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My First Yanomami Makeover

The Yanomami word for hair is “koi." Many years ago, I was conversing with a Yanomami in Puerto Ayacucho and he said that I should be called “koi koima” which could roughly be translated as "hairy one." I'm not exactly sure how flattering that was but I often wear a full beard and mustache and, if I don't trim it at least every other day, it can get quite bushy.

For a Yanomami to have a lot of facial hair was quite a phenomenon. As you can tell from the picture below, this girl was was rubbing my beard for like a good ten minutes. I guess it was very strange for them to see a Yanomami with this kind of hairiness.

My little nephew, Felipe, found it so much fun to grab my head and rub his cheek against the side of mine to feel the scratch of the beard. Every single time he would jump back astonished and amused.

My inventory of field supplies always included scissors and clippers because I didn't like my hair growing too long in the jungle. It was just too uncomfortable and hot to have so much hair. Also, when I showed up in the village the young men and the boys eagerly approached me and asked me to cut their hair. They'd ask for either a trim or a whole buzz. It's become a tradition now for us to gather and have a little haircut party. Whether it was a bad case of head lice or they just wanted to want a little bit of a break from the sweltering heat of the jungle, a haircut could be quite relieving in the Amazon.

The women have never asked me to cut their hair but they do request that I cut their toddler son's hair (never the daughter). Also, I've never seen a man cut another woman's hair. I can't definitively say that this is a concrete fact of Yanomami culture. It's just something I've observed and would require further anthropological inquiry.

Traditionally, the Yanomami don the the pudding pudding-bowl haircut. In the past, and perhaps still in very remote villages, they used a piece of wood or reed called "sunuma." It has very sharp edges. Sharp enough to cut their hair or even shave parts of their head. One particular style is to shave out a tonsure, usually at the top of the head. Sometimes, we'd nickname this a "shabono" because the hairline of the tonsure resembles the roof and the walls of the shabono and the shaved part in the middle resembles the communal clearing.

Men and women both have it but some men will proudly display the exposed cuts or scars that they've incurred from previous club duels. So it's kind of like a badge of valor to show how tough and fearless they were or as the Yanomami would say, "wai-theri." Many in the remote villages still wear tonsures but as you travel downriver closer to the missions, the medical outposts, the schools, aka "the outside world" you tend to see the Yanomami youth adopting the the criollo hairstyle. It would be interesting to see the evolution of the Yanomami hairstyle over the next decades.

In 2011, mom asked to cut my hair! I was very hesitant and ultimately I denied her request. I was I was not too keen on the bowl cut. I've worn it for a big part of my life.

Picture of me and mom (and my bowl cut)

I didn't ever want another bowl cut ever again and I was afraid that she was going to shave out a tonsure. Ultimately, I felt guilty and realized that this would have meant a lot to mom. So, on the subsequent visit, in 2013, I handed mom a pair of scissors and pointed to my head. She understood and smiled with wide eyes.

I'll never forget this day. It was an emotional experience for the both of us. Mom had missed out hundreds of my haircuts growing up. We were both over filled with joy to be sharing such a special bonding activity. I didn't care what I looked like afterwards just as long as it made mom happy.

Then, my brother stepped in and put on some finishing touches with my electric clippers. I was quite impressed with his work! He must have gained some experienced down river among the "nabuh" the non-Yanomami during his travels. He did a pretty good job.

My brother using my hair clippers to finalize my haricut

The morning after mom smeared some red "nana" paint which is a paste derived from the annatto seeds.

So there you have it! My very first Yanomami makeover. After it was all set and done, I noticed mom had started to tear up and looked upon me like a mom sending her son out to prom. She made me feel a little bashful. My hear had bubbled with so much pride and happiness. It truly meant so much to her - to share that kind of mother and son activity together.

I look forward to the next trip and the next Yanomami haircut.

Thanks for reading!


Signed copy of The Way Around -

Fundraiser for the Good Project -

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