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Supporting Shipibo Students

July 6, 2014

los 8 becados

I’m going to do something different in this blog. I’m going to ask you to part with some of your hard (or maybe easily) earned money. You may want to stop reading now, which is fine, but I thought it was better to be upfront about this so you don’t feel in any way manipulated as you continue to read.

In asking you to part with your money, I’m appealing particularly to those of you working with La Madre Ayahuasca, and who – like me and many people I know – have benefited from this hugely, to give something back to one of the indigenous cultures that, over millennia, has developed the effective healing practices with La Madre that many in the West are hungrily taking advantage of.

This request naturally follows on from my last blog article. The argument put forward here by Wahid Azul was that the exploitation of indigenous intellectual resources – in this case indigenous knowledge about healing plants, notably ayahuasca – is part of the legacy and ongoing activity of the Western imperialist project.

This activity, from the logic of twenty-first century capitalism, makes good economic sense. In an information-based economy where the commodification of knowledge rather than trading traditional commodities such as rubber, cocoa or timber, offers routes to huge profits, then knowledge becomes the key economic resource. Imagine the profits to be made if a pharmaceutical company could develop a pill based on the active ingredients of the ayahausca brew that cured you of many physical and mental problems without giving you nausea, diarrhea or overly unsettling visions – Viagara for the soul.

If you are conscious of, and concerned about, the wider cultural and political context in which ayahuasca is being drunk, the following question hopefully arises:

What can those of us who have benefited greatly from working with La Madre Ayahuasca do to support the indigenous cultures that have created this extraordinary medicine?

There is no one right answer to this question. I know that many people reading this blog have already found their own way of answering this.

I’m proposing one possible response here. For this, it is necessary to do a thought experiment.


Imagine that you are born twenty years ago into an indigenous Shipibo family living in a community by the river Ucayali in the Peruvian Amazon. Your early infancy is generally good. You are held close to your mother for the first months of your life and constantly feel the contact of her warm skin. As you grow up and learn to walk you are taught about the hazards of the jungle. This does not prevent you from being bitten by a venomous snake. Luckily, you survive as your grandmother knows which medicinal plants to treat you with. She also takes you to the traditional village shaman who sings healing songs to you and that helps you recover.

Your early childhood is wonderful. In all hours of daylight, you run free in the community with your friends playing in the nearby fields and domesticated jungle. It is especially good when it rains as you can then play and splash in the huge puddles made by the rain. You have many brothers and sisters who take care of you, especially your older sister, and even more cousins that you can play with. There is hardly any fighting or bullying. There is no television at home so you spend nearly all your time outside.

kids in river

Again, if you are lucky, most of the time there is enough to eat. Your two uncles are good fishermen and often give your family their extra catch. Sometimes you go for long periods without seeing your father as he has to go away to work cutting down trees for a mestizo business. Or possibly your mother has to go to the nearest large city which could be one or two days away by boat to sell the beautifully embroidered textiles she has patiently been making. If you are a girl, you might start to learn how to do this with your mother from the age of five.

You go to kindergarten school between three and five – that seems largely an extension of playing with your friends. Besides the teacher is not there all the time and the hours are short. Likewise primary school. If it rains heavily, you and the teachers don’t go to school. At kindergarten and primary school your teachers are all Shipibo like you and speak most of the time to you in your own language so you can understand them easily. You start to learn Spanish. You have a particular gift for this.

When you start at secondary school, things seem different. You might have to travel to a neighboring community if there are not enough children in your community to warrant a school. There is more structure. Now you have mestizo teachers as well as Shipibo teachers. It seems many of the teachers are not at the school all the time, especially on Mondays and Fridays, as they like to go back to the city for the weekends.

There are no pencils, pens, notebooks and very few textbooks at the school. Your parents have to provide all of these for which they need money and they have very little available for educational material. What they have needs to be shared with your brothers and sisters. You read about computers or see people using them on a film on the television but have no access to them.

As you enter into adolescence and become more aware of yourself, life becomes more difficult. You might realize with a shock that your people’s way of living is seen as inferior and even barbaric by non-indigenous people. If you are a girl, your options seem limited to having babies. You are bright and do well at school but as a girl you are not expected to study beyond secondary school. Some of your friends are already pregnant. You have to resist the unwelcome attentions of other boys and sometimes the teachers. You notice that one of the very pretty girls who is clearly less intelligent than you always gets better grades and seems to have a ‘special’ relationship with one of the teachers.

puerto firmeza girls in classroom

But somehow you manage to get good grades and your parents want you to continue your education. Now the problems really begin. Your family first needs to find the money for you to go to the city where you have to pay to take the exam to enter the university. It would be better if you could do the pre-university course of two months to help get you to the level where you have more chance in passing the university entrance exam but this costs more than your family can afford. Luckily, your aunt lives in the city and you can stay with her and her family. Your parents give her food they have cultivated from their local plot of land to help keep you. You sleep in a room with four other children and a baby who cries a lot at night.

By some miracle, and because you are naturally intelligent, you pass the exam to enter the indigenous university to study to be an intercultural teacher. If you are a boy, you most likely enter the stream to be a primary teacher, if a girl, a kindergarten teacher. You would like to teach older students but there are no degree courses to be a secondary intercultural teacher. You want to be a teacher because you have heard it is a good, regularly-paid job and you want to help other Shipibo children to study and become professionals if at all possible.

You do well at your classes. Although the university fees are not high for each of the ten terms of your five-year degree course (about $25 USD) it is a struggle to pay them as your parents don’t have much money they can give you. There are only twelve computers at your university for 1300 students and besides you have to pay per hour to use them. More money that you don’t have. Then you have to pay to get your homework assignments printed. And you need more money to buy materials and special clothing. In order to be able to pay for all this, you get a job. Maybe, if you are a boy, working in a bakery most of the night, which makes you very tired and then its hard to concentrate on your daytime classes: or if you are a girl, in a bar at the local port, which means dealing all the time with drunks.

Again, through another miracle, and the support of your family, and your aunt who is kind to you, especially because you help her look after the sick, crying baby, you manage to complete all ten terms with good grades. Now, you have to pay over $200 USD in order to obtain the formal documents for your title, which is necessary to get a good job and not just a series of short-term, poorly paid contracts. That is an impossible sum to find. So, like nearly all of your fellow indigenous students, you finish your five plus years at the University, having completed all the necessary courses with all the required grades, but not able to get the formal title, which is essential to be a fully qualified teacher.

This thought experiment is intended to show how difficult it is for an indigenous young person, no matter how bright, to complete a course at university and become a professional.

W J & M sitting down

For that reason, the NGO I work with has created a system of scholarships for talented Shipibo young people, which supports their full course of study to be teachers, lawyers, agriculturalists, nurses and administrators. Each scholarship is worth $1000 USD per year for the duration for the degree program, which is usually five years.

We are currently supporting eleven students to become professionals. You can find information about the scholarship program here. We would love to support more students. If you would like to give something back to the Shipibo people, please donate here and specify that your donation is for intercultural education. Donations received are through a fiscal sponsor with 501c3 status which means donations from US citizens are eligible for tax benefits.

 If you have any questions about this please email me at:

  1. Paul,
    I am very touched by your love for these young people and their struggles. I will give a donation. To think of how I squandered my public school education, it saddens me.

  2. CosmicDrBii permalink

    Thank you, Debra

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