Bolivia Mennonites in “The Walrus,” and more

A couple of people I know were contacted by The Walrus about a piece the magazine was doing on Mennonites in Bolivia. I had no idea what angle it would take, but hoped it would provide some current information on the situation that hit the headlines more than a year ago: the rape of many women in the Manitoba colony and the arrest of a group of men alleged to have perpetrated these rapes. I assumed the piece would bring professional journalistic standards to bear, and perhaps arouse concern and even indignation on a number of aspects of this situation, from the trauma of the women to the lack of trial proceedings for the men.

A comment to an earlier post alerted me that said Walrus was now out. Her assessment of the piece, a photo essay by Lisa Wiltse? “Hmm, there’s got to be more to the story than this!” Now that I’ve also had a chance to see the issue, I couldn’t agree more. There’s only four paragraphs of text. The photographs are wonderfully done, yes, capturing the lives of the children especially, their energy, shyness, and beauty. There’s a lovely family spirit, a kind of bucolic charm, in Wiltse’s photos that’s attractive, even a rebuke to our consumerist society. The text is fine as far as it goes, as well, which isn’t far enough, giving the summary facts of Mennonites, the Manitoba colony, the rapes, the limitations for women and children. Much is hidden behind a few words:  the men “wary,” the women “reluctant,” and “a tension pervaded the colony.”

Yet, the article continues, life goes on, as it has “for centuries.” That’s the tragedy of the tale, perhaps. Life goes on, as it has.

Yes. But. I see that lovely blond girl with her slate, head framed by a blackboard of numbers, and I remember myself at that age and my longing to learn, to discover, to go on reading and discovering day after day after day…. and knowing I could. This girl’s brothers will stop school after seven years and she’ll have to stop even earlier. It’s enough to break one’s heart.

Add to that attitudes about sex, and the role and purpose of women, which may take her to a life of drudgery and sexual activity that feels demeaning rather than freely participated in and joyous. That’s heartbreaking too.

More: Last year, Hans Werner addressed the Bolivian Mennonite abuse story in an editorial in Preservings. He first placed it within a larger context of abuse, including within the Catholic church and domestic abuse generally, all true enough, except that framing it this way, in my opinion, has the odd effect of actually diminishing it; diminishing the responsibility. The editorial also took the opportunity to continue an old argument with evangelicals that never seems to end within that otherwise excellent journal. I don’t necessarily disagree with Werner’s point here, but when it comes to Bolivia, and Mennonites, isn’t it time to quit these tiresome shots and talk, work, listen together?

Nevertheless, I did appreciate the openness of the editorial, and especially these lines.

The events of this past summer must give the Bolivian Mennonite community, and the rest of us pause for reflection. The indictment falls heavily on men. In the conservative Mennonite communities the burden of leadership in the community, the church, and the family is in the main the domain of the men. Surely a high standard of relations within the family and community necessarily follows. Fathers must teach their sons from an early age what it means to respect their sisters, mothers and brothers. The actions of the men accused here certainly do not reflect what Bolivian Mennonites teach their sons, but it does point to the need for a reassessment of attitudes and beliefs about men and women that have become the norm in the Mennonite colonies.

The question is, how will that “reassessment” happen? If the educational opportunities are so very limited, horizons so shrunken, how does transformational teaching truly happen? What chance does the expectation of respect have to grow?

Still more:

A report from Casa Mariposa, the women’s shelter for which the Winnipeg prayer vigil raised money says that four women are currently in residence, with three girls (11,13,15) expected once more staff arrive.

Thanks to occasional forwards of Kurze Nachrichten aus Mexiko by Abe Warkentin, the following updates:

3 Sept. 2010 (Nr 715) — Discussions with the government re. legal status seem to be stalling. One of the government conditions is that the schools have to be fundamentally improved.

29 Oct. 2010 (Nr. 723) The six arrested men of Manitoba Colony are still in prison, well over a year now without a legal judgment. Official promises are not kept.

Another source suggests there is money flowing from the colony to lawyers, both from those who want them to stay there and from those who want them out.

A further report indicates the six men mentioned above are relatively free in their movements but don’t bolt because they claim they are innocent and want to be proven so. They say they have become Christians and apparently are quite positively changed. The situation of those in another prison, by contrast, seems “hard and cold and very bitter… out for revenge as soon as the opportunity would allow.”

No further updates on the affected women. Please, let’s not forget the women.

And lastly, there’s a fine photo story, hopeful-sounding, by Silas Crews at Mennonite Central Committee’s website too. I love the photo of Sara Neufeld reading to her children. (See article by Gladys Terichow here. I couldn’t help remembering how my children cried over the Joseph story too.) In such small ways…?

2 thoughts on “Bolivia Mennonites in “The Walrus,” and more

  1. Dora, Thanks so much for this comprehensive update on the Bolivian Mennonite colony story and also for sharing the links to articles & photos re this in The Walrus & the MCC website especially.

    I looked at the photos on both these sites today and both convey an achingly beautiful view of the simplicity of rural colony family life. But I agree with you Dora, that the text in Walrus “doesn’t go far enough” — it barely alludes to the tragedy of abuse that is also rampant on some of those colonies behind that pastoral landscape. Which means that this part of the story remains mostly hidden and there is the potential that focusing exclusively on this seemingly pure & quiet beauty in the photos, could sort of lull one into a stupor of Gelassenheit (well-being/blessedness) — which somehow brings to mind that chilling line, “One Bach outweighs ten Belsens” … (from “Apocalypse” by D.J. Enright). Certainly, that is not the intent of the photos but it seems to me that there needs to be more acknowledgement of the dark side, even in the photos, because of that risk??

    Speaking of which, as you may have seen, the Winnipeg Free Press chose to focus quite a lot on the dark side in their feature this weekend on life in a remote aboriginal community where poverty, abuse & despair are beyond description. Admittedly, the photos were hard to look at and the story hard to read. But the images are still alive within me quite vividly several days later and I’m wondering if they would have been if they’d used only positive images. Admittedly, its hard to get the right balance so that people are moved to respond rather than simply enjoying the pictures and agreeing, “yes these are good beautiful people like us.”

    Interestingly, Enright’s poem concludes with words (which strangely echo the “life goes on” ending of the Walrus piece): “One day a reed-warbler stepped on him [the remaining holocaust survivor] by accident. /However, all in a sense goes on. Still the everlasting /and imperishable joy/Which music [art] never fails to give is being given.” Leona

    • Hi Leona, thanks for your thoughtful and provocative reply. I think you’re quite right — if the text doesn’t go far enough, certainly the images don’t either. What’s there also seems to contradict the text. Visual images are so powerful in forming our impressions and attitudes, in motivating us. So the question here remains: what are the appropriate images for the Mennonites in Bolivia story? — I appreciate also your alert to the Enright poem and its really stunning ironies. (Here, for other readers, the link to “Apocalypse” by D.J. Enright.)

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