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Episode 81

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The Shaman

The torrential rains of the 2011 winter season in Colombia claimed hundreds of lives and left thousands flooded out of their homes. That same year,  Jorge Elías González became infamous for taking public money to keep the skies clear over Bogotá.

You can read a Spanish transcript of the episode.

You can also read an English translation.

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Transcript

 

[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Why should you listen to Radio Ambulante? We asked our listeners:

[Woman]: Because it lets me know the realities of Latin America, stories to which I wouldn’t otherwise have access.

[Woman]: Because it has a different approach.

[Man]: Intelligent and ethical, journalistic work.

[Woman]: They always leave me thinking about something new, something I can do.

[Man]: Affection, reality, pain, love, joy: that’s Radio Ambulante.

[Woman]: I can’t visit Latin America, but thanks to Radio Ambulante for a while I feel like I’m there.

[Daniel]: If you agree, please support the valuable work we do. Regardless of your donation amount: 2 dollars a month, 5, 10, whatever. Any contribution helps to pay for the journalism that brings you closer to Latin America.

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Thank you so much. And from all of us at Radio Ambulante, happy holidays.

(NEWS SOUNDBITE)

[Journalist]: Noticias Caracol obtained photos of the shaman hired in Bogota to scare the rain away during the closing ceremonies of FIFA U-20 World Cup event. And we also realized half hour before the start of the event a downpour fell in the city. Did it work? Was it coincidence? We’ll let you be the judge.

[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Today we go back to our archive to share with you one of our favorite stories.

If you were in Colombia in 2011, you probably noticed two things: the constant terrible rains during that winter and the scandal surrounding a man who claimed he could control them.

Melba Escobar tells us more.

[Melba Escobar]: The story of the Rain Shaman begins way before, more than two decades ago, with an Argentinean named Fanny Mikey. An eccentric woman, passionate about culture, moves to Colombia where she decides to start a Theater Festival in the open during Holy Week, held every two years, in the rainiest capital of Latin America.

[Ana Marta Pizarro]: The doctor… Fanny’s doctor was a cardiologist.

[Melba]: This is the voice of Ana Marta de Pizarro, director of the Theater Festival since Fanny Mikey passed away. Her hair is blue and her lips are painted an intense red. She welcomes us into an office crowded with papers. According to her, back in 1992 right after a Colombian Folklore Festival, Fanny’s doctor heard of Jorge Elias González’ power against the rain.

[Ana Marta]: He called Fanny and told her: “Look, in the delegation of Tolima comes a very special man, a man who comes from a community of very traditional peasants who work on this thing called radiestesia. This is a very important piece of information for you Fanny, since it always rains during Holy Week.” After hearing this, Fanny asked for Jorge Luis to be brought to her.

[Melba]: Back then, he wasn’t known as a shaman.

[Ana Marta]: He was, “Jorge Elias, the weather man”, as we called him. Actually, my old agenda has his phone number as  “Jorge Elias, the weather man”.

[Melba]: He controlled the uncontrollable —Bogotá’s weather— Fanny Mickey was willing to consider anything in order to have her festival rain free.

If you’ve never heard of radiestesia, it’s not because you have bad memory but because, most likely you never learned it in school. And is not to look down upon it, since it doesn’t qualify as science or religion. Maybe it’s a mix of both. Even Ana Marta, an anthropologist by profession, tried a few explanations before deciding on this one:

[Ana Marta]:  I think in the end our… for example, our popular traditions come from them, who have lived in this planet longer and have a better relationship with nature than we do.

[Melba]: In short, you can say radiestesia is a practice used to identify magnetic fields. It’s common for peasants to use it to find Indian burial grounds and water wells. Be what it may, it looks like radiestesia has worked well enough for Jorge Elias since they keep hiring him.

[Ana Marta]: I remember one adorable instance, we were at an event at the Plaza de Bolivar and Fanny called him: “Raindrops are falling!” and this and that, and he answered: “Mrs. Fanny you didn’t tell me you were there, don’t worry I will move that cloud for you” (laughs).

[Melba]: According to those who know him, Jorge Elias Gonzalez hasn’t changed much. Even then, like now, he believed in God and in science. A father of twelve children and a coffee grower who didn’t finish elementary school, he now dedicates most of his time to what he calls “his work”. Meaning, the improbable task of stopping the rain by getting hired to do so.

[Gelman Betancourt]: My name is Gelman Betancourt Ramirez, I was born in the municipality of Dolores in the state of Tolima, I am 38 years old. Let’s see, I met Jorge Elias Gonzales in a curious way approximately 15 years ago.

[Melba]: Today, Gelman is a consultant to the Senate of the Republic, but back then he studied theater. One day he went with some friends to Corferias, the largest event center in Bogotá.

[Gelman]: Suddenly, I saw a man who was moving a pendulum and had some rusty tools. I asked what the man was doing and someone told me: “That man was hired by Fanny Mikey to keep the rain away.” I said: “What a ridiculous man.” I found the whole thing absurd and laughed. That night I watched the news and they talked about a man who moved away the rain and did not allow it to rain and they also mentioned he was native of Dolores, Tolima. So, it was interesting for me to realize he was a fellow country man after what I said about him… that’s when I decided to find out who he was…

[Melba]: Gelman asked around in his town and found out that apparently the interest of the shaman for the occult sciences came from his father.

[Gelman]: “Nah, he’s a man who comes up with some crazy stories…just like his father”, I was told. “The father was a bit crazy”, people said, “He would make rockets out of bamboo, he would do experiments and we would all think it was irrational to think he could stop the rain from coming, that was something only God could do,” a man told me. That’s how it was for a long time.

[Melba]: The year 2011 brought to Colombia intense rains and cataclysmic floods which left more than three million flood victims. This is the main reason why the promise of stopping floods was even more audacious than it was twenty years prior.

(NEWS SOUNDBITE)

[Journalist]: There are more than 700,000 people left without a home, more than 400 fatalities, there is a total of 16 closed roads and 326 roads with limited access.

[Melba]: During this rainy season, Colombia was hosting the FIFA U-20 World Cup tournament where 24 of the best soccer clubs were competing. Later on, it was discovered that a contract for four million pesos, a little more than two thousand dollars, were paid to Jorge Elias Gonzalez to stop the rain during the closing ceremony. Ironically, in a country where the newspapers were full of tragic news in a daily basis, the story of the shaman caused a huge scandal. It didn’t matter how many years of experience he had, his curriculum in controlling the climate. Nothing mattered. People didn’t speak about anything else.

(NEWS SOUNDBITE)

[Journalist 1]: Noticias Caracol obtained photos of the shaman hired in Bogota to scare away the rains during the closing ceremonies of the U-20 World Cup event.  And we also realized half hour before the start of the event a downpour fell in the city. Did it work? Was it coincidence? We’ll let you be the judge.

[Journalist 2]: Let’s go  now to Colombia where there is a huge controversy surrounding the shaman who supposedly can stop the rain…

[Melba]: Later on, the attorney general opened an investigation on the wrongful use of public funds by the government, meanwhile the face of Jorge Elias was all over the newspapers.

(NEWS SOUNDBITE)

[Journalist 2]: When it wasrevealed that, apparently, he was paid with public funds. Let’s see.

[Melba]: Then it became known that Jorge Elias not only worked for the U-20 World Cup event, but had also been hired by concert entrepreneurs, events’ promoters, athletic events and any other event done in the open. But as if all of this was not enough, a curious note became also known…

[Jorge Elías González]: He called me and said: “Jorge Elias you are needed here, they want to know if you want to cooperate holding the rain while the President takes possession of office”. Since it had been raining so much those days.

[Melba]: This is Jorge Elias, explaining that yes, even the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, took office under light rain, one the shaman was able to contain, not fully, of course. The images of that day in August 2010 show hundreds of white umbrellas under a persistent light rain in the Plaza de Bolivar.

[Jorge Elías]:  Yes, it was light rain, not a strong rain. And I had explained to the man who hired me, I told him: “I’ll do the job but you need to know this is very very complicated so there is a chance all of the sudden light rain may fall.” But heavy rain that could cause major trouble, there wasn’t any of that.

[Daniel]: What did rain on him was the media.

After the break, the Shaman has to act for the first time before the eyes of millions of people.

We’ll be back after the break.

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[Laura]: In Chile it means something that we definitely DON’T sell in Radio Ambulante.

[Jorge]:  (Laughter) We’re not going to tell you what the word means in the Chilean urban dictionary, that’s what Google is for. What we are going to do is tell you what you’ll actually find in our virtual store, what will they find, Laura?

[Laura]: So, the Radio Ambulante Virtual Store —and here I’ll put my advertising voice on— we do sell tote bags, t-shirts, coffee mugs, cell phone cases, posters with illustrations of the episodes and more than twenty different products, all with the Radio Ambulante brand. They’re perfect for this end of year.

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[Jorge]: Thank you.

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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. After the scandal because of the use of public funds to pay him, the Shaman was in a complicated position…

[Gelman]: He was feeling harassed… by the constant stalking of journalists.

[Daniel]: Melba Escobar continues the story.

[Melba]: If he became notorious in the capital, in his town –Dolores—Jorge Elias was better liked. Fame, according to Gelman, did not change him.

[Gelman]: If you look at his house, his clothing, he’s a reserved man, so when people notice he’s not showing off his fame, as they say in my town, he doesn’t generate any envy, any bad feelings.

[Melba]: But there is one thing that makes the story of the shaman be more like a farce. In January of 2012, once the worst of the scandal had passed, El Tiempo, the newspaper with the largest circulation in Colombia, had a headline that read: “The Shaman who can stop the rain for others was not able to stop the rain from flooding his own home.”

[Gelman]: Of course it’s confusing to understand that he declared himself a victim of flooding when he has “the power” to keep the rain away, one thinks: “It’s so absurd”. Those doubts went through everyone’s minds and we all asked ourselves: Why didn’t he protect his home when he says he’s able to control the rain? Why?

[Melba]: The shaman of course, sees it in a different light. If God planned a catastrophic rain downpour, it’s all beyond his powers.

I met Jorge Elias in March of 2012, when he was already famous. Getting close to him was an impossible mission. In the park he was at, they made us go through several interrogations and almost took our equipment. He was again in Bogotá to control the rain during the Latin American Festival of Theater. For the first time, he was doing his “work” under the eyes of a skeptic public.

Because of this, when the thunderous downpour came on opening day, it was extremely embarrassing and damaging for the Shaman’s reputation.

(NEWS SOUNDBITE)

[Journalist]: The Shaman Jorge Elias González was only able to control the rain over his own sky. He was installed in the park Simon Bolivar but the strength of his rituals did not prevent the rain pour all over downtown Bogotá.

[Melba]: The next day, Jorge Elias justified his failure:

[Jorge Elías]: I am where I am because God and Science have prepared me well. What happened here were dark forces that wish to ruin everything I do but were not able to.

[Melba]: The dark forces Jorge Elias González was talking about were the 30 shamans Ana Marta and her team invited to the opening act.

[Ana Marta]: Look, really the 30 shamans were there to state a bit of… how this discussion started to generate which I found incredibly disrespectful in the way it unfolded itself, I felt bringing the shamans was a way of stating something like: “Listen, this country has a traditional culture and we have to respect it, see who they are and why.”

[Melba]: According to him, those shamans tried to destroy his work.

[Jorge Elías]: When I see a dark force trying to bring me down, I come to it with the power of the cosmic cross and that power can’t be broken or erased, unless is the power of God.

[Melba]: Nonetheless, there is another explanation. According to the technical report by the Institute of Environmental Studies, IDEAM in Spanish, on that day they announced moderate to strong rains with electrical storms.

[Ricardo Lozano]: Ana Marta didn’t tell you we had shared the forecast with her? She knew somehow, we had worked with her…

[Melba]: This is Ricardo Lozano, director of IDEAM, the highest environmental authority in Colombia. I met with him a while after the festival started. His institution gives forecast of the weather. It doesn’t control it.

[Ricardo]:  The verb “to control” does not exist in IDEAM or within the scientific world, it’s rather…

[Melba]: If Lozano believes in what the peasant communities bring into the monitoring of the weather, when we asked him what he thought of what the festival paid Jorge Elias to prevent the rain, he gave us a diplomatic answer:

[Ricardo]:   It’s up to you, as a regular person, you decide what to do with your money and how to invest it, right? If you prefer to invest it in someone who tells you they can control a river, or control mammals or control the weather; or you decide to invest in getting to know better the area in which you live, or learning what’s happening with the dynamic of our natural resources…

[Melba]: It is obvious he doesn’t think radiestesia helps control the rain. It’s simple: there are two ways of seeing the world. Even if Jorge Elias’ explanations are not very clear, his faith in radiestesia is as strong as Lozano’s is in science.

Meanwhile, the festival continued under a cloudy sky. There were random rains, typical of Bogota in April, but the downpour of opening day didn’t happen again. Every time I visited Jorge Elias I found him tense, lost in his work, hiding in his kiosk covered by black plastic bags, where he kept his tools. It was never easy to speak to him.

I visited Jorge Elias in the morning of the last day of the festival, while he was preparing for the closing ceremonies scheduled for that evening. His distress was clear in his red eyes. He was cordoned in an area as they do with rock stars, protected by several men who watched for his safety. When I finally asked him how he did his job, he answered me like this:

[Jorge Elías]: Maybe the topic is very complicated for you to understand on the fly, because it’s very complicated to explain the combination of the polarity of bodies to change two positives into one negative, or a negative into a positive, that’s combination.

[Melba]: He was right, I didn’t understand a thing. All I know is that, against all odds, there wasn’t one drop of rain in the closing ceremonies of the festival.

Growing up in Bogotá makes you used to the rain. The climate varies and is unpredictable, in a few hours it goes from a storm to a beautiful sunny day and vice versa. It’s not in vain some say Bogotá does have seasons, but it puts them all together in one day. Thus, if you go out, you need to have a light shirt with a sweater on top, plus a scarf, a jacket and some even carry gloves and an umbrella, in addition to keeping a pair of sunglasses in your bag.

Needless to say, in the middle of such climate schizophrenia no one pays any attention to the weather forecast. What for? It wouldn’t help any. Under the impossibility of a forecast close to the reality, we have: uncertainty, an ambiguous sky, enigmatic answers, prayers.

[Jorge Elías]: Spiritual and cosmic universal force, protective fountain of mysterious energy, fruitful womb where everything is born from, your solar emanations and potent life for everything that moves forward. Come towards me, remedy, descend, cure my ills, get rid of my afflictions, I ask in your sacred name still, still, and listen to my voice of prayer, respond to my prayer.

[Melba]: In two years he’ll be back in Bogotá to control the climate during the festival. One thing’s for sure, there are two truths in all of this, and they are absolutely contradictory of each other. Jorge Elias González cannot prove he controls the rain, just like there isn’t a scientist who can prove otherwise.

[Daniel]: Melba Escobar is a Colombian journalist and writer. She lives in Bogotá. Her novel La Casa de la Belleza has been translated to 15 languages and will be out in the US in February with the title House of Beauty.

This story was edited by Camila Segura and me. Mixing and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano.

The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Lisette Arévalo, Gabriela Brenes, Jorge Caraballo, Victoria Estrada, Andrea López Cruzado, Miranda Mazariegos, Diana Morales, Patrick Moseley, Ana Prieto, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Luis Fernando Vargas and Silvia Viñas. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO.

Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.

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