Delta Amacuro News and Views (4)

The Waraos: integration, acculturation, domination or extinction?

The original inhabitants of the Delta Amacuro are the Waraos (also spelled Güaraos) and they are perhaps the largest Venezuela tribe still living relatively close to their original lifestyle (1). Or do they? On one side they are very penetrated by modern trinkets and goodies (the amount of piraguas with motors tells you the story as soon as you sail off Boca de Uracoa) but on the other hand the uncompromising nature of the delta forces them to compromise as much with nature as they have been doing for millennia. No matter how the XXI century intrudes in their lives, at almost each turn you can be reminded of past ways, still very much present and sometimes very much actual, such as this late afternoon family outing.

In a way there was something oddly disturbing about inquiring about the Warao's lives: their villages follow the edge of the water, their huts lack walls and thus intimacy seems an unknown concept. Straight from the boat you travel in, you can scrutinize the whole village and its life within the cabins built on stilts, palafitos . Settlements range from the single palafito claim to perhaps a row of a few dozens platforms. But they are always along the water. It does make sense: there is probably better ventilation, the jungle behind is mostly on mud flats and with more mosquitoes than the river edge. Thus it is easy to have a direct peak into a Warao village, such as this much less idyllic image, yet quite telling.

Here you can see the old style open air living, now cluttered with civilization's offerings: motored piraguas, electronic devices and Direct TV. That is right, I was surprised at how many Direct TV dishes I saw in some villages whose electricity is provided by a small generator, probably not running all day long. I suppose that it is a great opportunity for any anthropologist to visit in a hurry the Delta remote villages to study how Direct TV and its profusion of media choices affect the world vision of the Waraos. As for the rest, as it has always been the case, any belonging that can be hung from the roof beams is still hung high, giving an oppressively cluttered feel in spite of the lack of walls. From my water roach scare, I can understand why concepts such as shelves are of little use.

Fishing seems to be still the main source of living, and judging for the amount of motor boats and the very nice and huge nets that on occasion one can see, tended with great care by the natives, it must bring a relatively significant income. I would guess that due to the climate, the lack of refrigeration and the limited really cultivable land, regular fish has to be the main source of fresh protein.

This picture also offers us a glimpse of a major problem of the area: the lack of real good fresh water as we can observe from the large blue plastic buckets seen everywhere. The river water in the Delta is indeed of poor quality, and too salty as you near the coasts where the powerful tides run deep inland.

That picture also allows us to see somewhat the organization of these modern day villages. You can see in the background the electric networks of the village, that follows the river, as does the boardwalk that serves as main street. Yet you can also see what is lacking as far as public services: for example obvious sewers (there might be a sewer system but I could not see it). Outhouses are appearing, relatively rare but you can see them such as the left scene of a family getting the bounty from some scouring party. And this stress again the problem of water and hygiene in such a watery zone: all falls directly in the river, giving a new meaning to "the river giveth and the river taketh". We also must note that this palafito has rustic walls in addition of an out house, indicating that some families are becoming more aware of privacy issues.

These pictures come from the villages of La Isla and Winamorena, the two most "advanced" we saw. La Isla was advanced enough to have a modern play ground, on stilts of course. And it comes, as everywhere, with a political poster to laud the great works of the government. I wonder by the way if the profusion of Direct TV, which transmits Globovision and RCTV, is something that chavismo can be thankful of. Still, we could see everywhere that state money was spent on these villages at the edge of the world. But is it well spent?

I had several talks with my local guide as I tried to gain his trust. Eventually I learned a few interesting tidbits. Many projects have been offered and many financed. Yet many were not completed or completed well under initial expectations. In fact apparently the natives feel robbed as part of the funds is simply spirited away by the "criollos". Yes, that is how the local refer to the emissaries of main land, the public officials. Just as the "criollos" refereed to the emissary from Spain as "continentales" or "españoles y canarios". Amusing, no? Whatever it is, clearly there is separation between the Waraos and the mainlanders, be they tourists like me, or "criollos" public servants. I certainly will not be one to reproach that to them: we bought them enough grief! And I am afraid that in spite Direct TV and fast boats, grief is still coming. After all, the "criollos" do have their own compounds where they reside in these villages: compounds with walls as privacy does matter for them. They looked odd and even threatening in a way as no real effort to integrate is seen, except for the need to build on stilts!

And what about the people? Well, those I saw on these villages were nice looking and looked healthy enough. They were also welcoming and definitely not camera shy, enjoying, I would dare to say, waving to tourists as they take their pictures. And that I saw everywhere, from the villages we sailed by to the the curiaras we crossed in little creeks. Perhaps the omnipresence of the river, the ever possibility to get lost or stranded somewhere makes you want to befriend all as you never know when and from whom you will need help.

There is also of course the wish to score something with potential tourists willing to purchase the very nice goods made by these people. On the left there is even a floating store that paddled close to us as we were waiting for the sunset on the Manamo. A mother with some girls, ravishing by the way. And they were paddling paddling this weakest of curiararas, breaking up at the tip and held with a rope. I assume and hope that these girls knew how to swim...

Children seemed everywhere happy. I am certain that they do suffer some hardship but I never saw any child that was clearly malnourished, or scared, afraid of us. Any nudity, with young boys, was a matter of climate and boys playing in dirt rather than the inability to clothe them with some old rag. By the way, note in the background of these three children a small red poster: politics at home!.

But the river is obviously a great playground which probably makes the lives of these kids much happier than in many a place in Venezuela. And for all its turbidity, there is so much water everywhere, and it moves so much courtesy of the tides, that it might not be that bad after all (heck, I even went for a swim one day at noon). In fact, the water in spite of all the rejects going into it, might be a positive health factor after all as children are never that dirty since they can "wash" regularly....

At La Culebrita, a third village and a less developed one we managed to go ashore and see from close how a Warao village looked like. It was truly something, learning more than what we had bargained for.

In the above picture you have main street (and only street) at La Culebrita (Little Snake), a broad walk wide enough for two people to cross, with the usual assortment of stray dogs and chickens seen in any small village of Venezuela. That they are on stilts is only a detail. As usual all is open air and as you walk along you have a direct peak into the people habitat. And even though we are more inland here, water remains a problem as all the plastic blue typical reservoirs of Venezuela can be seen.

One interesting detail is the kitchen, something difficult to appreciate from a cruising boat. Since there is no solid ground where to set the fire, the traditional ways of the Waraos was to dry some mud and put it on a wood frame. This way it was far from the ground and could become a serviceable area for cooking, as you can see on the picture on the right above.

There were also some common areas to be seen. I suppose that what is next on the right side was the pub equivalent. Of all the thatched homes we saw in this village only two were not occupied on a permanent fashion: the one where we landed that served as a market of sorts (where the natives quickly came to display they wares in the hope we would buy something) and this space, littered with beer cans from a previous event. There was also a small "room" on the right side with a petrol stove which apparently served to fry appetizers of sorts for that particular bash.

This of course raises two questions: alcoholism? and hygiene/garbage disposal? It is clear from what I saw that alcohol, at least in the form of abundant Polar Light, has made his entry in the Delta, and that is not recent. In fact, recent social programs can only have increased access to booze for the locals. When we sailed in front of the villages we wondered about the lack of men. That is, what we most saw where women and children and the very few men we saw where clearly divided in two groups: drunks and fishermen tending their nets. We can assume that most men were indeed fishing or scouring the Delta riches, but some where drunk on a Monday at 2 PM. You can draw your own conclusions.

As for garbage and hygiene. Let 's say that 50 years ago this was not a problem. 95 % of the goods that the Waraos might have handled back then where "bio degradable", that is, made from what they found in nature and discarded in nature as needed. Besides there was not that much to discard anyway: fish bones, broken woven baskets, used moriche fiber hammocks and the like. The amount of water passing under their "palafitos" made instant dilution of whatever they tossed out. Thus it is very likely that Waraos never developed a culture of "garbage" and its handling. Even a culture of hygiene probably was not necessary as the only relief from heat and mosquitoes was a frequent dip into the river, then certainly much cleaner than it is today where it still feels safe enough for yours truly to take a swim (2).

Clearly there is a lack of education, a much needed thing in this XXI century. And how is education goign on in Warao lands? At La Culebrita I was lucky enough to visit the school and even talk to the teachers.

These two pictures are taken from roughly the main point, one turned toward the brand new school of La Culebrita and the other toward the traditional village itself. With of course the tacky usual pro Chavez advertisement which includes the local potentate who would never dare to take for himself any of the achievement of the revolution: all comes from the beloved leader, never forget!!!!

There is already one problem here: the school, which comes even with its flag hosting mast, is not in tune with local architecture, except for its construction on stilts. You can see for yourself that the isolating thatched palm roof has been replaced by something that can only be warner in this climate, no matter how many covers of asphalt it has. True, thatched palms can harbor dangeorus bugs, but with a good ventilation it is not really a problem. After all these kids will return to their homes after school, no? Observe also that the compound is walled. If indeed distraction is to be avoided, I cannot help but think that the Warao kids, raised semi wildly, will have a hard time to learn to be walled in at school. I could have understood a half wall for example, so that when kids sit down they are not distracted anymore by river activity, but a full wall, no matter how nicely varnished it is?

At any rate, the compound contains three class rooms as education is imparted by three teachers at three levels. After, the children must migrate to a bigger school elsewhere. The class rooms are also amazingly simple: all children sit directly on the floor (then again they do not have chairs in their homes). Since we were late in the afternoon, the kids had long left for home, so we could visit at ease and talk some with the teachers, who considering me just another anglo tourist had no problem talking to me as I restrained from probing too much. The compound includes the teachers room and living quarters (three women by the way), a kitchen area (a real one) and two external bathroom who apparently go to some septic tank rather than the river. I understood that the bathroom are also shared by the kids when at school. The day was overcast so it was not any warmer inside than outside, and yet the teachers were sitting outside, on the covered board walk that leads to the bathroom, and which is open on all sides. Clearly, they are used to prepare their classes there instead of the inside teachers room....

But the shock came when we saw the picture above. One of my companion, who had clearly seen that there was no criollo kid living there noted that all the names of the kids attending this classroom were Spanish, NOT Warao!!!! Heck, there was even a kid with Cooper as last name (click to enlarge, as you can do on any picture). That really picked up my curiosity and I went back to the teachers inquiring as to why the names were all in Spanish. Clearly the women did not know what I was talking about at first. As I pressed on eventually the one that seemed to be the leader of the group told me that the Waraos have no name the way we understand it and thus they were all content to have Spanish names given to them. Besides they all needed to have a Venezuelan ID, something that supposedly they did not have access to before. She stopped short from some revolutionary hash because I was too astounded to pursue the conversation, amazed that the woman was not seeing the contradictions in her own speech. Besides, it must be rather hard to work in such conditions and I could not find in me the energy to pursue the discussion and discourage her form her work.

That there was in another classroom the national anthem of Venezuela translated in Warao means nothing. In spite of the 1999 constitution which is supposed to guarantee the rights of indigenous people, rights that include the obligation of the state to give them the means to preserve their culture, what we see is the same assimilation of the pre Chavez era going on. True, now they sing the national anthem in Warao every morning, but at school they do not even keep a Warao nickname! Thus, the teachers, for all their merits and good intentions, are only just one of the tools that the chavista administration has to recruit new supporters that will be told who to vote for. Even the official school calendar posted next to the roll call of the students carries the clear political messages: the highlighted dates include chavismo dates of February 4, April 11 and 13.

The blackmail seems very powerful along the Manamo.... the "criollos" are still in charge, still telling the natives what to do and what to think. And to mark the point, as tourism is not seriously developed, Waraos all become more dependent than ever from the state. A reservation in all but name, socialism and human rights included as a perversion.

PD: There is an excellent book on the Waraos, which I unfortunately found out a few days after my return; and not even myself, a friend pointed it out to me. I got it at once because it is also a rare book of which the first 2005 edition carried only 500 copies. Unbelievable! If you are interested, it is a fabulous coffee table book, a loving tribute to these people. The reference:

Hacedores de Pais
Sudán A. Macció
ISBN: 980-6816-01-03

It carries texts in Spanish, Warao and English. They prefer the term Guarao, but Warao is more traditional and I stuck to it through these posts.

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1) The Waraos are thought to be Arawak, the main indigenous group in Venezuela until the aggressive Carib invaded and pushed them into less welcoming regions such as the Delta.

2) The Orinoco as a huge volume of water and settled area are hundred of miles upstream, giving plenty of time for the river bacteria to process most of the waste carried. The development of the main source of river pollution has occurred in the last half century with the boom town of Puerto Ordaz, and much smaller Tucupita. Puerto Ordaz waste goes mostly to the main Orinoco mouth, while the Manamo receives Tucupita open sewers.

-The end-