Families of the Forest

Category: Disease, Infection, Mother, Water
Last Updated: 28 Mar 2023
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This paper will discuss the ethnography by Allen Johnson titled Families of the forest. The ethnography describes the Matsigenka people of Shimaa, that live in the Peruvian Amazon. The paper will examine the Matsigenka culture, the needs and resources of the culture, and proposed projects to meet the needs of the culture. The Matsigenka of Shimaa lives in isolation along river valleys and forested mountains in the Peruvian Amazon (Johnson,1999, p. 24). They live in small villages of about 7 to 25 people, that makeup three to five nuclear family households (Johnson, 1999, p 3).

The Matsigenka prefer to live in these hamlets and avoid interacting with people outside of their immediate family. The Matsigenka live in a family-level society, and this helps them to avoid being exploited or to encounter enemies (Johnson, 1999, p. 6). Their isolated hamlets are very self-sufficient; “good land for horticulture is ample, however, and the low population density and widely scattered small settlements have meant only minimal competition between family groups for what wild foods do exist” (Johnson, 1999, p. 21). They live off of fishing, foraging, and horticulture, and the most important food to the Matsigenka is insect larvae.

This provides them with protein and dietary fats, which they can get year-round from moths, butterflies, beetles, bees, and wasps (Johnson, 1999, p. 36). The cultural values of the Matsigenka are not too far from that of Western culture. Much of their religious beliefs are stemmed from folklore and spirits, which promote proper behaviors within the group. They can be calm, quiet, and gentle but also mean, aggressive, and violent. They might be less sociable in large groups, but “they are more courteous and thoughtful in individual interactions. They are less attracted to the lure of commerce and new value systems.

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Their commitment to freedom of the family unit is truly remarkable” (Johnson, 1999, p. 50). The Matsigenka are a people that are at their happiest when left alone from outsiders and in their isolation. Much of their happiest in isolation stems from the fear of outsiders bringing in infectious diseases, which happened in the 1950s and 1960s when they first encountered Peruvians and Euro-Americans (Johnson, 1999, p. 75). They maintain societal standards for their hamlets that require independence and being able to live peacefully within a group.

They do not have or give proper names to one another, and when they do name a person, it is usually referring to a deformity or amusing incident (Johnson, 1999, p. 20). “Somehow individual men and women must be highly self-reliant, motivated to do the necessary thing according to their own judgment with little encouragement (or interference) from others, and yet at the same time be generous in the family and avoid the impulsive expressions-- especially of sex, aggression, and greed-- that can shatter even the strongest interpersonal bonds in closely-cooperating family groups” (Johnson, 1999, p. 10). “Courtship is generally open and a topic of delighted conversation at large. For many couples, courtship is a more or less public expression of mutual interest as they test the possibility of marriage” (Johnson, 1999, p. 120).

A married couple within the Matsigenka culture has established roles, they are partners with skills in separate areas of survival. They seek to marry well and make sure not to marry a lazy person. They think that this will lead to an unequal marriage, and the lazy person will always be dissatisfied (Johnson, 1999, p. 121). Matsigenka's husbands and wives spend much time together in evident harmony and enjoyment of each other’s company. We frequently find them sitting side by side at home, working quietly on some task, talking, and laughing together. At times they become playful and giggle or wrestle erotically” (Johnson, 1999, p. 120). Anger does not play a large role in their marriages, but it does occasionally happen when there are beer feasts and the men become drunk. The men may even beat their wives, who in return will run away to the home of their brother or father.

The Matsigenka understand that intercourse between a man and woman is what leads to pregnancy and that the woman always knows who the father of that infant is (Johnson, 1999, p. 78). They do practice abortions and infanticide if the child is not wanted or is believed not to be the husband’s baby. Abortions are used if the mother is a widow or already has enough young children, and it is considered the mother’s choice (Johnson, 1999, p. 82). In early childhood, “the matsigenka overtly do little to hasten a child’s development. Their style is best described as a gradual raising of expectations.

They do not cajole a child into rising up and toddling toward them, but they welcome her when she does” (Johnson, 1999, p. 85). The child learns responsibility from interacting with the mother. The families feel they need to tame the willful child so that the family can survive and multiply (Johnson, 199, p. 78). “Matsigenka siblings are close and affectionate. They spend most of their childhood in each other’s company and seldom interact with other children. This is partly because there may be few other children around, but it is also a reflection of the nuclear-family centeredness of Matsigenka behavior” (Johnson, 1999, p. 14). Some hamlets send their children to school. The school is about an hour's walk each way for most children. “The school acts as both a magnet and a repellent for Matsigenka households. Attraction to the school for trade goods, medicines, and a general sense of security comes into conflict with many of their most basic preferences about where and how to live best. It is these conflicts that account for the aversion many Matsigenkas have toward school communities” (Johnson, 1999, p. 197).

When reading the ethnography by Allen Johnson, there are a few specific needs that would benefit the Matsigenka people of Shimaa. When assessing, the needs of the Matsigenka community begins with gathering the information from the ethnography and then applying it to the community problems. The first need involves their drinking water and access to it. The Matsigenka get their water from the river closest to their hamlets, but because of their desire for isolation and danger, they do not live close to the river banks.

When they are in a season of high water or Kimoariniku, the trails become muddy and make it hard to travel. During low season the “little streams that supply household needs during dry high water dry up, forcing people to lug river water in heavy, sloshing gourds up steep trails to their houses. And dry spells occur of long enough duration that crops in well-drained fields begin to wilt under the intense sun, and Matsigenkas anxiously watch the skies for welcome signs of rain” (Johnson, 1999, p. 34). The second need of the Matsigenka people is a latrine.

Johnson mentions in his book that a house did have a latrine, but most people would use strips of land where brush or cane grow to defecate (Johnson, 1999, p. 207). “These are preferred areas for urination and children’s defecation. Adults are fastidious about defecation, however, and prefer whenever possible to refrain until they are at the edge of an old garden or out foraging in the forest” (Johnson, 1999, p. 207). By having effective latrines, they can ensure proper sanitation, the prevention of infectious diseases, and help keep their drinking water safe and clean. The Matsigenka are disgusted by feces (Liga), not only of other people but of any animal. The feces of toddlers, not yet toilet trained, are quickly collected into a leaf and disposed of” (Johnson, 1999, p. 208). The Matsigenka do try to maintain good health, but they do not have the proper tools and means to make sure they do not develop any infectious diseases. They try to locate their homes in areas where a family is not living upstream from their location, this ensures that the water will not be contaminated by urination or feces. They have standards of cleanliness to which they adhere, and they respond to injury and illness with all the tools at their command. But their technology for dealing with health threats, and particularly with infectious diseases, is of limited effectiveness” (Johnson, 1999, p. 431). Johnson notes that they do not go around with dirt all over them and smell bad. They usually sit on the dirt floor with a mat, wash daily, wash their garments daily, and wash their hands before preparing food (Johnson, 1999, p. 431).

They also make sure that any waste or garbage is thrown away from their homes and in a designated area. “But efforts at hygiene are, in a sense, a losing battle in Shimaa. In addition to parasites, infections pass freely between members of a household or hamlet because of the continual affectionate touching and sharing between them” (Johnson, 1999, p. 434). The third need for the Matsigenka is the prevention of infanticide. “A small but significant proportion of women, again perhaps one in ten, contemplate killing their infants rather than raising them.

Men may have attitudes on the matter and may promote infanticide if they believe another man is the father, but it is primarily the woman’s decision and her action” (Johnson, 1999, p. 81). Johnson discusses that some women feel the need to kill their infant because they have been unable to stop it from crying after a few days. Not everyone in hamlet feels that infanticide is right, but most do feel that it is the mother’s choice. “The general belief is that troublesome children should be bathed in hot water, not given up on” (Johnson, 1999, p. 82).

There is a need for prevention not only with the mother but also with those closest to the mother. Some of the mothers were told by others to kill their babies, either because they needed them to continue working or because a co-wife told them they could not raise children (Johnson, 1999, p. 82). “In the difficult choices of abortion and infanticide, the mother has an ultimate say and performs the act, even when her husband or parent tries to influence her decision”(Johnson, 1999, p. 82). The final need involves Matsigenka’s access to school and participation in school.

Education is important because it helps to increase income and knowledge, which makes future generations better able to survive. Many Matsigenka people do not like the school communities because they involve being around people they do not know. “Although social relations are peaceful and courteous, in private, there is a good deal of suspicion and accusation leveled against members of other hamlets” (Johnson, 1999, p. 49). Other Matsigenka school communities besides Shimaa are much more integrated, visit each other more often, and trade goods (Johnson, 1999, p. 49).

This is why it would be beneficial for all members of the community to be more open and involved in the school systems. With more students attending the school, there is more opportunity to have better teachers and better education. Discussing the proposed needs of the Matsigenka cannot happen without having a proposed development project to accompany each need. The first need discussed was drinking water and access to it. To gain better access to drinking water, the Matsigenka people need manually drilled wells to help secure their water and make it more accessible.

By working with the school communities, they could work to gain donations and funding through organizations to help manually drill wells for the people. While doing this, information could be explained to the different hamlets on the importance of boiling the water to prevent infectious diseases. The second need for the Matsigenka is latrines. This is an important project because it helps to prevent disease and keep people healthy through proper sanitation. Many places that use latrines collect the waste and transport it out to be processed for future use as compost. Matsigenka’s isolation and lack of roads and transport make this process very difficult.

The project being proposed is to use latrines still but use biodegradable clay or stones to build them so that when the latrine fills up, it can still be used for farming in the future. Another possibility is to use good bacteria to help compost human waste faster to help prevent the odor and flies from accumulating. When there is too much smell and flies, people will prefer to defecate in other places than the latrines. An additional way to cut down on the flies and smell is to install a type of skylight or vent that is at the top of the latrine.

Building the latrine will help with sanitation and prevent water from being contaminated. While building the latrines, it will be important to inform people in the community of the importance of not to defecating in the surrounding areas where they are living. To help keep infectious diseases and bacteria from spreading, it will be important to inform the community on the importance of washing their hands after use of the latrine. The Matsigenka are already practicing good habits by avoiding the areas used for urination and defecation, so this would help in their transition to using latrines.

The third proposed development project involves the prevention of infanticide. The Matsigenka people also practice abortions which are done before a child is born. This will not be a debate regarding whether or not abortion is right or wrong but rather a discussion on preventative measures to protect babies that are already born. Infanticide is usually used as a way to control the population or because of stressful parental situations. The community in Shimaa leaves the decision to the mother on whether or not to kill her infant. This is why it is important to inform the mother of better ways to soothe a crying infant and ways to handle stress regarding the infant. A project could be to implement awareness in the schools on how to handle infants and what the options are outside of infanticide for them and their infants. This is not a problem that could be changed overnight. It may take many years of education and awareness to see the number of deaths decreases. The last proposed development project is the need for more school communities and access to education. Education is incredibly powerful, and when that knowledge is obtained, it is something that cannot be taken away.

Education for the Matsigenka people can mean opening up their communities to more opportunities to trade and increase their incomes. With more income, they can afford to have stronger and more functional housing. More income can also mean better access to medicines and clinics so illnesses can be treated early. “Attraction to the school, for trade goods, medicines, and a general sense of security, comes into conflict with many of their most basic preferences about where and how to live best. It is these conflicts that account for the aversion many Matsigenkas have toward school communities” (Johnson, 1999, p. 197).

The Matsigenka people fear outsiders because of their fear of illness and their history of outsiders bringing influenza to their communities. “Always a topic of conversation, news of a viral infection in the neighborhood travel quickly. Families scatter to their alternative residences. They will stay away until they believe the danger has passed and the locale is again safe” (Johnson, 1999, p. 198). This will be a hard part of the project to handle, but with proper sanitation, clean water, and awareness of proper hygiene, their fear of outsiders bringing infection can be lessened. The Matsigenka are unique in their want of isolation.

Most communities are looking to make sellable goods or use their land so that they can reach more people to have the possibility of more income. With more people coming to the Amazon in search of natural gas and exploiting their resources, the Matsigenka people are going to have to become more aware and take more preventative action with the outside world. This means they need more information to protect against infectious diseases and to keep their community in the changing world.


Johnson, A., (1999). Families of the Forest.

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Families of the Forest. (2016, Dec 16). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/families-of-the-forest/

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