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Meeting the Shaman


The Yanomami tribe
Redmond O'Hanlon Writer
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Simon [Stockton] left, went downriver, and one of his last remarks was, 'I can't stand it here. These people. I can't stand the poverty. They don't own anything', he said. And I said, 'But look, you've got to come with me to the Yanomami. That's the whole point of this.' And he said, 'I don't want to see no people who whack each other over the head with poles.' He'd had enough. Which they do. It's always a fight over women. Formalised duels. And you bare your head and your opponent takes up to three blows with these ten-foot-long poles. And then, if you're still standing, you do the same to him. And then if it goes to the next stage, you turn your pole around and there's a spear on that side. And then once that starts, everybody begins to join in, and then arrows start to fly, with man-killing points on them.

But again, you might think this is a myth, but when we did get to the Yanomami, well, a wonderful guy called Jarivanau... and they're very proud, and with this sharp grass, they shave the tops of their heads to show where the skull has been fractured, these great canals in the top of the skull where it's been hit. Anyway, we met this extraordinary-looking man, Jarivanau, really because Chimo was determined to do the best for me, not for me, but because his reputation had taken a knock, because he hadn't managed to find this river, the hidden river in the delta.

We'd came... a terrible moment, when we'd come, in fact, in a circle, exactly as everybody says. We had come in a whole circle. My first thought, when we saw this enormous hardwood cleared on the river, I thought, 'Oh God, Hanbury-Tenison's got here first.' And then said, 'You idiot, it's us.' We've come in a circle. So that was about a month. Anyway, but we did get to Neblina, but we didn't get down this river, so Chimo felt bad, so he agreed to take me to see this group of Yanomami that he'd never visited, way, way, way, away up the Siapa and Emoni rivers.

Now the Yanomami are terribly well-known and I know Chagnon quite well, but the point is that they live in these disparate groups and they're in low-level warfare all the time, so this was quite genuinely scary. And a very impressive stockade, it's a defended oval in the middle of the jungle. And Jarivanau has our single-barrel shotgun, but because the virtue that is valued the most highly in Yanomami society is, indeed, fierceness, toughness, extreme masculinity, he fires into the air. So on this peaceful afternoon, this bang and the egrets shatter up. And he runs, gets down on his knees, and pulls a little door open in this hatch, and goes through it. Well, I'm running along behind with this big pack on, so I have to really crawl through and stand up... or at least I don't stand up, I'm still in the squatting position. I look up, and I see these two men have their penis tied around their waist by the foreskin, flat against the stomach. So they're dressed for dinner, you know. I think, 'My God, these are the real people. No nonsense with a loincloth, or...' and then I look up and see these six-foot-long arrows pointing at me. And the tip, I see, the tip, that's exactly right. That is the man-killing tip that Chagnon describes. I remember the diagram.

And then I look up into these guys' eyes, and they're completely impassive, massive muscles. And then, certainly then, I think, 'My God, they're going to kill me.' So your fear arrives, the real fear comes in a little packet out of nowhere. And then an old woman bashed me. She waddled over and slapped me in the cheeks. Then I stood up and she slapped me in the chest. And then I thought, 'I'm going to lose the lot.' Actually, I managed, I got my hands over my genitals before she could really hit those, and then everybody's cracking up with laughter, everything's fine, then.

British author Redmond O’Hanlon writes about his journeys into some of the wildest places in the world. His travels have taken him into the jungles of the Congo and the Amazon, he has faced some of the toughest tribes alive today, and has sailed in the hurricane season on a trawler in the North Atlantic. In all of this, he explores the extremes of human existence with passion, wit and erudition.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Simon Stockton

Duration: 5 minutes, 34 seconds

Date story recorded: July - September 2008

Date story went live: 11 August 2009