I would like to relate an experience I had while out drilling a water well yesterday in a community of Ayoré Indians a couple of hours from Santa Cruz. This tale is a bit longer that what I usually share, but please take the time to read this. We want our supporters and ministry partners to understand the reality of life in Bolivia so they will know how to pray for the people of Bolivia.
This week we are working alongside, Charles and Hannah, friends and fellow missionaries from SAM (South American Mission) who have a ministry with the Ayoreo Indians in the community of Pozo Verde. We are drilling a water well for a national missionary couple, Cesar and Myrtha, who live in the village and who and pastor the local evangelical church. This was my first time in an Ayoré village. While I was at first shocked by the humble and filthy living conditions (mud and stick huts with tin roofs and dirt yards full of trash), what truly disturbed me was the story of cultural bankruptcy—I don’t know what else to call it— that Hannah shared with me later.
Although not many tourists end up in Pozo Verde, which is quite a way down a dusty bumpy dirt road, the local women and girls quickly find any visitors and offer to sell them hand woven bags made from the fiber of cactus plants. Although they all dress in Western style clothes, the Ayoreo have distinct facial features that set them apart from their Quechua and German Mennonite neighbors. The children are extremely cute with big round faces and sparkling eyes. They chat excitedly among each other in their own language, of which I do not understand a word. The kids practically mobbed Hannah as she taught them a Bible story and let them color a hand-out depicting the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den. Because of the hard life in the hot scrub country where they live, the adults, especially the women, age quickly. Women in their thirties and forties are already grandmothers, and they look like they are in their fifties and sixties. I noticed that several of the community elders had fingers twisted and curled with arthritis. One of the older men in the community, and an elder in the church, was permanently crippled from a jaguar attack. Yes, there are jaguars here in the bushes.
There used to be about thirty-five families living in the Pozo Verde, but now there are only twenty-two. Yesterday most of the men were absent from the village because they were out cutting sugar cane on the large plantations several hours to the east. They will probably be gone several weeks, just long enough to get a little money in their pocket. The women and older men stay at home in the village to take care of the kids.
I read that there are currently about five thousand Ayoreo Indians in Bolivia. They have traditionally occupied the Gran Chaco area of southern Bolivia and Paraguay. This is a hot dry scrub brush country that is sparsely uninhabited because of its inaccessibility. The best lands of the Ayoré have been settled Bolivian and German immigrants over the past fifty years. Large tracts of Ayoré land have been designated for German Mennonite farmers and as well for highland Quechua Indians who are leaving poor soils of the Altiplano and coming to Eastern Bolivia to start a new life. Before these settlement schemes began, the traditional territory of the Ayoreo in this area covered hundreds of thousands of acres. Now the Ayoreo of Pozo Verde are confined to an reserve of only about 3000 acres. They have been living in Pozo Verde for about forty years now. Traditionally the Ayoreo were nomadic hunters and gatherers who moved their villages depending on the seasons and the abundance of game. Evangelical missionaries first attempted to contact the Ayoreo in the early 1940’s when a group of five missionary men went deep into their territory near Robore, Bolivia. They attempted to befriend the Indians by leaving gifts for them in their camps. The missionaries never came back out of the forest. Their families finally learned in 1950 that all the men had been murdered because one particular Ayoreo didn’t like his gift.
Over the past fifty years the Ayoreo have either come to live in settlements on the periphery of Bolivian society or they have moved deeper into the bush to avoid all contact with the outside world. As recently as 2004 a group of seventeen previously uncontacted Ayoreo came out of the bush. They said they could no longer survive in their traditional way because ranchers have encroached on their territory and taken control of all of the water sources for their cattle. It is probably a safe assumption that these were the last of the “wild and free” Ayoreo Indians.
Although the Ayoreo in Pozo Verde appear “poor but happy” on the surface, a darker sadder reality surfaces as you begin to understand more about their culture. The men continue to hunt and fish—this is a big part of their identity. They also raise some livestock and farm a bit. Although farming is not an activity they particularly excel at or put much effort into. Most men only work enough to earn a little money to buy food for the day or week and do not think about a better or more secure future. As Hannah explains it, the women are the dominant leaders in the family. They control the men, the children, and the finances. Women sit around for many hours each day weaving the rough fiber hand bags they sell at the tourist shops in Santa Cruz. After sending a month working on one bag, they might be able to sell it for about 50 bolivianos (equivalent to $7.00 US). Because this is not enough to live on, the women have begun going into the regional town of Pailon to sell their services as prostitutes. Hannah estimates that 90% of the women in Pozo Verde work as prostitutes. Mothers even take their daughters to town when they are 13 or 14 and introduce them to the business. Women continue in the sex trade well into their fifties. Working as prostitutes, women can earn as much in one hour as they might earn in a month or more weaving baskets. I assume the men tolerate this practice because the women bring home a fist full of cash. Hannah said that if the husbands complained the women would abandon them. Although the practice is not discussed in the village, everyone knows what is going on. It is like the big white elephant standing in the middle of the room that no one wants to talk about. Hannah said the girls will often get their clients drunk and then steal their wallets. Several weeks ago a Mennonite boy came into the village looking for his wallet. The men and boys of the village came out of their houses and beat the living-day-lights out of him. He went home empty handed.
Needless to say, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, abortion, and child abuse are all rampant in the community. So is drug and alcohol abuse. On my walk around the community I saw discarded plastic bottles of rubbing alcohol and cans of rubber cement. Yes, they drink rubbing alcohol and sniff glue.
So now I think you understand why I used the term “cultural bankruptcy” to describe the Ayoreo Indians. It is hard to point a finger at any one thing and say “this caused their problems.” Certainly the loss of their traditional lands and the loss of their cultural identity has a lot to do with who they are today. But they have to take some of the blame well. If you don’t count the emotional scaring across generations, prostitution is certainly an easy way out of a bad situation. Then again, you cannot blame children who are forced into prostitution by their parents. The cycle of abuse and depravation perpetuates itself. The only hope I see is though grace and truth of Christ. Although there is an evangelical church in Pozo Verde and many Ayore claim to believe in the truth of the Bible, they continue in the same patterns of sinful behavior.
Pray for true spiritual transformation in the lives of the Ayoreo in this community. Pray that Cesar and Myrtha can lead the church towards renewal and spiritual growth.
We hope to continue drilling water wells and sharing our faith in this community. After we finish the well at the missionary’s home we plan on drilling some other wells with several of the Ayoreo men who have shown an interest in putting in some wells for their livestock and garden plots. Pray that we can make a positive spiritual, social and material impact in Pozo Verde.
Thanks so much for your partnership with our ministry in Bolivia. We appreciate your faithfulness in praying for and supporting this work. We love hearing from you, so please write when you get a chance.
P.S. If you would like to see some pictures of Pozo Verde, please visit our photo gallery at: http://www.pbase.com/beamsclan/sanjulian. I have a couple of pictures up already, and I will have a few more in the coming days.