LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
The World of an Ecuadorian Shaman -
Date of photography: 6th October 2017
Kurikindi comes from a long line of shamans and, having been born to parents who were both shamans themselves, he was treated differently from his infancy - it was recognised that he too was born to be a shaman. As he has said himself, shamanism was and is his destiny: he is fully dedicated to it, to practising it, teaching it, promoting it whenever he can, and to helping others take up the baton for after he has gone. He is in no doubt that his powers are real and wholly authentic and that they are rooted deeply in his very being. He believes that where our ancestors made mistakes, which they clearly did, we have a responsibility to learn from those mistakes and to mend our ways whenever we can. To make things better, ultimately to save the world, this is all within our power, in just the same way that it is within our power to destroy ourselves and erase humankind from the face of the planet, should we allow negative energy to unbalance our bodies, our minds and our relationship with the natural world.
One mild day in Autumn, I was welcomed into a Greenwich home which, despite its unassuming façade, offered the most spectacular, panoramic views of the skyscrapers that now rise from the Isle of Dogs. Kurikindi, a mild-mannered man who radiates calm, greeted me in the kitchen, but immediately returned to the the stove where, in three saucepans, something pungent was cooking or boiling. His wife, Mari, greeted me warmly though she was full of giggles, trying to figure out how to alter the ceremonial wedding dress that she would wear for the day’s photographic session - as the years have gone by, it had become rather tight in places! Samai, their bright-eyed daughter of 6, was chatting excitedly - it was clear that she knew this was a slightly unusual day, when the whole family was to be photographed, and there was so much to get ready when everything had to be just right. So far, in the eyes of an observer, this might be nothing unusual for a day in the life of a modern Greenwich family.
Except, there is nothing ordinary about this family. Kurikindi might have been preparing a meal, yet he might equally well have been boiling up the roots or leaves of medicinal plants - I was simply too shy to ask. Kurikindi knows a great deal about the healing and health-giving properties of plants, for he is an Ecuadorian shaman. Mari, a true Londoner herself, is not adjusting any conventional wedding dress: hers was all made from tree bark, adorned with the most beautiful seeds and colourful seed pods, immaculately trimmed with rows of fluorescent feathers from exotic birds. Indeed, Mari’s dress is a traditional ceremonial garment of the Kichwa tribe who live deep in the rainforests of Ecuador. (Once you’ve looked at the photographs of the family taken on that day, in the full splendour of their tribal attire, I strongly suggest that you read Mari’s own fascinating story which is also a part of this project: www.londonersathome.org/protecting-nature.html ).
Of course, I had some minimal knowledge of shamanism and knew something about their self-professed powers, having access to the worlds of both benevolent and malevolent spirits; however, as I’d never met a real shaman before, I felt both intrigued and a little uneasy. But there proved to be no good reason for that at all: Kurikindi came across as a man of the most pleasant manner and he endeavoured to make me feel comfortable from the very start. And we were at something of a disadvantage, for Spanish is a language that I don’t understand at all, and his English is still somewhat patchy, so Mari had to translate for us and occasionally to fill me in on some of the details. Most of the time, the family live in the Ecuadorian rainforest but for a few months each year, they live in Greenwich - after all, Mari is a Londoner and before her life was transformed through her marriage to Kurikindi, then Community Chief of the Kichwa tribe, she ran a well-established go-kart circuit in London’s Docklands.
I asked Kurikindi to tell me something about himself, which he was happy to do. “Milan, both my mother and my father were shamans; indeed, I come from a long line of shamans - it was almost a family tradition. My parents parted and during my early years, I lived with my mother in a tiny, remote hamlet in the rainforest. Later on, as a growing youngster, I rejoined my father, also a shaman, at his village in the Amazonian region of Pastasa. Having been born to parents, both of whom were shamans, I was treated differently from the outset; it was recognised that I too was born to be a shaman. I observed my parents, learning from them all the time, and thankfully my mastery of a shaman’s skills and knowledge came easily to me. At the age of nine, I became quite close to my father and was invited to join the privileged circle of the community of shamans. As a child, I remember being favoured by the tribe’s older shamans for, in their presence, sitting on their knees, they claimed that through me they could see things they could not otherwise see for themselves. They saw that I was special, even at that age.”
After a pause, Kurikindi continued: “From an early age, I had visions: I could see into the future and I could also see into the past. My visions sometimes felt almost like a film, but remember, I lived in the rainforest, and we didn’t see any films then. I hadn’t come across any modern technology either, but I still had a vision of a motor car, and in my world of visions, I even drove it. Then, after I’d been initiated, at the tender age of eleven, I became a shaman myself. But before that could happen, I’d had to amass a very great deal of knowledge about the natural world I lived in and about nature herself, to which we are all connected, upon which we all depend, and from which we derive everything that sustains us. My father understood the power of plants and their medicinal use but he was also familiar with their magical properties. From the age of nine, I helped him to collect roots, bark, leaves and flowers which would be subsequently transformed into powerful potions - as you might call it here, I was ‘learning on the job’. I had, of course, been born in possession of both male and female energies - energies flowing from my mother and my father - and the real breakthrough for me was when I started to identify these two powerful forces within me, and within others too. One of the principal shamanic facilities is the skill of being able to manage and rebalance these opposing energies in individuals who may be in distress or who may suffer from the perception that their minds or bodies are somehow out of balance.”
While it is the Kichwa tradition to marry and to have children quite young, as a shaman, Kurikindi deviated from the norm, maintaining that, from a vision, he knew he was to marry a white woman who would come to him from the outside world. And so it proved: one day, Mari arrived as a tourist to stay in the Eco Lodge, at Sani Isla, and you might say that ‘the rest is history’. Their delightful daughter, Samai, was born at the time when Kurikindi and Mari got involved with the organisation of a mammoth campaign to oppose the plans of the PetroAmazonas corporation which, in the days of inflated oil prices, proposed to extract oil from the Kichwa’s tribal territory. It was a battle that lasted for several years and, not surprisingly, ‘big business’ with its almost limitless resources, eventually outmanoeuvred the ‘little people’. At one stage, the very lives of Mari, Kurikindi and their little girl were all at risk, forcing them to move away from Sani Isla and eventually deeper into the rainforest. This is where they now spend their time when they are in Ecuador.
Of course, right from prehistory and the emergence of homo sapiens, many human tribes have held the strong belief that certain individuals amongst them had ‘second sight’, enjoyed supernatural powers, interacted with the world of spirits, and possessed powers of healing or divination. The word ‘shaman’ itself most likely originates from word ‘šamán’ in the Evenki language of North Asia, spreading through other languages after the Russians conquered the shamanistic Khanate in Kazan, in the 16th century. According to the Mongolian organisation of shamans, the word ‘šamán’ should be translated as ‘priest’, for shamans were seen as intermediaries between the world of the living and the spirit world, achieving this connection often while in an altered state of consciousness. It is said that they treated illnesses by rebalancing and mending the soul, thus restoring the patient to wholeness. They cleansed excess negative energy, which can confuse and pollute the human soul. Shamans were also perceived to be able to to see into the future, to predict events, and thus to be able to offer guidance on how to make the best strategic and survival decisions for the tribe, now, in this world. Shamans were therefore highly respected and held in reverence, with their position in any group being always seen as a special one. Every tribe had its own shaman, and sometimes there would be more than one, in which circumstances, it can only be imagined how often shamanic rivalry must have resulted in conflicts of interests and a struggle for supremacy within the tribe.
Since the early days of social anthropology, hundreds of books have been written on the topic of shamanism and in this and in previous centuries, writers and thinkers have absorbed many ideas from indigenous religions and rituals from across the globe; with these ideas conscripted into new spiritual or counter-culture movements, some of which have developed modern magical/religious practices, the result is now often referred to as ‘neo-shamanism’. Not surprisingly, those guilty of such ‘borrowing’ of ideas and practices have attracted a backlash, accused of appropriating and misrepresenting elements of traditional cultures that they had, in the first place, failed to respect or to understand fully. What it is important to recognise is that the special status of a traditional shaman allows him or her to see the tribe almost from the perspective of an outsider, while being both fully conversant with the dynamics, rivalries, tensions and desires within it and also perceiving the threats that may be approaching from the world beyond the tribe. They would often recite to the tribe its unwritten history; they were also harbingers of its fate; thus, they had a leading role in guiding the tribe towards such economical and wise management of the lands, forests and rivers that indigenous people depend on, so as to offer the best chance of the tribe’s survival into the future.
Through Mari’s good offices as translator, I took the liberty of asking Kurikindi a number of questions in order to understand him better as a practising shaman. I wanted to know who, back at home in his Kichwa tribe, would come to him to be healed, and from what. “Milan, anyone can come to me; people even come from other tribes, walking great distances. They may come for general advice or to be healed of any condition. I have to be prepared for every eventuality and I aim to understand and to connect with each and every one of them.”
As I knew that Kurikindi attended to individuals seeking his help here in England too, I asked him if he had noticed that westerners came to him with different sorts of issues. “There are many similarities because, in reality, the similarities between peoples are greater than the differences. Of course, lots of problems here in the West are closely related to the way people live, how they organise their lives, how they prioritise things around them, and their lack of any connection to Mother Nature; this is to be expected.”
On my understanding that much was made of the male/female energy balance within ourselves, I asked Kurikindi if he could enlighten me further on this. “Milan, this balance is indeed most critical for each of the genders. Both energies are present in all of us, as well as in all living things around us. It is essential to recognise these life forces and to accept them and manage them, always striving to bring about an equilibrium between them. If we fail in this, such imbalances can tear us apart, making us very disturbed and unhappy. For myself, in moments of stress or uncertainty, I seek shamanic assistance from my mother, father or sister.”
My next question was that, given most tribes have several shamans amongst them, how did individuals decide to whom to turn. Kurikindi replied: “Each shaman is known for his or her strengths but also, of course, for their personality and attitude. It is essential that both parties feel comfortable with each other, that they respect and trust each other, and the patient must be willing to be helped, to receive guidance and to be willing to change their ways, if that is necessary for healing. For myself, I am well-known for my extensive knowledge of rainforest plants, their properties and how best to prepare and administer them. I learned all this from my father, especially in the treatment of difficult conditions, like cancer. On the other hand, I am also known for my inductive healing and for ‘seeing’. In order to be able to cure or ameliorate psychological problems, the relationship between the healer and patient must be of the strongest kind, this is absolutely critical.”
In addition to Kurikindi’s extensive knowledge of his own people in the rainforest, he has now had some first-hand experience of life in this country; I therefore asked him whether these lives were indeed miles apart as, on the surface, they certainly seemed to be. “ Yes, superficially, people’s lives are very different but, Milan, every society is a mixture of what is good and what is bad; the lives of the Kichwa are no different. What is pronounced, here in the West, is how people have completely lost any connection with the surrounding, natural world. That divorce brings with it a lot of suffering and a deep-seated, constant yearning to search for what is felt as a lost connection. When people cease to recognise, and to acknowledge, their interdependence with the living world around them, that can soon lead to serious personal damage, to a ‘crash’ of the psyche, and that will not only impact upon the individual concerned but will damage everyone who is associated with that person.”
After a few moments’ reflection, Kurikindi continues: “As living beings, all people depend on clean water, uncontaminated and nourishing food, sunshine, safety, and some degree of personal comfort in order to survive and to grow. When I observe how people live their lives in the big cities, I question how long can people sustain any sense of wellbeing in a world populated solely with such artificial constructs, and without any understanding that none of this artificial, manufactured world is really sustainable in the long term. In that respect, the ways of the rainforest peoples probably provide them with a better chance of survival into the distant future. Emotionally too, as I see it, we are better off: we work more closely with one another, we understand that we must depend upon one another, our children are kept close to us, and we are all close to the nature that surrounds us, feeds us, provides us with the materials for shelter, and much more. I perceive our community as a solid, robust structure, resting upon the basic building blocks of life. I therefore fear for people in cities: I see that they are no longer communities, and that many individuals have therefore lost their way. The faster we all move towards this arid, soul-destroying mode of living, the quicker we shall see the demise of our species.”
As Kurikindi and his family now live both in the deepest rainforest of Ecuador and also in the urban sprawl of London, two worlds that in his own perception are diametrically opposed, I next asked him where he felt at home and where would he like his daughter, Samai, to live in the future. “Milan, I recognise that while the rainforest is my home, I also feel that my home is the place wherever my family is. I try to understand both of the worlds I inhabit and I will continue to do this. I do hope that the two worlds may in some way converge, with our enjoyment of the best things within each of them. As for our daughter, like any parent, I want her to live wherever she feels happiest.”
A few years back, when he arrived to London first, Kurikindi was invited to speak at a conference on Amazonian Shamanism and that was the first time he had spoken to a large audience on stage. Though delivered in Spanish, with a translator, his contribution was nevertheless well-received. Since that time, especially now he has greater command of the language, he has often been invited to speak at a very diverse range of events and to lead or participate in various workshops. Topics can range from aspects of shamanism, the study of medicinal plants, tribal rituals and traditional ceremonies, the interpretation of dreams, and how best to survive life in the big conurbations, places where people can feel both disconnected from the world around them and from one another too, pulled apart by an array of conflicting, negative energies.
Kurikindi clearly has a natural calling to teach, so he runs a variety of long and short courses, on shamanism, wellbeing, ways of enhancing interrelationship with others, holistic living, and helping individuals to develop their own hidden skills and inner talents. For those who are sufficiently interested, and who make good progress, there is an option to take part in more advanced training in the Amazon, under Kurikindi’s direct supervision; this offers students the opportunity to witness and to experience life close to nature, the life of the rainforest peoples, and to see how shamanism is woven into the fabric of the lives of the Kichwa people. Mari says: “Milan, it is amazing the range of people who attend these courses, from those who want to learn more about themselves and to discover an inner life, to those who wish to learn how better to understand and to connect with other people, to those who feel the need to rebalance their inner energies and to reconnect with the planet. Of course, there are also some who want to become shamans themselves, to work as healers, herbalists, and massage therapists, and others who simply wish to learn something new.”
Together, Kurikindi and Mari are in the process of setting up the Kurikindi Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation, with the aim to educate people about shamanism, and about the Amazonian rainforest and its people, to raise awareness of the threats to this precious environment, and also to raise funds for the creation of a unique Rehabilitation Centre. Such a facility would be aimed at mostly young, indigenous people who have lost their way, mostly as a result of alcohol and drug abuse. (Yes, as ever, these problems are a plague to indigenous populations.) Kurikindi has a well-defined vision of how this centre is to be run on shamanic principles, helping these young men (they are mostly men) to reconnect with the rich world they sprang from, the lands of their ancestors, and to help them to rediscover the spiritual side of themselves and to reconnect with the natural world once more. Of course, such a rehabilitation facility would also be open to people from outside, coming from other countries where the cost of therapy and rehabilitation is often prohibitive. Running such a centre based on shamanism, and thus differing substantively from the methods used in western rehabilitation centres, should make it an attractive and affordable alternative. At present, the indigenous peoples cannot themselves raise funds for such a facility, but the need for it is increasing day by day, thus the creation of The Kurikindi Foundation is more than timely.
Kurikindi concludes his observations by saying: “I am now clear, within my own mind, that shamanism was and is my destiny: I am fully dedicated to it, to practising it, teaching it, promoting it whenever I can, and to helping others take up the baton after me. I know that my powers are real and authentic - they are rooted deeply in my being - and I believe that where our ancestors made mistakes, we have a responsibility to learn from them and to mend our ways whenever we can. This is all within our power, in the same way that it is within our power to destroy ourselves, to wipe the slate clean of humankind, should we allow negative energy to unbalance our bodies and our minds.”
Having met Kurikindi and talked with him at length, I have no doubt that he will use all his strength to teach us that there is an alternative; we just need help to see it, to make the right connections, and to make that difference, to become part of a great movement of change that could build a better, more balanced world.
Text edited: 6th March 2018.
You can learn more about the proposed Kurikindi Foundation by going to:
Page modified: 22nd April 2019