Meeting the keepers of our world

They recognise themselves as the conscious caretakers of Mother Earth; for them, for us, for all. They are the “Elder Brothers” of humanity and we are the troublesome “Younger Brothers and Sisters”. They are the Mamos, the highly trained spiritual leaders of the indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Columbia. To this day, they have safeguarded their cultural and spiritual heritage for thousands of years, unaltered; they are the last survivors of an ancient civilisation called the Tairona, from which the Incas and Aztecs have descended.

While the civilisations of the Incas and Aztecs suffered immeasurably, their culture brought to the brink of destruction by the Spanish invaders’ quest for gold close to 500 years ago, the peoples of the Sierra survived the onslaught of the conquistadores by retreating into mountainous sanctuaries.

The Arhuaca, Kogi and Wiwa do not wish any visitors; their society has only been able to preserve its cultural and spiritual coherence by retreat and isolation. But they want us to hear their warning and their deep concerns about the precarious state of all life on Mother Earth. When in 1991 the Kogi removed the barriers to a bridge into their villages for a small BBC film crew to transmit their message to the world, at the end of the film shoot the outsiders were asked by the Mamos never to return.

The 2011 gathering

Against this background of fierce pursuit of seclusion, it came as a surprise that the Mamos put out a call for a gathering in August 2011. They wished to meet with a group of indigenous elders and Westerners from around the world.

Such an invitation had never been issued before — it was an unprecedented, historic move by the Mamos. They chose Ikarwa, an Arhuaco pueblo about 30 minutes by dirt road from Valledupar, close to the northern coast of Columbia. Ikarwa means “human unity”, the place where Spirit and the energy of the peoples of the Sierra and the world meet.

We were asked not to leave Ikarwa during the four days of the gathering. There were about 150 Westerners from countries around the world. Most visitors stayed in tents in a designated area, while others were accommodated inside village houses, vacated by their owners, sleeping on mattresses and under mosquito nets strung from the ceilings.

The group of indigenous elders with their “minders” had their beds arranged in the nuhue. This ceremonial men’s house is traditionally the largest in the village and used exclusively by the male Mamos for their meetings. Embedded in the nuhue’s structures is a schematic universe.

The elders came from many backgrounds: there were Native American elders, Mayans from Guatemala and Mexico, an Incan, a Japanese shaman, and, from our region, an Aboriginal and a Maori elder.

As the meeting was in Arhuaca territory, most of the indigenous people were from that group. About 350 Arhuaca Mamos and traditional authorities, led by Mamo Kuncha, arrived from the far corners of the Sierra. The Arhuaca women, some female Mamas, aty, in their midst came accompanied by their children. A small representation of the Wiwa Mamos was also present; their female Mamas are called zagas.

The Kogi did not physically participate in the gathering. They were in a vital reunion. The Kogi Mamos had come a few days before our arrival, holding many ceremonies at their sacred places around Ikarwa to ensure the meeting was blessed and that “all visitors were well and returned safely to their homes”.

Mamo Kuncha

Mamo Kuncha, the chief Mamo of the Arhuaca, is one of the most important Mamos among the key Mamos of the Sierra. He was the driving force behind the gathering, inviting all participants to make a profound commitment to Mother Earth and to themselves. He called the gathering “The Dawn of a New Time”.

Decisions are never made in the singular among the Mamos, however. They are the result of a thorough, democratic process. Any proposition is collectively contemplated during long day and night sessions attended by all Mamos, no one leaving until a consensus is reached.

They remain true to their ancient laws, governed by the primordial creator force they identify as the Mother. “And they were placed here, in the Heart of the World, the mountain: the great spindle from which the Mother’s thread unwinds as possibilities become reality and pass into memory,” wrote director Alan Eriera for his BBC documentary Guardians of a Sacred Trust

Central to the Mamos’ world view is their understanding that the Sierra is alive, and a conscious being, as is the Earth. Mamo Kuncha spoke of his fellow Mamos, a core group of Mamos of true spirit, who hardly leave their villages. In daily rituals and meditations the Mamos calibrate the balance of their microcosm of the high peaks of the Sierra as the nerve centre of the macrocosm of the globe, allowing the Mother to spin gossamer threads to sustain us all.

The Mamos

From birth, the Mamo child chosen by divination is trained to be attuned to Aluna, the generative All-That-Is Spirit that generates reality; it is the source of life in which all things exist. In preparation, the child will spend a minimum training of nine years in the dark in special caves in the Sierra or double-walled thatched huts, and is only taken out at night. The mother comes to feed the baby; she and the child are on a diet of selected white food to support the process.

The elders teach the young acolyte everything they know and, if willing and found able, the apprentice is trained for a further nine years, with puberty in between the two periods. Girls, too, are trained to be female Mamos or Aty, but most Mamos today are male.

Remaining for a prolonged period of time in sensory deprivation is a common practice of many indigenous cultures, often used in preparation for initiation rituals or vision quests. To my knowledge, the Mamos’ 18 years training removed from daylight is unique and unparalleled in any civilisation on this Earth.

The initiated Mamo is a deeply sophisticated being who understands beyond Western comprehension that without thought nothing exists. They are the deliberate and sentient intermediaries between Spirit — Aluna — and the material world. “Everything that exists in material reality has its full being, its real nature, in Aluna and Aluna is the transcendental ocean,” wrote Alan Eriera.

All in white

You would not know by meeting the Mamos who they are because they present themselves as very humble beings. They are simply dressed: men, women and children all in white, plus or minus a number of stripes, representative of their region of origin.

They have the distinctive indigenous features of the Tairona, some with quite sharp, angular faces. Outstanding are their eyes. They are the most beautiful warm, dark eyes that gaze at you, gentle, clear, and yet you sense the sharp intellect and the slumbering fierce fires of their souls. They prefer not to look at you directly.

Both sexes wear their dark hair long and apparently it never goes white with age. The distinctive white caps worn by the Arhuaco men symbolise the snowfields of the mountain peaks of the Sierra. Their hands never rest. The women are either occupied with the children or work the mochilas, the traditional bags.

They do not wear any adornments, gold, or rings; however, neither of the sexes is ever seen without their mochila, worn by the women with the strap over their heads to keep their hands free.

Writing memories

The men’s mochila contains the poporo, a gourd, which the men work perpetually during all waking hours. It contains powdered lime in its belly, prepared from burning seashells gathered on the coast. The men chew toasted coca leaves from the time of their initiation to manhood, but it is forbidden to women, although only the women gather the fresh leaves. The men are never seen without their poporo. To the Mamos, the poporo represents the unity of male and female in creation: Mother Earth and Father Sky.

Working the poporo is a complex ritual, consisting of many dimensions and levels. The receptacle gourd represents the female, the Mother, and contains the lime. With a stick, the male element, the lime, is retrieved and brought into the mouth while chewing coca leaves. Coca leaves, not considered addictive, are a mild narcotic chewed by most traditional Andean cultures to suppress hunger and to enable them to go for long periods without sleep.

With this mixture they work the outside rim of the gourd, slowly building up a bulbous, light-green residue. This is how they respectfully “write” in contemplation, in conversation, onto the poporo their thoughts and their memories.

Quest for seclusion

As the Mamos don’t live in cities or worship in temples, one would not be aware of the sophistication of this culture on first meeting. Contrary to what today appears to be a simple agrarian society, the Tairona lived in complex cities in pre-Columbian times and were remarkable goldsmiths. Their gold artefacts have been dated as old as the 6th or 7th centuries CE.

In those days, most poporos were made of gold. Some magnificently crafted gold pieces are exhibited in the Gold Museum in Bogota, the receptacle of the poporo resembling the voluptuous curves of a woman’s body.

The indigenous people of the Sierra are wary of anything or anyone coming from the outside world, and rightly so. Their quest for seclusion, to be left to their own counsel, has been and is a centuries-old battle. By retreating into mountain sanctuaries high in the Sierra, they had escaped the decimation of their peoples and obliteration of their culture by the conquistadores nearly 500 years ago, when the conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez Quesada arrived on their shores in 1536.

Over the ensuing centuries, they endured the misery of repeated missionary incursions from the time of the arrival of the Capuchin friars in the late 17th century. This was particularly cruel to the Arhuaco, or Ika, who live lower down the mountain ranges, as the monks sought to eradicate any trace of the Arhuaco religion from childhood, until the Ika rebelled, finally removing the mission by force in 1982.

Everything coming in from the outside — subjugation by the Spanish colonisers, pestilence and illness borne by the invaders, drug wars by the narcos (drug barons), organised groups of grave robbers digging the up their ancient cities and sacred burial places looking for gold, political unrest and resistance by the paramilitary groups in the bloodstained earth of Columbia over centuries — has resulted in the death of countless indigenous people of the Sierra and the desecration of their sacred sites.

Dissolving distrust

At this gathering, Mamo Kuncha acknowledged, “Because it has been the first time, it has been difficult. Never in our lifetime have we had an event of this magnitude.” He admitted to negative comments directed at them in the months before the meeting. And, as it was proved for this gathering, the Elder Brothers themselves had to break through centuries of suspicion and secrecy: “We believed, and we still sometimes think so, that what comes from the outside world damages us … and to convince the people that it was through direct contact with the Western world that we could move forward.”

That this sentiment of distrust remained became clear when tensions mounted to an intensely tangible pitch over the first days of the gathering. During the afternoon of the second day, these feelings were brought out in the open, named and cleared. Three women in succession asked the Mamos what was needed to dissipate and unblock these feelings.

Parallel with these discussions taking place in the circle, the visiting elders had started to perform rituals and ceremonies, working the emergent energies on other dimensions.

All these combined efforts culminated in an exquisite moment of union when, early on the third day, Mayan elder Don Pedro Pablo performed a simple harmonisation ceremony, ending it with an invitation to express our feelings. Tentatively at first, women and men, Mamos, elders and visitors embraced. We felt the simple truth of one heart between us and laughter and chatter in different languages exploded. “Now the majority of the people of our community have realised … that from now on we can walk together,” said Mamo Kuncha. 

From then on, we started walking hand in hand, unified in profound ways, and the Mamos took us to one of their sacred places by the river. It was important for the Mamos to realise they are not alone, that we are “… all the same, although coming from different customs and in different forms. We are grateful; now we know that there are many brothers and sisters in the world working with the same intention as us,” Mamo Kuncha continued.

The Incan elder had predicted there would be a sign and it came, right on time, as everyone was preparing to leave. A magnificent “sun-bow” appeared, birds of all sizes flew as if in formation and the gratitude of all present soared with them.

And from here …

Isn’t it extraordinary and comforting for all of us to know that the Mamos care for the Sierra, for Mother Earth, for them, for us and that their lives are dedicated to maintaining balance? In contrast, are we aware of the forces we are unleashing?

We must understand that there is a hard reality in this for the Mamos: it has become more and more difficult for them to continue their work. They need to recover their land and their kankurwas (sacred temples). They believe we are close to reaching a point of no return.

They are committed, though. In Mamo Kuncha’s words: “We are committed to doing everything we can, materially, spiritually, energetically and mentally, on all dimensions. Our intention is from now on to work united [with our Younger Brothers and Sisters] … to continue to be connected. For me, that is the most important thing. Thank you.”


Eva Willmann de Donlea works in the clean technologies sector as a green investment advisor and is committed to supporting the indigenous cultures of this world.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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