I recently received a package from my friend Charles (thanks Charles!) containing the book Spirit of the Rainforest by Mark Andrew Ritchie. I was pretty excited about this, since I don't have the variety of books I used to enjoy. And anyway, who's not excited about getting a book in the mail?
I didn't really know anything about the book when I started reading it, but I was immediately hooked. It's about the Yanomamo, an indigenous people group living in the Amazon. Ritchie gathered stories from the people and recorded them through the voice of Jungleman, a prominent shaman. He assures us that "nothing here is fiction, not even slightly exaggerated." Some of the stories are so crazy, it's hard to believe that assertion, but he says that he checked and rechecked each story for authenticity. He writes, "...truth is stranger than fiction. Not only that, it's harder to believe, funnier, and far more adventuresome. I'm a nonfiction writer because fiction has to be "real," but nonfiction only has to have happened." I love that quote.
The whole first part of the book records Jungleman's life, the family dynamics, daily routines, wars, and, most startling, his spirituality. I've always believed that there are spirits in the world, like angels and demons, but I usually don't think about them very much. To Jungleman, the spirits were everything. They were his companions, his helpers, the things that gave him power. He talked about calling on them to help him murder children in other villages so that the other groups would become weaker and unable to attack his village later on. He was known as Child-Eater because of his skill in this area. If someone else sent a spirit to kill one of his children, his spirits would help him to chase after the soul and try to get it back. If he couldn't, the spirits would tell him who had killed the child and who they should attack for revenge. Crazy stuff.
Jungleman also mentioned another spirit, Yai Wana Naba Laywa, the unfriendly enemy spirit. He wrote about some interesting episodes. "One time I watched the shaman try to save a tiny girl from dying. When she was almost dead, the enemy spirit sent his hawk to grab her soul. The shaman called for the Ice Spirit and together they chased after the hawk to get the girl's soul back...he was too late. The hawk took the child's soul up through the bottom of the lake into the land of the great spirit. It was too hot and too bright and too noisy for the shaman to stay there. 'What is that place?' I asked my spirit friends. 'That land is where the great enemy spirit lives,' two of them said at once. 'He's the most powerful spirit there is but he's unfriendly.' He asked them "What about the noise?' 'That's all the other beings up there singing to him and celebrating. They're always celebrating something.'"
Is the great unfriendly spirit God? It kind of sounded like it, but I wasn't sure. I was more sure about it when Jungleman said that, to his horror, he found out that another shaman chose to throw his spirits because he wanted the enemy spirit. Jungleman's spirits were crowding around him, begging him not to throw them away too. He thought that was crazy. Why throw away all that power? They were so good to him.
The rest of the book is just as crazy as the first part. It's definitely hard to believe, and that's probably why Ritchie wrote an extensive addendum at the end of the book, saying that even though it's hard to believe, everything is true. He says that there are many details that he never would have known if it hadn't come from the Yanomamo's mouths (like the color of babies' brains). One story was so out there that a senior anthropologist told him he should leave it out because no one would ever believe it was true. He thought about it, but decided he couldn't choose to edit out another person's story.
Also, his story wasn't very easy to market. It didn't show anthropologists in a very flattering light. One prominent one was named "Irritating Bee" by the Yanomamos because he kept pestering them to tell him stories about their dead. One anthropologist's behavior was so outrageous that he was nicknamed A.H. (Ass Handler). Also, the men Ritchie interviewed didn't seem so keen on the anthropologist idea that indigenous people should be left in their pristine state, untouched by the outer world. The Yanomamo did want to change for the better. Shoefoot, the shaman who first threw away his spirits, said, "I'm not an animal to be studied. We want people who will help us improve our way of life, not just write books about us. We want people who will really care about us, like the man who came into my village and put his arm around me when I was covered with dirt, sweat, saliva, and mucous. This man shared in our suffering. He cared about our children. He showed us something we knew nothing about--love." He was talking about Keleewa, a missionary who had grown up with the tribe and acted as a translator for the project.
Of course, this story isn't really that appealing to the Christian crowd either. While it's evident how much the people loved Keleewa, it was definitely not flattering of all missionaries. Ritchie wrote about "a missionary who spanked an Indian woman with a stick, another one who had an inappropriate relationship with an underage girl, and others who were overtly racist against Indians. One semi-missionary even killed his Indian wife." Not so great. Besides that, most Christian publishing houses wouldn't jump at the chance to publish such a graphic book. It has numerous accounts of rape, molestation, abuse, killings, and all sorts of violence. Ritchie said that he was a bit uncomfortable writing some of those things, but he did want to portray the reality of their lives. I can't imagine it sitting on the shelf next to Chicken Soup for the Soul.
As a reader, this book wasn't always easy to read, but it was fascinating. I really enjoyed learning about the culture (even if some of it is disturbing). It was also awesome to see how God can work in different places and diverse ways. If you can handle it, I'd definitely check out this book. Then you can decide for yourself what you think. And if you're in Hong Kong, I'll even lend you my copy. :)