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