By Vicki Kellaway
You only have to mention Colombia’s Caribbean coast and the mind fills with sights, sounds and smells – from the famed sweetness of the region’s posta negra beef to the trotting hooves and rickety wheels of the carriages as they pass through old Cartagena.
This stretch of Colombian coastline is a world in itself, beloved by tourists who are drawn to the variety of its music, food and rumba and who stay for the postcard-perfect ocean, the white sands and vivid history, the hospitality and the warmth.
Yet just 42km from this swirl of Caribbean splendour lies a land that could not be more different – a place that, while equally enticing, is so dark and mysterious the very clouds around cling to it tightly, soaked as they are in their own lore and legend.
The Sierra Nevada mountain range reaches some 5,700m above sea level, making it an irresistible challenge for those fortunate enough to find themselves within its shadow. But while it might be the crown at the head of the Andes, it is alluring not least for its deeply inhospitable reputation.
Every year hundreds of people hike through this mountain range, most negotiating the jungles at its foot as they trek to the ruins of the Lost City. Only the most daring would attempt to tackle the snow-capped peaks of the summits.
Often little is known of the people who do call the Sierra Nevada their home – or rather, who refer to it as the ‘Heart of the World’ – the Kogi, an indigenous tribe that has lived in the mountains for thousands of years.
The Kogi – or Jaguar, in their own language – can trace their ancestry back to the Tairona people, who were said to have fled the lowlands to settle in the mountains, where they have lived quietly ever since.
But the Kogi are not absorbed in their own affairs. In fact, they are slowly becoming renowned for their opinions on the environment – fears for the future that are based on their own observations and experiences of the climate change in their mountain home.
The opinions of the Kogi carry all the hallmarks of their culture. They believe the Earth – which they call ‘The Great Mother’ – is losing its battle against humanity’s thirst for profit. Every mine, they say, is a wound. Every particle of pollution is yet another squeeze on the pulse of the planet.
In short, they are worried the outside world (the one we gleefully inhabit with our smartphones and our oil wells, our cars and our factories) is slowly falling apart and, calling themselves our ‘Elder Brothers’, the Kogi have become determined to intervene.
As a people they have essentially been left in peace because they have always lived in peace, farming and raising cattle on the steep slopes. But as the years have passed and further evidence of environmental damage has surfaced, they have begun to leave their home in order to spread their message of protection and conservation worldwide.
They also hope to help through the work of Kogi priests – who also act as leaders and judges and who run every aspect of the community. The priests are chosen at birth and referred to as Mamas. The Mamas devote their lives to connecting to the Earth’s ‘inner spirit realm’, known as Aluna.
They spend the first years of their life in darkness to ensure they are properly able to connect with this spirit world. And it is through Aluna that the priests work to support The Great Mother, using meditation and ritual to try and redress what they see as an imbalance in the Earth.
That means that while there are only thought to be around 4,000 Kogi, they are now devoted to protecting a world population of almost seven billion. Amongst themselves, they refer to those outside their world as ‘Younger Brother’. Essentially we are errant siblings, blithely unaware of the damage we cause.
The Kogi live on the very highest slopes of the Sierra Nevada. This landscape, so close to the equator, is free of seasons and therefore encompasses every natural environment, from desert to cloud forest. But the Kogi have cultivated it and remain among the sturdiest and most complete survivors of the Spanish conquest. Though never conquered, the Kogi speak frequently of the changes the 15th century brought, with stories passed verbally from older generation to younger.
Nowadays, Kogi can often be seen in Bogotá – easily identifiable in their pristine white robes. Many speak Spanish to make it easier to communicate their message. But this represents a significant change in lifestyle and it is one that has troubled some of the older members of the tribe. They see the young Kogi enjoying city life and investing in new technology and fear this immersion in the outside world will damage the traditions they have followed for so long.
However, when it comes to preserving the planet, it seems this is a risk the Kogi are willing to take. Their work, they feel, has barely begun.
The Colombian Way © 2017
About the writer
Brit Vicki Kellaway earned her stripes as a journalist back in the UK and has now chosen to make a life for herself in Colombia’s capital Bogotá.
Vicki is a regularly published contributor to Bogotá’s The City Paper and is also the wordsmith behind the award winning weblog Banana Skin Flip Flops where she chronicles her travels and insightful musings not only in Colombia but throughout Latin America
Of course, Vicki also writes exclusive articles for Colombian Life. Our online magazine.