The Baltic Review caught up with David Good, son of an American father and a tribeswoman living in a remote part of the Venezuelan Amazon. In 2011, after nineteen years of separation, Good returned to the rainforest to reunite with his mother and the rest of his Yanomami family. The Yanomami live in 200-250 villages in an area of 96,500 square kilometres of jungle, sprawling across the Venezuela-Brazil border. They are a diverse group; varying from relatively “Westernized communities” to entire villages which have no regular, direct contact with the outside world.
– You recently came back from the Venezuelan Amazon, how different was this last trip compared to your previous ones?
On this trip, at least I was familiar with the journey and the kind of expedition I would have to undertake to reach my village and family. I remember on the last trip I felt anxious, nervous, uncertain, and a bit uneasy venturing into the unknown. However, on this trip, I felt confident, overjoyed knowing that I am returning back to my indigenous home.
On my previous trip, all I had focused on was reuniting with my mother; no matter what obstacle would come my way. I had experienced so much culture shock throughout my whole stay I couldn’t even process it all until I had returned back to my home in the States. On this trip, I had a little bit different attitude. I knew what to expect as I was returning home. My goals were to learn how to become a little more Yanomami. I had learned more of the language, went fishing, crabbing, collected firewood, practiced the bow and arrow, trekked through the forest, worked the garden and so on. I was embracing the Yanomami culture, my heritage and identity. All the while, I bonded deeply with my brother and mother.
– The Yanomami are considered one of the most isolated of the Amazonian tribes. Are things changing?
I’d like to start by saying that the Yanomami of today, are dynamic rapidly changing people. There is a spectrum of the level of acculturation. For example, there are now “urban yanomami” who have migrated to Puerto Ayacucho to attempt the city life. Many villages are now living on the river engaging with Venezuelan politics, speak Spanish, are going through education programs, live in enclosed huts and have their own boats and motors. Then you have my village. They live way upriver, past the Guajaribo rapids, where visitors are not too common. They still live in traditional “shabonos” (large oval or round dwellings made out of wood), hunt with bow and arrow, cultivate plantains, and live that semi-nomadic lifestyle as their ancestors did. Then, there are villages deep in the jungle that may never have been contacted or may have not seen an outsider in decades. What I’m trying to say is that it is now impossible and incorrect to generalize and homogenize a group of people that have changed so much in the last half-century.
Many ask me what I think of all this change. This question requires a whole essay to answer. But I can simply say that it is apparent and evident that they are indeed changing and it is their right as people to decide their destiny. However, I’m afraid that the Yanomami are innocently ignorant of the implications of the change – whatever that may be. Many are simply not ready for certain political agendas. And I’m sure you have heard in the news, Venezuela as a nation is crumbling and unstable [for weeks, protesters have taken to the streets in Venezuela, opposing Nicholas Maduro, who succeeded the authoritarian Hugo Chavez as president]. I’m afraid that the Yanomami can be easy victims for exploitation, abuse, and manipulation.
– What do you appreciate the most about the Yanomami culture?
So what I appreciated the most about my stay in the village is experiencing that genuine human to human interaction. There is no “fakeness”. I appreciate how so closely intertwined they are with the ecosystem that surrounds them. As a result, they don’t experience loneliness, anxiety, post traumatic stress syndrome, or depression. As my father explains it, “they are living the essence of what it is to be a human being.” They live a life based on reciprocity. Everybody shares everything from food, to workload, to daily tasks, and company. Not once did I ever feel estranged even though I’ve basically crossed through a time portal to a world that I hardly know. I was born and raised here in America. I was no more prepared for this lifestyle than the kid that works at Burger King up the road. But I enjoyed every bit of it. Mobility is the key. Laziness does not last long with the Yanomami. Life is simple, but very hard in the jungle. You must work tirelessly to eat, drink, keep warm – survive. And we do it harmoniously as a commune. There are no walls, fences, borders, that separate us as a family. You wake up in the morning and you see everyone; your brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and so forth. Family is such strong fabric of their society. Sometimes, I wonder where I really belong. As I attempt to live in two worlds…
– How is your relationship with your mother?
It is great! When I first reunited with her I didn’t know what to expect. Would she care about me? Would she love me? But it is clear now that we have a wonderful mother-son bond. We hadn’t seen each other in 20 years! Right now, I can’t speak Yanomami and she doesn’t speak English. My American culture is still an enigma to her and I’m stumbling but learning the Yanomami way of life. Though we are of different worlds it is clear that no cultural barrier could ever dissolve the bond between a mother and her son. She has treated me wonderfully and is slowly teaching me the Yanomami way of life. And we sure do share a lot of laughs together. The only upsetting part is the heartache that comes with having to eventually leave. This is another burden of being in two worlds. It’s so sad to see her cry when I leave and not knowing whenever I’ll be able to come back. And it’s sad for me part wondering if she’ll be there the next time I come down. There is no way I can communicate with her while I’m here in the States. I just wish she could somehow know that I am constantly thinking about her and working hard to raise enough funds to return to my village.
– You established The Good Project after reuniting with your mother and the rest of your Yanomami family. What are the main objectives of the project?
It became clear to me that there is a purpose, a reason for being educated in the Western world. Now I am old enough, wise enough, and strong enough to embrace and learn the Yanomami lifestyle. A catholic nun told me this, “You have accomplished something in one day that takes an outsider a year to do. And that’s gain their trust.” That meant a lot to me. Especially in dealing with healthcare issues. Based on my experience, most of the Yanomami I’ve spoken to don’t trust doctors and their biomedicine. I, of course, believe that only certain medicine can really save someone from malaria or the measles. So can I serve as link, a bridge, a mediator? I don’t know right. I hope so. I will work to do just that – which means there is responsibility. Many Yanomami see me as connection to the outside world. But I’m not a connection that is a missionary, or an anthropologist, or a merchant or a politician. I am simply family. I am of Yanomami blood who has grown up in the Nabuh (Westerner/anyone from outside Yanomami culture) world. I’m a brother and a son who cares for these people. I can serve as a trustworthy bridge between these two worlds. And this is the vision of The Good Project. We want to develop projects, relationships, and programs but coming from the perspective and understanding of the people.
We are a two way bridge. We aim to develop fair trade or fair bartering relationships with the Yanomami. I have traded things they depend on like pots, machetes, and other steel goods, for their artifacts like bows and arrows, quivers, baskets. Then I can use these as perks for donors to raise enough money to continue the cycle. This allows the Yanomami to obtain goods without becoming dependent on government subsidies. This will hopefully encourage the youth to not forget the skills of their forefathers and foremothers. I have spoken to many Yanomami about this and they seem eager and happy to engage in this kind of relationship.
We also work with another tribe called the Cabecar who are an indigenous group that resides in the Talamanca Mountains of Costa Rica. I have developed a service-learning program by taking students with me to visit them. We provide donations such as clothes, shoes, soap; things that can be a little tough for them to obtain. Meanwhile, the students get to engage with a culture so drastically different than theirs. This isn’t like going with a tourist group to Paris or Madrid. We’re talking about trekking into some of the most remote parts of Costa Rica and experiencing a genuine cross cultural education and exposure. We work with a non-profit called Voz Que Clama who has introduced me to this tribe. They are a wonderful group that has the best interest of the tribe in their hearts.
We want a team that really knows the people we work with. We will learn the language, learn the culture, develop friendships and open dialogues. We will use cultural relativism to tackle issues and problems that these groups are facing with today. It can be as abstract as dealing with social identity to something as basic as providing medicine or clothes. I don’t want the Yanomami or the Cabecar to see us agents of change or charities. We are not Red Cross. We are not here to “come at you” with our aid. We are here to learn how to become you so that we can collaborate on the same playing field.
We are at our incipience of the project. We will evolve and grow as our understanding of the people we work with evolves and grows. We are a social entrepreneurship. We don’t have the answers to our own questions. But through networking and togetherness we can get in touch with people that can collaborate in our cause.
– You have just become a fist-time dad. Which values of Yanomami culture would you like your daughter to assimilate?
Yes, I’m a proud father of my baby Naomi. Someday she will come to learn about her Yanomami heritage. She’s 6 weeks old but I can tell she will be very active. I suppose the time will come to get her jungle ready! Yanomami children learn through imitation. There is no instructions. Never does a father say, “Come son, let me teach you this.” The Yanomami have almost no inhibition, at least as far as I’ve observed. I want her to really take life by the horns with confidence and no inhibition. I want her to learn the ways of the Yanomami for I believe it will make her a better person; a person who understands a broader scope of humanity. The Yanomami survive, out of necessity, by working hard day in and day out. And they are happy without all the modern technologies that supposedly make our lives “easier”. Like I said before, my family shares everything and are not stingy people. I want Naomi to truly understand that happiness among others does not lie in how big your bank accounts are or how many material possessions you own. It surely isn’t what makes the Yanomami happy. Family is first and foremost, no matter what the circumstances are.