VILLA NUEVA, Bolivia – Now on the other side of 70, Maria Rempel and Walter Martens have traveled far and wide since they first met in the former Soviet Union.
Now residing in Villa Nueva, one of the Mennonite communities in the eastern Bolivian region of Santa Cruz, they now must cope with the new reality of the pandemic and with recommended mitigation measures that run counter to their community’s way of life.
The German-speaking couple recalled during an interview with EFE having fled repression in 1974 and living in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan before arriving in Germany in 1987.
They later fulfilled a dream by setting up a dairy farm in Paraguay in 2003 and finally moved to Bolivia for reasons of family, a key pillar of the Mennonite communities.
Walter spent two years in prison due to his refusal to join the Soviet army, while Maria was jailed for nearly 18 months for teaching catechism classes, an act of religious persecution that triggered their exodus from the Siberian region of Sakha.
Eleven years ago, they moved to be near one of their children who is disabled and settled down in Bolivia, where they traded their cows for laying hens and began raising them in a small farm adjacent to their new home.
They say they are happy in the Andean nation even though they now must cope with a new challenge: the coronavirus pandemic.
Walter has his own theory about COVID-19 and says he believes two different viruses have spread globally: one that was discovered in China and another that was caused by “an explosion” in Russia.
Serving as interpreter during the interview was another of the couple’s nine children, Dr. Erwin Martens, who is experiencing first-hand the fight against the coronavirus at a clinic in Villa Nueva.
Aged 43 and the father of 14 children, Martens told EFE that the disease caught people by surprise in the municipality of Pailon, where the community is located.
That clinic’s 40 beds soon filled up once people became infected, some of them seriously, and there were also several deaths attributed to COVID-19.
The lack of information also was a problem for many Mennonites.
“Since most people don’t have television and don’t have much contact with the outside world, it’s difficult to understand why you have to use a mask,” Martens recalled. “Mennonites also live in large families and it’s difficult to keep one person isolated.”
He smiled when he recalled that his father survived a bout with COVID-19 without any complications, noting that at first, he resorted to homemade concoctions consisting of wine, eucalyptus leaves and lemon, but later was treated with medicine at the clinic and recovered.
Among the Mennonite communities in Bolivia, there are a variety of lifestyles. Some use cellphones, cars and motorized tractors, while others do not watch television, depend on windmills to generate electricity, do not use rubber wheels and travel in horse-drawn carts.
Although they also are Anabaptists (those who believe baptism must be a conscious decision by an adult), they are distinct from the Amish, who are known for shunning certain modern technologies.
A Christian group whose origins date back to the 16th-century Protestant Reformation in Europe and that takes its name from the influential Anabaptist religious leader Menno Simons, the Mennonites’ main foothold in the Americas was established in Canada in the late 19th century.
Today, the majority of the world’s nearly 1.5 million Mennonites live in the Americas, including around 60,000 in Bolivia.
Olga Dorn, a 40-year-old mother of 14 children between the ages of 21 and two months, also was born in the former Soviet Union and traveled to Germany before arriving in the Americas.
She is among those who use electricity, both at home and at her bakery, where she bakes bread in the pre-dawn hours and works until the evening preparing meals.
The prosperous Mennonite farms where people cultivate soy and raise cattle are seen as an example of hard work and a model for the development of the Bolivian countryside.
But they have not been spared by the pandemic.
The economy suffered amid a five-month quarantine, including periods in which strict stay-at-home orders were in place. With people unable to leave their homes and earn a living, Dorn at one point had to donate bread to communities that could no longer afford to buy it.
Middle-aged Mennonite farmer William Gisbrecht, for his part, recalled that when he traveled to the city, he discovered that many more people were using masks than in the countryside.
How do you combat “a virus that’s moving all over the world?” he pondered while leaning against the large bales of hay he had just stacked in a trailer.