Thursday, June 26, 2008

cacao farm, or cultural homogenization

We took the kids to a cacao farm yesterday. The farm belongs to an indigenous family and they farm their hectare organically, of course. They have cacao, coffee, bananas and platanos. The mother, Petronila, led us through the process of bean to chocolate, which the kids, living here, knew quite well. (For the process see earlier post on Cacao.) What was more interesting was her sharing of the indigenous BriBri way of life. What she shared was related to the cacao, as food source and medicine: cacao was taken at every meal, the cacao paste and the cacao butter were used on the skin to nourish and protect and both were taken medicinally.

If one cut oneself one should take some cacao, rub it on the thing that did the cutting and then pack it into the wound. For example, if you cut yourself with a machete you rubbed the cacao first on the machete and then on your cut. I’d heard before that chewed cacao leaves were good for cuts and stings. This involving the offending item in the cure is interesting – it elevates the treatment from first aid to folk medicine and adds a twist to the doctrine of signatures. Suddenly one is aware of the consciousness of all items, regardless of whether or not they are sentient. It indicates the consciousness level of the person who has been cut: they have a direct relationship with what cut them and in order to heal they need what harmed them. Everything has power to harm and to heal – and this removes the whole victim mentality.

Pregnant women could not step over weapons or hunting or fishing equipment, nor could they eat the flesh of jaguars or eagles, nor could they touch blood. To do so would create problems with the child.
During their periods women were “unclean” and could not be touched. They did not participate in the general household tasks: cooking, cleaning, preparing food. During this time they had to eat from special leaves formed into bowls which had to be kept outside – if anything or anyone touched these leaves, or anything belonging to the woman they would get parasites. In general if anyone touched an unclean person they would get parasites.
After childbirth the women were also unclean and had to leave the village for a month. They would make a special shelter in the forest and wait for the shaman. During that time they would eat cacao with herbs and rub cacao paste and cacao butter onto their skin and that of the baby. When the shaman came he would bless the woman and child and she could return to the village. But she would still be unclean for another month. On her return her family would bathe her with herbs and rub cacao onto her skin. The shaman would visit the family and perform a ceremony with cacao and herbs. For a month the woman had an unclean mouth and could not talk to anyone, every afternoon she had to go to the river and clean her mouth and the baby with herbs. This ritual would ensure that the baby was healthy and free of any bad spirits.
And then our storyteller added: in 1965 the missionaries came and told us that Jesus had died to save us all, the blood of Jesus made us all clean. After that women went to the hospital to have their children.
Religion got the BriBris. And by religion I don’t mean their own spiritual understanding of the world. I mean western organized religion. Religion and alcohol got the BriBris. It’s odd how the story is the same the world over. That they go hand in hand marching into tribal communities for the last, what 5 centuries? That the people become shameful of their nakedness and cover up – the mother and her beautiful daughter were wearing more clothes than I’ve seen in a long while, covered neck to ankles in synthetics. That communities become divided between those who get the new faith and those who get the new drug. That trust in their medicine slips away and is replaced by blind faith in someone else’s pills. Old ways of life, centuries old, fall away in one generation. That which harms you no longer has the power to heal you, instead the doctors a day’s travel away can heal, but they need something in return, and suddenly within a generation a people go from an integrated, harmonious, sustainable lifestyle, to one where money must be earned.
The land that gave freely before now belongs (what a concept) to someone else and the people must move: there are indigenous reservations. These reservations are home to the ‘poorest’ people in Costa Rica. Forty five years ago they needed no money, now they are the poorest, least educated, most alcohol dependent and unhealthiest segment of the population. When a way of life disappears so radically – the way one prays, thinks, communicates, eats, raises children, maintains health it leaves an enormous hole and into this space comes church or alcohol, or both. Is it progress? Is it really what Jesus would have wanted?

Petronila came down from the mountains when she was an adult, there are still Bribris living in the mountains, there is still a shaman. Am I being a social luddite? Is my own bias against organized religion colouring my thinking. Sure. Is it better to have western medicine – no more “unclean” women; better to put new chemicals into bodies, the earth, the water; better to wear more clothes; better to have money; better to have an “easier” (note: not simpler) life with more time to devote to church and recreation drugs? Better to be educated in a school; better to learn reading and writing and someone else’s history? Last year we had an indigenous boy in the school. His family was illiterate, he had no sense of letters or numbers: the symbols were only that. He drew beautifully, his ability to observe nature and replicate it either in sound or on paper was stunning. He was different in a school full of different, unique, international, free children (post:Different, 2007). He was quiet, serious with a weight of awareness around him that was so out of place in school. He had no idea that he couldn’t do what the others could and was proud of everything he did. His mother became sick and they returned to the mountains; the medicine the doctors gave her had failed. I was sorry for him to go, I’ve never seen a child be so conscious of leaving classmates, but glad that we weren’t going to strip him of his abilities and self belief, replacing it with what our lifestyle requires us to know.

I asked Petronila if she would teach me what she knew. She looked at me blankly, “I don’t know anything about the medicines now.” I asked her if she had thought of writing down her stories, she said the university had books on BriBri traditions. I will try again, I will ask her if she will tell me and I will write them down. 1965 wasn’t so long ago was it?