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Exploration Nation: The Last Shaman

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Special Forces Vet Sam Coffman and Narcisso

Special Forces Vet Sam Coffman and Narcisso

On April 9th, our expedition team made its way to Puerto Viejo Sarapiqui, a small town on the Indian river at the far northern edge of Costa Rica. Here we would catch a river boat to travel deep into the southern region of Nicaragua where we would be rejoined with the tribal elders whom we had met in October of 2012.

What is normally a three hour boat ride has transformed into a seven hour trip due to low river levels. Our Rama Indian guide, Hansi, expertly guides the craft through natural crevices in the river bed, zig zagging our way into the country. It was importantly that we leave early in the morning to arrive in Nicaragua before nightfall. It seems the military frowns on people traveling by river at night.

Narcisso the Last Shaman

Narcisso the Last Shaman

We know this because in October, we came through the same area in the dark. Not just dark, “jungle dark”. Other than sparse moonlight, we literally could not see a few feet in front of the boat. Of course, Hansi knew exactly how to zig and zag, even in the pitch blackness of the night. How exactly he could read the river in the dark is unknown to me. The Nicaragua Military was not thrilled, but professional. However, repeating this adventure would surely try their patience. Thus, we left at 9am.

While the journey was long, it gave the crew a chance to relax. We had been shooting for four days straight in 90 degree heat. On this day, the air was cool from overcast skies and we did our best to get comfortable in the river boat as we made our way past four military checkpoints and to our operations base at Rio Indio Lodge.

Narcisso at the entrance to his home

Narcisso at the entrance to his home

The following day we were to meet Narcisso Orozoco, the last remaining shaman of the Rama people. Sam Coffman, a Special Forces veteran and expert in herbal medicine came from San Antonio to work with our team and meet Narcisso. Our goal was to film a lesson program showing how native tribes derive medicine and food from the rain forest.

As we prepared our equipment and crew to head up river to Narcisso’s house, we learned that he was not going to be home. He was an hour and a half away working his bean field. Our guides set out on a separate boat to bring Narcisso home to meet us. He had lost track of the dates we were to meet which is not surprising given his lifestyle.

Narcisso happy with his new machete

Narcisso happy with his new machete

Narcisso is well into his eighties and has studied the flora and fauna of the rain forest for over 50 years. He is a veritable walking encyclopedia of ethnobotany. It is very rare for him to agree to meet outsiders and almost unheard of to allow outsiders to film him. However, we developed a relationship with him over the last year and he understands that we seek to support him and help share his knowledge with people far beyond the boundaries of his tribe and territory.

In the past, it was common for a shaman (or medicine man) to have several apprentices working under him as a way to pass knowledge to future generations. For Narcisso, this is not the case. He has come to realize that he possesses a lifetime of valuable information and is concerned that his advancing age will rob him of this knowledge – and in turn, deprive his people of expertise that is crucial to daily living. He is literally the last shaman of the Rama Indians.

Narcisso shows up and, as is his nature, greets us with familiarity and graciousness. He is wearing an old transistor radio around his neck and his clothing is tattered and stained. But there is energy in his eyes and he is remarkably sprite for his age and lifestyle.

Our team gathers with Narcisso as cameras roll and we begin to ask questions about him, his history and how he has gained his knowledge. We learn that our western points of reference with regard to illness are almost useless. For example, Narcisso tells us about “The Disease of the Ants” which we come to understand is known to us as diabetes.

He tells us that people who live in the rain forest have a challenge when it comes to going to the bathroom at night. They have the choice of peeing from the house platform (the “houses” are really just roofed platforms with no walls) which is unsanitary and generally not accepted. The other choice is to make their way in the darkness to a latrine risking all manner of snakes, insects and the occasional Jaguar.

But the people of the forest are inventive. Instead of the above choices, they would use a bed pan fashioned of bamboo to “take care of business” during the night. They then would slide this pan under the bed to be emptied in the morning. As the sun rises on their hut, they would find a stream of ants making its way to the bed pan.

One symptom of diabetes is frequent urination. A diabetic’s urine is high in sugars, which attracts ants. Thus, the name “The Disease of the Ants”.

Narcisso's hand made canoe

Narcisso's hand made canoe

This makes us think about how to capture the knowledge from Narcisso and translate it to terms we can understand. It won’t be easy. But we realize that there is much to learn from Narcisso and we feel lucky to welcomed into his life and to be given this extraordinary opportunity.

After our visit, we stroll into the forest with Narcisso to see first hand some of the plants he raises. Sam arranges to return and spend days with Narcisso to share knowledge and information. Some of our footage will go to George Mason University to support a project that will send pharmacology experts to further document the experience and wisdom of this amazing man.

In return we are working on raising enough money to replace Narcisso’s boat motor. Much of his farm is miles away from his home. Without his motor, it takes him hours to row his handmade canoe to tend his fields. We leave him with supplies, shoes from Keen Footwear, a machete and some cash.

No doubt we will return to Narcissos house without the cameras to simply live, learn and laugh. Our lesson is that these are the universal languages of all people and, while our point of reference might be different, ultimately we are all living the same life.

The expedition is more than halfway through. Next, we’ll be learning first hand what it takes to survive the night in the rain forest. Our team will need to find food, purify water and build shelter through the night. Then, we’ll deploy a surgical clinic for the Rama, Miskito and Creole Indians.

Learn more about Exploration Nation, a unique science education program for elementary and middle school here and follow this column for updates.

All images by author.

Previously in this series:

Kids Lead Crowd-Funded Scientific Mission to Nicaragua: Science Education Is the Tide That Lifts All Boats
Exploration Nation: Expedition Central America
Exploration Nation: Expedition Central America – Day One – April 4th
Exploration Nation: Day Two – April 5
Exploration Nation: Rebuilding the Rain Forest

Pete Monfre About the Author: Pete Monfre is a twenty five year veteran of the advertising and marketing industry serving Fortune 100 and 500 technology clients. He is also an accomplished educator, photographer, award winning musician, writer, consultant, videographer and producer. In recent years, Mr. Monfre dedicated himself to improving the future for our children and nation through engaging science education, as demonstrated by his vision and success as CEO of Enzoology Education. Follow on Twitter @petemonfre.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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