31 Days of Missionary Stories: Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomamo Shaman’s Story

I reviewed this book a few years ago, but I felt that I must include it in this series. This is a current missionary story published in 2000.

rainforest.jpgJungle Mom (who now blogs at Livin’ la Rita Loca) is a missionary that our church in SC supported, and she recommended to me the book Spirit of the Rainforest: A Yanomamo Shaman’s Story by Mark Ritchie. If I understand correctly, the Yanomamo territory bordered the Yekwana Indians that the she and her husband worked with, and the they knew many Yanomamo and their ways and some of the people in this book.

This book is not for the faint of heart, however. It is not gratuitous, but it is graphic and very frank in its dealings with demonism, violence, and the treatment of women. It is told through the eyes of “Jungleman,” a powerful shaman. It is interesting to see things through his perspective (told by him to the author, who wrote them down and confirmed the incidents with others).

He tells first of all of the Yanomamo policy of revenge. Any incident calls for revenge from the family or village sinned against, which usually involves a raid on the offending village, clubbings, and capture and group rape of women. The extent of the raid can vary — in some cases two opposing warriors take turns clubbing each other over the head or across the chest. In more serious offenses every male is killed and the remaining women are assaulted multiple times and then carried off to become wives of the raiding village. If a captured woman tries to run away, she is beaten or killed. Children of the raided village are often brutally killed, occasionally captured.

Such raids did not satisfy the revenge, however: it sparked more revenge. Any remaining men or any relatives who lived in other villages were then expected to exact revenge on the raiding village. A war once begun never stopped. In between raids, villages were afraid to go out into their gardens or out to find food, always fearful of an ambush. Sometimes they broke up camp and wandered in the jungle looking for food. Sometimes mighty warriors woke up with nightmares, haunted by the cries of those that they killed. Yet they could never admit this: fierceness was the most valued characteristic in a Yanamamo male.

Gradually white nabas (their word for non-Yanomamo) began to appear in the jungle. They “talked like babies” but sometimes had useful things to trade. The Indians quickly learned, however, through hard trial and error, that all nabas were not the same. Some were interested in trading, some were interested in helping, but some were evil and interested in exploiting (they knew some earned money by taking and selling pictures of them [one even told them to take off their clothes so the pictures he took and sold would be more “authentic”] and stories about them, but there were others whose exploitation was much, much worse). There were a few, however, who said they were followers of the one the Yanomamo regarded as the great enemy spirit. They said the Indians misunderstood Him, that He loved them and had a better way to live. The Yanomamo were naturally suspicious, but they kept interacting with them because of the items they would trade or because of the medical help, and later because of the peace they exhibited. Jungleman and others’ spirits became troubled every time they were near the village where the nabas lived and begged the shamans not to ‘throw them away.”

To me there were several major benefits to this book. One was the fascinating look into Yanomamo culture. One was the immense power of the gospel to miraculously change lives in those who receive it. It was thrilling to read of those who came to believe and how they changed and grew and began to understand the ways in which they had been deceived.

Another major value of this book is the truth that these “primitive” peoples are not living happy lives frolicking in an idyllic Eden. I don’t know if you realize this, but there is a large and growing segment of the population who believes that such people should be left alone to Western influence all together and especially Christianity. As I said in another post months ago, these people deserve as much chance as anyone else has to hear the gospel and have the choice to change their ways.

The following is an interview between “Doesn’t Miss” (their name for the author), Keleewa, the missionary who interpreted, and a Yanomamo called Hairy on pages 180-183:

“The naba wants to know why you want to change the way you live out here in the jungle,” Keleewa said to Hairy after Doesn’tMiss talked.

Hairy was surprised at the question. “Because we’re miserable out here. We are miserable all the time. The people from Honey [predominantly Christian village] came here and made peace with us many seasons ago and their village keeps getting better. We want that for us. If it means throwing spirits away and getting new ones, we will do it. [This is not something said lightly. Many were under the impression that they would be killed if they tried to get rid of their spirits.] But we need someone to teach us these new ways.”

Hairy didn’t have spirits because he was not a shaman. But he followed everything the spirits told his shaman. I knew my spirits would be very irritated if Hairy quit following the spirits. No one who has killed as often and as long as Hairy could ever stop it…

Doesn’t Miss talked with Keleewa for a while. Keleewa paused and thought how to say what the naba said. Then he told Hairy, “He says there are many people in his land that don’t think that he, or any of us, should be here helping you at all. They say that you’re happy here and that we should leave you alone. He wants to know what an experienced killer like you would say to them.”

Hairy grew even more serious. “I say to you, please don’t listen to the people who say that. We need help so bad. We are so miserable here and our misery never stops. Night and day it goes on. Do those people think we don’t suffer when bugs bite us? If they think this is such a happy place out here in the jungle, why aren’t they moving here to enjoy this beautiful life with us?”

Doesn’t-Miss was quiet. Then he got out of his hammock and walked down the trail…When he was too far away to hear, Hairy said to Keleewa, “Is he stupid? Doesn’t he have eyes? Can’t he see these lean-tos we call houses? Can’t he see us roam the jungle every day, searching for food that isn’t here, so we can starve slower? Can’t he see that our village is almost gone, that this move we are making now is our last hope to stay alive?”

Keleewa was slow to answer. He knew Hairy wouldn’t understand what he was about to say. “Most nabas think just like him,” Keleewa told Hairy, and shook his head because he knew he couldn’t explain why.

“Nobody’s that stupid,” Hairy snapped. “They must hate us. They think we’re animals.”

Later Hairy asked Keleewa what they had to do to get a white naba to come to their village and live with them and teach them about Yai Pada (God), offering to clear an airstrip. Kelweewa promised that if they cleared an airstrip someone would come. That day Hairy and his people began clearing the jungle, and Hairy “remembered the wife he had killed. ‘I don’t want to treat women like that any more,’ he thought. ‘I don’t want my children to be killers like me. I want them to follow the spirit of this man of peace. I want us all to be free of our past. I want to sleep again’” (p. 230).

Another time (page 202) an antro (Yanomamo word for the kind of naba who took pictures of them and wrote about them) scolded an Indian named Shortman:

“Don’t you ever speak to me in Spanish! You are a Yanomamo and will always be a Yanomamo. You have no business throwing away your true ways and trying to copy nabas with their clothes, watches, motors, and now even changing to Spanish! Don’t ever speak to me in Spanish again! You want to talk to me? Use Yanomamo.”

“What’s that in your lower lip there?” Shortman asked…

“That’s my wad of tobacco,” the antro answered.

“Where did you learn to chew tobacco that way?” asked Shortman.

“I learned it from your people.”

“You saw us chew tobacco that way and you tried it and you liked it. So you copied us, didn’t you?”

“That’s right,” the antro said, with some pride in his Indian ways.

Shortman shrugged. “If you can copy us,” he paused with a puzzled look, ”then we can copy you.”

Somehow the shamans could “see” when another person had spirits, and they had identified some of the evil nabas as having spirits that the nabas themselves didn’t know about. At one point when Shoefoot, leader of Honey village, came to America with the author, he “identified the signs and symbols of many of the spirits right here in our ‘civilized’ culture. He has no problem understanding the Columbine High School massacre or any other killing spree. The spirits of anger and hatred that own and drive a person are spirits he has known personally. He knows what it means to kill under the influence of something or someone. So when a student asks…”Why can’t you get rid of your spirits without converting to Christianity?’ his answer is simple. ‘I don’t know any other way to get rid of the spirits that are destroying us. And no other shaman does, either’” (p. 251).

(You can see a list of other posts in the 31 Days of Missionary Stories here.)

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

31 Days of Missionary Stories: How to minister to a culture that values treachery?

peace childI first encountered Peace Child by Don Richardson several years ago in the Reader’s Digest Book Section. I cut it out and kept it, and some years later in college I also saw a film based on the book. I bought a new copy of the book after learning that these events took place in Indonesia, “next door” to where a missionary worked whom we knew and supported.This missionary knew Don and some of the people he ministered to.

In the early 1950s, many tribes in the jungles of Indonesia were totally unevangelized and virtually untouched by the modern world. Though “primitive,” they were not at all unintelligent: they had developed many skills for living in the jungle and had many legends and elaborate rituals ripe with meaning that had developed over the years. The Sawi, whom Don Richardson came to work with, were headhunters and cannibals, as were many of the other tribes. The Lord opened the doors for these people to accept the missionaries through their thinking at first that white people (whom they called Tuan) weren’t quite human, though they knew they were different from the spirits, through rumor that the Tuan could “shoot fire” (with guns), and through gifts the missionaries brought of such things as axes, which could fell a tree in four strokes, whereas the hand-made stone axes required about 40 strokes.

Three communities or villages settled around the new Tuan. Don spent hours listening to them, learning their language and their customs, and trying to tell them of God’s truth about creation, the entrance of sin, the promise of Deliverer, and the life of Christ. But the Sawi weren’t used to listening to tales about other cultures and grew bored…until Don’s narrative got to Judas. They listened intently to the story of Judas’s close relationship with Christ and his betrayal. They whistled with admiration. In their culture treachery and deception were virtues, the admirable stuff of legends. They valued not just cold murder, but the “fattening with friendship” of an unsuspecting victim, then delighted in telling about the look of astonishment on his face when he realized they were about to kill and eat him. They thought Judas was the hero of the story. Don was astonished and chilled and tried to explain that the betrayal was evil, that Jesus was the Son of God. But he couldn’t get through. Don and his wife Carol knew that God had some way to reach this culture and “set [themselves] to hope for some revelation.”

The next day fighting broke out between the different villages. That day and in the days to come, Don urged peace. Sawi villages usually kept some distance from each other, and Don realized that by having three villages come together to settle near him, the villagers were constantly being provoked to battle. Finally he felt that he should leave and settle somewhere else so that the Sawi would not end up destroying themselves. The Sawi protested they did not want Don to leave. Discussions began and leaders from both factions came to Don to assure him they would make peace.

The next day, the Sawi groups solemnly gathered. Don witnessed, to his amazement, a man from each of the warring groups bring one of his own children, with the mothers weeping, and exchange the children. Those in one group who would accept the child as a basis for peace were called to come and lay hands upon him, and the process was repeated in the other group. Then each child was taken to his new adoptive home. In a culture of violence and treachery, “at some point the Sawi had found a way to prove sincerity and establish peace…If a man would actually give his own son to his enemies, that man could be trusted.”

Don was horrified that his call for peace had caused this to happen, but soon began to see the parallels between the Sawi “peace child” and God’s sacrifice of His own Son. He began to tell them that Jesus was God’s own Peace Child to all men. Judas lost his status as hero because harming a peace child was one of the worst things someone could do. They began to see the inadequacy of their “best,” because peace in their culture only held as long as the peace child lived. When he died, old animosities could revive. But because Jesus rose again and was eternal, the peace He gave could never die.

It took many months for understanding and conviction to sink in, and even then they were afraid of angering the demons by departing from tradition. But when God enabled Don and Carol to revive a Sawi tribesman who was near death, the Sawi took this “as proof that the tuan’s God was powerful” and many began to believe.

Eventually more than half of the Sawi became believers, their language was reduced to writing, they were taught to read, the New Testament was translated, and some of the Sawi became teachers to their own people. Praise the Lord!!

As I have written before, some will criticize any attempt of other cultures to contact or influence primitive tribes. But, really, just as in the case of the Waodani (previously known as Aucas), if no one had stepped in, the Sawi would most likely have eventually ceased to exist, because each treacherous act of one group against another would set off a series of revenge battles with many more being killed. The Richardsons were careful not to try to impose a Western church upon the Sawi culture but to bring the gospel into theirs.

I would warn that the first several pages of the book describes a pretty ghastly deception and murder of one man to show by example what the Sawi culture was like. It is not gratuitous but it is graphic. I think this book would be perfectly suited for reading as a family or a class as well as for personal reading, but parents and teachers might want to preview that chapter to determine its appropriateness for the age level and personalities of their children. But I think anyone who reads it will get a glimpse into a missionary’s journey through adjustment to a different culture, perplexity in determining how best to share the gospel, the darkness of a culture without the Lord, and the amazing way God opens hearts and understanding to His truth. Stories like this are a part of the glorious fulfillment of the day John prophesied in Revelation 7:9-10: “After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.”

A few years ago I searched for and found a copy of the film I had seen back in college, Peace Child, on DVD. I enjoyed watching it again. I am amazed at how much of the story they packed into a 30-minute film. I can’t express what it does to my heart to see former cannibals at the end of the film singing gospel songs. Then last year I came across this neat video of Don and his sons going back to visit the Sawi 50 years after that first visit.

(You can see a list of other posts in the 31 Days of Missionary Stories here.)

It Was For Me

I love the words to this song,  and the music by Rod France arranged by Faye Lopez beautifully expresses the message.

Why leave a heav’nly mansion?
Why choose a simple stall?
Why wander poor and homeless,
The King and Lord of all?
Why heal a lonely beggar?
Why cause the blind to see?
The Light of all creation,
Shining there for me?

Chorus:
It was for me He cried, for me He died,
for me He shed His blood upon the tree.
It was for me He came, for me His shame;
For me, oh praise His name, it was for me.

Why stay in Olive’s garden?
Why spend the night in prayer?
Why suffer such betrayal
In anguish kneeling there?
Why leave His mother crying?
Why set Barabbas free?
The spotless Lamb of heaven
Given there for me.

Why climb that dreadful mountain?
Why suffer agony?
Why give His blood a fountain,
Spilled and broken, flowing free?
When He walked the road to Calv’ry,
Gave His life so willingly,
Broken there, the Rose of Sharon died for me.

(Chorus)

The King who came from heaven,
To the cry, “There is no room,”
Now must lay His weary body
In a cold and borrowed tomb.
But the grave, it would not hold Him;
Death lost its victory.
The risen Lord of glory
is living now for me.

It was for me He cried, for me He died,
for me He shed His blood upon the tree.
It was for me He came, for me His shame;
For me, oh praise His name, it was for me.

— Dave Bolling

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:5-6.

______________________________

Updated to add: I have been asked several times for the sheet music for this song. I don’t have it. I only have a recorded version on a couple of CDs (Creator, Redeemer and King by The Wilds Men’s Quartet; another is Sing Praise to God by The Wilds Christian Camp. An instrumental version is on the Almighty, Unchangeable God CD, also from The Wilds.) At this time the Wilds Christian Camp has a SATB version as well as a TTBB version on their site. Go to http://wilds.org/, click on Store, then Click on Product Search and search for the song by title.