A Poem About Handstands

28 Oct

We led each other upside down
I was ready for anything
More specifically I was ready for you
But I never asked you to carry me
Just spot me, just tell me when you’re gone

Light fingertips is all I want
Guide me through the spaces between
This is where it’s work
And this is where I fly
And tell me when you’re not here anymore

I led you upside down and watched
My fingertips become magic to you
You found the space where balance isn’t work
Where flying with me becomes suspension
So tell me when you’re here completely
When our inverted world is all you need

You led me upside down but you said:
I’m gone, I’m not here
You’re standing on your own –
So I guess you warned me
And I can come down without hurting myself
But handstands always find a muscle to bruise

I was ready for anything, more specifically you,
But I thought we’d have more time
So to hell with the bruising,
I’m standing on my own
I got a handstand in an upside down world.

This one poured out of me today with fascinating speed. So just as quickly as she poured out of me, I pour her out to you. If you have thoughts, let me know.

Love, Ritti

Beauly Fire

1 Oct

I don’t know how to write about fires that warm without hurting
Fires that don’t raze everything to the ground
That heat and blaze and glow
And leave my hair unsinged

I am in the quiet wild
The blue and auburn mountains regard-less the autumn storms
The Beauly Firth should be national heritage
Alone in the wind, I stumble across a fire

Deep in my woods, in my world
A fire that is a calm landscape of its own
My friends ask how it FEELS but I don’t know how to write
About fires that warm without burning

It just is. A landscape of its own
Warming, whether I am cold or not
Glowing, whether I witness or not
This fire’s constance embeds me

I don’t know how to write about auburn
Fires that warm without taking
But I can learn and you can burn
Deep in my woods without consuming my world.

What fires burn you? What are your fires that feed themselves? I’m interested to hear how you interpret this poem. Written today, straight out into the world, with love from Inverness.

The Attic Light in Ulm is on

25 Aug

I don’t know what it is about this city but I have begun to think of Ulm as my creative place. I am here for one week due to personal family reasons, so if you are reading this and are in Ulm, forgive me if I haven’t been in touch. I am here quietly to help out where I can and then I fly back to Scotland to the thing I should be doing: my PhD. In September I begin my fieldwork for which I have put everything into boxes again and rented a small annex in a hamlet just outside Inverness. I’ll live overlooking the Firth of Bealy with nothing but deer, a wee burn, and a bunch of ticks around me, and I’ll be on the road quite a bit, following the bacteria responsible for Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi.

And I love my PhD. I love my aerial life in Scotland. I love all of it. And so it’s no surprise that the little voice of artistry has starting to sing louder and louder, demanding some attention. It was actually during my Masters in Medical Anthropology, when I kept bumping into Visual Anthropology, that I began to consciously look for a way to return to art, without moving away from anthropology. To live a life of art & anthropology, that is my dream.

I will always circus, but this is not my Profession. (Paradox: circus is actually how I paid the rent the last 7 years. So when I say it’s not my profession, I may be meaning something other than what you expect. If a ‘profession’ is how you pay the rent, then sure, that is clearly my ‘profession’. Except it’s not. Art was, anthropology is, but (aha) art & anthropology are what will be. I have always moved circular, doomed to keep learning the things I already know.)

When I arrived in Ulm yesterday, I went straight to the boxes in my parents’ basement to say hello to my books, my art pieces, and everything from the life I had that I threw in there when I left 7 years ago. I am finally ready to settle, lay some roots, and finally unpack these guys into the home they deserve. I have finally decided to settle somewhere – Edinburgh. (That’s the plan at least. Now let’s watch Life make other plans.) Honestly, I can’t even begin to tell you how exciting the idea of a home feels to me. I had already begun looking around for where to move next, but the idea of leaving kept annoying me and when I decided to stay (I made this decision last week), a massive burden fell from my chest. I am excited to root.

And as the boxes opened, so did the biggest box of all: Qayqa. So I am now sitting here in my parents’ home, in the attic where I used to write, and I am editing her. The attic light is on.

“But what if I re-read her and discover that she’s really bad?” That’s been on my mind. Look, she won’t be perfect. She may not have aged well either. But I’m about to tidy up her hair and fix her hat, because the whole point of the Bachelors was to fill up my glass with knowledge so I could do that. Except I didn’t feel my glass had filled up enough, so I went on to a Masters… And still the glass had some space, and so I worked hard and was accepted into the PhD program… Then, earlier this month and for the first time in 8 years, out my glass was suddenly full. I was sitting in my flat talking to my sister and out of the blue I felt an energy surge in me that I had not felt in years.

I have been writing poetry too, for the first time in years. Poets need a muse and I was also back on African soil for the first time since leaving Nigeria, which inspired the following poem.

You, dusty bushes,
You, red earth
Colour every part of my being –
Dust my hair,
Be the dry cackle in my laugh,
Rub your red glow onto my skin.
I want to become you,
Find you on me and taste of you
So I can straighten out the wrinkles on my face
And watch red earth fall out
I have dreamt of you for 20 years.

So I’ve been scribbling poems again. I’m not saying they will give us world peace or even free coffee, but I’m surprised & pleased because I haven’t done this scribbling in years. I feel like I’m back.

Did you know, when you subscribed to this blog, that is would be such a lifelong process? I didn’t. But here’s how one woman tries to figure out how to balance being an artist with being an academic researcher. Because we clearly can’t choose just one.

I leave you with this stunning art piece by Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum which I saw at the Zeitz Museum for Contemporary Art Africa (MOCCA) in Cape Town last month, which feels both fitting & inspiring. Check her other work out; her name is linked to her website.

I’ll speak to you again soon, friends. xxx

Fieldnotes from the Scottish Highlands

31 May

I’m on fieldwork at the moment, with intermittent data reception. I joined the Hillwalking Society for a weekend on the Isle of Arran and have now been based in Kinlochleven for a few days (leaving tomorrow). My fieldwork consists of joining hillwalkers to observe how they perceive Scottish landscapes as sites of health and danger. Basically, it means I get to hike all day! I then sit in my little tent and type up from memory everything they said.

Since I therefore don’t have much time or space in my head for normal blogging, I thought I’d share some of the fieldnotes I just typed up from yesterday’s hiking adventure. I don’t know how often I’ll be able to share fieldnotes in the future, but in this case there is no ethical issue as the photos are my own and I have permission to recount the stories I was told. The following piece has not been edited into academic writing and is more a stream of consciousness. I am also including more (personal) photos that have not gone into my research notes, just to give you a taste of hiking in the Highlands and perhaps of my work… I hope you enjoy!


I wasn’t thinking of doing a massive walk in Glen Coe today. My plan formed spontaneously during breakfast, as I decided to try to find the Lost Valley. I hadn’t informed myself enough on the munro route, but I packed enough for the day to be flexible. I drove Rumi and myself out to the Three Sisters because the Lost Valley had been on my list since I had heard about it. The WalkHighlands website advised to reach the carpark early as it would fill up quickly throughout the day. It also mentioned the bagpiper who was regularly there. He was.


It took a while to find properly, so when I bumped into a Dutch father and son who said they were going there too, I hung around them for a while until they told me their plan was the munro circuit. I followed my own path and found the Lost Valley. It was an impressive expanse between towering munros, and I contemplated on the tragic irony of Clan Macdonald hiding cattle there only to one day hide there themselves. I thought about the Highland Clearances and recent reports of archaeological findings of human remains. I saw pitched tents – probably some folk had camped overnight in the valley – and a group of school children rock climbing with helmets. I felt this was an excellent celebration of this spectacular thought. I also thought about how Highlanders had been portrayed as lazy and greedy thieves, and how the walk up had been nothing for a lazy person. If anything, the beauty and industry of the walk could be a testament to the dedication and pride behind those living there and walking it.



Thistle growing in the Lost Valley

Following half an hour looking down at the Lost Valley and walking around in it, I was just about to head back to the car when I bumped into the Dutch father and son again: George and Brahm. Their route had taken them to the Lost Valley after all. They confirmed that they were still planning on bagging the two munros and I spontaneously asked if we could join them. They accepted.


The walk was fairly straightforward until the ascent began between fields of snow. It was an incredibly hot day so standing beside snow in shorts and shirts was bizarre, almost unnerving.


I wrapped up just because I felt it may be bad luck to enter snow in summer clothes. The first ascent was almost vertical, with deep footprints for us to follow and walk in, but nonetheless somewhat frightening as the slope was at more than a 45 degree angle and the view back was giving me vertigo. I focused instead on the task and tried not to worry too much about Rumi dancing on the snow. She seemed (and was) in control.

At the top of the snow were some muddy rocks. I had been excited about the rocks because they signalled more security than the soft snow on a mountain slope, but with the mud, the rocks felt unsteady, and both foot and hand grip didn’t feel secure. I was beginning to worry, especially as we couldn’t see footprints to follow in the next snow field. I suggested that the path up must therefore be over the rocks. We could see the ridge quite close, so it was only a matter of choosing to go left or right. We chose left.

What seemed like a straightforward scramble turned out to be an almost vertical rock climb. I don’t know how Rumi got as far as she did. I was terrified for her and for myself. I had constant moments of Fear and the greatest battles were to not look down and to not give in to the fear. I had to press forward. What encouraged me was that a 17 year old was leading the way, Rumi was managing (struggling slightly, but managing), and no one was expressing fear. However, I swore that if we got out of this, I would never, ever put Rumi in such a situation again. The climb must have taken about 5 minutes, not much longer, but it involved applying grips I had practised in bouldering, and moments of little grip, using the feet to push myself upwards. Brahm reached the top first and shouted, exhaling loudly, which greatly encouraged me to push forward. We really should not have done that rock face without a belay. Brahm later said: “I have never shit my pants so much,” to which his father laughed appreciatively. He later posed for us beside a block of snow under which he believed the original path to be.


In a way, this climb became the bonding moment for us. We sat on the pass for a while, looking back, expressing disbelief, and trying to understand where the actual path was.  Following this moment, George and Brahm began asking me more questions. A camaraderie developed such as I had felt on the Isle of Arran. We began to share stories, speak carefree and laugh a lot. We shared coffee and cookies.

Father and son told me that they loved hiking. Brahm hated city tourism and prefered to travel to hike because in hiking in the Netherlands wasn’t possible. Brahm later said, “Here I have to think about where to put my feet. There, I just walk.” He also said: “The views are the reward. This is so much more rewarding.” Father and son had flown into Edinburgh the day before – “Yesterday we were still in the Netherlands, and on Monday I have to go back to work! But now, we are in this hot weather in Scotland enjoying the views!” George said – but they hadn’t visited Edinburgh city. George hoped to see it at least once, if briefly. They had immediately rented a car and driven out to Ben A’an. After Bidean nam Bian, they planned to drive to Skye to do the Old Man of Storr, and then to the Cairngorms. It amused me that they had no interest in visiting the cities of Scotland and had only come for hiking. 


Brahm posing for his father on the way down

George was very excited to reach the summit of Bidean nam Bian. It was to be both their first munro and at each cairn they wondered if this was finally the summit. When we made it, George looked to me for confirmation then bellowed: “Yes! My first munro!” An elderly Scottish man with an excellent moustache who had been there before us and was just leaving, turned in delight as he heard this and said: “Oh well done! And hopefully it’s the first of many!” 



George asked me what I did and I told him about my research project. He nodded appreciatively: “I had Lyme.” He told me he had been bitten by a tick in the Netherlands and had developed not the bull’s eye but an entire rash on his leg. At A&E he was put immediately on antibiotics. I mused to myself about how everyone had expressed they had “had” Lyme disease even when they had been put on immediate antibiotics and the disease had therefore not had the opportunity to spread. How long before someone has something? Do you have to suffer from it for a longer period of time before you can say you have had an illness? How do people who actually live with Lyme disease understand “having” a disease, and what do they make of people who say they “had” it when it was immediately tackled by antibiotics?

Brahm told me a story from boys’ scouts. They were at a camping retreat playing hide and seek, and he was always been found. Fed up, he decided to go a different way and lay down in the grass. He wasn’t found, but later his back was covered in “a hundred ticks!” Usually, he told me, when a tick is removed, a circle is drawn around where it was and the ticks are carefully numbered so that if the rash develops, the infected tick can be identified. In this case, the group leader just drew one big circle over the whole of his back. Both Brahm and George laughed uproariously at this story.

On our descent, we spied the elderly Scotsman with the excellent moustache again and again. His bright red backpack became a guide for the path we should follow, especially since the path down wasn’t marked for the first 600m. It was a tedious scramble down and I had several moments when I felt fed up, wasn’t enjoying myself at all, and just wanted to get off the mountain. I thought I would give munro-bagging a break. I asked Brahm how he felt about munros and he laughed, “It’s doable!”


On the descent, we passed by a river and saw the Scotsman just getting up from where he had been sitting on the riverbank. He came up to me and said, “Drink from that river. You won’t taste anything better this side of heaven”. I told George and Brahm this and we filled up our water bottles. Indeed, it tasted otherworldly. I had filled my bottle with tap water from the campsite and was now drinking glacial water, fresh from tumbling over mossy rocks. The difference was astonishing. We enjoyed the drink as much as we enjoyed the description that had come with it.

The descent was long, if beautiful alongside a waterfall that tumbled over steps of red rock.




We took occasional breaks sitting down, and Brahm and George measured our altitude, the distance we had walked, and how many calories we had burnt. We discussed with walking with poles would be beneficial. And we kept returning to the vertical wall we had climbed, and laughed in disbelief. We stood atop Stob Coire nan Lochan and tried to make out where the rock climb had happened.


Barely visible: The footprints in the snow and the scramble upward.

Once down, we walked in a haze in the car park. We kept looking up at the hills before Bidean nam Bian and making sounds of disbelief. Our legs were exhausted. George praised Rumi, impressed by her fierce attitude at tackling two munros.


My fierce puppy. Photo taken by Brahm.

I stared in disbelief at where the route to the Lost Valley had begun, all those hours ago, and as my eyes wandered across, I relived the route we had walked that had led us up a munro, behind the hill, up another munro, and down the other side of the hill. It seemed such a large arc.

At the car park, we sat down and looked up at the mountains again. Brahm and George changed shoes and we shared some bags of crisps. Brahm spoke in disbelief of the many tourists who arrived, took photos of the Three Sisters, and then got back into their cars and drove off. Considering the hike we had just completed, such an attitude seemed incredible to the three of us. I mentioned that that was the good thing about the car park: even though it filled up quickly, no one stayed for long, so the car park was in a constant state of flux and finding a parking spot was only a matter of time when the next tourist car pulled out. The things those tourists were missing… The incredible hike we had had… The walk had been more than a walk; it had been an adventure.

And one we had shared. I gave George my contact details and wished them both fun and luck on the continuation of their journey. Getting into my car and driving off, I felt a sense of sudden… emptiness? It felt so strange to just drive off, knowing I won’t see them again, after having shared such intense hours together. In the end, we were still strangers to one another, who knew nothing about one another beyond what those 8-9 hours of walking could reveal. But leaving them made me aware of the intense connection I had felt with them. Like on Arran, we had a collective experience that we had shared with one another, and memories of that munro would always be linked with the people. I was reminded of my backpacking days, where shared journeys became more than the kilometers we covered, but a deep connection we would always have to one another. But backpacking, I thought then, was more self-centered. After all, many people go backpacking in order to find themselves, and the journey is less about what you see and more about who you are and how you develop. Hillwalking and hiking seemed just as intense a time, with the focus very much directed outwards towards tackling the mountain. The companions may not be paid much attention to in the beginning, but by the end so many stories are shared that they become intricately woven into the mountains we climbed. I thought back to Frazer’s delighted grin at saying, “But it’s exciting” when there was a sign of danger. The only positive thought I have about that vertical climb is that we made it, but in reality, we were afterwards especially bound to one another because of it. We remembered it all the way down to the carpark and laughed like old friends about it.



Brahm and George with the peak of Bidean nam Bian behind them

Back at my campsite, I met two men walking the West Highland Way who told me what they enjoyed the most about the experience. “It’s the people you meet,” they said. Even though I know nothing about them off the mountain, our shared experience made me believe they were good people, and I hope Brahm and George stay in touch. 

PhD, Qayqa, and Love

16 May


The Meadows, just behind the main University of Edinburgh campus

Two days ago, I took this photo. It was an incredibly hot day and I was wandering around the Meadows with my dog Rumi to quietly celebrate. I was about to sign an acceptance form for a full scholarship, provided by the Carnegie Trust, to do a PhD on Lyme disease in Scotland, in the field of Social Anthropology, at the University of Edinburgh.

I can’t tell you how overjoyed I am, so I want to tell you the story, but FIRST, I want to reply to the lingering questions about Qayqa, because the PhD and Qayqa are siblings in a way.

As you may remember, I launched a crowdfunding project to fund the publication of my novel Qayqa. So many of you supported me, gave me so much love and trust, and I thank you to this day for even when I give you Qayqa, I will remain indebted to you for believing in me and trusting me. But that was over 5 years ago and you haven’t received the book yet, so let’s rewind a few years because I want to give you insight into what happened.

My intention at the time, the motivation for the crowdfunding project, was to get Qayqa out as quickly as possible. It was no longer about publishing her; I wanted to expel her. I felt that I was suffocating in her, drowning under her weight, and I was beginning to to desperately tear around me to get out. This was of no fault of her own.

The stories we write are intertwined with our personal narratives, and Qayqa – whose autobiographical elements are “limited” to my interests in anthropology, ethnobotany, circus arts and Andean cosmology – will always be linked with my partner at the time, Mark Klawikowski. As I was realising that Qayqa was not a short story but an actual long-time project, he and I were realising our love. All the conversations I needed to have in her creation, I had with him. All the mischievous secrets of her development, all the solitary nights writing, all the characters growing – all were a world we shared and grew together. His imagination intertwined with mine and together our thrilled and breathless minds grew a forest in which we ran wild. He sketched the exploits of the characters that I described. He found the real-life Mama Ti in a restaurant in Peru and ran back to tell me. He stayed up all night, inspired by the idea of the potato Ochoa, cutting up his old bed mattress to make Ochoa as a puppet.

Describing this, tonight, I need to laugh and cry. I’m sure you can feel it in my words. The end of the relationship was more than just that; it was the unravelling of these worlds we had grown together. The slow and respectful dismantling of a forest in which fantastic creatures had been born, had lived tremendous lives, and who knew where they would live now. If they would live.

Understandably, it took Mark over a year to finish the illustrations he had promised for Qayqa. Being the man he is, he honoured his promise of our artistic collaboration and continued to work on them. He met with me to discuss them, sent me photos when I was away, and created incredible art on A6 or A7-sized paper. He exhibited them at one of my crowdfunding parties, and I know that party felt more like an end than the celebration of a birth.

I left Germany when it ended. I needed to rebuild myself, so I went to the roots: I returned to my country of birth, Peru, and volunteered in Cusco for a total of 5-6 months. It was there that I wondered what my next step would be, and decided I would return to university to complete my Bachelors. Choosing anthropology as a career path was not a difficult one. I was instantly drawn to it, so I packed up my last things in Germany, thanked Mark for everything, and moved to Scotland.

I was sure Scotland would just be a 4-year thing. I was determined to keep my roots in my suitcase and leave once the Bachelors was done. Go back to being an artist, continue writing, and who knows…

But I fell in love with anthropology. The more I learnt, the more I was filling up my glass, and the more I felt I could add to the forests in my head. I became fascinated by the minute creatures of anthropology, the zoonosis, and decided I needed to know more. I applied to do a Masters in Science in Medical Anthropology and the University of Edinburgh accepted me. And again, the worlds unfolded and I dove deeper and deeper.

For my course on Contagion, I wrote an essay on Lyme disease and in the subsequent tutorial, the professor stated it could be a PhD topic and asked who had written it. I raised my hand. He later sent me an email: “If you’re interested in doing a PhD in this, come see me.” I wasn’t interested in ticks or Lyme, but I was tremendously excited by this email offer, so I went. We spoke casually and he told me to think about it. I decided I’d be a fool not to try, and since zoonosis was my thing anyway, hell, why not?

Weeks of drafting and re-drafting proposals followed. Researching potential interview partners, pouring through newspaper articles, books, emailing potential supervisors. I applied for four scholarships, and then I hit ‘send’ and tried not to think about it. Everyone asked me what I’d do when my Masters was done. I’m superstitious like that so I said, “I’m looking at options.”

My dream was to stay. I’ve fallen in love with Scotland, and I fell in love with the potential of Lyme disease as a research topic (more on that another time). I love exploring Edinburgh, the new friends I have met, and through Rumi and our many hikes and walks, I feel I am witnessing a Scotland that I yearn to get to know better. I don’t want to leave, not just yet.


Rumi exploring the Hermitage of Braid, Edinburgh


At Rosslyn Glen with friends, Edinburgh

The day the email arrived offering me a scholarship, I lost my voice. I still can’t believe it. I can explore this beautiful country so much, calling a year of stomping about the Highlands fieldwork; I can attend conferences and learn so much more from my peers; and I can remain at one of the best universities, learning from internationally-admired researchers. I have vowed to work as hard as I can with this tremendous opportunity.

But there’s something very important I need to wrap up before that, and that’s Qayqa. I never intended to share my sadness over the end of that era in this blog, but it is the only way to honestly and openly explain to you – you who have trusted me – why it has taken so long for her to come to you. It was, and is, difficult to go back to her. I remember Mark’s voice over the phone when he called me to say: “I finished the last painting”. It was one of the greatest relief and a quiet sorrow, as we both let go of that last strand.

Years later, standing in different places in our lives, I hope to release Qayqa with the joy with which I wrote her. I am sure Mark will be thrilled that his beautiful illustrations, which he poured so many sleepless nights into, will finally be seen. My plan is to release her to you in August-September 2018, after my Masters dissertation has been handed in.

Thank you, endlessly, for your patience and your trust in me.


This is my girl Rumi. She’s a Miniature Schnauzer named after the Sufi poet Jellaludin Rumi, and if you like her face, follow her on Instagram: @belovednonhumanother

The Politics of Plant Magic: a Discussion of Knowledge Production and Knowledge Ownership in Peruvian Ayahuasca Tourism

7 Apr

I am delighted to preface this post with the exciting news that I’ve been invited to present my paper on how the Plague and Tuberculosis influenced morality and art at a conference hosted by the University of Newcastle in the summer!

Anyway, this isn’t that paper. This is the one I promised, on ayahuasca tourism which was accepted for publication with the Elphinstone Review in 2016. I hope you enjoy and I look forward to your feedback. I’ll go break the text up with pictures now.

The 1986 publication of the influential collection Writing Cultures: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, co-edited by J Clifford and G Marcus, signalled one of many turning points to come in the discipline of anthropological theory: understandings were challenged by the concept that not only are cultures and societies anything but stable, they are also under considerable influence by observing external parties. In an era of globalisation, one of these implicated parties has come to be the tourists who wish not only to view a culture but also to partake in its rituals. This essay will examine the effect tourist involvement is having on traditional authenticity and cultural ownership, with the example of ayahuasca tourism in the lowlands of Peru. The importance of this discussion is, however, not restricted to the perspectives of anthropological theory; tourist participation in ayahuasca ceremonies has had fatal consequences for tourists, thus showing the need for such a discussion among the anthropological, indigenous and tourist communities alike.

Ayahuasca is a psychedelic concoction produced in the northwestern regions of South America. The unique pharmacological combination of ayahuasca consists in the combination of Banisteriopsis caapi, a liana containing an MAO inhibitor named harmaline, and psychotria viridia leaves, which contain DMT. The human body’s natural production of MAO would, under normal circumstances, break down the vision-inducing DMT, yet with the introduction of harmaline into the blood stream, DMT can cross into the central nervous system and trigger the visions standard of ayahuasca intoxication. The indigenous groups who ritually ingest ayahuasca believe it “can free the soul from corporeal confinement. (…) The soul, thus untrammeled, liberates its owner from the realities of everyday life and introduces him to wondrous realms of what he considers reality and permit him to communicate with his ancestors” (Schultes, 2001: 124). Ayahuasca is prepared and administered to patients by a shaman known as an ayahuasquero, a position which is acquired through years of “strict apprenticeship” (Schultes, 2001: 127) involving, among others: a specific diet, expansive plant knowledge, and learning the icaros, sacred ceremonial songs which are sung during an ayahuasca intoxication and serve to guide the patients’ visions and spiritual journey[1].

Anthropologists have observed two dominant purposes for indigenous ingestion of ayahuasca. Firstly, it is employed as a “great medicine” (Schultes, 2001: 127) for “prophecy, divination, sorcery, and medical purposes” (Schultes, 2001:124). Its regular use has led to the observation that ayahuasca’s presence is “so deeply rooted in native mythology and philosophy that there can be no doubt of its great age as a part of aboriginal life” (Schultes, 2001: 124). This reinforces the understanding of ayahuasca as having a long-established tradition within the communities. Interestingly, its age and establishment has not led to a unified recipe for the production of ayahuasca; instead, “many plants of diverse families are often added to the basic drink to alter the intoxicating effects” (Schultes, 2001: 124), leading indigenous peoples to have different names for the variations. We see here that tradition remains fluid throughout groups and is subject to personal needs and preferences. Already in its creation, ayahuasca is a tradition with variation, essentially guaranteeing that each ayahasquero will produce a concoction of different ingredients and dosages.

Its second purpose lies in its role in society. Ethnobotanist Richard E. Schultes observed that “partakers, shamans or not, see all the gods, the first human beings, and animals, and come to understand the establishment of their social order” (Schultes, 2001: 127). Ayahuasca thus aids to justify and maintain the traditional construction of indigenous societies of the Amazon. While Western mentality is to overpower nature, ayahuasca intoxication teaches lessons in humility and respect: the visions frequently show jaguars and anacondas humiliating the person, “because he is a mere man” (Schultes, 2001: 126). Thus, we can conclude that while ayahuasca is undoubtably an instrument for social order, it is not one of control over nature. Instead, it is an instrument of revelation, highlighting the importance of man’s submission to nature.

This complex relationship is elaborated by Peruvian artist and ayahuasquero, Pablo Amaringo, as exceeding medicinal and socially-beneficial purposes. He identifies the concoction as: “a spirit, she is love, she is a teacher, and she is female” (Amaringo, 2011: 11). Lovingly called a ‘teacher plant’, ayahuasca is revered as the source of indigenous knowledge: “in the practise of traditional indigenous medicine, this is normal: plants teach” (Amaringo, 2011: 13). Plant knowledge is acquired through ingestion, which is understood to provoke both mental and physical changes in the human body, thereafter enabling a sick person to heal and cure others. Ayahuasca thus becomes a technology through which indigenous peoples minimise their distance to nature, “humanising it” (Ingold, 2000: 314) to the form of a guiding teacher and a protecting mother.

The ingestion of ayahuasca, however, is not without its side-effects. It is known to cause “nausea, dizziness, vomiting” (Schultes, 2001: 126). This standard demands a level of mental preparation for the effects, which can be terrifying to the unprepared tourist. Shamans usually recommend strict diets in preparation for ceremonial participation, including abstinence of alcohol and sexual activity. Preparation by following a strict diet serves to control the chemicals within the human body which could react negatively with the variety of plants included in the concoction.

Interestingly, globalisation has made ayahuasca ceremonies available around the world, so the high numbers of tourists willing to undertake the expensive journey to South America shows that the primary attraction is the desire for an authentic experience in the Amazon setting. The question is, of course, the effects commodification has on the authenticity of a ritual.

Whatever the political or social background of the tourists, their perception of indigenous peoples is often formed by an idealisation reminiscent of E.B Tylor’s perspectives of a unilinear evolution: as guardians of an original state of knowledge and harmony with the earth, which tourists have lost in the commodification and commercialisation of the West: “not only the plants, but the Amazonian peoples themselves are seen as spiritual and wise, and holding the answers to our problems” (Fotiou, 2010: 95-96). As knowledge production is one of the primary reasons for a tourist’s participation, we are reminded of Heath’s exploration of techno-eroticism as “being in sync with certain technological extensions of our mental-physical selves” (Heath, 1997). I suggest we call the tourist form of knowledge production ‘knowledge-eroticism’: the desire to belong to a group of ‘enlightened persons’, whose perception and understanding of the world has been expanded through the ingestion of ayahuasca. It is therefore understandable that knowledge is both the source of tourism, and the first to undergo changes.

The first change in knowledge production can be found in the technology of neoshamanism, defined as “a form of shamanism that has been created at the end of the 20th Century to re-establish a link for Westerners in search of spirituality and, thereby, renew contact with nature” (Jakobsen in Fotiou, 2010: 93). Neoshamanism has had the effect of transforming the social position of the ayahuasquero into a profession of “cultural capitalism” (Harry, 2006: 1): today, ayahuasca ceremonies are commodified in major tourist destinations around Peru at the price of “$700-$1500 a week’” (Proctor, 2001, in Fotiou, 2010: 119). This has, unfortunately, led to great competition and animosity between the locals, who seek to attract the highest number of tourists to their facilities. They will often resort to spreading rumours about their competitors, which can challenge the social construct of the society and certainly does not help in ensuring tourists make the safest choices when selecting a shaman.

The change of the ayahuasqero from a person of knowledge and social standing to one of providing a commodified service, transforms the very nature of knowledge production and knowledge owners – reminiscent of Sakai’s observation of molecular biologists: ayahuasqueros “are being turned into industrial workers” (Sakai in Heath, 1997). Their knowledge, no longer acquired through years of discipline and understanding, is now transmitted as quickly as possible as “received knowledge” (Sakai in Heath, 1997), leaving little room for personal expansion. The commodification process thus transforms knowledge and a former social status into a trade good, causing it to lose its original social values. Peruvian shaman Eduardo Calerdón goes so far as to call them “clowns in a New Age circus” (Joralemon 1990, in Fotiou, 2010: 135).

This will have two primary consequences for the shaman: firstly s/he may no longer be doing so for the purposes of healing or maintaining social order, but for economic gain: “(the number of shamans) has multiplied, not because of a search for knowledge but rather as a way to obtain money” (Arrévalo in Dobkins, 2005: 205); and secondly, not all shamans will have undergone the year-long processes to obtain knowledge, as either the demand for economic security, or the lack of genuine interest in plant knowledge, may not allow such a dedication: “before, if one wanted to be a shaman, one had to go on a diet for at least a year. Now, people don’t want to try to arrive at such a high level” (Arrévalo in Dobkins, 2005: 205). This is leading to a poverty in the once-rich ayahuasca tradition, where we must differentiate between ‘knowledge’ and ‘information’: information is the poverty of knowledge, wherein a Neoshaman may understand which plant to use, but not why or how: “it is up to (the shaman) to be able to keep the patient from going crazy. A person who is not in control of these energies can cause grave consequences to the patient” (Dobkins, 2005: 205).

As knowledge production undergoes changes, commercial shamans become aware of the tourist necessity for authenticity. This had led to an emphasis on the location of a ceremony: tourists will consider a jungle retreat or lodge the most authentic – which is ironic, as Fotiou’s research shows: “locals will drink (ayahuasca) in the city” (Fotiou, 2010: 136). Goffman’s structural division of social establishments into a ‘front’ and ‘back’ becomes applicable: the front as “the meeting place of hosts and guests or customers and service persons” (MacCannell, 1973: 590) is the ayahuasca ceremonial room; the back as “closed to audiences and outsiders, allows concealment of props and activities that might discredit the performance out front” (MacCannell, 1973: 590) is the place where the shamans may keep their daily materials (jeans, a can of Coke, etc) in order to conserve a state of mystification. Ironically, back rooms may not always be places of mystification, and are yet made inaccessible to tourists so as to imply secrets. This shows a fluidity between front and back rooms, with which local shamans freely play: rooms which will be given the appearance of being back rooms may in reality be front rooms of performance “totally set up in advance for touristic visitation” (MacCannell, 1973: 597). An example of this can be the residential home of the shaman’s family, or the location of ayahuasca preparation. For those who consider “the term ‘tourist’ (to be used) as a derisive label for someone who seems content with his obviously inauthentic experiences” (MacCannell, 1973: 592), accessing – or believing to be accessing – a back room will increase a tourist’s sense of authenticity in that “being ‘one of them’ means, in part, being permitted to share back regions with ‘them’” (MacCannell, 1973: 592).

Secondly, authenticity can be performed in the body habitus. As Mauss claims: “the body is man’s first and most natural instrument” (Mauss, 1992: 461). The body can be understood as a place of performance “of appearance, displace, and impression management” (Csordas, 1994: 2). How we dress is a performance on how we wish to be perceived and what social group we identify with. As Fotiou has observed, shamans of different ethnic groups will buy clothes with Shipibo symbols in local markets in order to perform authenticity (Fotiou, 2010: 136). Equally, tourists expect a shaman to wear clothes that is in line with their perspective of unilinear evolution, and would consider their experience less authentic should this performance be refused. This demonstrates that the performance by locals is expected by tourists.

However old the ayahuasca tradition may be, anthropological theory understands that traditions are in a constant and fluid state of invention and reinvention. As Hobsbawm examines, traditions may gain the garment of age through repetition, as this “implies continuity with the past” (Hobsbawm, 1997: 1). The effect this implication has is that the tourist will assume that due to its age and repetition, it is safe to consume. Yet the changes whereby a tradition becomes reinvented does not render the tradition inauthentic; in fact, if tradition is understood “to be an invention designed to serve contemporary purposes” (Hanson, 1989: 890), then the reinventions will show the changing purposes of that contemporary society. Tourists should not forget that a tradition may be reinvented because its predecessor was found to be unsafe, and that safety does not make an experience less authentic.

Hobsbawm argues that changes will occur more often “when a rapid transformation of society weakens or destroys the social patterns for which ‘old’ traditions had been designed” (Hobsbawm, 1997: 4). An example of such a transformation in our case would be the opening of cultural boundaries through globalisation, industrialisation in developing countries and a greater influx of tourists to formerly inaccessible areas. A reinvention will then “legitimate or sanctify some current reality” (Hanson, 1989: 890); in our case, the increased availability of ayahuasca to tourists. We could argue that this commodification renders the tradition inauthentic – but how can we know this to be true? Shamans have undoubtably always been paid for their services; albeit not with capitalist means, but an exchange will have undoubtably followed. In the quest for authenticity, we must understand that we cannot discard a tradition simply because it has obviously been invented; it is precisely the need for it to be invented, which makes this tradition interesting. Understanding that “producers of inventions are often outsiders (including anthropologists) as well as insiders” (Hanson, 1989: 898) allows us to acknowledge that while traditions are in a constant state of change, the aforementioned implicated parties will play a role in producing a new authentic tradition. Thus, when a tourist participates in an ayahuasca ceremony, it is their very expectation of an authentic experience which is changing the future authenticity of the ceremony. Their participation sets a norm for a new authenticity, which, in a few generations may become the undisputed form of ayahuasca ceremonies; and the what the tourist experienced today, may later be a discarded version of the tradition.

As individuals and communities meet the demand for ayahuasca by reinventing the tradition to the form of cultural capital, the question arises as to the ownership of this indigenous tradition. The effect of individuals handling a common good, in this case the necessary plants to create ayahuasca, can be discussed in reference to Hardin’s Tragedy of Commons, which states that “a finite world can support only a finite population” (Hardin, 1968: 1243). Ayahuasqueros and tourists alike must remain aware of the ecosystem’s sustainability of ayahuasca tourism, particularly if it continues as uncontrolled as at present. An ‘over-grazing’ of the commons could have devastating effects for tourism, livelihoods and the ecosystem alike. The question of restricting the use of ayahuasca to indigenous peoples, however, would not be accepted by the international community. At the Psychoactivity III Conference in 2002, Fotiou observed the consensus to be that Westerners should be not be restricted in their use of ayahuasca, as “these powerful plants give access to universal knowledge and are there for all humanity to use” (Fotiou, 2010: 140). The West may accept indigenous ownership, but certainly not a use restriction to indigenous peoples.

The fundamental question remains: who owns ayahuasca knowledge and may therefore make decisions on how to guard and distribute it? Hardin, in fact, proposes a solution of the common remaining public property but with an allocation of the right to enter. Implementing such a law on the Amazon, however, would discriminate shamans from poorer backgrounds who may be dependent on ayahuasca ceremonies for their income. Hardin’s further proposal of the common to be administered on a first-come first-serve basis would most likely lead to queues, bribery and over-population in some areas, and the illegal production of ayahuasca in others. Of course what is equally controversial is who may implement and be responsible for these changes. Governments are not always the most honest of custodians, raising the old question: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who shall watch the watchers themselves?” (Hardin, 1968: 1245-1246)

Activists and lawyers will demand an implementation of intellectual property law over ayahuasca, but unfortunately “intellectual property law does not make property out of culture in the same way as it makes property out of technical knowledge” (Leach, 2010: 159)[2]. There are Western-based bodies in place, offering protection of indigenous knowledge, such as World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Yet while international bodies may be in place to protect indigenous groups from bioprospecting[3], this case highlights the under-examined fact that bioprospecting also occurs from within the community. The difficulty is, of course, that indigenous peoples will claim ownership over land and their products: “if I tend a tree and it grows, then it is mine” (Leach, 2010: 133-134), and it is customary to make decisions concerning such produce with the family, and never individually: “everyone in the family must hear of it before we can sell to another. (…) It may be yours, but not yours alone” (Leach, 2010: 140). Often, this custom passed down through generations will have the social standing of a law, which is applicable to both tangibles, like the liana banisteriopsis caapi, as well as to intangibles such as the icaros and plant knowledge itself: “spirit voices were discovered in dreams by our ancestors. (…) If a dreamer wants to sell to another person, the whole family must hear and agree first” (Leach, 2010: 143). That knowledge is not restricted but will be passed down through generations is understood, but there is always a consideration of reimbursement for the group: “when you give this power (of plant knowledge) to a nephew or grandchild, he will be wealthy with food. So everyone must think and discuss what kind of payment they will be happy with in return” (Leach, 2010: 144). The issues therefore arises as to the definition of the ‘family’, and when a person or persons decides to make a sale without this family’s consent. The payment for knowledge ownership is defined as being beneficial to the family, so keeping it for personal gain may cause further social challenges.

In examples of bioprospecting in North America, tribes have been shown to win court cases based on their internal regulations and laws[4]. An internal organisation of sovereignty over cultural property is becoming mandatory. This demands, however, a unification between groups which may be one of the biggest challenges in the Amazon when we consider that throughout the research, groups have not taken responsibility for Neoshamans and their actions, nor shown any sign of creating commercial bonds with other groups. The changes brought about by the commercialisation of ayahuasca demand, on a whole, a new way of thinking from indigenous peoples: a consideration into intellectual property rights[5]. For many, this novel form of considering knowledge as property may signify a a fundamental change in their relationship to ancestral knowledge[6], which may have further unknown effects. These changes may best be undertaken by the group, as they decide how to face the new era.

Finally, this knowledge should be made available to tourists wishing to make intelligent decisions on how to partake in ayahuasca rituals. Ethnobotanical research has long shown certain forms of ayahuasca can have a lethal reaction to chemicals in the human body: “if the tourist has taken other pills, even an antibiotic, yet another toxicity can poison him and even cause a cardiac arrest or other symptoms” (Calderón in Dobkins, 2005: 205). As previously shown, ingredient choices vary depending on the shaman, so the skipping or misinforming of the preparatory diet may have fatal consequences for the tourist. Unfortunately, this can be the case when a shaman has not undergone the traditional apprenticeship, for reasons explained above. Yet throughout the research, shamans have placed the responsibility for ceremonial consequences on the tourist, and not on their fellow shamans. This may be out of a variety of reasons: a lack of kinship between shamans, perhaps due to the magnitude of the Peruvian nation, the lack of technological communication between groups, and the diversity of languages between groups; that traditional shamans do not consider the Neoshamans their ‘fellows’; or that these ceremonies are simply not meant for tourism, and the tourists are ingesting ayahuasca at their own risk. Whatever the reason, the responsibility is placed upon the tourist: “when I asked Pablo if he had any advice for Westerners wanting to learn from ayahuasca, he said that the quality of the shaman was paramount and it was preferable to work with an indigenous one” (Cloudsley in Amaringo: XIV). How a tourist, who is new to the country and is faced with competitors spreading rumours about one another, is meant to ensure the quality of their shaman, he does not say.

In the vicious cycle created by the commercialisation of ayahuasca, we see that more must be undertaken from the indigenous community in terms of responsibility for Neoshamans, control over knowledge ownership and what constitutes traditional ayahuasca authenticity. This must be done not only for the conservation of an integral aspect of their culture, but also for the preservation of tourist lives. A dialogue between indigenous groups and tourists is of great need, and it will benefit greatly from the active participation of the anthropological community.

Bibliography & Footnotes

Amaringo, P., Charing H. G., & Cloudsley P. (2011) “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo”. Vermont, Inner Traditions.


Brown, M. (2003) “Who Owns Native Culture?” Massachusetts, Harvard University Press.


Csordas, Thomas J (1994) “’Introduction: the Body as Representation and Being-In-the-World’ in Embodiment and Experience. The Existential Ground of Culture and Self” (ed). Thomas J. Csordas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 1 – 24


Dobkins de Rios, M. (2005) “Interview with Guillermo Arrévalo, a Shipibo Urban Shaman, by Roger Rumrril”. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Vol. 37 (2), pp. 203 – 207


Hanson, A. (1989) “The Making of the Maori: Culture Invention and its Logic”. American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 91, No. 4, pp. 890 – 902


Hardin, G. (1968) “The Tragedy of Commons”. American Association for the Advancement of Science, New Series, Vol. 162, No. 3859, pp. 1243 – 1248


Harry, D. & Kanehe, L., (2006) “Asserting Tribal Sovereignty over Cultural Property: Moving Towards Protection of Genetic Material and Indigenous Knowledge”. Seattle Journal for Social Justice, Vol. 5, Issue 1, pp. 27 – 66


Heath, Deborah (1997) “’Bodies, Antibodies, and Modest Interventions’ in Cyborgs & Citadels: Anthropological Interventions in Emerging Sciences and Technologies” (eds). Gary Lee Downey & Joseph Dumit. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, p. 67 – 82


Hobsbawm, E. & Ranger, T. (1997) “The Invention of Tradition”, Chapter 1: “Introduction: Inventing Traditions” by E. Hobsbawm. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Fotiou, E. (2010) “From Medicine Men to Day Trippers: Shamanic Tourism in Iquitos, Peru”. Wisconsin, University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Leach, J. & Nombo, P. (2010) “Reite Plants: An Ethnobotanical Study in Tok Pisin and English”. Asia-Pacific Environment Monograph 4.


Linnekin, J. (1991) “Cultural Invention and the Dilemma of Authenticity”. American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 93, No 2, pp. 446 – 449.


MacCannell, D. (1973) “Staged Authenticity: Arrangements of Social Space in Tourist Settings”. University of Chicago Press, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 79, No. 3, pp. 589 – 603


Mauss, Marcel (1992) “’Techniques of the Body’ in Incorporations” (eds). Jonathan Crary & Sanford Kwinter. New York: Zone, p. 455 – 477


Schultes, R. E., Hofmann, A. & Rätsch, C. (2001) “Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing and Hallucinogenic Powers”. Vermont, Healing Arts Press. Pp. 124 – 139

[1] The biography Wizard of the Upper Amazon: the Story of Manuel Córdova-Ríos by Frank Bruce Lamb depicts the path of the ayahuasca apprenticeship, as well as the encyclopedic knowledge which a shaman must master before being able to cal himself an ayahuasqero.

[2] In his book “Reite Plants: an Ethnobotanical Study in Tok Pisin and English”, anthropologist J. Leach explains why they published a book that would become an object whose idea could be used without infringing on the author and Reite copyright. He clearly debated the issues of whether such knowledge should be compiled and made available to a wider public. This shows the anthropologist’s hesitation of ethnobotany being used as a tool for theft, and shows a wider hesitation and scepticism of freely passing on knowledge.

[3] An example: “In 1991 Costa Rica’s National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) signed a contract with the pharmaceutical giant Merck that allowed the latter to search for medically useful compounds in exchange for immediate compensation, transfer of sophisticated equipment, training of Costa Rican scientists, and participation in any future royalties” (Brown, 2003: 100)

[4] “Under the United States Supreme Court’s 1981 decision in Montana v. United States (…), the Court held that tribes retain inherent sovereign power to exercise civil jurisdiction over non-Indians in two circumstances. First, ‘a tribe may regulate through taxation, licensing, or other means, the activities of nonmembers who enter consensual relationships with the Tribe or its members, through commercial dealing, contracts, leases or other arrangements’. Second, ‘a tribe may also retain inherent power to exercise civil authority over the conduct of non-Indians on fee lands within the reservation when that conduct threatens or has some direct effect on the political integrity, the economic security, or the health or welfare of the tribe’.” (Harry, 2006: 40)

[5] And the knowledge that once this expires, the knowledge will enter the public domain and will thereafter no longer belong to a certain group: “While the offer of some benefit back may be appealing, the tribes should consider that there could be some unanticipated impacts from benefit-sharing arrangements. For example, once IPR (Intellectual Property Right) protection expires, the protected subject matter goes into public domain. Once released into the public domain, the Indigenous knowledge is no longer considered tribal property, and, consequently, the tribe loses the ability to control its use because it is considered public knowledge” (Harry, 2006: 53)

[6] “(The action of participating in the commercialization of their Indigenous knowledge) is likely to sever the historic relationship the tribe previously had with aspects of its cultural heritage because ‘to sell it is necessarily to bring the relationship to an end’” (Harry, 2006: 53)


15 Mar

Did we lose a hero today?

I had been meaning to reflect on the topic of “heroes” for a while now, then Pi Day came and Stephen Hawking left. As they say: “for a theoretical physicist you can hardly pick a better exit date than Pi Day and the birthday of Albert Einstein” (John Moffitt).

For those of you who don’t know about Pi Day (I just found out last year): It’s when 14th of March, written the American way (so: 3/14), resembles π … And then there’s this coincidence:

The news of Hawking’s passing was a surprise. I somehow expected him to survive us all. Surely his consciousness was uploaded previously up into a cloud somewhere.

Then again, this is the man who outlived his life expectancy, and every other expectation after that. His death is immediately a celebration of the life he had that no one said he would have.

But I don’t want to focus on Hawking today. If you want a nice article on goodbyes to Hawking (where I got the opening image from), go here: https://www.bbc.com/news/amp/blogs-trending-43397847

As I began, I had been meaning to reflect on heroes for a while. International Woman’s Day brought it up, followed by Mattel’s release of real-life inspiring women as Barbie dolls, and why some people got very angry about that. (Link alert! In case you missed this, I’ve linked articles that will catch you up.)

I realized recently that growing up, I didn’t have female heroes I could relate to. My Barbies were white-skinned and blonde, and I didn’t really like Barbie anyway (I played with Ninja Turtles). I grew up in Nigeria so TV programmes were limited. I read a lot of books by Enid Blyton, telling stories of British girls in British boarding schools savouring scones. All this was entertaining, but it wasn’t a world I could relate to – and I really tried.

Growing up, this was my hero:

An intelligent, kind and culturally savvy European man, with his lovable, smart, and slightly alcoholic dog. I loved Tintin because he had no prejudice, made friends with “commoners”, learnt languages and wanted to understand cultures. He was always on the go, always on an adventure. He preferred not to solve with violence, but if he had to throw a punch, he hit mighty hard.

I still collect the comics and when I visited Belgium a few years ago, my main goal was to visit the Herge museum.

Summer 2014

But when Disney produced Pocahontas, I finally understood what identifying with a role model could be. She looked like me, spoke about values I could relate to, she was strong, she was kind, and she could speak to trees. In the Disney film, she didn’t fight (she only stopped a war) but I was sure if she had had to fight, she would have sent them all running.

Do our young girls growing up today have enough role models? Do we agree that they are good? How do girls today aspire to be? Until Pocahontas came along, my goal was to be an intelligent and kind European man, and I’m aware it sounds ridiculous, but deep down I know I still aspire to be him.

The #MeToo movement is changing the world. I see it in the media and hear it in conversations on campus. The most used phrases are “gender binary” and the criticism thereof. For the first time in history, female characters in film are beginning to resemble us women, our conversations, and our agenda.

I study anthropology: a field largely dominated by men, but the few female voices in our hall are loud. Just to name few: Nancy Scheper-Hughes, the one who demands the discipline go hand in hand with activism. Donna Haraway, the one who demands we think through the eyes of our companion species. Anna Lowenhaupt-Tsing, the one who explores the anthropocene through mushrooms.

There is no lack of women available for the job of role model. So it is an exciting time to be human in this re-imagining of genders. For women like myself, who grew up wanting to be just like Tintin and are in our mid-30s, we get to start over.

What kind of women do we want to be?

In my profession as an aerial instructor, we teach our students to “have clean lines”. We tell them there is no ideal body, no ideal age, but there are ideal lines. Pointed feet, extended legs, externally rotated shoulders. I justify this by saying, this is to help them develop proprioception: an awareness of their body in space. If you can remember to point your toes while you’re lifting yourself in the air, you got it.

I don’t like lines because they are rigid, block my creativity, and aren’t symbolic of movement but of rigidity. In a line, I have arrived. I am not going anywhere from here. In a line, I present.

Photoshoot with Kara Isabella Shepherd (Aberdeen, 2017)

They can be very satisfying to observe, and it is uncanny how quickly we will mould our bodies into lines. (Watch an aerialist do a sit up: his/her toes will be pointed.) Once we’ve moulded ourselves, lines prove herculean to exorcise.

Today I prepared for an aerial photoshoot for this weekend with a friend. As a trained dancer and aerialist, she has an eye for lines and a wicked knack for breaking them. I wanted to pose in moves I had created / found. Here are a few of the ones we found:

How have we changed since we last spoke? I was still learning the language of lines and desperately wanted to learn to embody them. After my radio silence, I can tell you I am now working to break free of them.

The female anthropologists I mentioned briefly don’t sound linear. They are not even circular; crisscrossing disciplines, borrowing metaphors and theories in order to sharpen and weaponise their points.

What kind of heroes do we want? In the end, Hawking wasn’t a hero for being a theoretical physicist. He crisscrossed the media, from The Simpsons to The Big Bang Theory. He wove his web all around us, binding unlikely friendships.

I’ve said a lot tonight, so I leave you here. I want to thank everyone who wrote me after my last post. Your replies of encouragement lifted me greatly!!

For my next post, I plan to share a paper that I wrote during my undergraduate years in Aberdeen that was accepted for publication, so you can get a feel for what I was writing when I was not writing here!

I leave you with this. If you watch any documentary, watch this. It’s on netflix.

Hello (a Summary)

10 Mar

Do you remember me?

I remember you very well.

I left Germany 4 years ago in a “glass half empty” kind of way. I had said everything I could say, and although I wasn’t done speaking, I had run out of energy to form words.

So I enrolled in a Master of Arts in Anthropology because I needed to fill my glass. Anthropology would help me understand the world again, its people and their madness, and feed me.

But I became fascinated. The more I studied, the deeper I wanted to go. Before I knew it, 4 years were up, and I felt I had just begun. I became passionate about zoonotic infectious diseases (illnesses that are transmitted from animals to humans) and when I graduated from the University of Aberdeen…

…I was accepted at the University of Edinburgh for an MSc in Medical Anthropology. That’s where I am now.

I also accidentally opened a circus space. In 2015, I pitched the idea of the benefits of such a space to the City of Aberdeen, to the Scottish Institute for Enterprise. I won the Young Innovators Challenge 2015 and, with two amazing fckn fantastic friends, Theo and Elsie, founded a company called “Inverted: Circus and Pole Fitness Ltd”.

I became a director, and taught aerial silks and acrobalance at all levels, to adults and children. If you want to know more about our company, go here: Inverted website!

So I spent the last 3 years being a director, finishing my undergrad, and writing my undergrad dissertation on how movement creates an identity, with focus on aerialists.

I made incredible friends. I gained an acro and aerial partner with whom I performed around Scotland: Elsie.

And now, my glass is filling up again.

I thought so often of writing you, telling you everything, but the longer I was away, the more I had to say, and the snake’s tail became too long. So I’ve just dumped this summary on you and I’m off again.

But I’ll be back, with photos and videos.

Until then, hello! I hope you’ve been well!

We’ll speak again soon.



Fall In Love Outside Your Culture, Don’t Read The News With Apathy

22 Jan


Photo 07-01-2015 12 08 42

Where we were


As the attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were happening, we were on a layover in Amsterdam. We had just gone into the city center, checked out the prostitutes and marveled at Amsterdam’s open communication about drug possession, and were back in the airport when I started reading the news.

Where were you?

Like many of you, I followed the news breathlessly, checking my news apps day and night. Probably like many of you, I had many discussions about extremists, the Islam religion, the Christian Crusades, and freedom of speech. Like a few of you, I drew angry comparisons between the media coverage of Charlie Hebdo and the lack of interest on the Boko Haram massacres in northern Nigeria. Read The Guardian’s article “Why Did the World Ignore Boko Haram’s Baga Attacks” here.

"I am Charlie. Don't forget the victims of Boko Haram"

“I am Charlie. Don’t forget the victims of Boko Haram”.

Following all the arguments, opinions, publications and blogs online, I want to say that as a writer, of course I believe in freedom of speech; but especially as a writer, I believe that it is a unique muscle which must be exercised with caution.

As a circus-fitness instructor, I can give you a million warm-up-your-muscles-carefully metaphors, the point of which being: I am happy that the muscle of freedom of speech has (so far) been exercised with such caution and such lack of prejudice in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

I don’t like the idea of Charlie Hebdo making fun of the Prophet Muhammed and I understand Muslim outrage at this. Of course it should never lead to murder. There is a fine line between freedom of speech and inciting anger. Could Fascist caricaturists say they were using their right of freedom of expression when they depicted Jews in anti-Semetic ways?

Or Hergé's portrayal of Africans in "Tintin in Congo" - a great discussion of censorship, literary change, race theory, etc

Or Hergé’s portrayal of Africans in “Tintin in Congo” – a great discussion of censorship, literary change, race theory, etc

(My boyfriend has great arguments against mine. As a law student, he has had so many vivacious discussions with me with opposing opinions, which are really helping us sharpen our arguments & beliefs. For this, I am endlessly grateful to him.)

I believe there is a fine line between FREEDOM OF SPEECH and RESPECT. I would not poke fun at the Prophet simply because I respect the Islam belief that he should not be depicted nor made fun of. That’s okay by me. Yet this line is so fine and so fragile, I am sure we will have many more discussions about it.


Does it?


In the aftermath of the massacres and the great holding up of pens, I tweeted:

I understand that many people hearing about the massacres in don’t feel affected because they don’t know anyone. Well: you know me.

This message highlights a belief that I think about often and don’t yet have a suggestion of solving for.

Most of us will read the news with empathy, but admittedly with distance. After our layover in Amsterdam, we were greeted at Aberdeen Dyce Airport by a bulletin that read: “COMING FROM WEST AFRICA? There is a new epidemic called ebola…” and the information continued. We sarcastically remarked: “Oh, new, is it?” Ebola has been around for years, but now that it is reaching Europe, it is suddenly a topic of conversation.

But this cannot be critised. At the end of the day, most people won’t be concerned by the massacres in Nigeria or the Ebola in Liberia, because there is an international opinion of Africa as a poor, devastated continent on its knees, where terrible things such as AIDS and Ebola simply happen.


I want to confess: When the war in Syria was at its peak and the death tolls were raging through the news, I didn’t read it for very long.


Because Syria does not affect me. And why?

Because I don’t know any Syrians.

If I hadn’t grown up in Nigeria, my perception of the country would most likely be a wild place where terrible things like this happen – and nothing more. The following is from the excellent film Hotel Rwanda, a drama based on a true story during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Joaquin Phoenix is a camera man filming the genocide for the news.

A few months ago, a young man called Peter Kassig (or, after his conversion to Islam, Abdul-Rahman Kassig) was captured during his humanitarian work in Syria and beheaded by ISIS. When I opened Facebook the morning after, it was filled with a good friend’s outrage, pain, anger and sorrow. She had known Peter. They had met in her home town Beirut, he had stayed at her house and she had even met his father. She posted pictures of him chilling on her sofa, mid-laugh, enjoying a cigarette. She raged about ISIS, about the state of the world, about how gentle and kind he had been. I read all her posts and I cried with her.

This really brought the ISIS beheadings home to me. I spent hours on the internet researching Peter’s humanitarian work, ISIS and the ISIS victims.

How do we connect this world? How do we raise a generation that doesn’t watch the news with complete apathy? – Or, god forbid, doesn’t watch the news at all.

It is the people we know.

I read the news the way I do because I have friends in the U.S Army & Air Force; in Lebanon and Israel; in Germany (thinking of PEDIGA rallies in Dresden & Leipzig); in Vienna; in Nigeria; in Peru, etc etc etc. When an earthquake happens, a massacre, a riot – I have people I contact on Facebook to see if they are alright.


That affects how I read the news.

My only idea so far is to urge everyone reading this to adopt a godchild; one living in Egypt, Liberia, Nigeria, Syria, Lebanon, Peru, Belgium, New Caledonia – perhaps in the country that affects & interests you the least – and then we’ll see how people read the news.


We CANNOT afford to separate ourselves from the terrible or joyful events happening in the world. We cannot afford ignorance or separation. I am happy we live in this internet-era of great digital connectivity. People argue that it is making us lose touch with one another – and yes, I’ve sat in cafés where no one speaks because everyone is on their phone – but the internet is connecting us, and the more we travel, the more we care about countries, people and fates.

I would urge everyone to travel to countries that don’t interest them, to make a connection and then see how their interest in the news changes.

Before we became a couple, my boyfriend knew very little of Peru and nothing of Nigeria. Now he is becoming an expert on indigenous civil rights and Ken Saro-Wiwa… and I am reading Václav Havel and Jiří Weil.

Travel, make friends, fall in love outside of your culture, adopt a godchild. Don’t read the news with apathy.

At the John Lennon Wall in Prague, Jan 2015

At the John Lennon Wall in Prague, Jan 2015

The Shocking Experiences of University Students with Britain’s Health Service

13 Jan

If you’re planning on moving to the UK, this is something you need to read. And if you don’t like reading, I made you a video:

This morning I was awakened by my friend’s pleas for help: her bladder infection had worsened overnight and, becoming too painful to ignore, she needed help getting to the Foresterhill Emergency Care Center in Aberdeen. As students, we cannot casually afford hiring taxis, so we met on King Street and undertook the long walk to Foresterhill. For the kind readers unaware of this distance, on a good day, this walk takes 40 mins. Walking with a lady with a painful infection, it will take up to 1 hour.

Photo 13-01-2015 14 34 01

When we finally reached the double doors of the emergency room, we were exhausted from walking and my friend was in worse pain. We quickly told the receptionist the problem and were almost settling to sit down and wait, when she replied: “I’m sorry, but we don’t accept bladder infections. That’s a problem for your GP.”

For the non-UK residents reading this: a GP is a General Practitioner, your local doctor. When you move to the UK, you can only register with the GP center in your living area and you will be provided with free service by the NHS (National Health Service).

Now the receptionist was turning us away because, as we understood it, we were arriving at the emergency room at an hour when all GPs are open. Therefore, why should the hospital accept us when doctors are open?

To say we were shocked would be an understatement. I repeated our request to the receptionist, adding: “But we are here now. We just walked for an hour to get here and my friend is in terrible pain.” The receptionist bounced off to ask a doctor on his opinion, and when she turned, she confirmed our disbelief: we would not be attended by a doctor in this emergency room because GPs are open.

At this point, the receptionist broke into a broad sunny smile and joyfully said to us : “Have a nice day!”


You could argue that now that we’ve learnt a further rule of the NHS, we won’t bother making the 1-hour walk across the city to the hospital if it is daytime. The issue at hand is not the appalling fact that in United Kingdom, treatment can be refused to you in a hospital; the issue at hand is that the NHS functions according to several rules that foreigners moving to the UK are simply not prepared for.


Firstly:  It’s Not That Easy To See Your GP 

After being turned away by the ER, we discussed doing as the receptionist had suggested and seeing my friend’s GP. The issue is that GPs don’t accept walk-ins. A GP will only see you if you have an appointment. Requesting an appointment can put you on a 1-2 week waiting list.

In the case of an emergency, you can request to speak to a doctor and leave your phone number. The doctor will then call you, ask about your symptoms and prescribe medication over the phone without ever seeing you in person. I am not exaggerating. I went through this process in September 2014. In fact, the doctor requested that I provide a urine sample in a case I could pick up at the pharmacy, (and I quote) “pop it in the mail and it will go straight to the microbiologists”.

British mailbox 928



Secondly:  An Emergency Does Not Mean the Ambulance Will Pick You Up

Last year, my former flatmate fell down the stairs at the university. She immediately called the emergency and requested an ambulance. She was denied one because (and I quote) she was conscious. As long as she was conscious and not bleeding heavily, the ambulance would not pick her up. Demanding how she should then get to the emergency room, the NHS replied: “Call a taxi.”

Without any alternatives, my flatmate called a taxi only to be told (and this is unfortunately quite common in Aberdeen) that all taxis were busy until 6pm. Almost crying with frustration, she finally got in touch with a friend with a car who drove her to the hospital.



Is this the message the United Kingdom, and Scotland, wish to portray to international and European students? By offering free higher education with an open scheme, Aberdeen is an attraction choice – but what if the medical service cannot take care of these students? For at the moment, the message we university students are receiving, is that we may receive excellent higher education, but there is no guarantee of efficient health service; no guarantee of being examined by a doctor; we may be prescribed medication over the phone; and/or be turned away by hospital emergency rooms.

I did not move to the UK in order to critise it. I enjoy living in Scotland greatly: the University of Aberdeen teaches at a high level, I have a great job here and an international array of friends. Of course as a foreigner I must learn the rules of the public sector – but speaking for many other students I must say: We fear becoming seriously ill in the UK for we don’t believe the NHS will provide an efficient service.

I therefore request that when the university tells its newly-enrolled students to register with a local GP, they also explain all the hoops the students will have to jump through in order to actually receive health care. Don’t let us find out these hoops on our own, when our health is in critical condition.

These Are the NHS Rules I Know: 

  1. Don’t bother going to see your doctor when you have a problem. Call the GP on the phone and request to speak to a doctor.
  2. Don’t bother going to the hospital during GP opening hours. The hospital will refuse to let a doctor see you.
  3. Forget ambulances. Make friends with someone who has a car. No one else will help you.
  4. When you’re healthy, make an appointment to see your GP and only then will you be able to speak to them about the health issues worrying you. The receptionist at the GP couldn’t understand why I wanted an appointment when I was perfectly healthy, so I told her: “I prefer making an appointment when I’m healthy than being turned away when I’m sick.”


And Finally, I would like to add a personal remark to the receptionist who attended us this morning. You may work as part of a medical health system that we haven’t fully understood; one which thinks it justified to turn away patients in pain; one which doesn’t consider the pain and frustration of having to return home on foot, walking for one hour, after a futile mission to a health institution you trusted would help you. But at least have the decency and basic human compassion to not smile in our faces as you slam shut the reception window, wishing us “a good day” when you know that you have just denied a person in pain her right to see a doctor and are sending her on a painful walk home.

If you’re going to work in a hospital, at least have that much basic human compassion.

Thank you for reading this. 

With Love, for Jenny.