, I said, sure why not? Fun. EB: Which year was this? ’64, I think. They sent me off, and they dropped me in the middle of the desert in a small village in the Kurd area. And so, we rebuilt, with voluntaries from 40 countries, we rebuilt the village called Dusash EB: Did you have any experience in building? I’m a photographer. Of course! Well, I was very young actually. I was about 24 years old. It was very funny actually: mid-term they sent me back to Holland to give lectures in Holland to get funds because we had no money at all to do this project. So afterwards I said well this is all very funny. Why don’t I make a trip around Asia by car? So, I went to UNESCO and DAF and many companies to get sponsoring, which I couldn’t get. But I finally ended up with a lot of so I made this trip for a year.
EB: Where did you go? Well, from Holland all the way to India and back by myself in this little Volkswagen bus, full with film rolls. EB: Before all the hippies were going down about 50 to 100 foreigners at that time, travelling. Nowadays, there are thousands. But at that time, we knew that there was John in Kathmandu, and we knew that there was Guillaume in Damascus, something…It was very, very funny. EB: What type of pictures were you taking? Just of daily life? Well, it was for the archives of the Tropical Institute and for UNESCO, but I’m a lousy photographer. So, after that I had to work because I was always living on a shoestring. People say when you travel, you are rich. No, on the contrary, you are very poor, and you just try to survive. So, I went to work at the University of Amsterdam. In the University of Amsterdam, I set up the video and photography department, which was very nice because at that time it was just black and white. It just came in. People knew about it and so we had to go to Philips and try it, and it really became a very big and important department. But I stayed only a year because it was September, October. It was cold, and it was raining, and well I can’t have that. That bothers me a lot, so I said to my wife, let’s go somewhere. And so, she said where? I said, well, we have done Africa a little bit, and we know Asia, and we’ve been to Europe. So, let’s find South America. What I hoped for was warm climate, fruit trees and flowers and beautiful girls and things like that. So, we just went. I mentioned it to everybody that I wanted to go to South America, and then in a party, I met an old man, and he said I have a son who lives in Bogotá. And we had no idea where Bogotá was at the time. At that time, Colombia was not in the picture. I wrote him a letter and said ‘how is it there?’. And so, he wrote me like a copy of the encyclopaedia. And so, I wrote another letter and said ‘is it nice to live there?’, and so he wrote me back a letter and said ‘well, you can come 15 days in my house and then you have to find your own way’. So, I borrowed 40 dollars from my mother and the ticket for a boat trip because the plane was too expensive, and I arrived in Colombia and I got stuck. EB: In which year was this? 69 around ish. Actually, I came here and I wrote to my mother. I said I have five years, and I want to be a millionaire in five years because you have to get yourself goals to work towards. So, in fact after these five years, I had my million in pesos. Well, pesos weren’t that bad. It was seven pesos to a dollar. So, I wasn’t too bad. EB: What did you do during those five years? I set up a film production company and a film laboratory, and we made hundreds of commercials and industrial films and so on, and it kind of worked out OK. EB: But film you were learning as you went along because you had no specialised training. You had started off with photography, and you just grew into film? Yes, actually when I was working at the university, someone called me and said can you make a film, and I said of course! So, we made a film for the Pieter Schoen paint factory, which is now the leading…they changed the names, but it’s the leading paint factory in Holland, so that’s how I learned how to make films.
Jan Henk Kleijn eventually stayed for 10 years in Colombia, but with his children getting older, he felt they should get a European education. Because he was interested in philosophy, he decided to go live in France, where he became a director of photography for TV commercials and feature films. When his mother developed Alzheimer’s disease, he moved back to Holland, where he lived for another eight years. With retirement on the horizon, he and his Colombian wife decided to move back to Colombia to La Mesa.
EB: So, your television studios are located here in a fairly big property, and in front of us, we have got two dish antennas. Yes, these dish antennas receive all the Spanish-speaking programmes in the world. One is heading southwards, so you get Argentina, Bolivia and all that, and the other one goes to Mexico, and there’s another one, a small one, on the tower that that goes to Spain. So, we can take out the educational programmes and then retransmit them if they are proper for our audience. As you can see, we are in a wonderful orchard, orange orchard. Normally, the sun shines. Today there’s a big mist and we can hardly see the tower. It’s 54 metres. I’m very proud of it because it’s quite an achievement to get it here. EB: The television transmitter. The transmitter, yes. EB: And it covers the entire valley? Our signal arrives around the whole valley which are 11 villages, not counting all the hamlets and the peasants living in between. Sometimes they are very hard to reach, so we have a cross motorcycle who was just confiscated half an hour ago by the police in a small village on the other side of the valley because that’s where a lot of guerrillas are and so they confiscated it because, they said, the papers weren’t in order. So, we sent some other papers by express to save our boy there with our motorcycle. EB: Small complication. Do these occur quite frequently? Not really. I mean, most problems are technical because we have one of the most sophisticated equipment in the world. This is all digital and computers. The cameras are digital. It’s very, very highly sophisticated stuff, but that means it’s fragile. In the villages, of course, there’s an interesting thing about the peasants. They are very, very far away. Even if it’s only 10 kilometres, it takes half an hour by motorbike, cross bike, to get there. In the history, like many Third World countries, they have forgotten the countryside, and these people live like the Middle Ages, not only physically – because that’s not the most important – but mentally. The knowledge that they live in paradise is not there. They think they suffer, but they haven’t been to Africa. They haven’t been to Europe. They haven’t even been to Europe in the winter. So, I think it’s part of our job as a television to get to their houses, open a window to the world and give them more…well, happiness is such a shitty word, no, but at least some satisfaction that they live where they are. With the help of other institutions or national institutions to show them how to sell better their products. That’s all part of our job and one of the most ambitious projects we have is called “bachillerato rural” EB: a rural diploma Well, it’s even more complicated. It’s high school but tuned to the needs of the people. So, we are not going to give mathematics and languages and all that because those people have no money, neither the time, neither the security to travel to any centre for education. And then we send it to them by television free. It’s fun, no?
EB: So, what type of programmes do you actually broadcast? At this very moment, we start in the morning at 9 o’clock by reading the newspaper because many people don’t read. So, we read for them the newspapers, show the images and then add information from the village, from reports we make. After that, we have a programme which is called “Discover La Mesa”, and then we go house by house talking to the people, how do they live, who they are, where they come from, what industry they have, talk about their industry they’re doing if there is an industry. It’s a fascinating little programme. Then we have a children’s programme. We are developing it at this very moment. It’s the high school students from different schools have formed “una programadora” EB: a producer? Yeah, they are the producers. It’s called “Teleondas”. People in the countryside…the communication between the children and parents is often rather scarce. And it’s good that children should be able to talk to the parents, and if you can’t do it directly, well then do it through us.
EB: The fog is getting thicker and turning into rain, so why don’t we go under here. This is covered here. So then, after that you have? After that, we have the agriculture programme, which is our most important, I think. It’s to help peasants with new techniques and a lot about knowledge about themselves and what they are doing because they live very isolated. So, they feel that they are the centre of the world and abandoned. And so, we are trying to give the sense of community.
After the agriculture programme, we go to the women’s programme. It’s an interesting point that when we came here, there was no women’s organisation. A professor from the university came here because we were here, and then his sister came here, and she started to organise the women, and it’s going fairly well. So, they are going to have their own hour, women’s hour, and then they can talk about their own problems because again, the women have never had a voice in any matter at all. So, now they will have it. Here’s our other Dutchman. Then we have a health programme together with the hospital about health matters.
So here we have Huug. Huug is a Dutchman who arrived here a year ago, and he is helping me because he’s an expert in very, very high technical electronics and all that stuff. EB: Hi, pleased to meet you. And he came here to his retirement, well it’s now 1.5 years ago. I got an email and it said ‘how is it there?’ So, I wrote him back and said well, it’s paradise. It’s fantastic. It’s great. Two months later, the next email: ‘how is the security?’ And then I wrote him: ‘well, La Mesa is an island of peace and tolerance’, which is true. OK, two months later: ‘I sold everything. I’m coming.’ So, there he was. And then a year ago, he bought a farm, a little house just like this, but a little lower EB: in the valley in the valley, and his wife is growing chicken, and he’s very happy, and he repairs my machines. EB: So, you are very happy. I’m very happy. Boy, without him, I wouldn’t know what to do.
So, we have four rooms, where we have computers and a camera where you can edit the films. We trained these people really from zero, which is very nice because they get really involved in it. The girl you just saw passing by is Guisela. She is our producer for agriculture programmes. One day she said I am going to do agriculture programmes. I said, OK. But she’s wonderful! She makes these very high quality, international high quality films for the peasants, you know, how to grow things and all that stuff. Very quiet. She never says anything, and then you end up seeing her work and saying ‘wow! How did you do it?’ So, this afternoon, she has another peasant coming here and she’s going to talk about milk, I think. I don’t know. There are so many things to do. They are very independent people.
EB: Where do you get the money to finance all of this? It’s quite astonishing to see what little money you need to set this all up. The German and English embassies paid for the mixers and the cameras and all that stuff. That was 2.5 years ago. Then the British government and NOVIB EB: NOVIB is a Dutch aid organisation Yes, they both gave us the money to set up the transmitter, the tower and everything. So, the hardware is all there. But we have 11 people now, so the money should come from somewhere. We don’t know where from. At this moment, I’m getting all my savings, what I had for my pension, and I sink it in, and then I hope we’ll get that money back somewhere, somehow. Otherwise I will be starving to death later on. But we’re making really beautiful films. I mean they’re high quality films. So, I don’t see any reason that if we set up our commercial department a bit better. Because I have been concentrating on training. Then I started doing the department of administration. That’s another job, really. So, I trained the girl and she’s going a special school for being a secretary and that stuff. And now it’s time to get into the commercial department because you got to get the money somewhere. EB: What type of response do you get from viewers to the television programmes? Incredible. Fantastic. What we want to get across comes across. You know what the rating is of local television in Colombia? 64%. EB: Really? Yes. Do you know what the rating is – people fight about – channels? 7%. 7, 8, that’s what they fight about. We’ve got 64% of the people who can receive our signal. So that is a very satisfying feeling.
We are at this moment in the public high school of La Mesa. It’s a wonderful place, very beautiful. It’s like a campus of a university. One of the points which I discovered is that a lot of these kids have parents who are peasants and who live in the countryside in shacks. Now, once you have a child who has been through this school in these wonderful surroundings – there’s a swimming pool. There’s this beautiful sports department EB: And modern computers also. And that room there, it’s full of computers with internet. It doesn’t work because there is no line, but it’s there. If you are the child of a peasant, would you ever go back to your father’s living, style of living? No, you won’t. So, what is the school really teaching is: get out of the countryside. What people want is remain in the countryside and build your countryside. And so, we think EduTV may have that function: to beam our lessons but tuned to what the peasants are really about. So, our high school is related to their lives, and not in this high school where it’s related to the urban situation of Bogotá or New York or whatever. Of course, it’s very good if a child has the opportunity to grow in life and go other places. But if you are the child of a peasant and your father has never had the money to get you anywhere, where do you end up with? Sitting in the park doing nothing because there’s no work. And that’s one of the reasons we set up EduTV.
EB: You were showing me also – there’s a small radio station here. Yes, that’s very nice. When we arrived here 2.5 years ago, it was just a microphone and people shouting messages of love to each other through it. Now it has grown out to a semi-professional broadcasting station, and we are trying to set up a project with other schools to enlarge the area in which they can transmit and then try to get the students to teach their parents from the school what they learn in the school but giving it to their parents. Many people have television, but when you are in the field, you have a little radio with you and not your television set. EB: You were saying that you also train students here, the high school students, to make television programmes. We started out two years ago with a lot of students. There were 80. First, we had to train them to look at television, to understand what they were looking at because they were looking at the bullshit from America all the time, all Bruce Willis and Rambo and all of these kinds of films. So, we showed them, what I would say, were difficult films to look at and explain them why and so on, and that really had also some effect. And then, from the best of those students, we took the people and trained them in the real making of television.
EB: It sounds as though you haven’t really planned your life. You’ve just taken chances. You’ve just gone places, done things, and things have always worked out for you. Has it always been easy? No, it’s actually quite the opposite. My father died in the war. That’s why I never talk about him because I never…I didn’t know him, the Second World War that is. So, I always talked to my mother. I remember at 16 years old explaining her how my life would be till I was about 50 years. And that’s the path I have always been following: the trip to Asia and all these things, I had planned in my mind vaguely, and I was able to sidestep once in a while, but actually I don’t think that you can achieve what I have been able to get if you don’t know beforehand where you are going. It’s not drifting, no. It’s a very logical step forward, and this setting has been in my mind. It has always been there. And I knew it – this was going to happen. EB: But you said things weren’t easy. It was quite difficult. Why was it difficult? If you are an entrepreneur and you always start something new, you have to adapt yourself all the time to new circumstances, look for opportunities, learn your trade very well. No, life is difficult, but it’s an adventure. I remember I stayed in Cali, which is another city in Colombia, and we had one mattress, one pan, two plates and two knives, and that’s all. But I never felt that as difficult because that’s what adventure is all about. When you read adventure books, that’s what they have. So why shouldn’t I have it if I want to have adventures? But looking back, it wasn’t all that easy.
EB: Jan Henk, we’ve come to your house, which is about two kilometres from where the studios are. We have an absolutely gorgeous view of a valley here. It’s very, very green. There are trees I don’t even know the names of. Why is this place so special? When you know Africa and Asia and Latin America and all that, and you say where is the best place in the world? Where is the temperature perfect, where the people are nice and warm-hearted and you get an easy communication with other people, which is sometimes very hard in Africa and Asia, and here you have that. The temperature is like a gorgeous summer day in Europe. The landscape is incredible, and in my little garden, we have mangos, bananas, oranges, lemons and many other fruits I don’t even know of. It’s all there, and it’s just like paradise. EB: Is this where you plan to spend the rest of your life? The problem is I don’t know where to go. Where is it better? So that’s very hard. There is no more options. So, I’m quite satisfied really.
EB: And your television project, do you plan to continue with that or would you like to hand it over to Colombians? Of course, it has to go to the Colombians. Yes. The only problem is to find people who will run it. My dream is that someone from my group will climb up mentally because I have tried to employ people who would have never had a chance in life otherwise. So mentally they are not prepared for anything really. So, it’s a long process of maturing from a very poor peasant to the manager of…well, it’s quite an enterprise, really. Like one of those people who came to my place is Wilson. At that time, we were at the school. He came in and he’s 35. He said I want to do something. And I said well, I’m sorry. What can you do? Well, he couldn’t do anything at all. So I said, you come in at 9 and we leave at 6 and when you learn something, you will fit in yourself. So, he stood there for 12 days in the middle of the office – I mean, incredible. What a will power. This is so incredible to stand there and to say ‘I want!’ Then one day there was some little job to do, and I gave him the job. From then on, it went just like a flash. Now he is an excellent cameraman, excellent editor. I found a richness in his way of thinking which is unbelievable. He knows the people who are my target group because he is one of them. He ran away from home when he was 14 and travelled all around Colombia in the most harsh circumstances you can dream of, just unbelievable, ended up as a coca picker – you know, the leaf picker in the jungle. They killed two of his friends because they wanted to go away and they didn’t allow it. He escaped somewhere in the middle of the night, travelled through the jungle in the night, got himself safe, arrived here and then got in love with a lady, got married, and that was it. So, he came to my place, and now he is the leading cameraman. Well cameraman…he’s a filmmaker, a full-blown filmmaker, just in 1.5 years.
EB: When we arrived at your house, there were also two teenage boys here. That’s right. That’s Jaiver and Carlito. They are related to my wife, but they are – as in many, many cases – abandoned by their parents. They just kind of came here. Jaiver was one of those kids who break windows and get in trouble with the police and all that stuff, but he very, very quickly turned around. And he was rather isolated at school. He always complained that he had no friends and so on. And then with a lot of pressure, I must say, he enrolled himself in EduTV and became one of the most brilliant cameramen I’ve ever met. He’s 17 years old, and I will show you a film later on that he made by himself. It’s just unbelievable. Carlito came from the mountain. When you hear these stories about the Apalachian Mountains and the wild men in America, well that’s the way he was: no social contact, very wild and dirty, but he knew everything about plants and animals. He’s like an encyclopaedia. He also knows about cement and woodwork, and he’s very technical. So, we sent him to a carpenter in the morning because he was too old to go to school and too wild anyway. Slowly he changed. Now he goes to night school. He has an incredibly technical mind. He’s an inventor, invents all kinds of apparatus. He runs the factory of the antennas for our EduTV because this is high frequency, and you need a special antenna to receive it properly. One of the teachers in the school designed the antenna, and it works very well. And Carlito makes them. And he’s 17 years old. EB: Is it you who brings out these things in people? No, I think when you open doors – and everybody can open doors – the fact is: is the other one willing to step through it? In Holland or in France or in Europe or in America, governments open doors for people, and if you don’t take it, well, that’s your problem. Here, there are no open doors. So, if someone opens a door, they’re willing to step, well, if like in Wilson’s case to stand there for 12 days. Now can you imagine any European or any American stand there for 12 days for the opportunity? I think this is unbelievable. What a hope for a country! Just open doors.
Jan Henk Kleijn in conversation with Eric Beauchemin. “Under Foreign Skies” is a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.