Dangerous, poorly constructed motorboats are one of the most popular modes of transportation along the waterways of the poverty-stricken Brazilian Amazon. Locals piece them together with whatever mechanical and structural crap is readily available, sacrificing safety for convenience. If someone with long hair mistakenly sits too close to these uncovered propellers, they can mangle or even kill the unlucky passenger in an instant.
If the victim manages to survive the incident, he or she will most likely suffer life-changing deformities, such as the loss of ears, eyebrows, scalp, and large swaths of skin. Most of these accidents happen to women traveling through the countryside, where treatment is not an option unless they get to an urban center before keeling over. Many scalped women cannot find jobs because of their horrific injuries, and some are ostracized or mistreated by their husbands, family members, and neighbors.
Propeller-inflicted deaths and injuries have become such a serious public health issue in the region that local activists established the Associação de Mulheres Ribeirinhas e Vítimas de Escalpelamento da Amazônia (Amazonian Riparian Women Scalping Victims; AMRVEA) to provide aid to scalped women and to educate the public about how important it is to cover engines.
On the weekend of May 11, AMRVEA got together with the local government and the Brazilian Society of Plastic Surgeons to give 87 scalping victims free surgery in Macapá, the capital city of the Amazonian state of Amapá. We went there to talk to the victims and learn their stories.
Maria Trindade Gomes, 43, founder of AMRVEA, fell victim to a propeller when she was seven years old: “My dad transported flour in Pará, and once I went along with him. When I was getting off the boat, I slipped and fell on a board that was covering the engine. My parents abandoned me after one month and 15 days at a hospital in Portel,Pará. A lady took me to the military police hospital in Belém. I was hospitalized for six years because I didn’t have anywhere to go. When I came back to Portel, my father wouldn’t take me back and a Frenchman adopted me. I moved out when I was 18. Now I share my experience in lectures promoted by the association, and I’m very respected everywhere I go. We’ve learned how to make our own wigs. I make a lot of them and wear them according to my mood—one day, I’m wearing a red wig, the next, it’s a blond one, then a black one, a curly one… I really care about my appearance. It takes me about two days to make a wig once the hair is ready. We use human hair that comes from donations because we don’t have money to buy it. Every woman we give a wig to has to bring two heads of hair for us to make them for other victims so that we don’t run out of raw material.”
Maria do Socorro Damasceno, 30, was also scalped when she was seven: “When you’re a kid, you don’t even know what’s going on. It’s when you grow into a woman that you realize how big the accident was. I saw rejection, prejudice… I moved away from where I lived in the countryside because of that. I thought, Will I ever date someone with such a deformed face? Now I have four kids. Everybody’s excited about the surgery.”
Rosinete Rodrigues Serrão, 35, was scalped 15 years ago and now helps other victims regain their self-esteem: “I felt like a monster. I had a boyfriend, and after the accident he grew apart from me. I fell into depression for a year and a half and tried to commit suicide, but then I went back to school and that brought me back to life. Now I’ve found a very special person and I’m seven months pregnant. He’s also the victim of a motor accident.”
Franciane da Silva Campos, 33, was scalped 26 years ago: “I was traveling with my father, sitting between his legs, and I dropped a spoon. When I leaned forward to get it, the left side of my hair just pulled off. I was hospitalized for a year and 40 days. I suffered a lot of discrimination, people staring, trying to bring me down—I don’t accept that. I have a husband, daughter, and even a granddaughter. I’m so excited; I want to kiss this look goodbye. The first thing I’m going to do is find a job, because I still haven’t got one.”
Marcilene Mendes Rodrigues, 24, was ten years old when she was injured while bailing out of a moving boat: “My hair was everything to me. When I looked in the mirror and saw another figure, I would freak out. The doctors will give me eyebrow implants, and if the scalp extension doesn’t cover the whole head, I can at least wear hair extensions. My family, thank God, has never abandoned me. My father sold everything he had to help me.”
Francidalva da Silva Dias, 27, has an eightyear-old daughter, Patrícia (above), who fell off her lap on a boat while harvesting acai berries in 2009: “I felt such a huge amount of desperation. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. At the ER, Patrícia asked me if I was going to put her hair back, and I said no, so she said it was my fault, that I let her fall on the motor. She gets upset about prejudice in school. The other day a boy pulled her wig off and she came home crying. I hope her ear can be reconstructed. She wants to rebuild her life. She’ll feel happier, and so will I.”
Jaqueline Dias Magalhão, 17, was scalped in 2005: “I was harvesting taperebá [a kind of fruit] and moved to the stern. The motor was not covered and my hair got stuck. It ripped absolutely everything off. At the beginning I didn’t feel anything, but then the pain got stronger, I felt dizzy; my head—everything—went numb. I want to graduate from medical school. It’s hard, but I’ll do it.”
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