Founding Wai Wai Elder Mawasha Dies

WaiWaiEldersToday is a sad day for me.

Mawasha (second from right, the tallest), one of the founding elders of the original Wai Wai church died yesterday in a hospital in Manaus, Brazil.  The founding 5 elders from left to right are Melsha, Kirifaka, Elka, Mawasha and Yakuta.  As far as I know, Yakuta is now the only remaining original elder.  I knew and respected ‘Taam’ Mawasha (‘Taam’ is loosely translated ‘Mister’) when I was a boy growing up on the jungle mission station of Kanashen, deep in the jungles of Guyana, South America, established by my Dad and Mom, Bob & Florine Hawkins and by his brother, my uncle Neill Hawkins. The name of that station which means ‘God Loves You’ lives on in the current name for the entire district in Southern Guyana encompassing the original station which is now overgrown with jungle. I lost contact with Mawasha and with most of the Wai Wai people from 1980 to 2010 (30 years) but reconnected with one of Mawasha’s sons, Yowkie, and many others in March of 2011 when I visited the Masakenari village, just

Mawasha_Young 10 miles away from Kanashen on the Essequibo River. I made that visit in response to a request from my Dad to ‘please help the Wai Wai people with agriculture.‘ So, with the encouragement of a good friend in my church, Jan Milton, (young Mawasha blowing the cow horn which substituted as a church bell –>)  founder of Operation Renewed Hope, I made the trip with two of my sons, Daniel and Stephen (and Jan and a wonderful guy named Dave Byer) and boy, what a life changing trip it was for me! As it turns out, instead of ‘helping the Wai Wais’ with agriculture, they ended up helping me!  What I mean is that my whole thinking was transformed from the view that ‘white people do agriculture right and we need to help the brown people’ to more like ‘brown people have much to teach white people about agriculture and about life if we would only get off our high horses and listen.’  Not that Wai Wai agriculture is perfect. Not saying that.  I am also not subscribing to all aspects of the ‘beautiful savage’ viewpoint espoused by modern anthropologists. There were many things about the original Wai Wai lifestyle that were destructive and credit my Dad and Mom and their faithful co-workers like Irene Benson and Florence Riedle for turning that around with the Light of the Gospel and a lot of blood, sweat and tears. But in my opinion, the Wai Wai village lifestyle is far closer to God’s ideal for how mankind was designed to live than anything we have in ‘white man society.’  That was a huge mental shift for me that occurred partly because of this trip and partly because of the work of Dr. Weston A. Price, DDS and his faithful wife, who traveled the world for 7 years and Mawasha1documented ‘primitive’ cultures like the Wai Wai all over the world, showcasing their excellent teeth and excellent overall health as a result of their ‘non-industrial’ diets and lifestyles in the book “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.”

The story of the Wai Wai people is a remarkable one, (<— Elka, ‘Bahm’ and Mawasha about to depart on a missionary journey to a neighboring tribe) chronicled in two books, “Christ’s Witchdoctor” and “Christ’s Jungle” authored by Homer Dowdy some years ago.  The first book relates the story of the radical positive changes that took place as a result of the bold step of Elka, a prominent chief and witchdoctor, to turn from evil spirit worship to ‘Ciisusu’ (Jesus).  Everyone predicted that Elka would die when he threw his witchdoctor charms into the river and began praying to  ’Ciisusu’ instead of the spirit of the anaconda and the spirit of the bush hog, but he did not and everyone was amazed.  ’Ciisusu is stronger than Kworokyam [the spirits]‘ they said.

The inner struggles of these early leaders like Mawasha and Elka is recounted beautifully by Homer Dowdy in his books. In honor of Mawasha and his life and legacy, I want to finish this tribute to him with an excerpt from the book that will hopefully whet your appetite to read the whole thing. I was brought to tears as I read this story …

Yakuta continued to sit on one side of Elka to learn, and now Mawasha sat on the other. The tall serious youth would look at Elka and say, “It’s so hard, but I want to learn to make the paper talk back, the way it does for you.” “Good,” Elka would reply. “You learn to make the paper talk. You also receive Jesus.”

Mawasha had taken a girl of the Mawayana tribe as his wife. She had longed for many days to go back over the high mountains and up the small streams to the Mawayana hill country to see her people. Reluctantly Mawasha finally gave in and tore himself from Elka’s teaching. He and his young wife, who was pregnant, set out on the arduous journey. When they finally reached her village they found sickness and death rampant among the Mawayana. So great was the air of fear and despondency that the young couple wished they had not come. They cut short their visit and started back over the trail. Mawasha’s father-in-law, and others who were glad to escape the plagued village, accompanied them back to Yaka Yaka.

Mawasha led the procession over a trail in the Mawayana hills, scanning the forest before him for signs of animals and birds on which the party be depended to supplement the baskets of bread they carried on their backs. Behind him trudged his wife, struggling to keep pace despite the burden of her unborn child. She knew her time was near and it did not help to think that birth might come on the forest trail. From time to time Mawasha turned to look at her and at the others behind her, and urged them on; he wanted to get home.

Elka and the missionaries had tried hard to give Mawasha ears about God and this tall, quiet, serious one had got them slowly, painfully with real struggle. God, Mawasha knew, had made this forest, the streams through which they waded, the Mawasha2sharp rocks, the eagles that soared overhead. God had made him and his wife. It was good, what they had said about God and his love for the Waiwai and the Mawayana and the other people in the forest. It was good that Jesus, God’s Son, had given his life to pay for their badness so that it could be forgotten by God once they confessed it. He had seen Elka give up his basket of charms under the big mango [tree]. He had seen Elka live and not die. He knew by these things that Jesus Christ was stronger than Kworokyam. He was close to becoming a companion of Jesus – close, but not quite there. What kept him from it was what Elka had said about children being gifts from God. Mawasha’s ears had closed at this point. He was not ready to accept this. Some children, yes. But if his firstborn were a girl when he wanted a boy…?

A man of the forest, an expert with a bow and arrow, one who knew well the lair of the alligator and the smell of wild pigs, Mawasha wanted a son to roam the forest with one who if he himself fell sick would bring in meat and work his field until he was well again. But he was afraid his wife might bear a girl. What good would a girl be? Why keep a girl when he wanted a boy? Why shouldn’t he kill a baby girl?

To receive Jesus, to become his companion, meant that all his ways would have to be yielded to Jesus. And Jesus he knew would not want him to kill a baby daughter. Elka had been very definite about this. So Mawasha would not answer to Jesus – yet. Instead, if his wife bore a girl child, he would kill the old young thing.

Finally the group reached the Mapuera then, having ascended as far as their canoe would take them, left it for the trail over the high mountains. Late one day as the sun sank and the darkness fell quickly on the forest, Mawasha’s wife knew her time had come. She cried out once from pain. A woman relative sympathetic to the girl told Mawasha that he should build a birth hut. The child would come in the night. It was a makeshift hut he put up with the help of his father-in-law, who usually aborted his wives before they reached this stage. The hut was a mere roof of palm leaves laid on long sticks fastened to tree trunks. In it they tied parallel poles, one just off the ground for her to stand on, the other overhead for her to grasp during labor. Because there were no banana leaves, the woman relative quickly wove a simple leaf mat on which to receive the newborn child.

The night was wet and chill. Mawasha waited in a corner of the hut. Sullenly he watched as his wife lay in her hammock panting and in pain. He followed the movements of the older woman as she stirred up the fire to dispel some of the chill and placed a pot of water near it to warm. He was surly because he had a feeling the child would be a girl. Reaching into a pile of freshly cut firewood, he withdrew a short but heavy limb which he laid at his feet. Then he settled back again to watch his suffering wife and her helper.

Much of the night passed. His wife now stood on the lower pole and pulled on the one overhead. Outside, the chilling mist had turned to rain. Thunder clapped noisily overhead and the echoes through the forest were long in dying out. Mawasha kept to his corner. Once in a while he fingered the heavy stick. He looked at his wife and from the pain and fright in her eyes new his waiting was finally at an end.

A terrifying burst of thunder crashed about them and took moments to roll to silence over the expanse of forest. When it past the cry of a newborn child was heard. Beneath his wife a baby lay on the leaf mat. Mawasha stood up to look. He had been right all along – it was a girl. He stooped to pick up his club. Just as he straightened up and took one step toward the child, his father-in-law ducked into the shelter out of the rain.

“Lift up your child,” the man said sternly.

“Yes, lift her up,” said the woman relative now attending the new mother.

“It’s a girl child, but one you should save,” his wife’s father continued. In surprise Mawasha halted and turned to confront the man. Lift her up, he said himself incredulously – this from one who had killed not only babies but wives! Oh yes, now when it was someone else’s child his father-in-law wanted to save it.

He turned back to face the baby. For several moments he stood hesitating. He had wanted a boy, and his wife had given him a girl. He had sworn he would kill a girl. Yet now he wasn’t sure. He tightened, then loosened his grip on the club. Finally he let it slide through his fingers to the ground.

It was not the admonitions of his wife’s people that restrained him, but an Unseen Voice that told him how wrong it was to kill a child and an Unseen Hand that steered him to the baby and made him bend over and pick up the tiny thing and hand it to his wife. “We’ll save the child,” he said, turning his scowling face away from them all.

After they had rested there for a number of days Mawasha brought his family back to Yaka Yaka. Once again he was drawing up his carved stool alongside Elka’s. He went faithfully to the lessons at Kanashen. The same Unseen One who had whispered in his ear and guided his motions in the hut would not let him be. In time, Mawasha – the tall one, the plodder, the thinker of deep thoughts, the one who could not be rushed, but who, when once convinced, was completely convinced – became a companion of Jesus. (Christ’s Witchdoctor, Vision House, 1994, pp. 173-177)

Rest in Peace, Taam Mawasha.   Amne hara … Kaan yeken pona okre!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>