top of page


Thanks for submitting!

  • noahchonlee

Meeting My Childhood Hero's Killer

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

Having some fun clowning around in the Waorani community of Daipade.
Everyone drinks chicha, a fermented drink made from yuca, that is somewhat alcoholic. Which means everyone including little kids and grandparents are often a little buzzed. I believe this is due to the lack of access to clean water and the way in which alcohol sterilizes drinks, similar to why people in the middle ages drank so much ale and beer.

Before losing my religion due to some combination of college philosophy classes, visiting temples, and Rick and Morty, I watched a movie called "The End of the Spear" about how the most famous American missionary in history, Jim Elliot, helped civilize a barbaric indigenous people group. During my time among the villages by the Curaray River, I found a far different reality.

The Waorani of Ecuador appear to have struck a remarkable synergy between modern governance and traditional values. Tribes among the Waorani are fiercely egalitarian and democratic. Elections are held every three years for the president of each tribe, although elections often follow heriditary patterns with leadership being passed down patrilineally. However, I have rarely seen a less misogynistic society in all my travels. The women and men cook together, play soccer together, joke and tease one another, and women as well as men may take leadership. As well as this, kids are treated with respect in a way I had never seen before. They sit in meetings discussing group decisions and their presence is acknowledge with a greeting upon visiting a new place. Time after time, I felt amazed at how everyone was encouraged to participate. In Sapino Village I met a man in his thirties with clear developmental disabilities, yet I found no perceptible difference in how his neighbors interacted with him. As well as this, the capacity of the Waorani to organize into a movement is perhaps unparalleled anywhere in the world. Thanks to them, Ecuador is the only nation on earth where indigenous protests have overthrown the government multiple times. The Waorani and their allies achieved this through the skillful utilization of their most advanced technology... Whatsapp messages and spears. My first time in Ecuador, I witnessed how Waorani warriors communicated with one another through Facebook posts and Whatsapp messages to block highways, occupy oil fields, and shut down the airport and border using only spears. While facing off against multi-billion dollar companies and the government of an entire country, they operated with almost zero funding.

The first piece of modern tech that arrives to these jungle communities is often the chainsaw

Upon meeting the president of the Waorani nation, an impressive figure radiating authority, he smiled warmly at me in his office and said, "oh hey, you met my uncle!" I resisted the urge to let my jaw drop. I remember meeting his uncle in a wooden hut in a village struggling to obtain clean drinking water. Even family members of the highest leadership could not afford basic necessities while participating in revolutions that brought a UN-recognized government to its knees. In part this is due to broken promises. The Waorani president's uncle lived in the same village where Jim Elliot and a group of his fellow missionaries were martyred.

I visited the village of Toñampare to donate solar power banks in August of 2021, but the night before arriving I was told that a famous missionary once visited there. When I heard the name they told me, I could not believe my ears. Growing up watching "The End of the Spear," I had some vague notion that the events portrayed had taken place somewhere in Africa. But years later in adulthood, I had stumbled by chance upon the site where my childhood hero was stabbed to death. The next day, I met one of the men who killed him. His name is Quimo, and the Waorani would whisper it with reverence as they called him "the last survivor," the final warrior alive among the group who attacked the missionaries and stabbed them to death with their spears. My friend Panchito had also grown up hearing stories of Jim Elliot with a duality of perspective as both an indigenous orphan from the jungle and a man raised by an American Christian doctor.

In Toñampare we discovered massive concrete structures that felt entirely anachronistic to the wooden huts we were accustomed to seeing. We were told that after Jim Elliot was killed, the government and international aid spent at least 8 million dollars to build this school. The school has water faucets, computers, washing machines, and a guard standing by the gate. However, there is no running water. There is no electricity. Because it's in the middle of the F***ING jungle and they didn't set up any sustainable energy infrastructure. I and Francisco couldn't help but feel that this was nothing more than a publicity stunt while our friends in neighboring villages struggle to find clean water. Francisco and I began to cry together.

We decided that we needed to meet Quimo before he died from a sickness that currently drained his health. After an intense day of promises, pleading, and navigation of alliances, we arrived with $40 cash left in my pocket and many hours of canoe riding soaked into my butt cheeks. I felt relieved to have scraped up every resource to barter with to make it to our destination with just enough cash left to (probably) pay for the fare of our return trip. But our relief soon turned to disappointment as we were greeted by Quimo's irate niece demanding that we leave before we became another group of camera-toting foreigners making false promises of rewarding them for making a movie about their lives. My heart plummeted as her yells drowned out the surrounding crickets and my hope of meeting Quimo. On a whim, I began to dance. I lit up my LED poi juggling toys and the village kids wandered over, entranced. I proffered one of them a light, and she accepted with confusion and curiosity. Her friends soon began giggling as they attempted to imitate the way I had spun the lights around. Their laughter increased loud enough that even Panchito and Quimo's niece ceased their heated conversation to watch. Before long, everyone began chuckling together at the antics of the kids and me clowning around. Quimo’s niece relented and offered to let us stay the night with the stipulation that we leave at dawn. However, the next morning she offered to let us meet her uncle. We gathered with anticipation by his hut and Panchito placed his hand on my shoulder with a smile. We would finally meet the renowned warrior.

A huddled mass hobbled out of the hut. His long, wild hair swung from side to side as he shuffled out in a squat by leaning side to side and sliding each foot a few inches forward at a time. An IV drip bag clung to his side for dear life. He mumbled at us and we looked at his niece hopefully for a translation, but she smiled and patted her uncle on the head and told him, "hey, we've got some new friends here to see you!" Soon, I realized that no one could understand what Quimo mumbled about anymore. Whatever he was babbling about, he certainly seemed happy to see us, and eventually we each exchanged a hug with him and then began loading up the canoes.

Today, the Waorani continue to fight for land rights with remarkable organizational capacity rooted in their culture and governance style. However, an improvement in their capabilities would be from deriving monetary support from sources aligned with the interests of conservationism and self-determination. Missionaries continue to live in the village where Jim Elliot was killed. The uncle of the president of the Waorani explained how the missionaries take pictures of the elders in their huts in T, ask for donations from foreigners, but then never give any of it to the community. To get by, some groups will accept bribes from extractivists in order to provide healthcare and education to their kids. The Waorani, however, are one of the most united indigenous people groups in resisting this, and their struggle continues today. In fact, they oftentimes are gaining ground.

Playing around with snapchat filters with relatives of Francisco

There are a multitude of amazing nonprofit organizations helping set up clean water and provide education and legal assistance as well to win land rights. This is one of the most tractable human rights and conservation cause areas, in particular because of how much progress the alliance of indigenous peoples in Ecuador have already made with almost zero funding and because Ecuador is 4x more biodiverse per square kilometer than Brazil. One of the most intriguing conservation concepts is from Gainforest wherein they verify that someone owns a plot of land, then use satellite imagery and local NGO information to check that the land's biodiversity is thriving, then send donations to the owner of that plot of land. I connected their director of Latam to my friends in Ecuador and hope they are receiving payments now.

Showing Francisco's relatives and "mis primos" solar power banks in the community of Pitacocha
Families in Daipade holding their solar power banks while I hold a woven bowl they gifted to me

Curated videos and images from the trip and info about the solar power bank project:



Thanks for submitting!

bottom of page