WARNING SINGS: MY INTERVIEWS WITH A HIDDEN KOGI MASTER
The following is a recent journal entry written from within the Sierra Nevada mountains, Colombia. All photographs by Tad Fettig
My first encounter with Kogi teacher Mamo Alfonso will be the deal breaker. On a filmmaking adventure, my partners and I have been granted an appointment with a high Kogi shaman named Mamo Alfonso. This opportunity is only due to our good Colombian friends in Santa Marta who have established a rare relationship with the Kogi. The rest will be up to us.
His posture sturdy and erect like an eagle, Mamo sits up on a simple stone. He never even glances at me, but looks away at the mountain tops and patiently chews a pile of toasted coca leaf — he is clearly vetting us out.
There is a long, tense silence. Tad, the cinematographer, has his big new camera aimed at Mamo, it’s probably the only piece of technology for miles (had they even seen a cameraman before?). Tad shuffles in his stance and tries to get his 6-feet plus body to shrink behind the lens, then shoots a look at me, “Am I not supposed to film yet?”
It’s what we came for. The whole trip, from Bogota to Santa Marta, then a humid tropical mountain hike up the Sierra Nevada (with two mules carrying our equipment), it all hinged on him granting us further access.
We are here because the Kogi have rare teachings of an authentic hidden indigenous lineage. We had heard it was an untouched sacred culture, and that they have an urgent message for those who would listen. As an acupuncturist and healer, I have been trekking the globe to continue my training from the greatest traditional healers on the planet. This was the jackpot of opportunities.
I have a piece of paper in my hand with questions on it, like I work for 60 Minutes or something. I hide it under my legs, which are crossed on top of an uncomfortable small rock, and I’m not quite sure if I am supposed to say something or present myself in some way. I have heard that a Mamo can perhaps read minds, so I try and intentionally think good thoughts, “I want to be a mouthpiece to the world for the ancient teachings you could give to us…” But instead I keep thinking about how nauseated I feel, or how badly I had puked from a horrific tobacco snorting exercise just a few minutes beforehand (read more about that here).
He then starts speaking in Kogi, a sharp language which seems to contrast between playful and guttural, and went on for a while. By the time it goes through from the Kogi translator to the Spanish translator to the English, all I get is, “Come back tomorrow."
Few people have ever heard of the Kogi of the Sierra Nevada. Even for the neighbors of the Sierra here in coastal Colombia, it is rare to have ever seen a Kogi member. Many Colombians don’t even know they exist.
Suffice it to say, only a handful of outsiders have ever gotten access to the teachings of a Kogi master.
There is great reason for this. The Kogi tribe withdrew from the world some 500 years ago. They are ancestors of the Tayrona civilization, a historically gentle ancient empire that once inhabited what is now northern Colombia. When the Spanish conquistadors came they immediately saw the Tayrona as slave material. They took their land and forcibly baptized the youngest natives. When the Kogi practiced non-violent resistance to the conquistadors, they then became the hunted.
The Spanish even claimed that all the Kogi men were homosexual (because they gathered for male only meetings together in small huts) and therefore needed to be exterminated. Even today in nearby Santa Marta, Catholic Churches still hold statues to the most brutal of the killers.
The Kogi left the fertile flat grounds by the sea and were for forced to hide in the majestic and sacred Sierra Nevada. This is an extraordinary land, the highest coastal mountain range in the world. The western half of the lower range is lush tropical rainforest and wild jungle. The eastern is mostly desert lands, and the higher elevations are sparse forests and then snow peaks. The Kogi see their mountain of refuge as a microcosm of the entire ecosystem of the planet, the sacred heart of the world.
Geographically protected, the Kogi lived in secret. Some 430 years later when Colombian populations broached the range, the Kogi had an unexpected protective ally in the war on drugs. Gorilla warfare regarding marijuana and then especially the cocaine trade made the surrounding country unsafe for settlement. The coastal lands became a war zone and became another level of protection for the Kogi.
The Kogi call themselves the elder brothers and sisters and the rest of the world the younger. They have recently come out of hiding because they feel they have a message for the world. They see drastic changes in the physical landscape of the Sierra, and they are witnessing from above the extreme weather patterns striking the planet and they are saying that we are all in trouble.
It’s the next day, and Mamo Alfonso has taken me to a sacred area where we can discuss teachings. I feel like I have been granted access to the internet of sacred Kogi scripture, and despite the laborious nature of having two translators, I get the sense that he is now at ease and that he trusts me. After 500 years of exile, I don’t take it for granted.
“I’m here because I want to be a better healer, teacher, father and husband… I want to know how to heal the world and heal myself.”
It’s the best I could muster. Again, he chews…I’m imagining that the simplicity of the Kogi lifestyle — they live in straw huts without electricity, mostly sleep on a mud floor, and wear the same white threaded cloths every day, lends to a certain relaxed pace of dialogue.
And yet Mamo Alfonso is a man of many responsibilities. Mamos (Kogi shamans) are selected (male and female) for this important tribal role usually around the age of two. They traditionally are mostly removed from the normal clan life, and then grow up in large, dark caves. They are given secret teachings and learn at the feet of elder Mamos.
Kogi teachers say that there is an unseen reality to our world that is imprinted upon with all that we think, feel, and do. This reality, or field of awareness, records our behavior and then ripens them into a new outer form. This form appears to us as the material world. The understanding is that if the Mamos are removed from conventional living (even by Kogi standards), they will gain stronger perceptions on the hidden, greater reality. They will be able to clearly see cause and effect, and therefore be able to guide men and woman who need help.
When a sick person comes to a Mamo, they will be told what course of action they need to take to remedy the problem. This course of action will usually be morally focused, as the disease cause was initiated by some past moral transgression. This mistaken action could be attributed to personal or group behavior, but the patient is always advised to take responsibility.
Then a special ceremony is performed which is called a payment, or pagamento in Spanish. A Mamo will gather special objects such as seashells, beads, and yarn, and then make a prayer offering to the Earth. These ceremonies are thought of as necessary for cleansing, and are like food for the Earth. A ceremony is performed at a sacred site, a pre-designated place where the geography is usually marked in a way that only Mamos can read.
“It’s good that you asked that question. First of all we address physical illness and things like that…through making the necessary pagamentos – payments to the Mother Earth – and then sometimes they will look and reflect in order to find out what the illness is or where it’s coming from, and then we will know what herbs they need or what pagamento needs to be done.
“And at another level we are healing the earth, we are healing the wind, the air, the trees, the rivers… everything that surrounds us to bring balance and so larger disease won’t effect all of us, including younger brothers and sisters. And most of those problems that we are trying to heal in nature are coming from the misuse of younger brothers and sisters… The way they misuse the resources of the earth. Specifically in mining and also abusing the sacred places. We are very concerned — all the pagamentos we do are to heal the earth to prevent more illnesses and disasters for all of humankind.”
But he is really not one for small talk.
“There’s already things that have been done in the past, the past actions that are evident in the world now, but then there are the things that are still happening and that will happen. The misuse of the resources and if we continue as humankind to use the earth as we have in one hundred years there will not be any water, there will be days when the rain comes for twenty, thiry days non-stop, or the opposite, maybe many days that are dry with unbearable heat and the blood of the earth is being taken out, it will be impossible to live here, and humankind will get very sick and worse illnesses and disease will come upon people because they’re taking the blood out of the Mother Earth which is petroleum, mining…and if the community of the world doesn’t acknowledge this it will happen. But if the communities acknowledge the urgency of treating the earth with respect then there could be some hope.”
The Kogi’s view is that every action, whether it is a thought or a behavior, creates the resulting world that appears before us. In this sense, we are creators of our condition, and our ability to harmonize inner behavior with the externalities we seek is the life practice.
The cause for sicknesses, catastrophes, natural disasters, and such are caused by our inability to harmonize with the world. Selfishness, greed, treachery, and anger became the causes for negative impacts.
“When we were walking here on the hill on our way here, for example, if somebody commits a fault or a sin, even if just my thinking of it, just the thought of it can have repercussions and will have a negative effect on the relationship. And he says that we’re all humans and that everybody is constantly making mistakes, and that nobody is exempt, but that they are always holding tight, always watching, always holding it together. A relationship can be broken from just a thought.”
We then hike down by the oceanside to the ancient city of Pueblito. A relic of the Tayrona civilization, Pueblito was a hub of trade and also was a sacred site for ceremonies. Stone walkways and steps encircle the trees and tropical plants. A howler monkey roars at us from above.
What must it feel like for him and his wife, and even the playful grandchild that accompanied, to look at the ruins? Maybe because so little of the Kogi way of life has changed over time, it feels like the Spanish took this land from not just from his ancestors, but from Mamo Alfonso himself.
“Of course I feel some sadness and agitation in my heart. I give the example of you having a relative that you love, a daughter or son, a partner that’s taken away from you. They’re locked and put in chains and put somewhere where you can never see this person again. And that’s what we feel — like someone precious to us has been taken away and is locked behind bars and we have no way to connect with this being that they love (the land itself). And that causes me pain. It’s in my heart. Sadness, and sometimes resentment too, because I don’t understand why someone would do that.”
I have a hard time understanding the brutality as well. But even so, when I ask Mamo questions, I am always concerned about how people in America will take it. Will this just be more New Age leftist propaganda to attack the capitalistic way of life? I mean, why do the Kogi have the answers, what makes them so enlightened? How did the they get to this land in the first place, surely they must have conquered some other tribe long ago, just as they were pushed out by the Spanish? Isn’t this the world as we have always known it?
“The answer for that is we have never invaded anybody. Why do you think the Mamo knows so much about where this rock comes from? Where the sacred places of pagamentos are? Or what’s the story behind a tree…or a what a river is telling? We were given that information from the beginning, and that’s why we’re called the older brothers and sisters. We have been here the longest. And when the younger brothers and sisters come it’s not that they’re not intelligent, it’s that they have been here less time. The Kogi are the eldest. The rocks are considered the most ancient thing on this planet and that’s why we can talk to them.”
What if I bring these teaching to people at home? They say the earth always has enough, the earth will always give us more, and storms are not related to our behavior because storms were here before us, there was an Ice Age before we came, we surely didn't cause that! How to reason with these people?
"I understand that people may reply that it’s an exaggeration, and there have always been rivers and there will always be rivers, hurricanes, etc. But they need to know that isn’t something that Frank is saying, that you came up with, they need to understand that this is knowledge that came from a long time ago, from the ancestors, and that it’s a real knowledge and that it comes from a deep understanding of reality and that one has to keep their focus and concentration on that knowledge. That it is something so old and so real, that that’s where the power will come from when you explain this to people. It comes from the ancestors."
Stay tuned for more entries on my dialogue with this hidden master, including teachings on love, relationships, and even on life outside of this planet! :-)