Of all of Latin America, Bolivia is the country with the largest number of people that still feels connected to an indigenous culture. The largest groups are the Guarani, Quechua and Aymara. All of these groups are not limited to country borders, so the Quechua also live, besides in Bolivia, in Peru and Ecuador. And the Guarani live in Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil. But even though the Aymara also live in Peru the largest number live in Bolivia. Mostly around the Titicaca lake.
When I went to the Bolivian village of Agua Blanca for the Dutch aid organisation Mensen met een Missie we drove through Aymara ground. Along the Titicaca lake we saw women with their characteristic coloured, woven cloths around their shoulders and anklelength skirts. Once we arrived to the village I interviewed Herman and Adela, who told us that they would like to work on the preservation of their Aymara culture.
For me it soon became clear that the Aymara should be the most important culture in my children’s book about Bolivia. But what I didn’t know was that with the Aymara children also play a central part. I only found that out after my conversation with Tom Zwollo. Tom is a cultural anthropologist, who has lived among the Aymara on Isla del Sol in the Titicaca lake for about 3,5 years. He also met his wife there. In The Netherlands he shares his knowledge and expertise on the Aymara through the Stichting Samenwerkingsverband Hooglandindianen. I couldn’t wish for a better source of information!
And so Tom told me, during a dark autumn night in Amsterdam that the Aymara view children as pure, with an ever-present sincere intention and that they are in close contact with the cosmos. And exactly for that reason, children play important parts in rituals.
A few days before Todos Santos (1 november), children are sent outside by their parents to fly kites. The Aymara believe that their ancestors remain in heaven. But their spirits can visit the earth by going down along the line of the kite. And because children are considered to be pure, they are the only ones to call and get the spirits to the earth.
On the actual day of Todos Santos the whole community visits the cemetary and brings bread and fruit. People also make dolls out of bread. And all of this is then eaten together ‘with the dead’. During this picknick one can also share food with other members of the community, who can then ask something to the ancestors on your behalf. But without the children these ancestors wouldn’t be present.
Especially because children are so pure and susceptible for spirits, they are also warned for the dangers. That is why they tell children that when they hear the sound ‘kat-kat-kat’ at night, they shouldn’t go look. Because, before you know it, your soul will be taken from you. The story is that at nights there is a head that flies around and searches for souls.
The moral of the story of course is that you should stay inside and you shouldn’t go out. If you stil do and you hear the sound, your soul will be stolen. The only way to find out who was behind the attack is when that person visits you with a cross of ashes made on his forehead, asking for pepper and garlic. Then you’ll know he was the one.
But the most important of the Aymara culture is that everything that happens, only happens in harmony with nature. With everything they do they take nature into account. Nature is being asked for permission, people make sacrifices to nature and treat nature with respect. To signify how close they feel to nature, all elements have got familiar names, like Mother Earth (Pachamama) and the Grandfathers (the mountains), Achachila.
The shaman of the community plays a central role. He is the bridge between life on earth and heaven. He also is the one making the offerings for a family or community to satisfy the (nature)gods. People also do it themselves, but the most important things, like asking for rain or a good harvest are being done by the shaman.
The daily life of the ordinary Aymara is all about the harvesting calendar. All activities on a day depend on the period of that calendar they are living in. Is is harvesting time, time to sow or raintime? And with everything one does, one remembers: if you are good to Pachamama, Pachamama is good to you.