The two important things I did learn were
that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be,
and that the most difficult part of any endeavour
is taking the first step, making the first decision.
~Robyn Davidson, 1950-
After trekking through the steamy jungle of Tayrona National Park for a couple of hours along a rutted, muddy trail, my hair was damp and sweat streamed down my face. As I plodded along, suddenly a barefoot young girl on horseback crested the hill ahead and cantered by, her long black hair streaming behind her. I envied her agility and resigned myself to the fact that my middle-aged gait better resembled the pokey packhorses we had passed earlier, laden down with supplies for the village of Arrecife to which we were making our way. Tayrona National Park is Colombia’s most important ecological reserve; this route through lush tropical greenery is the equivalent of a highway for the locals whose presence here pre-dates the park’s creation in 1964.
Suddenly our guide Harold paused and pointed off to the left—barely visible amidst the dense vegetation was a clearing on which sat two round thatched structures–Kogi ceremonial huts. My sticky discomfort was forgotten in the excitement of coming face-to-face with the presence of a mystical people who refer to themselves as humanity’s “Elder Brothers.”
The Kogi are a Native American group indigeous to Colombia’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Reaching an altitude of 5700 meters above sea level just 42 km from the Caribbean coast, the Sierra Nevada is the world’s highest coastal range. The Kogi civilization has existed since the Pre-Columbian era and today they have a population of approximately 12,000 people.The Kogi have long avoided contact with other people but concerns about dramatic, negative changes in their beloved mountain landscape have prompted a new approach. Kogi representatives recently begun to emerge from their self-imposed isolation high in the Sierra Nevada to share their message to respect the earth.
Making our way toward the huts, Harold stepped off the narrow, overgrown path toward a tree and pointed out a huge spider resting in its web in the branches; I was amazed that he had somehow spotted the creature from several feet away.
“Wild life has meaning to the Kogis,” Harold said. “Everything has a meaning–the prints of the crabs on the land, the paws of jaguars on the trees, the sound of a woodpecker in the trees. Kogis think there are secret codes that Mother Nature sends; it is how they communicate with the surroundings.”
Harold showed us around the patch of land and educated us on the Kogi’s lifestyle.
He explained that the Kogi live on small farms in the mountains—villages exist only as a meeting place for people. Men and women live separately. Daughters live with mothers and sons live with fathers. The average family might have ten children.
The Kogi homes are circular, symbolizing the womb and Mother Earth. The roofs are made of palm wood and lianas–a long-stemmed vine–and the walls are made of mud and wood. The house the men live in has two peaks and the female’s house has one peak. Kogi’s spiritual leaders are known as Mamos and the people learn and share the tribe’s traditions in the ceremonial houses, which have two or more peaks and are called cansamaria or nunjue.
Harold explained that the Kogi girls wear clothing that has collars and boys typically carry bags. Children wear tunics, and when it comes time to marry, women change their attire to a dress with one bare shoulder and men wear dress pants and a shirt. Mamos can be identified by the peaked hat they wear.
Children who are chosen to become Mamos stay confined inside a hut for nine years, and are taught to sleep during the day and stay awake at night by the fireside. The buildings are kept dark to replicate the uterus. This lifestyle during their education is akin to being in the womb before birth.
Harold told us that one of the Mamos’ responsibilities is making ritual offerings known as pagamentos in places connected with protective spirits. The Kogi believe it is necessary to do pagamentos to the spirits in order to keep the world harmonious and in balance. During the months of May and June the Mamos take pagamentos to beaches from their home in the mountains. One of the pagamentos is made with a piece of quartz crystal, which the mamo imbues with an intention through prayer and moves in a circular motion in his mouth, then places it in a container in the spring of the small river. This pagamento is called Java Nui or “mother river” and is known as “water seeding.”
The Kogis believe at the beginning everything was dark, there was no sun, no people, no animals, nor plants, there was only the sea. The sea was Aluna, the mother, and she was everywhere. She was part of the spirit world, she was the spirit of what was about to come, the beginning of all, she was thinking and memory.
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