Guyana’s Wai Wai: Friends in the Forest

Only discovered by westerners in the 1800s, the Wai Wai of Guyana still live deep in the forest, near the border with Brazil. Anna Nicholas, who joined an expedition headed by the British explorer John Blashford-Snell, reports on what it's like to live with the Wai Wai, and why she's looking forward to returning

  • Anna Nicholas and Chief Paul Kachima with seeds used to make traditional aprons. Photograph courtesy Anna Nicholas
  • Dennis Paul drills the children in their early morning exercises. Photograph by Anna Nicholas
  • Gunn's Village wakes up to a new day. Photograph by Anna Nicholas
  • Col. Blashford Snell with Anna Nicholas and Wai Wai hunter James in dugout on the Essequibo. Photograph by Anna Nicholas
  • Downriver on the Essequibo. Photograph by Anna Nicholas
  • Returning from the hunt with a macaw. Note the tee shirt. Photograph by Anna Nicholas
  • Feathers are neatly collected in a basket. Photograph by Anna Nicholas
  • Making cassava bread over a roaring hot fireside. Photograph by Anna Nicholas
  • Dressed for school well, not all of them ... baby stays home. Photograph by Anna Nicholas
  • Dennis Paul poses with a few of his charges in the classroom. Photograph by Anna Nicholas
  • Is that really a pink dog? Photograph by Anna Nicholas
  • hese Wai Wai children are for more interested in the camera than in their agoutis. Photograph by Anna Nicholas

As we finally broke through the thick cloud, I peered down from the small, shuddering Islander plane at the endless green forest. For two more hours we flew south above dense tropical undergrowth until suddenly a deep cut in the trees revealed a muddy strip and yellow savannah grasses below us. The plane swooped and landed noisily and bumpily on a small rocky track. A sea of curious faces stared shyly at us as we emerged into the brilliant sunshine.

These were to be our hosts: the Wai Wai, one of the most remote of the Amerindian tribes of Guyana.

Living 350 miles south of Georgetown, on the edge of the chocolate-brown Essequibo River, within 30 miles of the Brazilian border, the 190 Wai Wai – the name derives from wewe, meaning “children of the forest” – occupy an area of tropical forest the size of Wales. Their nearest neighbours, the Wapisiana, live three weeks away by canoe. A gentle people, the Wai Wai are traditional hunter-gatherers, who live simply and contentedly, using the natural resources around them and speaking their own language, although many now learn English.

Originally discovered in the 1800s, the Wai Wai, living deep in the forest, were said to be the legendary White Indians, named for the paleness of their skin. They were famous for painting their faces in intricate coloured patterns, and for the beads and feathers they wore. To this day, the Wai Wai still make exquisite craftwork, using coloured feathers, beads, seeds and wood, but have taken to wearing more Western-style clothing.

Fourteen of us had travelled to Guyana, paid-up volunteers from all walks of life, ranging in age from 29 to 64, on an expedition led by the British explorer, Colonel John Blashford- Snell. For two weeks we would be living with the Wai Wai and carrying out a multitude of tasks: teaching in the school, marketing Wai Wai crafts offering medical support, analyzing soil for the possible cultivation of new crops such as rice. We were nine men and six women from completely different backgrounds but we had in common a love of adventure, travel and conservation. Also, fortunately, an enduring sense humor.

“Blashers”, as he is called, had visited the Wai Wai in 1996 with a medical team, at the behest of the Guyanese Government. At that time, the Wai Wai were encountering serious dental problems, exacerbated by their habit of eating sugar cane, introduced to them by missionaries in the 1950s. They were also struggling with malaria, which had been brought by travelers to the area.

The rough track we now took to the Wai Wai village of Gunn’s Strip was the first of many challenges. For two miles we staggered along the boggy meandering path, at times finding ourselves up to our thighs in deep, thick mud or wading up to the waist in cold, black water. Far ahead of us on the track skipped the barefooted Wai Wai villagers, gallantly carrying much of our luggage and grinning good naturally as we skidded and tripped through the sharp bush grass and the mud. An amber sun beamed down on us, and a soft wind whispered across the brittle grasses, whisking up sand and dust into small vortices.

After an hour we arrived at the village. In the sizzling midday sun, under the shady eaves of the straw-roofed mud houses, lay the Wai Wai hunting dogs. Small and bright pink in hue – the result of being daubed with a natural plant dye to rid them of fleas – they eyed us warily but did not stir. A ferocious-looking bush fowl chased me across the mud flat, but wanted no more than to nuzzle against my leg. A bird settled on the shoulder of another team member and warbled cheerfully at him, pecking playfully at his finger. The tame pets of the Wai Wai wander around the village untethered and display an affection for humans that is both touching and alien to western culture.

We made our way to the central meeting area of the village, a large straw-roofed hut called the umana yama. A crowd of playful, raven-haired children ran behind us giggling and smiling. Paul Kachima, Chief of the Wai Wai, greeted us warmly. Speaking in the native language, he explained the reason for our trip to the assembled villagers who listened solemnly and nodded in approval.

We were shown two large timber-framed huts which were to serve as our female and male dormitories. “Blashers” placed a note on the men’s hut which read “Roach Hall”. The true meaning of this became clear to us at nightfall when an invasion of giant cockroaches spread like a heaving brown sea across the floor. Grasping our torches, we tried to scatter these pests with their beams, until we could jump into the relative security of our mosquito net-covered hammocks. By day three, we had discovered tarantulas and bats lurking in the rafters, piranhas in the river and a deadly bushmaster snake in the village; somehow the cockroaches seemed less threatening.

Blashford-Snell organized us into working parties. My time was divided between teaching in the school, doing herbal medicine fieldwork, and working on a sales and marketing strategy for Wai Wai crafts with Vivian Fredericks from the Amerindian Affairs department.

Some years before, I had created and run my own crafts mail order business, and now I tried to apply some of the same basic principles to the Wai Wai. They make the most detailed and intricate basketry from nibbi, a tough grass, and jewellery from tiny seeds, beads, feathers and dried grass. One of the tribesmen showed me a drum which made an unusual vibrating sound. He told me it was for calling jaguars – and, believe me, we’re not talking about the four-wheel variety here. Traditional musical drums, bows, arrows and blowpipes are decorated with baboon hair, jaguar and monkey pelts. Studying my blond curly locks, the Wai Wai craftsmen suggested my hair might make a welcome alternative. After that, I took to wearing hats.

Teaching at the Wai Wai school and chastening experience. Dennis Paul, the dedicated Amerindian headmaster, taught 65 Wai Wai children by himself, in a long, cool hut with only a few blackboards, chalk stubs and exercise books. Despite the lack of facilities and equipment, the children were smartly dressed in blue uniforms, had a good grasp of English, and were learning an impressive range of subjects. I spent time teaching songs and rhymes to the younger children and trying to describe what vehicles looked like to the older ones: most of them had never seen a car or train or even a bicycle. During break time, in the absence of any toys to play with, I led the children to a nearby lemon grove and taught them to juggle lemons. This became a favourite pastime with the teenage boys, who would practice all evening until the lemons were reduced to pulp.

Much of my time was spent with the medical team researching the herbal cures of the forest. Hacking our way with machetes through dense tangled undergrowth, we would make our way along the Essequibo River in search of leaves and bark. Only the older members of the Wai Wai community still practise herbal medicine, so part of our purpose was to persuade the younger Wai Wai not to become too reliant on western medicine. We tried to show them the benefits of the natural resources of their own forests.

Floating past the banks of the wide Essequibo River, beneath dark canopies of trailing vines, the paddles of our canoe dipping into the brown muddy water, we would listen to the ghostly sound of the howler monkeys and the rustling anteaters as we journeyed back downstream to Gunn’s Village.

One subject was particularly close to our hearts and stomachs on this trip: our diet. Before I left London, Blashford-Snell laughingly told me that we would mostly catch our own food; I should expect a diet of piranha, monkey and rodent. I dismissed this as one of Blashers’ famous pranks, but on arrival at Gunn’s Strip, I soon realised that he had been serious. For the two weeks we stayed with the Wai Wai, we ate a diet of cassava, plantain, piranha, and the giant rodent, labba. One of our party, a Liverpudlian named Dave, proved a dab hand at catching piranha, and became the toast of the expedition team.

We went on a three-day hunting trip with a group of Wai Wai warriors, four hours’ journey from the village down the Essequibo. We took hammocks, basic supplies and fuel for the small motor on our dugout canoe. It was another scorching hot day, but the water and the breeze cooled us; we did not glimpse another human being. Occasionally a dancing silver-backed fish would leap into the air and splash back into the water, breaking the silence, or we would hear the rustle of a labba snuffling along the bank.

In the late afternoon, we moored our canoe and made camp. stringing up our hammocks. Within minutes, the Wai Wal women had a fire roaring and were peeling cassava for our supper, plus a haunch of deer that had been caught the previous night. Later, we chatted and drank tea until darkness fell. Blashford-Snell called us together and by the light of a torch showed us rough compass bearings of where the various hunt in parties, led by Wai Wai warriors, would be going.

It was nearly midnight now, and the Essequibo glistened like rich, black treacle. Unnervingly close, the whooping and cackling of the squirrel monkeys seemed to get louder; I felt a cold shiver pass through me. Were there hungry jaguars lurking in the long dark grasses, eyeing us hungrily as we prepared for the hunt?

We were split into groups. I found myself in the canoe party in search of labba and caiman. Five of us clambered into the boat, which bobbed precariously on the deep black water.

There was a chill in the air as we set off silently, the oar barely skimming the surface of the water. Stars like tiny diamond studs littered the sky. Straining to see in the darkness, we leaned over the sides of the boat and saw caiman, their sinister red eyes registering us from along the bank. In a sudden flurry of activity, one of the Wai Wai would let off an arrow and deliver a deadly blow to his victim, hurling himself into the abyss afterwards to drag the corpse to the boat. In a few hours several giant lbba had been felled, enough to provide nutrition for the village for at least a few days. As the dawn broke we set off back to camp, triumphant with our catch.

Our two-week stay felt timeless. Without even realising it, I had begun to adapt to a different way of life. My four o’ clock wakeup call from the cockerels, my morning swims in the muddy Essequibo with the fish darting between my legs, had become a welcome routine. And yet, of course, we had to leave.

Chief Paul Kachima and the villagers prepared a feast for us: piranha, cassava, and turu nut juice, whose legendary powers are said to keep dark hair from greying. We were offered beautiful handmade craft gifts and keepsakes from the Wai Wai we had come to love and respect.

With a heavy heart, I left the village along the same muddy, swampy track for the rough airstrip which would take us back to Georgetown. This time the walk didn’t bother me at all. I threw off my shoes and waded through the mud and water.

The Chief Priest, Elessa, took Blashford-Snell to one side. He explained that since some of us will be returning in October to deliver much needed supplies -I, for one, had agreed to return – he wondered whether we would also bring him a grand piano for the Wai Wai church. Even the great explorer gasped at the thought of carrying a grand piano 350 miles south from Georgetown through wild forest land. But he promised he would try to assist. “You will have no problem,” Elessa said confidently, “for God works in mysterious ways.”

Back in the UK, we did indeed find a sponsor for the grand piano, in Millennium & Copthorne Hotels. BWIA kindly agreed to fly it to Georgetown, and a national English newspaper is assisting with flights to Gunn’s Village.

After we left, Gunn’s Village was badly affected by floods, and the Wai Wai had to relocate temporarily to the mountains. They will return in late September, during the dry season. So by the time we arrive in October, with the piano, piles of books from publisher Dorling Kinderslev, mosquito nets and medical supplies, they will be ready for us.

A grand piano in the forest, and such generous sponsors … But then again, I think of Elessa’s words, God does indeed work in mysterious ways.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.