From Lofty Andes to Virgin Jungles—Meeting a Spiritual Challenge in Bolivia
IT WAS on October 25, 1945, that two missionaries of Jehovah’s Witnesses, graduates of the third class of the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, stepped off a DC-3 plane in La Paz. Their names were Edward Michalec and Harold Morris. It was from that time that the work of making known God’s kingdom started in real earnest in Bolivia. These missionaries were all alone in a vast and challenging land, ranging from the lofty Andes mountains and the bleak and barren Altiplano, to remote tropical valleys, virgin jungles and frontier lowlands. This was the land of the giant condor and prideful llama.
Now, more than thirty years later, a peak of 2,476 proclaimers of the Kingdom are active in 58 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout Bolivia. They rejoice that the spiritual challenge has been met, and that all kinds of people in this land of variety have been gathered into Jehovah’s spiritual paradise.
Due to problems of terrain, travel and communication, Jehovah’s Witnesses have found it necessary to serve fourteen separate areas with semiannual circuit assemblies. In early days, some of these assemblies were very small. At an assembly in Camiri in 1966, only nineteen persons were in attendance. And there was the humorous situation that all nineteen were called on to share in one program on the platform, leaving no one in the audience! However, the spiritual benefit was felt by all. Today, circuit assemblies usually have attendances three times the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the area.
ON THE WIND-SWEPT ALTIPLANO
Even before the mighty Inca Empire came on the scene, Bolivia had a deep-rooted cultural and religious heritage. Later, the Spanish conquerors brought Catholicism, mixing it in with pagan customs. As a result, the Virgin Mary and various Catholic “saints” came to be revered alongside Pacha Mama, the goddess of the earth—who is honored by sacrifices of dried fetuses of llamas or sheep, along with plenty of beer, chicha (corn liquor) or cane alcohol, to the accompaniment of superstitious rites and drunken parties. For both the Aymara and Quechua peoples of Bolivia, Pacha Mama presides over all the affairs of life, including birth, marriage, the drinking of liquor and the chewing of coca.
However, despite this superstitious Altiplano environment, Jehovah’s work is flourishing among nearly twenty congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The grandeur of the high, bleak, barren, windswept Altiplano is thus augmented by the presence of warmhearted Aymara messengers of good news, busy at work building up the spiritual paradise.
AMONG ANDES MINERS
The magnificent Andes chain is rich in material treasures of tin, antimony, lead, wolfram, zinc and silver. Mining is a principal industry of Bolivia, and humble miners are to be found grouped in mining camps throughout the Andes. Here, too, superstitions from Christendom have been mingled with pagan customs. It is said that the tío (uncle) of the mine represents the Devil, the ruler of the underworld. The tío idol is placed in his niche at the mine entrance, and each miner, before entering, is expected to appease the tío by offering it alcohol, cigarettes or confetti. Thus, the tío will not be angry and make the mine cave in.
As Jehovah’s Witnesses got busy in the various mining areas of Bolivia, truth swept superstition aside. Congregations of God’s people have now been established in sixteen of the major mining districts. In these places, Jehovah’s Witnesses have gained a fine reputation for clean morals. Often they have been recommended for responsible positions, such as handling the main elevator, working in accounting or in the commissary, because they have high esteem for human life and general honesty.
IN THE LOFTY HEIGHTS OF POTOSÍ
Potosí is the largest city in the world of over 14,000 feet (4,267 meters) elevation—a cold, rather desolate mining complex not far from the Altiplano’s eastern edge. It was here that the Spanish conquistadores discovered silver in 1545, and, as a result, this huge town sprang up beneath the famous cerro rico, the rich mountain of silver. It became one of the largest and wealthiest cities of the world of that time, boasting 160,000 inhabitants in 1650. Today, the mining industry sustains a population of only 90,000 people.
At the height of Potosí’s glory, no less than eighty churches flourished among the populace. Today these ornate structures, still filled with artistic treasures of another age, are open for only a few hours each day. This is because of the scarcity of priests and the necessity of having someone in attendance when the church is open in order to protect the artistic valuables from “Christian” thieves. But here in Potosí, a thriving, happy congregation of more than sixty witnesses of Jehovah is busy inviting honest-hearted potosinos to put on the “new personality” that marks true Christians.—Eph. 4:20-24.
In Oruro, another major mining center on the treeless Altiplano, the famous diablada (devil dance) has given rise to a whole craft industry of costumes and hideous devil masks for the dancers. In recent years the festival has become a great tourist attraction, corresponding to Christendom’s Carnival celebration. The entire ceremony is directed to the virgen del socavón (virgin of the mines). The dance of the devils contains rites that are carried out at the Church of the Socavón, where homage is paid to Mary by means of special Masses. But in this same city more than a hundred witnesses of Jehovah are bent on cultivating the fruitage of God’s spirit in their lives. They have just completed building the largest Kingdom Hall structure in Bolivia.
CONQUERING THE COCA VICE
Since early times, the Altiplano people have chewed the leaves of the coca plant. The Catholic Spanish conquerors found it to their advantage to encourage this vice, for it deadened the hunger pangs and cold of their native slaves. Often slave laborers were paid their wages in coca leaves. Today, the yatiri, or magic men, practice fortune-telling by reading the coca leaves, thus linking demon influence with the use of the coca drug. After speaking with the spirits, they place the leaves on a cloth and then observe and interpret the design and direction of the leaves. Another method of divining is to chew the coca leaves and then place them in the open hand, looking for interpretations in the shape of the masticated wad. In this way the yatiri are supposed to foretell the future.
The Bolivian government is aware of the vice of drug addiction and is now investigating the cultivation of the coca leaf. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses have long refrained from vices such as chewing coca leaves and taking cocaine, which is derived from the coca plant, because God’s law forbids such defilement of flesh and spirit. (2 Cor. 7:1) And they are helping many of their Bible students to free themselves from enslavement to these drugs.
IN THE EASTERN LOWLANDS
Deep in the heart of South America is the vast eastern and northern section of Bolivia, the Beni and Santa Cruz lowlands, including Amazonian swampland, grasslands and the rain-forest tract. Although the religion of Christendom has held sway here for centuries, immorality is rampant. In his own words, an honest-hearted beniano testifies as to how true religion improves a person’s lot in life:
“I was a devout Catholic. I believed in God, and my religious custom was to incline myself before images, thinking that by means of them I would be drawn closer to God. I remember one occasion when, believing that it would be an excellent work, I helped clean, dress and comb an image that had been made with a full head of hair, to prepare her for the yearly procession of this virgin. But in spite of being a devout religious person, our religious ‘guides’ never taught me that venerating images was idolatry and a grave offense against God. I was zealous for my religion, but this was in vain, because I could not see the bad and degrading things that I was practicing in my life. For a full twenty years I had lived in concubinage. Frequently I was embroiled in wild partying, drinking to excess and in fighting with my friends and the woman with whom I lived. I was deeply involved, too, as a member of a popular political party. All of this changed when one of Jehovah’s Witnesses visited me and I started studying the Bible. I am now a baptized Witness and am deeply grateful for my truly close relationship with God.”
More than ten congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses are established now in this hot, steamy tropical section of Bolivia.
Among the older native people, illiteracy is often a problem. In congregations where this hinders spiritual growth, literacy classes of Jehovah’s Witnesses are held, and with fine results. Even newly interested persons join these classes so that they may study the Bible, and later when they become Witnesses themselves and go from door to door, they have encouraged others likewise to combine Bible instruction with learning to read and write. Thus a chain reaction continues.
Nearly one fifth of all Kingdom proclaimers in Bolivia are enjoying full-time witness activity. Many young people enter the ranks of the “pioneer” Witnesses immediately after completing the required public schooling, and this despite an environment that strongly encourages young people to study for a career in the professional world.
A fine potential for continued growth of Jehovah’s work in Bolivia is shown by the excellent attendance of 8,619 persons at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper on April 14, 1976. But, though splendid progress has been made over the years, about twenty-six provinces, or 13 percent of the entire population, has yet to be reached with the message of God’s kingdom. In family groups and in “pioneer” groups, traveling by airplane, truck, bus, canoe or on foot, Jehovah’s Witnesses are endeavoring to make known the good news to all the warmhearted people of this land while there is yet time. Thus it is hoped that many, many more of these will yet come to “consider the patience of our Lord as salvation.”—2 Pet. 3:15.