For this blog we look back at life on the ground with the Yanomami during the 80's and 90's and see how this links more than ever to the struggles in Brazil today. Michael Stuart Ani shares his experiences and thoughts with us.
From 1988 to 2002, he set the groundwork for rainforest protection and environmentalism in Los Angeles, California by founding the Amazonia Foundation, a central part of a medical outreach program introduced to fight the epidemics among the Yanomami tribe of Venezuela.
Michael was instrumental in fighting the epidemics among the Yanomami in the rainforests of Venezuela. He introduced the plant Artemisia annua which proved to be a much more effective antimalarial than the WHO pharmaceutical used at the time. Ani also helped to create a school to teach local indigenous people to be healthcare officers in the emerging Alto Orinoco Biosphere Reserve.
The fat-bellied cargo plane carrying the North American outreach medical team “YOMO” landed at the mission of Parima B, at the very same moment the Yanomami refugees arrived from their wayumi out of the bottomland. Here in the Parima, the high mountain homeland, the Yanomami were safe from the epidemics. There were no swarms of disease carrying mosquitoes, but there were two evangelist New Tribes missions: Parima A and Parima B.
Stepping off the cargo plane, I took a deep breath and inhaled the confusion heavy in the air. Two completely incompatible worlds were about to collide at Parima B and I was somehow caught in the middle, watching a human drama unfold that could affect the entire world. At that moment all I could do was lend a helping hand and hope that the Yanomami would survive the changes they were facing.
I watched as naked and bewildered Yanomami tribesmen took in the sight of the medical team as they unloaded crates of medical supplies from the plane. The crates were filled with antibiotics and tens of thousands of chloroquine pills donated to help fight the malaria epidemic that had been ravaging the tribe for the past thirteen years.
Rolling up my sleeves to help carry crates with Andy, the team leader, I reminded him of the agreement I had made with the New Tribes Mission and the Venezuelan government about his YOMO medical group. My organization, the Amazonia Foundation, would help the medical effort if I could also bring some of the medicine we’ve delivered to the traditional tribes. But rather than acknowledging our agreement, Andy turned away from me to greet Diego, handing the leader of the posse of Yanomami zealots a giant bag of Fruit Loops as a gift.
Wearing a soccer uniform two sizes too large and armed with a shotgun that the missionaries had given him, Diego thanked Andy for the prized gift. Then he reminded Andy that the New Tribes leaders had instructed YOMO not to give medicine to any Yanomami who resisted evangelization. Hearing this only confirmed my suspicion that the New Tribes Mission and YOMO were not going to go along with the agreement I had tried to talk to Andy about.
Containing my anger, I looked over at the agitated Yanomami refugees who were also sensing that they were trapped between giving up being Yanomami and a magic pill that could save them. Slapping their arrows against their bows they chanted the name of their enemy. They had recognized Diego as the murderer that had killed many of these Yanomami’s fellow tribesmen during raids to steal women in their remote villages. The tribespeople feared him and he enjoyed their fear.
It’s hard to look intimidating while you are holding a giant bag of Fruit Loops, but Diego, who was barely five feet tall, somehow pulled it off. He graciously thanked the team leader for the Fruit Loops and then told me with disdain that he knew who I was, “Nabuh-nabuh-cique.” Then he asked if I had brought Fruit Loops for them also. I said no and he turned to the Yanomami and barked out,
“See! only the missionaries bring the Fruit Loops that are as sweet as honey, Nabun Nabuh Cique has brought you nothing!”
To demonstrate his generosity, Diego started to throw handfuls of the multicolored cereal at the starving Yanomami who scrambled on the ground for the scraps of food. While the Yanomami were preoccupied, Diego gave the order for his posse to take the refugees’ bows and arrows away from them. Starving and sick, the desperate Yanomami gave up their weapons without a fight, ready to do anything to get food and the magic medicine that could save them.
Diego knew that he had the refugees in the palm of his hand, so he chose that moment to lead his new flock down to the creek to be baptized. But when no one stepped forward to be submerged in the water, Diego became angry and began to rant,
“Listen to me, you monkey ass, spear-chuckin’ Waikas, No one will get the magic pill unless they are baptized first. All the rest will have to go back to the bottomland and die. This is no longer the time of our grandfathers and fathers, when we hunted, fished, and worshipped the devil. We don’t want the devil here. Now we have Jesus and instead of hunting we eat sardines from a can and enjoy the Fruit Loops that Jesus brings us!”
Fearing for their lives, the confused refugees quickly lined up in front of Diego, ready to be dunked in the water so they could get the magic pills. After decades of failed evangelization, the introduced epidemics had finally succeeded where the missionaries had not. The only thing that could make a Yanomami convert was the magic pills that cured the malaria, a disease that the missionaries had introduced.
When the baptism was finished, the converted Yanomami refugees were lured into a filthy, disease ridden slum where they finally received the magic pills. But when it was his turn to receive the sacramental chloroquine wafer from Diego, one old medicine man got jumpy and broke rank, chanting in Yanomami, which was prohibited at the mission. The posse rushed forward to subdue him and avoid a possible revolt, but the old timer had already spotted me standing with the YOMO team and had begun to head towards us. I immediately recognized him from the epene snorting ceremony at the Mevete-we-ateri reaho, when the Yanomami had first begun to Ghost Dance.
Diego hesitated, not wanting to look bad in front of Andy, and this momentary pause left the naked old man time to load his Mokohiro pipe with epene snuff, the traditional sacrament of the Yanomami people. Andy, who was standing next to me, tried to stop me from blowing the snuff up the medicine man’s nose, but he was too late. The medicine man had inhaled, and now scratched his head vigorously and began to dance while calling the xapori spirits of his ancestors to enter his chest and feed upon their favorite food: the epene snuff he had just snorted. As he sang, a blue morpho butterfly appeared and fluttered around him, leaving the Andy and Diego momentarily spellbound.
Disgusted, Diego could not control himself any longer and swatted at the butterfly. Then he began to beat the elderly medicine man mercilessly. I lunged forward to help the holy man, but two members of the pose got between us, pointing loaded shotguns at me and yelling threats that they would shoot.
When Diego had finished, the posse dragged the medicine man off to a tin box jail in the baking sun. By this time my anger and helplessness had torn me in two and I was seeing red. My animal side was chomping at the bit and all I wanted to do was pull out the pistol hidden in my shirt and get that old man out of there. But my rational side knew that there was nothing I could do, so I stewed in my own animosity.
Trying to salvage something good out of a bad situation, I told Andy that I wanted to leave immediately for the traditional villages with medical supplies. The truth was, I didn’t want to stay one minute more in the evangelist detainment camp.
But Andy was troubled by my response to what had happened with Diego and refused my request. Then, instead of honoring our agreement, he demanded that I immediately leave the mission and return to Puerto Ayacucho. At that point I was really pissed off, but I didn’t want to jeopardize the Yanomami’s source of medicine in the midst of an epidemic, so I sucked it up and got ready to leave the mission.
On the return flight I was so distraught that I felt that this may be the last time I would ever fly out of the Alto Orinoco. I took a long hard look at the tabletop mountain Cerro Duida, the river and the forest. I felt sad about everything as the plane began its descent over Puerto Ayacucho, my home away from home.
When we landed in Puerto Ayacucho the comandante of the Venezuelan military base was standing on the tarmac waiting for me. By radio, the cargo plane’s pilots had tipped him off that there had been some problems, so, the comandante wanted to hear my side of the story. I explained that the New Tribes Mission was using the epidemic (which they had started) and the medicine that YOMO and the Amazonia foundation had brought, to force the Yanomami into evangelization. For fourteen years we had fought the epidemics and this was how it is going to end?
*Some names have been changed for personal privacy issues.
It was hard to tell if Randy was willingly helping his father’s alumni, the NTM to coheres the Yanomami into abandoning their culture for the magic pills. Or, was he afraid that the NTM would turn on him if he helped me bring medical aid to traditional villages that would not convert? Somehow, I didn’t think he knew the answer himself.