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The Waorani, Ecuador.

The Waorani, Ecuador.

How five whatsapp messages led me on an incredible adventure

I had been researching groups in the Amazon, Eastern Ecuador for some time and came across the Waorani. There are a lot of stories about this groups of Indigenous people, the hardships they are facing and their constant battles with the oil companies over land. I’m trying to research anyone that can put me touch but have no luck. This is going to have to happen on the ground.

The breakthrough comes when wandering around Otavalo market. I find some Waorani products! Only after making a couple of purchases was I given a phone number to someone who could help us find direct access with the community. This leads me on a round robin one person to the next until I get through to Patricia. She is heading up a cooperative and is Waorani herself, she lives in the Jungle community. Literally, five messages between us and we have set a meeting in a weeks time. The only advice was to bring a tent some water and food. We were going deep into the jungle for three days. I know nothing else.

Going this far into the jungle, with my far from perfect Spanish I send out a message and recruit two volunteers, the wonderful husband and wife Alvaro and Lara. We meet and they ask for a rundown of the itinerary, this takes a total of two seconds, but they are keen. They love what TMAC is about and we head off to buy a tent and some supplies. Stocking up on extra sweets and pens and paper for the children sure to be there. *Note, this is always a good idea when heading out to remote communities!

The day arrives and we take a four hour bus from Quito to Puyo the last town before you get into the jungle, here we grab a hostel for the night and plan to meet Patricia at seven in the morning to start into the jungle.

7am arrives and we travel over to the meeting spot but no Patricia. We call and find out there has been a slight problem... Recently Patricia has been trying to get all the Waorani together to form an official government approved association. However, while trying to obtain the paperwork another woman has put herself forward to lead the group. This has sent everything into chaos with no one really knowing what's going on, other than a lot of meetings and many women traveling from the jungle to Puyo to attend said meetings. We’re told all will be resolved at a meeting at midday, following that we could head into the communities.

All was not resolved following the meeting, however Patricia, who had to stay behind in Puyo arranged a young guide Marie to show us the way into the jungle and be our in. With no agenda and just some food and water we jump into a pickup truck and head on our way leaving the last city behind us.

It’s a four and a half hour journey starting on roads which quickly turn into loose stone paths. We pass an oil extraction area. We are told how the oil companies arrived and started building roads and some infrastructure in exchange for land to extract the oil.
We travel deeper into the jungle until we arrive at a small building, the family is away and we have the use of their home for the night. With night descending we walk 15 minutes to get water from a small river to boil in the morning, it gets darker and the jungle around us comes to life. Inside the hut, which has no glass in the windows we pitch the tents to keep the bugs at bay and fall asleep on a hard wooden floor.

Awakened by the sun we head to the kitchen to make some breakfast, it’s a simple kitchen but they do have gas cylinders so we make coffee and some eggs. We are greeted by a tarantula the size of an A5 sheet of paper, keeps things interesting.


At 8am Awagimi arrives, a cousin of Patricia ready to take us out for the day and give us a taste of daily life in the jungle. Most importantly, he’ll take us to meet some of the artisans. We hike for 45 minutes and arrive at a neighbors house. The family are about to go farming for Yuca and we join to help. Hiking down a tiny path using a machete to clear the way it seems there is no real route and we guide our way just by feel. When farming we think of large areas of well kept land but when we stop its just a patch of the forest, the body of the plant is pulled out after a few tugs and the yuca comes free. It's our job now to clean the Yucca ready to take home. After an hour and a half we have a sack full of clean Yuca, Awagimi lifts the 50kg sack on his shoulder like its nothing and we head back to the house in the blistering heat and are welcomed with a serving of chicha made from the freshly harvested yuca. The bowl of thick and strong tasting drink is passed person to person as a thank you. We are all shattered after just a couple of hours work. This is a hard, hard way of life.

To cool down we head for a jungle shower which consists of a swim in the river. The children follow playing games together, we all splash around. It’s only later we find ou this is the same river they catch Piranha from just upstream.

It’s now time to visit the artisans and possibly one of the most interesting Artisans I have ever met. Onkaye welcomes us into a small opening with some finished products in hand, our first taste of true Waorani work-womanship. Onkaye begins by telling us some stories. She has no idea how old she is, where she is from there is no need to keep count! Onkaye grew up around 20 days journey straight into the jungle. By guestimate, she thinks she is in her late 80’s. For the first 40 years of her life there had been no contact with the outside world. Now imagine being 40 years old and having no idea the rest of the world exists, trains, planes, phones this really has a big effect on me. Since first contact, she became a nomad moving village to village before settling here.

She moves on showing us how they make pottery. As there is no pottery wheel, it’s all made by hand. Moulding the required shapes and smoothing out with fingers. Originally all these pieces were made for functional use, however she has started creating more decorative designs to be sold.

Onkaye tells us normally the women will work for four hours in the morning. They would then traditionally paint themselves, sing to be thankful for what they have made and cleanse their hands for cooking.

After lunch, they return to making products. Next, we are shown the placemat and bag weaving. Firstly showing how the string is bonded and put together by rubbing it on your thigh. Pulling at the thread it is incredibly strong and clearly durable. Depending on the design of the bag the different colours will be bonded together and weaved using a small wooden frame. Row by row the bag forms as she sings. Each bag can take between two days to three weeks to make depending on size and design.

The mats and bowls are sewn together with the coloured string being pulled tight around a thin piece of wood. Working in a spiral motion outwards creating the desired effect and design. Onkaye takes great pride in every stitch and really does have a love of making products.

Mainly she sells in the local market that’s on once a week and an hours drive away. Onkaye between 3-5 dollars per bag which are then sold on at other markets mainly to tourists. We buy a selection of Onkaye’s products which are perfect for our grail collection.

Saying goodbye as the sun starts to go down I am left simply in awe of how Onkaye has lived and what she has been through.

Walking back to our base we find the family we are staying with has returned and are going for a walk. They welcome us to the community and will return shortly. On route we stop and roast some marshmallows with  Awagimi and his family. A first for the family, I've never seen children so happy, me included!

We go to make coffee and can smell something cooking. We enter the kitchen and find two piles of meat like we have never seen before. Awagimi comes in and tells us Mono, Mono. Which means monkey, while they were away they have managed to blow dart two monkeys which are now slow roasting over the fire. That's a new one for me!

The family return and tell us stories of how the oil companies have been fighting their way into the area slowly winning legal battles along the way against the Waorani. In return, they are building roads and other infrastructure in the area, making it easier for the Waorani to move around between villages. It’s another story of companies funding projects and leaving them to it. They have funded many water collection points and provided thousand litre water collectors but no help on how to use them, so water is still collected from the rivers and streams. So many large corporations make the first steps towards doing good, but it is essential that there work is followed up so the communities can continue to benefit. We hand out some pens and paper to the children and they create a masterpiece.  

It’s getting easier to fall asleep with the jungle noise all around and after a day like today we fall asleep fast and very deeply.

The next day is a river adventure. The water is very low and so we spend a lot of time getting out and pulling the boat over shallow sections which does give respite from the incredible heat. Someone calls out from the shore and we are invited over. They have just caught a 10ft python which they have killed and are preparing the meat and skin. Wow, this really is everyday life, with a warm welcome we are invited in and they share Chica with us and tell stories of the larger community that was here but collapsed through arguments into many smaller communities leaving many single family units cut off the world only accessible by boat.

We are given a tour of the farm they have put together but after seeing the size of the snakeskin I'm treading carefully and staying close to the leader and the huge machete. It’s corn they are mostly working with pulling in 100’s of kilograms a year. Finally we see a new area they are clearing all by hand one tree at a time. It takes years of preparation just to get to the stage ready to sow the fields.

We travel as far the boat allows and the small trickle of the river disappears off into Jungle nothingness stretching to the far side of Brazil! This really is the most detached communities I have ever been to see. The day to day of life here is incredibly hard but the communities are so joyful making use of everything in the environment.

Farming for both corn and to a much greater extent here Cacao is bringing money to the communities, with the amount the women can earn from making the products many are stopping and turning to farming. This is TMAC really feels we can make a difference. Creating a fair wage for the women will allow traditions to continue and allow the women to continue doing what they really love.

I returned back to Puyo excited about this latest group we were beginning to work with. The potential for a life-changing impact on these communities simply by creating opportunities for them to sell their eco-friendly products, is quite frankly phenomenal.