The Healer who Talks to Plants

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It must have been like five or six in the morning. The cabin Andrés Ushigua had offered me to sleep in had an opening in the roof I used to look at as I fell asleep, fearing a bird, bat or other animal would suddenly scurry inside in the middle of the night. On that occasion, I was surprised to see the backlit silhouette of a jaguar. I was paralyzed, but for some reason I wasn’t afraid. I couldn’t see the jaguar’s face, but I knew it was looking straight at me. It didn’t wait long before it jumped straight towards me and entered my chest. I woke up right away, surprised yet invigorated.

Story by Guillermo Morán

I immediately left the cabin. Andrés was the only one outside, sitting in front of the fire.  I told him what I had dreamt, and he said:  “Relax. That’s a good dream.” I wanted to ask him why, but I didn’t. I knew that the wise man had told me all I needed to know.

The first time I visited the Sáparas I did it because I was interested in learning how to dream. We all innately know how to dream, of course, just like we know how to walk, talk or write, but the act of dreaming – like all of those other skills – can be perfected.

Andrés Ushigua is among the last living members of the Sápara community “chasing the energy of the jungle”, which in Western terms would translate as living a seminomadic life. As he told me over two years ago when I was there, he and his brothers used to settle on different riverbanks along the Conambo River, the axis of today’s Sápara territory. “No one else lived there. It was forbidden. My father was a very powerful shaman and he didn’t allow it.” The Samaras lived by hunting and harvesting plants that germinated without human intervention. It was around that time when scholars declared the Sáparas extinct within the jungles of Ecuador.

But this life did not last long for Andrés. His father knew that, in order for his children to adapt to new times, they should not only know the secrets of the jungle, but also receive a formal, modern education.  He decided to settle with his family in Mortician, a community where religious missionaries had settled. There, his family learned the Kichwa language, which is what members of his nationality speak today.  Before, everyone spoke the original Sápara, a language that adapted well to the jungle, but that, he says, did not fare well with the new sedentary lifestyle.

It was July 2017 when I stayed with the Sápara at Akachiña, a small community located on the banks of the Conambo River, in the province of Pastaza. “Community” may be too big of a word; it is more like a large family, led by Andrés, who, throughout his life, has learned to heal with the help of jungle plants.  We made a deal: I would stay for a week to teach his children some reading and writing skills. In return, he would take me through the jungle to tell me his stories about how he became the hope for many people who visit him from around the world to find a cure.

Andrés’ youngest children—Yutsu, Samiki and Tsitsano—have Sápara names, though the elders have Spanish names like Eugenio or Diego. This is clearly part of the effort Sáparas have made in the last 20 years to recover their language and culture. Andrés has already forgotten his original language.  He only remembers certain words. He also says that he remembers his ancestors’ history and wisdom. Living in the jungle allows him to remember the life of his early childhood and his father’s legacy.

This is the knowledge he wishes to impart to his children. The younger ones are already very curious and skillful: they move well through the jungle. They like carving balsa wood into different objects, including airplanes with small propellers that turn with the wind. For Sápara children, these airplanes represent their life in a territory where roads have not yet cut through the forest, where visitors from “other worlds” haven’t yet appeared. In Llanchamacocha, a community that lies an hour away, it is normal to find people from North and South America, Europe and other parts of the world. They come to visit Naku, a tourism/healing center that was sponsored by American actor Channing Tatum, who marveled at the Ecuadorian jungle.

Andrés is one of the ‘shamans’ who receives the foreigners, who come when they have health problems that Western medicine cannot cure. He became a healer under the influence of his father, who was also an excellent hunter, and who guided him into the spiritual world through ayahuasca rituals. Andrés learned that plants have a spirit, that they, like humans, are sentient beings with whom one can talk. He even describes the physical appearance of some of the plants he uses to heal, as if he were talking of old friends. This relationship allows him to ask nature to help the people that come to him heal from very diverse diseases, including cancer.

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