Far from the hustle and bustle of city life, people of various tribes, languages, and nations live in the Amazon rain forest of South America. So in July 2017, a group of 13 of Jehovah’s Witnesses set off on an expedition up the Maroni River and its eastern tributaries in French Guiana. Their goal? To take the Bible’s message of hope to people who live along the river.
Preparing for the Expedition
One month before the 12-day expedition began, all participants attended a planning meeting. “We learned about the area and its history, and we also considered how to prepare ourselves for the journey,” recalls Winsley. Each participant was equipped with a watertight container in which to place a hammock and a mosquito net. The trip involved two flights and many hours of travel in dugout canoes.
How did those selected feel about the invitation? Claude and Lisette, who are of retirement age, jumped at the chance. “I was overjoyed, but a little afraid,” says Claude. “I had heard a lot about the dangerous river rapids.” Lisette had her own concern: “I wondered how I would be able to speak in Amerindian languages,” she says.
A participant named Mickaël felt similarly. “We didn’t know much about the Wayana tribe,” he says, “so I did some research on the Internet to learn a few words and to greet people in their language.”
Shirley, who traveled with her husband, Johann, made a list of the languages spoken along the river. “We downloaded videos from jw.org in most of those languages and obtained a basic phrase book in Wayana,” she says.
Reaching Amerindian Country
On Tuesday, July 4, the group boarded an airplane in Saint-Laurent du Maroni and flew to Maripasoula, a small town deep in the interior of French Guiana.
Over the next four days, the group reached out to the inhabitants of villages along the upper branches of the Maroni, traveling in powered dugout canoes called pirogues. “We found the Amerindians to be deeply interested in Scriptural topics,” says Roland, one of the members of the group. “They have many questions, and some wanted us to study the Bible with them.”
In one village, Johann and Shirley met a young couple whose relative had recently taken her own life. “We showed them the video A Native American Finds His Creator,” on JW Broadcasting, reports Johann. “The young couple were very touched by this video. They gave us their e-mail address because they wanted to keep in contact with us.”
The farthest destination visited upriver was Antécume Pata. There, the village chief allowed the tired Witnesses to string up their hammocks in a communal area. They also bathed in the river, as the locals do.
From there, the group navigated to the village of Twenké, where they found the inhabitants mourning the loss of a loved one. “The ‛Grand Man,’ the tribal chief, allowed us to move about freely in the village to comfort those who were grieving,” says Éric, one of the expedition organizers. “The chief and his family appreciated the texts that we read to them from a Wayana Bible. We also showed videos depicting the Bible’s promise of a resurrection.”
On to Grand-Santi and Apatou
The next stage of the expedition was a half-hour flight downriver from Maripasoula to the small town of Grand-Santi. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the expedition members shared the Bible’s message with the local population. On Thursday, the Witnesses embarked on yet another journey—a five-and-a-half-hour trip down the Maroni River to the village of Apatou.
On the next-to-last day of the expedition, the team visited the forest villages of the Maroons, descendants of African slaves who were brought to South America during the colonial period of neighboring Suriname. The Witnesses invited everyone to a meeting in the forest in a large tent that was set up especially for the occasion. “Our hearts were filled with joy when a great number of people came,” says Claude. “We had invited them just that morning!” Karsten, who was on his first expedition to the interior, gave a public talk in Aukan entitled “Is This Life All There Is?” Ninety-one people from several villages attended the meeting.
“We Are Ready to Do It Again!”
Finally, the expedition members returned to Saint-Laurent du Maroni. All were overwhelmed by the positive response of the inhabitants, who accepted numerous publications and watched dozens of videos produced by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“I have no words to describe how happy I am to have gone on this expedition,” says Lisette. Cindy agrees: “If I could do it again, I would beg for the chance. You have to experience this joy to understand it!”
The expedition kindled a desire in some participants to return. “We are ready to do it again!” says Mickaël. Winsley has moved to Saint-Laurent du Maroni. Claude and Lisette, both in their 60’s, decided to move to Apatou.