By Miguel Fritz OMI

Fr. Miguel Fritz, OMI

This year marks 35 years since my first visit to the Nivaĉle indigenous community in Fischat, where I now live. I remember that on my first visit, and in fact, almost every year I used to spend a little time in this oldest mission of ours (Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate – going on 100 years!) – I did not know what I must do when visiting people in their cottages. However, gradually it came very naturally to me with each family I visited: “lhnam” (come on in). With this greeting, you are already integrated into the circle and you can sit down. More concise than the Paraguayan greeting, especially that of the peasants. Shaking hands, an exception granted to the “white” world, is already widespread because of so many years of contact. As is the custom of drinking tereré (a typical, popular drink in Paraguay). When it happened without including me, the next time I asked them to pass me the guampa (the typical cup that is used to drink tereré). The response I got was, “We are not used to white people sharing it with us.”

It has been a year and a half since I started living in Fischat this time. I tried to continue the good habit of my predecessor “José’i” (Fr. José FRISCH), who for 3 decades visited them, house to house. Now this pandemic has arrived, and with it the quarantine. During this period, we already had six deaths,none due to COVID-19, thank goodness! But each death causes pain and sadness. And the Nivaĉle show it very openly, especially at the time of burial. They are usually more reserved in expressing their emotions.

Furthermore, each death evokes gestures of solidarity. They usually bury their dead pretty quickly. Everyone immediately knows what to do:

  • Wrap the body with his/her bedsheet and bulge it with the mattress. Coffins are not normally used.
  • Gather his/her assets. Above all, the clothing of the deceased is buried with the body.
  • Dig the pit. Thesey are often the youngest, who are rewarded with cigarettes.
  • Do the prayers. Each neighborhood has its coordinator.
  • Call the “ele” (priest). A relative informs him of the scheduled time for the funeral.

It is usually inevitable that the Nivaĉle get together; even more so at burials, which take place, as soon as the young people have finished digging the grave.

I would try to explain that no more than 10 people should gather. Only once, I managed to do that. Ten of them arrived with the body in the van; but soon more people joined. Should I send them home? I don’t have the heart to do it. I am wearing my facemask. Only once did I get five others to bring one along with them. Most seem to still consider it as a new whim, a fashion, a business… Maintain social distance? But how?

In moments of mourning, the Nivaĉle show their compassion with hugs. And that’s how I used to do it as well. Now I refrain from shaking hands, let alone patting or hugging the closest relatives. But it hurts me. And the worst thing is, I sense how the people feel: “That’s how white people are: they reject us; they’re disgusted with us!” Or am I just imagining it?

Nivaĉle indigenous community | © Jacques Berset

It’s almost 100 years of our missionary presence here. Those were very different times. Looking back, we speak of “paternalism” – the missionaries felt responsible for “their children”. Or of “developmentalism”- a lot of effort given to material work, and to obtain “progress”. Today, the paradigms are rather about self-management and an indigenous church. We learn to know and appreciate language, culture and traditions; respect their own authorities; and share responsibilities. Always fighting to show our closeness, our love… And now – “social distance”! As much as possible avoid home visits; no shaking hands, no showing of compassion with physical gestures; sharing the tereré – don’t even think about it!

I feel so sad! How can we lose in a few weeks what we have built up for years? I feel very uncomfortable in the face of this social distancing. I know I must do it for protection – not mine, but of the people themselves. But what if they do not understand it, or do not interpret it that way?

“The Lord looks down from the heavens,
And sees all the human beings;
He shapes the hearts of each;
He considers all their works.” (Psalm 33:13, 15)