Mennonites in Belize

Mennonite horse and carriage, Belize

Mennonite horse and carriage, Belize

I was with a birding group enroute to a Mayan ruin in northern Belize last year when our van passed through a Mennonite community. Belize is a Central American country bordering the Caribbean Sea, with a Mayan background.  Belizeans have chocolate skin, eat plantains and rice, wear brightly-colored clothes, and live in purple and green dwellings.  It’s a Caribbean world.

 

Mennonite church parking lot, Belize

Mennonite church parking lot, Belize

Within that laid-back and humid universe  are the fully clothed guttural-speaking conservative Mennonites, most of whom shun electricity and modern technology.  They wear identical outfits that cover the whole body, work industriously by farming, building, and engineering, and abide by their religious beliefs of the 19th century.  Stern faces, blonde, and fair-skinned, they looked like German farmers from another century.

 

It happened to be a Sunday and we were way out on rural gravel roads headed for Lamanai, a Mayan ruin in the jungle.  The Mennonites were also on the road, on their way to church.  We had an eye-opening look at a cultural phenomenon.  There were eight of us in this van and I noticed we were all gawking as numerous horse-drawn carriages passed by.

 

As we drove slowly along making room on the narrow road, our guide explained that there is a big Mennonite community in Belize that arrived in the late 1950s and early 60s from Mexico.  Originally from Prussia and before that Germany and Holland, they settled and re-settled in many parts of the world including Canada and nearby Mexico.  You can read more about their history here.  We drove by their farmsteads and had many questions.

 

Of Belizean as well as Mayan descent, our guide talked warmly about the Mennonites and praised the work they have done in Belize.  He said they have brought agriculture to his world, putting eggs and poultry on the table that they never had before.  So many vegetables they have now, he beamed.  And there was no one better, he said, for helping him fix his car and building furniture.  So dependable and honest, too.  He pointed to a farm tractor and explained:  their religion allows rubber tires on horse drawn vehicles, but gas-powered tractors or cars have to have metal wheels.

 

 

Mennonite men (in hats) on Lamanai trail

Mennonite men (in hats) on Lamanai trail

 

Later that day while birdwatching in Lamanai, we encountered a Mennonite group on the trail.  The men and boys walked in their own group, while the women and girls with armfuls of babies trailed behind.  Of course they stared at us as much as we stared at them.  We were sporting big cameras and binoculars, dressed in nylon and lycra, a group racially- and gender-mixed.  We all made quiet but warm gestures in passing, giving each other respectful room on the trail and nods of acknowledgment.  When they spoke amongst themselves their language sounded like German, but it is actually a combination of German and Dutch called Plautdietsch.

 

Mennonite women on Lamanai trail

Mennonite women on Lamanai trail

I pondered all this.  Their beliefs and values were almost completely the opposite of my own.  They razed the jungles to farm, and continue farming practices that are damaging to the environment.  They breed strictly amongst their isolated community and at high rates, with no regard to population control.  Men are superior in their world, and women are for tending the home and making more babies. But my philosophies, I realized, were beside the point.

 

The disparate cultures of Mayan- and German-based communities have worked together in Belize for over half a century.  Over the years they have learned to accept and respect one another.  This was the point.  We all passed in proximity on this trail, serenaded by howler monkeys and squawking toucans overhead, all of us breathing together under one tropical canopy.  If only more of the world could coordinate their differences so amicably.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

 

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31 thoughts on “Mennonites in Belize

  1. You painted quite the picture with your words in this post. If only we could coordinate our differences so amicably, indeed. As always, thanks for sharing, and opening our eyes to the lands, animals, people and cultures of the places you visit.

  2. Most interesting post,dear JET ! I closely followed all the details you described so vividly and I felt as if I was leaving on another planet,a planet the time forgot … Despite the social and cultural differences,Mennonites sound a well-organised and peaceful community.They remind me a bit of the Amish. Have a nice day, love ♥ , Doda 🙂 xxx

    • They reminded me of the Amish too Doda. In fact, when we first started driving through, that’s what we all thought. And yes, they are well-organized and peaceful. So lovely to hear from you dear Doda. 🙂

  3. What a beautifully turned phrase…”coordinate our differences so amicably”…and a noble and worthy goal for each of us.

    • Yes, it is a noble and worthy goal for each of us. Celebrating diversity is so much sweeter than battling over differences. Many thanks, Nan, as always. 🙂

  4. Sorry,dear Jet,I meant living … OM , what a funny blunder I made …
    BTW,the photos accompanying the post are so beautiful and in absolute accordance with your descriptions.Great share ! Love , Doda 🙂

  5. Pingback: Jet Eliot Writes About the Mennonites in Belize | Belize Tourism & Travel Guide

  6. Fascinating stuff ! – whoever would’ve thought ?! But it’s a radical ‘religion’, so I don’t have time for it. Actually, that’s a bloody stupid thing for me to say: I don’t have time for ANY religion ! – perhaps less than none for those wherein women are not only a lower caste, but happy to be so.

  7. Early in my career, I spent a couple of summers working in Belize, and strangely, didn’t manage to see any Mennonites. Most of my time was spent in the jungles in the extreme northern part of the country, so that may be the reason. But, I grew up in KY, and there are lots of Mennonites (as well as Amish) farms around my home town. And I have to say that most folks there are relatively conservative, and not terribly accepting of new ideas. But over the years everyone has grown accustomed to the Mennonites, and they are well respected (if not understood) in the community. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere. ~James

    • Thanks James, for your input. What they consider new ideas (like rubber tires on a motorized vehicle) are not accepted, but the different communities do seem to get along, which says a lot. On a side note, I would imagine working in the jungle during your yrs there must have been rewarding. Many thanks for your visit and comments.

      • Thanks Jet. My trips to Belize were my first international trips, and they sewed the seeds for the life that followed. At the time, I thought that I’d won the lottery. Also, on a side note, the jungles of Belize sewed the seeds of Dengue hemorrhagic fever, which is another story altogether. ~James

  8. Coming from Indiana/Ohio, I have always been interested in the Amish and Mennonites. I fear though, that I would never fit in with my brazen, independent nature~ Loved this!

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