Manitoba, Bolivia

Life in a remote Mennonite community continues in the aftermath of a scandal

Roughly 150 kilometres northeast of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, the Manitoba colony’s 2,000 residents maintain the lifestyle of their Dutch ancestors, who established the first Mennonite settlement in Russia in 1789. Since then, Old Colony Mennonites have moved throughout the New World in search of arable land and cultural sovereignty: first to Manitoba in the late 19th century, then to Mexico in the mid-1920s, after Canada required their children to attend government-approved schools. Three decades later, a conservative splinter sect arrived in Bolivia, which, like other host nations, gained skilled agriculturalists in return for its tolerance; the country’s approximately 60,000 Mennonites produce much of its soy crop and dairy products.

The Mennonites—whose Anabaptist denomination takes its name from Menno Simons, a 16th-century priest—owe their prosperity to strict social discipline and traditions closely guarded against surrounding influences. Modern conveniences are avoided. Children study only High German, math, and religion. Around puberty, they leave to join their fathers in the fields and factories, or their mothers at home and hearth. Other forms of work are forbidden to women, who speak Low German and are discouraged from learning Spanish, unlike men, who travel to Santa Cruz for trade.

Over the past decade, girls and women of all ages would occasionally wake up naked and sore; they often blamed their husbands, or the devil. Tacit suspicions were confirmed last year, when it was discovered that a gang of men had drugged and raped between 60 and 140 women (reports vary). Eight men were initially handed over to the police, rupturing the insularity on which the community’s identity hinges.

When Lisa Wiltse visited Manitoba for a week last December, a tension pervaded the colony, although life continued as it had for centuries. Residents rose early for long days of labour, resting on Sundays at church and at gender-segregated parties. The men she encountered were hospitable but wary, and the women were reluctant to pose for photographs; since many Manitobans blamed the rapes on external forces, they were even more distrustful of the outside world. But their younger sisters and daughters were less cautious. By the end of her stay, girls who had once covered their faces at the sight of her camera confronted the lens, smiling communicatively even though they couldn’t speak her language.

The Mennonites

Boys from the Peters family helping their sister milk the cows in the late afternoon.
The Mennonites
A worker in the colony’s cheese factory. Manitoba earns part of its income by supplying major companies and local shops with cheese, yogurt, butter, and milk.
The Mennonites
Maria Peters, fifteen, (one of fourteen siblings), helps care for her new baby sister.
The Mennonites
Two of the Peters sisters perform their daily chores. There is a strict separation of men’s and women’s work. Girls and women do all of the domestic chores, including sewing, milking the cows, and tending to the house. They are not permitted to work outside of the home.
The Mennonites
Girls playing on a Sunday afternoon after church.
The Mennonites
Boys in class, where they learn only High German, basic mathematics, and religion.
The Mennonites
Girls in traditional Mexican-style Mennonite hats leaving school for lunch. Both boys and girls begin school at age six, but girls stop earlier than boys, who graduate at age twelve.
The Mennonites
The Martin family at dinner together. Women spend hours preparing meals, which men often miss due to work.
The Mennonites
Sister Agata, six (left), and Elena Ball, five, take turns having their hair washed and braided by their mother. This elaborate process takes place every Saturday, in advance of Sunday church, and bonds female family members.
The Mennonites
Justina Martin and her son Cornelius, eleven, and daughter, Elena, five, baking cookies for a Sunday lunch.
The Mennonites
A group of sisters, all dressed in identical handmade dresses and hats, going to visit neighbouring families after church on Sunday, one of the few occasions when community members are allowed to get together and socialize.
Cornelius Martin, eleven, riding in the back of a pickup truck with a friend of his father’s. Vehicles are forbidden in the colony, but for a few wealthy residents have drivers which enables them to travel to conduct business.
The Mennonites
A young Mennonite married couple sleeps soundly on the five-hour bus ride from Manitoba to the city of Santa Cruz.

This appeared in the November 2010 issue.

Lisa Wiltse

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