Benki’s Birthday

Benki Piyako, leader of the Ashaninka, photographed in his home in Marechal Thaumaturgo, Brazil.

As I go through and edit photos from a recent trip, I get to experience a pleasant flashback to the all of the moments. I was shooting somewhat sparingly— worried that I would run out of space on the memory card, and then really miss something special while trying to free up space (which thankfully never happened)— so a majority of the photos are keepers.

This particular journey was a weeklong excursion to the Brazilian Amazon where my family was visiting Benki Piyako, the leader of the Ashaninka tribe. He is revered as an incredibly powerful spiritual leader and sought out by all types — anthropologists, tribal leaders, politicians, actors, musicians, writers, fashion designers and locals. He is arguably the most influential leader of all of the Amazon. Yes, in case you are wondering, he is most definitely a shaman.

While this was not our first time visiting Benki, the circumstances of this trip were more defined: my sister had been diagnosed with epilepsy and we went to him in search of healing. I know this sounds crazy, why would anyone in their right mind leave the United States, and all of the doctors and specialists and high-tech facets of Western medicine, to seek out a cure from a medicine man living in primitive town deeply isolated in the world’s largest forest?

At home, in his kitchen, answering some of our many questions.

Well, as most of you may know, Western medicine and doctors are not flawless and, after many appointments with many specialists, there were still questions and uncertainties. Long before my sister’s condition Benki had once told us how he cured his own brother of epilepsy. Desperate for anything that could free my little sister from potentially life long symptoms and medications, we reached out to him. Although he is endlessly busy, he told us when we could find him at home and with enough time to see her.

Preparing the vapor bath.

The healing process would take 4 days, with a diet free of meat, sugar and salt, and 3 nights of Ayahuasca ceremonies. Everyday there was also a vapor bath of medicinal plants to clear the body of any lingering energies that could interfere with the healing. For these vapor baths they prepared a pot filled with various plant leaves and once you were positioned above the pot, with a large cloth around you to catch the vapor, they would add rocks that had been heating in a fire, causing the water to boil and the plants in the pot would release a sweet and minty vapor that enveloped your body.

My sister, Olivia, hidden underneath the cloth during the vapor bath.

Each night, when we would gather to drink the ayahuasca, there would also be an addition of one or two locals who were also in need of some sort of help. It seems as if almost every day of the year, a canoe shows up at the riverbank below Benki’s home with news of someone in need. Regardless of how busy he is (which is actually remarkably so for someone who lives isolated from the rest of the world) he never turns anyone away, and he never asks for money.

During each ceremony he would take my sister to the edge of the circle and first do a reading in which he would place his hands on her head or back to “see” what was wrong. He would then blow tobacco smoke over her and whisper different prayers and incantations. Then he would he place his face close to her body and suck something, presumably the sickness out of her and then spit it out of his own mouth. Sometimes it was simply spit out of his mouth, other times it was more violent, and he would cough and cough as he released it, and other times it was more violent still and he would vomit and retch until it had all passed.

Post vapor bath bliss.

Afterwards he was visibly drained, and she was noticeably better. He would perform this again and again on whoever was in need. For those of you who have never seen, heard or read about shamanic healings, this must sound absolutely absurd. Though I can assure you, as can those who are familiar, that it is a classic and timeless method.

On the last night, as the ceremony came to a close, Benki announced that she was healed. He explained what had happened to cause the seizures in the first place and that, although she should be very careful to not repeat the steps that led to the condition, she would be able to live a normal life free of medication. It is very important to note that he didn’t tell her she should stop taking her meds, he said she could start easing off them if, as a family, we decided that it was what we wanted to do.

On top of being a revered shaman, he is also a gifted artist with some people even offering him up to $15,000 for a piece.

As Ayahuasca skyrockets in popularity around the world there are many charlatans and “sham”-ans seeking to make a quick buck off this ancient tradition — Benki is NOT one of these. As a true “pagé” (indigenous word for healer or shaman) he has the spirit and wisdom of his ancestors flowing through his veins. He also recognizes when his power is limited; while we were with him there was a man who came in search of a cure and, after Benki had examined him, he was sent instead to a doctor for Benki admitted, “unfortunately this is not from my world, I can’t fix this.”

On the final day, February 24th, of our stay it happened to be Benki’s 43rd birthday. With the healing process over, and with it the diet, it was time to celebrate. A cake was cooked, meat was grilled and beer was bought. The girls set up balloons and decorations while the men brought in some speakers and tended to the grill.

Benki and his wife Rosalee.

That night, as we all celebrated, I realized just how important Benki was to all of these people. He is truly a man larger than life — for most who have heard of him he is more a myth, or even legend, than a mere mortal man. Yet, after we sang Happy Birthday, and everyone came up and hugged him and told him how much they loved him, how much he had helped them, and how important he was to them, I saw him as a man. A man in harmony with his surroundings and in touch with his people. A man of the earth, the sun and the stars.

Benki hugging his brother, Isaac, who was recently elected mayor of their city.

Going through the photos weeks later, I still get that bolt of emotion as I see his beaming smile just over the shoulder of the person embracing him. It’s like that feeling you get when you can finally give back to someone who gives so much. It never feels like it’s enough, thanking them and hugging them, but when you see that smile and the love behind their eyes you know it surely does mean the world to them. That’s what I get from these photos, that feeling in witnessing the exchange of love and gratitude. Just one example is the photo above where Benki is being hugged by his brother Isaac.

Isaac is the first indigenous mayor of an Amazonian city in Brazilian history. Even though the vast region of Amazonia, which spans many countries and covers half of the South American continent, is predominantly indigenous, in the last few hundred years all power has been held by whites. Even though Isaac is the older brother, it’s unlikely he could have done it without Benki. Ever since he childhood he knew he had a purpose on this Earth and, like a true leader, his conviction is contagious and those around him are continually inspired to be their best.

While it is still too soon to say definitively whether or not she is truly healed, my sister feels better and as if a weight has been lifted. She has more confidence and courage as she navigates the trails of life, and for that we are thankful.