A mother holds her two youngest children, 1 and 3, in her arms in a native-made dugout canoe with brightly painted slats for seats. A Saramacan man in the front of the boat uses a pole to spot and avoid rocks in the Suriname River as the flotilla travels down river to the capital city on a resupply trip. The river is down now, typical during the dry months of August to December, which makes these hidden hazards more prevalent.
Despite the poleman’s efforts, a rock snags the boat. The ever-pressing current pushes the boat sideways and threatens to tip its human cargo into the drink.
The mother grips each child and comes face to face with a terrifying choice: “Which one do I save?” Both wear flotation devices, but they won’t help much against the strong current, she knows.
Alison Smiley, eyes wide with remembered fear and panic, shared this moment of her first few months as missionaries with her husband David Smiley in Suriname, South America, an experience which began in August 2012.
The boat didn’t tump over, she said, but it brought home the natural dangers of their mission experience under sponsorship of The Summit Church in North Little Rock.
Suriname is a tiny country on the north coast of South America. The Suriname River flows north through the middle of the country and empties into the Atlantic Ocean at the country’s capital, Paramaribo. About 50 miles upriver, along its banks, David, Alison and their five children spent large segments of nearly seven years in a small village named Adopulanpasi.
There, they lived as the natives did, mostly outside, in a home built like the others, washing dishes and themselves in the river, using solar power for their freezer that functioned more like a refrigerator, and sharing their practical skills and spiritual message of hope with Saramacans, one branch of the Maroon Tribe.
A MISSION ADVENTURE
The children were 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 when the family began their mission commitment. They said their children loved swimming and fishing in the river, climbing trees, playing with children in the village and hosting a variety of pets at various times, including a parrot, a sloth, iguanas and turtles.
The Smileys said they could portage about eight weeks of supplies at a time on the trek from Paramaribo to Adopulanpasi, whether they flew in a tiny Cessna or drove and canoed. The flight took about 75 minutes. The other route included a three-hour car ride to a river port, then a three- to five-hour river passage in canoes. Both transportation modes had their risks and benefits.
Alison said after the early canoe scare, they tried to fly during low-river months, but that wasn’t always how it worked out.
The Smileys learned the Saramacan language and speak it fluently. Saramacans are an oral-tradition group because many don’t have any reason to learn to read or write. Other missions and missionaries before them translated the New Testament into Saramacan and that was then audio recorded, which is how most of the villagers experience the Bible. The main language in Suriname is Dutch, but the small country has many languages and is a hodgepodge of different nationalities, ethnicities and tribes.
Adopulanpasians and Saramacans in general take pride, Alison said, in the fact their ancestors were never slaves. When, in the 1600s and later, ships delivered captured peoples to work as slaves on sugar cane plantations, some ran away into the jungle immediately after debarking to live in freedom, never experiencing the lash of slavery. Many of those ancestors came from Africa.
WALKING IN HUMILITY
As missionaries, the Smileys held Bible study classes and worship services, helped villagers fix things, joined in village projects such as pounding rice and constructing steps down the steep bank to the river and worked alongside villagers as equals. They said they didn’t go in with the idea of changing village culture. Their goal was to “walk in humility with Christ,” join in, learn from villagers and offer them a kind of hope the Smileys discovered many lacked. Many Saracamacans practice animism and their lives are often “dark,” guided by superstitions.
Villagers live in a matriarchy, with a ratio of 10 women to one man. Men may take more than one wife and many do take up to three wives, with each wife usually living in a different village. Men hunt for their family groups, but they aren’t usually very involved in the daily lives of their wives and children.
The Smileys said they tried to give the villagers God’s word and offer a positive example of the Christian model of one man, one wife, with the man having meaningful involvement in the lives of his wife and children.
A success the Smileys pointed to was their continuation of annual medical clinics, something established by missionaries prior to their stint. Another great need is glasses, especially readers. Alison said women do a lot of sewing, and readers help tremendously.
The Smileys made two trips back to the states between 2012 and 2018 to take care of things like visas and to report to The Summit Church and other sponsoring churches and organizations.
The Summit Church works with Beautiful Feet out of Oklahoma for its mission work, and the church and the Smileys raised funds from church members in North Little Rock and other parts of Arkansas as well as from churches and entities in Oklahoma, Texas and Kentucky.
Alison said when they returned to live in the states in January 2019, it was a long time before she was able to leave the store and not cry. She said the many choices overwhelmed her, and she’d never used a chip reader to pay for purchases or learned about scanning items. She said the children missed their village friends and swimming in the river.
The Smileys said their focus now is on being where they are and enjoying life here. They are active in First Baptist Church in Fayetteville, and their children are involved in youth group, sports and other activities. But they said they would like to go back to Suriname, not as missionaries necessarily, but for the love they developed for the people and the lifestyle.