Keepers of the old ways

Colony Mennonites in Bolivia preserve tradition, innovate as numbers grow

Swift Current cheese factory workers collect milk cans six days a week from colony families and bring the milk to the factory for processing. — Kennert Giesbrecht/Die Mennonitische Post Swift Current cheese factory workers collect milk cans six days a week from colony families and bring the milk to the factory for processing. — Kennert Giesbrecht/Die Mennonitische Post

Heinrich and Elizabeth Redekopp had likely killed the fatted hog to feed our group. All 14 of their children and 39 grandchildren came to the meal. Some had gotten up at 3:30 a.m. to begin the long journey with a horse and buggy. Others lived too far away and hired drivers.

We ate in several shifts, with women at one table and men at the other. The menu was pork, chicken, yucca root, gravy for the yucca root, bean soup, two salads made with cabbage, cucumber and tomato, with pluma moos (fruit soup) for dessert.

Before we ate, everyone bowed their heads in silent prayer. At the end of the meal, we returned thanks in the same way. This practice is common among the Plain Anabaptist groups in North America. Despite centuries of geographic, linguistic and even cultural distance, the same prayer practice exists among Swiss-German Anabaptists in the North and the Old Colony Mennonites that moved to Latin America.

For 11 days in September, I was in Bolivia for a Low German Mennonite learning tour organized by Mennonite Central Committee. Our group of 13 consisted of nine Canadians and four from the United States. We visited Low German-speaking Mennonites in and around the Santa Cruz area. We visited very conservative colonies, newer colonies, well-established colonies, progressive colonies and colonies that were somewhere in between.

I learned many things, but the most significant might be that it is impossible to generalize about Low German Mennonites in Bolivia.

Handwashing sinks are common in Mennonite homes, whether outside on the porch or just inside the door. This one is in the Teichröb home of the Pinondi Colony. — Patricia Funk/Die Mennonitische Post
Handwashing sinks are common in Mennonite homes, whether outside on the porch or just inside the door. This one is in the Teichröb home of the Pinondi Colony. — Patricia Funk/Die Mennonitische Post

One thing common to all the homes we visited was the handwashing sink. Some were on the porch, with a hand towel pinned to a wash line nearby. Others were inside the house, near the front door or by the kitchen.

In every case, the Low German Mennonites, though reserved, were eager and curious to meet us.

Looking for more land

As our bus rolled through Durango 1 Colony, whole families stood outside their houses and watched us pass by. Word of our visit had spread, and many wanted a glimpse.

At the Redekopp home, the daughters were excited about knitting. They already had knitting needles and wanted to learn how to use them. A group of women gathered to watch as a visitor demonstrated. There was an air of quiet but intense observation. As I opened my notebook to write, a girl in artfully looped braids leaned in to look at my notes.

Kathy Braun offered a knitting lesson to women in the Redekopp home. The women already had the needles but wanted to learn the stitches. — Patricia Funk/Die Mennonitische Post
Kathy Braun offered a knitting lesson to women in the Redekopp home. The women already had the needles but wanted to learn the stitches. — Patricia Funk/Die Mennonitische Post

The tour group had been cautioned against taking photographs. Like the Amish, the Colony Mennonites consider them inappropriate. Our group had designated photographers. Yet the Colony Mennonites had no problem being photographed by trusted friends and contacts. After Horst Braun, a staff member at MCC’s Centro Menno, photographed Redekopp family members, children swarmed around him to see the images on his camera.

No tourist culture exists among the Low German Mennonites in Bolivia. In places such as Lancaster County, Pa., where I am from, tourism capitalizes on the Amish and other Plain groups. Bolivia’s Low German Mennonites lead even more isolated lives, perhaps because they live together in towns or colonies rather than interspersed among the general population.

Colony Mennonites look for available land and plan their colony before building it. They map out roads, homesteads and land for farming and ­grazing. Colonies have their own schools, stores and internal government.

They speak Low German, or Plautdietsch, among themselves. A few know some Spanish. Unless they came directly from Canada, usually they do not speak English.

Many Low German Mennonites came to Bolivia from Mexico or Paraguay, although ancestrally many originated in Canada (and before that, in what is now Ukraine). One hundred twenty-four colonies were known to exist in 2022, but likely there are more. As the population — estimated at 100,000 — grows, colonies tend to outgrow their land every 10 years. As a result, they are constantly looking for more land.

Mennonites gather for a funeral in the Valle Roca Colony. — Kennert Giesbrecht/Die Mennonitische Post
Mennonites gather for a funeral in the Valle Roca Colony. — Kennert Giesbrecht/Die Mennonitische Post

Poverty and prosperity

Economic differences between colonies are vast. In the Durango 1 Colony, located in the south of the Santa Cruz department, one house did not have glass in its windows; the family used towels and blankets instead. Some children in this colony had malnutrition sores.

In this area, constant drought makes it difficult for colony members to support themselves through farming. ­Water is so scarce that Durango residents had to go to a neighboring colony to buy water. In 2009, MCC helped fund six community wells. Each well supports 14 to 19 families and a school.

We visited one such well. Johan Wall and Peter Wiebe said the well was 100 meters deep. In hot weather, the pump runs day and night. They said it had never dried up or gone low.

Water lines lead to homes, and each has a water meter. The well can support family and garden use; the cost is two Bolivianos (29 cents U.S.) for every thousand liters. This might not sound like a lot, but some families struggle to pay their water bill.

Jakob Wiebe is one beneficiary of the well. He pays his water bill in fuel for the pump. He excitedly showed us his large garden. Thanks to drip irrigation, he grows yucca root, garden vegetables and roselle or sorrel, which makes a good jam. He also raises beans to sell. He might consider selling one of his cows to fund a private well to increase his crop yield.

An Amish group supports another well on the Durango 1 Colony. Johan Wall uses the well water to grow potatoes and onions. Since the onions must be harvested by hand, he employs jobless young people.

At the other end of the economic spectrum is Swift Current, one of the first colonies in Bolivia, founded in the 1960s north of Santa Cruz. Swift Current generates income through milk. Milk is currency; colony taxes are taken from the milk.

Families place metal milk cans (an investment at $60 to $80 a can) at the end of their driveways. Factory workers come with horses and wagons to pick up the cans. The factory makes a soft, salty cheese (queso Menonita) and sells fresh milk to other companies.

Johan Wiebe, who co-manages the cheese factory, has cows and 90 acres of land for growing hay. His barnyard is large and partially covered. If it rains, his wife and daughters can walk from the house to the barn under a wraparound roof and milk the cows without getting wet.

A worker separates the curds and whey at the Swift Current Colony’s cheese factory. Milk and milk processing are a major source of income for the colony. — Patricia Funk/Die Mennonitische Post
A worker separates the curds and whey at the Swift Current Colony’s cheese factory. Milk and milk processing are a major source of income for the colony. — Patricia Funk/Die Mennonitische Post

Widely varying rules

The more conservative colonies use horses and buggies and tractors with steel wheels. There’s little electricity in the homes; refrigerators and freezers are gas powered. But this is not true of all colonies. Cupesí, a Reinländer colony, has electricity in the homes and rubber tires on the tractors. One family hitched an enclosed trailer to the tractor and used it as the family “car.”

And then there is Campo Chihuahua, which allows members to have electricity in the home, own cellphones and drive cars. Head coverings for women appeared to be optional.

Campo Chihuahua was founded in 1989 by families who desired less strict rules. They wondered if the traditional emphasis on rules was undercutting God’s grace. Campo Chihuahua has six congregations. Everyone must go to a church, but the colony does not dictate which one.

Campo Chihuahua has 1,300 members, about 350 families. The colony has four schools, including Ebenezer, a K-12 school where the instructional language is Low German. Students study Spanish and English as they move toward the upper grades.

Not all parents see the value in sending their children to school beyond the eighth or ninth grade. About 20% of students who start kindergarten finish 12th grade.

Yet some parents see value in a high school education. Becky Siemens, who finished 12th grade, is paid more as a school secretary than some of the teachers who did not complete high school.

David Dyck, director of the Ebenezer school, said many teachers have no formal training. Sometimes he sends teachers to a training program in Paraguay. He encourages them to get more education in the subjects they teach.

Ebenezer serves 205 students — over half of the colony’s 330 children. They come to school by small bus or carpool. Some colony money supports the school (from ages 21 to 60, Chihuahua residents pay a school tax), but parents also pay $400 a month tuition.

Villa Nueva, a progressive colony in Pailón, operates a K-12 school called Unidad Educativa. “This place is where the cultures cross,” said Leo Pantojo, the principal. The school is about 50% Low German Mennonite and 50% Bolivian. Each group learns the other’s language. The school also provides instruction in Spanish to encourage university education.

Students stand to sing hymns and recite poems and passages from the Bible. The mock school day was a highly anticipated event. One girl said her mother had braided her hair in honor of the special school day. — Patricia Funk/Die Mennonitische Post
Students stand to sing hymns and recite poems and passages from the Bible. The mock school day was a highly anticipated event. One girl said her mother had braided her hair in honor of the special school day. — Patricia Funk/Die Mennonitische Post

A mock school day

Other colonies have different educational goals. When we visited Swift Current, school was done for the year, but 57 children, ranging in age from 6 to 13, excitedly gathered at the school. Kennert Giesbrecht, outgoing editor of Die Mennonitische Post, had proposed a mock school day to demonstrate an Old Colony school in session. Giesbrecht’s role as editor is held in high regard, and the Swift Current leaders approved his idea.

Girls and boys sat on opposite sides of the one-room school. In the back on the girls’ side were pegs for the girls’ straw hats. The boys hung their baseball caps on the opposite side. Each student had a plastic water bottle.

At a signal from teacher David Schmidt, the students rose and sang a song in High German. Then they recited the Lord’s Prayer in a plainchant reminiscent of Old Order Amish and Old Order River Brethren congregational singing, but much faster and at a higher pitch.

The students have three textbooks. Younger students recite and copy passages from the church’s catechism. Students in the middle grades learn the New Testament, the older ones the Old Testament.

Schmidt wrote a sentence on the board to test the students’ spelling and grammar. He made a purposeful mistake and asked the students to identify it. Then it was time for recess, where students excitedly received stickers from Giesbrecht. A colony leader gave each student a chocolate bar and a bottled drink. The students reconvened for closing songs and poems.

The Swift Current school educates children in practical matters: how to understand the catechism, read Scripture, write, calculate sums. This prepares them for a life of farming, storekeeping and milk processing.

Kennert Giesbrecht with children at Swift Current Colony in Bolivia in September. — Patricia Funk/Die Mennonitische Post
Kennert Giesbrecht with children at Swift Current Colony in Bolivia in September. — Patricia Funk/Die Mennonitische Post

An influential family

Elizabeth Froese runs the Riva Palacios Colony store with her husband, Jakob. Like Amish and conservative Mennonite stores in Pennsylvania, it is stocked with school supplies, books, kitchen items, hats, ready-made coats and fabric.

Froese also sews, but this is not something she usually advertises. She invited women from our group into her home and showed us her sewing machine and serger. Inside a wardrobe, she had dresses ready for sale, arranged according to size. She uses paper patterns to cut out the women’s dresses. Children are measured for custom-made clothes.

Riva Palacios’ store reflected the colony’s general wealth. Durango’s store had only the necessities: hardware, cooking supplies, groceries, hats, a few rolls of fabric, a very small lending library and a handful of books in a locked glass case.

I purchased some colony maps and asked if the Durango store had any copies of the community’s hymnal. The workers said there were none. (“These books are very precious,” Judith Braun of Centro Menno said to me, by way of explanation.) I later bought a copy at Riva Palacios. The Gesangbuch — in German without music notes, but with tunes indicated — cost perhaps 80 Bolivianos. This was $12 for a hardcover book with gilded edges in slipcase.

Redekopp family grandchildren gather around Eileen Kinch to see a photo on her camera. — Horst Braun
Redekopp family grandchildren gather around Eileen Kinch to see a photo on her camera. — Horst Braun

We ate lunch with the Klassen family at Riva Palacios. Abram Klassen owns a large machine shop and manufactures animal feed bins. The factory employs 26 people, some of whom are family members. Klassen’s shop makes its own threads and shafts for the machines, which come used from Europe. His shop is divided into stations for milling, welding, painting and other parts of the process. Much of his business is with Mennonites, but Bolivians buy from him, too.

We were surprised to see one of Klassen’s daughters taking photographs with her own camera. Someone asked about it, and she explained: One does not have to follow every rule.

We later understood that when there is a financial need, Abram Klassen is expected to meet it. The Klassen family’s status likely gives them leeway when it comes to the rules.

Authority, earthly and spiritual

In some colonies, the rules are more flexible than in others. A colony’s leadership consists of an elder or bishop (Ältester), ministers or teachers (Lehrer) and deacons (Diakonen). They also have Vorsteher, business managers or mayors.

A Vorsteher is chosen to serve (he can’t decline) and gets a stipend. He registers births, marriages and deaths. If there is a dispute about land or a legal matter, a Vorsteher works it out. They serve in teams, with staggered two-year terms.

Gerhart Redekopp is a Vorsteher in the Durango 1 Colony. To make his workload manageable, he established hours to be available. Otherwise, anyone could come to his home at any time to ask for help. When a colony in Belize heard about this practice, they tried it, too.

The Vorsteher are involved if someone does something wrong. Some colonies have problems with theft, and they tend to work out the problems among themselves. Campo Chihuahua prefers to do that, too.

Their biggest problem is with minors leaving stricter colonies for the more progressive Chihuahua. Angry parents accuse Campo Chihuahua of forcing their children to stay and work, so Chihuahua now requires minors to sign waivers saying they are staying voluntarily. Campo Chihuahua will involve Bolivian civil authorities, if necessary, especially if parents forcibly remove adult children.

While the Vorsteher deals with earthly matters, the bishop and ministers take care of spiritual ones. Like many Amish communities in North America, Low German colonies have something that might be called Ordnung. These rules, which differ from colony to colony, are decided by a vote of the men. For example, some colonies permit bicycles; others do not.

Addictions and marriage problems

Colonies have problems, of course. “Alcohol is cheap and is a big problem,” Daniel Giesbrecht of Cupesí Colony told us. We toured Guia de Paz, a center that serves Low German Mennonites with addictions and marriage problems.

Founded 10 years ago, Guia de Paz can serve up to 44 people at a time. Men and women live separately, with a capacity for 22 in each dormitory. Rudy Neufeld, who runs Guia de Paz, said generally more men than women come to the center. The patients often need help with addictions to alcohol, drugs or pornography. Staff notice a high rate of sexual abuse.

Guia de Paz helps Mennonites who struggle with addictions. The center can house up to 44 patients at a time. — Low German Mennonite learning tour
Guia de Paz helps Mennonites who struggle with addictions. The center can house up to 44 patients at a time. — Low German Mennonite learning tour

The treatment program runs for 90 days. Guia de Paz uses the Twelve-Step program, as well as Bible study and biblical counseling. A medical doctor and a psychiatrist from Santa Cruz prescribe the medication. After participants settle in, they can help in the kitchen or with laundry.

More Old Colony Mennonites come to the treatment center than any other kind of Mennonite, Neufeld said. There is some Old Colony support for Guia de Paz, but generally the leaders do not like it. Sometimes family members will try to remove a family member who is in treatment. Each patient signs a consent form, but pressure from family and colony leadership can be difficult to withstand. Some patients leave before completing their treatment.

When a wife enters the treatment center because of marriage problems, within a few days her husband is likely to come and plead with her to return home. Sometimes the husband realizes he needs to be at the center, too. When that happens, Neufeld said simply, “Praise God.”

North American Mennonites may be familiar with the rapes that occurred in the Manitoba Colony and became known through the 2018 novel and 2022 film Women Talking. Peo­ple in the colonies are sad that the rapes may be all that North Americans know about them. MCC Bolivia organized the learning tour as a glimpse into the life of Low German Mennonites: the difficult and the beautiful.

Limited but not deprived

One afternoon, we sat on a porch, cracking black sunflower seed hulls and munching on cookies at Faspa, a late afternoon meal served in Low German homes. Daniel and Anna Giesbrecht, our gracious hosts, live on the Cupesí Colony, a Reinländer group, near Pailón.

This colony has electricity in homes but does not permit cellphones. Tractors can have rubber tires. Members may have bicycles but not cars. The colony allows teaching Spanish in the evening to adults.

Anna and Daniel Giesbrecht live on the Cupesí Colony near Pailon, Bolivia. Daniel is from Canada; Anna is from Paraguay. — Dick and Kathy Braun
Anna and Daniel Giesbrecht live on the Cupesí Colony near Pailon, Bolivia. Daniel is from Canada; Anna is from Paraguay. — Dick and Kathy Braun

Daniel Giesbrecht explained that although clothes and customs in Cupesí differ from Old Colony Mennonites, his group has the same catechism and songbook as Old Colony Mennonites. “It would be nice if we could think more alike in spirituality,” he said.

As a church, his group does not evangelize but will collect funds for MCC projects. They will also help with material aid. When nearby Pailón had a flood, the colony brought food to the distressed townspeople.

Giesbrecht finds joy and blessing in his family and grandchildren. He lives on five acres of land, plants 36 acres and grazes beef cattle on 20 more. The colony grows soy, corn, sorghum and sunflowers and practices no-till farming.

Someone asked if he was satisfied with his way of life. “Every colony has its ups and downs,” he said. Sometimes he doesn’t like colony living, “but I can’t imagine life on the outside.”

Agatha Siemens of Campo Chihuahua said something similar. “You have seen some things in our colony,” she said to me. “But the things you didn’t see — we’re not missing them.”

Eileen Kinch is digital editor of Anabaptist World.

Eileen Kinch

Eileen Kinch is digital editor at Anabaptist World. She lives near Tylersport, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two cats. She Read More

Anabaptist World

Anabaptist World Inc. (AW) is an independent journalistic ministry serving the global Anabaptist movement. We seek to inform, inspire and Read More

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!