Mambe series: Staying still to be smart with the plant

“Mambear coca não é pintar a boca de verde”*

In contrast with cocaine, mambe, like yajé, lies in a gray area where if not technically legal, it is plainly tolerated in Colombia. Among other reasons, we base that on the Bogotá Secretary of Health’s failure to enforce a nominal prohibition of mambe and other packaged derivatives of coca like teas, pomades and homeopathic dilutions, which are openly sold in crafts markets and health food stores.

In any case, it would not apply to its indigenous users, whose right to their traditional practices is guaranteed by the 1991 Constitution and therefore raises the tricky question of their right to sell such products to White men, given the contradiction between the State’s futile “anti-drugs” policies and its support – sometimes in the name of crop substitution! – for the commercialization (and export), by poor indigenous and campesino communities, of exotic foodstuffs and medicinal plants which are environment-friendly, maintain their traditional economy and are unique to Colombia, like the Coca Nasa tea grown by the Páez communities of Cauca, who have been fighting for years for the definitive legalization of a product with proven health benefits in the face of contradictory rulings by the Constitutional Court and the Council of State, an impasse which also involves different regulatory agencies, like the Invima (the Colombian F.D.A.) and indigenous authorities. In short, the chances of being busted for mambe are infinitesimal,* basically because the King Canutes of Colombia can no more turn back the tide of history than their anti-marijuana equivalents in the United States (plants of which are likewise sold in Bogotá marketplaces).

Having got the tedious issue of legality out of the way, we return to our distinction between the spiritual benefits of mambe and just getting high on it, an issue where jurisprudence must yield to the much more complex one of whether or not the Western appropriation of indigenous sacred plants debases their magic and harms the cultures which originated them. In fact, it has unleashed a veritable holy war between (roughly) the “purists” (who seek to guard yajé and mambe in a museum run by and for those ethnic groups) and the “disseminators”, who argue that they are a patrimony of humanity which transcends cultural frontiers. As a (retired) veteran of that war myself, I grant that both sides have a point, but they equally ignore the difference between practice and theory. Like it or not, mambe has been infiltrated by consumerism, so the real issue is whether or not we Westerners can salvage at least some of its original capacity to make mankind more vigorous, sane and enlightened.

Here, we confront a vicious circle where the indigenous people prepare a mediocre mambe because the “blancos don’t know any better” and the same blancos who buy it don’t care because they have never known the genuine article and accept the counterfeit one so long as it gets them high.

That, in turn, rests on the respect for the substance by both parties, or more specifically, for the spirit forces which, in the indigenous cosmovision, are the “owners” (dueños) of such sacred plants and responsible for any powers they have. For the former, that respect entails preparing mambe in a harmonious state of mind, harvesting coca leaves which are neither too green or sere from his own chagra, employing the traditional technology of a wood fire and a mortar hollowed from a tree trunk and, especially, a lot of patience, because, praying over the mambe aside, its quality ultimately depends on the slow toasting of the coca leaves, their right combination with the ash of the yarumo-tree fronds which releases its alkaloids (avoiding moisture at all costs) and the laborious job of pounding the stuff in a mortar, then sifting it (through a piece of cloth) and doing it over and again until he obtains the finest powder imaginable, all of which, as I have witnessed myself, strains the muscles and takes hours, so much so that the anthropologists are still puzzled by the cost-benefit of devoting half a day (with the harvesting) to produce an amount which is often consumed on the same night, without, that is, jeopardizing their subsistence economy.

For the latter (the buyers), respect means a due sensitivity to the ethereal energies instilled in the mambe by the person who makes it, who, in a way, only channels the values of the culture which employs it to master the practicalities of survival in the jungle and the higher purposes of right thought, right action and a beneficial relationship with ones family, community and surroundings. As a crude comparison, it is like appreciating the difference between powdered and gourmet coffee: an ability to almost literally savor and thus assimilate the magic of a plant.

The best description of this sensitivity I’ve found is the following account by a woman whom I assume is an urbanized, non-indigenous consumer of mambe: “I have developed a kind of instinct for understanding how the mambe was made, if it was only made for the purpose of selling it or if it was made with love. For example, that of lady I don’t like: it gives me something like tachycardia. Another man does make a delicious mambe. He filters it very well and I like the way he prepares it, with love and transferring all of his knowledge. He is a person of a good word. I once received a mambe from la Chorrera, to pay back a favor I’d done them. It was specifically made for me. The best mambe in the world is made by an elder from the river Aduche . There are mambes which help me to concentrate, others which relax me, some which give energy or clarity, but the mambe of that elder made me sit down and communicate with what is known as the “sweet word.” My thoughts were directed towards speaking well, for a whole week. In contrast with how I usually am, I had a very conciliatory and serene attitude.”

To get the full flavor of such wisdom, we need a gloss: a) The “good word” refers not only to the literal recital of “the law of life” at the nightly colloquium (mambeadero) in the maloca but also has a whole range of mythological connotations, like links to ancestors of the tribe or totemic animals and plants, or the half-psychoanalytic culmination of the ritual, when each participant symbolically places the concerns he has spoken of in an invisible basket (canasto) of coca leaves to effect a collective resolution of their anxieties, resentments and conflicts.

(b) To say that the good word is “sweet” again has a literal and symbolic meaning. In the first, the sign of a well-prepared mambe is that it doesn’t have the bitter taste of the raw leaves or the salty one of excessive ash. In the second, “sweet” refers to its capacity to foster tranquil, secure and healthy social exchanges, which, by extension, are “cool” because they are free of anger and negativity.

(c) “Concentrate” likewise has multiple meanings, one being a silent and attentive focus both on the inward inspiration of mambé and the councils of the elder who guides the ceremony and the contributions of the participants. That, in turn, requires the mambeador to stay on his wooden stool (banca) in the ritual circle during the course of the mambeadero, maintain an erect posture, avoid violent gestures and not interrupt the remarks of others, though those norms are now much more flexible than they were in the olden days, when (in some places), youngsters in the stage of apprenticeship were forbidden from getting up during rituals lasting several days and nights, and more so, in an informal urban context, where concentration simply means that the mambeador is serious and fully focused on the voices of the plant.

Wherever he or she is, however, perhaps the most important aspect of concentration is, so to speak, the “yield” from the “investment” in it, which has to do with the traditional custom of mentally choosing a purpose for the sharpened awareness mambe produces before taking the first spoonful. That aim may be anything from the solution of a personal or family problem to an inspired approach to your studies or arts or crafts. Unlike alcohol, which (in excess) “makes you stupid, brutish and poor,” mambe awakens our innate capacity for lucid thought, creativity and a serene state of mind which is repressed by the system which (deliberately perhaps) legalizes the former.

So, despite the widespread misuse of mambe I criticized in a previous article, I may have been hasty in blaming it all on urban students, hippies and foreign tourists who visit the Amazon (and a little hypocritical in excluding myself*). To cite one investigator*: “Many of those habitual users of mambe in universities have integrated it into their academic work and appreciate not only its delicate effects as a stimulant but its ability to heighten concentration and the fluidity of ideas. They say that ‘my chagra is my course, my garden is the knowledge I have, my work is my university’.”

*“Using mambe is not a matter of staining your lips green”: true, as the above tries to show, but it is nevertheless the visible mark of the mambe pro, ethical or not.

* But not, achtung, in Brazil or Holland, for example, where, from testimonies I have heard, the possession of mambe is regarded as a serious crime.

* Or failing to mention the abuse of coca by some of the indigenous too, though it is exceptional and part of the familiar syndrome of poverty, undernourishment and culture loss.

*Salima Cure, Mambe en contextos urbanos.