Gertrude Neufeld, 9, along with her mother, Sara, and brothers Heinrich, 4, and Franz, 11, extends a warm welcome to Hans Schroeder, a coordinator of the MCC Bolivia Low German Mennonite program, 2006-2010. MCC has programs in Bolivia, Mexico and Canada for the 250,000 descendants of the families that migrated to Mexico from Canada.
A day in the life of Heinrich and Sara Neufeld and their seven children, ages 14 months to 11 years old. The family lives in a closed, church-governed Mennonite colony in Bolivia that is committed to preserving educational systems, civic structures and religious traditions adopted by the founding members of the Reinlaender Mennoniten Gemeinde, also known as the Old Colony Mennonite Church, a church founded in Manitoba, Canada in the 1870s. To preserve these traditions, church leaders and about 6,000 people from their congregations left Manitoba and Saskatchewan for Mexico in the 1920s. This migration and subsequent moves in Central and South America have resulted in considerable hardships and poverty. MCC has been working with Low German Mennonite communities since the 1950s and has programs in Bolivia, Mexico and Canada.
It is milking time and Franz helps the family earn income through the sale of milk by bringing home the cows from the pasture. Franz plans to follow in the footsteps of his forefathers to complete seven years of formal education and pursue farming as his primary occupation.
“I like to make the horse go fast,” said Franz, as he prepares to demonstrate his horse-back riding skills through a fast gallop along the driveway leading to the family farm. Confident riding skills are needed to maintain the old ways and reject changes, such as motorized vehicles.
Denim overalls are mandatory apparel for boys and men in the Swift Current Colony. The colony was started in 1967 by families from the Swift Current Colony in Mexico. About 50,000 Low German Mennonites live in 63 colonies and communities in Bolivia. The first colony in Bolivia was established in 1953 by families from Paraguay.
Through an MCC-supported fruit tree project Heinrich and Sara Neufeld have planted 560 trees on their 53-hectare farm and plan to plant another 140 trees next year. “I want our children to be able to go into the orchard and eat as much as they want,” said Heinrich Neufeld. “When all the trees produce fruit and the fruit is ripe, it will be better than medicine.”
Franz looks after a mare and her foal as part of his responsibilities during the evening chores. He also takes care of pigs and chickens and collects eggs. One of his favorite pastimes is playing with his sling shot. He made his first sling shot when he was 5 years old. His favorite subject in school is mathematics. “I like math because I find it the easiest,” he said.
Fourteen-month-old twins Nella and Sara watch other family members do farm chores. In keeping with the teachings of the church, girls receive six years of formal education. Instruction is in German and the main study materials are Martin Luther's Bible in Gothic script, "Old Colony Gesangbuch" (hymnal), "Fibel" (primer or reader) and "Catechism" (basic church doctrines).
Heinrich Neufeld milks cows while his sons Heinrich, 4, and Ben, 8, wait in the horse-drawn buggy that will be used to take the cans of milk to the main road where they will be picked up later the same day. In addition to selling milk, Neufeld earns an income from custom baling.
Anna Fehr, a teenage niece, is the live-in "kitchen maid" for the Neufeld family and helps the family with farm and household chores. After completing six years of formal education, girls in Old Colony communities help their mothers or work for other families until they get married and start their own families.
Franz with his brothers, Ben and Heinrich, his mother, Sara, and sisters Sara and Nella and his father, Heinrich, pose for a photograph. MCC has been working with Low German Mennonite communities since the 1950s and works with church leaders to address major issues of literacy, healthy families, substance abuse, environmental concerns, conflict resolution and spiritual renewal.
Elma Schroeder, a coordinator of MCC’s Low German program in Bolivia, helps Sara Neufeld find a book in the lending library in Centro Menno, MCC's resource center in Santa Cruz. Other services include the sale of new books, Bibles and teaching resources, the distribution of MCC publications, documentation assistance, counseling and a place to rest and visit.
Surrounded by her children, Gertrude, Ben and Franz, Sara Neufeld reads stories from "Das Blatt für Kinder und Jugend," a monthly publication for children and youth supported by MCC Canada. “Reading is something that interests me,” said Sara Neufeld, explaining her parents had encouraged her to read and she is now passing on this legacy to her children.
To learn more about Low German Mennonites and how MCC works with these communities around the world visit mcccanada.ca/lowgerman.