Bolivia’s Isolated Towns Hear Good News
SOME 20 of us gather on the beach, eagerly anticipating a day trip to visit villages upriver. We are at the foot of the Andes, where the river Beni arrives at the vast flatlands of the Amazon basin. It is a place of extraordinary beauty.
We, however, are not tourists. Some of us are local people; a number of us came from distant cities to live here in Rurrenabaque, a pretty little town with flowering trees, thatched-roof houses, and streets disturbed only by the occasional motorcycle taxi. Why are we making this trip?
What is happening here is typical of developments in many other parts of Bolivia. Jehovah’s Witnesses from the cities and from other countries are taking the good news of God’s Kingdom to the smaller towns.—Matthew 24:14.
Bolivia is in the center of South America. The country has twice the land area of France but little more than a tenth of its population. Most of Bolivia’s inhabitants live either in cities and mining towns at breathtaking altitudes or in the agricultural centers of the valleys. In the tropical lowlands, however, towns are isolated by vast stretches of forest.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, bold missionaries, such as Betty Jackson, Elsie Meynberg, Pamela Moseley, and Charlotte Tomaschafsky, spearheaded the work in many isolated towns. They taught Bible truth to sincere people and helped to establish small congregations. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, a sixfold increase in the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses took place, mainly in the cities. Now there are congregations in every neighborhood. You can find them in the prosperous districts, where people work in high-rise office blocks, live in elegant mansions, and shop in supermarkets. But there are also congregations in the outlying neighborhoods, where people live in adobe huts, shop in open-air markets, and wear colorful indigenous dress. Yet, what can be done to help more people in the isolated places to come to know Jehovah?
Sacrificing the Convenience of City Life
During the last two decades, there has been a massive shift of people from Bolivia’s mining towns and countryside into the cities. People moving in the opposite direction—from city to village—is unusual. Many villages have only one telephone and have electricity for only a few hours a day. Witnesses who live in these small towns may see fellow believers only at annual conventions, and traveling to these may be expensive, dangerous, and exhausting. Village schools offer only basic education. What, then, motivates a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses to move from the cities to the villages?
“I had the opportunity to pursue a career in the city of La Paz,” said Luis not long ago. “But my parents always presented the disciple-making work as the most desirable career. So I took a short course in construction methods. During a vacation in Rurrenabaque, I noticed the people’s eagerness to listen to the good news. When I saw how few brothers were there, I felt that I just had to come and help. I am now conducting 12 home Bible studies. For example, I study with a young man and his wife who have four children. He used to drink a lot and gamble, but he has left all of that behind and has started telling his friends what he is learning about Jehovah. He always prepares his lesson. When he has to be away for three or four days logging in the forest, he feels bad because he does not want to miss anything. When I see them all at Christian meetings, I feel that the sacrifice of coming here was worth it.”
Juana is a single parent. “I used to work as a housemaid in La Paz,” she says. “When my son was small, I took up the full-time ministry in the city. When I visited Rurrenabaque on a trip, I realized how much more I could accomplish by moving here. So we came, and I got a job as a maid. At first, the heat and the insects were difficult to endure. But we’ve been here seven years now. I am able to conduct many Bible studies each week, and many students show appreciation by coming to the meetings.” Juana and her son are among those boarding the boat to go upriver. You are welcome to come along.
The Trip Upriver
The outboard engine roars as we head for the narrow gap between the mountains. A flock of parrots screech, protesting our presence. The muddy waters from the mountains swirl fiercely about us as the boatman expertly steers across the current. By midmorning we are disembarking at a small village. There we meet an overseer of the Rurrenabaque Congregation, and he shows us where to preach.
The villagers receive us hospitably, either under the shade of a tree or inside a house built of bamboo and thatched with palm leaves. Soon we meet a young couple busy crushing sugarcane in a locally made wooden press. Juice gushes into a copper bowl. Later, they will boil the juice until it becomes dark molasses that can be sold in town. They invite us into their home and ask many questions about the Bible.
We continue on up the river, preaching from village to village. Many appreciate hearing what the Bible says about an end to sickness and death. (Isaiah 25:8; 33:24) Here, where medical care is scarce, most families have suffered the bitter experience of losing a child. Life as subsistence farmers and fishermen is hard and insecure. Thus, many find very interesting God’s promise recorded in Psalm 72 about a government that will eliminate poverty. Still, do you think that interested people living in such isolated places would make the effort to attend Christian meetings? That question concerned Eric and Vicky, who are full-time ministers in Santa Rosa, a three-hour drive farther into the Amazon basin.
Will the Interested Ones Come?
Eric and Vicky came to Bolivia from California, U.S.A., 12 years ago. A traveling overseer suggested that they move to Santa Rosa. “There are only two telephones in town and no Internet access,” says Vicky. “There is abundant wildlife. We often see alligators, ostriches, and big snakes while we visit outlying areas on our motorcycles. More interesting than the animals, however, are the people. We study the Bible with the Vacas, a young couple who have four small children. They live about 16 miles [26 km] out of town. The father used to be a drunk, but now he has changed. Each week, he brings his entire family and his younger sister to the Kingdom Hall. He transports his wife and baby on the luggage rack of his big bicycle. The nine-year-old carries his little sister on another bike, and the eight-year-old pedals by himself. It takes them three hours to get there.” The family really love Jehovah and make every effort to associate with the congregation.
In just 18 months, 3 have qualified for baptism, and about 25 come to the new Kingdom Hall in Santa Rosa. Although lots of people want to study the Bible, many have formidable obstacles to overcome in order to serve Jehovah.
The Challenge of Legalizing Marriages
Marina and Osni, missionaries serving in an isolated town near Bolivia’s border with Brazil, explain that many here do not see marriage as a permanent bond. They go from one partner to another. “It’s a problem that prevents spiritual progress,” says Osni. “When people want to become true Christians, it is a complicated and expensive process. Some have to resolve previous partnerships and then get married legally. Nevertheless, recognizing that proper marriage registration is a Scriptural requirement, some have worked really hard to earn the money needed for the legal fees.”—Romans 13:1, 2; Hebrews 13:4.
Marina relates the experience of Norberto. “He lived with several women before moving in with a woman who was a baker. She was some 35 years younger than he was and had a son whom Norberto adopted. As the boy grew up, Norberto wanted to be a better example for him. So when a Witness called at the bakery, offering free home Bible studies, Norberto accepted, even though he could not read and was already over 70 years old. When Norberto and his partner learned about Jehovah’s requirements, they got legally married and afterward were baptized. The boy has become a responsible Christian youth—just what his stepfather had hoped would happen. Norberto learned to read, and he has even given talks at congregation meetings. Despite being quite feeble because of his age, he is a zealous minister of the good news.”
Empowered by Jehovah’s Spirit
Jesus told his early followers: “You will receive power when the holy spirit arrives upon you, and you will be witnesses of me . . . to the most distant part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) How encouraging it is to see God’s spirit motivating Christian men and women to move out to distant parts! For example, in 2004 some 30 zealous Christians accepted temporary assignments to isolated territories as special pioneer ministers. They appreciate the example of some 180 foreigners who have come to Bolivia to serve as pioneers, circuit overseers, Bethel volunteers, or missionaries. The 17,000 Kingdom publishers in Bolivia conduct some 22,000 Bible studies in the homes of interested people.
Sensing that they are guided by Jehovah’s spirit brings great joy to all these brothers. For example, Robert and Kathy accepted an assignment as missionaries to Camiri. Situated amid rolling green hills by a river, Camiri has always been an isolated town. “It seems we came at just the right time,” says Robert. “In two years, some 40 people have become publishers of the good news.”
A Drunken Gambler Listens
Many townspeople are impressed by the changes made by those who study the Bible. For instance, one day about four years ago, a drunken man named Ariel was in bed with a hangover. Although his gambling made him popular, he had nagging thoughts about his mounting debts, troubled marriage, and neglected daughters. His thoughts were interrupted by one of Jehovah’s Witnesses calling from house to house. Ariel listened long and hard as the brother explained the Scriptures. Soon Ariel was in bed again, reading about a happy family life, Paradise, and service to God. He later agreed to study the Bible.
By the time the missionaries arrived in Camiri, Ariel’s wife, Arminda, was also studying—but with little enthusiasm. “I’ll try anything to stop him from drinking,” she said. “But I doubt that it will do any good. He’s a lost cause.” The Bible study was more interesting than she had expected, however. Within a year, she was baptized and witnessing to her family. Before long, several of her relatives dedicated their lives to Jehovah.
As for Ariel, it was a struggle for him to stop drinking, smoking, and gambling. The turning point came when he invited all his acquaintances to the Memorial of Jesus’ death. He had decided: “Those who don’t come, I’ll drop. I’ll study the Bible with those who come.” He started three Bible studies that way. Even before Ariel became a member of the congregation, he studied the Bible with a relative who progressed and was baptized on the same day as Ariel was. Says Arminda: “It’s as though the Ariel that was doesn’t exist anymore.”
Robert reports: “At last count, 24 members of this family were attending the meetings regularly. Ten are baptized, and eight others are unbaptized publishers. Some who observed their changed conduct also began studying the Bible and are coming to congregation meetings. Attendance has increased from 100 to 190. Kathy and I are conducting about 30 Bible studies, and they all attend meetings. We feel good about being here.”
What is happening in Bolivia’s isolated towns is but a small part of a worldwide ingathering that was foretold in Revelation chapter 7, which tells of a gathering during “the Lord’s day” of those who will survive the great tribulation. (Revelation 1:10; 7:9-14) Never before in human history have millions from all nations been united in worship of the only true God. What thrilling evidence that the fulfillment of God’s promises is near!
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Charlotte Tomaschafsky, far right
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Each week the Vaca family travel three hours on bicycles to the Kingdom Hall
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Eric and Vicky came to serve where there is a need for more Kingdom publishers
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Villagers near the river Beni listen intently to the good news
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Robert and Kathy serve as missionaries in Camiri