Yachacs

[Published in Terra Incognita magazine, Ecuador]

Protected by the Taita Imbabura and the Mama Cotacachi volcanoes, Iluman, a small indigenous village in the north of Ecuador, wakes up with the singing of roosters early in the morning. This is a town of around 10 000 inhabitants where weavers and Yachacs coexist. Yachac is a Kichwa word that means "healer" but most of the times is misinterpreted as "shaman".

It is known that the Yachacs were the first indigenous people to realize the healing forces within plants. With the help of eucalyptus, plantain, chamomile, black nettle, "chilca", dandelion and horsetail they heal illnesses, fright, lovesick, bad luck, hexes and even economic problems.

On each Yachacs' house, there is a small placard with their name, profession and register number (similar to the ones doctors or lawyers have). There are around 300 legal healers in this town, but it is said that the number of illegal ones is even higher.

Each healing session costs from $25 to $100 (depending on the severity of the case) and takes from half an hour to an hour. In the premises where the rituals take place, there is an improvised altar with catholic figures, minerals and amulets. Medicinal plants, cigarettes, eggs, candles, carnations, spices, cologne, alcohol, dollar bills and even guinea pigs are also used during these sessions. The majority of the indigenous people, and the Yachacs are no exception, practice an active syncretism: a mix of catholic rituals and Nature worship. In their prayers there is a symbiosis between catholic deities and nature forces: they invoke God, the Inti (sun), the Pachamama (mother Earth), the Virgin Mary, the Quilla (moon), Jesus Christ, the Saints, the mountains, the fire, the rivers.

In a not too distant past, the Yachacs had big influence in their society; they had political power given by the community and spiritual power given by the gods of nature. They hardly had to worry about surviving in a hostile environment, because the society would provide for those who can communicate with the gods of Nature. But nowadays they deal with their heavenly given powers and earthly given struggles. Being a Yachac is just a profession that gives them a regular income that allows them to survive, which is good from one side, but from the other, it is a danger to their culture because rituals are getting adapted, making them more spectacular to attract tourists and their wallets.

This story's protagonist is the 69 year old Yachac Luz Maria Otavalo. She inherited the ancestral knowledge from her father and has been practicing as a professional healer the last 40 years. "I believe in Inti and Quilla, in the mountains and volcanoes, in the plants and rivers, in the energy of Nature, but also in God and the Virgin and in Jesus and the Saints. I go to mass every Sunday." – tells me before the next client arrives.