"The heart of South America" is how Paraguayans describe their landlocked nation with its strong roots in the Guaraní culture.
When the first Spanish settlers arrived in the 16th century, the peaceful indigenous communities welcomed them. The Spanish made it a policy to inter-marry with the Guaraní, and the two cultures began to meld into one.
Today, 95% of the population is classified as "mestizo" or mixed-race Amerindian/European.1 Spanish and Guaraní are the two official languages of the country. In practice, each language is influenced by the other, and the majority of Paraguayans speak both to some degree.
Paraguayans are friendly, welcoming people. Their resourcefulness knows no bounds, and they are remarkably creative with the material possessions they have. They are particularly family-orientated, and relationships are always of the utmost importance. The national drink is an herbal infusion with ice-cold water called tereré. It is common in the summertime to see groups of people sitting together and sharing a cup of tereré in the shade of a mango tree. The custom of drinking tereré or mate (the same herb, mixed with boiling-hot water in the winter) is not so much about the drink as it is about spending time with family and friends.
Paraguay became independent from Spain in 1811. Just 53 years later, Paraguay was at war with Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. This “War of the Triple Alliance” proved devastating for the country: Two-thirds of the male population died, and the majority of its land was lost.2 In the 1930s there was another bloody conflict, this time with Bolivia over the area known as “the Chaco,” in the northwest.
The country was ruled by a succession of dictators until 1989, when the last one, General Stroessner, was ousted in a coup. Since then, the democratic system has been growing stronger with each general election. When Fernando Lugo was elected president in 2008, the Colorado Party’s stranglehold on power was broken after 61 years. The Paraguayan people welcomed this as a further move away from the dictatorships of the past.
Paraguay is a very beautiful country. Hundreds of rivers criss-cross the gently undulating terrain. The bright sunshine brings out myriad shades of green in the ubiquitous foliage, and this provides an attractive contrast with the red of the earth and the blue of the sky.
Paraguay has a sub-tropical climate, with hot, humid summers, which are punctuated by heavy storms. These are usually followed by short, cold winters, when temperatures can occasionally get as low as 0ºC. As in many other parts of the world, the climate has become noticeably less predictable in recent years.
Paraguay’s fertile soil is one of its greatest natural resources. While Brazilian and multinational grain companies have exploited this to great effect, the majority of people in the rural areas are subsistence farmers. As long as the rains are reliable, they can eke out a precarious living, but life gets very hard when there is a drought, or when someone needs costly medical care. Nearly a third of Paraguayans live below the poverty line.3 Many people move from the countryside to the city, where work is also in short supply, and they often end up living in shantytowns. Many more emigrate: Approximately half a million Paraguayans live abroad.4
A large part of Paraguay’s economy is based on the informal sector: All kinds of goods can be bought on the street, or from a neighbour or colleague. The price of authentic computer software, DVDs, and other electronic goods is prohibitive for most Paraguayans; so pirated versions are widely available.
Paraguay is the largest producer of cannabis in South America,5 and the authorities have a constant battle with the vast amount of other contraband goods coming into the country. Corruption is deep and widespread in most institutions, both public and private, and this is seen as being one of the biggest challenges to Paraguay’s development. Several governments have attempted to tackle this huge problem, with varying degrees of success. The evidence of corruption is most notable in the vast mansions and fancy cars owned by those in power, while millions of their fellow-countrymen struggle to make a living.
Ninety percent of the population are Roman Catholic,6 and the priests are highly respected in their communities. Superstition and the ancient Guaraní deities also influence the religion that most Paraguayans practice. In 1992, the Church was completely separated from the State, and religious freedom was enshrined in law. However, the Catholic Church still exercises significant power in society.
Protestant churches have seen huge growth in the cities since the 1990s.7 The most popular churches are Pentecostal, though there is a strong Mennonite presence, and there are many independent congregations. In the rural areas, however, there are very few Protestant churches.
SIM in Paraguay
SIM’s work is focused on church planting in the rural areas, where 40% of the country’s population lives.8 Guaraní is the heart language of most people and therefore the preferred language for ministry. SIM has church plants at different stages of development in five rural communities, beyond the end of the asphalt road, between four and seven hours from Asunción, the capital city.
SIM Paraguay has teams of church-planting missionaries working together in the same community and has found this to be an effective strategy.
The diverse practical skills of different team members over the years have opened the door to new relationships and opportunities to share the Gospel. The support given to the local community by SIM missionaries has included carpentry training, medical clinics, veterinary expertise, computer troubleshooting, electrical repairs, English teaching, and swimming lessons.
SIM is responding to the specific needs of the oral culture in rural Paraguay by using MP3 players of Bible audio recordings along with teaching methods specifically designed for the rural culture. Lives are being transformed as people hear the Word of God in their heart language and learn to apply it in practical ways.------------------------------