Reaching the World Beyond Roads
By Tonya Stoneman
Steve Saint is ecstatic about his flying car—an easy-to-operate light support aircraft. The “Maverick” is the latest invention developed by his team at I-TEC, short for Indigenous People’s Technology and Education Center. It’s the first and only vehicle of its kind certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. Completely portable, the Maverick has an exterior of black canvas and clear plastic. A parachute serves as the flying mechanism and tucks neatly into a pocket in the roof when the car is grounded. On the road, it looks like a miniature Volkswagen Beetle. In the sky, it looks like a Volkswagen Beetle hang-gliding.
Saint is a charismatic inventor and a storyteller who will regale you with tales about Space Age technology and Stone Age culture in the same breath. Raised in the jungles of Ecuador, he’s comfortable with a no-frills, even rudimentary lifestyle. But he’s a techno-geek at heart, and comes by his occupation honestly. His love for technology was borne out of living with people who genuinely need it.
Saint grew up in Shell Mera, Ecuador, where Waodani Indians killed his father Nate, Jim Elliot, and three other missionaries in 1956. The men had gone into the jungle to make peaceful contact with the tribe, who were widely feared in the region for killing intruders. Five days after they landed their plane on a beachhead near the Indian settlement, the men were speared to death. Saint’s last memory of his father is watching him fly away in a yellow airplane to take food and supplies into the jungle.
Their tragic story made headlines around the world and became legendary in Christian circles because of the phenomenal way God intervened and brought good from their sacrifice. Despite the family’s devastating loss, Saint’s mother remained in Ecuador—along with her husband’s sister and Elliot’s wife—to fulfill the team’s intended mission of sharing God’s truth with the tribe. The women made peace with the Waodani and decided to raise their children among the people. As a result, the whole tribe eventually came to faith in Jesus Christ.
Saint now splits his time between Ecuador and Florida, where the I-TEC headquarters is located. We met in the organization’s airplane hanger, surrounded by motors, generators, wheels, and a million other gadgets I couldn’t name. He talked about the flying car, the impact of technology on primitive people groups, and why his invention will change the fate of the tribe he loves so much.
ITM: How many primitive indigenous groups exist today?
SS: The number of people who actually live in, or are just emerging from, the Stone Age is probably fairly limited. In the Amazon jungle today, there are over 200 identified people groups that have no access to the gospel, which probably means they have no transportation or communication. Usually if people take the gospel in, they also take the technology that wasn’t previously available. Or, if the technology goes in, then the gospel goes in with it. Technology is often the feet that take the gospel.
ITM: How long would it take for a Wao who needed medical assistance to get to a doctor?
SS: If somebody was desperately ill and needed medical help—before the airplane—he might as well have just stayed there and died. It would take almost a month to get from the capital city of Quito up over the continental divide and then down into the jungles where they were living. I remember missionaries saying that if they ever had appendicitis or malaria or anything, their chances were much better to just stay put and hope they would survive it. To get up over the Andes Mountains to the capital city, you had to go over a pass that was 14,000 feet. For somebody living in the jungles, that wouldn’t be survivable. The motto in the jungles was “you fly or you die.”
ITM: What was the first technology you brought to those people?
SS: The airplane and a two-way radio. They changed the world down there. With the airplane, we could take a sick person to a doctor or vice versa. There were no clinics or medical facilities in the jungle. But World Radio Missionary Fellowship saw that need, and my dad talked them into building a clinic there on the edge of the jungle, right next to the airport where he could land. And the people with two-way radios could call in and say, “Hey, we’ve got somebody who’s blown his hand off with dynamite,” or “Somebody’s been bitten by a snake.” The foundation of every developed society is transportation, communication, and power—those are the building blocks everywhere in the world.
ITM: So why a flying car?
SS: Airplanes need ground transportation associated with them. In frontier areas, it needs to be simple because they haven’t grown up with technology. I realized that if people like the Waodani who I grew up with were really going to have their transportation needs met, we needed one engine on a vehicle that could drive on or off road and fly. That’s what we do at ITEC: we try to figure out what people need and how we can supply that to them affordably—in a way that can be maintained. The flying car just seemed obvious.
The Waodani kept telling me, “When your father came, he came in the wood bee.” They call it going fast from place to place. “And then when you came back to live with us, you, too, could go fast from place to place. Now when you show us how to, we’ll do the airplane thing ourselves and then we’ll go fast from place to place, doing people’s medical work and teaching them to follow God’s trail.”
They understood immediately: they needed to do it. I tried to explain that airplanes are really expensive. And they said, “No, we don’t trade paper for it. You teaching us, we build one ourselves.” And I thought, they want to go from the Stone Age to the Space Age in one jump! But they were my elders, so I said, “God sending me, you telling me what to do, I’ll try to do it.”
We built an airplane, and the propeller failed while I was flying it into the jungle. The technology wasn’t appropriate for them—it was too complex. And that’s when I realized they either have to change to be like us and use technology we typically use, or we have to reinvent the technology so it fits them. That’s the big difference between the Maverick and anything else. Anybody who can learn to drive an automatic transmission car can learn to fly the Maverick. To take off, you simply shift a lever to the “fly” position.
ITM: If we continue to take technology into these parts of the world, won’t we irreversibly disrupt their way of life? Our society is built around the car. Aren’t we exporting our lifestyle to a peaceful people who don’t need it?
SS: Anthropologists talk about the invasion of the developed world to the undeveloped world. And they usually talk about diseases that we bring in. Well, there’s one disease I have seen all over the world. It is more insidious, more invasive, and becomes epidemic almost every place it hits. And that is greed. The technology that injects greed into society more than anything else is television, not transportation.
When people can see how others live, they begin to develop a perception of need. In frontier areas, the only way those “needs” can be supplied is from the outside. Dependency on things that these people can’t supply for themselves is a disease worse than malaria or AIDS. It tears cultures apart and destroys them. And it’s introduced by anybody who comes and sows a desire or perception of need for things that really don’t serve a purpose and that the people can’t afford.
Most people in frontier areas want certain technologies, and they have priorities. If we let them choose instead of telling them what they need, they usually are pretty careful, especially if they have a limited economy. They will pick things like medicine, transportation, and communication. Some people want to make zoos out of frontier people groups. They want to isolate them and keep them there so that they can go and study them—they don’t want to affect them. I think the question is not whether they have technology, but who decides what technology they’re going to have. And the people who pay the price of living with the technology, they are the ones who should choose. That is what we, whether we’re Christians or anthropologists, owe them. Whether it’s the gospel or rocket science, we should offer it to them, show them the benefits and the liabilities, and let them choose.