We trekked to the Lost City with Wiwa tours and as such, had a special insight in to the Wiwa cultural, in particular through our guide Leandro.
The Wiwa is one of the four autonomous indigenous groups that live and in the Sierra Nevada de Sant Marta mountains – Kogui, Arhuaco, Kankuamo and Wiwa. All four believe that the Sierra Nevada is the heart of the world – a sacred territory and a source of knowledge that should be cared for by respecting traditional principles and spiritual work.
Social organisation, clothing and language different from group to group but they share a common view on creation and the law of origin that governs the lives of the communities.
We were lucky enough to spend the five days with Leandro, our Wiwa guide, as well visit the Wiwa community of Gotsezhi to learn more about their way of life.
The most obvious of their traditions was the men’s poporo – that is the wooden device Leandro has in his hand in almost all the photos of him. The poporo is given to a man when he is ready to get married and consists of two parts; the receptacle made from a gourd which typical comes from the husband’s family and a wooden stick from the wife to be family. The gourd contains powdered lime (made from calcined sea shells that must be collected from a certain place at a certain time of the day). They chew coca leaves, which they mix with the lime, as they go about their daily activities. The stick, with the mixture of coca leave ‘juice’, saliva and lime is then rubbed around the top of the receptacle – over time this grows to epic proportions and when it gets too heavy to carry, they get a new one! (Leandro has only been married for just over a year so his is relatively small still.)
These actions are fundamental aspects of their relationship with the spiritual world and the poporo represents their ‘partner’ and in ‘her’ they keep their thoughts and their words so they do not get carried away in the wind. It is believed that chewing the coca leaves hep the to remember and recite myths and genealogies during long, late night sessions – we were witness to Leandro doing this almost all day, every day and he rarely put it down.
As the men get poporos, the girls are given a spindle when they reach puberty which symbolises the being of their fertile age. In the spiritual world, this represents their ‘partner’. As with the poporo for the men, the act of spinning and weaving symbolise life and thought and the thread itself is considered thought. When woven together they become the fabric of life that will be used to make clothes and bags for their men.
(They weave either with cotton or a fibres from a plant similar to flax or aloe vera.)
Weaving is also sometimes used as a ‘punishment’ for men who are guilty of ‘improper behaviour’ – they are sometimes ordered to weave and while doing so, they must recall the sacred principals of the god of creation and the Universal Mother.
Both weaving and using the poporo are fundamental parts of the Wiwa’s beliefs and principals.
Another fundamental part of the Wiwa believes is the Mamo, or spiritual leader. This role can be inherited from father to son, or an apprentice can be selected as a young boy (there is also a female equivalent called a Saga who deals with the female issues). We met the apprentice Mamo in Gotsezhi as the current Mamo was away on a cultural exchange in Peru! Apparently, he is a very well-travelled Mamo and has even been to the UK!
He talked to us about his role in the community and the work that he does – he often spends all day sitting and meditating under a tree (which is where we met him) during which he is trying to restore equilibrium to the earth. He told us that the biggest challenge to him in his role is global warming, that we are not giving enough back to mother natural and this is causing the change in weather patterns often leading to too much rain and landslides or not enough). It was incredible to see that some one who lives in such an isolated and generally insular society sees the same issues that the rest of the world does.
That said, the Wiwa are way more in touch with nature than most of us our – they worship the two highest peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains and consider them sacred. Each of the Wiwa houses have 2 sticks sticking out the top which represent these two sacred snow-capped peaks.
The introduction of tourism through Wiwa Tours in partnership with Planeterra, has given the community an opportunity to educate travellers about their culture and way of life, as well a chance for local artisans to sell handicrafts.
Since returning from the trek, I have met others who also trekked to the Lost City through other companies and they mentioned that they learnt very little about the indigenous people of the area – I count myself very fortunate to have had such an enriching experience with the wonderful Wiwa people.