In Amazon city, indigenous chief felled by COVID-19 buried with dance and singing

Bruno Kelly

By Bruno Kelly

MANAUS, Brazil, May 14 (Reuters) - He had asked them to sing and dance at his funeral, and that is how they said goodbye to Chief Messias Kokama on Thursday.

They sang the Brazilian national anthem in Tikuna, one of the 14 indigenous languages spoken in their ramshackle settlement on the outskirts of Manaus where 2,500 descendants of 35 different Amazon tribes live.

Chief Kokama, of the Kokama tribe, was 53 and died on Wednesday of respiratory collapse and other complications from COVID-19 after a week in the main hospital of Manaus, Brazil's largest city in the Amazon rainforest.

"We lost a brave chief who fought to establish a model indigenous community with quality education and services that we are denied," said Vanderlecia Ortega, an indigenous nurse who monitors her neighbors for coronavirus symptoms and had arranged an ambulance to take Kokama to hospital.

The soaring number of coronavirus cases has overwhelmed the hospitals in Manaus, and the dead are being buried in collective graves at funerals attended by no more than two relatives.

As the leader of the settlement called Parque das Tribos, municipal authorities made an exception to allow his community to gather to pay homage to Kokama after a wake.

His simple wooden coffin wrapped in cling film was placed in the unfinished school he had fought hard to have built, although he never got to see inaugurated. The community has decided to name the school after the chief.

The Kokama tribe inhabit the rainforest in Peru, Colombia, and Brazil, on the upper reaches of the Amazon river, and many have traveled down to Manaus in search of a better life, as the late chief did 22 years ago.

But they mostly end up living in poverty on the margins of society in Manaus, with little access to public healthcare.

"Thanks to Chief Kokama, we have a place here where we can maintain our culture, our sacred songs and dances, and make our manioc flour and our arts and crafts," said nurse Vanda, as she is known in her community.

"We will continue fighting to make his dream come true."

(Reporting by Bruno Kelly Writing by Anthony Boadle Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)