October 2015

First Friday of the Month

Coming to Bolivia you will find that the Bolivian people are full of interesting traditions and rich culture. On the first Friday of the month, there is a chance you will experience an unfamiliar smell in the streets, and maybe you will see some smoke, too. But there is no reason to worry; it is only Bolivians doing the Khoa.

By: Charleen Vetas
Projects Abroad volunteer
Manger - Norway

La sociedad Boliviana de Medicina Tradicional burning a big Khoa at the main plaza in Cochabamba.
Photo: Charleen Vetas

So what is the Khoa?

The Khoa is a ritual people in Bolivia do every first Friday of the month. You can make the Khoas yourself or you can buy them done at La Cancha. One of the many men selling Khoas at La Cancha says that they have something they call mesa blanca (white table), and they burn it. The mesa blanca, or the Khoa, is a mix of many different ingredients. At the bottom you have a blank paper, and you fill this with aromatic herbs of the plant Khoa, you put llama fat in it, coca leaves, and ornaments. Some Khoas even have dried baby llamas or llama fetuses in it. In addition to this, you fill it with these small white squares, each with a symbol that represents different things. For example, there is one for love, money, work, travel, happiness, food, transportation, and so on. Every Khoa has twelve squares in it, which represent the twelve months of the year. It is very complex and leaves nothing to chance. Every little piece that is in it has a meaning and they are made for different purposes. Travelers might get an extra square representing traveling, and those who own a business might get an extra square representing money, work, or both. If you are not familiar with traditions like this, you might find it a bit strange, and you will probably ask why they would make a Khoa and burn it every first Friday of the month.

Offering to the Pachamama

The poker with the preparation, burning.
Photo: Charleen Vetas

The people in Bolivia have many beliefs and rituals that help them in some way, and the Khoa is no exception. While the Khoa is being burnt, its content feeds the Pachamama (Mother Earth). Every Khoa is an offering to the Pachamama, and it is an act of reciprocity. When they feed the Pachamama, she will bring happiness and good luck to the people. She will give us good soil to plant vegetables and she will help us with family, love, and work. Basically, she will help us with whatever we need help with.

This offering can be done wherever you want to. It is normal to burn a Khoa in the home. That way the Khoa will bring luck to the home. But you can also see a Khoa being burnt on the street. If you do, there is a chance you can participate in it as well.

The people in Bolivia have many beliefs and rituals that help them in some way, and the Khoa is no exception. While the Khoa is being burnt, its content feeds the Pachamama (Mother Earth).

The man leading the Khoa talks about what he gives to the Pachamama and what he will get back. Then he gently pours a cup of alcohol around the Khoa before he puts coca leaves on it.
Photo: Charleen Vetas

This is a tradition that brings family or friends together. Foreigners will probably find it different from anything they have ever seen before, but one will most likely be glad to experience it. But beware, if you are going to La Cancha to buy a Khoa, you might experience a culture shock. There are many dead baby llamas and llama fetuses hanging from the roof, ready to be put in a Khoa. It is an interesting but also intimidating sight that might not everyone would handle. You should nevertheless go there because it really gives you a taste of the differences that exists in cultures all over the world.

After reading this about the Khoa, you might ask why this happens on the first Friday of the month. A man at La Cancha selling Khoas says that it is all because of traditions. In Bolivia, every day of the week represents something different and Friday is the Pachamama’s day. The first Friday was chosen to keep her happy for the entire month. The Pachamama day is an Aymara and Quechua term, so the day has been on a Friday for as long as history goes back.

Khoa in August

Khoa seller in La Pampa Market
Photo: Charleen Vetas

The Pachamama even has an entire month that is hers, and that is August. Therefore the first Friday of August is the most important one during the year. Why? Well, August is almost the middle month of the year, and it has been said that the Pachamama is hungrier then. It has also been said that the earth rests after the harvests in February and wakes up hungry in August. Another explanation of why the Khoa is more important in August is that it is the month of the Pachamama. This means a bigger and better celebration. Some people like farmers make bigger sacrifices then. They sacrifice big llamas as well as baby llamas, and they use their blood as painting in their faces. Furthermore, they spread the blood out on the field for better harvests.

So, you can imagine that the Khoa is a very rich ritual. Not everyone does it the same way and as often as others. Some do it big and some do it small, some do it every Friday, some do it the first Friday of the month, and some do not do it at all. The Khoa is unique for each person doing it and that is what makes Bolivian culture so rich.

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