Transforming with the Kogi in Colombia

Written by Will Monroe Whittle, Founder of Will Monroe Whittle

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I opened my eyes as the first rays of sunlight filtered into my perch above the wild Caribbean Sea. The sound of crashing waves filled the air as I rolled out from behind my mosquito net, slid out of bed and walked out onto the open-air deck. Below me the Rio Piedras followed its gentle course, carrying its crystalline water down to meet the sea. Behind me the verdant peaks of the world’s tallest coastal mountain, Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, stretched up to infinity. A wave of joy coursed through me, bringing the promise of an incredible day. 

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Moments later, I was on the back of a motorcycle speeding north past banana fields, winding my way up the Colombian coast. Juan, my native guide and driver, was as excited as I was. He’d just received a special invitation to take me to a ceremonial Kogi village, until now off-limits to outsiders. He told me that the trek would be a challenge. “This should normally take two days,“  he’d said, but since this was my last day in Colombia, we were going to do it in one.

Soon we were clambering over rocks, following a boulder-strewn riverbed as it stretched ever onward, higher and higher into the Sierra. To the Kogi, the whole Sierra is sacred, and it was an interest in their relationship to their mountain that had brought me here in the first place.

The Kogi, direct descendants of the Tayrona people, are the only pre-Colombian civilization never to have been colonized. They believe the Sierra to be the living heart of the world. The Kogi see their mountain as the Divine Great Mother from which they are born, and believe that their purpose in life is to look after her. They refer to themselves as the Elder Brothers, and to us who live away from the mountain and experience nature in a different way, the Younger Brothers. For over 400 years they have lived in sustainable seclusion on their mountain, guarding their ways. But now they are greatly concerned by what is happening to the Mother. The rains are falling with less frequency, the snowcapped peaks are melting away and the underground rivers of the paramo are supplying less water to their sacred lakes. The Great Mother is in danger. In their concern, The Kogi have reached out to the Younger Brothers to share their views. On this adventure, I was hoping to learn more from their perspective.

High up into the mountain we climbed, at last stopping at a circular hut to meet with Martín who emerged machete in hand to lead me the rest of the way. Martín had been born in a similar Kogi hut nearby and this land was his ancestral home.  

Sweat-soaked and breathing hard, we crested the ridge. Suddenly there before us, looming in the distance, the snowcapped peaks of the Sierra. “We’re not far now”, said Martín with a glimmer of a smile in his eyes, and soon we were nearing the entrance to the village.

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As we approached, I could see several circular huts with conical thatched roofs surrounding a larger hut. They were spread out across a lush green plateau overlooking a densely forested valley. As we stood at the village entrance, Martín paused and directed my attention to a stone pillar. Martín told me this standing stone doubled as the settlement’s sentry and that before entering the village we were to discharge any negative thoughts and fears that we might have accumulated on the journey. My mind quickly shifted to the threshold guardians I’d seen posted at the entrance to the Todaiji Temple in Nara Japan, and to those etched into the doorways of the temples at Angkor in Cambodia, put there to restrict those with fear in their hearts from gaining access to the innermost sanctum.

Thankful for this extraordinary opportunity, I entered in a state of reverence and wonder as Martín showed me around the village and then honored me by inviting me to enter the sacred ceremonial hut. We took off our shoes and entered barefoot, our feet making direct contact with Mother Earth. Martín explained that the whole of the nuhue, as the ceremonial hut is called in Kágaba, was designed in the image of the womb – a transformational incubator of sorts, a place of darkness where rites of passage took place and where Martín himself, at the age of 18, spent four straight days and nights without sleep transforming into a man under the guidance of the community’s shaman or mamo.

How, in the midst of a lifetime of striving for achievement, I had felt a call to connect to something more, something deeper, and how that had led to a leap of faith into the unknown.

Kogi mamos are the spiritual leaders of their people. In the nuhue, Martín and I discussed the mamo’s extraordinary initiatory training, in which they spend the first nine years of their lives in total darkness, attuning themselves to the interconnected nature of Mother Earth, developing true vision over sight as a means of gaining the perspective necessary to lead their people into a more harmonic relationship with the natural world.

As we talked together, I was stuck by a deep appreciation for these people and was so thankful to be sitting there at that moment. In gratitude, I reflected on my own life journey. How, in the midst of a lifetime of striving for achievement, I had felt a call to connect to something more, something deeper, and how that had led to a leap of faith into the unknown. That leap had turned into nine straight years of adventure and self-discovery abroad in Europe, the Middle East and Asia where I explored the roots consciousness at sacred sites, discovering ancient wisdom that resonated with my soul. The process was transforming as I began to recognize universal themes that had held sway over the lives of humans from the beginning. Themes which spoke to our oneness with the world.  As I sat there, I realized that every adventure I’d taken since then had inspired me to discover more about those themes – ultimately leading me to where I was then in that very spot. 

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I looked back at Martín in appreciation. He too had taken a leap of faith, bringing me here into his world, sharing his ancestral wisdom and openly showing me his ways. 

As we continued to talk in the nuhue, I asked him what he thought Younger Brother could do to help the world. He shrugged shyly and smiled: “Maybe to treat Mother Earth with more love and respect.” Then he paused and added, “and to begin to see things a little differently — to see our connection.”

The two of us continued our exchange into the afternoon and shared a meal cooked over an open flame. As we exited the village before our final descent, Martín walked me to a special place where he pointed out several stone thrones within an elevated ceremonial circle. It was here he said that the mamos made offerings called “pagamentos”, or payments to Mother Earth.

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He told me that for everything taken from the earth, something must be paid back. The wood they collected for their fires, the water they drank, the air they breathed, all of it had to be paid back to the Mother. I asked him how the payments were made. He looked at me and said, quite simply, “The way we pay is in giving thanks and in gratitude.” I looked into his eyes and nodded — thankful for Martín, for the Kogi, and for having been invited into their world to share in their wisdom.

Four months later, in April 2019, I reaped the fruit of this encounter as I returned to Colombia with a group of 17 people to lead a retreat style adventure designed to explore the pre-Colombian legacy and the indigenous wisdom of the cultures populating the Sierra.

On our adventure we hiked deep into the Sierra, crossing rivers to meet with local indigenous Arhuaco and Kogi communities and their leaders, the mamos. In one of our exchanges we gathered around the mamo who sat beneath a tree. We discussed our interconnectedness, the value of making pagamentos and the goal of living in harmony with the natural world. The adventure culminated in a deeply moving experience at an enchanting spot where the river meets the sea in which we open-heartedly committed to carrying on the pre-Colombian legacy by continually making our own form of pagamentos in gratitude and service to the world.

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kelsey bumsted