A journey through the colonies
Near the end of Menno Moto: A Journey across the Americas in Search of My Mennonite Identity, Cameron Dueck finds himself sitting on a backless bench in an austere church in rural Argentina, the air torpid and heavy. A preacher plods through his sermon in High German, while the song leaders nap behind him. Having spent a cosmopolitan life outside of the religion, Dueck admits that some services still make him nostalgic for the faith of his childhood. (Now a journalist living in Hong Kong , he grew up on a remote turkey farm north of Winnipeg.) But here, on the edge of Patagonia, he feels “like an outsider”— though an outsider who knows “the secret of our shared history.”
It’s this history, with its genetic and cultural layers, that Dueck is searching for. Over the eight months he spends on the road, the freedom of his motorcycle and his ability to speak Plautdietsch, the Low German dialect, allow him to move fluidly through various colonies. As he travels south across the United States, Mexico, and Belize, en route to Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina, he profiles his host families, weaving each community’s specific separatist story into the larger tapestry of Anabaptist and Russian Mennonite histories. It’s an immensely accessible account of a confusing religious and ethnic diaspora marked by a central paradox: centuries-long familial and communal ties set alongside an ingrained tradition of dissent, out-migration, and isolation.
Menno Moto refuses to serve up a “pure” nostalgia product, thank God. Instead, it delivers historical nuance, explores minute but important group differences, and — quite often — presents an explicit insider/outsider critique.
Though billed as a personal journey and travelogue, Dueck’s account, with its photographic documentation, reads more like an ethnography. The book “escapes the net of identity”— to borrow Magdalene Redekop’s phrasing from her recent work, Making Believe: Questions about Mennonites and Art.
Near the beginning , we venture across 120,000 hectares of commonwealth land in the state of Chihuahua. We witness the water wars — dam destructions by neighbouring Indigenous people and rival Mexican farmers known as barzonistas — sparked by the Mennonites’ industrial-scale irrigation systems, which are sucking hard at the water table. We encounter a man living in fear of his past following his release from a U.S. prison for drug smuggling. In Belize, Dueck affords us a back-row view of a male stockholders’ vote on a 12,000-hectare purchase of “virgin” forest. We meet two finely drawn brothers, Klaas and Walter, living in neighbouring colonies but divided by differences over wealth and worldliness. At the book’s tender centre, we sit on a veranda with Dueck and a family friend from Manitoba, now living in Blue Creek, who is racked with grief over the recent loss of his son.
Throughout Menno Moto, Dueck’s travels are marked by a cyclical experience of the foreign and the familiar. “I grew lonely on the road,” he recounts midway through the book. “I went from hidden campsites in ravines and using a foreign language to order meals at roadside food stalls, to sleeping on clean sheets that smelled like those in my grandmother’s guest room, sitting around tables sharing dishes I’d known since childhood, and discussing our community in a language that I’d heard since birth. And then I’d return to the road, alone again. The contrasts were dizzying.”
Time, too, undergoes a strange distortion within the orbit of these colonies. Past and present coexist in the continued adherence to the Christian feudal order of sixteenth-century Europe; the amalgam of nineteenth- and twentieth-century agricultural practices; and the up plietch (“secretive”) use of forbidden technologies, such as radios and cellphones, often secured through day labourers from outside who work on the farms.
Dueck’s mapping of this kind of time warp is a consistent “accent” that Redekop hears in the work of artists of Mennonite descent. Her focus in Making Believe is on the “Mennonite phenomenon”— the incredible flowering of literature, music, and visual art that began in the 1980s and ’90s among descendants of Russian settlers who had put down roots in Manitoba. She argues that this art repeatedly stages a crisis of representation as old as the Protestant Reformation and, crucially, that it is never made in isolation. Rather, it emerges from cultural dialogue across multiple, overlapping communities.
Redekop’s analysis tracks best in Menno Moto through Dueck’s use of Plautdietsch. These italicized morsels of language — defined at first mention and then embedded into the narrative flow — offer insight into and intimacy with the way of life within these colonies, while also distancing us by the very act of translation. The repeated use of weltmensch (“outsider”) by Dueck and the speakers he profiles heightens the sense of division. Here, the Low German becomes, in Redekop’s terms, “a pressure that works from the inside of a literary text outward to the printed English surface.”
Differing opinions on who’s in and who’s out — of the faith, the culture, even Heaven itself — continuously trouble the narrative’s representation of the larger Mennonite community. In Bolivia, where Dueck arrives amid the ongoing fallout of the “Ghost Rapes,” this disorientation comes not so much from the edges as from deep within.
Between 2005 and 2009, over a hundred girls and women of Manitoba Colony, northeast of the city of Santa Cruz, woke up bleeding and in pain, their entire households groggy as though drugged. Whispers grew into a quiet collective terror. Some blamed the Devil. People began to suspect that scopolamine, an animal anesthetic sometimes used in robberies by the FARC in Colombia, was being sprayed through bedroom windows. After one of the attackers was caught, a vigilante group from the community forced him to talk and then began rounding up others. One man, Frank Klassen, was lynched after refusing to confess. When the colony’s leaders handed the men over to the Bolivian police and the bribery-greased court system, the crisis made international headlines.
These horrendous crimes serve as the backdrop of Miriam Toews’s Women Talking , which imagines a secret gathering where the women debate whether to stay and be forced to forgive (and thereby sin by lying) or to leave their husbands and sons (and thereby break their vows). Since they can’t read or write, the women ask the schoolteacher, August Epp, a gentle man effeminized by his lack of interest in farm work, to take the minutes of the meeting.
Dueck can seem an Epp-like figure: a non-fiction narrator amid the convoluted aftermath of these crimes. He interviews a Canadian missionary couple who have counselled some of the rape victims. He travels to the Palmasola Prison to speak with the eight incarcerated men, all of whom proclaim their innocence. He sits with the “widowed” wife of one of them — a Canadian passport holder, it turns out — who is defiant of the church leaders and indignant at their abandonment of her family and children. Finally, he talks with two of the elders, one of whom served as the official translator at the trials. From his interviews, he gathers that sexual violence is ongoing and that many outside observers suspect that the court cases were a cover to distract from more widespread incest. (Toews, tellingly, stores the canister of “magic spray” in the bishop’s barn.)
Both Dueck and the fictional Epp are born into the culture but return from the outside. Each works to record in English the subtle nuances of shame, anger, confusion, and betrayal expressed to them in Plautdietsch. They are earnest in their pursuit of the truth, yet they are unreliable narrators due to their own stakes in the accounts they write. Reviewing Women Talking in these pages, in September 2018, Madeleine Thien called attention to “the transcription-translation-narration filter that occurs via Epp.” What we encounter in the imaginative space of Toews’s novel and in the narrative space of Dueck’s book is the limits of written language. The representation tries even as it fails. While Epp (spoiler alert) gets left behind, Dueck speeds away in disgust.
More trouble awaits at the boundaries of these complicated communities as Dueck travels deeper and deeper into South America. Noting that there are only small missionary outposts (no sprawling colonies) throughout Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, he explains that Mennonites have often moved “to remote, underdeveloped countries with fledgling or weak national governments” where “the indigenous population has little voice and their land is easily expropriated.”
The various government privilegia granted officially, or unofficially, to Mennonite families have long offered “autonomy in exchange for badly needed agricultural production”— whether it be on Russia’s steppe, far out on the Canadian prairies in the 1870s, or in the heart of Gran Chaco, the “Green Hell” of Paraguay, in the 1920s. These groups have spent 450 years “trying to escape from the world,” observes the novelist Armin Wiebe. “But now there is no place left to escape to.”
This repetitious cycle of dispossession and occupation yields another central paradox of this wandering people: though ostensibly pacifist and apolitical, agrarian religious communities often function as a vanguard for state claims to land. Even the most conservative sects, despite steel wheels and an aversion to electricity as a means of focusing strictly on God and family, still end up as strange agents of capitalist modernization and neo-colonial expansion.
Dueck runs smack into this fact in the Chaco, where two thousand Mennonites, disillusioned with Canada, arrived in 1920 to settle a new Promised Land. Though the colony was isolationist — and starving — at its inception, the violent Chaco War with Bolivia in the 1930s cracked open the settlement. They began trading food and water to the Paraguayan military and in the process helped to secure two-thirds of the disputed land.
Mud-battered and sore, Dueck turns off the long jungle road to find that the century-old Menno Colony “felt more like a town striving to match the rest of the world than one hiding from progress and integration.” Whereas in Belize the austere colony of Lower Barton Creek had tried to avoid possessing a bank account by burying its wealth in a hole (only to have it stolen), this cooperative in the Chaco posts revenues of $750 million (U.S.) per year. Its new cattle abattoir processes eight hundred cows each day, and the community’s businessmen are sent to Asunción to serve in the boardrooms of the national banks and corporations. Though representing only about 1 percent of the population, Mennonites in Paraguay are on average ten times richer than their neighbours.
The thing with mythologies of settlement, Dueck notes, is that no matter what happens — suffering and struggle or wealth and success — the end result is framed as God’s will. This repeated story holds true only when dissenting voices are sifted out: those dispossessed from the land on which the newcomers establish themselves, for instance, or members who gave up or faced excommunication and left.
Few outside voices make it into Menno Moto. That would be a different book. But their presence is marked from the brief opening prologue, which is written in the genre conventions of a nineteenth-century settler romance. Dueck depicts his great-grandfather as a boy on the 1874 journey down the Red River, curious about “the dark-skinned, long-haired crew of the ship.” His father tells him, “Those are not our people,” noting that they are the Indians he had heard about “who lived on the land. Their land.” This possessive pronoun lacks a clear referent and is the source of continued conflict a century and a half later. The question “Whose land is this?” functions as another frame to the question “Whose community is this?”
Dueck ends the book with a similar return to genre convention, the prairie pastoral. At Remecó Colony, under wide Patagonia skies, the simple family farm of Hans Loewen serves as a classic representation of the horse-and-buggy Mennonite life. Dueck even fumbles the hand milking. The trappings of new wealth in Paraguay are now well behind him, as are the ongoing questions and traumas of Manitoba Colony. Dueck admits that these months spent in the homes of various tight-knit families made him envious. He tells Loewen that he knows a lot of city people who would want this life. “That’s what you think now,” Hans answers. “But this would never work for you.”
Maybe not, but neither does that exclude him from claiming his Mennonite identity. When Dueck learns that Hans plants a hard winter wheat that’s good for baking bread, he grows animated and explains that it’s likely a descendant of Turkey Red. Cultivated first by the Ottomans, he tells us earlier in the book, this was the grain that Dutch-Prussian Mennonites found in abandoned silos when they arrived in Ukraine. Imported to Canada in 1874, it became the parent to most red wheats still grown in the Americas today. Hans plays willfully ignorant of this history. “This seed didn’t come from Europe. It’s just seed we kept from last year’s crop,” he replies. “That’s how we do it.”
The scene is emblematic: Dueck seeks a wide definition of a complicated ethnic community enmeshed in the histories of agriculture and global migrations; his interlocutor refuses the threads, wanting to retain the isolation of his farm and the quiet borders of the mind. Ultimately, Menno Moto shows that what can seem like an endless narcissism of small differences among the Mennonites contains the seeds of entire, separate world makings.