A few days ago I had the opportunity to interview one of Runa’s leading Kitchwa members named Silverio. I first met him when I attended a guayusa ceremony (at 4am) hosted by himself and his wife. During this ceremony, while his wife prepared the guayusa, Silverio told stories of his father as a hunter, and interpreted dreams. From this ceremony, I became very interested in guayusa and its role in the Kitchwa culture. (Guayusa is an ancient caffeinated tea leaf that people drink all over the Amazonian region that has endless benefits to one’s health, but in the Kitchwa culture, it’s not only about health).
Sitting outside of the Runa office, watching the rain fall, I sat with Silverio and allowed the conversation lead to wherever it may. Silverio began answering my question regarding the importance of guayusa to his people by talking about globalization and its impacts on his cutlure. Silverio mentioned that the Kithwa peple, specifically the youth, is adopting new habits in terms of conversation, expression, language, religion, food, clothes… Globalization is growing stronger and the Kitchwa culture is too weak in comparison to refrain from its influence. Silverio’s own children, his two daughters and son, understand the Kitchwa language but respond in Spanish only. My host brother behaved similarly: He responded to his parents and grandparents in Spanish even when they spoke Kitchwa to him. When attending school, Silverio learned how to speak Spanish at age fourteen, thus he understands the youth’s preference of Spanish when it comes to career opportunities and communicating with other academics. Nevertheless, the culture, specifically through the loss of the language, is dying.
Silverio comes from a very traditional family: He continues to wake up at 4am most days to drink guayusa, as many elders do, communicate with the forest spirits, and takes the time to interpret his own dreams. To the Kitchwa culture, dreams are important and guayusa is a fundamental factor of dreams. According to Silverio, guayusa allows the Kitchwa people to connect with spirits as the forest pulls you in; guayusa rejuvenates you and helps you become more aware of your surroundings. When people drink guayusa, they’re aware of the past, present, and future; one can communicate spiritually with spirits and allow them protect those in the forest because they warn you through dreams of what will happen in the future.
Silverio happily continued to explain to me that as guayusa represses hunger, hunters in the Kitchwa culture drink guayusa before a hunt and check on its leaves to improve their skills and not stop due to hunger. He told me a story about his father that proves the importance of guayusa to hunters. When Silverio was younger, his father left his home to hunt for food to bring back to his family, drinking only guayusa before leaving. Three days later, his father remained in his hunt. When his father finally came back with his promised kill, he explained that he had not eaten for three days nor had he drank any water, only guayusa. Guayusa also helps hunters to protect themselves against animals and mosquitoes, according to Silverio.
In the home, guayusa is a part of every interaction, specifically weddings and funerals. When a couple weds, it is the bride’s duty to prepare guayusa and offer it to her parents-in-law as a sign of respect. Her in-laws will judge the bride’s character based on her preparation of the guayusa (talk about pressure!). The bride will also take a stalk of guayusa from her home and bring it to her new home as a symbol of starting a new life with her husband. In funerals, people morn and sympathize with the family who experienced the loss through guayusa. As Silverio said, “You are born drinking guayusa, and you die drinking guayusa.”
Guayusa is used for its health benefits in the Kitchwa culture as well, mainly to cure stomach pains and calm pregnancy discomforts. By drinking guayusa, the Kitchwa people have the opportunity to carry on their culture; it is a way of life here.
After living in the Amazon for a month and being surrounded by s much guayusa at work and in my community, I have come to swear by this drink and I will continue to drink it, even when I return to The States!