The Tribal Bible: 10 Commandments of Etiquette With Tribes

Nowadays you don’t have to be an anthropologist, intrepid explorer or a government official for indigenous peoples to sample life in the bosom of a tribe. All you need is an adventurous spirit, the organisational skills to mount a small expedition and a good, open sense of humour.

However, there are some things that Western etiquette cannot teach and only through trial and error can you avoid offending, being made to feel uncomfortable, or indeed ending up in the ‘pot.’

Here are ten light-hearted rules of engagement. Just add a pinch of salt!

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1. Don’t Resist a Marriage Proposal (Huaorani Tribe, Ecuador)

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Most tribes take their ceremonies extremely seriously and if you get an offer to take part, in no way should you decline. Besides, it is a sign of acceptance and an invaluable insight into a local tribal custom.

However, when approached by Guinto – the smiliest of an already smiley tribe – to take a bride, a nervous twitch suddenly materialised just below my left eye. Charming they certainly were, but none of them were what we might call pretty in the conventional sense – or any sense for that matter!

Guinto could read my alarm and broke into a wide grin. This turned into trembling laughter which quickly crescendoed until I could see the tattooed depiction of a scarlet macaw flapping its wings at me from the centre of his bare chest.

No, he knew I was already married to Julia (at my side as he joked), but as a sign of goodwill toward us he wanted to conduct a traditional Huaorani marriage chant which involved lots of trance-inducing rhythmic movements and repetitive vocalising. My visions of a lifetime’s marriage to the chief’s daughter thankfully dissipated.

2. To Break the Ice, Convert the Children (Betek Tribe, Malaysia)

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Some tribes are friendlier than others, but if you ever stumble across the Negrito Beteks of Taman Nagara in central Peninsular Malaysia no amount of smiley-faced ingratiation or gifts of cigarettes or biros will move this rather surly down-trodden group.

Turn your attentions and charm on to the kids, however, and the shy smiles and delighted squeals will soon warm their parents’ hearts. Before long you’ll be slapping the hunters on the back, joking with the elders and swapping e-mail addresses as you make your tearful departure (OK, only joking about that last bit).

3. Avoid Fits of Uncontrolled Laughter (Kejaman Tribe, Sarawak)

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Unlike the more accessible (and hence more visited) Ibans lower down the river, this Orang Ulu group of indigenous people are not so acquainted with pale-faced Westerners and their strange ways. So, when asked by the chief to get up on stage to sing to the children during a charming end-of-term prize-giving ceremony, we could not decline. As honoured guests it was expected we play our part, and as they’d just taken delivery of their first generator they were keen to plug in the recently donated PA system.

Fortified with one too many cups of arak, we took to the stage amid conservative applause and turned to face our audience. It was a rare day in the calender with all the tribal finery on display instead of the usual shorts and t-shirts of everyday usage. The large open-sided ‘nippa’ hut was packed to the rafters. With over a hundred children at the front and their proud parents bedecked in their feathered heirlooms at the back, all eyes were centred on us.

The three of us huddled together and decided there were only two song lyrics with which we were vaguely acquainted. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was quickly dismissed as inappropriate, so we were left with “Two Little Boys” by Rolf Harris. After repeating for the forth time the only verse we actually knew, I stole furtive glances at my companions (both respected BBC wildlife film producers) before we all crumbled into completely uncontrollable laughter.

Tears were rolling down our cheeks with the words half-swallowed by our painful, wretched merriment. The only problem was that nobody else in the audience shared in the joke.

The chief (our host) and his trusted warriors stared blankly back at us and even the children had stopped fidgeting. The awful realisation dawned on us that everyone in this proud tribe (the elders had taken Japanese heads in WWII!) misinterpreted our laughter for ridicule. They thought we were laughing at them.

It was only later, well after the ceremony had ended (and we had avoided the pot I was sure was being prepared just out of sight), that we managed to convey through an English-speaking teacher that it was embarrassment at our inadequate singing abilities and not ridicule that had caused such mirth.

4. Be Careful How You Wield the Camera (Akha Tribe, Northern Thailand)

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Some animist tribes believe you take away a part of their soul when you photograph them. And yet, as much as you want to respect their beliefs, the temptation to sneak a few shots can sometimes be overwhelming. So the trick is if you want to avoid offence is to resort to espionage.

I’ve hidden in stilted huts with the lens poking through a missing knot, snapped away from between the legs of a startled pig (these are mostly blurred), and once from the safe confines of a tin shower cubicle – though God knows what one inquisitive old woman thought I was doing as I walked nonchalantly into the outside wash facility with my towel around my waist, a bar of soap in one hand and the camera clenched in the other.

5. Leave the Washing to the Womenfolk (Huaorani Tribe, Ecuador)

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Men hunt and women wash and cook – period. So when I was spotted with my wife and two travelling companions (a man and a woman) beating my mud-encrusted clothes against the smooth rocks by the banks of the river, the local menfolk were dumbfounded and the women almost apologetic – but also just a little bit delighted.

Let them think I’m a metrosexual namby-pamby, I thought, just let me work up this ancient slab of rather gritty rock-hard soap into a lather. It turned out that this was the ‘tribal bar’ shared amongst the 80 or so women, so you can imagine my frustration when the damned thing slipped through my hands only to disappear forever onto the depths of the Cononaco.

Help was at hand in the shape of Liz (our sophisticated New Yorker) who produced a replacement bar from her backpack: Victoria’s Secret coconut and essence of vanilla moulded onto a plaited rope, just so. For the remaining three days of our stay we noticed the males of the tribe paying rather more attention to their unusually fragrant women – and I did catch one teenage boy taking a bite out of the sweet-smelling soap before spitting it out in disgust, his mouth a froth of bubbles.

6. Don’t Enter a Hut Uninvited (Masai Tribe, Tanzania)

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Finding a camera-wielding tourist poking about in the garden of your London semi would offend (and startle) most people, and so it is with the Masai who take understandable exception to strangers entering the circular fence of thorny branches that make up the ‘boma.’

If you are lucky enough to be invited into one of the dark little huts within the circle, try to avoid gagging on the smell (the livestock live with them below the beds) or choking on the smoke, as there is no flue between the open fire on the mud floor and the small hole at the top of the hut.

7. Do Not Feel Offended by Inappropriate Breast-Fondling (Huaorani Tribe, Ecuador)

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Ladies, your plump, milky mammories – even when respectfully trussed within the confines of a bra and tight t-shirt – are globes of endless fascination to the saggy-breasted topless old crones of this delightful tribe.

Expect your breasts to be cupped, prodded, kneaded, and tweaked amid unabashed laughter – just don’t try to fight them off. They’re only being curious.

8. Acquire Your Mementos Carefully if You’re a Long Way From Home (Betek Tribe, Malaysia)

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It seemed like the perfect souvenir of our intrepid stay with this nomadic negrito tribe. Whilst my wife was careful to barter for just a few exquisitely-engraved bamboo combs directly from the fuzzy-haired heads of the women I, of course, wanted a quiver full of poisonous arrows and a three metre blowpipe to accompany it.

All this without so much as a passing thought as to how, exactly, I was to get it down the mountain, through the rain forest, into the boat, down the river, into the bus, onto the plane, and from thence back to Heathrow.

Customs hated it, the airliner wanted to charge me extra, and passport control joked that my photo was missing the bone through my nose. How we laughed! It is currently collecting dust in the attic and the quiver of poisonous arrows lies locked in a trunk in the cellar avoiding the proddings of inquisitive little fingers. Was it worth it?

9. Always Carry Loo Paper – Especially if Crapping in the Chief’s Long-Drop (Kejaman Tribe, Sarawak)

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Having bribed and harassed our way up the Rajang river to our final destination on the muddy banks of a small tributary three days from Kuching, we were ushered unannounced to the chief’s stilted longhouse to bed down as his guests. At some point during the evening, nature called and the only polite place to evacuate was over a hole in a small room next to the chief’s private quarters – his en-suite, if you like.

Travellers tummy and lack of any visible loo paper is one of the most unwelcome combinations any backpacker can endure. With only a small plastic bowl of murky river water to hand, this tribe’s ‘bidet’ sanitation left much to be desired.

However, entertainment is available in situations like this, for after the squat and push bares its fruit there is the tantalising wait for the sonic splat to reach the dusty ground thirty feet below – followed by the frantic grunts and excited yelps of the pigs and hunting dogs kept below to hoover up the tasty morsels.

Which brings me neatly on to…

10. When Offered Dog, Eat Dog (Kejaman Tribe, Sarawak)

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Dispel all thoughts of your dinner’s diet. Think more in terms of recycling and doing your bit for the green movement.

Old hunting dogs no longer good for the chase are routinely butchered and served up for supper. Even when seasoned with all available herbs and spices and marinaded in arak for a week, it’s still chewier than a piece of old shoe leather – but you must eat a good few cubes of this delicacy as it will be perceived as extreme rudeness and ingratitude if you don’t.

If you’re lucky, you’ll be spared the dog and served the pig which, dietary habits aside, is a good deal tastier and left me asking for more. That evening I spent another sorry hour squatting over the chief’s long-drop – and so the story comes full circle!

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all photos by Nick Flynn

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Older comments on The Tribal Bible: 10 Commandments of Etiquette With Tribes

Ian Rose
13 January 2010

In my experience with Alaska native communities, the biggest single rule was to be sincere. There’s a difference between acting respectful and being respectful, and between acting interested and being interested. People can tell, and being honest and sincere in how you deal with them is, to me, the most important thing. #10 goes for seal as well.

Trista Kay
21 January 2010

Funny stuff Nick. Love this article. Although #3 isn’t always the case, sometimes laughter – even if it’s about nothing, is the best way to break the ice. #10 I can relate to except for me it was, when offered Rat Stew, eat Rat Stew. HA!

Trista T. (www.tristathompsonblog.com)

Madeline Jhawar
29 January 2010

great stories! #7 made me laugh out loud, sitting in my internet cafe no less :)