October 2019

‘Sacha Mamaguna’, the “jungle Mammas” of Amupakin

Archidona, Alto Napo. Lidia arrives in Amupakin at two in the morning on 26th August 2019, in the middle of tropical storm which lashes Ecuadorian Amazonia and has cut off electricity supplies. She is nine months pregnant and she has started to feel delivery pains. Mamma Olga, in charge of the “House of health” finds candles and starts to help her. She is a first-time, single mother and has had no prenatal tests. She isn’t even registered in the provincial healthcare system, she has always relied on traditional medicine. The other Mammas (as they call themselves) soon arrive.

They are the nearest to what we could call “Community feminism”. However, they don’t need any such term. They are the midwife Mammas of the Asociación de Mujeres Parteras Kichwas de Alto Napo (Upper Napo Association of Quechua Midwives) in Amupakin. They learned from their mothers and grandmothers how to assist a delivery in Ecuadorian Amazonia using only their hands and instruments made with materials from the forest. And 20 years ago they did something very brave and very necessary: they organised themselves.

They are yachak, a Quechua word which refers to witchdoctors or shamans. They also master traditional medicine based on treatment with herbs which they grow themselves, officiate at ceremonies, and give advice to young people.

The Mammas use “vertical delivery”, so-named because it includes a series of delivery postures which avoid a horizontal position. The woman in labour may kneel and hold onto a rope, sit on a chair with a hole in the seat or lean on a midwife who helps her by pressing her stomach. Mamma Adela, the strongest, tends to do the latter. She says “In a hospital the doctors wait for the baby to emerge before holding it. We give massages and strength to the woman in labour until delivery ends”.

After delivery they wait for 15 minutes until the umbilical cord stops beating, cut it with a bamboo scalpel and tie it with a string made from a banana tree. Then they bury it in the chacra (garden), and plant a tree on top, specially a chonta, or palm tree. They say the growth and health of the tree mirrors that of the baby.

In Amupakin there is no hurry for the birth of a baby, there is no oxytocin nor forceps, only hands. They have managed to reduce the number of Caesarean sections carried out thanks to their system of prenatal control. Their hands are ecographers which note almost exactly the position of the foetus and, depending on this, carry out massages to reposition it.

Even so, they are well aware of how far they can go in their work. They have become experts in detecting risk situations and their protocol for this is to call an ambulance to take the mother to hospital.

They talk about the battle between traditional and western medicine. Although each sees the other as a rival, they will never compete in equal conditions. The resources available to western medicine are clearly greater. Mamma Ofelia, the current president of the Association remarks “at first, women would come here more than to the hospital. When the health authorities realised this, they began to prohibit it via a law which prevented us from practice. They said we had no certificates, we hadn’t studied, that we were silly women”.

Quechua culture has very distinct gender roles: while men are hunters, women sow and harvest, look after the home and children. Family planning is unknown to older women. “We had the children God sent us, even a dozen. I had 15 children” says Mamma María Tapuy, “For us children mean company, because we can’t be on our own. They are also support. We have children to help with the cooking and cleaning and to work the chacra; to produce”.

Their determination to keep their culture alive is moving and inspires those who meet them. They talk and practise their profession as their ancestors did. They fight to continue attending patients from neighbouring communities, women who regard hospitals as alien and sometimes terrifying places. They see their work as a personal responsibility: this is why they allow themselves to be called Sacha Mamaguna, “Jungle Mammas”.

Irene Aulestia Antón graduated in Biology at the Universidad del País Vasco. She then did an inter-university Masters UAM-UCM-UA in “Physical Anthropology: Evolution and Human Biodiversity”. In the summer of 2019, after obtaining a grant for Movilidad Internacional y Ciudadanía Global (International Mobility and Global Citizenship) from the Oficina de Acción Solidaria y Cooperación de la UAM (UAM Office for Solidary Action and Cooperation), she travelled to the Ecuadorian jungle to spend two months with the Asociación Amupakin. The image which illustrates this work of the month was taking during Lidia’s labour, which our author witnessed. Together with Alejandro Herreros Garrido, Irene Aulestia has made previous contributions to the Virtual Museum with another work of the month “Adolescent Pregnancy in Bolivia: a challenge pending”. You can also consult several Galleries in the Exhibition Women and Sustainability Asociación de Mujeres Parteras Kichwas de Alto Napo (Upper Napo Association of Quechua Midwives in Amupakin.), from traditional to professional midwifery and ethno-botanical remedies (Ecuador)