Modern ghosts of a horse-drawn scandal, Part 4


Will Braun | Senior Writer
If Manitoba Colony members are accused of a crime, they are brought before the congregation at church and judged. For serious offenses like incest, they may be excommunicated, but if they ask for forgiveness, they can return a week later. (Photo by Noah Friedman-Rudovsky (

Eight men went to prison, the media gaze moved on, and colony life resumed. But the saga of mass rape in the Bolivian corner of our family of faith is far from over.

It’s hard not to talk about something as sensational and consequential as a mass rape case on an intensely conservative colony in the jungled interior of South America. Indeed, it would be irresponsible to remain silent. But Wilmar Harder, former co-coordinator of Mennonite Central Committee’s work with colony Mennonites in Bolivia, responds to all the attention, whether from the BBC or me, with a simple question: “Who tells the story and why?”

Since the 2011 convictions of eight men in the case, the two most prominent efforts to tell the story were by Jean Friedman-Rudovsky and Miriam Toews. 

Friedman-Rudovsky is an American journalist who lived in Bolivia for six years. She covered the rape case for Time in 2011. In 2013, she spent considerable time at the Manitoba Colony, staying in the home of the former civic leader. She spoke with numerous women and men. The resulting “Ghost rapes of Bolivia” article for Vice was published in 25 countries in 20 different languages. The accompanying 25-minute video provides a rare first-hand glimpse into the Manitoba Colony, both beautiful and horrific. The people—most notably, the women—speak for themselves. 

The Toronto lens
The August release of Women Talking, by one of Canada’s great writers, has again put Bolivian colony Mennonites in the spotlight. Sort of. Similar to interviews Toews has done, the book begins with a note describing the rape crisis and calls the novel a “response in fiction” to the “true-life events.”

In the book, a group of women from the fictional Molotschna Colony gather in a hayloft to discuss how to respond to mass rape. 

Toews offers a masterful mixture of images and emotions, ending with a crescendo of metaphors so powerful it made me want to start back at the beginning. That said, her book felt uncomfortably at odds with the conversations I’d had in previous months with people who have thought deeply about their response to the Bolivian crisis.

Someone with Toews’s breadth of imagination is touching on something broader than how mainstream Mennonites should respond to one specific situation but, in that deeper endeavour, shouldn’t the situation she so explicitly uses as her launching pad also be illuminated?

My trouble is not that Toews clearly conflates Bolivia, the Steinbach, Man., of her youth, and Mexican colonies she has visited. The book’s hayloft, mile roads, suspenders, dining halls, coffee fields and summer kitchens belong to places other than the Manitoba Colony. Fiction allows this. 

Perhaps it also allows for virtually all of the men of the colony to be away in the city posting bail for the accused rapists so they can return, where the victims will be forced to forgive them or face excommunication, this latter point being something Toews also states as fact in her interviews. In the true-life version, the men actually went to disturbing lengths to ensure suspects were locked up for good—though it took them four torturous years to get to that point—and excommunication for failure to forgive is not the practice. 

Fiction can take truth beyond the realm of fact. But it can also be a shortcut. At a minimum, I think Toews owed readers and the people of Manitoba Colony a note that the characters portrayed in the book “could belong to any one of several groups that came to Canada from Russia [some of which moved south],” to borrow and adapt wording from Rudy Wiebe’s Peace Shall Destroy Many. She could have also said the book is not set in Bolivia.

As Toews said in an interview, the characters are based on women she knows, and not through her research of Bolivian colonies. The result is still fascinating, if irritating, in its seeming sloppiness—when carrying buckets of water to livestock, one cannot run —but I don’t think it gets us to the actual isolated Bolivian women.  

At one point in the novel, the character taking English minutes of the hayloft gathering, which serve largely as the narration of the book, admits to inserting the word “patriarchy” into the minutes, even though the women would be unfamiliar with the term. An apt word, of course, but the entire book felt like someone putting foreign words in the mouths of others. I would have hoped that someone with the giftedness of Toews might have somehow brought me into the foreign reality of the colony. I wanted to better understand those women. Instead, I feel I read what a literature-steeped, progressive, Torontonian might have colony women think. 

But to the extent that the book views colony Mennonites through a North American lens, it contradicts what seems essential in supporting colony women. In the context of interviews and Toews’s earlier writings—including a 2016 non-fiction essay for Granta entitled “Peace shall destroy many”—it is hard not to see in Women Talking a bias towards formal education, literature, and urban western society. That is, a bias towards the narrative of civilization, progress and progressiveness.

Our adoption of progress and civilization—including its rampant individualization, materialism and inherent sense of superiority—is largely why colony Mennonites consider us devoid of moral authority and see us as unwelcome intervenors. It’s a shortcoming as glaring to them as their patriarchy and closedness is to us. We see ourselves as better; they see themselves as better. And the women remain isolated behind a wall of men, beyond the reach of concerned North Americans.

Canadian Mennonite
Wilmar Harder’s question of who tells the story and why was not just for the likes of Friedman-Rudovsky or Toews. It was for Canadian Mennonite magazine. For me. Why talk about the Manitoba Colony crisis?

First, we report news. The push for release of the men in prison and the view of some credible observers that justice has likely not been fully served—as reported earlier in this series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)—is news. Second, I am deeply concerned about the victims and possible future victims. Of course, that’s what everyone would say. It’s true, but motivation is complex.

I grew up in the then solidly Mennonite town of Winkler, Man., which included mainstream Mennonites and Mennonites from colonies in Mexico. The latter wore more plaid than the rest of us and had names like Frank or Helen. The churches, social groups and economics of our town were clearly segregated along these lines. Every kid in school knew what a “Mexa” was, and that you didn’t want to be one. When my younger sister Sara was born, I was adamant that her name be spelled without an “h” to differentiate it from the Mexa version. 

I have never heard a faith leader—or anyone else, for that matter—acknowledge this segregation. So how genuine, then, is a sudden interest in colony Mennonites when a salacious scandal hits them? Or when does our concern for colony Mennonites lead us to grapple with our own ghosts? 

Is there not some small part of us that likes to hear about the dysfunction of colonies, in part because it reinforces our rickety sense of enlightened superiority, even though we know we have, in our embrace of progress, given ourselves over to a world of rampant materialism, busyness, polarization, individualization, destruction of the earth and widespread mistreatment of women?

Toews calls colony people “my people” in interviews. If they are our people, and we are their people, we must seek to see the world through their lens if we expect some degree of the converse. 

Harder, now a pastor in Kansas, says that, if outsiders tell the Manitoba Colony story, they should do so “with the greatest humility . . . otherwise it is imperialism from the north.” He in no way downplays the problems on colonies, nor does he imply leaders were innocent in their handling of the crisis. But he does report that colony leaders he met with “openly wept” when discussing the problems in their community.

Perhaps we need to join them. And then learn from each other. 

See Part 1: Justice 
See Part 2: Enlightenment 
See Part 3: Intervention 
Online extras for Part 1: 
Online extras for Part 4: 

See also “Mennonites talking.”

If Manitoba Colony members are accused of a crime, they are brought before the congregation at church and judged. For serious offenses like incest, they may be excommunicated, but if they ask for forgiveness, they can return a week later. (Photo by Noah Friedman-Rudovsky (

Mennonite families watch the rape trial in May 2011. After discovering the rapes, Manitoba Colony leaders considered locking the accused in shipping containers for years but eventually called in the Bolivian police. (Photo by Noah Friedman-Rudovsky (

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What are we afraid of being viewed as? We want to defend colony life while at the same time grappling with these horrendous offenses toward women. But we have to separate what happened to these women, a crime, for what we perceive as Mennonite colony life. I personally don’t think we should be running from feminist thought or progressive ideas, because, again, what are we afraid of?

Perhaps what Miriam Toews tried to do in her book, Women Talking, is show the dilemma of abused women everywhere, while focusing on a unique closed community. Geographical, historical and cultural accuracy were therefore not her main concerns. So while I can agree that her descriptions might not completely reflect the behaviour of people in the Manitoba Colony in Bolivia, she has captured something universal in her depiction of their experience.

The limited choices of these women are not that different from abused women elsewhere. They can "do nothing," "stay and fight" or "leave." "Doing nothing" is probably the most common view and "to stay and fight" is not within the parameters of accepted behaviour for either gender on the colony and not that realistic for women anywhere. When these women discuss the third option, "leaving," they never discuss what they can actually do to make a living elsewhere (e.g. can they find land, have the ability and money to purchase it and establish a settlement largely without men or find other gainful employment, not knowing Spanish?).

One might think this lack of rational planning is true of these conservative women only because they have so little knowledge of the outside world, albeit they have many practical skills for making a living. But it is often true of all abused women who have become socially isolated by their abusive partners and whose self-esteem has been eroded. Oftentimes, abused women lack the ability to strike out on their own and establish a life away from their abusive partners. In this connection, the Old Colony women may even have an advantage in that they possess many pioneering skills and some will know something of what it takes to uproot oneself and start anew, as they did when the group left Mexico for Bolivia. And this option fits coincidentally with the historical response of this group, when an enemy is detected (whether that is encroaching worldliness or some other danger), the solution is to leave and move elsewhere, as they did when leaving Canada and then Mexico. But this time the enemy is from within.

In addition, like abused women elsewhere, these women show an awakening of consciousness as a result of the brutality, that might have been dormant before. Yes, many are accepting and ready to forgive (abused women even in N.A. also forgive, deny and return). Still, in the videos which have been made of the Bolivian Mennonite women, some also express their outrage about what happened to them and express their disdain for the "ungodliness" of the perpetrators.

Finally, I don't agree with the reviewer's framework of cultural relativism and by extension that we should refrain from criticizing the insularity and abuse of individuals in many of the conservative Mennonite colonies in Bolivia (whether it is the rape of the women and children or the possible mistreatment of the accused). Although I should add that Toews does not criticize but depicts and I would argue with a broad lens, not only informed by her Mennonite childhood or later urban experience and education but by her intuitive understanding as a writer and human being. The reviewer cautions how "progress" among more secular Mennonites has led to or has been accompanied by "individualization" and "mistreatment of women." I would argue that individualism is a good thing when it clashes with restrictive group norms (how many of us would want to live without basic human rights?) and the treatment of women has improved with progress, not deteriorated because of it. Writers such as Stephen Pinker ("The Better Angels of our Nature") have made that abundantly clear when he shows how the treatment of women and children everywhere in the world has improved over large spans of time as a result of growing liberalism and economic progress.

I appreciate your comments, Hildegard. There will always be a range of views on the Toews book. That's fine and good. Let me ("the reviewer") clarify that I did not say or imply that we should not criticize conservative Mennonite colonies. The entire series shone critical light on the Manitoba Colony and colonies like it. My point was that if that critique is to mean anything to the people in question it must be accompanied with a humble willingness to accept their critique, explicit or implicit, of us. As for the pros and cons of progress, my point was that it has not eliminated sexual violence (as per MeToo). It has indeed contributed to improvements for women and girls in many places. But no magic solution. If colony Mennonites accepted our ways, sexual violence would not necessarily disappear. And again, there are pros and cons. We tend to see only the pros.

But #MeToo brought to the fore examples of sexual misconduct in the past. Finally, in our society complaints of sexual misconduct are no longer ignored and women are no longer being silenced. Yes, sexual abuse has not been eliminated in the modern world, but in a liberal democracy such as ours there are mechanisms to deal with it. What worries me about a closed society such as the Bolivian Mennonites is that there are no mechanisms to deal with it, as the reports about the clumsy efforts of the leadership showed. Even the accused/convicted may not have been treated fairly, because some claim that miscreants were unfairly targeted. And because they turn their back on education and concentrate power in the hands of a few, there is little chance of things improving as has happened in more progressive societies such as ours. Isn't it our obligation to highlight egregious abuse such as occurred in Bolivia wherever it occurs? I don't think our systems are comparable from a human rights point of view. You seem to imply that their criticism of us is equally valid as our criticism of them, but how can that be so in this case and given their undemocratic system?


You say we should “highlight egregious abuse.” Agreed. I thought I did: mass serial rape, incest, probable miscarriage of justice, church-state dynamic on colonies. It’s not like I wrote an ode to the colony system.

As for “liberal democracy,” you and I live the benefits of that system daily. It has also failed to prevent climate change, seems quite comfortable with monstrous global income disparity, and it continues to treat Indigenous people miserably (despite improvements in some areas). It is clearly better in many ways than some other systems, but I will not dismiss those who do not embrace it. It ain't God.

My article argues that the trajectory of “progress” is profoundly flawed and that Colony Mennonites can help us see that. Many people will not accept that notion. That’s fine. Progressives will perhaps be the least likely to agree.

My underlying question was how we can respond to the evident dysfunction illustrated by the ghost rape saga. If I can be a touch facetious….

Should we go knock on the bishop’s door and say, “Hey, actually you guys got it all wrong. We would be more than happy to show you how to run your community. First we’ll trade in all those stinky horses for pickup trucks (ever heard of fossil fuels?), then we have a professor who will teach you about inclusive language.”

Or we could fly over and drop copies of Women Talking.

Or, as one progressive critic said, we should not do anything for fear of being paternalistic. (Is the risk of paternalism worse than the risk of ongoing rape?)

Or we could create a Mennonite underground railway, sneaking women and children to safety in Canada, where they can live in Toronto, eat pizza pockets, wear jeans from sweatshops, binge watch Netflix, create community on Facebook, drive a Ford, and learn about democracy from another Ford.

Or Trudeau could visit Bolivian president Evo Morales and they could come up with a plan to protect colony women.

That’s too snarky. Sorry. My point is this: aside from the pros and cons of liberal democracy or the finer points of what some white guy wrote about Miriam Toews, what can actually be done? I don’t see how we are any good to our colony cousins if we cannot try to relate humbly with them. It is not about who is more screwed up or whether their critique of us is as valid as our critique of them (as you ask, Hildegard). We all fall well shy of any sort of ideal. Are colony leaders 100% wrong about everything?

Fortunately, heaven and earth are brimming with grace. That provides space for us all.

I agree you talked about the crisis that befell the women and children in your articles. But there were these troubling aspects in your depiction of the incident that some other respondents, such as Kathy Shantz and Sherri Klassen, also picked up on, that is, moving the story of how the women and girls were treated to the periphery of the story away from the center of it. Also, and at the risk of repeating myself, it is your insistence that they have as much to teach us about how to live as we do them that troubles me within the context of this horrific story.

What happened to the women and children in this incident is so horrendous that to ask at this time what they could teach us is simply the wrong question at the wrong time. Instead, the questions should be all about how this could have happened and what can be done about it. What is it about their system that allowed for the rape of women and girls to happen over a period of several years? What is it about their system that allowed the male leaders to ignore and deny the complaints of the women? What is it about their system that allows incest on an ongoing basis, as alleged by the women themselves in videos made about the Bolivian Mennonites? What is it about their system that allows the leaders to use violence to extract confessions from deviants within the system?

Your admitted facetious remedies aside, any remedy needs to be considered within the context of the wider Bolivian society and within the context of the group itself. We can both agree that change would not come easily to a group such as this which eschews education and any new ideas but instead governs itself according to ancient traditions (including some not true to Anabaptist doctrines, as you noted.) But there are people within the MCC that have worked to improve the lives of the Old Colony Mennonites within Canada and Mexico and presumably within Bolivia and these efforts should continue, perhaps on an even more vigorous basis.

Now is not the time to point out what they can teach us. (Incidentally, they are not environmentalists and for the most part, for example, apparently no longer grow their own food but rely on commercial ventures that also use fossil fuels.) But that aside, this crisis has highlighted a very serious deficiency of the colony system in regard to its power structure and the treatment of individuals, especially women and children, which has been exacerbated by many decades of closing themselves off from education and knowledge.

My fiancee recommended Miriam Toews book to me after she found it at the public library. I had never heard of a Mennonite before this. Now that the film has come out I think you will see increased traffic to this website. This also means it, and you, will be scrutinized by the world. Your defense of the Manitoba community's sovereignty, even while the rapes likely continue, is baffling. In the same paragraph you decry the legitimacy of Bolivian courts. Why are you willing to give Manitoba a pass when its independence is threatened, but with the government of Bolivia, not so? I think your urging of Mennonites to learn from each other is not in good faith. It really looks like you are promoting status quo, while dressing your position up to appear neutral. Also I think you were being really rude to Hildegard in your replies to her good faith comments. I echo everything they shared.

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