What a place this is. The community was originally created by a group of African slaves who escaped their Portuguese masters, after Portugal invaded Brazil. They ran deep into the rainforest, and stopped in a place that could only be accessed during high tide for a few hours each day. Their hiding tactic worked, and most of the great-grandchildren of those brave people live in the village to this day.
We had no idea what to expect during our first village trip- our questions about loincloths and blowguns were met with laughter at the base, but then with serious faces they warned about witchcraft and serious drug problems.
When we pulled up to a tiny dock after a few hours of travel by bus and boat, we were met with a community that was somehow halfway between modernization and the tribal practices of their ancestors.
Homes there are built on stilts to avoid flooding, and the ground can be seen through floor board cracks. There are no screens or glass to cover windows, and hammocks are strung haphazardly in living rooms as beds. There is a certain charm in all of it- in the pennants of laundry outside and the constant clucking of chickens.
The people in that village are some of the kindest I had ever met, a trend that continued at each community we visited. Without even proper introductions we would be swept inside, hugged, and served coffee and butter crackers. Funnily enough, almost every home has a television- to watch soccer on, of course.
The kids were on summer break, so we stayed in the only school house in the community, a two room building with bars for windows and a picnic table for lunchtime. We slept in hammocks every night, and thanked God for the nets that kept the mosquitos, tarantulas, and scorpions out.
During this expedition, we worked with the community development students and leader from Amazon Reach. They had already formed relationships with a lot of the locals, and were well loved. I really admire this ministry. They stay in a community for an extended period of time, usually a few months, and help them build practices that will help them long term. This looks a little different in each place, but in every location they work alongside the locals, build relationships, start bible studies and discussion groups, and devote themselves to whatever the community needs for physical and spiritual health.
In Arapapuzinho, like the majority of river villages, most people call themselves Catholic, but also practice a lot of witchcraft. This merging of two vastly different spiritualities goes back to the invasion of Brazil by the Portuguese. Along with a strong army, they brought Catholicism across the sea and it spread to their slaves and the native population. However, instead of fully converting, both the natives and the slaves integrated African witchcraft practices into Catholicism. The resulting school of thought is confusing and far from the Christian Catholicism I grew up amidst.
Witchcraft in these villages results in a lot of dangerous medical practices, sacrifices, violence, promiscuity, drug usage, heavy alcoholism, and fear-filled spirituality. You wouldn’t know these were such issues at first glance. Smiling kids were everywhere- chasing chickens, jumping in the river, and clinging to our hands. After a few days, we started to notice things. A lack of present fathers, teenaged pregnancies, protruding ribs, abused dogs, and voodoo dolls tucked in corners and never spoken of. There was a darkness present to be sure, but there was light too- so much light.
It was in the laughter of the kids as they taught us to weave grass, in the open doors and windows with smiling faces and hands calling us inside, in the young man showing us his crop, in the youth group games, in the hungry Bible study discussions.
We were in the village for eight days, and truly lived life along side them. Every day after breakfast, our small group would divide and go visit people in their homes. Sometimes, this meant harvesting Mandioca root and processing it into Farina. This is one of the most common ways that they survive. The process takes place in rough huts outside with thatched roofs, dirt floors, woven baskets, and giant hand built ovens. They dig up the root, soak it, mash it, drain it, dry it, sift it, and fry it.
Other times it meant playing in the river with kids, listening to stories and folklore about the village, draining endless coffee cups, and having theological discussions. It also meant a lot of sharing favorite verses and prayer. Prayer for overcoming sickness, for work, prayer through tears for alcoholic fathers and abused kids.
This was our first taste of life on the river, on living like the people we were ministering to. It was a hard, beautiful week, and probably one of the most impactful of my life.
I wish I could share each time my heart skipped a beat in this place. It happened so frequently, there were so many firsts. Seeing Toucans, traipsing jungle trails, riding a stallion, eating wild fruits and flowers, reading the Bible with a translator, balancing on logs to cross streams, finding tarantulas everywhere, praying with the hungriest hearts I’ve met, watching traditional dancing.
It was hard to tear ourselves from the dock on the last morning. We waved to the faces we left there long after we were out of sight, they won’t be soon forgotten.
The jungle adventure had just begun.