The Miskitu People of Awastara

[ Anthropology ]

The Miskitu People of Awastara

By Philip A. Dennis

Utilizing ideas from recent interpretive anthropology and a vivid writing style, Dennis describes food habits, language, health practices, religious beliefs, and storytelling, inviting the reader to experience life in Awastara along with him.

2004

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 320 pp. | 21 illustrations, 3 maps, 2 charts, 1 tables

ISBN: 978-0-292-70281-3

"Most anthropologists who have lived among other people . . . feel a periodic need to go back," writes Philip A. Dennis in the introduction to this book. "Fieldwork gives you a stake in the people themselves, a set of relationships that last the rest of your life . . . and when the time is right, it is important to go back."

Dennis first journeyed to Awastara, a village on the northeastern coast of Nicaragua, during 1978-1979 as a postdoctoral student. He had come to study a culture-bound syndrome in which young women are possessed by devils. In the process, he became fascinated by other aspects of Miskitu culture—turtle fishing, Miskitu Christianity, community development efforts—the whole pattern of Miskitu community life. He also formed deep friendships to carry into the future.

Twenty years later he was able to return and continue his ethnographic work. Utilizing ideas from recent interpretive anthropology and a vivid writing style, Dennis describes food habits, language, health practices, religious beliefs, and storytelling, inviting the reader to experience life in Awastara along with him. Building upon earlier work by Mary Helms, Bernard Nietschmann, Edmund Gordon, and Charles Hale, The Miskitu People of Awastara makes its own original contribution. It is the first full-length study of a coastal Miskitu community north of Puerto Cabezas, contrasting life before and after the war years of the 1980s. It will be a valuable addition to the literature on this indigenous group and should appeal to anthropologists and other social scientists, as well as all readers interested in peoples of the Caribbean coast.

  • List Of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One. Introduction
  • Chapter Two. Who Are the Miskitu People?
  • Chapter Three. The Village of Awastara
  • Chapter Four. Life in Victor and Plora's Family
  • Chapter Five. Food and the Search for Upan
  • Chapter Six. Turtle Fishermen and Others
  • Chapter Seven. Working in the Plantations
  • Chapter Eight. School Days
  • Chapter Nine. Miskitu Christianity
  • Chapter Ten. Health and Curing
  • Chapter Eleven. Public Affairs and Community Development
  • Chapter Twelve. Tibang and Concepts of Personhood
  • Chapter Thirteen. Leaving Awastara
  • Miskitu Glossary
  • References Cited
  • Index

Awastara Homecoming

Most anthropologists who have lived among other people for months at a time, struggling to learn their language and understand their way of life, feel a periodic need to go back and see their people again. Fieldwork gives you a stake in the people themselves, memories and relationships that last you the rest of your life. You wonder about the people you've known—if they're still alive, how they have changed, what has happened to their way of life. These people have become part of your own life; and when the time is right, it's important to go back.

May 19, 1997: it has been nineteen years since I did fieldwork on the Miskitu Coast of Nicaragua (map 1). I had been back several times in the 1980s, during the middle of the war, but that was a strange and different experience, hardly a homecoming. I arrive again in Puerto Cabezas, the regional capital. In Creole English the city is called Port, but in Miskitu it is referred to as Bilwi. The three different names indicate the multilingual, multicultural nature of the region. I visit friends and then begin looking for a way up to my village, Awastara. I find out that it isn't any easier to get to than it ever was. I catch a flatbed truck headed to Krukira, almost halfway (map 2), and find myself crammed into the back of the truck with thirty other people as well as their sacks of food and bundles and assorted purchases. Along the way a tire blows out. Everyone out to unload the truck! All of the men jack up the truck by standing on a long, thick mahogany plank wedged under the axle near the tire. The driver mutters something unintelligible under his breath as he loosens the lug nuts and changes the big tire, while the rest of us balance on the plank to keep the axle in the air. I'm back on the Coast!

When we reach Krukira, I run into an Awastara man named Bantan, who recognizes me and calls me by name. "Get in the canoe, Pelipe," he tells me (there is no f in the Miskitu language). He hands me a paddle and we put our backs into it, paddling three hours up the river toward the Páhara Lagoon against a stiff headwind. I dip my paddle again and again, hour after hour, my shoulders aching and the blisters starting to form on my tender pink hands, accustomed to office work. Bantan seems to know every twist and turn through the mangrove channels in the river. I comment on how easy it would be to get lost here. "Yes," he replies, and tells me a story about getting lost here once himself. Just before we get to the lagoon, we stop underneath a big tree whose roots spread out into the water. It is a pretty spot, dappled with shade. Bantan uses his cast net to throw around the roots, and when he pulls it back several bright silvery stone bass or trisu gleam as they flop in the net. My Miskitu friends are not about to miss a fishing or a food-gathering opportunity, I reflect happily.

As we enter the lagoon, the sun goes down. The sunset is glorious, moments of absolute silence, with shimmering crimson clouds in the west. The dark forest lines the shore and the water is a flat, dark mirror, now completely calm. Thankfully, the strong northeast trade wind has finally died. The still air is filled with birds, an unki (great blue heron), a krasku (kingfisher), several cormorants, and many others. Bantan takes delight in telling me the Miskitu names of the birds. Far off a wangki makes a deep, throaty call in the mangroves. I am filled with joy to be back on the Miskitu Coast, paddling a canoe again with a Miskitu friend. For a moment the silence is so profound, the sunset so beautiful, the mirror of the lagoon so perfect, that it seems a sacrilege to dip our paddles in the water. Then it is gone. The stars come out to accompany us as we paddle the rest of the way up to the trailhead for Awastara.

It is about midnight when we arrive at the trailhead, and the sky is beginning to cloud up. We load all our things on our backs. As usual, I have brought way too much. I have small presents for Victor's family, books, extra clothes, my camera. Bantan shows me how to put the straps on my plastic duffel bag around my shoulders and carry it like a backpack. We start off across the savannah, a two-hour walk to the village. The moon is shining as we set out; but soon it is covered by thick clouds, and we are soaked by a brief, fierce thunderstorm. It is not really cold, probably in the fifties, but it certainly feels cold, with a light breeze blowing and me wet to the skin. By the time we finally reach Awastara, I am soaked, cold, and miserable, and I feel half dead. The Moravian church in the center of town is the easiest place to find in the dark. I knock on the Moravian preacher's door, and he invites me in. I sink to the plank floor of his house exhausted, stripping off my wet clothes. Before I expire, I remember thinking, "Maybe I'm getting too old for this kind of stuff." An unworthy thought, of course.

My old friend Victor Renales shows up in the early light to rescue me from the preacher. Somehow the word has already spread that I am back. Photo 1 is one of the few pictures I have of Victor, a gaunt man about six foot four, in his late sixties, with great physical strength. He has a ready smile and a seemingly endless stock of stories and anecdotes. A complex, interesting person, Victor has led a long life and likes to reflect about it. Since I first came to Awastara, he has made it a personal task to teach me about life in the village, taking me to work in his rice fields and out to the Keys to catch turtles and feeding me in his house. Our friendship goes back more than twenty years, although it's been a long time since I've seen him. A devout Christian and a member of the rival Church of God, he usually scoffs at bush medicine and traditional curing in general. The traditional beliefs in spiritual creatures such as the swinta and the liwa mairin are just foolishness, he often says. Interestingly enough, however, as we become closer, Victor begins telling me his own swinta stories from time to time.

Victor befriended me when I first went to Awastara in 1978. In fact, one of his life strategies has been to talk with strangers, put them up in his house, and make friends of them. His early friendships with Cayman Island turtle fishermen helped transform Awastara into a turtle-fishing village. In recent years he has made friends with a Chinese businessman from Costa Rica, a U.S. marine biologist, and a Dutch expert on alternative technology, as well as with me. This time he tells me about encountering several Jehovah's Witnesses a few months earlier. After a long walk across the savannah carrying a sack of provisions, they were exhausted. Victor thought they were good people and felt sorry for them, and he invited them to his house. They stayed for several days.

Victor takes me over to his house, where I spend the rest of the week. I find the house full of Jehovah's Witness pamphlets! He lectures me severely on coming straight to his place the next time I visit, no matter what the hour, and avoiding the Moravian church like the plague. Victor, I remember, was one of the first members of the Church of God in Awastara. He has strong opinions about many things and is not shy about expressing them.

For the next two weeks Victor's wife, Plora, stuffs me with food: turtle meat and cassava, Johnny cake and sweetened black coffee. I play happily with their dozen or so grandchildren, taking time out to go to school and to the churches (all four of them). I wander all over town, visiting old friends and finding out what people are doing and who has died. It feels wonderful to be back. I find a few brightly painted new houses around town, a strange hint of prosperity. Later I will learn that kilo bricks of cocaine are washing up regularly on the beach and that cocaine use has become a major problem in the community. For some, it has provided a new source of wealth to invest in houses and boats, especially for people in neighboring Sandy Bay.

My ability to speak Miskitu is almost gone; but with lots of patience on the part of my friends, and by reviewing my notebooks at night, it starts coming back. There are brand-new school texts in Miskitu, through the fourth grade. I bring copies back to the United States with me, to keep on studying the language and to use in my Miskitu conversation course. Wandering around the village, I run into one old fellow I barely remember. I tell him I'd like to come back to Awastara again and spend more time. He says, "Of course you can come back. It's your town!" I realize they like having a pet "Miriki" around, to watch and teach how to be human and to provide a constant source of entertainment. They've missed me! And I've also missed them.

I especially love playing with the kids. One little seven-year-old named Jasira falls in love with me, and I with her. With her two missing front teeth and her devilish grin, Jasira is delightful. One evening, as we sit together on the front porch, she lets a big fart. Ever alert to linguistic opportunity, I ask her how you say that in Miskitu. Tusban krabaia, she replies. I promptly write it down in my notebook. Curious herself, Jasira asks how you say the same thing in Spanish. "Pedo," I say. "Pedro?" she asks. It strikes me as funny, since we both know an old man in the village, Dama (grandfather) Pedro (see the glossary). "No, pedo," I emphasize. She works on that for a while but can't get it right. I tell her Grandfather Pedro wouldn't be too happy if he thought his name meant "fart." "Well," said Jasira, "how do you say it in English then?" The answer turns out to be completely unpronounceable in Miskitu, with no f and the strange consonant cluster at the end. After a lot of giggling we give up and decide just to say tusban krabaia.

On the last day of my visit, as I am saying good-bye to everyone, Jasira announces matter-of-factly, "I'm going home with Pelipe." The "pamily" members all look at me to see if it is true. Miskitu kids are quite independent and are generally allowed to do what they want. They definitely have minds of their own; and if people try to order them around, which they do all the time, they don't pay attention. Control struggles abound. So it is generally thought best to respect children's decisions and then let them deal with the consequences. Had I been able, I would gladly have brought Jasira home with me, along with her little cousin Jaseth, to brighten up things back in Lubbock, Texas.

My Life on the Coast

I first went to Nicaragua in 1978, as a postdoctoral student in medical anthropology at Michigan State University. I wanted to study a culture-bound syndrome reported from the Miskitu Coast, called grisi siknis, in which victims, mostly women, are possessed by devils, tear off their clothes, run away from their houses, and have to be restrained. Working with the University of Wisconsin health program, I visited about twenty different villages near Puerto Cabezas taking a health survey. One of them was Awastara. There had been over sixty grisi siknis victims in Awastara, more than in any other community. It apparently had been the center of an epidemic of this syndrome or disease. My wife and I rented a house in the village and moved in. I had studied the Miskitu language at Michigan State, but my proficiency was very limited. Only a few people in the village spoke Spanish or Creole English. The daily language was and is Miskitu. As I spent each day talking with and interviewing people, keeping a vocabulary notebook, and studying, my proficiency began to grow. By May 1979, when I left Nicaragua, I had very modest competence in Miskitu. The information from all my notebooks about grisi siknis was eventually published (Dennis 1981b, 1985, 1999), but I wasn't satisfied. I still had four large notebooks full of information about other aspects of life—turtle fishing, farming, living in families, folktales (kisi), and many other things. For me, experiences in the community had been vivid, larger-than-life events. Miskitu culture fascinated me, and I had enjoyed living in Awastara. I wanted to understand not just grisi siknis and health issues but the whole pattern of life in the community, as experienced by local people. I intended to go back and finish my general ethnographic work, but twenty years were to intervene.

In 1979 a revolution was raging in Nicaragua, with the fighters from the Sandinista National Liberation Front trying to wrest power from the Somoza dictatorship, which had held power for sixty years. There was little fighting on the Miskitu Coast, however. The Coast is a completely different region from western Nicaragua, cut off geographically and with a different history and ethnic makeup. Ties always have been with Great Britain and the United States rather than with Spanish-speaking Nicaragua. When the Sandinista government came to power, the new leaders expected the indigenous peoples of the Atlantic Coast to support the popular revolution in the same way that communities with an Indian identity on the Pacific side had supported it (C. Hale 1994: 92-94). The myth of a potentially revolutionary indigenous heritage was an important part of Sandinista ideology, confirmed for them by the spontaneous uprisings against the dictatorship in the communities of Sutiava and Monimbó in the late 1970s (Field 1999: 98, 185-86). This myth was generalized to include indigenous people from the Atlantic Coast, a region the Sandinistas patronizingly called "a giant, about to awaken" (Adams 1981: 16). The Sandinistas regarded the integration of the Atlantic Coast as a major political problem to be tackled (Dennis 1981a).

The Miskitu, however, were profoundly suspicious of "Spaniards," as mestizo Nicaraguans continue to be called. Miskitu leaders formed their own self-determination organization, called MISURASATA (Miskitu, Sumu, Rama, and Sandinista, Asla Takanka, or Working Together) (C. Hale 1994: 2). Tension increased as MISURASATA coordinated a regional bilingual literacy program and eventually presented a demand for indigenous land rights to a large area of the Atlantic Coast. The "separatist" attitudes of the indigenous and Creole costeños were suspicious from the Sandinista point of view, and a series of violent incidents occurred. When MISURASATA leaders were arrested, open conflict flared. MISURASATA became a military organization and with U.S. support began a counterrevolution on the Coast. People from the coastal villages were deeply involved in the fighting. Some twenty-one young men from Awastara went off to fight with the Miskitu forces. By the late 1980s, however, peace agreements had been signed, and legal autonomy was granted to the region in 1987. Autonomy included a new regional government, which would supposedly use revenue from the fishing and lumbering industries for the benefit of the region. In the cultural sphere, it provided for bilingual education programs and a new costeño university, the Universidad de las Regiones Autónomas de la Costa Caribe de Nicaragua (URACCAN). Unfortunately, during the 1990s the region's "autonomy" proved to be paper thin (González Pérez 1997; Dennis 2000).

I visited the Coast several times during the war years of the 1980s, but only very briefly. In 1985 I accompanied two Miskitu male nurses and several Sandinista soldiers to Awastara to vaccinate children. It was during the middle of the war, with the Miskitu rebel groups controlling much of the countryside and periodically attacking Sandinista military bases. The small Sandinista military base near Awastara had come under attack once, and many young men from the community were off in the bush with the Miskitu rebels. Things were very tense indeed. But I managed to find Victor and spent several hours talking with him. Then it was time to get back in the boat—the soldiers alert, weapons ready—and return to Port.

My own life led me to different places, and it was not until 1997 that I finally managed to return to the Coast and visit Awastara for a week. In 1998 I was able to come back for a whole month and told Victor that I would like to spend another year in the community to finish my ethnographic work. He was very enthusiastic, and we began making plans to build a house of my own near his. After knowing each other for so long, we decided to call each other brother (moihka in Miskitu), with all that implies—respect, trust, and closeness. This was not a lightly taken decision. Victor undoubtedly thought he would get tangible benefits out of the relationship, and I thought I would too. Besides that, we had grown to like each other and wanted to cement the tie. I wished to return for a year and live in Awastara and complete this book about the community and the Miskitu people, begun many years before. And I wanted to live with a family, Victor's family. At the same time, I applied for a Fulbright grant to teach medical anthropology at the URACCAN in Puerto Cabezas, to help with the university's new Intercultural Master's of Public Health (MSPI) program. And so, in July 1999, I came back to spend my second year in Awastara.

Living In Awastara

After an exhausting sea voyage, it is always a pleasure to row up the Awastara River and see, at long last, the boat landing with the village beyond (map 3). It is a relief to get out of the cramped boat and walk up the path as the children come running. In July 1999 a special treat awaits my arrival. From the landing, I get a glimpse of my own new house in Awastara. When I come close enough, I can see it, set high on posts, looking east over the savannah toward the ocean. It is pretty in its new green and white paint—a place of my own in Awastara!

For a year I have been sending money to Victor each month to have the house built. His son-in-law Casey, a master craftsman, was the carpenter. The house will give me a place to sleep and work and some privacy of my own but still be close to Victor and his family. Having my own house built was actually a suggestion of local people, which reflects the Miskitu value that people should have their own place. Dama Pedro tells me: "Living in somebody else's place can be a problem. Suppose you burn it down? Then you've got a problem! But if you burn your own place down—well, too bad."

The rhythm of life is slow here in Awastara, with plenty of time to sit and think and write, and fieldwork activities all day long. I spend time talking to the health leader at the community's new health clinic, going to church services, walking all the way out to Rosa's to spend an afternoon listening to the story of her son's murder last year, walking to each corner of the village to search out interesting people and talk with them. People have learned that I want to understand every aspect of their lives, and they always have interesting stories when I come to visit. The role of anthropologist is a welcome one here—someone interested in these people for themselves, without trying to convert them or change them according to some outside agenda. I try to be a good community member too, helping clean the trails, attending church, contributing toward supplies for our local baseball team. Back at Victor's house, I play with the children, spend hours listening to Victor's long stories, and sit in the kitchen talking with the women. I teach a small English class in the afternoon, a couple of times a week, at the request of a group of young people. They seem to like the class and actually do their homework, at least some of the time. I really don't know how to teach English, but I feel good nevertheless about having a teaching job here in the village and become good friends with the schoolteachers, who share their classrooms with me.

If I expect people to tell me their stories, it is obligatory to tell my own story first: where I live, why I returned to Awastara, my two marriages and my children. Soon people begin to talk among themselves, and the Miskitu language gradually eludes me—their voices rising and falling with animation, as my poor mind falters along behind, trying to follow the drift of the conversation. I soon lose the thread but break in every once in a while to ask a question. Somebody then patiently explains to me what the story was about, so I can comment on it: "Terrible! Good grief! May God help us!" and so on. Then I can ask another question.

In general, I enjoy the people. They have been good to me, even Cornelio, the sly ex-headman with whom I never got along, and two current drug dealers that I knew as boys in 1978. I know I will miss this place when I leave for the United States. And Awastara friends tell me, "When you're not here, things are sad."

Victor's Household

Victor's extended household includes many people (see chapter 4). His grown daughter Pamela still lives in the same house with her parents, her husband, Casey, and their children. This sort of matrilocal residence is the preferred pattern among Miskitu people generally (Helms 1968). Nevertheless, prosperous men like Victor can sometimes arrange for sons to bring spouses home and live patrilocally, in hopes of sharing their father's wealth and eventually inheriting it. Thus Victor's son Adolpo also lives in the main house with his wife, Eliza, and baby Nachalie. Some hundred feet away, Victor's eldest son, Hector, and his wife, Maura, have built a large house of their own and live there with their five children. Victor's son Rodrigo and his wife, Gladys, and their four children have built a house another seventy-five feet away, across the main trail. These people appear many times in the text, as do other Awastara friends and neighbors, referred to either by their own names or by pseudonyms. I regard this book in part as a tribute to these people, and I hope that they will be proud of their contributions to it.

Thus Victor's family becomes my family. Although I have my own house, I eat in Plora's kitchen, buying provisions on every trip into Port, and paying her twenty cordobas a day for meat and daily expenses. I soon realize that I provide the major cash flow in the household. In local terms, my modest income as a visiting professor is a fortune, and I gladly chip in for coffee, laundry soap, and other essentials. I also will give my house to Casey and Pamela to live in and take care of when I leave, so the family will prosper by my stay with them. Victor's life strategy of making friends with strangers has paid off again, I reflect to myself.

The daily routine in Awastara begins very early. Many adults get up around 4:00 a.m., well before sunrise, to go to the plantations to work, to seine for fish at the beach, or to gather firewood. Many of the men in the community are gone for a week at a time, turtle fishing out on the Miskitu Keys. They take their turtles to Port to sell, then come back to Awastara to spend a few days at home with their families and to repair their nets and other gear for another week of turtle fishing. The rhythm of life in the village thus revolves around turtle fishing. Women and men who have gone to the plantations or the beach don't usually come back until mid-morning. But some of the women always stay at home, to start the cooking fires, make breakfast, and get the children ready for school. I have three meals a day in Plora's kitchen, at around 7:00 a.m., noon, and 6:00 p.m. Plora likes to have the last meal over and all the dishes washed before it gets dark, when the kerosene lantern is lit for the evening.

Nighttime

The cool of the evening is very pleasant after the intense heat of the day. I sit on my front porch listening to the short-wave radio and watching the stars. Orion and Canis Major are out in all their beauty. I hear the children playing and shrieking at Maura's house, nearby. They usually quiet down by 7:30 or so. Some nights my neighbors across the way sing church hymns to the accompaniment of a guitar, and the sound carries over the distance. It is peaceful and beautiful at night in Awastara. I reflect on what I have accomplished during the day and on my plans for tomorrow.

With my own children grown, I enjoy Victor's grandchildren, who come to see me all the time. Sometimes they also come to sleep on my floor. "It is too sad to sleep alone," says Plora, who sends the children over. Not every night, but once or twice a week, the grandchildren squabble to see who will come. The first night that Nena (nine years old) sleeps on my floor, she stays up a long time quizzing me about my own family. She wants to know about my mother and father (both dead), my brothers and sisters, my two former wives, and my own children. I tell her as best I can in Miskitu, imagining how her little mind must be translating all this back into her own world. I have a feeling that she is disappointed that my own family is so small, and there is so little to tell, as compared to her own large family. Victor is her grandfather; but her father is far away, so she calls Victor papa. Following kinship logic, she announces that—because he and I are now brothers—she will now call me rapiki, "my father's brother."

Nena and Josepa, seven, often come together to sleep at my house. About 6:30, as it gets dark, they climb up my stairs with their sityapa (sleeping gear). This consists of a sheet and a pillow each. They throw them down on the board floor inside and come sit on the porch with me to watch the moon and talk. Josepa likes to snuggle up with me in the big chair on the porch. I snuggle with Nena too, but I'm wary of her long, thick black hair, because I noticed her mother Pamela picking lice out of it earlier in the day. The girls talk for a while and then want to sing songs. I agree but warn them: "Only a few." They sing church hymns, one after another, in loud, brassy voices. They obviously have been taught to sing as loudly as they can, without much regard for melody or quality of tone. My Texas grandfather used to sing church hymns in the same tone of voice. I listen for about fifteen minutes and then tell them it's time for bed. Mahka yapaia! I say. "Hurry up to sleep!" The little girls take turns going over to the edge of my high porch, where they squat and pee before bed, quite without shame. A little more self-conscious, I wait until they go inside and then walk over to the edge and pee as well.

Once inside, I light the kerosene lantern and hang it up on the rafter to keep the bats away. The girls spread their sheets out on the floor and put their heads on their pillows. I tell them to be really still and I will sing them a song. In earlier times there were Miskitu lullabies, I have learned, but no one seems to know them anymore. So I sing them the ones I know, such as "The Dark-Eyed Sailor," an old English lullaby my own children liked very much. It has many verses and a haunting, happy/sad sort of melody. By the time I finish, both little girls are asleep. I get up and go over to my table, where I work on my field notebooks for a while, finishing the day's notes. Then I plug in my headphones and listen to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news on my little short-wave radio. I'll get sleepy within an hour myself and lie down on my bed, a few feet above the floor where the little girls are sleeping. I walk out on the porch before retiring. The almost full moon is high in the sky, and the tropical night is beautiful.

There are dangers in the night too, however. They include spiritual creatures that molest people as well as more tangible creatures, such as blood-eating bats. One morning Victor shows me the cuts on his feet and hands where the bats have bitten him. Ten-year-old Melvin has a white rag wrapped around his thumb with dried blood on it. And Nena shows me her nose, which has a very noticeable scar right in the middle where a bat bit her when she was small. Victor says the danger lies in letting your feet or hands poke through the mosquito netting at night or in not having a kerosene lantern burning all night. The bats apparently don't like to come inside a house where a light is shining. I make sure my lantern is always lit at night! The bat bites are painful, but I haven't heard of any cases of their transmitting rabies as they sometimes do in the United States.

Bathing

One of the great pleasures of living in Awastara is bathing. After a few hours in the hot, sticky climate, it feels wonderful to bathe in the water from Victor's well. A few years ago Victor, always progressive, was one of the first people in town to hire a visiting alternative technology specialist to build him an enclosed well. It touted a cover and hand pump, to draw the water up a pipe from the deep well and out through a spigot. It works beautifully, and we have clean, fresh water right in the middle of our cluster of houses.

I draw a big bucket of water from the pump and go into the bathhouse, shut the door, and simply indulge for a few minutes. Bathing also has strong positive value in Miskitu culture. One day Josepa and Jasira, both nine, come by to show me their clean skin and clean clothes. "Look! Our skin is so clean!" they say. "We bathe two times a day! We're not like Juana's daughter. She even comes to school in her dirty clothes. We are really clean!"

The bathhouse is a small stall (about four feet by four feet), with wooden walls and floor. The water simply runs out through the spaces in the floorboards. The makeshift metal door on the bathhouse is not closing completely, so I put a new string on it to satisfy my own sense of modesty. As omnipresent as children are, however, they do not seem to look in at people bathing. Peeping at naked people is not part of the mischievous "rogue" character that many Miskitu kids have. Rather, a strong sense of modesty is learned at an early age.

First I pump a bucket of water at the well. Then, in the bathhouse, I take off my clothes (usually just shorts and a T-shirt) and throw them up over the wall, take a cup of water from the bucket, and pour it slowly over my head, letting the cool, delicious water trickle slowly down my sweaty body. I dip some more and lather up with shampoo and soap, from head to foot. This is sticky, athlete's foot country, so I wash carefully between my toes as well as my crotch and butt, armpits, scalp—everywhere that tiny invisibles might be hiding. Then I pour cool water over my body, cup by cup, washing off all the soap, which I watch run off through the slats onto the ground and away down the gentle slope. I usually have part of the big bucket of water left at the end. I towel off quickly, anxious now to get back up to my porch, where the cool trade wind will be blowing. The coolness of the clean well water on my skin will be one of my enduring memories of Awastara. The well water is also pure to drink, so I don't have to worry about getting it in my mouth as I bathe, as I do in Managua or Puerto Cabezas. Pure, clean, cool well water, in inexhaustible quantities: wonderful!

The Change of Seasons

Here in the tropics, the seasons are strongly marked. It rains about 130 inches a year in Puerto Cabezas (Nietschmann 1973: 66-67), with the rains beginning in late May and continuing through December and January. From January or February through May is the dry season or mani taim. By early May the days are long and hot, and the land is parched and dry. The sun beats down mercilessly on the dusty trails, day after day. Even Victor's deep well begins to dry up. After pumping and pumping, only a partial bucket of water comes up, clouded with sediment. In the center of the village, you can see all the houses clustered close to each other. No longer are they hidden by walls of leafy foliage. There is a continual haze in the air from people burning off their plantations. The world is thirsty, just waiting for rain. Life is suspended, it seems, contracted within itself, biding its time until the life-giving water returns.

When the first light rains do begin, large crabs called kaisni come out on the savannah in large numbers. Many people go to gather them, grabbing them with a gloved hand to avoid their big pincers, and bringing them home in burlap bags. Each large bag, thrown across the shoulder, is a moving mass of crabs. The small legs are broken off before putting each crab into the bag, and the trail across the savannah is littered with tiny crab legs. After a week or two of light rains, the wet season usually announces its arrival with a torrential downpour. Deep, rumbling thunderbolts shake the sky, one after another. Alwani puli ba wina mahka li auisa, they say in Miskitu: "Thunder is playing and soon indeed the rain will come!" It is true: when you hear the thunder (alwani) off in the distance, far away on the northeast trade wind, you know the rain will follow soon. In 2000 the rainy season begins in earnest as I teach my English class in the school building. The skies open up and the rain falls in sheets, turning the baseball field in front of the school into a large lake. We have to wait an extra hour in the leaky classroom before we can even step outside.

During the rainy season, I sit on my porch and listen to the deep thunder pealing off in the distance. The big gray rain clouds come rolling in from the northeast, pushed by the strong trade winds. I can see the approaching sheets of rain out on the savannah, near the landing, before they get to my house. All the people in our part of the village scurry to get inside their houses and shut all the doors and wooden window shutters tightly. In a minute the first drops hit, followed by the driving rain, torrents of it. I think of the large catboats, the local Miskitu sailing vessels, out at sea. In such a storm they are tossed wildly around as the Miskitu sailors try to keep control of the sheets and the rudder, and the passengers huddle under a plastic sheet trying to stay as dry as possible. The rain lasts for only five or ten minutes then slows and stops. In Awastara people emerge from their houses into a dripping world. The northeast trade wind blows freely again. But out over the ocean the next cloudbank is already forming.

It rains almost every day during the long rainy season from June through December. Occasionally huge storms come through, bringing incessant rain day after day. The world is drenched, with water dripping from everything. All of Awastara—only about ten to fifteen feet above sea level—becomes a shallow lake several inches deep. The houses, erected on top of tall posts, rise out of the sheet of water that covers the earth. The water soaks quickly into the sandy soil, though, and within a couple of hours people can again walk the village paths. Such storms are most common in July or August. During the rest of the rainy season, the thunderstorms may be intense but are interspersed with hours of bright, sunny weather.

Just before and after a rain the air is filled with flying insects. Asterio, the health leader, tells me they are usra (termites). These are the same insects that make large black nests in trees, which are burned and mixed with paint to make caulk or putty for boats. The winged form represents one stage of their life cycle, seen only in the rainy season. The complex natural world here in the tropics, so fascinating to me, is also a topic of intellectual interest for my Miskitu friends. They discuss with great animation the life cycles of different animals, the various species of birds and fish, and the many kinds of plants that can be used as medicine. It is hard to elicit exclamations of beauty, however. A magnificent sunset, a brightly colored bird, the night darkness filled with fireflies, called tilam—these things often move me profoundly; but the most I can elicit from my Miskitu friends is an admission that they are painkira—just fine. I know there are things that move them too, but here I face a frustrating difference in aesthetics.

Although tropical storms are intense and frequent in the rainy season, the Miskitu Coast has suffered relatively little from the hurricanes spawned in the Caribbean Basin. Bluefields was destroyed by Hurricane Joan in 1988 (Vandermeer, Perfecto, et al. 1991), however, and Awastara was also hit by a major hurricane in 1906. To the south along the coast, in Tasbapauni, older people described the devastation caused by the 1906 hurricane to Bernard Nietschmann (1973: 75). In Awastara Victor's father told him stories of the great prari (hurricane) of that year. In those days, there were still spiritual specialists called prapit nani who could actually deflect hurricanes, but in spite of their efforts the community suffered terribly that year. In the hours before the storm, people constructed low shelters of logs, close to the ground, into which they could crawl to escape the storm's fury. That year no one was killed; but when people emerged from their shelters after the storm, they found their local world destroyed. All the houses were gone, the large mango and coconut trees were all lying on the ground, the plantations were destroyed, and the village was littered with the carcasses of dead cows and pigs and other animals. There was also a large dead animal from the sea, a kind of creature no one had ever seen before. Perhaps, I think as Victor tells me the story, it was a whale or a giant squid. For a long time people survived by digging palm roots and mashing them up and scavenging whatever they could from the ravaged forest and river bottom. I comment that it was a miracle that no one was killed. "Yes," replies Victor with a grin, "but us Miskitu people are pretty hard to kill."

The Text

Two full-length studies of Miskitu communities already exist. The first is by anthropologist Mary W. Helms (1971) and represents research from the mid-1960s. Helms provides a careful, detailed description of Asang, a village on the upper Wangki or Río Coco (map 1). Her information about kinship and the role of the Moravian Church in the community is especially rich. The second is by cultural geographer Bernard Nietschmann (1973), reporting research from the late 1960s. Nietschmann describes the cultural ecology of Tasbapauni, a village on the south coast near Pearl Lagoon. His data on agriculture, turtle fishing, and food habits and nutrition are extremely valuable. Both works provide a wealth of information about Miskitu people, presented in a traditional social science format. They are essential sources for any student of Miskitu culture. Both are more than thirty years old, however. There is no full-length study of any of the Miskitu communities on the Coast north of Puerto Cabezas, where I worked. Awastara is both similar to and different from Asang and Tasbapauni, and I hope this book will complement those works by providing information about another Miskitu group in a different region. When possible, I try to compare Awastara with Asang and Tasbapauni. I write in the present tense when describing 1997-2000 experiences, to try to let the reader experience life in Awastara along with me.

This book is also written in a different time, and from a different point of view, than the books by Helms and Nietschmann. I lived in Awastara both before and after the war years of the 1980s. From these years emerged a large, often highly politicized literature on the conflict and the Miskitu role in it (Dennis 1993). Serious research about the Coast was also accomplished, however. Charles R. Hale (1994) recounts the Miskitu-Sandinista conflict in great detail. His firsthand information from his fieldwork in Sandy Bay Sirpi (map 1) is especially rich and is crucial for understanding the conflict. Hale and many other colleagues also have published in the new trilingual journal Wani, the scholarly organ of the Centro de Investigaciones y Documentación de la Costa Atlántica (CIDCA). Wani has come out regularly since 1984, publishing articles in Spanish, English, and Miskitu in many different fields, including history, anthropology, literature, linguistics, and tropical biology. It is a valiant effort in a very poor country. By the late 1990s, however, few researchers remained to study the Miskitu Coast, which had become a backwater in geopolitics, although an important transit area in the cocaine trade from Colombia to the United States.

In the last twenty years concepts of ethnography have changed enormously. Impelled by the postmodern critique of science as a cultural product, not something above culture, interpretive anthropology has insisted on reporting the ethnographer's own interactions with his or her subjects. The ethnographer's voice becomes one among many, and culture itself becomes a latticework of contested codes and representations (Clifford 1986: 2). Dialogue emerges as the subjects of research talk back, argue, and even reject the theories of the anthropologist. It becomes the metaphor for how anthropologists conduct their fieldwork (Marcus and Fischer 1986: 30). Culture is presented as contested, temporal, and emergent. The overly self-confident voices of earlier ethnographers are replaced by more tentative sorts of statements. Revealing partial truths, in all the complexity of their cultural context, becomes a sufficient research goal. While avoiding imposing outside categories that distort local realities, the ethnographic description itself becomes much more textured and detailed, producing what Clifford Geertz (1973) calls "thick description." The ethnographic text attempts to take the reader into the cultural scene as experienced by the ethnographer, not simply provide an authoritative and "objective" description.

The interpretive ethnography that has been emerging from this critique is rich and fascinating. In First-Time (1983) and Alabi's World (1990), Richard Price uses texts left by Moravian missionaries and colonial planters and administrators, and the enigmatic information provided by his contemporary Saramaka friends (whose photographs he provides), in constructing a historical tapestry of the Saramaka people of Suriname. Barbara Tedlock's The Beautiful and the Dangerous (1992) gives a running account of her interactions with Zuni friends over a number of years, interwoven with her own unfolding understanding of Zuni culture. In The Taste of Blood (1991), Jim Wafer lets the spiritual beings in Brazilian candomblé emerge as characters in their own right in his ethnography, in the same way that his Brazilian friends and he himself experienced them. In Mama Lola (1991), Karen McCarthy Brown describes her long-term relationship and apprenticeship with a Haitian vodou priestess. She provides short stories about Mama Lola's immediate ancestors, who figure so prominently in Lola's life and in her religious worship. Interspersed among the short stories are chapters that provide ethnographic and historical context. Brown writes candidly of her own experiences, including her marriages to two of the most important vodou spirits, and the initiation through which she becomes a devotee herself. Of her participation, she says: "I realized that if I brought less to this Vodou world, I would come away with less. If I persisted in studying Vodou objectively, the heart of the system, its ability to heal, would remain closed to me" (1991: 11).

In Translated Woman (1993), Ruth Behar lets her Mexican friend Esperanza tell her own compelling story; Behar herself edits and organizes and occasionally explains (to Esperanza as well as to the reader) what she is doing. Like Brown, Behar enters the text, writing of her own participation in Esperanza's life and of the parallels she eventually begins to draw between her own life and Esperanza's.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, in Death without Weeping (1992), describes her long research on mothering and infant death, among the desperately poor inhabitants of a neighborhood in northeastern Brazil. Through becoming involved in her subjects' lives, she comes to understand the reasons behind the extremely high infant mortality rate. Mothers here use a strategy of triage, selecting among all the infants born those most likely to survive, and nourishing only them.

All of these interpretive ethnographies are vivid and rich, inviting the reader into the cultural worlds experienced by the ethnographer, while allowing the Others to speak for themselves. The ethnographer becomes one of the participants in the interaction described, and Brown goes so far as to describe herself in the third person on occasion. "Karen Brown approached Alourdes' door shortly after ten-thirty" (1991: 262). These postmodern ethnographers rarely pretend to explain everything for the reader's benefit. Partial truths are the best that can be managed, it is assumed. The information that is presented is so richly textured, however, that it speaks for itself.

About earlier, more positivistic anthropology, Mary Louise Pratt (1986: 33) comments: "How, one asks oneself constantly, could such interesting people doing such interesting things produce such dull books?" One certainly could not make this criticism of Price or Tedlock, Wafer or Brown, Behar or Scheper-Hughes. Their work is detailed and compelling, leading the reader deeper and deeper into the cultural worlds they explore. It is richer if not better ethnography. My own efforts are inspired by these works but are much more modest. I am present in the narrative to follow, but I also try to let my Miskitu friends offer their own view of things as much as possible. I quote directly from them, realizing the reader may get lost among all their names but nevertheless wanting to attribute information and points of view correctly to those who provided them. I also allow myself to generalize about Miskitu culture on the basis not only of my own experiences but of my reading of the extensive literature on the Miskitu. I hope the text will be interesting reading for those who know little about the Miskitu people, for general readers as well as specialists. Someday, perhaps, it may be accessible to my Miskitu friends themselves, if it is ever possible to translate it into Spanish and Miskitu. I was delighted when my last article about research on grisi siknis was published in these languages for the benefit of costeños (Dennis 1999).

This information is taken from about 900 notebook pages of fieldnotes, roughly half of them from 1978-79 and half from 1999-2000. The notebooks are full of the small stuff that life is made of in this one Miskitu community that I know well. They don't have much pretension of being anything more. At the beginning I try to summarize some basic information about Miskitu history and language to provide context. The book essentially reflects my own life and experiences in Awastara, however: my ongoing friendship with Victor, working in the cassava and rice fields with Pamela and Casey, attending church services with Plora and the children, fishing for mas mas with Gladys and the small boys, watching little Nachalie grow up. It depicts a little piece of life, in another place where people live. Life goes along slowly here. I have learned to wait and watch and listen carefully, day after day—and attempt to write it all down, while enjoying the whole process.

 

Philip A. Dennis is Professor of Anthropology at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

"[The book] will undoubtedly prove to be an exceptionally valuable resource for those scholars researching the still poorly understood peoples of Central America's Caribbean shore, and it should attract attention among anthropologists working in similar frontier contexts who might be looking for insightful comparative materials. Finally, it is also a sensitive and rather personal account of an anthropologist feeling his way back into a community that he left behind twenty years previously and which has changed considerably. Students wishing to get a sense of how anthropologists really experience and do fieldwork will, therefore, also find it particularly valuable. "

The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute