Mennonites and Indians in the Chaco I

I notice the first bleak, sullen looking German-alike faces when I reach the turn-off to Hochstadt, another 35 kilometer on hard mud combined with loose sand. Whereas the average Paraguayan is hard to read, the German looking faces are reminding me of Stalin. I know Stalin isn’t German, so aren’t the Mennonites. They are Paraguayan.dsc_0353-2

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My questioning to the whereabouts of the Mennonites starts. People are able to give me a general direction of their ancestry but I need to consult Google to get insights. Mennonites in Paraguay are ethnic with a central European ancestry. The Mennonites contribute heavily to the agricultural and dairy output of Paraguay. In fact, Paraguay expected the economic development of the still untouched Chaco. And today they even export cows by airplane all over the world. Now, that I call economic development.

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Not to bore you with the origins of the Mennonites, I swapped the history and whereabouts below this post, for those who are interested.

As soon as I turn into Mennonite area things change immediately. I feel like I am in a tropical Germany. Hay bales are neatly rolled up and tightened with cord, this is only possible because the fields are void of trees. All is cut. Cycling on over hard surfaced mud with the occasional loose sand I notice the estancia’s of the Mennonites are slightly neater, paint fresher, flowers more in bloom. Then the stone houses appear, which is a rare view in the Chaco. Most houses are built from wood, palm trunks, corrugated sheets, plastic and scrap. The road still sandy and dusty, it start to harbor the names of the death fallen in accidents. Names are neatly cut out of wooden panels, just like the signboards. And, all in German. When a tractor zooms past, a white farmer with a wide brimmed straw hat smiling at me, I feel slung back to the ’50.

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Upon entering Paratodo, which is locally called Hochstad, I have to rub my eyes. The village is small, consisting of one sandy main street but with a neatly arranged park where the bottle trees are proudly ruling. The few store fronts are filled with agricultural equipment and there is a hospital with ‘silence’ notice. I end up in an old folks house to ask directions to a hotel which were given by Silvia, a German speaking woman with Canadian ancestry.

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On my way to the hotel I pass big green healthy kale and cozy, cared for houses. The old folks house has elderly demented German-speaking Mennonites who, while sipping tereré, laugh at my ability to speak German. But I am elated that I finally can make some conversations because my Spanish is most basic.

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Paraguayans, Menno’s and Indigenous

After setting up my tent at a beautiful manicured lawn I need to load up on good food. I eat 2 plates of beef while watching a group of young of indigena pass in front of me in the style of the Beatles crossing a road. They are terrible timid and shy, although they look pretty cool in their Rasta colored outfits, funky hairdo’s and slim bodies beautified with tattoos. Sitting in the restaurant cum shop I see an obvious difference between them, the Paraguayan and the Menno’s. Only the first is dressed ragged, appears dirty and buys alcohol by big bottles.

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There is a rather strict separation of where the indigena lives and where the Mennonites lives. Yet, when I cycle on over hard dried-up mud-roads and trying to fetch water, I am received by an indigena woman. Well, received is a wrong description; she is so shy she almost hide behind her two dirty little children while I am surrounded by 4 barking pit-bull alike dogs.

She, like many others, works for the Mennonites and lives with her husband and children in a shack next to the house of the Mennonite farmers, who hire indigena to milk the cows. When I meet indigena on the road, their first question is whether I am a Menno too. Their looks are distrusting towards me. They seem to be suspicious and reluctant. Yet, the indigena seeks labor themselves at the farms, they show up and start living on the spot.

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It has become even more difficult to find a place to camp in this part of the Chaco. Mostly because there are no hedges of original bush growth anymore. So when I see a patch of sugarcane I take refuge there. Camp is set up when I see a man on a motorbike. When he start spying on me while on top of big rolls of hay, I better make myself visible. After all, this is not my patch of land. I walk out of the sugarcane and the man flushes red in surprise, his voice one pitch too high.

‘I’ve never seen anyone emerging from my sugarcane’

‘Do you want to show me your place on my ground?’ asks the big Canadian-origin Paraguayan. Jeffry admit he was shocked, never seen anyone emerging from the sugarcane. He advices me to get out of the cane and into the grazing pasture as there are rattle snakes. While his two little dogs are copulating behind our heels, we talk in English, and I can’t stop.

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The next day I ride by their house. There I meet Ludwika, Jeffry’s wife. We talk 4 hours until my throat is dried out and my belly empty. I cycle only 25 kilometer and decide to camp. I would like to camp with indigena but my feelings are negative about it. Maybe my visible prosperity is a too big contrast with their poverty.

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The indigena seem to have a mindset similar to what I have noticed in many Africans…. And to be honest, I notice it in myself too. It is lacking the desire to be successful, or to achieve. The indigena, and I too, are rather laidback and satisfied with what they have, not in for growth or more. They live by the day and don’t have too much concerns about the far future. It is a total natural behavior, sprouted from living in Nature. Why would one kill 5 boars when there is no fridge? Why worry about food if it’s growing on trees?

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Unfortunate, nature has changed, evolution has made indigena’s skills redundant. They now depend on each other, one person in the family earning money is enough. They seem not to develop skills for more interesting jobs than milking cows, watering crops or being a handyman at a huge farm. Maybe those chances are not handed out to them. Government does support the indigena, but giving doesn’t help. Handing out kills development and murders gathering knowledge.

Yet, milking cows, watering crops and being a handyman is a job. It pays. Not everyone can be like the Mennonites, who are a total opposite.

There are charitable foundations set up by the Mennonites, for the workers who moved to this part and for the indigenous population of the surrounding areas who struggle for existence. It has proved to be a success when indigena taste the fruits of their own harvests instead of being given things. When the people, who never lived a European kind of lifestyle, are being taught how to run a farm, how to grow crops and how to sell, it turns out to work just as well.

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So while the indigena may look down on the Mennonites for inhabiting their lands, the Mennonites pay their share as well. They do literally pay double taxes and they are far removed from their ancestral ties. I notice people idealize Canada a lot but when they are back in Canada, they miss Paraguay. Yet Paraguayans seem to think of the Mennonites as Paraguayans, which they simply have become after 3 generations.

A few generalizations

‘We don’t treat them as slaves,’ says one. Mennonites have received some criticism from human rights organizations for their relations with a number of indigenous tribes. And I don’t know the details, yet relationships are unequal, that much is obvious. While the Mennonites are strict, organized and thoughtful -they are Dutch, after all- the indigena are not. The indigena feels overruled by the Mennonites, they feel discriminated and displeasured. They feel their wilderness is stolen by a bunch of white faces. White people who fled the war and execution, and who made this wilderness into a truly fertile farm heaven. Random kidnappings seem to take place, maybe because the rules opposed by the Mennonites doesn’t always go down well. Yet, the indigena’s aren’t too bad off according the Menno’s; they receive a brick house with 3 rooms for each family. That they still settle all in one room and built a fire into it, sometimes resulting in a burned down house, is their own doing. They receive gifts upon voting a couple more times than once, keeping the corrupting flourishing. Upon receiving their salary they spend it in one go, having to ask their chief for yet another advance.

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Day after day I am amazed by what the Mennonites have accumulated. Photo’s in the Cooperative, enormous European-alike supermarkets, show the hardship of when the first Mennonites came here, in 1930. They also show photos of both groups playing football together, and simply living joyful with one and another.

I have tremendous admiration for both; the way indigena made tools, clothes and utensils from finds in nature. How they hunted with bow and arrow, how they simply survived. And how they never bended down to slavery, fierce as they were. The Mennonites their hardship of the early settlement and their principle of the common good before personal need.

The wind blows hard, sand sticks to my sweaty skin. I soon learn to cover my legs and ankles.

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Cycling on is seeing pretty much wild-life. I am deliberately choosing for tracks, avoiding the Trans Chaco Highway. The hard mud roads are mostly in a good state, and there is not much traffic. I am alone on these roads for hours, from the start at Pozo Colorado till Cruce Toledo. I meet with up close with an armadillo and snakes and see a crocodile, boars, foxes, and an anteater from afar.

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I cycle pass an ephemeral saline lagoon, tropical birds and often I don’t cycle more than 40 kilometer because I am so often stopped by beauty.

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I seek places to camp at farms, I am given fresh vegetables from own garden. I poo at an old fashioned pit-toilet. A former topographer draws a perfect map for me, on how to avoid the paved Trans Chaco Highway. He warns me where not to go and where to get food, all the way to the border. I am given a place at a lake bordering a Chacra Experimental at Isla Po’i, a farm where many different crops are grown. I find it still extra ordinary: to show up and ask for my desired camp spot; right at the salty lake. Marcio, a young Mennonite, comes over some time later and hands me 5 huge pomelo’s. I eat 3, skip dinner, feel agitated and sweaty. Somehow I can’t enjoy the sweltering evening and the beauty of a freestanding sunset.

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While my previous camp was a master piece of natural engineering. How I enjoyed this strip of freedom. I had an armadillo around and even two foxes were relaxing too close by.

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The heat start to swell. Temperatures drop at night, other nights it is 38 degrees. Within days there is a daytime difference of 40 degrees. Wind start to enforce, temperatures rise to 43 degrees. And soon drop to 5 degrees! No wonder I get sick.

I get a mild flu, as many of the Paraguayans. Suddenly I start to long for ice-cream and when I reach Lomo Plata I abruptly feel much better when I have a big ice-cream in my hands. I check into a sickly neat Mennonite hotel, where I order home delivery pizza and admire the handiwork department of the Cooperative. Women like to embroider and sew, my piece of cake.

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To be continued…

Additional information about the Mennonites

The Mennonites are Christian groups belonging to the church communities of Anabaptist values. That means being a member of a radical movement of the Protestant Reformation The movement’s most distinctive tenet was adult baptism. In its first generation, converts submitted to a second baptism, which was a crime punishable by death under the legal codes of the time. They considered the public confession of sin and faith, sealed by adult baptism, to be the only proper baptism. they held that infants are not punishable for sin until they become aware of good and evil and can exercise their own free will, regret, and accept baptism

Mennonites are named after Dutch Menno Simons (1496–1561) of Friesland (today the Netherlands). Through his writings, Simons articulated and formalized the teachings of earlier Swiss founders. The early teachings of the Mennonites were founded on the belief in both the mission and ministry of Jesus, which the original Anabaptist followers held to with great conviction despite persecution by the various Roman Catholic and Protestant states. Rather than fight, the majority of these followers survived by fleeing to neighboring states where ruling families were tolerant of their radical belief in believer’s baptism. Over the years, Mennonites have become known as one of the historic peace churches because of their commitment to pacifism.

In the 1760s Catherine the Great of Russia invited Mennonites from Prussia, the leading state of the German Empire, to settle north of the Black Sea in exchange for religious freedom and exemption from military service, a precondition founded in their commitment to non-violence. After Russia introduced the general recruitment in 1874, many Mennonites migrated to the US and Canada. The members of the Colonia Menno settled first in Canada until a universal, secular compulsory education was implemented in 1917 that required the use of the English language, which the more conservative Mennonites saw as a threat to the religious basis of their community. 1743 pioneers came from Canada to Paraguay in 1927 and turned the arid Chaco into fertile farmland over the years. It was the first Mennonite colony in the region.

At the beginning, the pioneers in the Chaco had to overcome many adversities. Many became sick due to the lack of medical care, whereof 121 died and some 60 families returned to Canada.

In 1930 more Mennonites immigrants arrived to the Chaco area from Russia mostly via Germany and founded the Fernheim colony, fleeing the persecution by the Communists and a bad economic situation that was caused by the collectivization in the Soviet Union and eventually lead to the Holodomor, the famine genocide in the Ukraine. More Russian Mennonites fled to the west with the receding German Army fearing persecution, Russian forced labor camps and deportation. Some 3,500 of these Mennonites arrived in Paraguay and founded Neuland and Volendam colonies in 1947.

Origin and languages

Ethnic Mennonites, that is Mennonites of German, Swiss German and Dutch descent in Paraguay are spread across 19 colonies and in the city of Asuncion. The vast majority of ethnic Mennonites in Paraguay can trace their origin to the Mennonite settlement in the Vistula Delta, from where they migrated to the Russian Empire. 25% of the Mennonites of Paraguay came directly from Russia, 51% from Russia via Canada, where they lived for several decades and a further 22% from Russia via Canada via Mexico (some from Mexico via Belize). Another 2% are descendants of Amish immigrants from the United States, who came originally from Switzerland and southern Germany. All Russian Mennonites share the same ancestry, language (Plautdietsch, or low German) and a lot of other traditions in contrast to the Amish-Mennonites, who speak or spoke Pennsylvania German along with English.

Mennonites of the Central Chaco

The Central Chaco region probably has the highest concentration of ethnic Mennonites anywhere in Latin America. Ethnic Germans (almost all of them Mennonites) formed 32% of the total population of the Central Chaco as of 2005. Only Paraguayan Indians (52%) were more numerous compared to them.

There are three Mennonite communities with a population of nearly 15,000 people. Solidarity, diligence, mutual help and unity are core values of the Mennonite people, although a few I spoke disagree. It isn’t all that tight anymore. Yet, the feeling I got from Lomo Plata, where I stayed a couple of days with a mild flu, was like a family reunion.

There are three communities: Fernheim, Menno and Neuland. Menno was founded by the original settlers in 1927 and is centered around Lomo Plata. Fernheim was founded in 1930 by refugees from the Soviet Union, their capital is Filadlefia. Neuland, capital Neu-Halbstadt, was founded by Ukrainian Germans in 1947. Quite a few people still look like they are from that era, the way they behave, their manner of dress and their friendliness. I found it amazingly interesting.

Fernheim colony experienced its first economic upswing in the 1950’s, which was due to the so-called ‘Million-Dollar-Loan’ extended by the USA. A steam boiler provided enough power for Filadelfia. The establishment of an airstrip for regular air traffic and the construction of the Trans Chaco Highway in the ’60 pulled the settlement from isolation. In the late ’80, a connection to the national comunication network Copaco was developed.

A constant concern is water provision. Each and every household takes care of its own water supply through the collection of rainwater, which is kept underground in cisterns.

A decree passed by the government declared Filadelfia as capital city of Boqueron in 1933. The municipality of this city took over the local governing responsibilities of about 13,000 people. Thus Filadelfia has been integrated into the political structure of Paraguay. Swift economic development created more and more workplaces for tradespeople and employees of the industrial operations, workshops and businesses. Besides the original Mennonite city centre, Filadelfia today has six additional residential quarters, each with its own very distinct ethnic characteristics.

The ethnic village of Cacique Mayeto is home to about 1360 people, they are the original inhabitants of the Chaco. The Nivaclé village of Uj’ e Llavos has 3270 residents. Tis group came into the central Chaco from the Pilcomayo area in the ’50 as seasonal farm helpers. The Guaraní Occidental came as tradespeople in the ’60 from Mariscal Estigarribia. The Chaco war has led people from Bolivia into the Paraguayan Chaco too, as well the growing labor market attracted German Brazilians and Latin Paraguayans.

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