Last I night I reread “Bruchko,” an autobiographical account of a missionary from Minnesota, who decides he is called by God to help the Amazonian tribes of South America. He embarks to Columbia with little money, no official missionary sponsorship, and no real knowledge of Spanish or the indigenous Amazonians. With astonishingly few supplies (his only footwear was a single pair of tennis shoes, for more than a year in the jungle) he eventually finds his way to the Motilone, an indigenous tribe in the Venezuelan Amazon. The Motilone, at that point (1962), were an uncontacted people, still living as hunter gatherers with stone age technology. They had killed or seriously wounded a handful of oil engineers, and their first encounter with Olsen nearly leaves him dead.
He endures incredible hardships living among the Motilone, but he eventually gains their trust and forms strong friendships with members of the tribe. He teaches them about basic sanitation (the Motilone had no concept of restrooms, and rarely threw out their garbage) and pilfers medical supplies from a Venezuelan doctor working for a petroleum company, which he administers to his new friends with the help of the local witch doctor. He goes out of his way to remain respectful to their customs and language (but not their religion, which, of course, he seeks to change), and helps set up schools, health centers, and agriculture. The trend of education has continued to this day, with a number of younger Motilones obtaining university degrees and going into fields like medicine and law.
Regardless of what you think of missionaries, or what your religion or lack thereof might be, “Bruchko” is an incredible tale of survival and dedication. The dangers Olsen endures are so harrowing, and his path so death defying, that the book is not unlike “Adrift,” and really needs to be made into a movie.
Mr. Olsen in the jungle.