Yalve Sanga

We’re two weeks in the Chaco, Paraguay, where my husband grew up and his family still lives. We spend most of our time with relatives and friends. That’s why we came. But there’s one thing I want to do myself. Just the two of us, I mean. I want to go to Yalve Sanga, where we lived for two years in the early 1980s on a development assignment, set foot there again, walk about in anonymity, no one along to expound or explain. We no longer know anyone there; as the centre of indigenous programs (medical, educational, religious, agricultural) in the region, staff come and go; the community is fluid. H. has no pressing urge to return, but he’s willing to indulge me so we borrow a car and drive the half hour or so, dodging pot holes in the asphalt out of Filadelfia and along the TransChaco. It’s hot. As we turn off the highway onto the dirt road leading to Yalve Sanga, the car churns up dust and it hangs in the air behind us.


We park and walk. Past the bit of  “pond” where I was for a while “the best mother ever” when I let the boys jump into the water in their shorts, alongside Enhlet boys they’d been watching longingly from our picnic blanket nearby. Past houses, trying to remember which was whose, and which have been redone or disappeared. Around the corner then: “our” place. Oh my! The house that rose from a patch of earth much the colour of its bricks (stripped of kamp grass when the house was built and new, because of snakes) is now encircled by a hedge flowering yellow, and the curve across the ploughed field where the bulldozer and other machines stood between jobs is lined with hedge too, almost romantic it seems, both hiding and revealing as we follow it in, and there it is, doors, windows, wash line, shutters, cistern. We don’t have to go closer, no one’s home anyway, which is good, this isn’t about meeting the current residents. I already know the rooms, the layout, I drew the plan and H. built it for the sponsors of the machine station project, and we lived in it. But look at it now, everything so tidy and green, even more green in garden and grass, and trees planted close to the house for shade.




The same house as above, as we moved into it in 1983.

Is it gladness I feel — on account of this evolution — or envy? Both, briefly, yes, but I’m staring it back to its original, thirty-five years ago. I see the bones of its beginning, and we the first, H. and me and the children, the girl crawling the path from Shattendach to shed, the dog’s attentive eye on her, oldest son back and forth to school in his white shirt and navy pants, younger son at play with his slingshot and kugels against the bird noise of the algorrobo tree, the only tree there is. Or the two of them chasing about. With their happy shouts.

ScanIt’s the fine dry sand like puddles between ridges of hard earth and the heavy heat that sets me back into those years when I was thirty-two and three and four, when I had children in my arms. We wander on, murmurs of memory between us. The mulberry bushes seem to be gone, the chapel too. The soccer field at the school is overgrown. It’s a day school now, no longer residential. Something large is being built across the street. Everything feels the same but completely different too. There’s construction sound, and motorcycles now and then, but I’m struck by an overwhelming sense of quiet, of peace like sleep. But it teemed, didn’t it — then?

H. takes a photo of me in front of flowers tumbling over a fence. The buzz of bee and butterfly among them is overwhelming, as if the past has concentrated here — all the former liveliness, energy, passion, complication, joy of our lives. Good times, busy times. Busier than they should have been, of course. They always are, when families are young. A very old Enhlet woman comes by, ragged, stick in hand, bag over her shoulder, and when we smile and gesture a greeting, she laughs, a clear tinkle of a laugh like pleasure, as if she’s Mother Yalve Sanga herself who knows you can’t live in the past but a bit of a visit now and then won’t hurt either.

Cross in hand

My husband and his siblings knew their father had written some kind of diary in his younger years, but the notebooks were tucked away in one of the sister’s closet after the parents’ deaths. She had intended to transcribe them, but she became ill with cancer and died in 2009. After that, my father-in-law’s papers came into another sister’s possession. She set to work on them. Just last week, we received a transcript of “Papa’s Tagebuch [diary]” from December 1929 to December 1932.

For me, this is a great treasure, because I can “hear” Heinrich Dueck for the first time. My father-in-law died suddenly – his funeral was on my birthday, in fact – before we were married. I lived a continent away. All who married into the large family had come to know him, except me, spouse of the youngest. I’ve heard much about my father-in-law, of course, gathered stories, viewed pictures, but I feel a hole in my experience of this second family of mine. Here in his diary, however, is something of his voice. Continue reading

Songs for the Chaco

The Chaco of Paraguay is one of those places that cries out to be captured — described — appropriated somehow. Its climate and landscape are often inhospitable, yet there’s a compelling beauty about it too. Blood and sorrow run over it — from the awful Chaco War (between Paraguay and Bolivia) through the suffering and difficulties of Mennonites from both Canada and Russia trying to settle and survive it. A complex and fascinating mix of people have gathered to live in it, side by side, from various indigenous groups to German-speaking Mennonites to Latinos. 

There have been any number of fine attempts to reveal the soul of this place and its people through non-fiction, one of the most recent in English being Garden in the Wilderness by Edgar Stoesz and Muriel T. Stackley, and a classic in German being Immer Kreisen die Geier by Peter Klassen.

But the Chaco more than anything else, it seems to me, needs fiction and poetry and paintings and film and music — the kind of creative endeavours that tell its truth, but tell it “slant,” as Emily Dickinson put it. Here too, there have been various artists at work, including the afore-mentioned Peter Klassen, a resident of the Chaco, beginning with his stories in Kampbrand. For English audiences, there’s Rudy Wiebe’s stories in The Blue Mountains of China. I gave it a go with one woman’s story in Under the Still Standing Sun. Dave Dueck and Otto Klassen have done storytelling in film.

Locally, literature and the arts are beginning to flourish — something that is often possible once the heaviest problems of pioneering have finally been solved. So the above is no comprehensive list by any means, but it does bring me to “Paraguay Primeval,” a collection of 11 musical compositions by Carol Ann Weaver, soundscapes, photos, and readings, which premiered at Conrad Grebel College last Wednesday, March 4. 

My husband and I arranged a visit to our son and daughter-in-law in Toronto around the date of this premiere. H. grew up in the Chaco, lived there until 19, and I came to know it through him and his family who are still there.

I’m afraid I don’t have the musical vocabulary to describe what Carol Ann Weaver (below) does with her impressions of the Chaco, gleaned through her visit there after the Mennonite World Conference in Asuncion last summer, and with the texts she discovered through her reading afterwards, except to say that we both found ourselves deeply moved by the work of this talented and energetic composer.

Weaver tells stories, yes, but because melody and rhythm, and the sound of voice and instruments, carry the words. Thus one perceives the narrative and emotion directly and quite intensely. You feel “magnificent the Chaco sky” and 

strange beauty in this Chaco land
strange beauty in this promised land 

The songs tell of coming from Russia by ship, by riverboat up to Puerto Casado, by train past swamps and into the dense bush and open campos of the Chaco. Of well water “hardly drinkable” because of the heat. Of the death of an entire family from typhoid fever. Of the village settled by women who lost their husbands in Russia. Of the contrast between the indigenous Lengua women who walk like “stallions in spring” and the Mennonite women who cast their eyes to the ground. Of the beauty of springtime and nighttime.

There’s even a tango, called, fairly enough,  “Tango — If They’d Have Tangoed.”

One of my favourites was “Chaco Christmas” which sings of the heat and dust of December in the Chaco, and then breaks into “Leise Reiselt der Schnee” (Softly Falls the Snow), to the accompaniment of the harp. This was a Christmas song the Russian Mennonites brought with them. For those who’d known snow, homesickness wound through the words, no doubt; for their children who had never seen snow except on pictures, there was mystery.

“Paraguay Primeval” was performed to a more-than-full-house at the Conrad Grebel College chapel. Composer Weaver was at the piano, Rebecca Campbell did the majority of the vocals, and Paul Dueck, Chris Snow, Kyle Skillman, and Ben Bolt-Martin accompanied with harp, percussion, and cello. (Here’s a KW Record report of the event.)

I don’t think that anything quite like this has been done to bring the story of the Chaco to English audiences, and I can only hope that it will land on a CD so that many others besides the March 4 audience can hear it.