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Day 12: Wauja Village, Upper Xingu River

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The dance of the Kagapa. All about catching fish.
Michael Palin - BrazilThe only house in the middle of the central plaza is the men's house, where the ceremonial flutes are stored, and where the men gather daily to chat, make jokes and prepare for various ceremonial activities. It has more elaborate decoration than the others, with a web of tree roots sticking out horizontally from each end of the roof beam. These are called the 'earrings' of the house and they are the architectural equivalent of the sharpened wooden pins that the men wear through their ears and whose tips are decorated with feathers.

We sit on one of the long tree trunks laid on the ground to watch a ceremonial dance. This is performed by men, women and some of the children. Everyone has their bodies painted, but the men and boys have flamboyant extras like multi-coloured belts and toucan and macaw feathers attached to leggings and armbands. Their hair is like the Yanomami, covered in the brilliant red paint of the urucum flower. It's cut in identical black fringes and their faces have black line markings. The women, more modestly decorated, wear their long hair down to the waist and have swirling abstract black patterns painted on their legs.

Women are banned from the men's house and are, for instance, forbidden to see the sacred flutes. The men catch the fish that is such an important part of the diet, but it is all taken to the men's house and divided out amongst them before being distributed to the women. In practice this means that women do not always get the food they need to feed their children properly.

It's now the start of the wet season, a difficult time of year for the Wauja. Though manioc is available all year round their fish stock is low. As the rivers swell and rise it is, as Emi puts it, 'like shooting fish in the ocean'. Come the dry season, on the other hand, 'it's like shooting fish in a barrel'.

The dance they perform for us is, suitably, a dance about catching fish. Some of the dancers are wearing leaves and grass skirts as they enact the search for a small bait-fish that hides amongst the leaves. If it can be found it is auspicious because it will lead them to the big fish. This dance of the Kagapa is usually performed in the dry season. I ask Emi if they're laying it on just for us. She nods. 'Sure. For them it's like celebrating Christmas in August.'

It's very hot by now and there's no shade at all in the centre of the village. The Wauja, untroubled, continue to move and sing and dance in their sweeping circular patterns and I can only marvel at their persistence. Emi looks on with some admiration. In some respects things are a lot better for the tribe than when she came here thirty years ago. 'They haven't had a village this big for 100 years.'
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 12: Wauja Village, Upper Xingu River
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Wauja Village, Upper Xingu River
  • Book page no: 63

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