“Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter; whoever finds one find a treasure” (Sirach 6:14).
The season of Carnaval is reaching its peak in Bolivia. Our lesson at the Maryknoll Mission Center was to celebrate it, so there were no afternoon classes. Rather, all the students assembled at 11 in the morning to begin our festivities with the k’oa ritual.
K’oa in itself is not founded in Carnaval but in the Andean native tradition of reverence of Mother Earth, Pachamama, who has nurtured the peoples and given them every good thing. K’oa is a form of thanksgiving for the fruits of the earth, for the blessing of good homes, and the plenitude of material goods. The ritual itself takes the form of a burnt offering to the spirits that ensure the prosperity of the land and the people. So it is a practice that corresponds with the agricultural seasons, and in fact the k’oa is performed nowadays on the first Friday every month across Bolivia. But with the coincidence of Carnaval and the first fruits of the annual harvest, the k’oa of March takes on greater festivity.
We were given an explanation of the ritual offering by the Maryknoll staff. It was a little complex for me, but we learned the meaning by doing what the others did. In the garden of the mission center we prepared the mesa on which the offerings would be burned. On a flat surface laid over kindling, we spread an aromatic soil, and then we placed numerous dulces or sweets to symbolize the many little blessings of life. There were also laid upon the mesa larger confections to represent the major blessings of home, labor, wisdom, and the natural world from its surface to its depths. To this we added our own deseos or intentions, written on scraps of paper. Finally, the stillborn fetus of an animal (I don’t recall—maybe it was a llama) was placed atop the mesa. Before lighting the pyre we recited an Our Father and asked pardon for our sins, adding to the syncretism. Once the mesa was set afire, each person in turn poured chicha, a fermented drink made from corn, at all four direction points of the mesa while facing the sun. Each also took a drink of the chicha from the libation bowls.
From the garden we proceeded with music and dance to the gate of the mission center, where we raised plumes of incense, scattered candies, and set off firecrackers. We proceeded back to the language school, which we decorated that morning with streamers and balloons. After incensing every room of the building, we sat down to a hearty meal called puchero, made with lamb, potato, cabbage, and rice. (Yes, I ate a vegetarian version.) There was plenty of cinnamon water and cerveza at every table. Then the music and dance continued for a couple of hours. Your correspondent, who was bummed out yesterday because he could not play the bombo for the Comadres, got his satisfaction today! There were no musicians, only a DJ playing las chacareras and pop music from Latin America and the United States. I grabbed the bombo and banged on the drum in rhythm with the recordings, while everyone danced and had a joyful time.
My takeaway from today is that the k’oa is an act of reciprocity. It is our way of being faithful friends of the earth. It is a holy sacrifice acceptable to the earth that has given so much to us, to God its creator and protector, and to Christ, the first fruits of all creation, who dwells in every molecule of matter.