Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Historical context provided by road trip

Historical context to the mission to Bolivia provided by a road trip
by Daniel Johns

Obtaining a historical context for the Canadian Baptist Mission to Bolivia was the focus of a three-day road the Laurier Heights advance team undertook on its second weekend in Bolivia. From my point of view, the trip was a highlight, but also a gruelling experience. My reactions to what we saw were sometimes completely different from other members of the team, which explains why I am writing this story in the first person. This is how I saw the trip.

Although I have not questioned the people who set the agenda, I believe the goal was to show us sites of historical significance to the Baptist Church and, secondly, allow the team to see rural Bolivia. Since several elements of our schedule inside Cochabama had been postponed due to the demonstrations by the camposinos, people from the countryside, I was interested to see them in their home settings and get an idea of the conditions under which they live. The demonstrations of the camposinos aimed at forcing the governor of the Cochabamba department (or province) to resign. Later we encountered similar demonstrations in La Paz, aimed at forcing the governor of the La Paz department to resign and those demonstrations had an impact on our travels, as will be related later in this story. The camposinos support the president of the federal government, Evo Morales, who is of native ancestry.

It is about 390 kilometres by road between Cochabama and La Paz and about half of the trip is uphill. In order to reach La Paz, a traveller first has to reach the altiplano and that involves a climb of almost 2000 meters to the top of the pass which sits at 4496 meters. Fortunately, the road is excellent, about the standard of a paved secondary highway in Alberta, but much more of an engineering challenge as it must twist along the steep slopes, often turning back on itself, all the time avoiding the dramatic drop offs on the downhill side.

The mountains in this part of Bolivia are steep, but not jagged, covered with grass and very high. At lower elevations there are patches of trees, pines and eucalyptus, but there are very few trees at higher elevations or on the altiplano. Since it was the rainy season, the hills were green. Nevertheless, the rain had created very little running water. A few rivers were encountered, but none carried nearly as much water as the North Saskatchewan River.

What struck me was the fact there was sparse, but continuous settlement on the mountain sides. At no time was the scene devoid of signs of human habitation, cultivation and livestock. Even the steepest hills had adobe houses with grass roofs and pens for animals. Every slope had one or more visible plots of crops such potatoes, lima beans or barley. Usually someone could be seen herding sheep, tending to the cows and at high elevations, the llamas. Most houses had no services, no electricity or running water. Overall, 90% of people in rural Bolivia are without these services. In fact, many don’t even have nearby roads and must walk any produce to market.

The Quechuan people predominate on the slopes up to the altiplano, but after that the Aiymarans are most numerous. Their clothes were mostly traditional in style. In a few places people tried to flag down the vehicle, either to sell something or ask for a ride.

The slopes were steep enough that often the trucks could just crawl up the slope. Our friend, guide and driver, Ivan Gutierrez, knew the roads well and passed most slow moving vehicles promptly. At one point we were behind two large trucks. A cyclist had sprinted fast enough to catch one and hold onto the trailer with one hand, acquiring a free tow up the hill. At an elevation of over two miles, the thin air would sap the energy of any rider is, let alone the steepness of the road. One could understand the cyclist’s motivation in hitching a ride, but if he’d fallen, the second truck probably would have flattened him.

The arrival at the altiplano provided relief from being tossed from side to side in the corners for the five passengers jammed into the back of the van. Fortunately, my long legs earned me the relative comfort of the passenger. Once we achieved our highest point, the road straightened out and really did resemble a good Southern Alberta paved secondary highway. I don’t know exactly how large the altiplano is, but obviously it stretches for hundreds of kilometres. Decent sized hills stick out of the plain at frequent intervals, but the altiplano is surprisingly flat and most of the time I could see 10 or more kilometres in most directions.

The crops now included a little more variety, such as quinua and onions, but only a small part of the landscape was cultivated, likely less than a quarter. Another quarter, or less, appeared to be in what Alberta would call summer fallow, even though it was the rainy season. Villages were scattered here and there, located, I gather, according to the sources of water. Women, men and children herded animals, often mixed herds of sheep and llamas.

Our initial goal was Lake Titicaca, the highest body of water of its size in the world. We drove through El Alto, a suburb of La Paz, stopping only for fuel and preceded an hour or so further to the lake where we ate wonderful garlic trout, freshly caught, in a glassed-in dining room on the edge of the water. The view resembled a large lake in the interior of British Columbia and there were even a few of the same birds, coots, ruddy ducks and a heron resembling a black crowned night heron. The far shore was Peru.

We weren’t there to see the lake, but a village along the lake called Huatajata. The mission at Huatajata is one of the Baptist church’s proudest achievements. In the 1920’s the church acquired a large estate on the edge of the lake from another mission and ran it for years, with limited success. Rev. E. C. Merrick was put in charge in 1936. He questioned if the mission could ever achieve its goals, as long it maintained the traditional authority structure, with the church acting as a feudal landlord, leaving the residents in a state of serfdom. He implemented land reform and gave the farm to the residents, which resulted in better production and a stronger church.The model he used resembled the method used for homesteading the Canadian prairies.
In order to get title, the farmers had to make improvements. Since then the model has been used for land reform elsewhere in Bolivia and throughout South America. A church continues to thrive at Huatajata. The local houses and gardens were the most prosperous we saw in rural Bolivia.

The Health clinic serves the community

Well cared for garden of Potatoes

The next day was Sunday and we attended First Baptist Church (El Prado) in La Paz and Pastor Steve Simala Grant preached. The history of the El Prado church is interesting and it was reported on earlier in the blog. It was at a team meeting in La Paz that Steve wondered if the road trip was a good use of our time. Pastor Sue Hunter commented that she thought it necessary to give our trip a context for the Baptist presence in Bolivia and I completely agree with Sue. We needed to see the country outside a city to gain an understanding of traditional life, geography and resources. Otherwise religion, politics, and social justice would make no sense.

We decided to stay overnight in La Paz even though Ivan was concerned a possible demonstration Monday morning could trap us in La Paz. It turned out he was worried for good reason. When we arose on Monday, we learned a demonstration was being formed in El Alto. The sooner we were on the road the better. We skipped our planned visit to the Southern Cross Radio Station. When we arrived at the main road in El Alto, it was already blockaded. There wasn’t any choice of routes. Ivan questioned passing motorists and pedestrians and learned it was possible to wind through the subdivision on the north side of the highway in order to avoid the blockage. It took about an hour as we could usually only proceed three or four blocks before coming to a t-intersection or a ditch that forced a detour. Obviously traffic is never heavy on these narrow muddy streets because dogs balefully arose from the dirt, disturbed from a comfortable sleep in the sun, and reluctantly allowed us to pass. By looking to our right at many intersections, we could see the main road remained blocked. Ivan then had to make a choice of which new street to try. When asked, passers-by always gave us good advice on which route to take.
Miners helmut-the symbol of Oruro
Our Monday destination was Oruro, the town chosen by the first Canadian Baptist missionary to Bolivia, Archibald Reekie, as the location in which to start his ministry in April 1898. Oruro was then and is now a mining town, but it has grown to a city of just over 200,000 people. To get there we started down the road to Cochabamba, but detoured to the south. Oruro is even higher than La Paz. During the winter overnight temperatures can fall well below freezing, even though the city lies in the tropics. The trees in the city reminded me of varieties we might see here, such as poplars. The first stop was the cemetery and a visit to the Norman Dabbs mausoleum where Dabbs, a Canadian Baptist missionary, and other missionaries are buried. Dabbs endured a violent death, but his story has redeeming features.

Dabbs, and seven other Bolivian Baptists were martyred on August 8, 1949 in the village of Melcamaya which lies outside of Oruro. They were attending a regular Monday evening service with a small Baptist congregation. According to Dawn over the Bolivian Hills, a book started by Dabbs but completed after his death, a mob, incited by a Roman Catholic priest who objected to a Protestant service, stoned and beat the victims, resulting in eight deaths and several injuries. The buildings which housed the service were burned. Besides Dabbs, the dead included a rising star in the Bolivian church, Carlos Meneses, and two boys aged 13 and 16.

Almost 60 years later there are strong elements of redemption in the tragedy. The Baptist church in Melcamaya has survived and some of the participants of the mob became members. One still survives, but he apparently is too ashamed to talk about the incident. The grandson of one of the perpetrators has entered the Baptist Theological Seminary in Cochabamba. Ivan tells another story about the tragedy, which has symbolic value. One of the burned buildings contained seed potatoes. When recovered, they were charred, but planted anyway. A bumper crop resulted.

The Gym was used for the 1994 Americas Universiad hosted in Oruro.

Reekie began his mission by founding a school and our next stop in Oruro was the Reekie School, currently undergoing a resurgence in attendance. They expect to grow by 20% for the coming school year and were preparing some older classrooms to accommodate the increase. The oldest building on site, constructed of adobe in 1924, is still solid and undergoing renovations. There are currently three other building, including a large gymnasium. A walk in the grounds leaves no doubt the school still teaches the Christian message.
The motto from Ps 119 still guides the path of students 80 years later.

The visit to the school provided me with a moment for reflection. Reekie’s widow, then remarried, was member of a Baptist church I attended as a child in Norwich, Ontario, a village of 1700. My father was the minister at the First Norwich Baptist Church at the time. I can’t say I remember Mrs. Reekie. She lived in Norwich because after Reekie retired from the mission field he took on a nearby three-point rural charge. Presumably he was happy there and continued to do God’s work, but I can’t help but think the fact he ministered to such small churches indicated that when he returned to his homeland, he was not considered a prophet in his own country and was not feted nor given a prestigious job. I can tell you that Reekie is still remembered in Bolivia and highly respected as the man who brought his Christian message there. One example is the series of devotions, Emigdio Veizaga put together. (see the download Bolivia devotional http://www.cbmin.org/web/DesktopDefault.aspx?tabindex=3&tabid=84&img=projects&vi=;1,15;;1 ) It praises Reekie for his faith, courage and dedication.
Other than the drive home through spectacularly beautiful countryside, Oruro marked the end of the road trip. We had seen a lot in a short time and even though I was determined not to miss a kilometre, like the others, I succumbed to a short nap.

Fences and sheep folds are typical on the Alto Plano

A great Vista
Ivan managed to stay awake and keep us on the pavement. We returned Monday evening to Cochabamba.


Unknown said...

Thank you so much for a very meaningful write up. It certainly contextualizes my vague memories from youth of hearing about Baptist Missionaries in Bolivia. Some of the information has a familiar ring to it.
What a wonderful experience you are so ably sharing.
Cathy S

Anonymous said...

Wonderful imagery, Dan. It certainly put into perspective what the landscape was like especially with the comparisions to familiar Canadian landmarks.
Wish I had been there!


Ev Ward de Roo said...

You may want to read The Legacy of Archibald B. Reekie