The sun was approaching its zenith in the Amazon forest of the River Japura basin. But for the endless shrill of crickets and the loud whistle of a bird, the silence of the forest was enchanting and complete.
A party of four men make their way through trackless undergrowth. Two are rubber tappers, serving as guides, while two are Englishmen with a quest to meet the forest Indians.
The rubber tappers (or seringueiros) know the terrain well. They depend on it for their livelihood as they collect rubber latex from the Hevea brazilensis trees.
In the small hours of the morning the seringueiro alights from his hammock and – after a meal of black coffee and tapioca – sets out along the pique or track that links the rubber trees. With a paraffin lamp on head, he begins his day’s work.
He inserts a small dish in the bark of each tree and makes an incision allowing the latex to drip into the cup. If it doesn’t rain (which would dilute the latex) he will be back later in the day for collection.
These men are probably descendants of the many from the NE of Brazil who at the turn of the century migrated to the Amazon basin to harvest its ‘gold’ – the valuable rubber latex.
But why should the Britons make such an arduous journey to the uttermost parts of the earth? The answer will soon appear.
As the party progresses, Hildebrand (one of the guides) starts calling his name aloud.
He continues calling, chopping at a tree with a forest knife to announce the gifts he has to offer any who might be in the vicinity.
Suddenly an answer comes from the depth of the forest – Hildebrand is known to the Indians.
We are ordered to stop in our tracks while Hildebrand advances and continues calling out his name. We remain in suspense, as the voice gets nearer. Hildebrand again orders us to keep our distance.
At last the two meet and there before our eyes appears our first Indian – unclad, copper skinned, long haired, of normal physique, and with the forest knife under his arm.
As we look at this ‘ignorant savage’, we do not see his fear and suspicion, but a member of a race to whom we had been sent to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ.
He belongs to the macu or nadeb nomadic tribe found between the rivers Negro and Japura. Later he is joined by two equally nervous comrades.
Seeing our firearms, they order us to keep them at a safe distance. When my brother tried to film them, they refuse permission by showing a warning finger.
However, they accept the trinkets we had brought – fishhooks, matches, mirrors etc. Later they left us, and we prepared to pass the night in the forest. Our guides made us a small covering of palm leaves.
Beetle to the rescue
Ever since leaving the UK in December 1953 I had kept a diary. I wanted to record the events of that day, 30 September 1954, but we had no light, not even a torch.
However, a phosphorescent beetle came to the rescue, which I held in my left hand in order to do the write-up. It worked perfectly – intensity of light was controlled by pressure on the beetle!
Early the next morning a friendly group of Indians came bringing bananas. They sampled some of our food, but found it unacceptable, no doubt because of the sugar and salt it contained.
Through our guides we expressed our desire to visit their maloca (tribal huts).
We followed on and shortly met a hunter with a blow-pipe. This weapon is made by removing the soft pithy centre of nearly nine feet of a young palm.
The darts, sharpened at one end, are dipped in the poisonous sap of the curare tree to produce an anaesthetic effect upon the victim. The other end is bound with a fluffy substance to provide a piston action as the dart passes through the tube.
We were all allowed to have a go. The speed and straight trajectory of the dart was amazing.
When we reached the maloca, no women were to be seen; as is their custom at the approach of strangers they fled to hide themselves.
We had travelled over ten thousand difficult miles to locate the macu tribe. Why should such effort be made?
Ecclesiastes says: ‘Cast thy bread upon the waters and thou shalt find it after many days’. For me, those ‘many days’ are now half a century.
Who would have imagined that one day, through the linguistic efforts of the Wycliffe Bible Translators and other groups, this very tribe would possess – in their mother tongue – such Scripture portions as Mark’s Gospel, Acts, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon and John’s Epistles? Luke is now being checked and John translated.
Day of small things
The young Nadeb church on the River Enuixi, Amazonas, has five elected leaders. Pray for the missionary couple who work with them. Recently seven baptisms took place and evangelisation of two neighbouring villages is under way.
Women meet twice weekly to memorise Scripture and sing. Who would have imagined that one day this tribe would be singing praises to the Lamb and celebrating his Supper?
Thus for them the ‘day of small things’ had begun, as it has for many other tribes in Brazil.
There are 34 indigenous groups which have access to the New Testament in their mother tongue; 49 other groups have translation work in progress; and a total of 170 still have some members who speak their indigenous language. But, even today, over half of these tribes have never heard the name of Jesus Christ.