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Planting more than potatoes

EL ALTO, Bolivia (BP)–Potatoes. More than one could ever imagine — more than 200 different varieties, in fact. Potatoes are everywhere: on trucks, in barrels at the open markets, on vendors’ tables at the side of the road and in the hand of a child who eats potatoes like apples.

But here, in Bolivia around Lake Titicaca, and at nearly 14,000 feet above sea level, is where the potato originated. It’s practically an agricultural miracle that anything grows here at all. The windswept Altiplano (High Plane) is either dust-bowl dry or subject to flash flooding. Little topsoil covers the rock in which potatoes are grown. This would be one of the wealthiest places in the world, if there were a market for dust and rock.

Instead, it is one of the poorest.

This is home to the Aymara an indigenous people group surviving here for more than 1,000 years. But survival on the Altiplano today is even more difficult. The Aymara see the cities as the answer to their economic problems, so more than 40,000 a year pour into El Alto, a city on the northern edge of the Altiplano, looking for work. Few find jobs.

As the Aymara migrate, most live under plastic shelters until they can scrape together the mud for a one-room adobe shack. They live on the city’s periphery where there is no sanitation, electricity or running water. Many of the women sell whatever they can from rickety stands in the market while the men hope for day labor. Their sheep pick at the dry, coarse grass as they move from one patch to the next near rugged dwellings.

Health conditions are terrible. Nearly 20,000 children under age 5 die each year from diarrhea and respiratory infections, and nearly a third of all infants between 3 and 36 months are malnourished.

As passionately as the Aymara plant potatoes, they worship Pachamama, or Mother Earth. There is no separation between physical and spiritual realms for these people. Pachamama is the most powerful being after the sun. The Aymara make offerings to satisfy her and other elements of nature. They expect nature to reciprocate by providing a bountiful livelihood. Their sense of self-worth is tied to how others see them and how the gods bless them.

“They live in fear and don’t have any hope,” says Kent Shirley, a missionary with the International Mission Board. “We have to share the hope they can have in Christ. But we have to do it in a way they can understand it.”

Of the 2.3 million Aymara scattered throughout the Andes Mountains and across four countries, more than 2 million have no personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Although Spanish is a trade language, most can neither read nor write Spanish or Aymara. Many speak only Aymara. Evangelistic and discipleship methods have to be creative and oral.

“God is doing some things among the Aymara right now and there is a responsiveness,” Shirley says. “We have seen more churches started among the Aymara in the past two years than there were in the 10 years before that.”

Aymara believers must be the ones to reach other Aymara with the gospel, Shirley says. He sees God moving among lay leaders. More than 20 recently finished a lay missionary training program and all have a desire to start churches.

“It is a long process and it is constant discipleship,” Shirley says. “You just have to be patient with the people, show them that you love them and help them understand that their worth is based on how God sees them. I believe one day we will see thousands of believers gathered into churches.”

And that takes more than planting potatoes; it takes planting the gospel with passion.