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November/December 2013

In 2008 André François spent a month with the Yanomamo of Xitei, a community of around 1,400 Amerindians scattered between 19 villages several hours’ walk from each other, deep in the Amazon rainforest at the top end of Brazil. François, a Brazilian photographer, had already been to the region many times and visited around a dozen tribal peoples, but the Yanomamo were the most isolated from the modern world he has yet met. Two hours’ flight from Boa Vista, the capital of Roraima, Brazil’s least populous state, their settlement is accessible only by small plane, and only when it is not raining too heavily. Before François could start work, he had to agree to send them a copy of every photograph he took. When a Yanomamo dies his possessions are burnt, and the villagers wanted the photos so they too could be burnt upon the death of the people they depicted. “They didn’t mind that there would be other copies still in existence, but they needed a copy of absolutely everything.”

The Yanomamo were made (in)famous by the publication in 1968 of “Yanomamo: The Fierce People”. In it Napoleon Chagnon, a controversial anthropologist who has studied them since the early 1960s and spent several periods living in Yanomamo villages, documents chronic inter-village warfare and stratospheric rates of murder, rape and wife-beating, from which he infers a violent prehistory for all of humanity. Critics point out that Chagnon may have unwittingly fomented at least some of the violence he saw by handing out machetes as rewards for co-operation with his research, and that the Yanomamo way of life—forest gardening supplemented by hunting—is at most 15,000 years old, making it a poor model of the conditions under which humanity evolved.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of that controversy, François’s mission was to seek out stories not of violence but of the search for health. The Life Project, which aims to document disease prevention and co-operation between Western and traditional healers, has so far taken him to 15 countries apart from his native Brazil, including Cambodia, Haiti, Japan and Thailand. His travels will continue for two more years and another half-dozen countries, after which a book will be published and distributed to governments around the world. “I started thinking about the sick and their treatment, but realised along the way that it made much more sense to think about health and the healthy,” he says. The project is supported by the World Health Organisation, the United Nations and Médecins sans Frontières, among others. According to the WHO, every dollar spent on health promotion saves five on treatment.

The Brazilian government’s training of indigenous volunteers to act as health agents is one of the most effective and thought-out approaches François has seen. Visiting doctors and nurses teach members of the Yanamomo to diagnose common ailments, to treat the simplest—and to recognise when they need to radio for support. “All over the world you see a conflict between traditional medicine and white medicine,” François says. “But which is better depends on the occasion. Sometimes it’s not technology that a sick person needs. So many illnesses start in the mind and only later cause physical illnesses. For the Yanomamo, health care is basically the same as religion, and religion is the same as psychology or psychiatry.”

Contact with the outside world has brought great suffering to the Yanomamo and other tribal peoples. Wildcat miners, loggers and ranchers have taken their lands and killed or enslaved them, or infected them with diseases to which they have no natural resistance. “The existence of the Yanomamo is very fragile and they know that,” François says. “They know they’re teetering on the edge of extinction. They’re very brave to try again with white people after everything that has happened. They know that this is their best chance to protect themselves.”

On this front, he is struck not by how different they are from other peoples, but how similar. “Everywhere I’ve been, people want a better life. Often, the main thing that means is seeking better health. Everywhere, that search is the same.” ~ HELEN JOYCE

The Yanomamo’s tenuous connection with the outside world: a grass-and-dirt clearing that can only be used in dry weather and the four-seater plane that brought François from Boa Vista, two hours’ flight away

A healing ritual. In the background the xapore, or shaman, shouts and sings as he contacts the spirit world and chases bad spirits away. In the foreground is the patient, who was bitten by a snake. “It didn’t make any sense to me as a white person,” says François. “But I know that from the moment I arrive somewhere I can’t have an opinion. I’m there not to judge but to observe. And it worked for them. He didn’t die”

The xapore (shaman) is the main provider of health care. To start a healing ritual, yekuana, a hallucinogenic powder made from wood and seeds, is blown forcefully up his nose by another participant. “I didn’t try the drug,” says François. “It was a day I was working and I didn’t want to be completely crazy. I did try their alcoholic drink [caxiri, made from cassava]. Which is hard when you know that it’s fermented with spittle”

Roças, small plantations, are where families grow their food—cassava, bananas and pineapples. They move on every few years as the soil becomes exhausted. A roça is an intensely private place, where a couple can go to be alone and no one visits without permission (François was invited to visit Kracione’s roça). For the Yanomamo, François says, intimacy seems to be more about food than sex—“whether you eat alone or together, whether you share”

A nurse from a visiting health team teaches indigenous health agents how to identify and treat common diseases. It takes a long time for teacher and students to understand each other well enough for real lessons to start. “Everything has to be explained in a very childlike way, though they’re not generally childlike,” says François. “HIV, say, is a tiny little animal, too tiny to see, that can get into your blood.” Once trained, an agent is given a watch, both as a tool and a badge of office. “Western medicine is utterly bound up in time. Once every six hours, twice a day...”

A Yanomamo becomes a xapore not by training, but because the spirits reveal themselves to him in a dream. Here Kracione Yanomamo, who is both xapore and indigenous health agent, runs around the settlement in a hunting celebration

The visiting health team constructed a wooden building in Xitei as a surgery and store for medicines and equipment. As well as the stethoscopes, there is a microscope, needed to diagnose malaria. The main aim of the training is to teach the agents to distinguish between an illness they can treat alone and one so serious that they must radio for help

A single xapona holds between five and 20 families, each with its own fireplace and space for hammocks. It will last four to six years before capitulating to the weather or the insects

Despite the Yanomamo’s fearsome reputation, during his month-long stay François never saw children fighting and witnessed many moments of tenderness such as this. “Both adults and children are very physically close, with little concern for where ‘I’ ends and ‘you’ begins” 

A young man uses a mirror to help him to prepare for a party. For special occasions the Yanomamo paint themselves with red and black dyes made from the seeds of the urucum plant and the jenipapo fruit and sometimes wear feathers in their hair. They mark their bodies to communicate and express themselves, François says: “It’s like having a coffee together.” This community owns few artefacts from outside, such as this mirror, and its members often rely on friends to paint them rather than struggle to glimpse their reflections in rivers or pools

A party in a xapona, a communal hut shared by several families. The men in the hammock sleep together, though whether they are homosexual seems not to matter to the Yanomamo. “A far more civilised attitude than ours,” André François says. Their bird’s-eye perch appealed to him, as did the sheer oddness of the event. “We would just never do this—party for three or four days, with the children alongside the adults; eat and sleep right there whenever we felt like it; put a hammock so high. I don’t know how they got up there”