We had been on a steep learning curve ever since we arrived in the village to learn the Canela people’s language and culture when suddenly the curve got even steeper.
I had hired Blackpalm, an older Canela man to help us learn his language. Every day for the previous four months, he had come to our house and patiently repeated words and phrases and corrected our pronunciation.
He always looked forward to our mid-morning coffee break, and one day it was especially satisfying since Jo had made a Dutch delicacy, oliebollen, to go with our coffee. The doughnut-like balls were easy to make without an oven since all she needed was a pan of hot oil to deep-fry them in.
He cautiously nibbled at his oliebol, then his face broke into a smile as he ate it up quickly and asked for another one. All three of us ate until they were all gone. What’s not to love about fried dough and icing sugar?
“How do you make these sweet things,” he asked Jo.
She showed him a bag of flour and said, “This is powder made from grinding up wheat which is sort of like rice.” She then showed him the butter, milk, salt, spices, sugar, and eggs and said, “These are all mixed up into a batter and then you drop a lump into the boiling oil, and . . . .”
“Wait!” he said, holding up his hands, “Are there eggs in these sweet things?”
When Jo said, “Yes,” he jumped up, ran outside, stuck his finger down his throat, and vomited up all of Jo’s delicious oliebollen.
When he came back, all teary eyed, he asked, “What are you doing? Are you trying to kill my little son?”
That’s when our learning curve started to go straight up as we began to research the enormous number of taboos the Canelas practice. It took years, but we eventually discovered that Canelas believe that not only what you personally eat will affect your health, but what you eat will also affect the health of close relatives. Babies, the elderly and sick people are especially vulnerable to certain foods being eaten by their relatives. There are many other ways a person can “pollute” another weaker person but eating the “polluting” types of food is the main concern.
Since it is a well-known fact among Canelas that eating eggs will cause diarrhea, and since babies are particularly prone to diarrhea and death through dehydration, no one in the immediate family eats eggs during the first year or two of a child’s life. Since Blackpalm was the father of a newborn, no wonder he was so upset.
Because of this taboo, many adults don’t eat eggs for 10-15 years at a stretch, denying themselves an excellent source of scarce protein. Pregnant women also tend to avoid eating meat and subsist mostly on starchy manioc root.
We prayed much and worked hard to teach Canelas the truth about health and germs and demonstrated a healthy lifestyle ourselves.
We noticed many of these taboos changing when they saw how we boiled our water and evaded many sicknesses that way. Then people learned to read and learned about hygiene and the value of clean drinking water to avoid diarrhea.
But the big changes came when early in the translation process we translated 1st Timothy. Our translation helpers’ faces lit up with big smiles when they read chapter 4 verses 3-5 which taught specifically about all foods.
“. . . which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”
The Canelas were a sickly group of fewer than 400 when we first started living with them in their village. By the time we left 22 years later, the village had grown to well over a thousand. Today, 45 years after the oliebollen incident, the village is thriving with nearly 2,000 inhabitants with healthier bodies, educated minds, and a growing number of spiritually alive souls.
As we climbed that steep learning curve Jo and I sometimes asked ourselves, “Is this going to be worth it?”
What do you think?