Tag Archives: Low German

Isn’t It Ironic…Don’t You Think?

Unlike the Alanis Morisette hit, “Ironic”, which was in fact not at all ironic, I have come across some ironies in my work that strike me as worth mentioning and perhaps exploring more in depth. The world we live in seems full of these strange paradoxes, but they come in to stark relief in development work where all of my “developed” cultural assumptions, privileges and background come into contact with those of the “developing” world.

Compost vs. Flush Toilet
The first one relates to the beautiful wicker throne of which I am so proud. I’m very happy to no longer be flushing and instead turning my own excrement into an agricultural resource. It takes hands-on management to empty buckets and manage the compost pile, but for me the trade off is well worth it in my mind. When I built this system, my co-worker had to laugh when he imagined what the Low German Mennonites (LGMs) would say if they ever saw my toilet. “We left that way of life back in Russia. What are you thinking?” People in Guarani villages like Caipepe have not had flushing toilets in their homes or villages. Their vision of development, similar to the LGMs, is one that brings many of the modern infrastructure to their homes. Why would I choose to go backward by pooping in a bucket and piling it up in the backyard? (For the answer you can read Humanure: Waste or Resource?)

Off vs. On the Grid
We have friends back home who have lived or aspire to live “off the grid”, meaning not connected to the electricity infrastructure. For some this might mean using renewable forms of energy instead, but continuing to consume electricity. For others this means getting rid of the need to use electricity as much as possible. For most it’s a combination of the two. We also aspire to this kind of lifestyle and have started a Sabbath practice with no electricity Sundays, which is easier there is only one breaker for the entire house.
In contrast our friends in Caipepe just got electricity in their village within the last year. Their experience of the world has been one without electricity in their home for most of their lives. What would they say to my friends, or me, about wanting to live without electricity or at least “off the grid”?

Sustainable vs. Industrial Agriculture
The irony I find most disturbing is that I, the white, North American, male development worker am the one advocating sustainable agriculture to indigenous people (LGMs are another story). The Guarani lived on the land as hunter-gatherers and perhaps farmers long before the chemical and seed companies that now dominate the market and dictate the type of agriculture practiced. They have a long history of knowledge of local flora and fauna. There are still lots of people that know about what plants are edible or useful for medicinal purposes, but this kind of knowledge and intimacy with the landscape has been marginalized in favor of the cash crop system of industrial agriculture. So, the farmers we talk to use chemicals to manage weeds, insects and fertility. They lack the knowledge of the ancestors about better ways to live on the land, which may be because they were hunter-gatherers who were forced to settle in to sedentary villages.
Other people, like the Quechua and Aymaras, who practiced agriculture before even the Incan Empire have probably retained more of their traditional knowledge than those who remained hunter-gatherers right up to the colonization by the Spanish beginning in the 16th century.

These are the ironies of development work, particularly with an emphasis on sustainability. It’s important to remember that the North American obsession with a “green” lifestyle is a privileged position. Some of it may be the right thing to do, but any attempt to simply import it to “developing” countries and/or indigenous peoples would simply be another form of colonization. Part of the reason those of us in the privileged “developed” world are able to choose lifestyles that contradict and challenge the status quo of industrial agriculture, consumerism and the growth economy is because our lives have been so saturated by these realities. Those in the “developing” world have experienced these realities from a completely different perspective and advertising continues to sell them a dream that is beyond their reach. So, once again we must find a way to bring these worlds together and find better solutions over a guampa of yerba maté.


Two Kingdoms: Low German Mennonites in Charagua, Bolivia

This may not relate much to the general topic of this blog (though that’s never stopped me before), but it does have to do with my work in Bolivia. By the end of this post I might find a way to tie it back to food, theology and consumerism.

Under the new Bolivian Constitution there is a process by which communities can become autonomous zones. There are various versions of autonomy for different groups. In 2009 the Charagua Municipality voted to become one of 11 autonomous zones in the country. They are forming an “autonomous indigenous zone”, which in the actual language of the constitution also includes “campesinos”, or small farmers, in order to make it apply more generally to an area. Charagua municipality is primarily composed of Guaranis who live in rural villages scattered throughout the area. The second largest group is actually the Low German Mennonites (LGMs) living on four colonies located just east of Charagua Estación where we live. In the main city of Charagua and the Estación there are Quechuas, Aymaras and non-indigenous Spanish-speaking Bolivians. This means that there are five main languages spoken in the area: Guarani, Quechua, Aymara, Spanish and Low German.

Since 2009 the community has formed an Assembly for Autonomy that is in the process of creating a structure that will govern this area. There are conflicts between those living in the urban center that did not vote for autonomy and the majority Guarani population that live in rural areas and did. These have to be worked out over time. Instead of simply imposing the wishes of the majority Guarani, the Assembly is trying to include all of the parties affected by this change in constructing an Assembly that represents everyone in Charagua Municipality.

While LGMs desire to continue their tradition of living “Stille im Land (Quiet in the Land)” by not participating in the autonomy process, they are the second largest population in the area and probably the largest economic producers. At the end of July the Assembly working on the Autonomy process invited the LGMs to meet with them to inform them about the process, ask for their input and participation. Both the coordinator for the MCC Low German Program and the Country Representative for Bolivia came to the meeting to help with translation for the LGMs. Since the coordinator is still learning Spanish and the Country Rep doesn’t speak Low German they both had to help translate using English in the middle to translate between the two of them. It was a long morning with so many languages, but very interesting. Overall the meeting went very well and was respectful on all sides.

One of the convictions of faith in the LGM’s tradition is that they should not participate in government in any way. This has to do with their understanding of the relationship between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. Many Christians have some form of a two kingdom theology, at least in theory, but in practice they do not make the kinds of distinctions that the Anabaptist tradition has made. More progressive Mennonites (a branch of the Anabaptist tree) make a distinction between the two kingdoms, for example, by refusing military service, but would believe that Christians can and should vote and even participate in government by holding office (though there is much disagreement over the particulars). Clearly, the LGMs have chosen a much harder distinction by living in colonies and abstaining from any involvement in government or politics.

This, however, does not mean that they reject the authority of the government (as some anarchist mennonites might do). Instead they submit to the authority of the government, as ordained by God. The government is a necessary reality to rule over the kingdoms of the world and as people who live in the world the LGMs submit themselves to the authority of these governing bodies, even as they refuse to participate in them. At the meeting they expressed their thankfulness for the information and the work of the Assembly, but did not want to participate in the process. They said they would submit themselves to whatever the governing authorities decided. Whether or not you agree with their method for embodying the kingdom or even their theology, their practice of the kingdom certainly encompasses the whole of their lives. This was difficult for some people to understand, but they were respectful of their convictions.

Their colony system is their attempt to live as faithfully as possible to the convictions of their ancestors and their tradition in embodying the kingdom of God in their lives together. What has made this possible is the agreement, or Privilegium, that they have had with the Bolivian government since 1962 which gives them certain privileges such as exemption from military service, their own educational system in their own language, their own judicial system and land. Since the new Bolivian Constitution was approved all previous agreements now have to be revisited and either re-approved, changed or rejected. So, in many ways LGMs have been able to live in Bolivia under their own version of autonomy for almost fifty years. This is similar to what the Guaranis are creating in Charagua. Yet, this new autonomous zone will encompass another autonomous zone that has existed for over fifty years.

It seems clear to me that these two “kingdoms” will likely come into more conflict at some time in the future. Conflict is not a bad thing, but something that can hopefully be dealt with constructively. First, I have already mentioned that the LGMs are a huge economic factor in the national economy of Bolivia and particularly in Charagua. They currently do not pay taxes to the government and do not desire to do so, but several people mentioned that citizenship (78% of LGMs are citizens in Bolivia) comes with both rights and responsibilities. We will have to wait to see how this plays out in the future.

In many ways it seems likely that things will continue much as they have for fifty years, but there may be important issues, such as taxes or land, that will test the ability of these two groups with very different worldviews to find the common ground to coexist. The history of the LGMs is one in which time after time they have decided to move to different countries because of changes in their agreements with the governing authorities. There may only be so many more places for them to move before they will have to find a way to deal with the world as it changes around them while maintaining their most treasured traditions and community life.

The question of how to work out the relationship between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world we live in is certainly a difficult one. You can find faithful Christians advocating everything from one extreme of complete accommodation to culture to the LGM version of detachment and isolation from the world into closed communities. For those of us who believe that decentralization and the support of local and regional systems for food production and economic activity are essential for a sustainable future the kind of autonomy sought by both communities are helpful in figuring out how to make this dream a reality in the future. If we hope to move from a world obsessed by the bigness of globalization, consumerism and a growth economy to one that thrives on the diversity of small businesses, communities, decentralized authority we will need the mechanism of autonomous zones that make it possible for people to make their own decisions about things that affect them. Increased participation in local issues, economy, production, organization and governance is necessary to strengthen local and regional economies. Autonomous zones might be the thing that makes it not only possible, but necessary for people to take control of their own lives and communities.

There. I tied it back to the theme of this blog after all.

Our Own Walden

Photo of current Charagua workers cooking giso over the fire in what will soon be our yard.

We recently visited Charagua and decided to accept a position there working with Low German Mennonites, local Bolivians and Guarani (an indigenous group) on water systems, dry latrines and small-scale vegetable production. This is not the position we originally accepted, but it is within the same program. We’re excited about a more rural life and working with both LGMs and the Guarani people. Our house is on the same property as the center where we work and serves as a demonstration plot with a big yard and small pasture.

IMG_6442.JPGI’m excited about all the possibilities this position will provide. Both the more rural setting and living where we work mean that the pace of life will be much slower than in Santa Cruz. I have plans for the garden, but also to experiment with some tagasaste trees as a forage for a couple milk goats in the pasture by our house. I’m also hoping to work on a simple water filtration system (our water gets pretty murky when it rains), maybe rainwater harvesting and a compost pile, of course.

There will be a lot of time for reading, relaxing and just being. I plan on getting a charango and spending lots of time on the porch learning how to play this guitar-like instrument with ten strings and traditionally made out of an armadillo shell. I already have a stack of books to take with us (most of which are fiction this time). I’m also hoping that this will afford me the opportunity to return to my Food in the Bible series.

We will not have internet access. So, I may not be regularly updating the blog at least for the first couple months. If I am able to find a routine for writing, then I will space out those posts over time when I’m in the city.

Reading List for Chihuahua Colony Stay

Since I’m going to be out of touch for a while without internet access, I though it would be a good chance to get some reading done. So, I looked through MCC’s library here and found some good material for our three week retreat with Low German Mennonites learning Plautdietsch and hopefully doing some farm work. All of these books fall under the patented Matt Hess Rule which states that only books 20 years or older are worth reading.

The Politics of God & The Politics of Man by Jacques Ellul I read Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity when I was at the farm. That book didn’t blow me away, but piqued my interest. I’m almost halfway through this one and it’s been a very interesting read. His approach to the problem of free will and God’s sovereignty is not one I’ve heard before.

Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster It’s good to return to the disciplines. Honestly, I’m not good at prayer. I know its benefits and have practiced many of the disciplines, but continue to struggle to make it a part of every day. I hope this will be a time of renewal and reconnection to the disciplines.

Christ and Culture by Reinhold Neibuhr I already have an opinion of this classic work and its not good. Much has been written since Niebuhr’s classic that has deconstructed and reconstructed his categories. However, I think it’s worth actually reading something I’ve already decided I don’t agree with.

The Peaceable Kingdom by Stanley Hauerwas Heard a recent interview with Hauerwas on Jesus Radicals and still don’t know what to think of him. He’s rough around the edges and fond of provoking, but also has penetrating insights. I came to Hauerwas late, while others found him transformative and essential to their journey.

Spirituality of Liberation by Jon Sobrino and Salvation and Liberation by Leonardo and Clodovis Boff MCC’s library has lots of books by liberation theologians and about liberation theology which they should since they work in Latin America regardless of what anyone thinks about it. I, however, love liberation theology and think it’s probably the greatest contribution to theology in the 20th century. Partially because it is the first “Third World” theology to pierce the bubble of the West, but also because it is an articulation of the Gospel that gives it breath to live in this world, not just the world to come.

Hope and Suffering by Desmond Tutu I love hearing this man speak and long for such a Spirit of joy and humor, especially from such a life of suffering and living under constant threat of danger and death.

Sharing Possessions by Luke Timothy Johnson The idea of property has been a recent topic on this blog and one I’ve been thinking a lot about. I stumbled on this book by one of my favorite New Testament scholars and all around good guys.

They Sought a Country by Harry Sawatzky This one is for work. It’s a study of the Low German Mennonite experience in Mexico which is where many of the Mennonites here in Bolivia were from at one point or another.

If I make it through this stack I will have made quite a start to 2011. Let you know how it went next month. Peace!

Low German Mennonites Go Global

Already from what little I’ve learned about Low German Mennonites (LGM) in Bolivia, they serve as a fascinating case study in many ways. They are an example in general of the convergence of theology and agriculture, but in particular they’re an interesting example of the globalization of agriculture and the influence of agribusiness. A great book to give you a framework for understanding Old Order Mennonites in general is The Amish Way. It’s based on studying the Amish, but many of the doctrines and practices apply across the board to Colony Mennonites in Canada, Mexico, Belize, Paraguay, Bolivia and elsewhere.

One of the elements of many colonies is that they value an agrarian lifestyle above all else. For the colony Mennonites in Bolivia the highest calling is to work the land. In the past they tended to have very large families which meant there was an ever increasing need for more land to live out these ideals. This has changed recently with family sizes shrinking somewhat. Historically (post-colonial anyway) Mennonites in Paraguay and Bolivia have been some of the most productive farmers. In Paraguay Mennonites continue to produce a huge percentage of the country’s beef.

The Amish and other Old Order Mennonites are known for their shunning of modern technologies. This is a deep theological conviction. It is based in their understanding of the church as a community. For example, the rationale for not using cars had to do with the way that it fragmented communities by making it possible to live greater distances apart from each other. Imagine how much smaller your circle of friends and family would be without a car.

The enforcement of these rules, or Ordnung, is not just arbitrary either. You are chastised or possibly shunned for breaking the Ordnung, not because you broke an arbitrary rule, but because by not following what the community has decided over decades and centuries, you are exalting yourself above the community and being prideful which is the worst possible offense in these communities. I offer this, not as a justification for their practices, but a proper understanding in context of their beliefs and how they affect their lives.

Big Ag in Little Bolivia

The influence of industrial agriculture reaches deep into the far corners of the globe, including the colonies of Low German Mennonites in Bolivia. There over 60 colonies and over 50,000 LGM people in Bolivia. They are primarily agriculturally based communities. I can’t say for sure, but my guess is that they have not always grown commodity crops. In the past, perhaps in other places, they probably had more diversified farms that provided for their families and were able to sell the surplus. Over time, because of the same factors that shaped modern North American agriculture, these farmers were forced to move toward growing commodity crops. Now, the primary crops grown by LGM colonies in Bolivia are soybeans and wheat which are sold to agribusiness companies like ADM and Cargill.

The shift to growing commodity crops has changed their methods as well. They may shun tractors and other modern agricultural technology, but they will contract out the machinery to clear-cut huge swaths of land to expand their agriculture. Influenced by the agribusiness companies they also use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers on their crops. Because their primary value is continuing their agrarian lifestyle they have accommodated their practices in order to continue living on the land. So, their value of closeness to and making a living from the land has been distorted by globalized industrial agriculture.

In many colonies, the women might grow a small kitchen garden with vegetables and herbs. This is considered appropriate for the women. The men who practice agriculture, on the other hand, see anything involving manual labor as women’s work that is beneath them. Why would they work with their hands when they can use machines to do the work? Yet another paradox of these colonies. They shun certain technologies while whole heartedly embracing others. Sometimes the criteria is clear and has a very sound reasoning behind it, such as the shunning of cars. Other times the decision seems arbitrary or based on specious reasons. One example, I was told about was the readouts used on certain tanks. Digital readouts are not allowed because when they start up they go from 0 to 1,000 therefore passing through the number 666. So, analog readouts are used to circumvent this superstition.

It’s also very important to recognize that these practices and their enforcement are different in every one of the 60+ colonies in Bolivia, not to mention the colonies in Mexico, Belize, Canada, United States, Paraguay and elsewhere.

God and the Chicago Board of Trade

LGM communities who shun rubber tires have up-to-date information from the Chicago Board of Trade at their fingertips, because their lives literally depend on the ups and downs of commodity traders in another hemisphere. So, communities that have often split over whether or not to use technologies, and who have attempted to maintain the traditions of their ancestors amidst the increasing pressures of modern civilization, are intimately connected to the very thing that makes modern civilization and globalization possible, global industrial agriculture.

These communities are almost necessarily filled with paradoxes as they try to maintain another way of life in the midst of a rapidly changing world. The colonies in Bolivia are among the most conservative of these colonies as this has been the last stop as colonies divided over different issues. Yet even as they have tried to find space to maintain their way of life with as little influence from the modern world as possible, their communities are bundles of contradiction. They highly value an agrarian lifestyle and making a living from the land, yet their agricultural practices can be very destructive to the environment. They shun certain technologies in order to maintain community life, yet continually find exceptions and loopholes (not owning cars, but using taxis and buses to travel) in order to continue their existence.

For me, the lesson here is that, as Niebuhr said (not my fave theologian by any stretch, but truth is truth), even our best intentions are always shadowed by sin and compromise. The idea that it’s possible to create communities isolated from the world that maintain some ideal of the past or even the future is not reality. Some colonies, notably the Amish, have actually done a better job of realizing this reality and finding ways to preserve traditions while facing up to the realities of the world around them. The question as always is where we decide to draw the lines, and what kind of life is left after we connect the dots.

On Sunday we leave for our colony stay here in Bolivia. I’m looking forward to learning Plautdietsch and getting to know the LGM family and colony where we’ll be staying for three weeks. Many of my ideas and expectations have been overturned and turned inside out. I continue to expect the God of surprises to surprise me.