By Xavier Sartre
Rivers in French Guiana are like highways and national roads in France: they connect the villages and isolated communities of this territory, which is as large as Ireland. Everything is disproportionate in this part of the world: 12,000 people live in Maripasoula, scattered among several villages hidden under the green cloak of the Amazon.
It takes two and a half hours by canoe to reach Ipokan Ëutë, also known as Freedom City, the village created six years ago by Aikumale Alemin, better known as Aiku. Born forty-three years ago, this father of four children is an Amerindian Wayana, one of the six indigenous peoples of Guyana. He is originally from Antecume Pata, a village founded in 1961 by a native of Lyon, France. Aiku’s parents are evangelical Christians, something that did not hinder his belief in the spirit of the forest and water, the two essential elements of the region.
Starting with reading the Bible
Ten years ago, Aiku fell ill, both physically and psychologically. "Since everything had become negative for me, everything had become dark, I told myself I should rely on something invisible," says Aiku. "For the first time in my life, I opened the Bible translated into Wayana by American pastors". It was his father's Bible. He read it from cover to cover in a week. "It was a great relief. I was refreshed in spirit and physically recovered. I started playing with my children again, I started to forget everything that had happened”.
A week later, Bishop Emmanuel Lafont of Cayenne, by chance or Divine Providence, went to Antecume Pata. It was not the first time he had visited this place lost in the jungle. Going there was not something he did easily because Catholic priests are not well regarded along the banks of the river. "They were school teacher friends of mine from Paris, who invited me to visit them for the first time in 2004," recalls Bishop Lafont. "They introduced me to Aiku, who worked at the health center. We looked each other up and down a bit, and our friendship didn't go very far".
When the Bishop returned on a second visit, Aiku was feeling a lot better. Still, their meeting didn’t start off well: Aiku’s Amerindian dog bit the Bishop. It’s a memory that makes the two men smile today. Aiku had to take care of Bishop Lafont in his home. He discovered that his guest had been a fidei donum priest in South Africa, and asked him to explain the Bible to him. Bishop Lafont gave Aiku his own Bible which he read over and over again.
The conversion journey begins
The following year, Aiku invited the Bishop of Cayenne to spend ten days with his family in the rainforest. "In the evening," recalls Bishop Lafont, "I asked them to tell me a story from Wayana and then I told them a story from the Bible. His wife spoke in the Wayana idiom and Aiku translated." Shortly after, in 2009, the "Secours Catholique de Guyane" invited Aiku to participate in the Social Forum in Belem, Brazil, as a representative of the Amerindian peoples. In 2010 the Bishop called him, along with his wife and other Amerindians, to the Synod of the Diocesan Church of Guyana. Aiku still had not been baptized. "I never asked him if he wanted to receive Baptism”, admits Bishop Lafont.
Meanwhile, the idea of conversion was making its way into Aiku's heart. "My life had changed," he explains, recalling the days following his recovery. At first, he turned to the evangelicals, but did not find them welcoming. Aiku then turned to the Catholic Church and requested Baptism. He asked his wife to accompany him on this path of conversion.
"We lived something extraordinary." Says Bishop Lafont, remembering his return journey through the forest on 24 December 2012. "That morning, Aiku and his wife got married at the town hall, in the afternoon I baptized them, and in the evening I celebrated Midnight Mass in their house; there were seven or eight of us. And the next day, during the Eucharistic celebration, Aiku asked for a religious marriage ceremony".
On the way to the diaconate
The conversion was not in itself a foregone conclusion. Several religions can coexist within the same family. Aiku's eldest son, who is 25 years old, is an Adventist, having adopted his wife's confession. However, the transition from one faith to another is not always easy. "We were not well received because it was the first time that a Catholic community was founded on the river. No one had ever seen one before," explains Aiku. "The Evangelicals and Jehovah's Witnesses said the Catholic Church was satanic. They persecuted the young people of the Maripasoula boarding school who had decided to follow me. Their leader, an American pastor working in Surinam, crossed the river to stop them, saying it made no sense to persecute their brothers and sisters".
Eventually Aiku’s parents came to accept his conversion to Catholicism. "Now they come to our chapel every Sunday," he says, in the new village he founded, and where he has built a place of worship open to all.
Aiku’s journey of faith did not end with Baptism. He continued his formation and felt the need to be more involved in the Church. He trained to become a deacon, supported by his wife. It was not an easy experience, considering the long journey, several hours by canoe and by plane, to reach the Cayenne. A unique adventure of its kind in the Amazon.
It was a new step on a long road. "Things did not happen in a hurry," Bishop Lafont says of Aiku's conversion. "The Lord touched him in a special way in a moment of pain and the Word of God manifested itself as a source of healing. This personal case is also representative of the way the Amazon is evangelized: with patience, encounters, with the testimony of faith. Gradually, the Catholic Church is moving up the land-locked rivers, integrating itself into the hearts of the peoples of the region.
A unique status for the Church of Guyana
French Guiana, an overseas territorial region, has an area of 83,856 km² and a population of 270,000 inhabitants. The Amazon Rainforest covers 97% of it. The status of the Catholic Church there is unique for France: the 1905 law on the separation of Church and State is not applicable. Nor does the 1802 Concordat prevail. The Royal Order of Charles X of 1828 remains in force, according to which the General Council pays Catholic priests, and the State maintains places of worship. The Constitutional Council confirmed these provisions in 2017.