The power of story and song: between tradition and change

They couldn’t be prouder if they were high school graduates – these two little boys who’ve just spent their first afternoon in Kindergarten. Solemnly Fynn walks home with his bright orange security band, as if he was wearing a graduation gown. He seems aware that this heralds a new period in his life. And he’s ready for it!

Their teacher is from Germany, not Switzerland. That means she speaks what we call ‘high german’ here, the real German, the written one. We Swiss all speak our dialect, which varies depending on which region of the country we come from. It’s related to high German, but distinctively different. Good for the kids is that they will have a head start in Grade one – high German is the official school language. It probably works better too, for the children of migrants, and judging from the parents that came out of the Kindergarten while I waited for the twins; there are a number of those. Migrants tend to speak high German, not dialect.

Standing beside "Ueli und Änneli", from the very Swiss story of "Ueli der Knecht", from Jeremias Gotthelf. Perserving tradition, embracing change...

Standing beside “Ueli und Änneli”, from the very Swiss story of “Ueli der Knecht”, from Jeremias Gotthelf. Perserving tradition, embracing change…

Kindergarten though, is usually where kids learn the Swiss songs – old ones, new ones. They hear stories in Swiss dialect. Songs and stories define culture. Many, including the mother of the twins, are concerned that the kids are losing part of their culture when they have foreign teachers, especially when they are young. It’s not that their mom isn’t open to other cultures – she has a very open mind, in my opinion. But she also knows the value of preserving culture.

It’s a bit of a dilemma, isn’t it. While migrant workers (in this case the German teacher) broaden the horizons of a country, bringing in new ideas and ways, they will also in time affect the culture of a country. That doesn’t have to be bad. But our traditions are still dear to us – just as they are to the first nations of Canada, or any other peoples.

Switzerland is quite heavily dependent on migrant workers, especially skilled ones, to fill jobs. Like this kindergarten teacher. We’re becoming more and more multicultural. What will that mean to our traditions? One thing is sure: there’s nothing more sure than change. And no country is immune to change.

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In the span of a lifetime: by hand, mechanization, then digitalization

dad bindering

What struck me when Markus was reading his father’s eulogy was the tremendous change that Hans Stamm experienced in his lifetime. Hans wrote his own eulogy. Born in 1928 as a peasant farmer’s son, he remembered when wheat was harvested with a scythe, picked up and bundled – all by hand. He told of the progression to a mower, then the binder, and now the most modern of threshing machines. Wheat was mowed with a scythe thousands of years ago already. There had been some change, some mechanization but it was slow up until his lifetime. In the count of time of man, some millions of years, they tell us, what is the span of a man’s life? Yet in the span of Hans’ life, our world changed drastically. It’s hard to grasp really.

Hans’ generation saw immense progress in mechanization, and then in their senior years the coming of the digital age.Rural farm folks of his generation come from strong traditional roots put down by generations of doing things the same way. My father-in-law used to say to my husband: “Things were never done like that before!” That meant: you don’t do it that way, it was never done like that. Hearing Markus read Hans’ words, I understood a little better what it is/was like for that generation to see their children and grandchildren make changes on the farm and in their lives that seemed inconceivable a short time ago. It was a break with the norm, with expectations. That always is cause for conflict. (Both Hans and my father-in-law were very forward thinking men though, and generally supported their sons in change.)

I think of the small farmers we worked with in Zambia, and how we were sometimes frustrated in the resistance to change we saw there. Zambian farmers are even more deeply steeped in tradition than the older Swiss farmer with far less exposure to other ideas. No one changes easily. Why should we expect it of them?

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Laughter really is the best medicine!

"You'll always laugh with Juliet," says Vivienne. She's right.

“You’ll always laugh with Juliet,” says Vivienne. She’s right.

A Zambian, two Swiss and two Canadians wrote me to tell me what they do to keep laughter and joy in their days as farmwomen. I’d asked for their input for an article for the local Swiss farm paper. Since then I often think of their responses. Each had a bit of a different take. I’m going to write an article for the ‘Grainews’, a Canadian Farm paper too, so I don’t want to get into too much of what the women wrote.

I have laughed with all of them. Vivienne, a small farmer and former secretary to the director of a larger organisation, doesn’t always lead an easy life. Being a single mom of six and providing food and education has given her many challenges. When I feel depressed I often think of what she said at the end of a difficult day: “I go to a friend; we drink a cup of tea and laugh. What else are you going to do!” I think I’ve laughed more with her than with most other people I know.

My sister Helen, whose husband’s family ranch and their home were seriously threatened in recent wild fires in northeastern British Columbia, Canada, is someone I always think of as laughing. She too, often has her struggles, not easy ones either. But she mostly manages to keep her sense of humour. She says that often she finds the absurd in a story while retelling it, and then has to laugh at it. With the fires raging around them, and on evacuation order, they sat together with neighbours in the same situation (their cows are all calving, so they didn’t want to leave the mothers and babies alone). Stories were told, coffee drank and laughter shared. Shared laughter makes a difficult situation easier.

Mothers tell of how their little children make them laugh, or a little puppy. My grandsons are great for making me laugh. They have such unique thoughts and ideas. “Grandma, you and Granddad should have a little girl too.” You really think so, Janosh??! I try to tell him I’m too old, he doesn’t agree. Good kid. I’m not old after all. Surrounding oneself with happy people is one way of letting it rub off on you.

My Swiss friends tell of cultivating a thankful heart, of looking for the little joys in every day. A neighbour waving as she drives/walks past. A cup of coffee shared with a friend. A flower just opened in the garden as you walk by.

Life is rough. Our newspapers are full of it, our days can be too. But my friends are proof that no matter how tough life gets, there still can be something to make you smile. But you have to look for it. Some of us are better at that than others. We can learn from each other.

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Mein Weisser Frieden – Does history repeat itself?

What makes normally good people turn against their neighbours? How can civil war happen? Marica Bodrozic seeks answers.

What makes normally good people turn against their neighbours? How can civil war happen? Marica Bodrozic seeks answers.

We were too busy packing and readying for our move from Switzerland to Canada during the second half of 1991 to take too much notice of what was happening in former Yugoslavia. I do remember the hoards of people sitting around the airport among heaps of luggage, the day we left, December 28, 1991. Yugoslavians, that were trying to get back home, facing cancelled flights and closed airports because of escalating civil war.

Last night our local Swiss library had the privilege of hosting Marica Bodrozic, a German/Croatian, who read from her new book Mein Weisser Frieden (my white peace). Bodrozic moved with her family from Croatia to Germany eight years before the civil war broke out in her native country. Many of her family members – people she loved – went to war, killing and being killed. Mein Weisser Frieden is an attempt to make sense of how a war with such atrocities could happen, what makes normal people turn into hate mongers and killers. What made her reading so powerful was the intimate relationship with the words, the emotions and the people of her pages.
Neighbours that used to live peacefully side by side turned against each other, destroying each other’s homes. The massacres. The hate rhetoric she herself lives with, even now, since the publication of her book. She is seen as a traitor to her own people by even considering the other side’s story. While she read I often thought of Ruanda. I realized I had put Africa in its own category. That the same thing happened so close, in Europe…but then, didn’t it happen even closer, right across the Swiss/German border which is just two miles away, during the Second World War? The whole issue is very current, with all that is happening today. The refugees fleeing into our countries. The rise of right-wing parties like the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland/Alternative for Germany) in Germany – Bodrozic told of one AfD party leader openly stating to the media that the refugees eat German children!

Listening to her read, I wonder – if I was in that situation, would I have the strength to go against the power of the masses? Especially if my life or that of my family was in the balance? Bodrozic tells us stories of people that did. Stories of hope. That not all is lost. But I still wonder, if history doesn’t just keep repeating itself, over and over. ..

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Why is she taking her clothes off????

A friend of mine was a matron on the dementia ward of a senior’s home. One day she was designated a new client; the woman was disturbing the clients on the ward she was on before. She had a habit of taking her clothes off. A regular procedure with such a case was to prescribe drugs that would sedate the client so she would be more subdued. My friend tried to stay away from using such drugs as much as possible. Instead she asked herself, “Why is this woman taking her clothes off?” She even prayed about it. The thought came to her, “Maybe it’s the soap we’re using?”

“We’re going to try an experiment,” she told her staff. She instructed them to wash all of the woman’s laundry, including her bedding, with baby laundry soap. It didn’t take long, and the woman was keeping her clothes on. It was that simple.

Maybe the next time we see someone doing something strange in our eyes, we would do well to ask ourselves, “Why is this person doing this?” It might not hurt to even pray about it. Maybe it’s “that simple”.
If you have a story on this subject, I would love to hear it. I would be happy to post it for you!

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White cross, black cross – and both had a mother…

White crosses of the victors at Omaha beach; across the road are the dark ones.

White crosses of the victors at Omaha beach; across the road are the dark ones.

All we wanted was to ask directions to the hiking trail. Instead, Jean-Charles filled our heads with intimate stories of his family and village during the Second World War. The Alsace side of the story is rarely properly told, he said. Located in the Northeast of France, right next to Switzerland and southern Germany, the Alsace was sometimes French, sometimes German depending on the time and the wars being played out. Many of its inhabitants, especially the older generation, still speak German besides French. Alsace was French at the beginning of the Second World War. After the occupation of the Germans, the inhabitants were drafted by force into the Germany army. Jean-Charle’s father, gone from 1942 to 1945, was one of the lucky ones to survive. Wounded twice, he told his son of how they would strew salt into their wounds to keep them from healing. Every day off the battlefield was another day alive. Others weren’t so lucky. A neighbour woman’s two sons were drafted at 20 years each, both perished in the war, as did her husband, drafted at the end when ever older men were pulled in, in a last ditch attempt to win the war. Jean-Charles never saw her smile again.

Jean-Charles’ father came home wearing the German uniform and was seen as a traitor. It wasn’t as if he’d had a choice, his son told us defensively. None of the Alsace residents did. It wasn’t their fault they had a German background. They knew that if they didn’t go, or if they disserted, their families would be sent to the German concentration camps.

Ottrot nestles at the edge of the Vogesen, the Alpine Foothills. Not far away, hidden somewhere in those hills was the only Nazi concentration camp on French soil, the Natzweiler Struthof. The internees were forced to work in the stone quarry. They would be transported through the village in open wagons; the villagers threw them loaves of bread. Their supervisor shouted at the villagers – these weren’t just political prisoners, there were very dangerous criminals among them! But he didn’t stop the villagers. I’ve visited the concentration camp. We drove the long winding road back to town without saying a word. Jean-Paul told us his father took him there when all the barracks were still standing; it still had the smell of death.

I told Jean Charles that I’d visited Normandy last summer. “Did you see all those white crosses at Omaha Beach, from the Americans?” he asked. He’d been there too, visited the American cemetery, stretching over acres, rows and rows of white crosses, all young men in their early twenties. “Did you see the German cemetery across the road?” he asked. Although twice as many soldiers are buried there as in the American cemetery, the few crosses there were dark, the gravesites marked with a flat grey stone. Often two soldiers share a grave, with a simple grey monument in the middle of the cemetery. He felt it wasn’t right, really. This discrimination between the victors and the defeated. “Both had mothers, both were fighting because they had to.” Jean-Charles would like this blog post I found:

We left Jean-Charles and stopped in at the village church. How many mothers knelt at that altar and pleaded with God for their sons and husbands? Mothers in the Alsace, in Germany, in America and Canada; mothers all over the world. Jean-Charles told us his generation (born 1953) was the first ever that didn’t know a war. Before that, mothers raised sons to give them to war, he said bitterly. Lots of mothers still do. (This week some mother’s children were sacrificed to terrorism again.)
Jean-Charles’ stories fit well with the Good Friday theme of Easter – Christ’s death on the cross for humanity. Christ’s resurrection celebrates new life, as does the Easter Fest of Ottrott , its fountains decorated with daffodils and Easter rabbits. Death and life; the dark and the light.

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Stories to challenge, Stories to understand – answer to Blog challenge: write a manifesto

An older brother shares his childhood memories with his sister, helping her understand her past.

An older brother shares his childhood memories with his sister, helping her understand her past.

Juliet works hard to make her handicapped son Mapalo more independent. “Not long ago, she says, she was trying to teach him to feed himself with a spoon. Mapalo put his hands behind his back. Juliet got angry, shouted at him that she wasn’t going to feed him all his life. She was so upset she even slapped him. She shudders as she tells me this. “Oh Marianne,” she says, her face crumbling. She realized then that he had wanted water, and she had misunderstood him. “It’s hard to know what he wants.” “ (Excerpt from “Laughter in the Shadows – stories of courage from 11 Zambian women”)

This is one story of imposing our understanding of the world on another, and falling far short. Why do people do what they do? Why do we do what we do? This blog is an attempt to explore these questions with stories. Stories about farmers, Europeans, the elderly, the people around us. Stories about the Zambians and their country which I had the privilege of getting to know while working and consulting with small scale farmers. Stories to foster understanding between people.

I grew up in the sixties and seventies as an immigrant child of conservative Swiss pioneer farmers in northwestern Canada. I know firsthand that deep seated world views and traditions resist change. What motivates my African friends’ actions? What motivates mine? What makes mothers force their own daughters into female circumcision? What enables one child to rise above poverty or abuse to greatness and another to succumb to misery? How much does culture and family origins form a person’s world view? Would I be different if I’d been raised in a doctor’s household, or in a family on welfare?

My time in Zambia and the struggles of physically and mentally challenged family members especially has challenged my own thinking. Life can be worth living for a Grandmother in a wheelchair, without speech. People on social programs are there because they don’t have the outer or inner resources to manage in the working world. The African small farmer isn’t trying to be stubborn or lazy when he/she doesn’t adopt the new cultivation practises that would enable better food production and better soil management. It often has to do with family and health problems, with deep seated traditions. It takes time, often much time, and trust to begin to understand.

I believe strongly that by learning to understand each other, where the other comes from, we can greatly contribute to a more harmonious environment. To understand means to listen to each other’s story. Can the Canadian farmer who grows GMO crops listen to a European consumer who refuses to purchase them? Can the reserved Swiss listen to their dramatic loud Baltic neighbour? The rich with a doctorate to the poor uneducated? The seemly whole to the seemingly handicapped? The young to the old? And vice versa?

As a free-lance agriculture journalist and author of two books, “Greetings from Zambia – letters home from an overseas Volunteer” and “Laughter in the Shadows – stories of courage from 11 Zambian women”, I tell stories. My hope is that we can begin to lose our fear of ‘the other’. We can begin to make the world around us a better place.

I’d like this blog to be a place to share stories. Do you have a story to share? Please, I’d love to hear it.

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Views from an Injured Brain

This story is a testimony of what a brain can still accomplish when others tell you you’re brain injured, you can’t do that anymore…. the brain is a wonderful thing. But it takes a pile of self-esteem, which is often lost along with a brain injury…

Nick Verron


I talk predominantly about issues I’ve experienced. Although my situation is very unique, I have come to realise that the resulting issues I’ve faced are shared by many. I would very much like to hear if others have experienced similar ones.

It’s scientifically argued that You are defined by the composition of your brain. It’s therefore justified to feel that when you’ve had a brain injury resulting in parts of your brain not functioning  properly, or at all, that the injury is to who you are. Basically, a brain injury makes You feel lesser.

A little clarification after a brain injury would go a long way in  limiting this destructive thought process. What defines who You are is your mind, which is a product of the early structure of your brain. Once formed though, it isn’t fixed. As we use a very small percentage of our brains, our minds can utilise spare brain…

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Perseverance pays for Zambian village woman who graduates from Grade 12

My Zambian friend Loveness just received her Grade 12 diploma. Now she's ready for greater things.

My Zambian friend Loveness just received her Grade 12 diploma. Now she’s ready for greater things.

She’d thought she was dull, Loveness told me, because she hadn’t passed her Grade nine exams. That was the end of her formal schooling. She married a farmer, and ended up living in a Zambian village. It wasn’t until her mid thirties that she realized she wasn’t dull. She just had a different rhythm. She thought best at night, when everyone else was sleeping. Lucky for her, her husband was a forward thinking man and supported her going back to school. By this time she had six children and half of them were in high school themselves. Her courses were mostly by distance education and some class time in the nearby town. Sometimes she employed a private tutor. When I talked to her in 2011, Loveness was jubilant. She’d passed her first two Grade ten courses. Her eyes were set on her Grade 12 diploma; then nursing school.

My husband and I stayed in Loveness’ home for some days almost every year. Every time we visited, she was working on new courses, usually two or three at a time. Her self-confidence grew as she passed them. She started driving lessons and passed. Her husband purchased a car for her. Computer lessons were next. Just recently I received a friend request from her on Facebook. When I post her a note, she answers. She’s become a leader in women’s groups. This week her husband told me she’s graduated from Grade 12 with flying colours. I am so very proud of Loveness. So is her husband. He believes that I was a key person in encouraging Loveness. I believe he was the key person. Not every man, even in our western world, will stand behind his wife when she decides to carve out a life for herself. In the rural Zambian setting it is rare indeed. Now Loveness is determined to go to college. They’re looking for a good school for business administration. They’re building a workshop together. She wants to manage the business with her husband.

Her last-born, as they say in Zambia, her daughter, is writing her Grade 12 exams this year. “You can’t fail,” her mother challenges her. “If I can pass my exams with flying colours, you who are able to go to class every day, should do better.”

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Remarkable life lessons from my speed skating

Short Track Champion Grandma!

Short Track Champion Grandma!

After Short Track (speed skating) training on Saturday afternoons I generally stop by to visit little Emma, our now month-old granddaughter. Her four-year-old twin brothers are still young enough to be impressed by my skating outfit, especially my club jacket. When we talk about my skating, their question is always: “Did you win, Grandma?”

Last Saturday I tossed their comment into the locker room conversation. “You definitely win in your age category!” laughed one of the older skaters. “You always win in the Grandma category!” said another. Angelika, our trainer, said: “You win against yourself.” At the time I thought the comments were nice ways of glossing over the fact that I am generally one of the slowest in our club. It’s true I am the oldest woman by quite a stretch (we have a couple guys over 50 that have been on the team for some years). I am the only Grandma. Considering that I only joined the club one year ago, the comments were all valid. Winning is relative. Christian’s speed and strength easily make him the real winner of our club. Michi is next in speed. His four-year-old son Ben skates with us too. Ruefully he tells us that Ben’s goal to be faster than Christian. A person has to have something to aim towards! I aim to at least stay as fast as Andre, or beat him once in awhile. It’s becoming harder as he trains more intensively. Like Ben though, I need someone faster than myself to spur me on to improvement. Every time I get a little better, I win again, against myself.

On Wednesday I stopped at the twins before training again. “Are you going to win?” They asked me.
“Of course I’ll win!” I told the boys. “I always win in the Grandma category!” They gave me high fives and laughed, proud of their winning grandma.
And you know what? I really did win the race in my group of four! I was so proud, and sure it was the faith of the twins that gave that extra boost. These lessons in winning, and of continually reaching higher, apply to every other aspect of life, by the way…

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