The voice of the Nasa people resonates in the Colombian Amazon
20/09/2017 D-Day +293
Kiwnas Cxhab Reservation
Before departing, Juan Tama, the son of Thunder, shared all his knowledge with the elders and taught them how to pass on their knowledge to the new generations of Nasa people. That was a long time ago. Since then, the sound of Thunder has been heard rumbling through the mountain range and the frailejons that guard the paramo like enormous soldiers. One day, the Thunder ended up in the Amazon, in the border of the mighty Putumayo River, far south from that sacred lagoon that gave birth to the legend. The Thunder resonates with force and, even though everyone in the community can hear it, only Misael, the Thê´ Wala, an expression in Nasayuwe that translates to something like the “The Great Man,” can understand it.
The night has fallen in the indigenous reserve. In front of the fire that quivers in the maloca, the Thê´ Wala chews leaves of Esh –as they call the coca leaf in the Nasayuwe language—, the sacred leaf that for millennia has been a part of the lives of the people of the Andes and the Amazon
When all who are meant to be there are settled, the ritual begins. Before taking a handful of toasted leaves to his mouth, the Thê´ Wala “turns” them. This means taking the leaves in his hand in a series of twirls around his body, starting with his right foot, ascending towards his shoulder, then over his head and descending through his left side until he reaches that side’s foot. Only then does he put the leaves in his mouth. He chews them a few times. They start accruing in his inner cheek, as if he had a golf ball hidden inside. Now, with decisive movements, his hands turn his poporo over the pocket formed by the base of his thumb and index fingers. Inside the calabash, the mambe, the powdered limestone that will be applied directly to the ball of coca leaves, moves around. The Thê´ Wala chews slowly and rhythmically. While he moves among his assistants, he extends in front of them some coca so that each one can repeat his movements. They receive the leaves in their left hands, “turn” them by making them travel from the right to the left side of their bodies, and put them in their mouths.
Everything is silent, someone says. That’s the way it should be to sense the signs. Inside their mouths, the mambe spills over the leaves. The ball becomes slightly sweet and there are some who become aware of a wound in the inner part of their lips. The features of those present can be seen in flashes. The bodies can be guessed at when a ray of light from a faraway lantern bounces against a Roman nose, the curved line of a shoulder, or a hand laden with coca leaves that hangs suspended in the air.
In the half-light, those attending the ritual continue chewing the bitter, smoke-infused leaves. To the juicy ball that swells their cheek, they add herbs, flowers and seeds that come from the sacred lagoon, very far away from there. They take them out of the jigra delicately, with two fingers, and place them on their left hands. They “turn” them and put them in their mouths. An explosion of flavors, aromas that rise from their mouths to their noses, halos of something dense but subtle that starts rising to their head and falling to their stomachs dissolved in thick and charged saliva. The intense and titillating reds of the cigarettes move in silence, up and down, growing in a tower of ash that almost everyone tries to prevent from falling. After spilling some in the ground, a warm and corrosive spurt of firewater falls on the ball of coca leaves and herbs. It floods the mouth and then, slowly, with the soft movement of the jaw, fuses with the ball, which becomes malleable and moveable in the cheek.
The Thê´ Wala tells stories in a dialect that mixes Spanish and Nasayuwe, pasty and whispered stories told through green-stained teeth. He speaks of the old man who came to see him in Dreams: father Thunder. He mentions signs, says that with the “coquita” and the help of the rest he can see if the others, the foreigners, are sick, if they’ll be saved. He can see if they lie or if, on the contrary, they come with good intentions. Every so often they must come outside to receive the chonta * and the jigra, turn them and spit with force, towards “the house further up.” There are four houses in the Nasa universe, four “yat.” There is the house further up, where the supreme beings live; the house of spirits; our house, where there are wild territories inhabited by spiritual and powerful beings, and mild territories where the Nasa people live and farm; there is another house underground that can be accessed through caves and depressions.
To our house, to the house of the Nasa and other indigenous people of Putumayo, the rubber traders came first. Then the wood and fur traders, and those who came and keep on coming seeking oil. One day, the lands that saw Misael become a man received many colored coca seeds. And with coca came people.
With the business, the violent, the armed people dressed with insignias from all sorts of troops arrived: some had flags from the Colombian Army, while others had a blank map of Colombia crisscrossed by two rifles, FARC’s flag. The Masetos (MAS, Death to Kidnappers, for its Spanish initials), also came to finish with everything that smelled of the left. Then the men bearing the acronyms of the paramilitaries also arrived: ACCU (Self-defense Peasants from Córdoba and Urabá, for its Spanish initials) and BCB (Bolívar Central Bloc).
With the profits from the coca that was taken to the labs to become cocaine, some, like Misael, even managed to buy some cattle, but the cattle and the money were lost for the majority of those who sowed, and the violence kept lurking from all sides of the river.
The circle formed by those attending the ritual is now enveloped in a thick fog formed by the tobacco smoke. You can make out the lethargic bodies, as if bogged down in a thick and heavy reverie, but in truth, the Thê´ Wala says, the sacred plants, after every chew, have made them keener. Now they are more alert to signs.
The Thê´ Wala, assisted always by a muted attendant, takes the jigra and the chonta in his left hand. Then he “turns” them over the bodies of everyone in the ritual, using his right hand to guide him. Right foot, leg, shoulder, head, shoulder, leg, left foot. After he finishes the turning, he approaches the top of the head of one and blows forcefully a gust of wind to the left, as if he was drawing air from a container and then expelling it. The four houses of the Nasa universe, like four malocas located one on top of the other are also connected horizontally. There is a right side and a left side, and, in the middle, there is equilibrium, harmony. In the left side, there is the sun, the paramo, the wild, the ancients, father Thunder, the sacred plants, good omens. In the right side, there is the moon, the cold plants, the omens that are not good. Now, the Thê´ Wala passes in front of each of those taking part in the ritual. There is a garbled murmur: one points at his left foot, another at his ankle, that other one points at his foot’s instep, yet another at the tip of his right foot, a left toe, the left shoulder. The Thê´ Wala draws very near to those who point at their own bodies. He listens attentively, aware that they have sensed the signs, but that he is the only one capable of interpreting them. Everything is well. The foreigners are not lying, but there is more work to be done. More coca leaves are needed, mambe for the coca, herbs from the lagoon, more tobacco, firewater, turning, turning, chewing, turning, chewing, chewing, and spitting until the energy is in harmony and the word can flow.
In March, 2000, one hundred indigenous groups from twelve different ethnicities of Putumayo put together and presented the government with what came to be known as the Indigenous Initiative Root for Root. In this plan, the communities agreed to eradicate with their own hands all coca plantations deemed illegal. They also agreed to replace them with crops that would guarantee their food security and strengthen their social organization and the survival of their culture. This was a result of years of work among the communities, of aerial fumigation and of soldiers eradicating by force the bush that was no longer Esh, but the raw material of cocaine hydrochloride.
According to Misael, it was in the maloca, in front of father fire and with a ball of coca in their cheeks, thinking and thinking, chewing and chewing, hearing the voice of father Thunder, that they took as a certainty that they had to change their course.
Men and women from the indigenous reserves started tearing out the coca bushes and sowing, instead, and once again, food. The cows returned, the corn, the cassava, the sugar cane, the chontaduro.; the plantain returned, the rice, the borojó, the avocado, the zapote, and the papaya. The sacred plants also returned: the yage, the aloe vera, the mata ratón, the spearmint. But, as it happened years before, soon the airplanes also came back, spreading their poison wakes. Glyphosate fell again over the jungle, over subsistence crops and medicinal plants; over fish and cows. And when the poison comes, jungle animals flee for they see polluted waters and forests.
Suddenly, people had nothing to sustain themselves. Many migrated to other areas or headed to Ecuador. Abandoned huts and poisoned people, sacred sites, and ceremonial locations.
Misael’s reserve, despite the poison that fell from the sky, fulfilled its promise. Their gardens –tul, as they are called in Nasayuwe—keep growing the coca they call Caucana or birdie, the original, they say, but only enough for toasting in huge pots in the reserve’s communal kitchen, only enough for the community, the authorities, the indigenous guard, and the Thê´ Wala to chew. Sacred coca so that in the fights that keep raging for the territory, men and women can think clearly and walk strongly; so that the Thê´ Wala can bring harmony to the territory and its people, which is ultimately the same thing; so that they can talk to father Thunder and gather the strength of the community’s elders and past chiefs.
The Esh comes from the tul, which in the ritual is mixed with firewater –before, it used to be corn chicha or guarapo made from sugar cane—and the tobacco that in ancient times was acquired bartering with other communities. The medicinal plants and the limestone come from the wild and sacred spaces. The Thê´ Wala, the Nasa say, through the study and performance of the rituals, moves among the four houses, visits them and traverses them from right to left like the river that cleans and purifies.