Photo: T. Hilde
Just a short boat ride from Posada Amazonas is the Ñape botanical garden, a medicinal garden set up by a local NGO (a federation of native peoples) in 1986. Two shamans were sent from Northern Peru to develop the garden and train people so that the community of Infierno and the other surrounding native communities would have access to free natural medicine, especially those people who can’t access western medical facilities. (Don’t worry – if you don’t belong to an indigenous Peruvian community you can still visit and make use of the facilities – for a fee – there is even a little lodge to stay at)
The Ese’eja people of Infierno have had their own shamanic tradition throughout their history, but the knowledge and traditions of this botanic garden are from northern Peru. The name ‘Ñape’, however comes from an Esa’eja shaman who lived roughly 100 years ago and was the greatest shaman in the community’s history; they describe his healing powers as “a gift from god.”
After our siesta we set out for the gardens – a buggy, shady walk around a small part of the sprawling garden complex. Besides our ever-present guides from Posada Amazonas (Rodolfo, Oscar, and Johny), Jorge, the current manager at the Ñape Botanic Garden led us around. Although Jorge has vast knowledge of the medicinal plants and their preparation and uses, he has not chosen to undergo the process of becoming a full shaman. Apparently, it is common that people choose not to undergo this difficult final rite (what it is we have no idea – it wasn’t shared with us lay people). Within the Infierno community we were told that there are currently five shamans, although none were present or mentioned to be working with or at the garden.
We walked around one of the shade gardens, stopping every so often to learn about some of the plants. For you lucky readers, I’ll highlight three of them:
‘Para-para’ known as the “Viagra of the Amazon”: para para has a few meanings in Spanish; “wake up wake up” “get up get up” … I’ll let you draw the connection.
To prepare the para para plant you need 1 kilo of leaves, which you cut into pieces and soak in pisco (an alcoholic beverage) for 7 days at which point you add bee honey and soak for one more day. Then you drink 3 cups a day for 15 days and wait … After 1-2 months you are cured in mind and body. (You also might have a good buzz going on for two weeks straight).
‘Uña de gato’ – ‘the cat’s claw’: this plant, Latin name ‘uncaria tomentosa’, is a cure for cancer, kidney and liver inflammation and ulcers. It gets its name from the curved spines on the tree that look like cats’ claws. After gathering 1 kilo of bark you boil in 3 liters of water for 15 minutes then filter out the bark and mix in honey (to counter the bitterness). Drink a small cup of the preparation three times a day until you feel better.
Skeptical? We were too. But apparently the alkaloids in this plant have really been shown to combat cancer and other diseases. We asked Johny, one of our guides, if he knew anyone who had used this plant. He shared that his mother, father, and aunt have all made use of it. His aunt had a kidney problem and spent five days at the center and took this preparation and is now cured and healthy.
‘Chuchuhuasi’: this plant is used to treat rheumatism, arthritis, and menstrual problems. Similar to para para, you soak it in pisco for a week and then add honey.
Being the lucky lucky people that we are we were able to sample these delicious tonics after the tour. Student reactions:
“It tastes like beet and horseradish vodka” (seconded by 3 students after tasting the uña de gato)
“It tastes like jäger” “it’s sweeter than the first one” (chuchuhuasi)
“Look”(points to arm) “I have goosebumps and my hairs are standing on end” (after smelling the para para preparation)
“This is so good” “people would drink this for days!” “Well, people do drink this for days” (after tasting the para para)
We are waiting to report on any perceived effects, but as one student pointed out during the bit of the tour in which we were hearing about a love potion having worked for a couple in Infierno: “correlation!” At another point someone said: “has anyone done a controlled randomized trial on this?”
Lesson: you can take the policy students out of the policy school, but you can’t get them to forget 610 (the required statistics course at MD).
Even though the knowledge and shamanistic practices of the Ñape medicine garden are not native to this area, it seems that the people here are happy to have this resource. Our understanding of the community’s use of the center and the medicinal plant knowledge is however limited as we have only asked our guides and the Ñape staff about this.
It will be interesting to hear how this project fairs in the future as they do not have a current resident shaman – only the manager, Jorge, to prepare the medicines. If they need to host a ritual or prepare something for which a shaman is required, then they must ask one to come. When asked about what happened to the shaman who used to be there, Don Honorato, it was vaguely suggested that he is working on other projects elsewhere. We got the impression that it is possible that there is some problem or difficulty with the project currently; we wonder how they will function without a resident shaman going forward.
That said, it was really interesting to see that indigenous knowledge from one part of Peru was used to improve the quality of life for indigenous peoples in another region to some success. It is unclear if these newer transplants have replaced the Ese’eja shaman line completely or if they are perhaps still practicing elsewhere. The Ese’eja people seem to be proud of their shamans’ history, and going so far as to name this newer garden center after a shaman from their own tradition – perhaps it is a new synergy within ever-developing culture.
– Hanna Moerland