Tones and Overtones

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Wiest, Bill and Thelma, Eds. Tones and Overtones: Paraguay and Brazil, April 2000. Printed by Reed College Printing Services, Portland, OR. 2000.

June 21, 2008

In April of 2000, a choir called Sixteen Singing Men plus a director, their wives, and several support persons toured Paraguay and several places in Brazil. They were Mennonites from three US states and three Canadian provinces, all of whom had connections with Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas. They met, some for the first time, in Miami, Florida, rehearsed for a few days, then set off for Asuncion in Paraguay. It was a two-week journey during which they absorbed the culture,  sang in many churches, and enjoyed the hospitality of fellow Christians.

An essay by Clarence Hiebert, “The ‘Types’ of Mennonites in Paraguay,” outlines how the vigorous Mennonite community came to be.The first Mennonites moved to Paraguay from Canada (a small percentage came from Mexico) in the 1920s when members of an Old Colony group sought to escape government-mandated education and modernizing cultures. They settled in a forbidding area called the Chaco. It was dry and dusty, filled with inedible vegetation, and lightly populated by poor communities of indigenous people. When the communist system took hold in the Soviet Union, refugees from that abusive system joined them. Yet another group of conservative, separatist Mennonites came to Paraguay from the United States in 1967-8. The figures are about 25 years old, but they say about 30,000 “Germanic-identified” Mennonites live in Paraguay today. As Germans from Russia have done everywhere, they retained their language, religion, food, and folkways, but they also learned the local language (Spanish) and adapted in ways the local people had found useful.

Just learning to farm the land was difficult, but they determined to create a real community and lift the local people with them. This reviewer was astonished to learn of the variety of businesses, institutions and enterprises that have been established under the Mennonite imprimatur. Always they have included Paraguayans as well as descendants of the immigrant groups. Here is an incomplete list, but it will give the reader an idea of the scope:

-Mennoheim (a welcoming center and hotel for newly arrived persons in Asuncion)
-Mennonite Brethren Conference Center
-The Trans-Chaco Highway, a 280-mile highway from the capitol city to the Chaco. Several organizations (some volunteers) and governments, including the US, contributed to its construction, which was especially difficult because of the lack of gravel.
-ABRIGO, “ a Mennonite initiated and supported home for Ascuncion’s street children.”
-A radio station
-Numerous churches, some simple, some architecturally sophisticated.
-A hospital and training programs for medical personnel
-ASCIM, a formal agency that coordinates Indian-related activities
-Schools for children at all levels, open to to Paraguayans as well as Mennonites
-A museum
-An electric power plant
-A wheat processing plant
-A milk cooperative that produces a range of dairy products
-Leadership in agriculture
-Arrangements for international trade

This book, more assembled than written by the editors and other participants in the trip, was put together shortly after they came home. There are plenty of  colored pictures of people and the places they saw and the venues in which they presented their concerts. After leaving Paraguay, they stopped several times in Brazil.

Related materials:</bold> This reviewer has a print of the musical CD titled “16 Singing Mennonite Men: Live in South America, April 2000.” It features wonderful, harmonic singing by the men and one or two selections by their wives. The 24 selections include titles such as “Thou Art Worthy,” “Lord, Listen to Your children Praying,” “Ich Weiss Einem Strom,” “Soon and Very Soon,” and “So Nimm Denn Meine Hande.” There is one in  Spanish, “Alabare.” They had a very capable conductor, Jonah Kliewer and an accompanist, Jim Pauls, who made the piano dance. There is a brief announcement in the old dialect German.

Readers interested in the pioneering period of the Mennonite settlement of the Chaco in Paraguay may want to read the novel <italic>Under the Still Standing Sun </italic>by Dora Dueck (Kindred Press, Hillsboro, Kansas 67063. 1989.). I found it one of the most moving historical novels I had ever read about the German Russian experience. The bruised boatload of refugees who came from the lush

Ukraine often wondered why they had not stayed and suffered whatever Stalin had to dish out. The Chaco area in Paraguay was as physically hostile a place as any they could imagine, but nobody else in the world would take them. They had to teach themselves to farm from scratch in an environment clearly not meant to be farmed. It was hard for them to keep their principles in mind as they went through the process. And yes, from the beginning, they reached out to the poor and desperate indigenous people who happened to be their neighbors.


Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller