1. All action is rooted in memory
The Kogi attach great importance to memory. The memory of events with which the community has been confronted, the memory of social regulations within the group and so forth. “Memory,” they say, “is like eyes which were made to see. If they close, everything becomes darkness.” For them, this memory cannot be written down, it must be spoken, passed down by members of the group. In writing, memories are separated from the people and lose their effectiveness. Every time I speak to the Kogi about current projects, they spend many days analyzing what we have said, in order to be able to compare it to a similar situation, which has been experienced by the community in the past. This is how future actions are suggested and decided.
2. Conviviality is vital and essential
In Kogi society, acting together is seen as the measure of quality in social relations. Thus, working collectively on a bridge or a hut reflects positively upon the interactive skills of the group. Indeed, a group in which people are experiencing difficulties in getting along may be asked to work together in order to reduce those differences. Action cannot take place without thought, and thought cannot take place without action; one reflects upon the quality of the other. Every action-–weaving, construction, decoration, reflects the quality of relations with others and with the world. Solidarity is a condition of survival.
3. The necessity of balance in all things
The idea of balance is at the heart of Kogi society. It is the balance of each person with themselves, with others and with the world. There is no real concept of good and evil, rather one of greater or lesser fairness—and what may be fair in one situation can be very inappropriate in another. Balance can be seen particularly in the relationships the Kogi have with the earth: if these relations are not fair, harvests will be poor, and parents will not be able to feed their children.
All work which the Kogi try to carry out (sometimes desperately) aims to maintain or re-establish balance in the world, which they believe is being seriously unbalanced by modern ways of operating. “Those who are extracting oil, gas or coal,” says a Kogi , “do not understand what they are doing: they are causing a haemorrhage which is taking the strength out of the earth. It’s like taking the minerals out of a body; it causes imbalance, the body becomes weak and illnesses can take hold. The Younger Brothers [the Kogi phrase for modern civilization] do not understand the imbalances that they are bringing about.”
4. Time is a circle
The Kogi view time as cyclical, whereas most of us in the modern world see it as linear. Cyclical time calls for the continual re-creation of the world, as opposed to linear time, which views the past as outdated and generally assumes the future will inevitably be better. Linked to the living world, from which their society takes its collective operating rules, the Kogi celebrate the existence of a vital cycle of birth, maturity, death and re-birth. In this cyclical life, the fundamental stages of individual and collective life are marked by rituals; specific ceremonies which, through shared experience, allow the integration and the construction of an identity for each individual. Cyclical time also allows individuals their own experience of the world, within the framework of rules made by the elders. It allows each generation to take advantage of this experience, and thus to open up its field of conscience. For the Kogi, conscience is paramount, and this demands watchfulness at all times.
5. The power of knowing your place
We asked a young Kogi of probably around ten or eleven years, what his dream was. Without hesitating, a broad smile crossing his face, he replied: “I dream of being a Kogi, of knowing how to work the land, of building my home and of protecting my family.” The Kogi and most indigenous peoples belong to a place, and carry its identity. If you ask a Kogi who he is, he will always answer you: “We are Kogi, inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta.” The natural context, demanding and infinitely diversified, forms identities and nurtures aboriginal cultures in their richness and their diversity. This demands watchfulness, solidarity, and putting others and the world before oneself—a question of survival.
6. The living world sets the laws
“For us,” says a Kogi, “nature is like your books. Everything is written there. The Younger Brothers appoint leaders, captains, but they make war with each other, they kill each other and are permanently in conflict. Why? Because they live alone, and have no shared rules. Try to understand that Mother Earth is both energy and balance. If we do not respect her rules, we will become like lost children. Everyone makes up their own laws, and disarray sets in. We think that illness is a form of punishment, which tells us that we have not respected the laws of nature. We must listen to the voices of nature.”
In contrast to modern societies, “root” societies like the Kogi have never separated themselves from the living world. They believe themselves to be one of the parts that make up the living body of the earth. This special relationship, which they experience day after day, enables them to see the world as a giant ecosystem. Their astounding knowledge of interdependencies between the species, for instance, allows them to restore lands considered by other farmers as barren beyond redemption.
7. The harmony of opposites
Inhalation and exhalation, night and day, masculine and feminine are all different versions of the two dimensions of life, whose continual alternation and harmonious association is the key to all creation. This approach to existence is explicitly seen in many of the Kogi rituals and rites of passage. Thus, when the men are weaving their clothes, the other Kogi come and sit in front of the loom, a symbol of the world and of its duality. The front of the fabric represents the day, and the back represents the night, the shuttle is the symbol of human beings and their capacity to link opposites in order to create. The clothes the Kogi wear reflect the nature of their relationship with the world, and their ability to identify the duality of the world and to make it bear fruit.
8. The problem with leaders
The Kogi society does not have formal leaders. The power of one of the members of the group over the whole of the community is seen as a threat of unbalance. Power is diluted and shared by all. It is a participatory society, where no one makes decisions on behalf of others. Major decisions concerning the community are taken in the nuhé, or temple. One Kogi says: “The nuhé is like a father or a grandfather; in its presence we cannot argue. We come there to discuss important things. While the men discuss amongst themselves in the male nuhé, the women do the same in the female nuhé. Everything always happens in the dark there, and over sufficient a time for all energies to be regulated [possibly over several days]. It is our way of maintaining balance within the community.”
9. The primary importance of talking
To avoid any risk of imbalance, and to transcend conflicts and emotions, the Kogi spend a lot of time talking. When you arrive in a Kogi village, you need to explain for many hours who you are, where you come from, and what your intentions are. It is a special time of listening, sharing, and strong experiences, which allows tensions to be regulated, emotions to be expressed and social relationships to be nurtured. Whether in a threesome, as a family or in a broader group, talking has a calming effect. Words can cure ills. This creates strong, harmonious interpersonal relationships, which nurture a whole social network that seeks balance. With a holistic outlook, root societies like the Kogi draw their social and political rules out of a strong bond with the living world—the natural environment on which they depend for their survival.
10. A spiritual force is what brings us to life
According to the Kogi, it is aluna—thought processes, the soul, energy—that creates different physical forms of life. All living beings have this spiritual force that makes us alive. Without aluna, the body is simply inert matter, whose natural components rot and disappear. Interactions between aluna and matter create a new force, which the Kogi call seiwa.
Children who are chosen to become mama (shaman) are committed to an initiation process lasting several years. Their learning, which takes place entirely in the dark, aims to let them enter into a relationship with the spirit of everything on earth. They will not know the sea physically, but by its spirit. They will not know the jaguar physically, but by its spirit. At the end of the learning period, the mama who accompanied the pupil on his road to knowledge can then say the ritual phrase: “You have learned to see through mountains, through the heart of men, you have learned to look beyond appearances. Now, you are a mama.”
Adapted and reprinted with permission from Nouvelles Clés (autumn 2004), a French magazine about a new way of thinking. Information and subscriptions: Nouvelles Clés, 15, lotissement La Cerisaie, Hameau des Imberts, BP18, 84220 Gordes, France, www.nouvellescles.com.
Éric Julien is a geographer and the author of Kogis: Le Réveil d’une Civilisation Précolombienne (Albin Michel, ISBN 2226154329).