The Mennonites of Belize

Belize may be small, but it’s certainly not homogenous.  With a population of just 330,000 people, this tiny country contains a diversity of races that’s unusually large and surprisingly harmonious.  To put it fairly crudely, you could say that Belize is indigenously Maya, ethnically Mestizo, and politically Creole.  But while Mestizo and Creole form the majority of the population (and give Belize its Central American meets Caribbean flavour), several other ethnicities live here, including Garifuna, Chinese, Indian, and Lebanese.

Of all of these groups, none is more intriguing than the Mennonites.  With around 10,000 members, they comprise just 3% of the population. But it’s impossible to miss them, with their pale skin and blonde hair, the men in denim overalls and cowboy hats, and the women in bonnets and flowing dresses.

Like the Amish, the Mennonites are a Christian group dating back to 16th-century Holland.  They’re pacifists who reject most political ideologies, so for much of their history they’ve moved around the world trying to find a place to live quietly.  They left Holland for Russia in the late 17th century, after religious persecution at home; then it was on to Canada in the late 19th century, after Russia tried to conscript them into the military.  Most Belizean Mennonites migrated from Canada to Mexico in the early 20th century (after Canada tried to include them in the national school system), and then from Mexico to Belize in the 1950s, when Mexico wanted them to join its social security programme.

The first few thousand Mennonites settled in Belize (then called British Honduras) in 1958.  Attracted by the cheap land and laissez-faire government policies, they set to work clearing the jungle and used their knowledge of agriculture to turn tropical forest into productive farmland.  The British Honduran government gave the Mennonites freedom to practice their beliefs, both of which have more-or-less continued to the present day.  Mennonites tend to live together in their own agricultural communities, with their own schools, churches, health clinics, and even banks.  They speak mostly Low German (which to my untrained ears sounds less like modern German and more like Dutch), plus English, and some Spanish.

As the Mennonites have benefited from living in easy-going Belize, Belize has benefited from the industrious Mennonites – they’ve helped the country become self-sufficient in many goods, and have carved out quite a niche for themselves, supplying the country with dairy products, chicken, eggs, beef, hand-made furniture, vehicle parts, and even pre-fab houses.

Soon after arriving in Belize, the Mennonites split into two groups – the traditionalists, who forgo all technology, living in electricity-less houses, ploughing their fields with horses, and getting around by horse-drawn carts; and the progressives, who’ve gone to the opposite end of the spectrum of modernity, enthusiastically embracing technology, from 4WD jeeps to John Deere tractors.  It’s the progressive ones who’ve had the most impact on the country, with their main town of Spanish Lookout in western Belize the home of some of the most well-known companies in the country, including the biggest poultry producer and the largest dairy.  Spanish Lookout’s wide, straight roads (paved by the Mennonites, not the government), neat farmhouses, white-fenced fields, and tractor showrooms wouldn’t look out of place in the American Midwest (and neither would all the white people, for that matter).

But what Spanish Lookout doesn’t have is a hotel, so for my Mennonite fix I head to the other progressive centre of Blue Creek, in northern Belize’s Orange Walk district.  My fascination with the Mennonites began the first time I saw some (at the market in Orange Walk town, a popular Mennonite meeting spot, and where they come from their villages to sell their produce and buy supplies); and I would’ve liked to have stayed with a family in a traditional community, similar to how tourists can stay in the Maya villages in Belize’s south.  Perhaps I could’ve helped them build a barn, like Harrison Ford in the film Witness.  But the traditional Mennonites’ beliefs mean that they live in as much isolation as they can, and they don’t encourage tourists (even well-meaning ones) – so they don’t have homestays or guesthouses.  But Blue Creek has the one hotel in Mennonite-land, so it wins by default.

However, Blue Creek is miles from the nearest town, and not on the way to anywhere (except for two of Belize’s remotest jungle lodges).  And even Belize’s hardy village buses don’t go this far.  So this is one weekend trip where I have to hire a car.  And after picking up the car, and my travelling companion Maki, we’re off.

It takes an hour to get from Belize City to Orange Walk town on the paved Northern Highway.  Then it’s another hour’s drive on pot-holed dirt roads through a network of quiet rural villages.  Suddenly, the road changes from bumpy gravel to smooth tarmac (again, paved by the Mennonites), and the landscape shifts from sugar cane fields and savannah to well-groomed farmland.  We’ve arrived.

Like many Belizean agricultural villages, Blue Creek covers a wide area, but the centre of the village is in a set of hills that make up the highest points for miles around (northern Belize is mostly flat), and which provide great views, cool breezes, and mosquito-free nights.  Driving around, I’m immediately struck by how orderly and prosperous the place looks (and by how many jeep-driving white people there are here) – it doesn’t feel like Belize anymore.

The owners of the guesthouse, John and Judy Klassen, are typical modern Mennonites – small-time farmers and heads of a large family (10 children and 40 grandchildren!), who started the hotel after raising their kids.  Whereas Spanish Lookout is famous for poultry, dairy products and vehicle parts, Blue Creek is well-known for its cattle, and the Klassens also have their own ranch outside the village.  The guesthouse is at the top of the hill, higher up than the Klassens’ home, up a particularly steep drive that makes the rental car’s engine emit a painful sound and a worrying burning smell as it struggles to make it.  But at the top, the view stretches out before us, with the surrounding Belizean villages in the distance, the cattle farms and chicken sheds in the foreground, and Mexico just a taco’s throw away across the Rio Hondo.

Looking at all the cultivated land makes you realise how much hard work must’ve gone into creating it.  Armed only with machetes and axes, and working in the tropical heat, it must’ve been tough going.  John opines that maybe they were over-zealous and cleared too much, to the detriment of the land and the weather (and it’s true that, while the Mennonites are agriculturally successful, there have been complaints that they do so with little regard for the environment, being criticised for their large scale deforestation and liberal use of pesticides and fertilizer).

The village is very quiet – but it is a Saturday, so most of the men are probably at their farms, and most of the women probably working at home.  We take a walk to the local store (which is the only public building in the village that appears to be open).  The people sitting outside the store, the customers inside, and the staff are all white or fair-skinned, and most of them are speaking English with vaguely American accents.  They look at Maki (who’s Japanese) and me just long enough for them to work out that we’re not locals (and just long enough for us to notice them looking) – this, plus the village’s out-of-the-way location, and the fact that there’s only one hotel (and we’re the only guests the Klassens have had in a while), makes me think that the locals don’t see too many visitors.

And that really is all there is to do in Blue Creek – we’re told that the village has two restaurants, but one of them is too far to walk, and other one is shut.  So it’s back to the guesthouse (while being overtaken by small blonde children on quad bikes and helmetless teenagers on motorcycles), for the view and a good book.

The slightly surreal American atmosphere continues at dinner.  Having driven for several miles to find the one restaurant that’s open (another reason why you need a car round these parts), we find an American-style diner that’s the hangout spot for the locals on a Saturday night (Mennonites don’t drink [not overtly, anyway], so with no bars in the village, I suppose the restaurants become the social centres).  And instead of dark-skinned waitresses speaking Creole or Spanish, and menus of Rice & Beans and Tamales with beer or rum, it’s more blonde and blue-eyed ladies speaking in more vaguely American voices, and a menu of burgers, pizza, and ice cream, served with milkshakes and iced tea.  Did I mention already that this place doesn’t feel like the rest of Belize?

And the hearty food continues the next day at breakfast – eggs, bacon, freshly-baked bread, fresh milk (which has come straight from the Klassens’ cows), and lots of locally-grown fresh fruit.  Over breakfast, Judy explains why the progressive Mennonites believe that it’s OK to use technology (like most things Christian, it’s to do with different interpretations of various parts of The Bible [or more realistically, it’s probably because the two groups had differing views in the first place, and then each one found an interpretation of the appropriate part of The Bible that justified those pre-existing views - after all, that’s what most ‘religious’ people do]).  She also tells us more about their nomadic lives (she was born in Canada, went to school in the States, moved to Mexico, and now lives in Belize).  And she explains how, even though some younger Mennonites leave (some of her kids are back in Canada), many choose to stay (perhaps their upbringing and family values mean that they’re happy to stay here with the rest of their families, perhaps they feel more at home here than anywhere else, or maybe it’s just too cold in Canada?).  It may not be barn-building à la Witness, but it’s nice to finally be able to get to know these enigmatic people a bit better.  They remind me a little of the Maya – clearly proud of their history and culture, but in an understated, unshowy way.

And the Klassens clearly don’t have an issue with technology – outside the house are several farm vehicles, a car, and a motorbike; and inside the kitchen there’s every gadget you’d ever need, from a juicer to a microwave to an enormous fridge-freezer, and even a dishwasher (a dishwasher in a Belizean kitchen!  I’ve never seen that before, many people I know don’t even have hot piped water in their kitchens).

As it’s Sunday, nearly everyone in the village goes to church, so the place is even quieter than the day before.  Maki and I hang around outside the church but don’t go in (I like visiting religious buildings of every kind, and some of them are incredibly beautiful; but being an atheist, I’m always a little uncomfortable taking part in religious rites – not just from a lack of belief in whatever deity is being worshipped, but also from a lack of knowledge of the ceremony being performed, and from an embarrassment of my terrible hymn-singing).  But judging from the number of vehicles parked outside, it’s the place to be on Sunday mornings.  We also check out the Mennonite schools nearby (they’re closed today, of course), where Mennonite teachers teach Mennonite students a Mennonite curriculum.

As I mentioned, there isn’t much to do in Blue Creek.  But there is a large Maya ruin south-west of the village at La Milpa, and that’s where we end up on Sunday afternoon.  I’ll write the details of that little adventure in the next post.

Back to Blue Creek.  On Sunday evening, while enjoying the nocturnal peace outside the guesthouse (it really is wonderfully quiet here – no music, no loud conversations, no cars, no barking dogs, no noise at all), I chat to some of the Klassens’ teenage grandsons, who tell me they come up here sometimes to relax and drink beer (boys will be boys, even if they’re Mennonites).  They all seem proud of their home, happy to live here, and have no plans to move away, much like their grandparents.

On Monday, after another hearty breakfast (for the second day in a row, I don’t need to eat lunch), it’s time to head back to Belize City.  And this time, we take a slightly different route, one that passes through the traditional Mennonite village of Shipyard.

The progressive and traditional Mennonites may share similar beliefs about many things, but their conflicting views on technology means that they live very different lifestyles.  That’s immediately obvious driving around Shipyard, as we pass horse-drawn carts driven by cowboy-hatted men and bonnet-wearing women.  The locals of Blue Creek dressed like many other people in Belize, but the locals of Shipyard dress like, well, traditional Mennonites – the men in denim dungarees or denim jeans and braces (suspenders, not teeth adjusters!), and the women in dark flowing dresses.  It’s like Little House on the Prairie.

Despite their reputation for isolation, the ones we speak to are friendly enough, and speak good English (we have to stop to ask for directions more than once – like many Belizean rural villages, there are no street signs).  One thing we’ve been told is that they don’t like having their picture taken, so all the photos Maki takes are done surreptitiously out the window, as I bounce the car along the pot-holed dirt road.

And despite their reputation for avoiding technology, I see several things that make me question that.  There are electricity wires criss-crossing the village (although they might not connect Shipyard to the grid, they might just be ‘passing through’ on their way to delivering power to another village; or they might be powering certain buildings in Shipyard, like workshops; but either way, I’m surprised to see the wires and pylons).  There’s a small shop (which presumably must have a fridge or freezer inside).  And in the distance I can see a mechanical tractor ploughing a field.  Are the Mennonites as strict as they like to present themselves?  Or are they just utilising a few of the essentials that the rest of us take for granted?  Whatever the reason, I can forgive them these little lapses, and I remind myself that there are very few truly untouched communities left in the world (I once went on a jungle trek in northern Thailand, and our tour group arrived in a village in the mountains slightly ahead of schedule, to find the locals relaxing in their homes watching English football on TV, delivered via an enormous satellite dish on the roof of one of the wooden huts; surprised by us, the villagers had to quickly change from T-shirts and shorts into traditional clothes to greet us).  So for the most part, the Mennonites seem like the real thing.

Some environmentalists insist that we should reject the modern world and go back to living in harmony with nature, working the land and only consuming what we need.  The Mennonites should be their ideal community – for starters, their carbon footprint must be next-to-nothing.  But to live in such a society must require a denial of freedoms and luxuries that few of us in the developed world could handle – freedoms and luxuries that the Mennonites must be aware of every time they leave their villages (although I’m sure they’re aware of all the pitfalls of modern life, too).  I know I won’t be moving in with them anytime soon.  But the beliefs of both the progressive and traditional Mennonites – simple living, hard work, family – are noble ones; and I’m glad to have finally spent some time with these quiet people, learned a little about their lifestyle, and (if you’ll pardon the cliché) to have tasted yet another ingredient in Belize’s rich cultural stew.

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4 thoughts on “The Mennonites of Belize

    • Hi Tom, thanks for stopping by.

      The Mennonites are an interesting bunch of people, who add so much (practically, economically, and culturally) to Belize. And I definitely recommend you come to Belize (for many reasons, not just the Mennonites!).

      John.

      Like

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