Indigenous peoples of Colombia

A day with the Kogi

I have always had a fascination for indigenous peoples that have made it through the centuries and still maintain their lifestyle quite unchanged. It really is a window into how we humans used to live in the past, a window into our origins, a living archeological find. They have managed to avoid the tentacles of hegemonization that is taking an iron grip on all of the world. Indigenous peoples of any place, as well as nomadic tribes, have fought modernization and capitalism. They are in a way the black sheep of humanity in the sense that they do not bow to the “comforts” of modern times in an attempt to preserve their ancient wisdom and ways of knowing. They are the disobedient siblings, the free and wild son that refuses to follow the rules. They show resilience and a kind of spirituality and understanding of nature and its cycles, ancient wisdom passed on from generation to generation.

During my time in Colombia, by a quirk of fate (I really love those), I got the chance to spend some time with a few of these indigenous communities. The Kogi people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Kogi meaning “jaguar” in their language), flourished in the Pre-Columbian era and their way of life has remained quite intact, notwithstanding the Spanish colonization, the missionaries, and other tribes living in the region and occupying their territory.

I remember the first night I spent with them. After walking for hours up the Sierra Nevada, we finally reached the settlement. I was unable to communicate with the kid that took me there. I had met him during my stay on a farm in the mountains, he used to work with the people that owned it, helping them with the running of the place in exchange for some money to buy rice, onions, tomatoes. Their way of life is simple, as well as their food. Whatever they cannot grow in the fertile land of the Sierra Nevada in Colombia, they will have to go down to civilization and buy it in the shop. 

As we sat around the fire in the tiny kitchen, I could only hear the branches cracking as the flames got to them. We had finished our dinner and we just sat there contemplating the dance of the blaze. Now and again they would mumble some words among themselves, which of course I was unable to understand. But the mere fact of being there, to observe their features, those from the Native American, their strong long black hair, often tangled, their simple white cotton clothes but, most enigmatic of all, their way of being, that serenity, that calmness, that which I am unable to find in the world I come from…. Was just pure magic.

The mother was weaving one of the bags they always carry. Weaving for them is an act of meditation. Women are often seen weaving those bags, even while walking in the forest ( I always wonder how they did it, so graciously, without stepping on a rock or crashing against a tree). These bags have very simple patterns, usually lines around them, and are later offered as gifts to their men and children. Kogi men use to carry two of those knitted bags across their chests, one on each shoulder. They carry in them coca leaves, that sacred plant for many of the Indian communities inhabiting the Andes, which they use to get energy for their long walks through the mountains and to avoid feeling hungry when they must walk for days in order to reach their settlements. In Bolivia, they are also used by the indigenous people to read fate. Shamans spread them on the table (or the ground if sitting on it) and interpret what it is “written” on them, the same way as runes or tarot cards are used. When Kogi people meet other members of their community, they exchange a handful of coca leaves as a sign of respect.

The husband was chewing coca leaves and using his poporo, which is also used as a type of meditation. The poporo is a dried and empty calabash containing seashells that have been grounded into thin powder. With the help of a stick impregnated with saliva, the person gets some of the powder and puts it in his mouth, spreading it on top of the ball of mashed coca leaves in one of the cheeks. The interaction of the coca plant and the seashell powder activates the alkaloids that are contained in the leaves, producing a mild stimulating effect.

The following day we walked for a couple of hours until we reached a waterfall. In their cosmology, the Earth is our mother and is a living being. They honor natural elements like mountains, rivers, and waterfalls, and believe they are sacred. When we reached the waterfall, which was hidden in the forest, each and one of them stood in front of it, again in complete silence, for a few minutes. I later learned that they were thanking “The Great Mother”, the Earth, for providing them with life, and found it to be a beautiful way to honor existence.

Kogi family
Kogi kids
Kogi boy
The sacred waterfall