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A letter from YAV Lisa Hermann in Peru

February 4, 2011

That's more Peruvian than Potato!

Dear Friends:

For the several months leading up to my departure for a year spent living and serving as a YAV in Peru, I made a lot of jokes about consuming too many potatoes and using them to build relationships in Perù, much like I used corn and tortillas to do so in Guatemala 6 years ago.  This year there has been no shortage of potatoes in Ayacucho, Perù or in my experience as a YAV here.  I have gotten to know them quite well through eating them with everything, but also from the people in the campos who grow them.

Potatoes have eyes you know ... those little sprouts that grow out or those divits that make peeling them fun? If the eyes are windows to the soul, then perhaps potatoes and their eyes are windows to the souls and hearts of the Andean Mountains and her inhabitants.  There is a Quechua (and maybe older tradition) that says if a woman can peel a potato without breaking the trail of skin then she is suitable for marrying.  Take a look at some of the lumpier varieties of potatoes and tell me how easy that is. 

For 8,000 years these little (and in some cases big) morsels have been delivering power packed nutrition to the people of the Andes Mountains, and to the rest of the world for 4 centuries, after the era of Spanish exploration. Potatoes are the world´s 4th largest food source behind rice, wheat, and corn. They are starchy and tuberous, but loaded with iron. This is especially useful in remote areas of the Andes Mountains and other higher elevations that lack access to other basic food stuffs. It is good for me because I used to dwell in a Peruvian household that is vegetarian, but eats meat, and vegetables are scarce. It is not a plate in Peru unless there is some form of potato on it. A snack I often encounter is small red or blue/purple potatoes that have been boiled and Andean cheese which is sort of dense white and rubbery, with a tinge of saltiness. You take a potato in one hand peeling (one handed) with fingers and a chunk of cheese in the other and go after it, bite for bite.

So why potatoes in Peru and the rest of the world?

Well, following the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire (which potatoes help build and fortify), the Spanish introduced the potato to Europe in the second half of the 16th century. The staple was subsequently conveyed by European mariners to territories and ports throughout the world. Was this one of the first examples of free trade? The potato was slow to be adopted by distrustful European farmers, but soon enough it became an important food staple and field crop that played a major role in the European 19th century population boom. However because of the lack of genetic varieties introduced to the world outside of South America, the crop was left susceptible to disease, like the 1845 late-blight, which lead to the destruction of Ireland´s potato crop, and eventually the Great Irish Famine (for you history buffs).

But back to Peru, and the Andes Mountains ...

According to ancient legend, when the mythical founders of the Inca empire, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca, the first thing the god Wiracocha taught them was how to sow potatoes.

Today, scientists have identified more than 4,000 potato varieties, many of which such as the yellow potato (papa amarilla or papa huayro) are only founded in Peru. In fact, Peruvian potatoes are held to be matchless in flavor and texture: their noble yet delicate shapes fit perfectly into the cultural background this tuber enjoys in Peru: the all-powerful Quechua culture revered the potato not just as a crucial foodstuff, but as an icon.

There is even a popular saying: "That's more Peruvian than potato", a reference to the unmistakable stamp of Peruvian origin on the tuber. It is a compliment that does justice to this age-old fruit of the Andes.

Age-old fruit of the Andes, huh? Yes that is right. Six years ago I was sitting at a computer in south western Guatemala writing to you about the presence and importance of corn and ajon ajoli (sesame seed) to the diet and economy of the tiny finca, called Santa Fe, in which I lived and worked. Now it is potatoes, and the often remote rural Quechua communities nestled in both the hills and valleys of the Southern Andes Mountains that I visit with the interdisciplinary Paz y Esperanza Team. They are Putis, Putacca, Callquì, Huamanquiquia, Chuschi, Incaraquay, and many others. When we go to visit and/or lead a workshop or session designed to continue to help the indigenous people find ways to greive, and find hope and healing in the midst of slow justice for the years of political violence perpetrated by the Shinging Path (maoist, geurillas) and the military, we typically bring some sort of food item with us. That might be trout, chicken or vegetables to consume or it might also be seeds of nutrient rich plants like broccoli, spinach, beets, and carrots for the women to cultivate. In some cases like Incaraquay and Callquì we also took young live chickens and cuy or guinea pigs for them to raise, and breed.

Our workshops and visits usually involve a communal meal that the women prepare over log (or linea) fires in huge pots that you could swim in. As each member of the ¨community¨ arrives they take off their hand woven manta or brightly colored cloth that is strapped to their back. For women with young babies or toddlers this is how they transport them, strapped to their back like an on going piggy back ride. The women who do not have children or theirs are grown often use their manta like a knapsack or purse. In it they have a little stash of Soles (Peruvian coins) their DNI or ID card, a paper or two, sometimes a Bible if they own one, and from my experience potatoes. These potatoes are added to the communal table to be consumed by the crowd or integrated into the meal. It is what they have to offer. The potatoes are their life blood, and have been for thousands of years. High in the hills they till the land and cultivate the crops, guarding and processing seed for the next years planting to ensure that the species they grow will continue in purity, developing ways of irrigating crops where their is no potable water, and practicing crop rotation to preserve the land or mother earth that has been gifted to them.

So when one of these fascinating women opens up their manta it is like they are opening up their lives for me to see ... just like in our groups, as time goes along, and trust is earned, I gain a deeper glimpse into the pain and victimization of political violence, the uncertainty of being caught between two forces (the Shining Path insurgency and the military counter-insurgency) meanwhile suffering from an oppressive poverty. I catch, only a glimpse, of what it is really like to run for the hills with only the clothes on your back and a child under each arm to escape the invading revolutionaries or the ¨black heads¨ as they called the ski masked government soldiers. Higher and higher into the hills they would climb, silencing the cries of children by covering them up at risk of suffocation, and surviving on uncooked beans and yes potatoes which were both portable and grew everywhere (both cultivated and wild) in the region of Ayacucho.

Potatoes are what the people of the Quechua communities we (Paz y Esperanza) go to visit and accompany, do. Potatoes are as much a part of who they are, as they are what they do. For some 8,000 years these people have cultivated a multitude of potatoes for their own use, as well as for trade or sale. Trading and selling is how they get the things like wheat, barley, and meat that they do not have. Just like the Quechua people and their colourful culture, so are the potatoes that they cultivate. From large and small to purple, red, and yellow with pink spots to lumpy, spiralled, and striped Peruvian variety potatoes come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes travelling in the Andes Mountains you can find more than 100 varieties of potatoes growing in a single valley. The varieties have unique names like ¨The miracle¨ and ¨the red shadow¨ and ¨like a deer´s white tongue¨ among others.

For 8,000 years potatoes have helped the Quechua and their predecessor Inca people survive drought and famine, war, disease, and invading forces. Packed with iron, they continue to fortify the mountain economies of the Andes, but the mantas have opened and given the rest of the world the gift of potatoes and a colourful culture that is meant to be enjoyed, not exploited or changed because someone else can do it better or faster.

A potato is a complex carbohydrate in the world of nutrition. The best of which for us is the sweet potato or camote as it is called here in Peru. Complex, that is a good word to describe Peruvian history and culture, the Quechua people and their ways of being, and most definitely potatoes, which are inextricably linked to Peru and her people. It is a complexity that is yes, more Peruvian than potato.

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