7 June, 2010Issue 12.4Photo EssaysSouth America

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K’ajj: Tradition and Ethanolism in the Andes

Dado Galdieri

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Aymaras and Quechuas are the ethnic groups that tamed the Andean highlands and valleys, as well as the ancestors of the modern Westernised Bolivians. Their cultural practices are a postcolonial mixture of foreign and indigenous habits and traditions.

Among both indigenous Andean peoples and modern Bolivians, the consumption of ethanol—a form of alcohol that is produced by the natural process of fermentation and that can be highly concentrated by the simple process of distillation—is widespread, and is closely related to the people’s religious beliefs. Binge drinking, or doing K’ajj, as it is known in the local Aymara idiom, is considered a means of establishing communication with ancestors and deities as well as breaking down social barriers. However, its abuse is also a major cause of the increasing frequency of domestic violence and social and familial disintegration.

The practice of doing K’ajj confirms US anthropologist Dwight Heath’s more general remarks about the consumption of ethanol: “around this simple chemical have grown up complex and diverse patterns of belief and behavior. Surrounded with paradoxes, being often recognised as both stimulant and depressant, a food and a poison, its use symbolises an enormous range of both positively and negatively valued things and feelings.”

The scenes portrayed here can nowadays be witnessed as well amongst the indigenous populations of Peru, Chile, and northern Argentina.

Dado Galdieri is a Brazilian-Italian photographer. Dado focuses on five different yet interconnected areas in Latin America: man and the environment, drugs and obsessive-compulsive behavior, religion as a social control device, land and the limits of growth, native peoples and their ways of living.