Re­mote Ama­zon tribe tries to strad­dle two worlds

The Wa­iapi are one of the most tra­di­tional tribes in Brazil’s Ama­zon, but mod­ern life is get­ting closer – and the for­est dwellers are learn­ing how to nav­i­gate between two worlds

Daily Sabah (Turkey) - - Feature & Lounge -

TRANS­FIXED, tribal vil­lagers in Brazil’s Ama­zon rain­for­est look up, point­ing at the sky. “Air­plane!” says one.

The sight of the air­craft, just a sil­very dot high above the Wa­iapi set­tle­ment of Manilha, mes­mer­izes the vil­lagers, who are naked ex­cept for bright red loin­cloths and redand-black body paint made from the seeds of uru­cum and jeni­papo fruits.

“Do you think it came to look at us?” asks Aka’upo­tye Wa­iapi, 43, el­der son of the chief.

Even af­ter the dis­ap­pear­ance of the plane - from which the Ama­zon must ap­pear as lit­tle more than a dark green car­pet - a feel­ing of un­ease re­mains.

The Wa­iapi only came into con­tact with the Brazil­ian gov­ern­ment in the 1970s. To this day, they ex­ist much as their an­ces­tors did be­fore Euro­peans ar­rived in South Amer­ica five cen­turies ago, liv­ing in har­mony with the planet’s big­gest rain­for­est.

But the out­side world is get­ting ever closer.

At first glance, life in Manilha and dozens of other tiny set­tle­ments of thatched, open-sided houses ap­pears to be from an­other age.

Men hunt and fish, bare-breasted women har­vest cas­sava and tend the fires, and all, from young chil­dren up, smear them­selves in the nat­u­ral dyes that the Wa­iapi be­lieve pro­tect both body and soul.

There are no shops, there is no need for money. Un­like tribes that have be­come al­most tourist at­trac­tions, the Wa­iapi rarely ac­cept vis­its by out­siders, even jour­nal­ists.

Yet you don’t have to look as far as the sky for signs of change.

One tribesman has a cell­phone stuck in his loin­cloth that he uses to take pic­tures, even if there is never a sig­nal here, while an­other owns Manilha’s only car, de­spite cur­rently lack­ing gaso­line. From un­der a thatched roof comes the blar­ing of a so­lar-pow­ered VHF ra­dio, used to con­nect Wa­iapi vil­lages scat­tered through the for­est.

And while Manilha gives the ap­pear­ance of be­ing lost in the throb­bing heart of the rain­for­est, ev­ery­one knows that re­ally the in­dus­tri­al­ized 21st cen­tury is no more than two hours of rough driv­ing south in the sleepy town of Pe­dra Branca.

Time trav­eler

Many of the ap­prox­i­mately 1,200 Wa­iapi al­most never visit Pe­dra Branca, but Jawaruwa Wa­iapi trav­els there every week, switch­ing between two worlds like a time trav­eler.

The 31-year-old, who lives up a steep hill of dense jun­gle, made his­tory last year by be­com­ing a city coun­cilor. He is the first of his tribe to win an elected post - a rare ex­am­ple of a Wa­iapi plung­ing fully into what they call the “white man’s” ter­ri­tory.

In Pe­dra Branca, Jawaruwa Wa­iapi wears jeans and a neat checked shirt, and sits be­hind a desk.

“You have to fol­low the rules of the city. Here you need money to live, you need to pay for ev­ery­thing,” he says. “Back in the vil­lage you don’t pay for any­thing - wa­ter is free, the fire­wood is free.”

Re­turn­ing to Wa­iapi lands later that day, he strips down to the tra­di­tional loin­cloth. His wife Monin, dressed sim­i­larly, smears him in uru­cum and he returns the fa­vor.

Jawaruwa Wa­iapi says he ran for of­fice be­cause there was not one in­dige­nous per­son on the coun­cil, just as there are no in­dige­nous law­mak­ers in the na­tional Con- gress. “Who else will fight for our peo­ple?” he asks.

Ma­rina Sa, who owns a restau­rant in Pe­dra Branca and has helped the coun­cilor in­te­grate, says Jawaruwa Wa­iapi’s pres­ence is just as novel for the Brazil­ian lo­cals. “Few peo­ple have gone [to Wa­iapi ter­ri­tory]. It’s a sep­a­rate world.”

Al­ways a Wa­iapi in­side

A bur­den seems to fall from Jawaruwa Wa­iapi and his fam­ily when they re­turn to their tribe, where the loud­est sounds are bird calls and the sun gov­erns daily rou­tines.

“The chil­dren don’t like it in town,” says his wife Monin, 24. “They have to wear clothes and take show­ers (rather than bathe in the river).”

But, look­ing down at his 4-year-old son - one of four chil­dren - Jawaruwa Wa­iapi wor­ries.

Many young are sent to study and usu­ally they come back, but what if they don’t?

“If he goes out be­yond the vil­lage and ends up lik­ing cities, he’ll never want to have the Wa­iapi peo­ple’s cul­ture,” Jawaruwa Wa­iapi says.

One tribesman who left for 20 years and re­turned says it took him four years to be­come “a full Wa­iapi again.”

“There’s a lot of evil in the world,” Calbi Wa­iapi, 57, said.

But for Ka­mon Wa­iapi, who trav­els reg­u­larly to Pe­dra Branca as an as­sis­tant to Jawaruwa, the key to sur­vival is re­mem­ber­ing who you re­ally are.

Join­ing Agence France-Presse (AFP) jour­nal­ists on a ride into town, Ka­mon Wa­iapi ex­ited the car at the out­skirts and re­moved his red loin­cloth, slip­ping on a pair of jeans, leather shoes and a polo shirt.

“Now I’m a white man,” he said.

Did the clothes make him feel less Wa­iapi too? “No,” the 25-year-old an­swered without hes­i­ta­tion. “In­side, I never change.”

Wa­iapi boys play football in the Manilha vil­lage.

A Wa­iapi man uses a so­lar am­a­teur ra­dio to talk to an­other vil­lage at the Wa­iapi in­dige­nous re­serve.

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