My friend Katherin: The merging of two worlds

Wayuus, Koguis, Kankuamos and Wiwas have shared territories in Northern Colombia since time began. Despite modernity and the capitalist system, they keep their traditions alive and their culture intact. Español

Carolina Gómez Silva
30 October 2019, 12.01am
The chinchorro is something that was Katherin remembers, since she was a child she slept in one that her grandmother hung every night
Carolina Gómez Silva via El Espectador. All Rights Reserved.

This report is one of the two winners of the indigenous journalism contest organized by Survival International, democraciaAbeirta and El Espectador.

The Wiwa territory is in the mountains. Specifically, in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta between the areas of Cesar, Guajira and Magdalena, in the Northeast of the country. From an early age, the Wiwa have become accustomed to crossing it barefoot, despite the narrow roads which are bordered by steep cliffs.

They weave whilst their child is hanging on their front, in a backpack. They have big solid feet, with legs that never seem to tire, and the landscape looks like it has been painted. Dependent on the time of year, it might be covered in greenery or if the sun has dried everything up, covered in earth tones. To get to Rongoy, where a part of the Wiwa live, you have a go up a long and winding road, perhaps this is why the “white hand” or tourism hasn’t yet reached this northern area yet.

We take the expedition slowly. Me, a city girl, skilled at using the Transmillenio (the Bogota bus system) every day, and Katherin, a native of these magical lands, a skilled weaver with knowledge of rocks and rivers and an undergraduate student like me. As we move forward it seems like you are entering another world. You live differently here, you breathe different air. The clouds suddenly embrace you. Amongst the dense vegetation, which is predominantly large trees that have seen everything for centuries gone by, homes start to appear: square huts made of clay and wooden posts, sheltered by circular roofs covered in straw.

The village made of hut with circular roofs covered with straw.
Carolina Gómez Silva via El Espectador. All Rights Reserved.

The Wiwa are calm people, they avoid worrying, they prefer to think that thanks to Mother Nature, everything happens for a reason and that everything, no matter how small, has a meaning that has been given to it by Serankua.

Tere, an indigenous mother, tells us about her daily life whilst subtly touching her necklace – precious ornaments within the Wiwa community. Tere says that Mothers wake up early to feed the poultry and water the “roses” – small yucca, taro and banana crops. In order to do their jobs better, they hang their babies in trees that provide sufficient shade.

Women begin to learn to weave at a young age. When you first menstruate, you will experience traditional “confinement” in a round hut. There, the young woman is isolated for eight days to “reflect” and practise weaving. At the end of the eight days you must have woven eight bags and then you will be ready to marry a man, and mother children until you reach menopause.

Men also have to experience isolation when he is taught to “mambear”. The poporo is a dry gourd, endemic to the region which inside contains a yellowish powder made from seashells and a flower. With a stick in the shape of a cigarette, they ingest some of the mixture into their mouths to “mabear it” under the cheek with the help of toasted coca leaves – until it loses flavour.

Around the poporo, this community retains certain myths. For example, if the upper part is split, it is announcing that the woman of the man to whom that poporo belongs is going to get seriously ill
Carolina Gómez Silva via El Espectador. All Rights Reserved.

Mamos are a dominant aspect of Wiwa culture, spiritual guides with innate gifts that they can develop during their youth so that, once the time comes to become adults, they can help their community through their knowledge. There are different types of Mamos, some are responsible for payments to Mother Nature, to thank and give back to all the favours she grants; others are responsible for protecting those who travel. But none have been as famous as Mamo Manuel María Nieves, whose gift was a curator. He could heal any kind of mental, spiritual or physical illness.


In the 1960s, Colombia implemented a bipartisan agreement to govern the country, and Manuel was seduced by civilisation. He moved to Guayacanal, in La Guajira, according to Nuris Fragoso, widow of Efren Nieves, one of the sons of Mamo Manuel. There, in that small town of long streets like snakes, he became famous. This botanist and healer began receiving patients from all corners of the country.

His success was such that the Vallenato singer and composer Alfonso “Poncho” Zuleta visited him several times, hoping to improve his father’s health. To show his gratitude he composed the song:

The Indigenous man Manuel Maria.

Oh, I had a disease that nobody knew

and only Manuel Maria could cure me

When Nieves arrived with his wife and about six of his children, he discovered he now had to wear shoes, sleep in a bed and eat food with salt. But he adapted. Their children grew up there and most of them married local people.

The great granddaughter of the famous Manuel Marîa Niebes, Katherin, my university classmate in Bogota, accompanies me today in search of her ancestors. Her grandmothers, Nuris Fragoso y Noris Ninfa, taught her from an early age to use agave and how to weave bags. While resting in a hammock, Katherin points out how living with her grandmothers shaped her life and despite being raised by Westerners, she always admired her ancestors’ culture.

At school she always stood out for being bright and bold. However, when she graduated, she didn’t know what direction to take. Her uncle, Julian Daza, the political leader of the Wiwa community, encouraged her to visit the Sierra, to remember where she came from. So, this young woman started the trek up the hill without knowing what she might encounter. She was joined by 15 Mamos who were going to the highest peaks of the Sierra, and Katherin decided to follow them. They were so accustomed to the low oxygen pressure, caused by the high altitudes, and helped by their poporos, that they didn’t notice the efforts of the girl, who tried between falls and fatigue not to give up.

After many hours of trekking through the steep peaks, the great Mamo Moisés, admired the strength and courage of this young lady and decided to baptize her on the banks of the Nevado Dumena lagoon, giving her that exact name, which translates as beautiful woman. Katherin Fragoso knew at that moment that, like her great grandfather, she wanted a cure. But one thing was dreams and another economic reality, and Katherin could not afford a degree as expensive as medicine, so she was soon forced to give up this dream.

Fusing two wisdoms

Months later, Lorenzo Gil, whom she met on her initial journey, was studying at a prestigious Bogota university, thanks to a scholarship he had received because he was part of the Wiwa community. Katherin once again prepared to embark on a journey into the unknown.

Some people are concerned about the social impact of indigenous migration towards large cities. Benjamín de la Pava, anthropologist and sociologist at the National University mentions possible risks such as the potential loss of the "Damaná" language or customs such as typical clothing. However, this type of migration doesn’t end the oldest traditions, it helps expand knowledge and implement this into communities.

Mamo Román, on the other hand, agrees that the children of his community (Wiwa) should go to the capital to study the knowledge of the Western world - or as he prefers to call the city dwellers, "little brothers" -. The psychologist Alexander Torres calls “glocalization” the mixture of local and globalized elements, always prioritizing the traditions before cultural globalization that ends up diluting the social borders, acting as a barrier or protection of the culture.

Juan Sánchez, one of the coordinators of the Multicultural Interactions Program of the Universidad Externado de Colombia, states that, through this program, indigenous people such as Lorenzo and Katherin can study with the commitment to return to their communities and use the knowledge they learn. The institution provides a space for students who are part of this program to meet weekly, in order to discuss their experiences, together with the teacher who is also indigenous, Juan Muelas.

This is how this indigenous Wiwa people managed to enter the classrooms of the Externado. And, how a writer from the city managed to go to the Sierra. Today, Katherin prepares to acquire a universal knowledge to fuse it with what she learnt from her grandmothers. As her great-grandfather did, showing that the knowledge of the Sierra is as valuable as the knowledge of the rest of the world. In the meantime, I continue with my soul caught in those misty mountains.


This article was originally published in El Espectador. Read the original here

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