The terms choba-choba and comunalidad come from different cultures and places (Peru and Mexico). Yet, they share a common bond of inter-connection. In this post, Udi and I tell a bit about how we came to learn something of these different (but similar) ways of being and understanding the world.
Our first morning in Lamas, in the Northern Amazonian region of Peru, Udi and I walked the ten minutes from the Hospedaje Girasoles guesthouse (highly recommended by the way), through the far end of town and down the reddish-coloured mud hill that is surrounded by forest on one side of the road, to the entrance of Waman Wasi. There was still a cool breeze in the air but the tropical sun was gathering strength.
We were meeting Gregorio, one of the three main members of staff at Waman Wasi, who was taking us to several chacras that morning a few kilometres outside of Lamas – to meet with families working the land through choba-choba. Gregorio lives in Wayku, the Quechua Lamas section of the town and travels often to meet with different Quechua families around the region.
The evening before, there had been a brief introduction to the cosmovision and activities involved with ‘choba-choba’ and its association with ‘chacra’ – during Lucho’s overview of Waman Wasi’s work presented to a group of European students. Udi and I had an understanding that the ‘chacra’ was similar to the ‘milpa’ in Mexico – land is cultivated in a way that imitates and is intimately connected to natural processes. In a chacra or milpa, Rather than planting one crop as tends to be the agricultural norm, different types of foods are planted together (typically maize, beans, squash and chili) with the intention of nourishing the land as much as to nourish those eating from it.
Choba-choba to the Quechua Lamas is the way that family members and friends came together to cultivate the land, dividing up responsibilities in accordance to ability and strength. Through choba-choba, there is no need to pay anyone from the outside to help with planting and cultivation as choba-choba entails reciprocity and abundance. The idea is that all that is needed is already there. Every person, regardless of age and gender gives to the process and also receives.
Outside the wooden gate of Waman Wasi, Gregorio stopped a passing motor taxi that is basically a seat for 2-3 (depending on size) positioned on the back of a motor bike. Udi and I hoped in and the motor-bike-taxi sped away. The warm breeze enlivened our senses with smells of a myriad of plants and trees as houses and buildings almost immediately disappeared, the road windings its way through hills and valleys of intense green. We stopped 25 minutes or so later and Gregorio led us down a dirt road, telling Udi that we would be walking for a good half an hour or so…
Along the walk, Udi and Gregorio were deep in conversation, about the nuances of the land in the area, about different agricultural processes and techniques of growing food, about the continual deforestation in the region, about the insidiousness of mining companies and the weakness of the government condoning their exploitative modes of intrusion and extraction, about the importance of the chacra and choba-choba, about different species of plants that we passed along the way. I was envious of Udi being able to converse so freely in Spanish. I was catching about 15% of the conversation and yearned for much more. Udi generously broke the flow of conversation many times to translate some of the missing details.
A thatched house came into visibility amidst thick trees after at least 45 minutes of walking, and we stopped to chat with a young woman sitting outside. Her infant little girl was sleeping and we spoke until there was a soft cry emerging from her house. She offered us chicha the drink of maize/corn and water that is consumed in every type of context in Peru – restaurants, houses, schools…
We walked further, through thick forest and down steep chacras where a view of the surrounding landscape was alive with undulating hills of greens, a diversity of foods growing within them. Suddenly there were people – children and adults, male and female, at the bottom of a steep hill, in a line, working with what looked like small sickles, on the ground.
After a series of holas and handshakes, we sat down and spoke with the eldest members of the family. They spoke to us about what they were doing. They were planting beans and maize on that day, but would return later to plant chillies and squash when the moon was right. All of the children and young people were related within the family. On most days, the children and young people went to school in the mornings and came back to work on the chacras in the afternoons. This was the first planting that had been done in this chacra for several years as it had been lying fallow to re-nourish. Chacra and choba-choba occur in alignment with lunar cycles, a sophisticated and ancient form of knowledge which is ignored by the vast majority of the world.
More chicha was offered, the taste was refreshing, slightly sweet. We said good-bye after 45 minutes or so and the elder man, the father of the family, walked us through another thickly forested area to visit with another choba-choba.
We walked for another 30 or so minutes, up and down steep hills, some forested, some chacras, my legs becoming increasingly tired under the increasing strength of the sun. Another line of people came into view – different ages, male and female, near the top of a steep hill. The arrangement was similar, some people were actively pressing their sickles into the ground, digging up the dirt and putting in different small plants and seeds whilst others were resting. There were again a series of friendly holas, warm smiles and handshakes.
Within both choba-chobas was an atmosphere of joy and conviviality. The heat, which at that time was intense, did not seem to increase anyone’s irritability. Rather, there was lots of laughter and joking around. This is not to say that the work everyone was doing was not difficult. It was very difficult, exhaustive and physically demanding.
The atmosphere of doing choba-choba work is within a framework of sharing – not just within the family – but with other families in the area and also with a deep sense of reverence to the nourishment of the land. This reciprocal form of nourishment has been at the cultural core of Quechua life and is a far cry from industrialized forms of agriculture that is extractive and dependent on monetary exchange, rather than nourishment to all those humans and non-human beings involved.
The term choba choba is a Quechua word that means ‘hair with hair’ (choba means ‘hair’ in Quechua Lamas). The significance of the meaning of choba-choba comes from the interweaving of hair braids that occurs during marriages. This notion is extended to the interweaving of people, communities and the land. One choba-choba inter-weaving of the land with people influences the next choba-choba and so on, strengthening the social fabric of communities. Gregorio, through his work with Waman Wasi, helps to strengthen choba-choba, providing materials (sickles) when needed, visiting continually and sharing fiesta and laughter.
Cut to the deep green undulating hills above the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. This is where we met Zapotec anthropologist and community activist Jaime Martinez Luna in his village of Gualetao birthplace of the only indigenous Mexican President, Benito Juárez, serving five terms between 1858 and 1872. We first came across Jaime in the chapter he wrote for a book called New World of Indigenous Resistance. The book is a collection of chapters by writers across Latin America in response to transcribed interviews with Noam Chomsky on the history and continuing legacy of colonialism, state and corporate power in the continent, and the effects on and responses by indigenous communities. Interestingly, the majority of the chapters focus on education. We found this book in a wonderful bookshop, Amate, in Oaxaca. Jaime kindly replied to our email inviting us to his village, nestled high up in the hills an hour outside of the Oaxaca.
To get to Guelatao, we take a taxi 5 miles or so outside Oaxaca city to the ‘place to get a colectivo to Guelatao’ which apparently every taxi driver in the city knows. We are dropped off rather suddenly in a car park that has a long bench in the corner. We join the other 3 people and wait. After 30 minutes or so of conversations with a couple of the people also waiting and the woman running the small shop in the corner of the car park (selling tamales and sodas), a car pulls up. We are both given the front seat and so configure our bodies in a way so as to endure the hour of driving. After only 5 minutes we have left signs of human habitation behind. The air is clear, the sky is more blue – we pass steep hillsides – evergreens and scrubby trees filling it all in. We notice evidence of mining in the distance and recall seeing in the news how two Oaxacan activists were recently killed protesting mining activities. There are also milpas (or chacra to the Quechua in Peru) – golden maize that have dried on their stalks. We are continually reminded of the intense importance of maize here – fiestas, foods of all kinds for all meals of the day…
We are tightly positioned together in the front seat for over an hour. Although uncomfortable, it gives us a much better view than had we sat anywhere else. The car stops quite suddenly. We have arrived at the entrance to the Guelatao village. There is a small road leading up a steep hill. We immediately walk to the top of the hill to check out the village.
After briefly capturing the beautiful view which stretches across miles of rolling hills and mountains, we explore the lagoon, the government building, the giant statue of Benito Juarez and mural – we ask a woman at the shop where to find Jaime. His office is just around the corner where there is a sign ‘Foundacion Comunalidad’.
Jaime is inside and invites us in. He is very tall and lanky. His voice is deep and melodious, Leonard Cohen-like. We are not surprised discovering later that he is also a singer, a musician and has published many cds. Jaime speaks with a different Spanish, very slowly, enunciating each syllable with purpose. Kelly is even able to understand much of what he is saying! We arrange to meet later, to record a conversation by the laguna. In the meantime, we find a restaurant to sit and write and enjoy some home-cooked Zapotec food.
During the hours we spent with Jaime, he taught us a great deal about the key word we had discovered across chapters in the book he contributed to, and also in a number of conversations we had across Latin America — comunalidad. As Jaime says in this book:
Comunalidad is a way of understanding life as being permeated with spirituality, symbolism, and a greater integration with nature. It is one way of understanding that Man is not the center, but simply a part of this great natural world. It is here that we can distinguish the enormous difference between Western and indigenous thought. Who is at the center – only one, or all? The individual, or everyone?
Jaime, like many others we talked to in our journey in Canada, Mexico and Peru, were highly critical of the school as an institution that has historically destroyed the cultures of original peoples across the Americas. As Gustavo Esteva put it, in his own contribution to this same book:
The Indigenous State Forum of Oaxaca in 1997 stated that the school had been the main instrument for the destruction of indigenous cultures, dispossessing them of their way of being and seeing the world to ‘Westernise’ then.
To counter the destructive effects of the school indigenous teachers and community activists have been advocating for interculturalidad in schools, an intercultural education that grounds students in and in between two cultures. A key concept in this struggle for intercultural education in Oaxaca has been comunalidad a word that the State Education Act of 1995 added as a 4th guiding principle of education, alongside democracy, nationalism and humanism. (Jaime comments in his chapter that this may have been a response of local government fearful of the Zapatista uprising of 1994).
Jaime’s Fundacion Comunalidad is working with schools, teachers to re-learn comunalidad as a notion, a practice, a cosmovision. The emphasis is on bringing this into all aspects of the school, not only in the teaching and learning, but in the ways that people relate to each other – within the school and beyond the boundaries of the school – with the community and with the land and non-human world around them. Jaime explained to us sitting by the laguna in Guelatao that comunalidad consists of four interrelated ingredients:
Territory involves knowing the land where one is, the place that sustains the community, its history and stories, its plants and animals, not unlike what the Blackfoot where also teaching at Red Crow around place-based learning and traditional foods.
Work involves the different kinds of jobs and skills that people from the community take part in and which is not necessarily only about an individuals’ work and skills. This can also be about collective or cooperative forms of work such as the choba choba in Peru, or the mutirão in Brazil.
3. The organisation of the community
The organisation of community life in indigenous communities and around Oaxaca happens through the various assemblies and individual roles of responsibility, cargo, which take charge of different aspects of the community.
4. The fiesta.
Lastly, the fiesta is the celebration of work, of the community and the land, also having as Jaime points out, a spiritual dimension. It is the culmination of community life and comunalidad.
There is much more for us to learn about both choba-choba and comunalidad. By being immersed for the time that we were in Oaxaca, in Guelatao and in Chiapas and hearing repeatedly the term comunalidad, we began to learn, to feel, what it meant – the significance of it. Then by walking and pausing within the chacras around Lamas with Gregorio, we learned more about not only what comunalidad means, but could better comprehend and value the cooperative and communal gift-practice of choba-choba.