About 120 former volunteers with MCC in Bolivia met for a reunion last weekend at Pinawa, Manitoba. MCC had come to Bolivia in the late 50s to work with German Mennonite families who had moved from Paraguay to the lowlands of Santa Cruz. Exposed to their neighbors, the MCC workers soon realized there were plenty of local people just as affected by poverty … lack of schools, health education, health services, agricultural development, access to water. So over more than 6 decades, a few hundred international and national workers have lived in rural and urban Bolivia, mostly in the lowlands around Santa Cruz city, but also down into the tropical forests from La Paz, and in a few places in what is called the Altiplano … the colder, dryer Bolivian highlands. Bolivia is a land of harshly different geographies. The highlands and the lowlands. In the middle there is also a more temperate area. In boldest strokes the people are either highlanders or lowlanders, with a lot of highlanders relocating to the tropical lowlands over the past 40 years. MCC has worked for many years with these re-settlers, but also with many others.
Orlando might correctly think of us foreigners, even with our best intentions, as colonizers, and I’m conscious of the fact that as guests, we are more likely to think of Bolivia as a place of wonderful, nostalgic memory than perhaps those who suffer and survive its challenges, year after year. But those same people were also the ones who welcomed us, continue to give us permission to live among them, to try things with them, to learn, often at their expense. Bolivians, in a way, invested more in us and our learning, than we possibly could have invested in them. They took risks with us. They were also the most hospitable neighbors.
Whatever they did or do think of us, and whatever the state of wealth or poverty in which they live, I don’t remember ever meeting a Bolivian who didn’t passionately love their country. When Bolivia qualified for World Cup Soccer Finals in 1994 it was the lead-up to the Finals that threw the entire country into hysterics. Everything pretty much shut down each time there was a game, and no matter where you were, you knew when Bolivia scored. The entire city of Santa Cruz, the entire country erupted at length … every goal, every game. It’s easy to broad-stroke a people, but Bolivians tend also to be passionate about their politics, the stunning beauty of their country, the sense of their history as a country exploited … by the interests of foreign powers, foreign churches, foreign cultures: a mixture of intense passion and, still, hospitality.
So what is it about a ‘Bolivia’ experience, that brings people, 1 or 50 years after their experience, back together from long distances to reminisce a little? I don’t know. Two volunteers who arrived soon after I did, back in 1973, were at the reunion. They had lived together in a rural community. One, a nurse, the other a teacher. In an email a couple of days ago one of them referred to their reunion last weekend as a first debriefing time … in their case, after 43 years. Maybe it’s just that; even after decades, a chance to talk to others of a similar experience. Just a refreshing of memory.
For sure. Those were for some of us, formative years. In the first decades, even the MCC leaders were in their 20s and 30s. We grew up a little in Bolivia, living in conditions that most of us could probably not have survived for more than a few years, though some stayed much longer. Many lived in mud huts with tin roofs. Sometimes thatched roofs. Most of us didn’t have running water nor fridges, unless we lived in town. We showered when we went to town every couple of weeks and in between it was a bucket at the end of the day, or a nearby stream. In our second and third terms, Kathy and I lived in Santa Cruz city. The memories there are different from the closer-to-the-earth experience of living in a village, but no less poignant. But mostly, it seems to me that what anyone, anywhere experiences in learning a different language, a different climate, a different sense of history, another way of seeing the world … in some way it rewires the soul a bit, and you cannot think about things in quite the same way. Immigrants and refugees must struggle with this upending of things around the world. We are ‘a part of all that we have met’, wrote Alfred Lloyd Tennyson. And he added, ‘yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades for ever and ever when I move.’ Maybe that line describes a part of the impact of the ‘Bolivia experience’ for us, and maybe it’s just life. Our roots become shallower. Our view of the world becomes less rigid.
Maybe what keeps an experience like ‘Bolivia’ so in our minds is the (mostly) healthy self doubt that creeps into one’s heart when learning to live among people who live so differently. The group of young men and women with whom I worked in my first term, in what we called a region of villages, (a kind of spread-out unit of MCC volunteers) were all learning how to live, to work with people in their world, not ours. That learning curve was steep and it created a pretty strong sense of community among us. Endless walking, dirt bikes, bicycles, horses and open trucks were all part of that experience … on roads and paths that, depending on the weather, were often barely passable. We thought a lot about how we – foreign aid workers – should live among and work with our neighbors, Bolivians who had welcomed us into their villages for a couple of years. They expected things from us that were sometimes not clear. Not to us. Maybe not always to them either. And there were the more incidental questions: should we have cement floors in our little houses if the neighbors didn’t? Should we build latrines if they didn’t? Was it ok to have little motorcycles if few or any of the others in the village had one? Were we allowed canned meat? Wrist watches? Sometimes we took ourselves too seriously, but the consciousness of being good neighbors was a good thing.
The day after the reunion, I had breakfast with another ‘old’ friend. He and I had shared a couple of years at the U of S, just before I left for Bolivia in 1973. We had met only once since those heady days as students when we still knew stuff. Near the end of a breakfast conversation in which we updated each other (45 years in maybe 90 minutes) W, who has been a church leader, farmer, businessman, victim of depression and survivor of two run-ins with cancer … said something like this. For the remainder of my days, I want to live ‘in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to man’. He doesn’t worry too much about having ‘the answers’ anymore, and there is a humility in his conversation that reminded me of conversations with people from the Bolivia experience whom we had met at Pinawa.
I looked up the poem. The House by the Side of the Road. S.W. Foss (1858 to 1911). Somewhere in high school, maybe, we must have read it and that line, as my friend quoted it, was familiar. Five verses. Near the end it goes like this: I know there are brook-gladdened meadows ahead And mountains of wearisome height; That the road passes on through the long afternoon, And stretches away to the night. But still I rejoice when the travellers rejoice, And weep with the strangers that moan Nor live in my house by the side of the road Like a man who dwells alone.
Let me live in my house by the side of the road Where the race of men go by – they are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong. Wise, foolish – so am I … Let me live in my house by the side of the road And be a friend … .
If we asked every person in the Pinawa reunion why they came, or what they most valued about the Bolivia experience, there would probably be as many responses. But I’m guessing the poem by S.W. Foss is hidden somewhere in all those memories.