The use of the poporo

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The poporo is the gourd which contains the powdered lime used in conjunction with chewing the coca-leaf. For a boy, the giving of his first poporo by the Mamas marks his rite of passage into manhood. For girls, progression into maturity is decided for them by their first menstruation.

‘At a Kogi boy’s initiation he is granted the right to chew coca. This is the symbol of male adulthood and is strictly forbidden to women. The coca leaf is mildly narcotic when chewed with powdered lime. The lime is made by burning sea-shells which the Kogi collect from the Caribbean coast. The powder is kept in gourds and extracted with a stick which is used to wipe the lime onto the wad of coca leaves in his cheek. A Kogi man is never seen without his lime container, or poporo. Coca is not considered addictive; its primary effect is to numb the lining of the stomach and suppress feelings of hunger. The Kogi themselves explain that they chew coca in order to obtain the state needed to communicate more easily with their ancestors.’ (Marshall Cavendish Encyclopaedia).

The Kogi refer to it as ‘both a safeguard and a woman. The hole in the top is penetrated by the poporo stick. The powder of burned sea-shells inside is the essence of fertility, and for a boy to grow to manhood he must learn to feed on that. That, and the coca leaves, harvested only by women, will make him fit to father children and tend the land - to develop a relationship with a woman in the flesh, and with the Mother Earth. The poporo is the mark of civilisation. Eating from it reminds a man of what he is, and keeps him in harmony with the Great Mother.’ (Ereira 1990). ‘The ring of calc which builds up around the rim is saliva (the fresh water of the body) mixed with shell-dust (the seed of Serankua, dua, the seed of all life). Created during contemplation, by thoughtfully licking the stick and rubbing it on the neck of the gourd, this calc is also described as a book: “We write our thoughts in it.” ’ (Ereira 1990: 209).

Here, Mama Bernardo is giving the sort of advice that accompanies a boy’s first experience of using a poporo:-

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‘When you have a wife you have to look after her, you have to work for her, make clothes for her, you have to care for her, you mustn’t ever hit her or treat her badly. Now receiving this poporo you must think about these things. If you want a woman you have to speak well too, you have to talk to her parents asking their permission, then you can talk to the girl, ask her to give you water, speak well to her. Yes, you have to care for her a lot. You should take her with you to bathe, collect firewood for her, and get food for her. You must look after a woman well. ...... And now that you’re going to receive a woman you should build your own house separately, you can’t go on living with the other boys. You’ll live separately with your wife, work for her, bring food for her, so that she can cook, you’ve got to look after your woman, you really have to care for her, you must bring her food, bring her meat, buy her chickens and pigs so that she eats well. Give her animals, and when you go off to collect firewood come back quickly. Don’t wander about looking after other women, other people’s women. You’ve got your own woman and you have to look after her. When you’ve received your poporo, you have to act responsibly, you mustn’t go on playing about with other children, you have to be responsible. Towards Mamas, comisarios and cabos you have to act respectfully.’ (Ereira 1990: 90-91).

The Kogi ‘believe that natural coca civilises men. The toasted leaf they chew is as far from refined cocaine as rye bread is from whisky. It has been a food for thousands of years for native Americans, giving them important vitamins, and enabling them to endure long periods without food and sleep.’ (Film transcript:7).

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