Menno Moto: An Adventure in Search of Mennonite Identity

What happens when an adventuring journalist who has long ago left his Mennonite roots in the dust, takes an interest in exploring his Mennonite identity?

This book, that’s what.

Sometimes I take weeks to read a book. Other times, merely a couple of days. Menno Moto took me several weeks, but not for the reason you’d assume. Truthfully, I was “saving” it — using the book as a treat to unwind with, after I had fulfilled other obligations. This “treat” model resulted in me drawing out the experience. Rolling over certain aspects in my brain, while speeding through others and then forgetting. Not the proper way to read a book I’d expect to tell others about.

Well, my lack of education in the proper way to do anything intellectual is telling on me again, and I’m just going to lean into it.

I was first introduced to Menno Moto by my friend Tracy, who is of course frindschoft with the author. Likely many Mennonites first heard of this book from a cousin of author Cameron Dueck.

I made sure to tune in to watch the virtual book launch, which featured award-winning writer Dora Dueck (no relation to Cameron Dueck; Andrew checked) interviewing Cameron. In observing that she had already read the book and was offering insightful questions and observations, I felt way behind… but intrigued.

At first blush, the concept of tracking far south in search of Mennonite identity seemed to me to be ridiculous. I mean, Cameron Dueck is of precisely the same “kind of Mennonite” as I am: ancestors left South Russia in the 1870s, arriving in South Manitoba and staying put ever since. Those of us who stayed here the entire time have a become generally indistinguishable from non-Mennonites. The more conservative elements left for greener (and hotter) pastures in the 1920s, and I’ve never felt very connected to them.

But still, there’s a link. Something about way that the culture has shifted itself in each new locale the Mennonites moved, chasing piety and isolation. It’s turned out to be fascinating to ride along with Dueck and experience it all through his journalist eyes, now turned inward to connect himself to what he’s observing around him.

This book has taught me a lot about the Mennonites of Mexico and South America. It’s helped me understand a bit more of what I’ve seen and heard from friends who are descended from folks who chose to live in Mexico for a time before returning to Canada.

Because of Menno Moto, I’ve now learnd the difference between the colonies in the different countries. But more than that, I’ve “met” the people that call these colonies home. Through Dueck’s writing, I’ve heard their voices as each has shared their point of view. I’ve also seen their reaction to Dueck: this strange Plautdietsch-speaking biker who calls himself a Mennonite. (Or does he?)

Anyway, Mennontoba is my way of searching for some kind of connection to some kind of Mennonite identity for myself. It’s tricky, because of the shifting interpretations of what a Mennonite is anyway. This is something Dueck confrtonts head-on in this book, and I was glad to jump in for the joyride.

Though it is certainly not all joyride. While at first it seems warm and familiar, the book takes a dark turn as Dueck delves into the Manitoba Colony. As I was reading about the Mennonites of Bolivia, I found myself tihnking this would actually make a good companion piece to Miriam Toews’ Women Talking. While she envsions and examines the conversations that may have taken place, Dueck goes directly into the heart of the troubled colony and speaks with people on every side of the horror — which is, the “ghost rapes”: females on this colony have been waking up with evidence of having been violated, raped, in the night, with no memory of what happened. Dueck speaks with the woman who runs the shelter on the colony, a place for abused women to escape to. He then goes directly to the prison where the men accused have been living since their arrest, and spends a day hearing their side of the story. He then goes to visit the wife of one of the imprisoned men, and hears her side. And finally he visits a man who is deemed to be impartial and willing to tell his side. The truth shifts, it ebbs, it flows, it seems impossible to decipher and leaves Dueck feeling truly awful — not only about what he’s encountered on the Manitoba Colony, but also about what this says about the Mennonite cuture and his connection to it.

The Paraguayan portion of the book is surpisingly lighter fare. At this point I find myself recalling what I’d learned this past October at the U of W’s Mennonites & Anthropology conference. There I learned that these Mennnonites are much changed from those I thought I knew. In Paraguay, they’ve become tremendously wealthy landowners, powerful, virtually enslaving the indigenous people around them and decimating the ecosystem. The first I’d heard of this. Now to hear from Dueck how he had encountered this same phonomenon — the successful powerful Paraguayan Mennonites, he questions the point of their forefathers having moved to the Chaco in the first place: if their goal was to remain removed from the world, wasn’t the entire move pointless since they’ve become exactly like any other successful thriving secular city?

So, what to make of this book? Near the end, it struck me that much of the journey may have been an effort at experiencing, or visiting, the kind of village life that Dueck’s great-grandfather Johann would have known in South Russia in the 1870s. I felt this keenly near the end of the book when Dueck visits a colony in Argentina, and stands in the lane at night listening to the sounds of a peacefully Mennonite village, fast asleep. No electricty, no outside world, just farm animals resting, the smell of dust, hay, and livestock and the slow creak of a windmill. I felt a stab of jealousy at his experience.

By the end of Dueck’s journey, I think I’ve come a little closer to undestanding what compelled him to search for his Mennonite identity in lands and among people that have very little to do with his own background. It’s really all about that one word: background. They share the same background, and many of these people have hung onto traditions far better than any Canadian Mennonites… and to learn more about “our people”, it’s valuable to see where those who chose to leave, where did it take them? How did they change? How did they stay the same? How might we revisit the past and learn more about how the culture has changed and been shaped by the landscape and people controling it?

In the end, he comes away with more questions than answers, and so does the reader, but the questions are more pointed. Even in the lack of answers, he finds one answer at least: Yes, he guesses he must still be a Mennonite after all.

(Whatever that means.)