The Nagas

Hill Peoples of Northeast India

Project Introduction The Naga Database

book : Return to the Naked Nagas (1939;1976)

caption: Chapter Seven. Fishing with Tactful 'Savages'
caption: fish poisoning; swimming
medium: books
person: Yongem/ of Wakching
ethnicgroup: Konyak
location: Wakching
person: Furer-Haimendorf
date: 6.1936-6.1937
text: It was a gay and boisterous crowd that was scattered over the narrow sandbank near the opposite shore; some put their nets and fishing-baskets in order, others splashed about in the water. In some places where the river was narrow, it was fairly deep, and there the boys showed off their skill in swimming. My disguise as a Naga caused obvious astonishment and tactfully controlled hilarity. But the hilarity turned to utter surprise when I began swimming on my back against the current. Swimming on the back was an art unknown to the Konyak, and it evoked general applause. Even (69) the pretty girls, their velvet skins burnished like old bronze, no longer found a stranger swimming with their boy friends so very awe-inspiring, and that day they posed to my camera for the first time, instead of hiding with embarrassed giggles. Weeks later Shankok confided to me that the girls had had a good look at my anatomy, just to make sure whether creatures with a peculiar white skin were made like other men. And when in 1970 I returned to Wakching a man who remembered that fishing expedition told me that ever since Konyak men had emulated my example of back-stroke swimming, -- an amusing case of diffusion!
text: A little way up-stream a weir had been built of bamboo and branches, and nearby on the bank the young men, their foreheads beaded with sweat, pounded the poisonous bark of a creeper. Six or eight together, they stood round holes in the ground, lifting their sinewy arms to rhythmical shouts, and the next moment letting the long pounders fall heavily. From time to time the smaller boys, scrambling between their legs, collected the earth, now mixed with the poison, and strewed it over the weir. At last, when a thick layer of poisoned earth covered the weir, the men and boys lined up behind it, and, with much screaming and laughing, splashed so much water over it that the poisoned earth was washed out and mingled with the water of the river. In the end the whole weir was entirely demolished, and the fish, stupefied by the poison, drifted an easy prey into the nets and traps of the people farther downstream. But the catch was meagre, and though the men threw out large round nets again and again, they did not have much luck. Only here and there a silvery fish flashed in the hand of one more favoured by fortune.
text: Gradually the whole crowd moved down-stream. There, they told me, a less steep path branched off to Wakching, and I had no other choice but to follow them. If you have ever tried to wade at midday in a river under a cloudless tropical sky, you are unlikely to repeat the experience. Every step in the muddy water was hazardous. Now I slipped on a slimy stone and fell, with ridiculous and ineffective arm movements, full length into the water. Now I would sink suddenly into a hole, hitting my toes on all sorts of hard things that I could not see. On the bank I could put my feet down just four times on the hot pebbles, before once again having to save myself by plunging my burning soles into the river. I did not even realize that the left bank was outside British India (70) and that unconsciously I had entered unadministered territory. The current was so strong that it was difficult to stand upright, and yet there were only few places where you could swim. Yongem carried my clothes and my shoes in a basket, and the merciless sun, reflected off the water in a dazzling glare, burnt my skin. Soon I was the colour of a well-boiled lobster. My Wakching friends assured me that it was only a mile and a half to the last weir, but that last mile and a half seemed to me more like five. Eventually, when we reached the weir, everybody left the water to eat rice and have a short rest.