During the 1950s, they came to Bolivia from Canada, Mexico or Belize where their lifestyle was being threatened. In Canada the young people weren’t taking the right path and then the government banned their education, forcing their children to attend public schools. So a group of them were invited by the Bolivian government who promised land and religious freedom. Nowadays, there are more than fifty thousand Mennonites, or Menonos, as they are called here, although the exact number is difficult to know as many of them are living unregistered or with foreign passports. They still live as their ancestors did in S.XVI Germany, isolated from the local community without cars, electricity or telephones.
There is no birth control and families are big, with an average of ten children per family. Some couples have nineteen children. They attend the local school from the age of six to twelve, and for only six months a year. With no formal teachers and without a real interest in being properly taught, they learn just the essentials needed to get by, as did their parents.They learn to read and write, a little maths and a little religion. After that, just farm work, as Gerardo Banman from the Belize colony proudly explains. Actually the education system is used as a way to perpetuate their lifestyle and as a way of preventing people from leaving. The language spoken here is an old German dialect, which makes the Menonos even more isolated as they can barely communicate with Bolivians.
Life here isn’t easy.
‘Evo doesn’t like us,’ they complain, referring to President Morales. And unfortunately for them, the government is now increasing environmental control that prevents them from cutting down the forest. Colonies are not sure how to deal with the growing ‘influence of the locals’, which means easier access to alcohol, music and cars. Some will eventually decide to leave the colony for a new and more isolated one, where the forest is yet to be cut down, leaving Bolivian towns tens of dusty kilometres away. But Mennonites will always be considered as a source of income for Bolivians and they know this. Sometimes, they have to go to the city but they don’t drive. They have no means of selling their cattle, so no matter where they settle down, taxi drivers will start driving around, cattle buyers will pass with their trucks, and just a while after a little shop will be placed right at the entrance to the colony. New countries in which to settle are difficult to find, and so is new land in Bolivia, so the feeling of ‘getting to the end’ of a period is strongly felt within the community.
(Jordi Ruiz Cirera | Menonos, PRIVATE 56, pages 76-81)