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Fall flu epidemic among Nukak rekindles commitment

A recent flu epidemic affecting one-fourth of the nomadic Amazonian Nukak people and the martyrdom of five missionaries in Colombia in recent years may seem remote for someone who drives a van to transport Rockwood Retirement Community residents for shopping, entertainment, activities, medical care and other errands.


Colleen Kessler

Colleen (Connie) Kessler keeps current with her concern about that part of the world through correspondence with former co-workers and websites such as and

The recent epidemic hit one of six groups of Maku/Nukak nomadic hunters and gatherers.  The 500 surviving Nukak had fled their jungle homes to the frontier town of San Josea because of civil war between the Colombian army, paramilitaries and guerillas.  They were then moved to a makeshift reservation on a farm by the Colombian government.

Survival International, which lobbies the government to honor the Nukak’s right to their territory, reports that flu and malaria have killed perhaps half of this group of about 1,500 since they first contacted them in 1988.  

Wild food is in short supply at their new location, which is about two percent the size of their original territory.  The forest there does not contain the trees needed to make blowpipes or the poison they use on darts to hunt for meat.  Their own territory has every resource they need for their natural lifestyle, but it has become dangerous to stay there, Colleen explained.

Her heart rests in both parts of her reality—caring about, listening to and meeting needs of those she has encountered in four years working with Rockwood residents, and keeping alive her prayer concerns, conversations, support, and awareness of the Maku/Nukak people. 

She and her husband, Tom, worked with New Tribes Mission (NTM) in Colombia near Villavicencio from 1989 to 1992, part of their time there at a remote outpost in Nukak territory.

Growing up in South Hill Bible Church, which supports many NTM missionaries, she decided to enter the mission field after she graduated from Ferris High School in 1972. 

Colleen met her husband 33 years ago while in training at the New Tribes Mission Bible School.  Married in 1974, they lived in the Seattle area for several years. 

In 1987, they became members of NTM and in 1989 went to Colombia, where they lived in the foothills of the Andes, about a three-hour drive from Bogota.

“New Tribes Mission serves primitive people who have never heard God’s Word,” she said.

The process of reaching these people with the Word of God begins with learning their culture and oral language,” she described.  “The emphasis then turns to translating the Scriptures, teaching literacy and establishing a local church among the people. 

“Throughout this process there is a certain amount of social, economic, and health-care benefit to the people,” she continued. 

This work was being done out in the remote outpost with the Maku/Nukak until it became too dangerous for the missionaries to stay there because of the increasing threat from guerilla warfare.

The Kesslers worked in support services at a mission base with a school for missionaries’ children, an airstrip and hangars for the mission planes, and housing for many of the support personnel. 

Their jobs included cooking three meals a day for more than 60 people, doing building and maintenance work, working with the school children, producing field publications and assisting with various other jobs. 

For a year, they also cared for a newborn Nukak baby with a birth defect that required several corrective surgeries. 

Through working with baby Marco and a few trips out to the jungle where he lives, our hearts have been forever touched with the plight of the Nukak people,” Colleen said.

Marco was born in June 1991 when the missionary team was out in Nukak territory.  His mother brought him to the outpost clinic saying something was wrong.  She trusted that the missionaries would take him to the hospital in Villavicencio.

While Marco lived with the Kesslers they learned more about his people.  In 1973, missionaries first contacted the tribe and eventually gained their confidence to live in their territory, set up a clinic, learn their language and gain cultural insight,  she said.

“Since cocaine producers began to encroach on their hunting grounds and guerillas drove them from the jungle at gunpoint, their numbers have dwindled to about 500,” she said.  “Because of their primitive state, they are being corrupted by nationals, who cheat them, rape their women, and expose them to new diseases.  It’s the same story for many primitive peoples when they come into contact with civilization.”

Colleen said the Maku have learned some Spanish, but not enough to communicate their needs.  The government requires them to stay on a temporary reservation, except for medical care.  New Tribes Mission advocates for them.

The Kesslers spent 20 years away from Spokane, seven as missionaries—three in South America and four with New Tribes Mission in Missouri and Florida.

Kidnappings and assassinations of several NTM missionaries in Colombia since they left made it clear they could not return.  So they left NTM and came back to Washington in 1998.  In Spokane, Colleen helps Tom with their small business, Kessler Painting.

Before driving the van part time, she worked two years full-time in housekeeping at Rockwood.

 “I have a serving heart.  I’m interested in people and their wellbeing, so I seek to accommodate their needs.  I consider driving the van a ministry.  I want to be there for people when they need something,” she said. 

Colleen serves on the mission commission of South Hill Bible Church, an independent, evangelical church with more than 600 members.  The church provides about $129,240 a year to support missionaries through New Tribes Mission, Wycliffe Bible Translators, Campus Crusades in China, Alaskan Village Missions or programs in rural areas of North Idaho, Oregon and Montana.

The Kesslers’ children carry on their commitment to serve:  One son and his wife are adopting a Guatemalan baby.  Their daughter and son-in-law worked two years with Wycliffe in Kenya, translating the Bible into the Tharakan language.  Their other son is a special education teacher in western Washington.

For information, call 868-2560.