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The Life of a Paqo

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Sometimes inspirational pieces can be found in strange corners. From anthropologist Edgardo Krebs, a powerful tribute published in today’s Washington Post to a Quechua-speaking shaman (though as he teaches us, that’s not quite the right word—it’s paqo–but that requires some explanation), Nazario Turpo. As Krebs makes clear, this is a man who bridges cultures and times, and who had a great thirst to know of the world and to contribute to it.

After learning of the death of the Peruvian shaman Nazario Turpo, killed last month when the small bus he was riding in turned over in the Andean night, lines from “Beowulf” describing the burial of a Viking warlord kept ringing in my mind:

“A ring-whorled prow rode in the harbour, ice-clad, outbound, a craft for a prince.”

Something about the unadorned elegance of the Old English poem’s description seemed to evoke the loss of this singular man.

Nazario Turpo was a Quechua-speaking Indian from Pacchanta, a cluster of households in a valley dominated by Mount Ausangate in southern Peru. Nazario was a peasant, indistinguishable in that respect from many other Andean Indians who make their living herding alpacas and llamas, planting potatoes and weaving. He woke up every day before dawn to fetch water from a brook and, thus, set into motion another regular day of hard work in the household and the fields. He was married, and had four children and several grandchildren.

In the unforgiving world of the Andes, dominated by space, sky and silence, a paqo is the person who has learned how to converse with the apus, the forces stirring in the mountains and valleys, dominating everyday life. Nazario could read the sacred geography that is always impinging decisively on the familiar human landscape. Being a paqo is a gift, a calling that very few receive.

Mariano Turpo had attained the highest rank as a paqo, but he was also an activist for his community. He realized that Peruvian Indians like himself lived in a nation-state, and that their voices would be heard only if they joined the fray of Western-style politics. This was a dangerous road that Mariano followed persistently, despite many humiliations and setbacks. He would seek out politicians, local and national, always accompanied by another Indian who knew how to read and write in Spanish. “My father talked,” Nazario remembered, “and my godfather wrote things down and read documents.” . . .

The last time I saw him, I was recovering from surgery. He put his hand on the scar and said, “You have to get well. People are full of light and they have a lot to give.”

Congratulations to Krebs for writing this extraordinary memorial and to the Washington Post for publishing it. I encourage you to read the entire thing. There are days when one drags through the dreary world of the Washington media looking for just one line of insight and inspiration. Today my own life was bettered for having learned of Nazario Turpo, a bridge between cultures and ages, a man whose attitude reflects the hope of our species.

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