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Napo Runa Sachamanda Ambiguna  (‘Medicinal plants of the Napo Runa’): An educational video made in collaboration with the speakers of Amazonian Kichwa  

Today on the ELAR blog, depositor Karolina Grzech talks about creating an educational film for the Tena Kichwa-speaking community.

Napo Runa Sachamanda Ambiguna is an educational DVD made entirely in Tena Kichwa, an under-described Quechuan language spoken in the Ecuadorian Amazon. It was developed as part of an ELDP-funded project to document and describe the language, and was made possible by additional funds from the Frederick Soddy Trust/Royal Geographical Society. The film was produced as a community material aimed at schoolchildren and young people who speak Tena Kichwa, but who may not be familiar with the medicinal properties of plants in their immediate environment.

Please tell us a bit about your event.

The documentation and project, as well as the idea for the video, goes back several years. In 2012, I was awarded an ELDP doctoral scholarship to document Tena Kichwa and describe the properties of epistemic discourse markers in the language. As part of the documentation and description project, I spent ten months doing fieldwork in the Amazonian province of Napo, working closely with the speakers of Tena (Lower Napo) Kichwa (who call themselves Napo Runa, ‘The people of Napo’) in order to document their language and culture. In 2014, I was awarded the additional grant mentioned above, and we set out to make the film.

The project team included Napo Runa experts Carolina Grefa, Arturo Rodriguez, Enrique Chimbo, César Tapuy and Marcia Grefa, as well as an ethnobotanist, John White, a filmmaker, Pablo Zanón, and Napo Runa researchers Nilo Andy, Jacobo Chimbo and Wilma Aguinda. Together with the members of the team, we chose six plants that can be used to treat minor illnesses and injuries. All of the selected plants are common in the Napo province, and the medicine can be easily obtained and administered. We filmed three ‘stages’ for each plant: the harvesting, preparation of the medicine and its administration. The introduction and closure of the 20-minute film contained a short discourse and a song in Kichwa, performed by the renowned cultural activist, Carlos Alvarado (Mishki Chullumbu). Although the film was recorded entirely in Kichwa, optional subtitles in Spanish were also included in the DVD we created.

In May 2017, I visited the community for the first time since concluding my PhD fieldwork in 2014. The trip was meant as a closure to the ELDP-funded documentation project and took place immediately after I was awarded my PhD. When I first started working on the documentation project in the village of Nuevo Paraíso, I signed an agreement with the community authorities, specifying that the data and the equipment will be handed over after my work there is done. This was the main purpose of my visit to Ecuador last May, but I also took this opportunity to finally distribute the copies of the DVD about medicinal plants.

Can you tell us a bit about how the event happened and who attended?

After I arrived, a community meeting was called so that the handover could be done in an official manner. Despite the short notice, most of the socios (heads of families, who represent their kin as community members) attended the impromptu meeting. I prepared a short discourse in Kichwa, and the president of the community and I signed the documents confirming the handing over of the equipment and a hard drive with the data. Another hard drive with the copy of the data was donated to the local school. The copies of the DVD were distributed among the community members during the meeting. I also visited each member of the team who made the film individually to present them with a copy of the DVD. Copies of the film were also handed over to the representatives of the local authorities, three Ecuadorian universities, headmasters of several schools and researchers working in the area.

Can you share any insights from the attendees?

In general, I received very positive feedback on the video. People were curious about it, and watched it within a few days of having received their copy. I was told that most viewers liked the video, although some thought it too short. I had some interesting discussions with Napo Runa from other communities about whether the plant names used in the video were appropriate. There was also a very positive response to having ended the film with a traditional song. An anthropologist working in the region told me that, in the family with whom she was staying, the film was a stimulus for the head of the family to talk to the younger generations about medicinal plants, and it prompted her to sing to them as well.

The comment that most surprised me most came from one of the Napo Runa experts who took part in the filming. He regretted that it was only his hands we had filmed. He told me he would rather his face was visible in the film as well, so that he could be identified more easily by the viewers. Talking to him made me realise that, in similar projects in the future, it should not only the content, but also the very details of the aesthetics of the foreseen materials that need to be subject to thorough consultation with the stakeholders.

Is there anything that hasn’t gone quite to plan? Can you tell us about it? What advice would you give to someone planning something similar?

Overall, I think it was a very good choice to focus on video as a format for a community output. However, over the course of the process, I also became aware of quite a few issues I did not consider when I first came up with the idea of making an educational DVD. Therefore, I’d like to conclude with some advice for other language documenters who might consider creating similar materials.

First of all, I did not take into account how different a process of making a film was from creating language documentation materials. Professional filmmakers emphasise the clarity of the image and set up the scene accordingly. As language documenters, we focus on changing as little in the setting of our recordings as we can, and the result is not always fit to be used as footage for a ‘proper’ film. Therefore, I recommend bringing a professional filmmaker on site – or, if that is not possible, at least consulting one prior to starting the filmmaking process.

Secondly, I did not foresee the issues that would come up in the process of creating a voiceover. It might be worth thinking of a place to record sound well in advance. The communities in which we work are often filled with unexpected noises, which make recording a clear audio track virtually impossible. In the case of our film, we had to travel two hours each way to get to town, rent rooms in a hostel away from the centre and switch off all the fans, fridges and other electric appliances in the building in order to ensure the sound quality was good enough to be used in the film.  It took our team about 5 hours and many repetitions of each chunk of text to finally get things right for a 20 minute film, and it was a frustrating and cumbersome process for everyone involved.

The final remark is concerned with the limitations of the DVD as a format. Making multiple copies of a DVD, especially if one wants it to look professional, is a complicated and expensive process. In communities with more readily available internet access, it might be advisable to forego physical copies altogether and make video outputs available directly through platforms such as YouTube. In any case, thorough research is needed on the ground to decide which format is most likely to be used by the members of target audiences, and, equally, to consider how quickly certain media formats may become obsolete.

In the case of our video specifically, yet another issue was a choice of the orthography in which to write a language, though exploring this issue fully would require a discussion that surpasses the limits of this blog post. What I have settled for, finally, was using as little written language as possible, and choosing an orthography that represents the local variety of Kichwa.


Thank you, Karolina! To learn more about Karolina’s project, visit the Lower Napo Kichwa deposit in the ELAR archive.

Blog post by Karolina Grzech