Penetrating the Jungle Rivers with the Message of Life
By “Awake!” correspondent in Peru
HOW would you like to take a trip in a launch through a jungle full of gigantic trees and abundant vegetation, alive with the exotic song of a great variety of birds, the hum of countless insects and the cries of wild animals? Certainly an exciting experience, you will say.
The Area Where the “Good News” Must Be Proclaimed
The Peruvian jungle provides such experiences in abundance, for it comprises an area of 288,529 square miles (747,287 square kilometers), almost three fifths of the country. It is bounded on the west by the high Andean mountain range. This immense tropical jungle has tangled vegetation filled with thousands of insects, including some harmful ones, such as mosquitoes, gnats and isangos (a kind of borer that gets into the pores of the skin, especially on the ankles, causing excruciating pain). Also, there is a great variety of wild animals, including jaguars, alligators and guanganas (wild jungle pigs). The only means of communication available, for the lowlands in particular, is by river.
There are thousands of waterways, some of great size and volume. The jungle region is crisscrossed completely by three huge rivers, the Ucayali and the Marañón, which join to become the third—the mighty Amazon River. Streams of all sizes empty into these three major rivers to form a communication network similar to the arteries and veins of the human body. This water network reaches even the most inhospitable region.
This wide area is populated with villagers who cultivate the land during certain seasons of the year. Also, a great number of Indian tribes such as the Cashibo, Shipibo, Campa and the Machiguenga, are constantly moving from place to place in this vast jungle.
Let’s go into a few of the details of the Ucayali River. It (along with the Apurímac, its longest tributary) is 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) long. On its banks there are large cities such as Pucallpa, Contamana and others. These cities are prospering at the present time, with commercial activity and river navigation increasing daily, due to the development in recent years of the oil and lumber industries.
When Jehovah’s Witnesses began to declare the Bible’s message of life to the people of Peru, the coastal and mountain people were easily reached. But how could the people in this jungle region be given the opportunity to hear the “good news”?
The Solution Is Found
Jehovah’s Witnesses, desirous of expanding their Christian disciple-making activity, were willing to accept the challenge that this hard-to-reach territory presented. They thought of the idea of building a houseboat that could travel on the rivers. They were encouraged by a spirited and zealous co-worker, Walter Akin, one of the first missionaries of Jehovah’s Witnesses to come to Peru (in the mid-1940’s). He helped to see the project through to its completion.
The boat was to be sturdy enough for river travel, and large enough to provide living quarters for six persons. The project was presented to a group of engineers, who designed it with the following characteristics: a hull 30 feet (9 meters) long and 9 feet (3 meters) wide, weighing 5 tons, constructed completely of iron, fitted out with a 50-horse-power diesel engine designed especially for river navigation. The boat was equipped with adequate sleeping quarters and dining area, kitchen and bathroom.
The construction work began in Callao in the shop of one of the Witnesses. Callao is Peru’s main port, not on the Atlantic, however, but on the Pacific coast. This presented a real problem: how to get a 15-ton iron boat from the Pacific coast across the Andes mountains, going through a pass 15,797 feet (4,815 meters) above sea level, and then down into the jungle. The only solution was to build the boat in two sections and assemble it on the other side of the mountains, right in the jungle.
The houseboat was reassembled in Pucallpa, a port on the Ucayali River. What name should this “lifesaving” boat be given? El Refugio (The Refuge) seemed most appropriate.
A boat of this size could navigate only on the bigger rivers. How could the people living along the unnavigable tributaries entering these rivers and all the shallow lakes nearby be reached? A small boat with an outboard motor, a pequepeque, was built. El Refugio could move in the big rivers and the pequepeque could take care of the small rivers and lakes. The rest of the area could be covered on foot.
Now, in Pucallpa everything was ready. A special kind of crew was needed. The branch office of the Watch Tower Society in Lima sought out six persons who could spend full time in this challenging but interesting work of reaching as many of the people of the jungle as possible—a real task, since the villagers and tribes vary greatly in customs and dialects.
Francisco Echegaray, an experienced overseer of a Peruvian congregation, was placed in charge of the launch. He had spent many years in full-time preaching and, having been a sailor, had a good knowledge of navigation. Then the five remaining members of the crew were selected. From time to time, some have been replaced, because of the difficulty of their getting used to the change in climate and environment.
The principal goals of these “pioneers” were two, namely, to reach the greatest number of people possible with the message of life and, while doing so, to maintain a high level of spirituality among themselves. Therefore, El Refugio began to function as a small congregation, even benefiting by the visit of the circuit overseer.
An orderly routine was established for the crew. Kitchen duty and other necessary services were to be cared for in shifts and by turns by the crew under the supervision of one designated as “home overseer.” This arrangement has been adjusted and perfected, so that a day’s routine can be described as follows: Rising time is 4 a.m. with, first, an active bath in the river—active, because if you stop moving, the fish, including piranhas (though these are not as voracious as piranhas found in more remote regions), begin to nibble on you. At the sound of a bell all immediately come and sit down at the table for the consideration of a Bible text, after which the cook on duty serves breakfast. The principal food at the meal is tacacho, which is made from bananas, oatmeal and fried fish.
Then, at 6 a.m., the group gets into the little outboard motorboat, their pequepeque, loaded down with literature, to begin the day’s service. It has been found expedient to start early because by then most people have already begun the activities of the day, and when night falls, around seven or eight o’clock in the evening, all activity ceases.
What has been accomplished through the preaching of the message of life with this riverboat? From September 1976 to July 1977 the village of New San Juan, which lies south of Pucallpa, was used as headquarters. The crew traveled up and down the Ucayali River and its branches, visiting the towns and villages on both sides. They even went as far as the sparsely settled region of the Sepa River. When the “missionary sailors” arrived at one of these places, they would talk with the local authorities to make arrangements for a time when the villagers could come together for a public talk. After the talk, Bible literature was distributed to the people who showed interest. Classrooms, private homes, hotel lobbies and other places were used for these meetings.
At the settlement of New San Juan, where 500 people live, the majority are Protestants. When the brothers arrived, the people were sure that they would be able to convert these newcomers to their religion. But, in a short time, just the opposite happened. The sailors from El Refugio started many Bible studies with interested persons, and soon an average of 23 people attended the meetings that were held.
The Shipibo and Conibo tribes live in this area, and “missionary sailors” have been able to effect a strange trade with the natives. They have exchanged languages. The natives teach the missionaries their dialect and the missionaries teach the natives Spanish, using the publications of the Watch Tower Society.
In August 1977, the houseboat moved northward, arriving at Contamana, where new headquarters were established. The people there showed great interest in the Bible. Day and night, people sought out the missionaries to ask questions and obtain Bible literature. Bible studies were established. These developed to the point that the study groups could be gathered into congregation meetings. It was here in Contamana that the crew of six missionaries had the words of the apostle Paul about “dangers from rivers” brought vividly to mind. (2 Cor. 11:26) How so?
Suddenly, a severe storm with hurricane winds swept the area, and the volume of the river increased rapidly. The rising waters broke the mooring ropes of the boat, and the crew member on guard went ashore to try to secure them. But the force of the elements parted all the ropes, and El Refugio was adrift in the river. Three who were asleep on the launch woke up and tried to start the engine in order to control the boat in the rapidly increasing current. But the river carried them violently downstream and forced them against a section of the bank just as the bank was undermined and fell into the river. This caused the boat to tilt to starboard with the brothers trapped inside. In a few minutes the boat was sinking. But a sliding door was open, enabling those inside to climb out into the raging waters and swim to safety on shore.
It was a moment of happy reunion for the four missionaries there on the riverbank, some with tears in their eyes due to their great fear for the lives of their fellow workers. How thankful they were to Jehovah God that no one was lost! What about El Refugio? It had turned over completely, with its keel pointing toward the sky. “Thank God,” said Francisco Echegaray, the one in charge of the group, “we can salvage our home.”
Immediately at 4 a.m., preparations were made to recover the launch before it sank out of sight. At seven o’clock, by means of two tractors kindly loaned by the owners of the local lumber companies, the boat was pulled to the shore of the river. The crew tried repeatedly to restore the houseboat to its normal position, but it was not until a crane was brought from a place nearby that they could finally right it. This was at 4 p.m., after 12 hours of backbreaking work. At least the group could rest for a while and get something to eat. At the end of an exhausting day, though they had lost all their belongings, they were happy because they had recovered their home, the houseboat, indispensable in carrying out their purpose. After some repairs, it could again be their means of reaching the dwellers of the jungle with the “good news,” the Bible message of life. With the financial assistance of Jehovah’s Witnesses here in Peru and after several months in repair, El Refugio was ready to sail again.
What is ahead for our “missionary sailors”? The jungle, all around the Marañón River with its hundreds of tributaries and the tremendous expanse of the Amazon region, is out there waiting. We pray that this dauntless crew, with the blessing and protection of Jehovah, will be able to cover their assigned territory and help many people of the Peruvian jungle to have the opportunity to serve their Grand Creator, Jehovah.