Chris Jarrett is a Fulbright scholar conducting research on the Amazonian Kichwa language and culture in Ecuador’s Napo province. As part of his research, Chris has been sitting down with some of the farmers who grow guayusa to learn about their lives, what guayusa means to them, and what they think of selling guayusa tea to international consumers. One of the farmers Chris had the opportunity to interview was Juan Pedro Grefa, a 48-year-old man with two sons (Jorge Mario and Juan) and three daughters (Blanca, Irma, and Cindy). Chris’ posts and additional research can be found on his blog.
When Chris interviewed him, Juan Pedro had just returned from his chakra (traditional horticulture plot). He sat beside Chris on a bench in his house, and one of the children nearby helped Chris with the filming of the interview. Juan Pedro is a very sociable man from the community of Kinti Urku. He grows cocoa, yucca, naranjilla (little oranges), and plantains, in addition to his 15 large guayusa trees. He also has ten head of cattle. Chris and Juan Pedro’s conversation continued for about half an hour after they had finished going through Chris’ prepared questions. Here are a few excerpts from the interview; Chris’ reflections are in italics.
C – Chris Jarrett
J – Juan Pedro Grefa
C: Do you drink guayusa?
J: Yes, we do drink guayusa. Our grandparents left us with this tradition, which we continue to follow.
All of the farmers I have spoken with explained that the elders are the ones who started the tradition, and they were simply carrying it on. In this sense, intergenerational relationships are very important in maintaining cultural practices like the guayusa ritual, making it all the more important to support these types of interactions.
C: What is guayusa good for?
J: Guayusa is like a type of medicine. Apart from relieving body aches and colds, it keeps you from feeling sleepy. If you are sleepy or feeling lazy, drink guayusa and you’ll liven up. That’s why we still maintain our culture and continue drinking guayusa like our grandparents did.
The Kichwa people view guayusa as a multi-use plant. Unlike the Western tendency to use a product for a single purpose, in Kichwa culture, plants are seen as multi-faceted and capable of being utilized for a variety of needs. Guayusa, in particular, carries an important practical significance – helping you to wake up in the morning – but is also rich in metaphorical and spiritual meaning.
C: Why did the elders say that it was important to drink?
J: They said it helped to keep you from feeling tired or lazy. They also had lots of activities to do in the middle of the night, such as handicrafts and weaving shikras (woven bag used to carry fruits, plants, and other items). So our grandparents would wake up really early in the morning (at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning), drink guayusa, and start their days. Then, during the day, they would go to work. They also said guayusa protects against snake bites. When you drink a lot of guayusa, snakes can detect it. They don’t bite you. They get scared. It also works for wasps and flies.
C: How does it make you feel to drink guayusa?
J: Sometimes when you’re really tired, it just takes that feeling away. It wakes you up right away.
C: What about the young people? Do they drink it?
J: Yeah, some of them do. They don’t drink very much, though, and not really during the day, mostly at night, around 5:00 or 6:00.
This is a critical question in terms of the continuity of the guayusa ritual. If young people do not maintain the tradition of drinking guayusa that their elders passed down, an important cultural space will be lost, a space where members of the community can start the day off right.
C: Why don’t they like it?
J: I think things are changing with young people these days. They’re getting used to the colono (colonist, mestizo) way of life. So they don’t drink guayusa much anymore. They don’t even drink chicha (traditional drink made of fermented yucca, plantain, or chonta). They barely even eat yucca. Now, they just want fries, chips, and pasta. They want to eat all that stuff now. They don’t want plantains or yucca anymore.
Throughout Kichwa history, outsiders have arrived bringing their religions, economic practices, and values. Since the era of Land Reform in the 1960s and 70s, massive influxes of “mestizos” (the dominant class of Ecuadorians whose lineage is a mix between European and indigenous heritage) have come to Kichwa lands, often with land titles from the national government and incentives to contribute to “development,” which at the time meant resource-intensive, large-scale, market-based production of goods to be sold, not small-scale horticulture, hunting, and fishing for local needs. Throughout this process, the Kichwas have gotten used to the presence of outsiders with different cultures and often been pressured to assimilate, to become “civilized.” It seems that today, being “civilized” means eating processed food, wearing Western clothes, and working in the city, but what does this mean for the future of the Kichwa culture and lifestyle?
C: Why do you think things are changing?
J: I think it’s because of education. I think the colonos and indigenous people are getting used to each other. Young Kichwas are changing because they see that other people don’t drink guayusa or chicha. They see that other people do different things, and they want to do the same. Things are changing little by little. I think only about 30% of young people are maintaining our traditions.
Many of the first schools in the Amazon were missionary schools, and although missionary education has largely been replaced by urban education in hispanic schools, much of the assimilationist nature of missionary schools has persisted in the national educational system.
C: I’ve heard that some people tell stories or talk about dreams when they drink guayusa. Is that true?
J: Yeah, that’s true because our grandparents would drink guayusa at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, so they would tell each other about their dreams. Some dreams are real; they match up. For example, if you dream about little parakeets, then you shouldn’t go out the next day. If you go to work, a snake’ll bite you. So some dreams coincide with reality. Some dreams are negative, some positive. Sometimes you dream that you’re eating rice or seeds. That means that the next day you’ll have lots of food, some type of meat. If you go out to hunt, you’ll find an animal to kill.
Dream interpretation is something that I had always heard took place during the guayusa ritual, but I wanted to find out for myself if it was true. What I found was that, despite all of the factors that seem to be leading to the disappearance of Kichwa mythical knowledge, there is still a rich tradition of dream interpretation that seems to be relatively well known, at least among older generations. Most of the dreams commonly mentioned relate to whether or not one should go out to hunt or work, potentially arising out of the need to anticipate danger when spending significant amounts of time in the treacherous jungle.
C: Did you sell guayusa before you began selling to Runa?
J: I didn’t really, but some of the neighbors used to sell a little bit. Before the project, there were some intermediaries who bought leaves in 2-3-lb “wangos.” They would buy a wango full of well-flattened leaves for $1.
He explained to me that these intermediaries often cheated local farmers, especially illiterate older people, by underpaying them for their crops. With the Runa project, however, he said he was excited to have someone to sell his guayusa to at a guaranteed price.