Yanomami Stories - ham radios and Moka (not mocha)

My list of questions and comments are piling up! It's a good problem to have. They are so engaging and they bring up very important concepts, ideas, and topics surrounding the Yanomami people. In the video above, I respond to three YouTube comments regarding ham radios and the Yanomami word, "moka", and communicating with mom.

Question/Comment 1

Do any Yanomami ever ham radio to communicate in the more remote areas where you can't get cell phone reception? Or do they just use satellite phones? did they ever use ham radio in the past before satellite phones were a thing?


Short answer is yes! Back in 2011, when I was in Puerto Ayacucho, I visited a clinic where some Yanomami medical staff showed me their radio. They called into the Mavaca and Platanal missions asking information on my mother's whereabouts.

Throughout missions and military compounds in Yanomami territory there are ham radios. They have been used for decades. In fact, my father had one when he was living and studying with the Hasapuwei-teri (my mom's old village).

Though they are still being used today, the preferred connection is satellite. Such a connection allows one to interface with apps like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Skype allowing you to connect with anyone in the world at anytime. Additionally, you could leave messages or voicemails.

There are inherent challenges in maintaining communication in Yanomami territory. The most obvious is that you need an electrical power source. During the days when gasoline flowed abundantly like the rivers and was practically free, missions, medical clinics, and schools could run their generators all day long to power their ham radios, satellite dishes, and provide electricity for buildings. Given the crisis in Venezuela, and the extreme shortage of fuel, all these clinics have been abandoned and their infrastructure deteriorated. This can make coordinating logistics and maintaining operations of the Yanomami schools very difficult.

The pandemic has shown that we all truly live in global society and are interconnected. This apparent in Yanomami land, where resides some of the most remote villages in the world. Covid-19 has, sadly, struck Yanomami communities. As far as I can surmise, my mother and family are safe. But that's the thing...I really don't know for sure. I just hope that they moved way inland so visitors, both Yanomami and non-Yanomami, do not inadvertently bring the virus to my village. Because if they do, it would wreak havoc with virtually no chance of getting medical care to them. Just the thought of it makes my heart sink.

This brings to light how today, more than ever, we need to maintain constant communication with personnel, Yanomami and non-Yanomami, living, working, and teaching in the Upper Orinoco. By now, one should have an understanding that one of the most critical elements of maintaining the spread of disease is surveillance, reliable communications, and a quick response. I believe that satellite internet connection, powered by solar energy, is critical for the protection of the Yanomami people. The Good Project will be launching a campaign soon that will achieve just that. I'll keep you posted on when it begins and look forward to your support

Question/Comment 2

Moka am I saying it correctly or is it moca? I love learning new words.


Using the International Phonetic System and the Yanomami Dictionary written by Jacques Lizot and his numerous collaborators, the term is, "moka" pronounced, "moh-kah". It was one of the very first Yanomami words I learned when I reunited with my mom in 2011. It is a term of endearment for a son, little brother, little nephew, etc. When I finally learned it's literal meaning, I had to chuckle.

Think of the terms of endearment in our, and your, culture. For example, through my relationships here in the US, we would call each other sweetie pie, or honey, or baby. I would bet if we tried to translate those words to Yanomami and explain their affectionate meaning, they would find it very odd. I could imagine them thinking, "You call your husband a hapless baby and it means you love them?" or, "how on earth do you derive love and affection by looking at a pie, a food item?"

Back to "moka". Well, it's literal translation is the "head of the penis". So whenever my mother , or my uncle, called me "penis-head" they are communicating using the utmost affection. I admit, I found it comical. Of course, it was just an everyday word for them.

Question/Comment 3

I'm a fan, love your story David, I wonder how you and your mom communicate. Can she still speak English.


My mom knows some English. She was here in the United States for roughly six years. During that time, she picked up quite a bit. We even had an ESL teacher to help her along. Although, I believe that one needs to be really passionate about learning the language and its associated culture. My mom never cared about learning English. She probably thought that it was a useless expenditure of energy because at some point we were all going to return to the Amazon and permanently live in our Yanomami homes.

I was told by friends and acquaintances that knew my family that I was speaking Yanomami to my mom. I was only 5 years old when she left so I don't have many memories of conversations but some part of what I learned is in my brain. I just have to find it. I don't find learning the language all that difficult. However, to truly get a command of the language I would have to spend a lot of time in the village. I know mom would love that more than anything. Easier said than done when I have two kids, a partner in nursing school, research to conduct, and bills to pay.

Such is our intercultural dilemma.


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