Journey to the Amazon – Living Truth in Brazil

It is Wednesday night and I have just flown by small plane into the town of Macapa, which sits exactly on the equator in Northern Brazil.  For the past week I have been based on the Island of Afua on the Amazon river, about 180 km upstream from where it flows into the South Atlantic ocean.  I am here as part of the Living Truth telethon film crew (five of us) preparing for our annual three part telethon to be broadcast in October.  We are working with Marcio Garcia, a wonderfully energetic man in his late 40’s, who founded the Evangelical Mission to Assist Fishermen about 20 years ago to reach neglected fishermen along the coast of Brazil, and now in the Amazon.  Marcio and two of his very sharp team have been with us. EMAF began along the coast line of North East Brazil, and now have 85 Brazilian missionaries, plus hundreds of volunteers, especially medical, dental and educational people who help for short periods of time.  Their strategy is to begin by church planting and then developing all sorts of aid to the community, eg education of children denied opportunity to go to school, medical and dental work for those without access to any other services, providing nutritious food (once and sometimes twice each day) for children who are malnourished.  Many of the people they discovered in searching for them were not even known to exist by the government of Brazil, so neglected and isolated were they.   Our visit to islands off the coast (near the city of Salvador, the oldest Brazilian city and its first capital) were to show the remarkable difference EMAF ministry has brought to the community (when I say ‘near Salvador’ I am talking of a 6 or 7 hour car and ferry ride away).

Then we came North to the Amazon (flying for about 7 hours with 3 stops) to show why the ministry, which has started here and is small, needs to expand along the Amazon river.  There are 33,000 island or riverside communities up the Amazon with no gospel witness. Nearly all of them are accessible only by boat – there are no roads.  Afua, where we were, is a remarkable community to witness.  The island is low, and every house is built on stilts, all the walk ways are board walks about four to six feet above the ground, because every time the tide comes in, it virtually covers the island, certainly most of it.  People therefore live, work and walk above the high tide levels, and every home is accessed from a board walk by a bridge. The main board walks are fairly stable (though with no sides) but as you get away from the centre of the community they become narrower and more rickety until in some cases you are walking along either two or even one six inch wide planks, suspended as far as it is possible between posts in the ground, bowing and bending as you walk, sometimes over high ditches and rivers that have cut their paths across the island from the Amazon on one side to the Amazon on the other side.  It’s remarkable to us timid Canadians to see people and children walking these planks like circus artists on a tight rope!  There are no vehicles here at all, though the ‘chug chug chug’ of boats is never silent.  The river is the road!   A concrete runway suitable only for very small planes is sometimes covered in water with a very high tide, and is used infrequently by anyone able to charter a plane (like we had to do) instead of making the 8 hour or so boat ride (depending on the tides and weather) swinging on a hammock.  Everyone sleeps in hammocks, which are suspended in every room between beams, and which during the day are tied tightly so as to be above the heads, and the room that has been a bedroom all night is transformed into another room – albeit in many homes we visited, with no furniture.

The general population of Brazil is made up of European migrants from the 17th century onwards, mainly Portuguese, but also Spanish and Italian, along with African slaves imported from West Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries. These two groups (European and African) have lived well alongside each other since the ending of slavery and have intermarried freely and frequently so as to have produced the coffee colored Brazilian that is so common today.  The indigenous Brazilians, known as “Indians” do not figure much in national life, and by and large, have located themselves in the more remote and isolated parts of the country.  There is a remarkable similarity to the Indigenous peoples of North America, the Aboriginals of Australia and the Maori’s of New Zealand.  It was a surprise to me to find this so.  Most of the isolated Amazonian people are indigenous people.  They are generally physically small (compared to us), and in their homes everything seems to be about ¾ normal size that we are used to – beds, tables, chairs, ceilings, so I felt, for instance in the hotel in Afua, that I was either in a glorified dolls house, or was playing the part of someone out of Gullivers travels. For the time we were there, we Canadians were undoubtedly the tallest people on the island!

The Amazon river is the dirtiest river I have ever seen.  It contributes about 20% of all the fresh water that flows into the worlds oceans, yet is constantly churning and stirring up dirt and soil. It was never anything other than a thick brown color all the time we have been here.  I imagine the erosion up stream to be enormous.  The heat causes constant evaporation during the day – hundreds of tons of it, and on the principle that what goes up, must come down, it also rains heavily every day – hundreds of tons of it.  When it really rains, it feels like someone is literally throwing bucket after bucket of water – not in rain drops, but in bucket loads!  After an hour, maybe two, sometimes three of rain, it stops, the sun comes out, the humidity is intense, and it all begins to evaporate again, waiting a few hours to accumulate enough before dumping it all back down.  Nothing ever has the chance to get dry!   

We are here for the people, and to help EMAF to refit two boats with which they will access other isolated peoples on other islands, and to build a ‘Mission Base’ on Afua that will minister to many needy people on the island.  One of their young missionary couples, in their 20’s, have been on an island for exactly one year.  There were no Christians and complete ignorance of Jesus Christ.  In two months they had planted a church which now has 40 adults and teens, and 60 younger children, many of the adults are now saved and their marriages, families and communities are being transformed. Locals look on in amazement at what they see (3000 live on that island) and more are coming to Christ. It’s a remarkable story, and one EMAF believe is to be repeated many times over as they plant more missionaries and churches along the river. 

The Amazon rainforest is so vast it produces apparently 25% of the worlds land produced oxygen (much is produced by the oceans, but this is of land based oxygen renewal).  It is alive with sounds, movement, greenary, insect and animal life, with towering lush trees that compete with each other for the sun, hence their height. We went into the rainforest with a man who goes out to find a certain palm tree that he cuts down to get the palm heart (about a foot of it, which is a delicacy you can buy at any Metro store).  The trees are 12 to 15 yrs old when they are ripe for chopping down.  He goes out for 15 to 30 days at a time, strings up his hammock between two trees, makes a fire, cooks himself food, and works hard to bring home about 5 canadian cents for each tree he has cut down and extracted the ‘palm heart’. His best day ever was the day he cut down 200 palms (about $10) but when he comes home, his family have accumulated bills for food so that all his money goes to pay off what they have already eaten, and he has nothing left.  After a day or twos rest, he trundles back into the forest (walking for hours to find the trees) only to bring home money again that has already been spent in his absence.  We filmed him at work, and I interviewed him with an interpreter. He had a lovely face, and later in his home we met his wife and kids (plus both grandmothers and his wife’s father who all live with them). His physical labor is constant, hard, but never enough to make any progress for his family.  It seemed to me that there is only one value in the lives of most of the people – Survival.  There is no other, for if there is no survival nothing else matters.

I have not written of the spiritual life that is coming to these people through the EMAF witness, but it is happening in very significant ways.  We came to the Amazon not to tell success stories (they came from the islands off Salvador where EMAF have worked for a long time) but to show the need, physical and spiritual, and to challenge each other to make effective ministry possible, and I very much believe our Living Truth viewers will respond well, as they have in the past, and enable us to help EMAF reach so many more people.

 

Thanks for reading,

Charles

Journey to the Amazon Photo Album



Watch Video Profile: Marcio Garcia