Looking for answers from the back of a bike

Issue 2023, vol. 77

Review of Menno Moto: A Journey Across the Americas in Search of My Mennonite Identity by Cameron Dueck (Biblioasis, 2020)

This is perhaps the only entry in its genre, “Mennonite motorcycle adventure travelogue.” Dueck, descended from Low German Mennonites who came to Canada from South Russia in 1874, is an accomplished journalist who has worked in Hong Kong in recent years. His thirst for adventure has manifested itself in his love of sailing and, in the early 2010s, his decision to ride a dual-sport motorcycle from Manitoba across the Americas, ending in Argentina.

Unlike other around-the-world motorcycle adventures, such as Long Way Round, a British documentary TV series with Ewan McGregor, and Jupiter’s Travels by Ted Simon, Dueck focused his trek on visiting Mennonite communities all along the way. And not just any – the Low German-speaking, verenike-munching, tight-knit farming communities to which he was ethnically related. After years away from Mennville, Manitoba, living in Chicago, New York and Hong Kong, Dueck was curious to see what if anything he had in common with his brethren across the Americas.

Thus, in 2012, Dueck found himself on the banks of the Red River in southern Manitoba, camped out with a passel of kinfolk gathered to give him a send-off on a quest that many of them no doubt thought strange. Dueck had a new Kawasaki KLR 650, a mid-sized pack mule of a cycle, not fast or flashy but known for rugged dependability. The bike was equipped with camping and rain gear, cameras and a computer with which to document his adventure. Mennonite friends and family members gave him contact information for people they knew in colonies in Mexico and Central and South America – not as odd as it may sound, given the frequent back-and-forth travel among the Mennos of Canada and the colonies in the Southern Hemisphere.

Though the United States is home to about a half million Mennonites of various stripes, Dueck gives only 15 pages to his travels in that country, starting his in-depth narrative once he crosses the U.S.’s southern border and arrives in the area west of Chihuahua, Mexico, that is home to dozens of Mennonite colonies. Here he finds an old acquaintance, Bram Siemens, one of Dueck’s schoolteachers when he was growing up in Manitoba, now a journalist and a well-known radio personality to the Mexican Mennonites.

Stumbling along in his rusty Low German (Plautdietsch), Dueck looks, asks questions and listens as his Southern brethren explain the dreams and challenges of trying to live their traditional lifestyle within foreign cultures in Mexico, Belize, Bolivia, Paraguay and anywhere else they can find cheap land and a government willing to give them autonomy in education, commerce and the practice of their religion.

In Mexico, the Mennonites antagonize their neighbors with their clannishness, aggressive land acquisition and, some think, greedy use of water for irrigating their crops. In most cases, the Mennos seem baffled by why their non-white neighbors resent them, or see this antagonism as proof that they are living a godly life that is bound to make them “martyrs.” The story closely echoes the one that took place in Ukraine 100 years earlier when the Bolsheviks tormented the Mennonites and took their land, after generations of Mennonites living a separate existence from Ukrainians, hiring them as farm workers or servants but rarely learning their language or engaging with them as equals. The story of Mennonite migration and settlement too often is tied up with economic and racial disparity and inequality.

In Bolivia, Dueck has particular interest in investigating the sexual assaults against women and girls in some colonies. Male members of the colonies were arrested and served jail time for the assaults – discussed in a fictionalized way in Miriam Toews’ book Women Talking and the subsequent 2022 movie based on the book. The paternalistic nature of the Mennonite colonies – where education is poor, women have little or no voice in managing their lives, and outside law enforcement is rarely called when an assault takes place – provides fertile ground for sexual violence and, in many cases, the ability to hide it.

Another of the Mennonite warts that Dueck explorers is the problem of Mennos frequently serving as drug mules, smuggling drugs from Mexico into the United States and Canada. Their frequent travel back and forth, their reputations as a conservative Christian sect, and their naiveté frequently helped them succeed in this venture. Some became quite wealthy, until the border security got wise to it and numerous Mennonites went to jail.

While Menno Moto is certainly not a theological treatise on Mennonite denominations, interspersed throughout the book are brief discourses on practices and ideas that make Mennonites unique – both the cultural, such as language, food and use of modern technology, and the religious, such as pacifism, believers (adult) baptism and strict separation of church and state. For someone new to the Mennonite world, these sections help explain who we are.

As a liberal, college-educated Mennonite from the Northern Hemisphere, I find the same questions haunt me as they do Dueck. What does it mean to be Mennonite? What do I have in common with these conservative, less-educated, male, white, hetero-dominated communities far to the south? Is “Mennonite” a culture or a religious philosophy?

Ultimately, Dueck reaches the southern tip of Argentina, succeeding in motoring about 45,000 kilometers. Along the way, he confronts road hazards, other world travelers, indigenous people, criminals, storms, flat tires, beautiful scenery and most of the other elements of a motorcycle adventure book. At under 300 pages, this is a fun, quick, engaging read. I was drawn back to it for a second read last year before my own motorcycle adventure, riding with 12 other people over the Andes mountains of western Bolivia on Kawasaki KLR 650s. I don’t speak Plautdietsch, but I feel a definite kinship with Cameron Dueck.