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Civilization crowded in upon the Chacobo people wherever they went in the Bolivian jungles. Try as they would, they found...

No Place to Hide!

by Molly Ekstrom
From “In Other Words,” March 1980

Retreat into the Jungle

Three men beached their dugout canoe, unsheathed their machetes, and began to hack their way into the matted jungle, the “thwack!” of their sharp blades drowned out by the noise of the Aeronca circling overhead. Suddenly the little plane made a low pass over them, its engine stilled momentarily.

“Not that way!” the pilot shouted. “Go that way!”

Following his directions, the three on the ground changed course. It was important that they follow his instructions, for he’d seen, from the air, the little Chacobo Indian settlement they were looking for. And it was urgent they make contact with the elusive, apparently-doomed Chacobo people.

In an effort to escape encroaching civilization the Chacobos had retreated into the depths of the Amazonian jungle along the Bolivia-Brazil border. Without an adequate land-base to provide a reliable food supply, it seemed only a matter of time until the tribe died out. But the three men forcing their way through the jungle were not taking civilization to the Chacobos, nor were they planning to exploit them or force them to abandon their roots and adopt the national lifestyle. No, they wanted to insure the Chacobos’ survival as human beings and as an ethnic entity. One of the three was a representative of the Bolivian Goverment, concerned about the welfare of Bolivia’s 30 Indian tribes. The other two, Gil Prost and Perry Priest, were members of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), which had recently entered Bolivia to help with Indian programs. Although the Chacobos were hiding from civilization, they couldn’t hide from God. He knew where they were and had led the plane to their tiny clearing.

Gil’s wife, Marian, in the circling Aeronca with Jungle Aviation and Radio Service pilot Ralph Borthwick, prayed as she saw her husband disappear into the jungle: “Lord, let the Chacobos receive them peaceably!”

On the ground, Gil and Perry were praying the same prayer as they struggled with the dense growth. After some hours they finally came upon a campsite where a lone grandmother (too old to run away) kept watch. Calling out the word for “friends,” the three sat down to wait for whatever might happen next.

Like silent shadows, naked children appeared, followed by some women dressed in vine girdles and small woven aprons and decorated with paint, beads, and orange, blue, and black toucan feathers. At last a tubercular-looking young man appeared, wearing a knee-length, brown bark dress.

One of the women was able to understand enough Spanish to get the idea that the strangers wanted to see the Chacobo chief. The sickly youth led the search party another hour’s walk into the jungle to a small clearing where four families, including the chief’s, had their hammocks slung under their shelters.

A Warm Welcome

The Chacobo men looked fierce to them. They wore brown bark dresses, bark wristlets and anklets, and imposing crowns of yellow feathers with pigtails hanging down behind. Their bodies were decorated with red feathers, blue beads, and animals’ teeth.

Despite their appearance, the Chacobo men welcomed their guests peaceably and treated them kindly. When Gil asked if he and Marian could come and live among them, they agreed and offered to help him build his house.

Gil and Perry praised God for leading them to the hiding Chacobos and for this opportunity for the first SIL team to begin work among a tribal group in Bolivia. Gil was especially thrilled because he’d always wanted to work with young people, and most of the Chacobos he’d seen were young. Yet this very fact saddened him, too, for he knew it reflected their cruelly-brief life expectancy.

When they left, the search party took the tubercular youth with them for treatment.

Meeting Real Needs

Later Gil returned with Marian to build his house. But he found the arduous labor of jungle housebuilding too heavy for the underfed Chacobo men. Their physical needs were great; he longed to help them, but first he must become a learner so he could find out what they really needed and what would really help them.

Surrounded by the Chacobos’ open-sided houses, Gil and Marian learned the language and culture, both by observation and by participation as members of the community. They even learned to hunt the tigers that stole their chickens and their parrot.

One evening a hunter came into the settlement, announcing that he’d killed a tapir. Everyone, including Gil and Marian, trooped into the jungle for the butchering. As Gil held his lantern high, two Chacobos began scooping up blood that had been allowed to collect around the dead animal’s heart, splashing it over themselves until they stood, red and shining, before the group.

Later the Prosts learned that the two Indians had been seeking healing for their sick bodies through this “treatment.” How Gil and Marian longed to tell their Chacobo friends about the blood of Christ which heals sin-sick souls! But they didn’t know enough of the language yet.

While the Prosts were learning about the Chacobos, the Chacobos were also learning about the Prosts. The Indians found the “foreigners” fascinating and kept them under close surveillance. Someone watching at mealtime would invariably go and report to the others what strange thing “those people” were eating. If Marian closed the curtains, the people would tell her to open them so they could see better!

More “Unbelievable” Beliefs

When Gil and Marian were able to bear a simple witness to the Chacobos, the people found the Prosts’ beliefs incomprehensible. They saw the pictures in a book on the life of Christ as both bewildering and funny -- funny hairstyles, funny clothes, funny hair on the men’s faces.

They asked such questions as: “Will Jesus come on a plane?” (How else would you expect Him to come?) “Does Jesus have a wife?” (Doesn’t everybody?) When Gil translated the first hymn, which said that “Christ came to die on a suffer for our sins,” the response was, “That’s no good. How could a man come to die on a tree?” It didn’t make any sense to the Chacobos.

Economic Self-Help

As rubber and Brazil nut harvesters reached further and further into the jungle around the Chacobos, the Indians decided such harvesting made good sense and began to harvest rubber and nuts themselves. But how could they tell if they were getting fair payment for their products? Their counting system consisted of “one,” “two,” and “not one.” Gil solved the problem by setting up a temporary Monopoly money economy so they could learn about money painlessly.

The Chacobos needed more than Monopoly money, though, if they were going to stay in the “game.” Civilization was crowding in on them again. There was no place left for them to hide from it, and they didn’t even have title to what little land they had left. But they did have Gil Prost, who understood them and wanted to help them.

He appealed to the Bolivian Government on the Chacobos’ behalf, and the government responded by setting aside 7,200 acres of jungle for the exclusive use of the small tribe, relocating them, and providing help through the first growing season. Gil told the American ambassador about the Chacobos’ need for a boat to transport their products, and funds were forthcoming.

The people formed their own co-op for marketing their products, bilingual schools were established (staffed by Chacobo teachers), and a young man, Pae Davalo, learned to help with his people’s medical problems.

Things were looking up for the Chacobos, but Gil felt discouraged at the end of his first 10 years of work. Not one Indian had yet believed the Good News. They’d heard the Prosts read translated Scriptures, some of them read the Scriptures for themselves, and some had even memorized Scripture -- but that’s as far as their interest went.

Finally: The Ultimate Help

Lounging in his hammock one evening, Gil started singing a hymn. “It was like ringing a bell,” he recalls. “In a moment I was surrounded by men who wanted to sing and have a meeting. Afterwards Caco stayed behind and just sat and looked into my face. Finally he said, ‘I want to follow Christ.’” He left, beaming, “a new creature in Christ.”

Within a week Caco’s commitment was tested. Along with all the other Chacobo men, he was expected to participate in a “communion service” to the yoshini, a Chacobo deity. When the “elements” were offered to Caco, he refused them, saying, “I now have new customs and practices. I now belong to Christ. I can’t take part in this service.”

Caco had no way of knowing what the results of his refusal would be, but the immediate result was that three other men and their families decided to follow Christ, too. Soon the number grew to 15 families. Although singing was not part of Chacobo culture, these believers now love to sing and are still going strong when non-Chacobos have sung themselves hoarse.

As the number of believers has grown over the years, they have experienced spiritual growth, too. After Gil explained about tithing, for instance, results were amazing. When the next offering was taken, the people sitting in back had trouble getting their money to stay in the overflowing baskets. It kept falling on the floor, and everyone was delighted.

The believers have built their own chapel and chosen their own pastor and elders. Several young people have attended Bible school.

No Hiding Now

The Chacobo co-op is in full operation, with some 50 men involved. Several men have been trained to maintain the tractor the tribe has acquired. The Chacobo clinic offers help with routine medical problems. Each of three Chacobo communities has its own bilingual school. The government is building a road to the area, which will provide a route for getting the Indians’ rubber to market.

The road, in particular, will bring civilization to the Chacobos’ doorstep once again. This time there’s really no place they can hide from it. But this time there’s a difference. Their land is protected. They’re prepared to cope with some of the problems that come with civilization. And they’re no longer doomed to extinction; their number has nearly doubled (from 135 to 250) since 1955, when Gil Prost first contacted them.

And best of all, they have spiritual resources which can insure the survival of the spirit, without which the survival of the body is an empty victory. Many Chacobos have the power of God at work in their daily lives, and all the Chacobos now have access to God’s Word in their own heart-language -- the living, powerful Chacobo New Testament.*

*Published by World Home Bible League and dedicated on October 28, 1979.

These Chacobo men of Bolivia now have God’s Word in their own language

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Copyright © 2002 • Lorna Priest • Page last updated 26 October 2002