An Awajún funeral, 1977

man-sitting
Man sitting on platform bed, Alto Río Mayo, Peru, 1978. Photo by Michael F. Brown

The following excerpt from Upriver brings together several of the book’s key themes and narrative strategies:  (1) close-in description of an emotionally charged event; (2) my attempt to unpack the complex interweaving of grief, loyalty, rage, and suspicion that characterized many important events; and (3) the difficulty of separating any one of these events from the history that preceded it, including previous deaths that were either overt revenge homicides or illness-related deaths thought to be caused by hidden sorcerers.

One thing worth noting is that the emotional tone of this funeral for an adult contrasted markedly with funerals for infants.  Infant mortality was so common that only the dead child’s parents seemed strongly affected by it.  –MFB


 [Abridged from pp. 146-150 of Upriver.]

Even a hundred yards short of the settlement the sounds of grief were unmistakable: the keening of dozens of women punctuated by shouts and wailing from men. The tumult failed to convey fully the intense anguish visible in and around the dead man’s house. Adults and children milled about outside, some peering inside through gaps in the palm-wood slats. Inside the house, which was divided in half by a partition, fifteen people paced back and forth, the women weeping or screaming, the men talking in loud voices about their sadness and their willingness to avenge the death if it was shown to be the result of sorcery.

The body lay on a sleeping platform in the second room, covered by rags and scraps of blankets. Only the lifeless face was visible, flanked by two burning candles. A copy of the Awajún translation of the New Testament, open to one of the color illustrations, rested on the blankets. Mourning women surrounded the body. One climbed on the platform and kissed Héctor’s face, keening in a high-pitched wail. Men walked in from the adjacent room and shouted, as if to the dead man.  Approaching the door, we saw a sudden scramble as a female mourner tried to run outside. “She wants to kill herself!” someone shouted. A man grabbed the woman by the hair before she could slip away. She kicked, struggled, and screamed frantically. The most stricken women, including the dead man’s widow and sister, were shadowed by male guardians. Once or twice these women made sudden dashes toward the edge of the settlement, but they were dragged back before they could harm themselves. The suicidal behavior was more than ritual drama: family histories included many cases of women who had committed suicide in the throes of extreme grief.

Outside, visitors continued to arrive from other communities. Mishít, alone with Héctor’s body, fanned his face while moaning, “My little brother, my little brother.” Late in the morning there was a flurry of activity around another house in response to a rumor that Héctor’s widow had tried to hang herself there. This proved untrue. A more credible story was that a grieving relative had attacked her for failing to take care of him properly. Others intervened to stop the assault, including a pregnant woman who took a blow to the stomach.

The dead man’s relatives debated how to bury him. In the past, adults were often interred in their houses, which were then abandoned and allowed to collapse on top of the grave. It was said that the corpse of a kakájam, a senior man whose success as a killer identified him as a vision-bearer, was left seated upright on his wooden stool, lashed to a house post. Young vision-seekers who could overcome their fear of the dead and endure the stench of a rotting corpse would spend a watchful night in the house in expectation that the deceased’s vision might pass to them. Resettlement in tightly clustered villages made such customs impractical.  In the absence of other options, Úwek, the dead man’s uncle, recruited some youths to help him carve a rough coffin from a trunk of balsa wood. Where it would finally rest was a matter to be resolved later.

Within a day, information about Héctor’s medical history trickled into Alto Naranjillo. Some stories described the death as a sudden, catastrophic affair. A more informed version came from a bilingual paramedic, the only indigenous health care worker in the region. She had treated Héctor for chronic dysentery for months. He recovered from a previous acute episode but was showing signs of malnutrition. When the second attack came, she sent an emergency request to the Rioja hospital for medicine to control Héctor’s vomiting. What arrived instead was two ampules of a pharmaceutical used to treat rheumatism.

Héctor’s death was tailor-made for accusations of sorcery, but his status as an innocent victim was complicated by the recent murder of the accused teenage sorcerer from the Río Potro. Héctor, too, had been named as an accomplice to the alleged sorcerer, which made him a target. He managed to elude a posse of would-be killers after being tipped off by relatives that an assassination plot was afoot. When the other accused sorcery culprit was murdered a day or two later, interest in killing Héctor seemed to have waned . . . .

The convoluted stories associated with Héctor’s final months defied efforts to make sense of his death. Was he killed by a sorcerer from the Río Potro region, perhaps to avenge the death of the young man who had been murdered earlier that year? Or was the sorcery a local matter engineered by one of the men involved in the failed attempt to assassinate him? There were wheels within wheels of grief, mistrust, divided loyalties, and simmering grudges. They overwhelmed people’s capacity to assign blame or settle on a compelling explanation. In the end, perhaps the maze of conflicting narratives was more consoling than a banal fact: that the immediate cause of Héctor’s death was a pharmacist’s clerical error.

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