When Size of Wales recently with a member of the Wampís nation, Shapiom Noningo, he told us a tale of the Wampís’ cultural heritage. The Wampís have a strong tradition of story-telling and many of these tales contain hidden messages of great importance that have informed the Wampís behaviours and culture.
We know many stories, legends and myths, all related to the construction of our culture and how we relate with nature. Many of these contain hidden messages of great importance yet to be explored by the Wampís themselves. I will tell one of these very briefly, there are at least three versions of this legend.
Nugkui, the mythical goddess of abundance
The legend goes that before, the Wampís suffered a lot from hunger because they still didn’t know of yucca (cassava), banana, yam etc. They lived mainly on forest fruits and even the heart of balsa (a very soft tree).
So the legend goes that one day, while her husband went to mitayar (hunt animals in the forest), a Wampís woman went to a stream, looking for something to eat or to gather wild edible plants. Going upstream, she noticed cassava peel underfoot, which she gathered and put in her basket; higher up, she saw the peel of inchi (sweet potato), which she also picked up and stowed in her basket.
Further upstream she heard women’s laughter. She followed the stream and saw a group of joyous women washing cassava and yams. The Wampís woman felt encouraged and approached the group of women; they were Nugkui women. The Wampís woman was surprised and began to question the Nugkui “What are those that you are washing?” The Nugkui responded, “If you don’t know what this is, then what do you eat?” The Wampís woman answered, “We do not eat those, we do not know what they are and that is why we suffer so much from hunger.” Having said this, the Wampís woman began to ask the Nugkui “Please give me some cassava and yam.” The Nugkui felt for the woman and one of them said “Go and take that girl that’s lying over there,” and they gave the girl to her right away.
The Nugkui mother advised the Wampís woman well, saying, “Take good care of her, do not hit her, don’t let other children hit her, treat her well, do not make her suffer and do not make make her angry.” Having said this, she added, “If you want some food, meat, fish, just ask her and she will agree to your request, but do not use force.” And this is what she did. The Wampís woman began to ask the Nugkui girl for what she wanted to eat: cassava, banana, meat etc. “Nugkui, make pots of masato (cassava beer), Nugkui make farms full of ripe bananas appear…” Every request appeared instantly and the Wampís families began to eat and live well.
One day, the Wampís woman, owner of the Nugkui girl, went to her farm, leaving the Nugkui with other children. Nugkui had grown a bit by this point. The Wampís woman left, advising the children who lived in her house to look after Nugkui and not upset her. But children are naughty, and they began to annoy her, asking her for something that Nugkui did not want: “Nugkui, since you can bring anything, come on then, bring devils and snakes.” Nugkui did not agree, saying that if she did that, they would become scared, so it wasn’t a good idea to grant their request.
But the Wampís children kept on insisting until Nugkui accepted. Nugkui asked, “Let there appear many devils” (iwanch, in the Wampís language; there are many different kinds. It is said that before, the Wampís often saw devils: of the forest, the souls of the dead etc). Immediately, many forest devils appeared in the house, scaring the children. The children asked Nugkui to make them disappear, but she didn’t pay them attention, so the frightened children started to hit the girl Nugkui until finally one of them threw some ash in Nugkui’s eye.
Nugkui became very upset, she climbed up onto the roof of the house; as she was already big, this is what she did. At that moment, there was a strong wind, which blew some nearby bamboo closer and closer towards where Nugkui was sitting. The Wampís woman, who was arriving home realised what was happening at the house and came running back. As she arrived, she saw that the girl Nugkui was already on top of the roof of the house, where she was beyond reach. The Wampís woman begged Nugkui to come down, but she ignored her. Instead, she managed to grab the rod of bamboo and began to make her way down it, leaving her excrement on each knot of the bamboo. Before plunging to the ground, the Nugkui girl cursed the Wampís with these phrases: “I once wished that all Wampís would have every kind of food they wanted with ease, and that nobody would suffer in order to eat. From now on, each Wampís will suffer greatly to obtain food”. As Nugkui and the bamboo sunk into the ground she said “kusui” (an old expression which indicates blowing and accompanies all kinds of spells and curses). Nugkui sunk through the subsoil, and they could not recover her.
Since that time, the Wampís struggle to obtain food easily. Since that time, all Wampís know that Nugkui lives in the earth (in the subsoil), and that from time to time she feels sorry for the Wampís. The legend goes that each piece of excrement which Nugkui left behind turned into each of the food crops: cassava, yam, banana, peanut etc.
She left at least something good to the Wampís woman: she taught the woman about the varieties of cassava and other agricultural produce, and how to cultivate the small farm, and all kinds of icaros (songs and chants) to care for the farm, so that all kinds of plants grow well and produce good fruits. For that reason, the women mastered those icaros and sing them every time they are in the farm to please Nugkui.
Nugkui is one of the most important ancestral figures which we Wampís maintain in our memories, and has contributed to the development of the cultural system of the Wampís, especially in the cultivation and management of farms.
The project benefits from the support of the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation – www.fpa2.org