Seventy-six year old healer Mama Rosa reflects on the changes to ayahuasca traditions and Shipibo culture she has witnessed during her lifetime.

Many can participate in ceremonies, but ayahuasca has a unique power and a very special connection with the Shipibo people.

To start with, my mum taught me all about medicinal plants. She taught me how to cure people of illnesses and at the same time how to teach them the little I knew at that point. After a long time, I met a foreigner who taught me a lot more. Afterwards I thought, and I said to myself, now that I know more about the medicinal plants, I have to start a diet. That was after my husband died.

My first plant diet was with niwe rao medicine. After it showed results, I did a diet with yoxte rao medicine and then with a lot of other medicinal plants. Thanks to those diets, I am who I am today. I give thanks to God for giving me so much knowledge and showering me in blessings. He had it planned for me to become a great healer. Everything I learned I did so while also thinking about my future generations and my children, so that one day when they fall ill I can cure them, and they don’t need to search for other doctors.

To this day I pass on all the knowledge that I have learned. And now all that knowledge I have passed on to my children, and I am very proud of them as well, as they decided to follow in my footsteps. So one day, when I am no longer in this world, they will remember me as a person who passed on all her medicinal knowledge.

I said to myself, “One day I want to be like my mother, and I am going to become like her.

When I was a young girl and during my adolescence, I followed my mother everywhere she went to cure people. I was also present when she prepared the medicines. I said to myself, “One day I want to be like my mother, and I am going to become like her, and from this day on I am going to learn from her knowledge so that in the future I can cure just as she does.” She would say to me, “Prepare this, because that’s the way you’ll learn.” When sick people came with headaches or stomachaches, she would tell me to go with her to get the medicinal plants. When we arrived at the place, she would show me all kinds of plants and what diseases they were used for.

Mama Rosa with her son, Maestro Luis Marquez Pinedo. He is a Shipibo ayahuasca healer and educator.
Mama Rosa with her son, Maestro Luis Marquez Pinedo. He is a Shipibo ayahuasca healer and educator. Photo: Dominik Janus.

She also told me that someday, when I have my own children, I could cure them myself too. She would say, “Look at me. I don’t need to ask anybody how to cure anyone, including myself. I also learned from my mother and now you must do the same. Look at your siblings; instead of asking me what am I doing or learning from me, they have decided to dedicate themselves to something else. However, you are different, because when I go to fetch plant medicines you are always present.” For that reason when my mother attended to a sick person, I was there, always looking with detail at everything she did.

She would also use machadas plants, and she would wrap the plants in threaded fabrics and apply them to the person’s stomach. That was what my mother was like, a knowledgeable person of plant medicines, and because of that I decided to learn from her. When I was a young girl I always wanted to be like her, and now with all her knowledge I am also a healer.

Traditionally, Shipibo women did manual work and arts and crafts like clay crockery, traditional clothing, bracelets, and bags; all of that was our work, and we had to learn it. When we worked we did it while sitting down. We also did work made from cotton using different methods. The methods used in those times hardly exist anymore today: tapestry and tocuyo. We would use only cotton for our clothing.

Nowadays we want to teach some of these traditions to our children. But they have been lost over time, because the children dedicate themselves to other studies and careers, and they don’t want to learn the things that were done traditionally. In this way we would also make vases, pots, and clay jars, including our own buckets to collect water so that we were able to cook our food. That was our work traditionally. These days I don’t see those things anymore. Before, everyone from a young age had tasks to complete. Our mothers gave us different types of tasks, so that we were able to learn, just the same as at school. And we did learn. We didn’t miss anything. All that we needed we were able to make. Now I can’t make those things anymore. Many times I’ve asked myself: Why can’t I make them? Even if I wanted to just make a bag for my children. That sometimes makes me sad.

Kené - Shipibo ayahuasca pattern designs being weaved.
Kené – Shipibo ayahuasca pattern designs being weaved. Photo: Dominik Janus.

I knew about medicines from my mother, but the one that I learned the most from was ayahuasca. It made me more knowledgeable. Thanks to ayahuasca I gained more knowledge than I thought I could. In the middle of a mareación (vision session) the ayahuasca told me that I already knew everything, that all the medicines I had dieted are now found in my body. “Now you are going to be much better,” the spirits of the ayahuasca said to me, “Due to you searching us out, you are going to achieve great things.”

The great Shipibo healers call themselves Meraya. The Macanas (Conibo) men call themselves Onanya. The male vultures call themselves Yobe. The Xetebo, made themselves known through Yobe, because they had negative intentions. On the other side the Shipibos and the Conibos only thought about curing the people. Upon seeing their wives and children die, the doctors said to themselves: “Why do we let our families die if we possess all this knowledge? This can’t go on like this.” When someone cures someone who has done them harm, the following day they might wake up dead, because it was about the daily fight. That’s how things happened before. Due to that, these days we now don’t see people like that. Before there were good and bad healers but with good knowledge of the medicine. In the past, they dieted a lot. The men were called isatsakanaibo (those who knew of quick deaths) and the merayabo (men who knew of medicines). When the Onanya [healer] went to the Yobes’ territory and then returned to their own land in their canoes, they had gotten illnesses, stomachaches, headaches, and many other things. They were soulless people. That is what my sister-in-law told me.

In that way I had to learn these things she would tell me. These days the Onanya jonibo don’t exist much anymore. The people now say that I am not an Onanya, and now there isn’t much of the tradition left. Nowadays there are doctors who cure, but it’s not done like it used to be. There is a lot more knowledge available. I heard one time some comments; people would say there are healers out there who have been indeed very good as a matter of fact. But they are not the same as it used to be. Before, when the Onanya and the Meraya existed, people said, “Those people know so much about the medicine.” Indeed, very good, as a matter of fact. But now they are not the same as it used to be. There were healers, as well, that would cure from inside a mosquito, and they would appear and disappear as they pleased. People were surprised by it, but it hardly exists anymore. That’s why I say that there were people who did really know. They had the power to transport themselves. There are people who know and have learned very well. Those we considered excellent healers, able to cure many sick people that request help.

Kené - Shipibo ayahuasca pattern designs on pottery.
Kené – Shipibo ayahuasca pattern designs on pottery. Photo: Dominik Janus.

When I was young, there were no airplanes around at all. Nor were there any peque peque (motorboats). There was virtually nothing at all. In that way my mum advised us, and she said, “Soon people will arrive and sit down and listen, adorned in elaborate cotton clothes.” During my time there was practically nothing. There were only giant floating rafts, where they brought the products with which we used to eat. There were also waporo bake (small boats). That’s all there were. Not like nowadays where you can see peque peques get lost in the curve of the immense river. I know a lot about these things. My mum would say to me and my sister that it would be during our days that the mestizos (mixed race) would arrive to our lands. Mum would say that if they didn’t kill us, we would have to live with them. Instead of being in our land, they would take us with them. And when we have our kids, they would have a harder life, she said. I’ve seen a lot of these things. The river was once beautiful, because there weren’t all the things we see today. You wouldn’t hear rumors about someone going missing. None of those things. We slept in different places before arriving to our destination, and nothing happened to anyone. All those things were things that I saw during my youth. And now I understand everything. What my mother said some time ago was true. I realized that now we live in the middle of the mestizos.

Shipibo healing traditions have changed since I was a young girl. Before the Onanya wouldn’t use anything considered incense in their ceremonies. They mainly used wiroro, which they put in place, and nothing else. They used the plant that they were dieting on. They would grind it up and would use the spiritual force of the plant to cure their sick through icaros (magical songs). When our children became sick, we blew on them with the mapacho, then with the wiroro, then cinnamon was grated and with a bit of water they bathed their entire body. When the elderly became sick, they used the same process; the wiroro mixed with grated cinnamon, and in the afternoon they bathed in it. Nothing like what is used these days in the ceremonies. These two methods were used traditionally. Nowadays they use what has been used recently, like palo santo, cinnamon, agua florida and many other things. In the past you used the traditional methods. I know this because my uncle cured using these ancestral methods.

The first thing a healer should do when someone isn’t well is prepare them a vapor bath with all types of plants. Soon afterwards they are cured with ayahuasca. That’s how it should be. There are many medicinal plants here. If the person doesn’t believe they can be cured, they are shown a vision by ayahuasca, and also they can see who caused the damage. These days that method continues to be used. And that is good if it is not erased with anyone, and I continue to use that tradition to cure people. When a sick person turns to me for help, I don’t give them anything, nor do I sing a ritual song. The first thing I do is clean their body and then cure them with plant medicines, because that is how a sick person is cured.

Mama Rosa giving an international guest a flower bath. Photo: Dominik Janus.

Not everyone who comes to drink ayahuasca is sick. Those that take ayahuasca while healthy do so in order to know what we as healers see. Also they do it with the desire to learn and to know how healers are able to cure with ayahuasca. When the person has their body clean, they can see what they want to see. But if they are not, they can suffer great consequences with ayahuasca because as it is known, ayahuasca is a wise plant. It knows if a person is well. It can make them see visions. But if they are not well, they will see negative things. For that reason healthy people who take ayahuasca do so simply to learn or experiment with it. It was always this way. The grandchildren asked their grandparents if they could also take ayahuasca. The grandchildren said to their grandparents: “Grandfather, can I also take it? I want to know how it feels and I want to see what you see, and if it all goes well, I want you to teach me one day to be like you.” And nowadays it is the same; for that reason many healthy people take it. And if everything goes well, then they decide to continue to learn every day more and more.

Ayahuasca doesn’t lie. The people who come here come to learn. The foreigners come with the mentality that not only the Shipibo people can drink ayahuasca; they also can drink it. And they diet even more, simply due to the desire to learn or know more than us. Once they know, they practice it in different places. For that reason so many of them are here. And I know, they don’t do it for pleasure; they come here to learn more than us. But in fact the ayahuasca is from the Shipibo people, and there is a unique connection that goes beyond this aspect. Many can participate in ceremonies, but, as I say, ayahuasca has a unique power and a very special connection with the Shipibo people.

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Shipibo ayahuasca healer Maestra Rosa works at Pachamama Temple in Pucallpa, Peru.

Translation from Shipibo to Spanish by Sandro Marquez Sanchez. Translation from Spanish to English by Michael Stanley and Sven Perlberg.

Maestra Rosa Pinedo Vasquez
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