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Documenting Indigenous Knowledge in Colombia

  • Monika Wnuk

    Yolanda Mutumbajoy watches Maria del Rosario "Charito" Chicunque weave a traditional belt on her loom. Charito's mother taught her this skill before she married so that she could make a living.

  • Monika Wnuk

    Mama Narcisa Chindoy sits in her chagra--a traditional garden she began cultivating decades ago and where she grows food and medicinal plants. Among the ailments she treats with her plants are various stomach pains, rheumatism and fever. On her lap, she holds a chumba—a traditional belt she wove by hand.

  • Megan Taylor Morrison

    In the chagras, women also grow plants used to make jewelry, such as these necklaces.

  • Monika Wnuk

    Margarita Buesaquillo Mutumbajoy, or Mama Margarita, pauses to point out the bark of a tree with medical properties to Maria del Rosario "Charito" Chicunque during a hike to the paramo.

  • Megan Taylor Morrison

    Maria del Rosario "Charito" Chicunque, president of the Association for Indigenous Woman of Traditional Medicine (“ASOMI” for short), and Mama Margarita stop for a water break on the hike to the paramo. These women began working together a decade ago to preserve traditional knowledge of women healers throughout Colombia

  • Monika Wnuk

    Mama Margarita, a revered Kamentsa elder and traditional healer, enjoys a moment in the paramo. This alpine tundra ecosystem is home to many of the plants she uses to treat various ailments.

  • Monika Wnuk

    Charito gathers a paramo plant used to settle an uneasy stomach. She will boil the plant in water to make broth.

  • Megan Taylor Morrison

    Kamentsa children from the local bilingual school accompany Mama Margarita on her hike to the paramo. The children learn through observation, lectures and discussion along the way. Here they are all pictured with Mama Margarita and Denise Ganitsky, an anthropologist with the Amazon Conservation Team.

  • Megan Taylor Morrison

    Alex Miguel Botina began learning the properties of medicinal plants from his grandmother and now aims to become a doctor who combines traditional and modern medicine.

  • Monika Wnuk

    At several points along the hike, Mama Margarita shares her gratitude for the plants and this opportunity to visit the paramo. "I thank my God that gives me the remedies," she says, holding up a frailejón leaf.

  • Megan Taylor Morrison

    Ganitsky and Mama Margarita share a hug in the Paramo.

  • Megan Taylor Morrison

    During the trip, Wnuk and Morrison recorded interviews with each of the Mamas. These videos will be returned to the women in the villages and will also be stored at the Amazon Conservation Team headquarters. Here, Wnuk speaks with Mama Narcisa Chindoy.

In March, Megan Taylor Morrison (MSJ12) and Monika Wnuk (MSJ14) traveled to Southwest Colombia to report on the transmission of traditional knowledge among the Kamentsa indigenous people. In the lush, foggy Sibundoy Valley, they met three mamas--Narcisa Chindoy (“Mama Narcisa”), Concepcion Juajibioy ("Mama Concha”), and Margarita Buesaquillo Mutumbajoy (“Mama Margarita”).

Check out the slideshow pictures featuring the expedition above.

Each woman specializes in a different skill. Mama Narcisa’s weaving is renowned throughout the region, Mama Concha creates beautiful baskets woven from native palm tree fibers and Mama Margarita knows the healing plants of the nearby páramo—an alpine tundra ecosystem endangered by climate change and regional development—better than any other living Kamentsa woman. During the trip, Morrison and Wnuk had the rare opportunity to hike with Mama Margarita into the páramo to gather medicinal plants (see the full story and video on The Huffington Post

“This trip was about legacy in more than one way,” Morrison said. “It was incredible to watch the women share their knowledge with younger generations and also to take a Medill student into the field.”

Morrison is the development coordinator for the Amazon Conservation Team --a nonprofit based in Arlington, Virginia that works with indigenous communities to preserve health, culture and biodiversity in Amazonia. 

For Wnuk, the trip was an excellent warm up for future field opportunities. She is currently undertaking field reporting through a Medill embedded reporting fellowship funded by the Carnegie Corporation and hopes to continue writing about the environment and climate change.

“In many ways, the story of the Kamentsa is the story of numerous other communities around the world confronting environmental and economic pressures,” Wnuk said. “This trip was an invaluable opportunity to report on a far-reaching topic with a seasoned reporter who is also a Medill alum.” 

(The trip was made possible through generous support from the Comer Family Foundation)