Cover Story
Photo by Ron Storer

Five-man legacy

Fifty years after the famous missionary martyrdom in Ecuador, the blood still cries out

Issue: "Five-man legacy," Jan. 28, 2006

Toñampadi, Ecuador - It is a January morning in this remote Waodani village in the equatorial rainforest. Word on the sweltering dirt streets is that the man called Kimo and his wife, Dawa, have arrived by canoe for the big weekend conferencia remembering the 50th anniversary of the killing here of Jim Elliot and four other American missionaries. Paa, a short and animated ball of energy with wide duck feet, is motioning wildly because his old friend Kimo is coming and has killed a tapir en route to the village.

Paa hopes they can share this fresh treat with their visitors tonight. Once abundant, these animals-the largest in the Ecuadorian rainforest-are numbering fewer as sedentary lifestyles, forced on Kimo and Paa's people by their newfound need to be within shouting distance of an airstrip, mean they hunt in a smaller area and quickly exhaust surrounding game supplies. The piquianani, or old ones, know their way of life is changing.

Paa waves excitedly to the cowodi, or foreigners, intending his gestures to communicate what his words cannot: Follow me to Kimo. He trudges off toward the Curaray River, leading an entourage of jungle missionaries, village children, and two elderly men for whom this moment has incalculably special meaning. Paa crosses the grassy airstrip that his people both bless and curse.

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Before there was an airstrip, belching volcanic peaks that tower like fortress sentinels cut off the Waodani (also called Waorani) from the rest of the world. The airstrip was the entryway for medicine, the savior of their bodies, and for missionaries who introduced them to Waengongi-God, the savior of their souls. Now it also conveys cowodi influences that promote alcoholism, promiscuity, and materialism.

Paa heads down a narrow path near a house made of chainsaw-cut palm boards. He breaks into an ear-to-ear smile as Kimo comes to hug him. Among the crowd, the two octogenarians wait anxiously, also smiling. They are Bert Elliot and Ken Fleming, brothers of Jim Elliot and Pete Fleming, two of the five "Palm Beach missionaries" whom Kimo and Paa's people speared to death to start the first chapter in the famous tale of evangelical martyrdom half a century ago. Kimo, who has been searching the crowd for their faces, sees them and maneuvers his aging body over for a warm embrace.

Fifty years earlier and less than a mile away, bold Jim Elliot and deep-thinking Pete Fleming, along with pilot Nate Saint, Ed McCully, and Roger Youderian, also were warmly greeted by Waodani tribesmen on "Friendly Friday." But two days later, Kimo and five other spearmen hurled lances at the missionaries, leaving the slain bodies to rot in the shallow Curaray River.

A Los Angeles Times headline from 1956 tersely reported the news: "Savages kill five missionaries." Reporters, emphasizing the five men's bravery and the determination of their wives and sisters, adopted "Auca," a Quichua word for "savage," to describe Paa and Kimo's people.

Even though Jim Elliot had described himself and the four others as "a bunch of nobodies trying to exalt Somebody," they were lionized after their deaths, and many Americans peered at Life's double-page photo spreads of the missionaries' widows and orphans juxtaposed against shots of nameless, near-naked "savages," as the captions read. But when Paa looks at those pictures today, he smiles and lists them by name-this one is Nenkiwi, that one is Dayumae.

The Waodani always had names, but they didn't have some other things, such as a concept of time. Before contact, older Waodani estimated age based on natural occurrences and momentous events like volcanic eruptions or major raids. Kimo is probably nearing 70, and despite his khakis, ball cap, and T-shirt, he-like many of the older ones-has retained his rough looks. Big gums flash a mostly toothless smile, but the rest of his physiognomy betrays his ancestors' rigidity: a heavy-set brow and tired, serious eyes. Kimo has "hard life" written all over him.

The Waodani especially did not have peace. "I've killed many," Kimo says. The actual number is probably in the dozens, but the Waodani simply lump all numbers larger than three together as "many." His visage is tough, but he says God has tamed his soul: "We were seen back then as savages. The devil blinded us. We were always killing. . . . I can't explain how different I feel now." On Sunday, Kimo would help baptize 10 young Waodani Christians in the same waters where he once killed.

Thomas Hobbes' description of life in nature as "nasty, brutish and short" was not, of course, a description of the Waodani, but they were the most violent people on record, once boasting a homicide rate of more than 60 percent and viewing a 25-year-old as remarkably long-lived.


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