The Motilone (Barí) Miracle

A Christian missionary to be proud of  . . . 

                                            By Faith Annette Sand

                                            Faith Sand [former] assistant editor of Missiology,
                                            visited Bruce Olsson on assignment for the Other Side.

        Normal noises filled the jungle afternoon -- cicadas beginning to announce that evening wasn't far off, birds singing then sweeping over the river in pursuit of fish attracted by lazy flies.  The monkeys were out of eyesight, but you could hear them chattering in the tall trees just beyond the clearing.
        The changing of the guard from diurnal crew to nocturnal gang was definitely underway when the putt-putt of a motor broke through the idyllic green.  I turned to Jairo, my fifteen-year-old Motilone guide, and asked, "Does that sound like the Iquiacarora boat coming up stream?"  He thought it did.
        I hurried to the river landing and watched the long dugout round the bend and get larger on the horizon.  As it approached, I saw one blond head -- the head of the person I was looking for -- seated amidst a dozen black haired people.  I waved at the boat as it came alongside the landing, and the Motilone pilot deftly turned the canoe towards shore.

        Bruce Olsson had been a hard person to find.  After flying over the Andes to Cúcuta, a town in north Colombia on the Venezuelan border, I had boarded one of those buses where suitcases are loaded on top while pigs and chickens come inside with their owners.  We bumped five hours over washboard roads before arriving in Tibú, an oil town whose dusty streets are slicked down with a refinery by-product.  (It keeps the dust from flying -- but makes every step a trifle precarious.)
        In Tibú, the Motilones maintain a large house where any tribal member can stay while bring treated at the oil company's hospital.  I had been telephoning this house for days, trying to get some information on Bruce's whereabouts.  Each time, however, I had found myself speaking Spanish to a woman who understood only Motilone.
        Finally, hoping to do better with sign language, I decided to make the trip to Tibú anyway.  And to my relief, when the Motilone woman came to the gate, she smiled broadly -- and went to call Jairo, a bilingual high school student who had just arrived from the jungles.
        Jairo not only spoke good Spanish; he knew Bruce's itinerary.  Best of all, he was willing to guide me to where he thought we could intercept Bruce the next day.  I would find him on the river, said Jairo, making his circuit, visiting the villages, tending the sick.
        Unfortunately, the pickup I needed to ride in for the next leg of the trip made only one trip a day -- at six in the morning.  Bright and early, Jairo and I crowded into the back end of the '42 Ford, which featured a plank down each side for first-class seating.  (The unlucky hung on behind or dangled off the running board.)
        The road followed an oil pipeline, which headed into the interior in a pretty straight line, up and down very hilly terrain.  The Andes were nowhere in sight, but it was easy to se that we were on their tropical foothills.
        After a breezy four-and-a-half-hour ride, we came to the River of Gold (named by some hopeful explorer).  There we hired a Colombian boat to take us upriver another two and a half hours, where we were dropped at the home of a Motilone.  It was there, in that idyllic jungle setting, that I waited to see how accurate the jungle telegraph really was.

        As Bruce steeped out of the dug-out to shack my hands, I felt like an accomplished scout who had just flushed a long sought prize from its jungle habitat.  I wanted to say, "Dr. Livingston, I presume?" --but I wasn't sure he'd understand.
        The disparity between Bruce's tall Nordic frame, and the short, sturdy indigenous Motilones was the first thing I noticed.  Yet his ease in communication with them and their naturalness with him somehow made him fit into their world.
        "You feel like a Motilone to me," I said as we walked toward the house.
        "I will never really be a Motilone," he answered.  "I will always be different from them.  Yet I know I will never again feel fully comfortable in the culture where I was raised."
        After having spent eighteen years in Latin America, I could relate to these feelings.  To become a missionary is to give up not only the homeland but also the feeling of belonging in the homeland.
    And the Motilone are certainly an admirable people to give yourself to.  They are calm, soft-spoken, curious, and exceptionally gentle with their children.  The are also generous and pleasingly content with their rather primitive existence.  Bruce, I found, had taken on many of these Motilone characteristics in the two decades he had lived with them.
        After that first meeting, we talked for nine hours nonstop.  We talked through supper, through a one-and-a-half hour boat ride to Iquiacarora, and for many hours after.  Sitting in front of a clinic he helped establish, watching the full moon make its way across the sky, Bruce told me the story of how he came to work with the Motilone tribe.
        Later he invited me to accompany him for a few days as he made his rounds, to give me a better feel for the Motilones and their world.  I eagerly accepted, wanting to se for myself the amazing success this dedicated Christian missionary has had in helping to preserve the Motilones' traditional lifestyle while assisting them in a rather traumatic transition into the modern age.

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