An interview with Alan Ereira (Beshara magazine)

The following article first appeared in ‘Beshara’ magazine in 1991. Alan Ereira was interviewed by editor Jane Clarke.

Message From the Heart of the World - Alan Ereira talks about his encounter with a remarkable people in the mountains of Colombia.

‘When I first went into the Kogi world, I had originally gone there because I wanted to make a film about ‘The Lost City.’ Since there was this extraordinary phenomenon - that the culture that had built it was still alive - I wanted to see whether they would be prepared to tell us anything about it. It took a year to establish contact and get back to the Sierra with a real invitation to meet the Kogi - it was a very surprising thing that they invited me at all, for they had refused all previous proposals to film them. I went up by helicopter to a border-town between the world of settlers and the world of the Kogi - there are two towns side by side, one a peasant farming village and the other a Kogi settlement. I was taken to a house and told to wait there, that I would be summoned. I had no idea what to expect. Then I was taken to another building, in which there were assembled a large number of elderly men - the word that sprang to mind was ‘sages’ - all dressed in white robes, all holding their poporos (the little pipes in which they keep the lime which they use in chewing coca leaves ); very grave people, in the gloom by the fire-light.

And they said: well, you have come to speak with us, so speak. And so I explained why I had come, and told them that if they had something that they wanted to communicate to the outside world, I could help them. I tried to explain what a film is, and talked about all the reasons I could see why they should not make one, all the dangers I could see in it and the problems it might create for them and the things they would have to accept, which they don’t accept. I told them that if it was going to be a problem to bring all the things we would need - lights and cameras and generators and helicopters - then we should not do it, for I did not want to get into a situation where I assembled all the equipment and the people, and raised the money, and then was sent away because they could not bear it. This was a long and complicated speech, further complicated by the fact that I spoke in English. My assistant translated into Spanish, and then it was translated, one sentence at time, into Kogi by a man called Ramon, whom the Kogis had trained to be their interpreter. I also showed them a video camera. At the end of this, they said: we have listened to you, we will analyse what you have said, we will consider and it and we will divine. Tomorrow, we will call you again. And I was sent away.

Making a Contract

The next morning I could see them, up on the hillside, obviously divining, and later I was summoned again to a meeting. At this, a group of the Mamas stood up, one at a time and made speeches. And it became perfectly clear that they had very carefully considered what filming might involve, and that they had distributed the work amongst themselves. Different Mamas were going to be responsible for different elements, and each one spoke to his brief. The speeches that they made took me through the whole history of the world, explaining in the most extraordinary poetic language the creation of the world, the creation of the younger brother and the elder brother, the exclusion of the younger brother from the heart of the world and his exile in distant lands, his return with Columbus. Columbus is a word which, for the Kogis, conveys everything to do with the conquest. Columbus himself never came to the Sierra, he only landed on islands on his first trip. It was the first exploratory ships who came down along the junction of Venezuela and Colombia where Santa Marta is. This was therefore the first place that the Spanish landed in the New World; their first contact with the native peoples, as well as the Kogi’s first meeting with the Spanish. “After centuries and centuries, the younger brother passed from the other country” said one of the Mamas. “Senor Christopher Columbus came to this land and immediately saw the riches, and killed and shot many natives. He took the gold which had been here, sacred gold, gold of masks, all kind of gold, they took so much, so much, so much”.

This great epic poem went on from one man to another. And it was an extraordinary experience for me, because what they related was the film that we were to make; they spelt out everything that was going to be in it. And when they had finished, they said: “Now we are going to draw up a contract, and in this contract we will put all the sequences”. And I protested: “But you don’t use writing. Why do you need this? I don’t want it; I trust you.” And they said, “We know your world. We trust you but we don’t trust anybody else. We want it in writing.”

There was a government official with me, and so she drew up the document, which was written out in Spanish, and finally signed with the finger-prints of 28 Mamas from 18 Kogi cities - because this is a large world we are talking about, although we did not manage to convey that very well in the film; there are something like 12,000 Kogis living in the Sierra right now. The contract took a number of days to complete, because the Kogis wrote into it every sequence that they wanted filmed. I was flabbergasted, for the whole idea of a sequence was one that they had only discovered during one night of ‘analysis’, after listening to me talking to them about films for about an hour, and having seen a video camera! Even more amazing is the fact that this contract has proved to be invaluable and prevented many difficult situations. For instance, they put clauses into it which have prevented foreign television companies from re-cutting the film when they show it - something I would never have thought of.

This is just one example of the power of the Kogi intelligence, which I find overwhelming. I don’t think that I had ever been in awe of anyone before, but the Kogi Mamas impressed me very very deeply. I trust them completely and I think that they know exactly what they are doing. The making of this film was very carefully calculated and it is as likely as anything could possible be to achieve the communication which is their aim.

History of the World

The history of the world which the Mamas recount - their creation myth - has some extraordinary elements in it. It is parallel to the Christian creation myth in ways which I find intriguing. The opening is rather like St John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” For the Kogis, the first things that was, was ‘The Mother’, water, spirit, Aluna - all these terms refer to one thing, and like us they use the symbolism of water and earth for spirit and matter. Aluna is the underpinning Spirit, which is everything, which is God, which is totality. The Kogis have one idea which I found surprising but wholly sensible, and that is that Aluna is not pure intellect, nor disembodied Spirit, but what one might call the ‘generative spirit’; it is the life-force, that which makes things live. And it is in this that there is a connection between Aluna and the material world, for they see that the world is alive, and a great deal of Kogi energy, of Kogi philosophy, revolves around the business of what it is that makes life live. When we try to talk about this, we use this rather crude word ‘fertility’ which makes it seem very primitive. But the Kogi concepts are not primitive, for they understand that life is what we are. They have a very wonderful expression for Aluna; they say: “The Mother was memory and possibility” which is obviously an idea which can be explored almost infinitely. In that possibility, there is both the idea that whatever happens can only happen, whatever is can only be, because it was already, conceived, in Aluna, and also it draws limits to possibility, because what has not been conceived in Aluna cannot be. In other words, their universe is finite.

In their creation story, the Mother conceives, through an incredibly painful process, all possibilities, everything that can be; she experiments with many possible worlds, and there are narrated entire histories of worlds, of races, of peoples, of conflicts and wars, of empires, which rise and disappear. At the end of all this, there is still nothing; for all this takes place in Aluna. Only then does the real world become possible, and the next stage begins when the Mother embodies out of herself the personalities, the spirit forces, who are going to make reality possible. Because the Mother has no gender. One way the Kogi talk about it is that at the beginning the Mother had a moustache and a beard, and she dressed like a man. But when she had sons, her sons objected to her having these male attributes! Therefore, it is only by embodying, by creating, dividing off, a masculine element of herself, that The Mother becomes feminine. For the idea of gender, of male and female, is essential to life. Then comes the process of nine sons and nine daughters, and the making of a fertile world. Of the nine worlds that are created (the daughters are the worlds), only of them is capable of fertile growth, and that is the world in which we live.

Then human beings are created, and their function is to look after the world. One of the most important areas of Kogi philosophy for us, is that human beings are not an excrescence on the planet, not some blight on the world. The world needs human beings, the Mother needs people. One of the problems for us when we think about the nature of the world and ecological problems, is that we see ourselves as the problem. But the Kogi say that it is how we behave which is the problem; in reality, we are the solution.

The Younger Brother

After the human beings, comes the creation of ‘the younger brother’. Now this is story which is very like the Biblical tale of Adam. Even the physical parallels are striking. The Sierra are ‘the heart of the world’; it is an extraordinary place which, physically, is a model of the whole planet, in that all the ecological zones of the world exist there between the sea and the mountain top. It is also in the middle of the world, just a few miles north of the equator, with a twelve hour night and a twelve hour day, and the Tairona culture, at its height, drew on both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, because of its position.

Ecologically, therefore, it is a model planet, and it is physically a paradise. I myself have never been so physically happy in an environment as I was in the Kogi towns. It is like the garden of Eden. And in it, was created the younger brother, who was too dangerous to remain there, and so he was given knowledge and sent away.

The Kogi story goes on to recount that one day the younger brother will return to the Sierra. And the end of the world comes when he has fully returned, when he has moved back with his machines and taken over the whole area, to the very peaks. And at that point, the world dies - if that is the way that it goes. As I mentioned earlier, in Kogi mythology, nothing is inevitable, and their prophecies are not those of inevitability, for they are prophecies in the world of Aluna, possibilities made out of “memory and possibility”.

What the Kogi have been witnessing in the past twenty years is what they believe is the final stages of the return of the younger brother to the heart of the world. In the 1970’s the Colombians built a road from Santa Marta to Venezuela, which opened up the north face of the Sierra. (The Sierra, by the way, are a massif, they are not just a mountain; they are a 90 miles triangular pyramid - a free-floating tectonic plate, separate from the continent of South America, geologically unconnected to the Andes and surrounded by three rift valleys.) The Kogis have watched the road being built, Colonos moving in, the clearing of the forest at the bottom of the mountain for the planting of marihuana (this was during the marihuana boom of the 1970’s) and then the progress of these settlers up the slopes. They have pushed the Kogi higher and higher and higher, until ultimately they have been forced to a height where they cannot grow the most fundamental staples. First they lost cotton, then they lost even plantains. It was at this point that they decided they were going to have to do something, to find a way of establishing contact with people who would be able to help them. For surely, they felt, not all of Colonos could be like the people they had met in Colombia; there must be some who would be willing to give them the help they now need to survive. And the Kogis believe that that their survival is essential. For they have an absolute clarity of vision that they, the elder brothers, work to keep the world alive and to keep it fertile. This is the reason that they have survived at all from the 16th century. It is this vision which has held their society together, and forced them to find solutions to problems which would overwhelm - and have overwhelmed - other societies.

At the same time, they have also seen the catastrophic ecological changes taking place, which is precisely what they expect to happen at this point in history. In the film we show how the snows are retreating from the very tops of the Sierra at a rate of 20 metres per year, how the glaciers are virtually all gone and how the land is drying out - I saw it, it is covered in cracks, the grass is tight-bound brittle spirals of yellow, dead stuff. But these are just some examples of what the Kogis see. They are also witnessing the extinction of species, not because anyone is killing them but because of changes in the habitat which supports them; they see changes in the patterns of bird migrations, when and where the birds are going, and the invasion of new plants which have never been there before, and which are wiping out the existing species. They see a whole raft of ecological change, and everything they see reconfirms their confidence in their own beliefs. This is what their mythology tells them will happen. It is extremely difficult for a westerner, with our rational minds, to go along and say, there are other reasons why these things are happening, because we don’t have the same kind of total system that they have. And the thing is, their system actually works. They have known for hundreds of years that if you do this, then that will happen. We don’t yet know this.

Harmony and Health

Behind all this, is an idea about the way in which Aluna operates which I think is easiest to understand in terms of health. Harmony is to do with health, and what is going on in the Sierra is linked to the Kogi concept of disease. The life force is chaotic; this is why human beings are necessary. Humans are the gardeners of the world. We not only physically, but also, in the case of the Kogi Mamas, mentally, working with our minds in Aluna, balance what is going on. Everything that happens tends to throw the life-force out of balance, and so as changes occur in different ecological zones, they must be compensated for. New balances must be achieved, so that there is harmony between the energies which make the world and the energies which make things grow.

Human beings themselves can be sources of, and major points of, spiritual and psychic harmony. When a Kogi meets another Kogi, he says: “How are you?” And the other Kogi, who may be walking up the mountain at a brisk five miles an hour, says: “I am well-seated”. The idea of being well-seated, on your bench, indicates a state of harmony, of being where you should be, where everything is in balance between you and the world.

If we fail to be in harmony ourselves, and therefore cause a disturbance to the harmony of the world, then the life-energy becomes dangerous. It becomes uncontrolled. This is why the Kogis say to us: “You will see new diseases appearing for which you will have no medicine”. They don’t know about AIDS or BSE, or the other things which are afflicting our plants and people and animals, but they know that we must have new diseases because they see what is happening to the world. Their understanding of personal disease, for instance, is connected to the idea of personal harmony, so that when one of the people gets sick, the Mamas deal with it through interrogation - which they translate, perhaps not very accurately, as ‘confession’. They ask the person: “What have you been doing? What is that has put you out of harmony, and exposed you to the danger of sickness?”. And this, incidentally, becomes an information system, because through it the Mamas learn everything that anyone in the community has learned. So, if someone has gone down to Santa Marta to trade or to gather shells, has had some kind of experience with the Colonos, has spent time with them, all that information goes back into the pool, and is brought to bear upon the problem of someone’s headaches, or whatever.

Harmony and Work

The notion of harmony effects everything that the Kogis do. It took us a long time to work out how to film them working, because they do not do it in the way that we do. We expect work to be a continuous process; if I decide to make something, I get hold of the materials and proceed to do it. We were very puzzled with the Kogis, because there would be a few minutes work and then it looked as of nothing happened at all for a long time. Then a few minutes more work; and always the Mamas standing by the workmen. And what happens is this: a man goes to a Mama and says: “I need to make some pottery”. The Mama then says: “I will divine and consider this’. And the question in the divination is: “this man wants to be given some pottery.” And the answer he receives depends upon the quality of the man himself. They tried to explain this, by saying things like: he needs to have a power like the power to govern, he needs to be a mensch, a proper person, before he can be given pottery.

If the answer is yes, he may have pottery, then the Mama says to the man: “Now you are going to be taking a secretion of the Mother (because that is what clay is - it is part of life). And you must take it from a certain place, and in taking it you will create a disharmony, which you must balance. Here are the tokens of that balance (which could be seeds or flowers; in this case they would be small stones): you must place them in this place, you must bury them, and you must meditate.” These things entitle the man to make his pots. In addition, he must spend days in separation from his wife; he must have no sexual contact, for sexuality, the vitality of life, is a very important part of this and he must build up his life energy. He will fast and he will meditate, all under the supervision of a Mama, who will be working with him in this mental space, Aluna, to regulate the work. And then, when he is ready and he takes the clay, before he starts there are more offerings which must be made, actually under the stone where he makes it, and he must continue to meditate, etc. The whole thing is a mental process of being in harmony with the work. Maybe he will work for a month, making a batch of 30 pots, after which he will be re-united with his wife and sent away to bathe. And when he has finished, the pots that he has made will themselves be harmonious, so food that is cooked in them, etc, will be healthy food.

They have great trouble with us, because we have no perception of harmonious work, and when we make something, it carries with it a kind of aura of confusion and chaos. With all the things that we took into the Sierra for instance, the Mamas had to work very hard and make continuous offerings, meditating, etc. to try and put things straight, because they were so chaotic - or so they perceived it. Ultimately, the work itself that we were doing, and our presence, became harmonised. But to begin with, they had to stop us taking photographs at one point, because they could not stand it any more. I had a notion, from reading primitive books on anthropology, that they might think that we were stealing their image, or something of that kind. But they were not bothered by this: the stress came because they were trying to deal with the brutality of the way in which we work. Because it is not possible to just ‘be photographed’; it is not really a passive action. To have a picture taken, one has to be actively engaged in the process, relating to the cameraman and to the camera. If we do not know what we are doing, and if our camera and the rest of our equipment has not been made carefully, if the elements have not been balanced, then all the work of harmonising falls on the Kogi being photographed, and there is a limit of that any one man can take. But ultimately, they began to feel that it had been harmonised, and mothers were bringing their babies to be photographed, because they felt that this was a healthy thing to do.

They draw a clear distinction of course between the world they know of, and the diseases they know of, and the things that we produce. They make no pretence of being able to cope with the diseases which come in from outside - which are catastrophic and which carry off, in my estimation, between 60% and 80% of all babies. These are mostly respiratory diseases, and they rely on our help for antibiotics and so on. But within their own world, although it may run contrary to our ‘rational understanding’ of such things, I could not help but conclude that the Mamas run a medical system which allows people, once they have survived childhood, to live to a prodigious age. They are fantastically healthy, and so are their animals. It is breathtaking to see Kogi horses and cattle. If you have travelled in the third world at all, then you come to expect animals to be disease ridden, and full of parasite. But their animals are not like this; they are glossy. As to the people: well, I have met plenty of people there who are over 90. 90 is their normal life-span, and if you die before then, then it is basically considered your own fault! Their plants also grow at a spectacular rate.

So there can be no doubt that the Kogi are very good at maintaining the health of their world. I did not learn how they do it - how they deal with parasites in animals, for instance. The way that they talk about it is, that if you behave in certain ways, then the world is out of adjustment, and then there will be parasites.

Message to the Younger Brother

I want to emphasise that the reason that the Kogi are giving their message is of fundamental importance. Everything else to do with understanding more about their world, their society, their philosophy, their religion, and so on, is secondary to the terrifying urgency of the ecological message. I have no doubt whatever that what they are saying about the death of the planet is the absolute, immediate, truth.

What I find surprising is their optimism. They do not see the death as inevitable - but then, the Kogi do not see anything as inevitable. Theirs is not a deterministic system of philosophy. There are a number of stories about what happens in the future, the best version of which is that the younger brother returns to the heart of the world to help the elder brother. One has to understand that they do not see the younger brother as a total waste of time; they value the knowledge, the real knowledge, that he was given and which they recognise that they do not have. A recurrent theme in what they were saying to me was; younger brother could help us. And they expect the film which we made to be part of the process by which younger brother returns not as a destroyer - Columbus killing the elder brother - but to help the elder brother continue with his work. For they are at the point, they continually told us, where the elder brother cannot work any more.

I myself have developed an enormous respect for their wisdom, and their insight into the effects that the film would have. And there is already evidence they do know the right buttons to press - for instance, they have just received an invitation to speak at the 1992 United Nations Development Conference in Brazil, although I don’t know whether they will go.

One thing that I have been working to set up is ‘The Tairona Heritage Trust’, whose functions are to help the Kogi to buy land, which will both act as a barrier to the outside world and ensure that they are not pushed further up the mountain. It will also support medical projects, because western disease is almost the worst threat to them and they need medicines. The most important aspect of it, however, will be what I call ‘stabilising the frontier’. Kogis have to now go through, in a more ordered and disciplined way, what the Tibetans went through when they went into exile. There has to be connection between the elder brother and the younger brother, and we have to make that work successfully.

I am confident that the Kogis will be not be destroyed by cultural contact with the younger brother. They co-existed with the Spanish for 75 years, which no other Indian civilisation did without collapsing. They did not just have a trading relationship with the conquistadors; they had a close and intimate relationship from 1525 to 1600. Yet in 1600 they were able, when they were attacked, not only to mount an army of 20,000 people and put up a very good fight, but when they lost it, and lost their cities and their wealth, they were able to re-construct the entire society. This a unique achievement, which singles the Kogi out as very different from other Indian cultures. The missionaries have been through the Sierra over and over again for 400 years - every Kogi town has a church in it - but they have had no effect whatsoever; no converts. The intellectual coherence of the society is amazing. If they are destroyed now, it will be because of physical factors; lack of land to grow food, or lack of medicines.’