Don's Diary

August 18, 1995

Monday. At Mariry. At 4.30 am the cockerels go off. By six the grey light grows through heavy mist. Twittering finches in the secondary growth nearby, an Amazonian thrush singing further back in the woods, and the eerie cry, rising and falling, of distant howler monkeys all confirm how hideous is the intrusion of these cockerels into the beautiful sounds of the forest.

An excellent language day. While dealing with yesterday's notes and revising new vocabulary, four youngsters arrive and a nine-year-old begins to tell myths.

Later I go to find Aikyry. He is just back from hunting. I remember him as a beautiful 12-year-old. Now he is grown up and got stout, having gone through that endomorphic bloom that overtakes many Wayapi men and women. His Portuguese is excellent. He can read the directions for use on medicine packets and discuss the merits of various malaria treatments. His language lessons are thoughtful and imaginative, thinking up example after example without prompting. If I find a new verb in Wayapi he will conjugate it immediately making sure I have got it correct in all its forms. He thinks up homophones to let me see the pitfalls that lie in store.

His manner and turn of phrase make him appear like a Brazilian university student, but there he is, resting after a hunt with the livid marks of tree-bark straps on his shoulders, the monkey he carried home lying exposed in the carrying basket, and around him the paraphernalia of a large Indian household. In front of us his wife is bathing their infant in "monkey-tail medicine", an infusion of curly fern tips, to ward off any baleful influences from the father having killed a monkey.

Tuesday. A message has come through on the radio: I am to go to the Indian post to act as cicerone for a high-ranking government official, a woman, who is arriving from Brasilia to look into the presence of missionaries in one of the other villages. I am to be picked up at the Jacare roadhead. I get a stern list of instructions from Waiwai about what I am to say to the official, the emphasis, as always, on health care measures. In the evening the Indians are allowed free access to the radio and the distant villages talk to one another. They have developed their own laid-back radio style.

Wednesday. To the post. The outboard motor is being repaired. It is quicker to walk than to paddle downstream but I cannot go on my own since the path has disappeared for much of the way. A difficult walk. Lot of mud. Lot of wading up to thighs. In the dry season it could be done in three or four hours. It took more than six. Get to the Jacare sore and tired. I get to the Indian post towards evening. It is a complicated place. Indians come here when they are sick. They leave from here to go to the city, five hours down the cratered road. Outsiders who want to "see the Indians" come here. There is a small Wayapi village nearby. On the post itself lives the chefe do posto, who runs the reservation, plus driver, lab technician, nurse, and occasionally a teacher. There is a pharmacy, an empty school, a barn where sick Indians sling their hammocks, and a flagpole, of all things.

Thursday. The official and I are to be taken up the River Onca to Yto Wasu where the missionaries are installed - fundamentalist Protestants, translating biblical tracts into Wayapi. A lovely journey by motorised canoe. The river is high and strong, but we are at the end of the rainy season, and it is a day of blazing sun and huge white clouds. I have not seen Yto Wasu for ten years. The present "chief" is intelligent and charming, but alas I already know his line on the missionary presence. He wants them there for their alleged medical skills. I renew old acquaintances. I will talk to the missionaries some other time. I find their views and activities intolerable. No doubt they think the same of mine. In the afternoon we are swept back downstream in a breathtaking slalom.

Friday. To Mariry. I am standing in the back of the jeep looking over the cab and see what looks like a pole stretched on the road. There is a whoop from the driver as he swerves towards it and I am horrified to see he is going to run over an anaconda. He goes over just behind its head, skids to a stop, slams into reverse, and tries to get it again. It manages to recoil and hits out at the jeep as it draws level, then turns and slips off down the bank. A magnificent animal, between three and four metres. It is a privilege to see one of these creatures. The Indians would never have thought of trying to kill it. The anaconda is "vastly shamanistic" to them. The Brazilians in the cab are beside themselves at how they had so nearly destroyed the snake.

The Mariry outboard has been repaired and the return from the Jacare is by canoe.

Saturday. Waiwai started a debriefing session last night, and continues this morning. He wants to know everything about what is going on at the post and Yto Wasu. Repetition is an important aspect of Wayapi conversation. Kasiripinar announces that tomorrow he, Siro, Teyo, and their families are going to their new satellite village at Kumakary which I have never seen. I have still got a few pain points left from Wednesday's walk but I will go with them.

Alan Campbell Anthropology lecturer at Edinburgh University, presently on fieldwork with the Wayapi Indians of Northern Brazil. His new book Getting to Know Waiwai was published yesterday by Routledge at Pounds 37.50 hardback and Pounds 12.99 paperback.

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