Rare Amazon encounter

September 11, 2012

By Carlos Garcia Rawlins

When I show him a photo I’ve just taken of a fellow tribe member, he smiles. He’s fascinated and can’t believe it. When I point the lens at him and then show him his own image on the screen, his body retracts. He frowns, confused.

In the depths of the Amazon jungle, just 19 km (12 miles) from the Brazilian border, is the village of Irotatheri of the Yanomami tribe, that still groups around a fire. They live barefoot, semi-naked, and free. Until last week they had not seen any humans that didn’t look like they do. Never had they seen any outsider, let alone a bearded one.

We had flown five hours from Caracas with the Venezuelan Army to accompany them as they investigated the alleged massacre of 80 members of the tribe by Brazilian miners. We landed at a small shapono, or Yanomami village, consisting of a ring of houses in a jungle clearing. I immediately recognized that nothing would be the same for them ever again. There was going to be something irreversible about this meeting.

“Wishak, wishak, wishak,” or “monkey, monkey, monkey,” they repeated as two bearded photographers approached. It was our facial hair that took them by surprise. They touched our faces. They touched their own. Then they lifted their hands to their chest and said, “noji,” or “friend.”

They revealed themselves, coming out from behind the branches, just minutes after our toko-toko, their word for the helicopter, took off again. They came holding bows and arrows as well as spears, as if they were approaching an enemy. But the Irotatheri villagers are friendly, almost always smiling, showing off the herbs they stuff between their gums. So as soon as the helicopter flew off, we were nojis.

The Yanomami hunt to survive as well as grow cassava, have children in droves and obey a shaman who, amongst other tasks, initiates the sexuality of the tribe’s women and assigns them a male partner.

The families live in 10 yajis, small straw huts in the shapono clearing where a permanent fire remains alight to drive away mosquitoes and give warmth. It also illuminates hundreds of visiting cockroaches on the earth around it. Outside the huts, millions of stars shine their own light in the sky. The tribe lives their life in perfect balance. It was as if we had never been there. But we had.

The investigating state commission, after finding the tribe intact and with no signs of the alleged attack, proceeded to dress the Yanomami, to make them decent as if their red guayucos, or loincloths, were not enough. This was under the premise of helping them to “live better.” But candy and military rations including condensed milk, pasta and canned meat, along with their respective wrappers and the plastic utensils quickly became garbage. This was a new problem for them as was the need to cover themselves with clothes – issues inherited from their new friends.

The Irotatheri were also sick, although they didn’t know it. Many of the 29 children, 12 men and 10 women in the community suffered respiratory illnesses thanks to spending their lives breathing in the smoke from a permanent fire.

With luck, in a few weeks the clothes and customs that we brought will be turned into loincloths, the Irotatheri forgetting their own shame and returning to their routine, forever unaltered by their contact with the outsider.

Two of the tribesmen were taken to La Esmeralda, a small town about an hour away by helicopter, in order to train them in basic healthcare and communication. The plan is to bring to the community a solar-powered radio in order to maintain communications with the other surrounding Yanomami tribes. This will also be irreversible.

When I think of those few days, there’s a part of me that empathizes with the external help that these communities receive to “improve” their lives but another part of me thinks it’s inevitable that from this first visit, we’ve broken the veil between them and us, everything will begin to change. The Spanish interpreter, for example, is a Yanomami tribe member who wears underwear under his loincloth and a watch on his left arm.

As I sat in the helicopter about to take off from the Sierra de Parima, one of the tribal members who had never met a bearded outsider until we arrived, gave me a thumbs up sign, the universal symbol for OK, as if saying “buen viaje, friend.” It’s a fact. Things will never be the same but with luck things will be well.


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