One day in late March, Vanda Ortega, a young nurse’s aide, received a panicked phone call. It came from one of her neighbours in Parque das Tribos (Tribes Park), an informal settlement on the outskirts of Manaus, a sprawling city of 2m people deep in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. The caller was worried because his mother’s persistent wheezing had worsened into desperate gasping. Ortega called an ambulance on the woman’s behalf, but was met with scepticism by the operator. “An indigenous neighbourhood in Manaus?” she asked. “Don’t you people have an institution that cares for you?”
Parque das Tribos, home to some 600 indigenous families from 35 ethnic groups, was established in 2014. When indigenous people migrate to the city, they often face prejudice and live in dire conditions. Parque das Tribos was intended to provide a welcome refuge both for those alienated by Manaus and new arrivals from the forest.
This was the first time that three dozen tribes had shared a plot of land in the region, where some groups had been warring for centuries. But Messias Kokama, the cacique, or chief, who presided over the community, convinced indigenous city-dwellers that they had enough problems – legal challenges to their occupation, limited electricity and transport, and drug-traffickers exploiting the poor – without fighting among themselves.
The neighbourhood mostly comprises dusty roads and wooden shacks but a few traces of jungle remain: a creek at the bottom of a hill that flows into a tributary of the Amazon, and a patch of untamed trees the size of a football pitch, which divides newer houses from older ones. Because of the stifling heat, residents spend most of their time outdoors. With no air-conditioning or running water, sweat becomes a second skin.
Ortega, who is 33 years old with jet-black hair down to her waist and a ruler-straight fringe across her forehead, had encountered ignorance of the kind displayed by the ambulance dispatcher before. At the surgical hospital further into Manaus where she normally works, many of Ortega’s patients and colleagues don’t even know that the indigenous settlement exists. In the early weeks of the pandemic, the municipal authorities didn’t send a single public-health official to Parque das Tribos. When the surgical hospital closed temporarily, Ortega started going door to door in her own area to help neighbours and monitor them for symptoms. More than anyone else in the community, she realised how dangerous the disease was.
“An indigenous neighbourhood in Manaus? Don’t you people have an institution that cares for you?”
Calmly explaining to the ambulance operator that Parque das Tribos was part of the city, Ortega told her that the mayor himself had visited it in 2018. The settlement lay five miles from the hospital that had just been made the referral centre for covid-19 cases in Manaus. She reminded the operator that the city’s health department is responsible for all residents. The “institution” the operator had referred to – the health department of Brazil’s federal indigenous agency – deals only with people living in remote villages. The operator replied abruptly that the ambulance’s gps wouldn’t be able to find them.
Ortega hung up, tied a handkerchief around her mouth and nose, rolled down the windows of her tiny red sedan and drove the woman and her son to hospital, ignoring an insistent voice in her head. “My god, if I get sick who’s going to care for the others?” she thought. By the time I met Ortega in early August, she had looked after scores of residents, including Chief Kokama, who died in May. Her almond-shaped eyes widen in incredulity and narrow in anger as she tells her story.
The collective grief in Parque das Tribos was compounded by a profound sense of abandonment. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has consistently railed against social-distancing measures and a majority of the people in Manaus didn’t comply with the lockdown. The city and state government quickly became overwhelmed: hospitals filled up and mass graves were dug in cemeteries. It took months for doctors, masks and economic relief to arrive in Parque das Tribos, by which time most residents had developed symptoms.
Those on the margins of society always suffer disproportionately in a crisis. But the abandonment of Parque das Tribos by local and central government spurred resourcefulness and solidarity among its population. The 2,500-strong community skews young, so a very large proportion of those who contracted covid-19 survived (fatalities numbered in the single digits). Residents picketed the health department with hand-painted signs, chanting “Indigenous Lives Matter”. After this campaign, which was picked up by the media, a mobile clinic was finally sent to the neighbourhood. A local teacher made lists of needy residents and WhatsApp groups were compiled to help distribute food baskets.
“My god, if I get sick who’s going to care for the others?”
Ortega was one of the few who understood the medical intricacies and, because she herself is from the Witoto tribe, she was trusted by the indigenous community. She swears that jambu, a leafy green plant with a tiny white flower that grows behind her house, helped ease the symptoms of covid-19. She brewed it into tea and gave it to patients along with paracetamol. Some locals reckon that Parque das Tribos’s success in handling the pandemic has been partly the result of combining traditional medicine with modern clinical interventions.
When I visited Edwiges Tenório, the woman whom Ortega had rushed to the hospital, her garden was overgrown after months without care. She had recovered and was in high spirits, though she balked when Ortega suggested she start taking walks to strengthen her muscles. Her arms and legs were still sore, she said. But without Ortega, she knew that she wouldn’t be alive.
As soon as 86-year-old Nazaria Melo heard about a new virus that killed old people she told her family in Parque das Tribos, “It’s not going to kill me.” In the 1960s, as a young mother in a remote part of the Amazon, two of her daughters had died in a whooping-cough epidemic. Within days of the first known covid-19 cases in Manaus, Melo packed her belongings, left Parque das Tribos and fled to her house in the forest north of the city.
The nearby aldeia (village) had been abandoned as, one by one, indigenous families had moved to the city, but Melo, who is from the Kubeu tribe, kept a simple wooden hut there. She and her eldest son regularly went to fish and tend their roça, a bountiful plot of land treasured by indigenous people, where they grew fruit and vegetables. Melo assured her children and grandchildren that she would wait out the pandemic on her own, with plenty of food and two dogs for company.
“We all have to leave this world eventually, but it shouldn’t be like this”
Jonilda, Melo’s granddaughter, is studying for a master’s degree in anthropology. She recently published an article about how her grandmother’s decision to spend the pandemic in the forest is an age-old survival strategy employed by indigenous people. In the past, as Catholic missionaries and Brazilian settlers arrived, tribes would routinely abandon their villages and retreat deeper into the jungle. They knew how quickly unfamiliar illnesses could wipe out a community. Tribe members with symptoms, or those who had been in contact with outsiders, had to quarantine for 30 days before joining relatives.
In August, for the first time in months, Jonilda and her mother Adelina made the trip from Manaus to visit Melo. There was no way to notify her ahead of time. They drove north for an hour, turned onto a small dirt road, parked the car beneath a circle of trees and walked down a narrow path, finally arriving at a creek. Adelina approached the bank and cupped her hands to her mouth. “Mother! Mother!” she called out. A minute passed. Then, suddenly, ripples appeared in the water and a thin metal boat emerged from the trees. A dog sat in the front. The 86-year-old sat in the back, rowing with a wooden paddle.
It is a sign of generational change that in order to survive the pandemic another of Melo’s granddaughters decided to make the journey in the opposite direction. Karina was living in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, a three-day journey by boat up the Rio Negro from Manaus, and feared getting stuck there, far from her family, supplies and medical care. As lockdowns began in March she hopped onto a boat and joined her parents and siblings in Parque das Tribos. The family did not emerge unscathed: everyone except Jonilda’s father caught covid-19, though their cases were mild. José, their youngest brother, who has a wife and a one-year-old, had a job offer at the nearby Honda factory withdrawn. Their eldest brother is an alcoholic and the pandemic exacerbated his condition.
By the time many covid-19 victims reached the hospital in Manaus, the boats they travelled in had become their coffins
Six months later, they sat around a picnic table outside their house. Karina cut old magazines into strips to use as streamers for a festa junina party with members of her Catholic church. The midsummer festival celebrating Brazil’s rural past usually takes place in June, but was postponed because of lockdown. The family customised it to their Amazonian surroundings by making small dolls from seeds and fibres. They drank sweet coffee and exchanged stories of survival, marvelling at the stubbornness of their grandmother.
Near the remnant of jungle, Cláudia Baré painted white-and-black stripes on the outside of her house. A sign above the door read Puranga Pesika (“welcome” in Nheengatu, one of the tribal languages spoken here). Her home also serves as a maloca, a traditional meeting-house where decisions are debated collectively, and as a school where Baré teaches children about their heritage. That night it would serve as the backdrop for a dance show that was to be broadcast on Facebook to raise money for struggling families in the community. Normally most villagers make a living selling craft goods, beaded jewellery and woodwork, but with markets closed and no tourists around, they now have little income.
After Chief Kokama died, Baré – who like many indigenous Brazilians uses her tribe’s name as her surname – took it upon herself to raise donations on WhatsApp, as well as keep an eye on her neighbours. As she worked to help others, and mourned friends and relatives who died from the virus, she fell ill herself.
Baré’s round, serene face rarely shows emotion, but when she remembered the former chief her lips widened briefly into a smile before tears streaked her cheeks. She and her partner were early residents of Parque das Tribos in 2014. They, along with Kokama, had left their forest villages years earlier to pursue opportunities in the city: Baré to attend university and Kokama to serve as an evangelical pastor. “He was our leader, but he was also my friend,” she said. No one had expected him to succumb to an invisible virus. He was only 53 and had fought far bigger battles.
As soon as Nazaria Melo heard about a new virus that kills old people she told her family “It’s not going to kill me”
His death was followed by those of Baré’s brother-in-law and father-in-law. The brother-in-law died after taking part in a study of the safety of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug touted as a cure for covid-19 by President Donald Trump. The study was halted once it became clear that some patients on high doses experienced irregular heart rhythms. Baré’s father-in-law was a respected chief in Manaus. Like many elderly indigenous people hospitalised with covid, he complained constantly about how cold the ward was, the unfamiliar food and a doctor who spoke only Portuguese, which he didn’t fully understand.
The distress seemed to make him weaker, so his relatives checked him out of the hospital before he was officially discharged. He would rather die at home, he said, than be hooked up to tubes. Five weeks later he did so, in a shipping container adjoining Baré’s house. “We all have to leave this world eventually, but it shouldn’t be like this,” she said gesturing at the hammock, slung between bookshelves and stacks of paper, where he took his last breath.
Women like Baré and Ortega have stepped into the shoes of these male leaders. On the day of the fundraiser, Baré’s teenage daughter drew colourful patterns on cloth masks, which were to be sold online and shipped to richer parts of the country. Baré’s mother, a frail woman with wispy hair and a toothy smile, sat at a plastic table eating bread. A shy little girl ducked in and out of a plastic tarpaulin draped below an unfinished roof. It looked like it had been a while since the three of them had eaten a good meal.
Baré confessed that she hadn’t been able to shake off a constant exhaustion, which she blamed on grief and the virus. But she didn’t want to complain. Villages upriver were suffering far worse outbreaks – the rate of deaths from covid-19 among indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon is almost 250% higher than in the general population. In some cases, the virus had been brought by careless government health-workers or villagers returning home. By the time many of those with covid-19 reached the hospital in Manaus, the boats they travelled in had become their coffins.
The fundraiser started as the sun set and the frogs began to chirp. It was the first time the community had gathered since the beginning of the pandemic and the act of pulling up garden chairs to watch amateur dance troupes felt cathartic. Dancers from the Sateré-Mawé tribe performed a routine to honour Chief Kokama, his portrait printed on their T-shirts. Women from the Tikuna tribe, their bodies painted black, celebrated a moça nova, a ceremony in honour of a bashful teenager who has just started menstruating. Baré and Ortega lingered to catch up after the performers headed home. When a salsa song came onto the speakers, Ortega grabbed her friend’s hands, twisting and twirling her under the streetlight. Baré rolled her eyes, but she couldn’t help smiling.•
PHOTOGRAPHS: ANDRÉ FRANÇOIS