Mother to Many: My Interview with Activist Mama Kia Ingenlath

herbalism indigenous healers women healers of the world May 15, 2024
Mama Kia with family

When I researched my documentary book Women Healers of the World: The Traditions, History, and Geography of Herbal Medicine, I interviewed 21 incredible women from around the globe. One of the gentlest and most loving was Kia Ingenlath, or Mama Kia as she was known to her dozens of adopted children whom she cared for at her orphanage. Though she passed away soon after our interview, in early 2010, Mama Kia was a very strong presence not only in the lives of her children and grandchildren, but also in the communities of Peru where she offered her skills and compassion to truly make a difference.

The following is a brief excerpt from when I spoke with her from the Women Healers of the World documentary book, published in 2014 and now celebrating its 10-year anniversary (note: photographs provided by Mama Kia):

A Healer and Mother in Peru

Mama Kia is a mother, grandmother, and director of the most visionary home in Peru; she is also a wise woman herbalist in the purest sense: it is part of her mission to introduce children to the world of plants.

Nine years ago, American-born yoga teacher Kia Ingenlath left Costa Rica and arrived in the fertile lands of the Urubamba Sacred Valley near Cusco, Peru. Kia had very little money, but with the help of several friends, including actor Woody Harrelson, she purchased and renovated a dilapidated 200-year-old hacienda and began taking in orphaned children. 

This was new for Kia; she had never raised a large number of children before, even though she was well-past middle age. But she related to the orphans, partly because she’d been orphaned at the tender age of twelve: her parents, Seventh Day Adventist missionaries, and her brother all died (separately) within the same year.

“When I turned 50,” she told me in her incredibly quiet, gentle voice, “I did a midlife ceremony and dedicated the second half of my life to service.” At Macchu Pichu, Kia gathered with friends and a powerful shaman in a ceremony meant to dedicate her life to a new purpose. “Everything flowed naturally,” she told me, “and it was very meaningful. It helped open up the second half of my life.”

Teaching Children About Gardening

At the center of Mama Kia’s Home of Miracles is a charming and fully functional medicinal plant garden. All of the children, from the youngest to the oldest, learn Permaculture methods of planting, cultivation and the medicinal properties of healing plants. The garden is not only a plot of land where vegetables are grown; it is a work of art. Terra cotta railings are intricately carved, child-high walls are festooned with colorful paintings of flowers and vines, and banners blow joyfully in the wind. The garden is a place of beauty, respite, food, medicine, and even income, since the orphanage strives to be self-sustaining. Though the not-for-profit accepts monetary contributions and rents accommodations to tourists, it focuses on maintaining its organic vegetable garden and greenhouse, cornfields, raising guinea pigs and rabbits, and using their herbs for medicine whenever possible.

Looking beyond Casa de Milagros, Kia expands her services to include the broader community. She models proper nutrition for local men and women, teaching them how to grow a variety of food crops organically, which is a new concept for the residents of the Sacred Valley who have traditionally grown only corn and potatoes. As a result of this restricted diet, many children suffer from malnourishment. Kia wants the home to be an example within the community of variety, diversity and creative expression; to this end she encourages the children to learn about their heritage through art. “All the children at the Home know how to spin yarn and dye fabrics with plant dyes,” she says proudly, and she invites children from the wider community to join their craft classes.

Beyond meeting the needs of orphans, Casa de Milagros and the Chandler Sky Foundation help conserve one of the world’s most biodiverse rainforests. “Through teaching children methods of farming that allow the land to be used over and over again,” Mama Kia says, “there will be a decreased need for migration into the precious rainforest reserves that we, as a planet, need for survival.”

To read more about Mama Kia and the other 21 amazing women healers I interviewed, see the book Women Healers of the World, available here, now celebrating its 10-year publication anniversary.

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