A Tribe Called Theft (Maxim. 2003)

A commission for Maxim UK to ghost write a six-page feature based on the experiences of a French photographer.
© Dan White. No repro without permission.

They robbed us blind then frightened us silly. Maxim crosses the southern Indian Ocean to meet the Jarawas – the Stone Age tribe that put the mania into kleptomaniac.

“They will try to steal everything,” says the guide over cheap Indian whiskey and cigarettes. “If you are clicking any snaps, tie your camera to your body with rope or chains and sleep with your head close to everything you will not want to be losing.”

I am sitting in a filthy, seedy bar in a filthy, seedy part of the world and yet one mention of ‘them’ sets the clientele immediately on edge. The guide clutches an imaginary wallet and pats a non-existent pocket. To see ‘them’ we will need a guide and a trip to a Calcutta dive has just provided Maxim with one. Ramesh is one of the few semi-legal traders who have access to the mythical, enigmatic Jarawas, the most light-fingered people on earth.

“We can go to see them,” he tells me again, finally, “but be prepared to leave their Islands with nothing.”

It’s March 1998 on the Andaman Islands. They crouch in primitive solitude in one of the remotest nooks of the Southern Indian Ocean. A local policeman is brutally murdered. He has been struck down, not by a bullet or a knife, but by a steel-tipped arrow which severs his spine, paralysing him for life. The bowmen are driven off by 600 rounds of ammunition fired from the checkpoint where the policeman lies bleeding. But he’s made his point, which is, basically, ‘go away. And stay away’.

The naked bowman responsible for the assault is a warrior of the ancient Jarawas tribe. In the local language Jarawas simply means ‘The others’. Living in the remote Andamans for thousands of years they are both isolated and infamous for their ferocity towards intruders. They are also, as Maxim is about to discover to its cost, the world’s most compulsive thieves.

February 2002, and I’m on a sweltering bus heading north on the trunk road from Port Blair, the island’s capital. We have to be vigilant. The Jarawas have recently killed on this road and the dense jungle that lines the way could have been designed for ambush. As a result, private vehicles are forbidden along the route. We can only proceed in convoy with armed police in the front of every vehicle. It’s a nervy ride, every twitch of rain or brush of foliage met with jittery silence.

I am yanked out of a fitful doze in the suffocating heat by the unmistakable sounds of people thumping the sides of the bus. I hear terrified shouts of, “the Jarawas are coming!”

In fact they are already here.

The tribesmen have laid logs across the road and are now rocking the bus from side to side in an attempt to force the passengers out. Luckily our police escorts are quickly on hand to fire volley after volley of gunfire over the heads of the enraged, naked warriors, prompting the Jarawas to retreat quickly to the shelter of the jungle. The ambush is over, but I have witnessed the full power of their rage. At least I assume I have. Either way, this isn’t a tribe overly keen on cold calling from visitors.

The Jarawas have only recently begun to emerge from their forest, mainly, it is thought out of a new-found curiosity about western culture. Two years ago a teenage Jarawan named Enmay spent three months in a Port Blair hospital when he was badly injured falling out of a tree. Enmay was treated like a celebrity by the nurses and the rosy picture of this pampered, air-conditioned retreat that he painted on his return to the forest is thought to have convinced his fellow tribesmen that there were substantial benefits to be gained from stepping out of their stone age cocoon. So far well over 2000 Jarawas visits to local towns have been recorded by the police. But as the tribe emerges from the jungle demanding food and water, so the risk of confrontation increases.

Ramesh, my guide, waits for me in a high-powered canoe at the waterfront in Mayabundar. In this long-tailed motorised death trap we start up the crocodile infested creeks, through rice paddies and past thick mangrove swamp, towards open sea and the western beaches of the Jarawas jungle.

After two hours we stop to rest on a mangrove island. “We stay here until nightfall,” says Ramesh. “We cannot pass the coast during daylight because the police or navy will apprehend us.”

By the time we push off from the bank of the mangrove around midnight we are surrounded by darkness and I have been savaged by mosquitoes. The boatman keeps the engine running on a low, but steady, hum as we pass the heavily manned Indian base. There are razor-sharp shards of coral protruding from the murky water, any one of which would tear out the bottom of our flimsy capsule in an instant. Fortunately the boatman who glides through this swampy minefield, with all the panic of a leopard in a 100-yard dash, appears to know these waters well.

Although part of India, the Andaman Islands are only a couple of hundred miles from the tourist resorts of Thailand. Yet the indigenous Jarawas remain untouched by the technology of the last 3000 years. One of the world’s last prehistoric cultures, the Jarawas were initially thought to have crossed to India from Africa during the Pleistocene era around 12000 years ago. Until as recently as the early 20th century they lived in isolation in a 500-square mile forest, hunting wild boar and gathering roots and honey. In the early ‘50s the Indian government began a policy of bribing them with cheap gifts, though this swiftly swelled into a series of ‘picnics’ for politicians curious to see the tribe. As poachers, settlers and, most recently, mainland logging companies advanced into their forest, the Jarawas have come to feel increasingly threatened. When a 210-mile road was built through their territory five years ago, it prompted a series of further attacks on outsiders. In the past 50 years they have killed or injured more than 100 people.

The sun rises early the next morning to reveal a picture-book paradise. A rich, lush green jungle coastline crowned by an almost autumnal red of tropical leaves gives way to a pristine beach. The coral waters are perfectly still and almost luminously turquoise.

When the Jarawas appear they do so almost silently. Around 15 figures gliding from beneath the huge jungle canopy. I instinctively feel for my camera. It’s still there. For now.

Some of the tribesmen are wearing grass head-dresses, others red bandannas. A couple are sporting cummerbunds fashioned from bark. They carry short spears and bows and arrows. As they run down the beach towards us I can see that they are accompanied by a pack of dogs which snap keenly at their heels. Apart from that they are naked and strangely short. The still waters break as the Jarawas charge through the shallows to our boat. We are overrun in a moment and easily tipped into the water. They know Ramesh well – though that does not exempt him from the traditional five-finger discount greeting. As they treat him to a generous group hug the Jarawas welcoming party is also robbing him blind, the men, none-too-subtly sticking their hands into his back pocket to haul out matches and car keys. At the same time, like a cluster of kleptomaniac ferrets, they have opened my knapsack and a grinning child is pulling at my Nirvana tour T-shirt. I clutch hold of my camera tightly.

“Don’t plunder the sahib!” Shouts Ramesh, managing to sound both stern and yet friendly. Ramesh grabs back his car keys and the Jara child retreats giggling and flashing a sly smile which suggests my possessions are still far from safe.

Indeed the initial rebuffed rifling proves to be only a temporary reprieve. Already our primitive hosts have relieved us of bags of rice, cooking pots and clothing. Most of these belongings were intended as gifts in any case, but the Jarawas don’t care to wait for the normal courtesies. What was ours is now very much theirs. Thankfully we have stashed extra supplies in a small rubber dinghy and hidden it in a covered creek five minutes up the coast. Ramesh has been through all this before.

The Jarawas camp is deep in the jungle. We follow in the footsteps of the naked figures carrying armfuls of what were once our belongings. When we arrive at the camp – in truth little more than a clearing with shelters made from leaves – we find a place to sling our hammocks. I turn my back for a moment. In an instant one of the younger Jarawas women has swiped the supply of toilet paper from the top of my bag and with a look of intense concentration has unrolled swathes of it and started to decorate the branches of the surrounding trees. It looks like Christmas in an Andrex factory.

She wraps the end of the last roll around her head, smiles at us and then wanders off. “That is Wo’oma,” says Ramesh. “She will get angry when it rains and the paper falls off the branch. She will blame you.”

Clearly it is going to be hard to win these people over.

As with the cargo cults of the South Pacific, the little contact they have had with the outside world and all its trappings has led the Jarawas to believe everything that comes into their hands belongs to them by rights. The concept of stealing is alien to them. It’s not so much that property is theft here, rather that the opposite applies. Theft, to the Jarawas, is property.

Around the camp are scattered water tanks, pairs of glasses, the oar of a boat, broken cans, a yellow plastic soapbox, a child’s toy car and my short wave radio. Recent pickings from the outside world. The tribe appear to have lost interest in the radio, though its is more valuable than everything else in the camp, but when I try to pick it up, Wo’oma whisks it away from me. If I want it then it must be worth having after all.

Sitting under an awning of leaves is Mamouan. He is the leader of this clan – The ‘Yadai – and charged with the important job of collecting honey from the bees. In his hand he holds the lower jawbone of an ancestor. This sacred object is saved from the funeral pyre and acts as a talisman for the whole Yada group. Mamouan speaks a little Hindi, which allows him to communicate with the Indian authorities (the Jarawas’ native tongue, which bears no relation to any other language, has never been decoded).

I ask Mamouan how many Jarawas are left in the jungle. “Enough to cover the whole world,” he replies. Ramesh points out that the Jarawas’ world is now tiny – they number around 250 – and it shrinks further with each passing year.

Night falls and as the light fades under the jungle canopy pinpricks of fire appear to be moving along the path. The hunting party is returning. Women and men, their faces chalked white with clay, their heads topped with wigs made of sun bleached grass slide into view, their eyes appearing to flicker in the firelight. It’s a perfect picture opportunity. I reach for my camera only to find that I no longer have a flashgun. These people may live in the Stone Age, but they know how to operate a zip fastener. I curse at the small child climbing the tree nearby who is now the proud owner of $600 of complex Japanese technology.

In the clearing the hunting party have deposited a wild boar they’ve killed for tonight’s feast. It’s a welcome sight as we have spent the last two days living on muesli bars, canned fish and bananas. The boar is roasted over the fire and cooked pieces are soon torn off and passed to the waiting Jaras. No food is passed to us. “The Jarawas never share,” mumbles Ramesh, “they only take.”

I open a can of fish and wash down my muesli bar with water.

After the meal the tribe sings around the campfire – the Jarawas have a song for everything and this is their song for the day’s end – then each family lays down on the ground in a huddle. The man of the household plants wooden posts around his family and joins them in their compound. I sling my hammock and make a futile attempt to protect my diminishing belongings by curling my body around my bag.

After an uncomfortable night I awake to see that one of the T-shirts that I had been using as a pillow has made its way into the hands of Ugna and Dandolah. Two bright eyed teenage girls who have torn it up and tied it around their heads to use as a bandanna. Red is the prized colour of the Jarawas.

Though the pilfering never lets up, I sense the Jarawas are beginning to accept me and I, slowly, begin to appreciate their uncluttered, prehistoric lifestyle. Their lives are very simple. They eat, sleep and procreate. Every now and then a Jara couple will sneak off into the jungle returning half an hour later giggling.

The Jarawas are expert marksmen – and take particular pride in their hunting. By far the best shot in the camp is Yuga. He stands stock still in the waters for minutes waiting for fish to swim by, finally striking like an uncoiled snake. He leaps through the shallows to claim his prize. Their prey is not always fish. Yuga describes graphically, through gestures, the fate of an unwelcome Bengali poacher who was unwise enough to enter the lands of the Jarawas unannounced.

Even more unwisely he raped a Jarawas girl.

There is no mistaking Yuga’s imitation of the gurgling sound and flapping of a man who has just had his throat cut. Yuga is very precise about the position of the exit wound from the arrow that pierced the interloper’s rib cage.

Ramesh says he has some bad news. “I have seen an Indian patrol boat near the beach. They have seen me. They will come back with more men. Tonight we must go. They will not be able to trouble us amongst the coral.”

The imminent arrival of the patrolmen is not our only problem. The Jarawas have found our hidden supply boat and are not impressed by our duplicity. Their mood is turning ugly. The jokes and the playful robbing have gone now, as they pull aggressively at the few belongings we have left. Mamouan approaches with the small vat of fried fish our boatman had so carefully stashed. Ramesh explains, “In their eyes we have betrayed them.” I cannot understand a word of the tribal mumblings, but I can recognise their threatening tone.

Having heard first hand from Yuga what can happen if you get on the bad side of the Jarawas, I have completely given up resistance. We are left with nothing but our sarongs, a T-shirt, our muesli bars and a bag of film. It is a truly miserable end to our journey. We hide at the edge of the beach waiting for nightfall so that we might escape. The Jarawas parade around in Calvin Klein eating our dried fish.

With the engine low and our eyes peering into the palely lit night, we leave the island of thieves behind. We are heading back to the 21st century. Though they don’t know it, the Jarawas are headed there too. The forests that surround them are shrinking as settlers encroach on their lands. The next generation will, more than likely, know more about fast food, Bollywood and premier league than the ancient traditions of hunting wild boar and untrammelled petty theft.

And with only 250 Jarawas left, the habits of 11,000 years could well die in the next ten.

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