By Juan Steer Salas, agronomist
It is common to hear some authorities label the Mennonites as foreigners. The Mennonites are not foreigners. The vast majority of them, perhaps 90 percent, are Bolivians, born here, live here, work here and produce a significant percentage of the food consumed in Bolivia. They give a lot to the country and hardly ask for anything. The original Mennonites, who came from other countries, are now very few and old. All Mennonites speak Low German but almost all of them also speak Spanish similar to many Bolivians who speak their native language but also Spanish.
I am Bolivian, not a Mennonite, and I work on a cattle property that adjoins the Canadian 2 Mennonite colony in the Pailón Sur area. I have a lot of contact with the colony and as far as this little article allows, I want to express my affection for these people.
A few years ago I had a small wound on my back and I needed a nurse to take care of it. I went to the Mennonite health post, I arrived at 18:30. A sign said attention until 18:00. Just in case I knocked on the door, a Mennonite lady came out, in civilian clothes, she asked me what she needed, I explained, she let me in. She told me to lie on the stretcher and wait. After a few minutes she came back dressed as a nurse with a small bowl with the sterile materials she needed. When she was healing me I felt a great sense of gratitude. Who was this good soul who carefully attended me, after hours, without being a Mennonite, had not asked me if I had insurance, did not know if I had money to pay for the consultation, did not even know my name. When she finished, I thanked her and asked her how much she owed her, she told me fourteen pesos. I think that didn’t even cover the bandage she had put on me. Before I left I looked for a talk with her and she told me that she was a Paraguayan volunteer who, together with her husband, was advising the Canadian Colony. Later, I made some friends with them and one day I received an invitation for the presentation of a book that the couple had written, History of the Mennonite Colonization in Bolivia. The presentation was made at the Goethe Institute of Santa Cruz and there I had the opportunity to thank them on behalf of hundreds of Bolivians, who surely, like me, had passed through their post. I must point out that this post no longer exists and in its place there is a small hospital that includes hospitalization and a pharmacy, and where Bolivian Mennonites and Bolivian non-Mennonites are treated with the same care.
Colonia Canadiense 2 is surrounded by Bolivian ranches and agricultural properties, including two small towns, Rosal Centro and Rosal 1. In and around the Colonia, all the roads are dirt and require permanent maintenance. Almost all the maintenance is done by the Mennonites with their own machines and with the contributions made by the members of the colony; however, the roads are open to all, both Mennonites and Bolivians.
In the colony, everyone is in charge of agriculture and livestock, mostly dairy, but there are some Mennonites who, apart from these activities, provide mechanics, machine electricity, turning, welding and related trades. Without the services of these technicians, the mechanized agriculture that is practiced in the area today would be very difficult. Some have workshops where major repairs are made and where even simple machines are made. The neighborhood also receives services from Bolivian technicians, for example, in the maintenance of electrical networks. In this sense, the colony is not that closed entity that we sometimes think of. The integration with Bolivians is very great.
Mennonites are evangelical Christians. Their churches are similar but not always the same. Some time ago I was invited to a marriage to take place in one of your churches, at 3:00 p.m. I arrived at that time and I think I was one of the last to enter. I went in everyday clothes, but many were in suits. The ceremony was very formal and orderly. Although they speak in Low German, in the church they sing in High German and there was a missal for each one. After the religious act there was a reception with plenty of food and drink but no alcohol. I didn’t see many gifts and asked an attendee if she could give the couple a little cash gift. Of course, he told me, and it will be much appreciated, and he pointed out a jar that was found, without any guard, in a corner of the church.
I hope with these lines I have contributed something to the knowledge of the Mennonites. These days there has been a lot of talk about the eviction of some Mennonites in a neighborhood near San José. In Bolivia there is a lot of idle land for those who want to work, therefore it is not necessary or moral to go and want to take the land from those who are already settled and working. More than two thirds of the department of Santa Cruz are without jobs. Mennonites contribute to the country’s economy and play a critical role in our food security. They deserve equal treatment to that of any Bolivian citizen.