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Orlando Cavalcante, Keith Yoder, Michael Spee and Joel Krehbiel fill the biodigester. Cristina Farias Yoder

Orlando Cavalcante, Keith Yoder, Michael Spee and Joel Krehbiel fill the biodigester. Cristina Farias Yoder

Learning and working in Brazil

Cathryn Clinton
March 3, 2009

AKRON, Pa. – After graduating with a master's degree in mechanical science and engineering, Joel Krehbiel was considering serving in an international short-term teaching program or pursuing a doctorate. Instead, he signed up for an engineer position in Brazil with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) SALT program.

Krehbiel, of Moundridge, Kan., is one of 54 Canadian and U.S. young adults participating in one-year international assignments through SALT, which stands for Serving and Learning Together. Another 56 international young adults are serving in Canada and the U.S. through MCC's International Volunteer Exchange Program (IVEP), and nine young adults serve in YAMEN! (Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network), a joint effort of MCC and Mennonite World Conference.

Krehbiel's work focuses on biodigesters, a new alternative energy source project for MCC in Brazil. Krehbiel lives in Monteiro, in the northeast state of Paraiba. The increasing cost of propane has caused many people to return to firewood or charcoal for cooking purposes. This is an environmental problem because of the deforestation that results, and the household smoke causes illness in families.

A biodigester is a container that captures methane from organic material and pipes it to the kitchen to be used for cooking gas. Soon after he arrived in Monteiro, Krehbiel studied biodigesters and helped build one. He also demonstrated the use of it.

Two months later, Krehbiel visited Luzaneti Maria de Brito Silva and Serafim Santos da Silva, where his first biodigester work was done. It had taken some time for the gas to work, but they told him they had finally cooked with it and had enough for their needs. Luzaneti also said that she hadn't been coughing nor having problems with her eyes anymore.

"They were so happy to finally use this gas; there were almost tears in their eyes. This is the first biodigester that I've worked with to begin producing gas, so it's a feeling of relief and accomplishment," Krehbiel said.

Krehbiel said that learning about biodigesters and how to give that knowledge to others has been a difficult but rewarding process.

He said that he has received more than he's given because it is a joy to work with people who are so appreciative. One family insists on feeding him two meals even if he is only working there for a short period of time.

One appealing aspect of the Brazilian assignment was that Krehbiel thought it would stretch him, but the culture wouldn't be as different as other assignments.

It was a surprise, then, when he realized that planning for a given day required much more flexibility than he originally thought he would need. Krehbiel learned that there might be one more thing to pick up at the store, his intended destination was unreachable, his car could have a flat or listening to someone was more important than his schedule.

His time in Brazil has taught him to plan for uncertainties. He has a new approach for each day. It won't be a list of activities; instead, the day will be a process.

There have been other joys in Brazil. About Monteiro, Krehbiel wrote in his blog, "I haven't figured out how to describe the terrain here, but it is beautiful. It's as if God took a little bit of American southwest, a little bit of the Badlands of South Dakota, and a little bit of the tropics, put them in a large can, and played Yahtzee® with the contents. When he finished playing, he left the pieces where they were, and the land around Monteiro was formed."

To find out more about the SALT program go to