THE VILLAGE OF RIO BLANCO,
in Ecuadors Amazon basin, the indigenous Quechuan people
see more anacondas now than in years past. They fear no other
animal in the rain forest, but of this one they are petrified.
Even when encouraged, the children refuse to swim in the nearby
puedo, no puedo, they say. I cant, I cant.
villagers believe that the snakes are drawn to Augustine Grefa,
their shaman. The anaconda is Grefas power animal, and
he summons it before he embarks on his vision questa hallucinogen-enhanced
state of altered consciousness where he looks beyond the material
world and delves into a realm of invisible spirits. In this
place, he can diagnose and heal.
March, anacondas were not the only visitors descending on the
village. Oxford Professor of Sociology Michael M. McQuaide and
eleven students arrived at Rio Blanco by dugout. Accompanying
them were McQuaides wife, Stacy Bell, and Oxfords
Charles Howard Candler Professor of English Lucas Carpenter.
Drenched with sweat and covered in mud from what McQuaide calls
the most exhausting trail imaginable, the students
trekked through the rain forest as part of McQuaides course
Social Change in Developing Societies.
IS A TALL MAN
of Scottish ancestry with a deep, clear voice, and blue eyes.
He seems most comfortable in jeans and a flannel shirt with
a pint of stout in his hand, but he is equally at home in the
classroom. He has taught at Oxford since 1979 and has won three
Professor of the Year awards and the 1996 Fleming Award for
Teaching and Service. More than anything, he enjoys a method
of teaching that removes students from their everyday environment.
series of serendipitous, haphazard events led McQuaide to an
interest in alternative, or complementary health
care, and ultimately to the dense, loud Amazon rain forest.
trained in medical sociology at the Pennsylvania State University
in the late 1970sa time when hardly anyone had heard of
the field. For the first fifteen years of his career he stuck
with a big-picture approach, focusing on major policy issues
in health care.
former Oxford Dean William H. Murdy sent him an article about
a study of fifteen thousand children who had contracted childhood
leukemia. According to the study, a significant percentage of
those children endured a severe, emotionally traumatic experience
in the year before the onset of their illnesses.
the same time, as the director of a summer abroad class in London,
England, McQuaide had a student who was visibly ill, and he
took her to the hospital. As McQuaide looked on, the British
doctor never touched the student, not even with a tongue depressor.
Instead, he explained why she was sick, gave her condition a
name, and told her it would pass in two or three days. With
the authority of a physician, he claimed her illness.
gleam was back in her eye, the bounce back in her step,
says McQuaide. Completely well, within an hour, and no
one administered anything. I knew that I had witnessed something
very powerful, but I also knew that I didnt know how to
talk about it.
the first time, McQuaide began to think critically about the
social psychology of health carethe interaction between
a patient and a provider.
Western medicine is based on a model that was passed down by
Descartes, who unscrewed the head from the body and placed
it on the shelf, McQuaide says. The head was left for
psychiatrists to deal with, while the body was treated as a
machine, an assemblage of parts. According to most observers
of modern medicine, the head needs to be reintegrated, McQuaide
says. Instead, the West has been training generations of physicians
who see the kidney in room 314.
the spring of 1998, McQuaide dropped out of his life
and took a sabbatical. Responding to what he perceived to be
a gap in his own knowledge of the history of medicine, he delved
into the literature on the first specialist in the worldthe
shaman, or medicine man. Then he went to Ecuador. Enlisting
the help of Oswaldo Muñoz, a translator and guide, he
spent twelve days in the Andes Mountains and the Amazon basin.
Interacting with two different types of shamans, he immersed
himself in a culture with very different notions of health care.
found the experience to be so intellectually fulfilling that
it was exhilaratingthere were times in which I was as
wide eyed and slack jawed as my students would ever be. This
was as authentic a departure from my traditional way of living
as Ive ever undergone.
had arrived at the conclusion that beliefs played a major
and unmeasured role in the origins of health and illness,
and that there is a huge connection between what we believe
cognitively and how we feel physically.
came up out of the Amazon basin harboring the idea that I wanted
to bring a group of sociology students back. I thought that
if they could get one-tenth of the intellectual growth or fascination
with life out of that experience as I did, then I would accomplish
what I want to do as a professor, which is to show students
things that encourage a growth in their wonderment of the world.
Beth M. Crowther 01C, a political science and sociology
major, it worked. I dont think anyone went down
there and came back the same person, Crowther says.
the shaman we met in the highlands, had huge, strong hands like
my fathers, says Julie A. Wancik 02C, a sociology
and Russian major. He was the most charismatic man Ive
ever met in my life.
the students are describing] is this irresistible animal magnetism
that cannot be taught, McQuaide says, and that magnetism
may contribute to the shamans effectiveness. The
credibility or the authority of the healer may be the variable
that healing springs from.
J. Brown, professor of anthropology and editor of Understanding
and Applying Medical Anthropology, would agree. Whether theyre
in Ecuador or America, Brown says, patients demand a level
of confidence, and a shamans techniques may work
in part because the healer believes in his own power and is
able to symbolically communicate that confidence to the patient.
a sense, he says, the healer is harnessing the bodys
own ability to heal itself.
THE SECOND-TO-LAST-DAY of their stay, Grefa prepared
to perform a divination ceremony for the students. He would
ingest ayahuasca (literally, vine of the dead),
an intensely hallucinogenic indigenous plant. After removing
the bark and chopping the ayahuasca vine into small pieces,
Grefa steeped it in a pot with huayusa tea leaves and reduced
the mixture to an amount that would fit in a Dixie cup. After
drinking it, he smoked a cigarette. (The nicotine in the local
variety of tobacco acts as a catalyst to the hallucinogenic
he sat and meditated, summoning the anaconda.
asked Grefa what he saw. As translated through Muñoz,
McQuaide recounts the answer:
anaconda will come luminescent out of the far distance and will
present itself to the shaman by approaching in a straight line
and lying on the ground in front of him, waiting. Then, the
shaman will give a nod, and very gradually, this gigantic snake
will finish the approach, and envelop the shaman from the tips
of his feet to his ribs, like a vine.
is able to judge the intensity of the psychedelic drug by comparing
it to the anacondas constriction. Sometimes the anaconda
will squeeze the shaman so hard that he will not be able to
relate to other people. When the anaconda relaxes a bit, than
the shaman can begin to do the chanting, whistling, and rhythmic
breathing that he does.
stood behind us, and everything [he said] was in Quechuan,
recounts Crowther. He shook leaves around our head. All
of your senses were intensified, because it was so dark, you
couldnt see anything, and the swishing sound almost puts
you in a trance. It was a bizarre moment, but intense.
shaman will peer into the body from the back, and identify the
dynamics of the present spirits that either create health or
illness. Then, he will shift his gaze to the right of the person,
and actually lift the animus out of the body. He doesnt
want to have to be looking at bones. That obscures what he needs,
by one, Grefa placed his open mouth on the crown of each students
head. Sucking in with great force, he attempted to draw into
himself whatever spirits were causing them harm. With a loud,
choking sound, he purged himself, coughing up the
malady onto the ground and completing the cleansing ritual.
Afterward, Muñoz took each student aside and told them
went to Ecuador skeptical, but [Augustine] pinpointed some specific
things about my family, says Crowther. It doesnt
make sense, but I know that it happened, and there is a still
a lot that I have to explore. Sometimes I give up, and I dont
want to analyze it. I just want to respect it.
definitely got a gift, says Wancik. Here is this
man in the most primitive society with no connection to the
world we live in. He touched on things that he could not have
possibly been in tune with.
THE CLASSS LAST NIGHT
in Rio Blanco, all of the villagers gathered around a fire with
the Emory group. Despite the language barrier, the Quechuans
acted out a traditional marriage ceremony and, to offer a piece
of American culture in return, McQuaide, Bell, and Carpenter
sang Hey Good Lookin.
meant so much to them that we were there, says Crowther.
It makes you ask yourself, What are you doing to
get the most out of life? Being with the shaman,
she says, made her think there are things in this world
that are beyond us, that were not supposed to understand.
words point to some of the most valuable lessons that Social
Change in Developing Societies can offerthat it
is acceptable to embrace a sense of mystery, and that there
are wholly disparate ways of being in the world.
me, thats music, McQuaide says. I thank God
that Im not so jaded in my old age that I cant feel
awestruck by the amount of sheer magic all around me. If I can
elicit some sense of that awe in my students, then I have accomplished
my greatest duty as a teacher.
Hermes 98C, one of the founding editors of bluemilk
magazine, was profiled in the Spring 1999 issue of Emory