Manari Ushigua and the weight of the world

Manari Ushigua, the leader of the Sápara nation, sat in a ring with a group of Americans who were visiting his community in the Ecuadorean rainforest. He was interpreting their dreams as part of a daily ritual as ancient as his people.


One by one, the visitors recounted what they remembered from the night. Through each story, Ushigua, 43, sat, shoulders relaxed, as his eyes scanned the speaker  for telling body language. His long hair was held back from his face by a beige headband that featured a pattern representing a monkey, feet planted on the earth, raising his arms to welcome the sun’s radiant energy.


As a woman told Ushigua her dream of a distant war, a wind began to whip through the trees. Ushigua rose to his feet as the thatched roof of the pavilion where he sat began to shudder.


“That wind is a wayward spirit,” he told the group. “Sometimes, spirits get lost on their journeys, just like people. He is telling us he needs our help.”


Manari led everyone to the edge of the pavilion and told them to shout at the wind to help the spirit would find its way. After two rounds of screaming, the wind died down.


“There,” he said through a smile. “Now he’s all right.”


 Manari Ushigua interpreting dreams with the aid of a translator.

As his nation’s leader, Ushigua is expected to serve as the Sápara’s spiritual fulcrum. He must heal people, give guidance and resolve internal and external conflicts.


But in addition to his traditional responsibilities, Manari has become the Sáparas’ link to the Western world, tasked with guiding his people to safety in a country that would see their territory scoured for oil.


“Our fight is not to slow the advancement of the rest of the world,” he said. “Our fight is to defend life.”


His solution, developed in conjunction with his community and the indigenous-advocacy group Terra Mater, is the Naku Experience, a project that brings in outsiders and exposes them to the Sápara’s traditional lifestyle.


“I think it’s a good project,” Carlos Larrea Maldonado, a political scientist and professor at Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, said. “I know Manari, and I think he is a very talented person. He has a lot of knowledge of his own culture and the ability to help people with dream therapy. I think they have every possibility to be successful, but it is very difficult.”


Manari Ushigua was born in 1973, the ninth of 12 children of a shaman father, also named Manari. Many Sápara regard the elder Ushigua as their nation’s greatest leader.


Despite bearing his father’s name, the younger Ushigua was far from commanding in his youth, family members said.


“We used to tease him a lot,” Maria Ushigua, Manari’s niece, three years his junior, said. “It took him a long time to grow his front teeth, so we used to pick on him. He would get really pissed off.”


Today, Manari is a reluctant patriarch, one who rarely acknowledges the greatness others see in him. But even so, he has gained respect around the world for striving to protect the legacy of his people.

Editor’s note: All interviews were conducted through a translator.